Requiem for the other half of my brain

We used to say we were joined at the brain. We would mystify others with our silent communication. The connection was instant, intense, and fortified by endless hot chocolates and acres of silliness.

Di was the sparkliest of people. She lit up the room. Together, we were unstoppable. We met in first year at uni, in a computer science prac class. Goodness knows what she was doing in a computer science prac – a born biologist, she quickly ditched it for microbiology and genetics in second year. But by then the world was different, two people had become one, even if one of them was still doing computer science.

One of her favourite tricks was making me laugh until I stopped breathing. Once she got really good at it, she regarded it as a spectator sport, and would invite passers by to enjoy the show. Many of Di’s friends only ever saw me as a helpless, squeaking mess, turning slowly blue. It became a competition – she would try to make me turn blue, I would try to make her snort her coffee.  She invariably won.

Above all, Di was vivid. Not content with burning the candle at both ends, she could frequently be found holding a blow torch to the middle. Life was brighter when we were together – the air fairly sparkled. I remember a trip into the city, to the Victoria market at the end of first year. By the end of the trip we had left a stream of chuckling people in our wake. Typically, she had made friends with everyone from the tram driver to every stall holder in the market, brightening every life that she touched. She was an integral, electric part of my life.

Then a friend she worked with turned up in my office one day and told me she was dead. She had died the day before in a car accident. I didn’t cry at first. I went through the motions, said the right things, and commiserated with the friend who had delivered the news. But I couldn’t process it. It was as though someone had come to say the sky was green. It made no sense.

I stumbled across campus to my husband’s office and told him what had happened. As I grappled with the unreality of it, my husband’s office mate said “who’s Di?” and the sheer enormity of the question was my undoing. How could I possibly answer that?

From then on the grief came in waves. After a while I felt I was ok to drive home, but had to pull over only a few blocks away because I was crying so much I couldn’t see. Friends came and went all day, and we sat, stunned, unable to come to grips with the new shape of the world. Everything was so unreal. One minute I would be going through the standard minutiae of life, the next I would dissolve in tears, unable to speak.

That was over 13 years ago, and the grief still comes in waves, although the waves are slower now. It took me years to understand that you don’t “get over” grief. It doesn’t heal, go away, or get better. You just learn to cope with it, like a missing limb. You adjust your life to compensate for its absence, but you never grow a new one. I used to think that people expected me to get over it – indeed, I used to expect it of myself. I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t getting better, and why I was still crying years later. It was a long time before I grasped that I would grieve for her until the day I die.

I once read the theory, in a Terry Pratchett book, that a person doesn’t truly die until their impact on the world is finished. A single person holding you in their heart keeps you alive. And in that sense I know there are lots of people keeping Di alive. She made herself an integral part of so many hearts.

Grief never ends, but, in the end, it is a tribute to someone dearly loved.

Louder than words

This week I have had another strong lesson in listening to my kids. Actually, now that I come to think about it, I’ve had lots, but one in particular could have averted a lot of trauma if I had listened better, sooner.

Regular readers will know that our 3 year old suffers from silent reflux. Silent reflux is a remarkably strange beast. Yes, reflux is vomiting, but with silent reflux it doesn’t come out, just comes up the oesophagus, burns, and goes back down. It is very difficult to spot in small children, even once you are familiar with it and looking out for it. There are no obvious, clear symptoms. What happens to our 3 year old is that she becomes progressively crankier. Her sleep deteriorates. She is quicker to tantrum, more easily frustrated, becomes clingier and even more shy than usual, and is generally out of sorts. Particularly as it’s a gradual process, this can be really difficult to pinpoint. There might be a little more burping or hiccuping than usual, but it’s generally not a dramatic change.

The causes of reflux are legion, but in our case, it’s usually one of her trigger foods (of which there are many, and I suspect we haven’t identified them all), or a cold.  Of course, sick kids, or convalescent kids, are often quite out of sorts, so where the cold ends and reflux begins can be difficult to spot, particularly when we had come to the erroneous but terribly beguiling conclusion that the reflux was under control.

So this has been going on for about two weeks after the end of the cold – since she stopped coughing and sneezing. I have lost count of the number of people who told me during that time that it was age related, it was a phase, she was testing boundaries, etc etc etc ad nauseam. I knew she was not herself. I knew there was something wrong. I thought it was the cold and would correct itself, and I thought that when she said “I’m terribly sick” in an affected tone of voice (truly, she all but put the back of her hand to her forehead and swooned) she was acting out her experience of having been sick.

When it finally dawned on me that colds can trigger reflux, and I watched her closely, I realised that she was, indeed, refluxing, and that we needed to increase her dose of reflux medication. Although it takes a few days to work fully and we only started last night, she is already much closer to her usual self, and I am beating myself over the head with the nearest kitchen utensil. (Fortunately it is a teatowel – could have been ugly!)

My poor little girl was telling me what the problem was in every way she could, and I wasn’t getting it. It’s so easy to forget to truly listen to your kids. This morning I got into a stand up fight with my 7 year old because she insisted it was a free dress day at school and I insisted the school would have sent a notice home if it was free dress. She was right.

We are not, as a society, very good at listening. Thursday was Close the Gap day, and in researching the subject to organise activities at our school, I discovered that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders know how to close the gap. (The gap in health and life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and other Aussies – in short, 17 years less life expectancy! Babies 3 times more likely to die before they’re 1. Dying from simple, treatable things like diarrhoea. You get the picture.) They have solved the problem. Or at least come up with solutions that have been shown to work. But the government isn’t listening, intent instead on imposing its own will.

The solutions they have come up with involve self determination – training to become health professionals, setting up their own clinics, engaging with their own communities. But they need government support to make it a reality. (Want to help? Sign the pledge to Close the Gap.)

So why doesn’t the government want to listen? Why do we struggle so much with the idea of self determination? For communities. For children. For the disempowered anywhere. I wonder if it comes back to the same root cause. I have the power, and I am afraid of what will happen if I give it up. Yet everywhere we look we find wonderful results coming from a foundation of self determination.

Listening makes so many problems disappear. A wise friend recently pointed out that when it comes to dealing with defiance, you can dig your heels in and lay down the law, or you can take a deep breath and explore the reasons behind it – frequently making the problem go away in the process. There are very few situations that can’t be improved by a little active listening and constructive problem solving.

Let’s change the world one problem at a time. Let’s slow down and listen. To our children, our friends, and our communities. Imagine what we could achieve!

Don’t mind the gap

We are in the grip of the inevitable, pre-birthday frenzy. Chloe, our precious grade 2 girl, turns 7 on Thursday, and we have a family dinner on Saturday night, with a huge party for her friends on Sunday morning. The excitement is intense, but what truly fascinates me is the guest list. As she has done every year, Chloe invited her class teacher to her party. She also invited her prep teacher (who she still adores), and a student teacher who recently spent two weeks in her classroom.

When she invited her prep teacher to her fifth birthday party, we were careful to prepare her for rejection. “Mrs F is a very busy lady, sweetheart, she might not be able to make it.” But Chloe was adamant that this was fine, she just wanted Mrs F to know that she loved her, and wanted to share her party with her. To our amazement, Mrs F came. So did her grade 1 teacher, Mrs A, the next year. And this year, the student teacher, Miss B, has said she’ll be there.

To add to this magic, consider the rest of the guest list. There is one year 8, Chloe’s beloved grade 6 friend from when she was in prep. Not her official buddy, although the school does have an excellent buddy program. Just a grade 6 girl that our little preppy loved to play with, and who was, and still is, a truly gorgeous friend to her, even though she has been at a different school since last year. Two year 7s, one boy and one girl, both of whom played with the younger kids a lot when they were grade 6s. Throw in a couple of this year’s grade 6s, several grade 4s, a handful of grade 3s, a bunch of preps, oh, and a few grade 1s and 2s from her own class. No-one from Grade 5 this year, but that’s only because I had to draw the line somewhere (at around 25 my nerve broke and I insisted she limit things a little).

Interestingly, there were some friends she struggled with, because they weren’t family, but they were a little older than her party friends (in their late 30s, for the most part). In the end they got invited to the family dinner, but it was a close run thing.

Chloe is clearly no respecter of age boundaries. In this I believe she has a lot to teach us. Human beings are very good at classifications – putting things, and indeed people, into little boxes, with nice, neat labels on them. What we’re not good at is remembering that people aren’t box shaped, and don’t always fit within these terribly neat definitions. Chloe collects people in the same way some people collect stamps. When she finds someone she identifies with, she bonds, and let me tell you, superglue has nothing on that bond. It is unbreakable.

We had some friends over on Saturday night for dinner, and the conversation flowed fast and enthusiastically, which I always think is the sign of a good friendship. These friends have grown up kids, and as they were talking about their 39 year old, part of me unconsciously put him in the “middle aged” category, to which I, of course, don’t belong. It was only when they mentioned his birthday that I realised he is less than a year older than I am.

It was an interesting wakeup call, and a reminder that we are not defined by our age groups, or our generation, however much marketers might like to rabbit on about generation X, Y, Z, and now alpha. One of my dearest friends was nearly 40 years older than I, and we had a rich and rewarding friendship right up until the day he died, because we were kindred spirits.

Forming a bond with someone is not age dependent, yet we are often quick to dismiss someone as way outside our age group, and hence uninteresting. Another good friend of mine is just 14, and she has a lot to teach me. She frequently ends her texts with “ily”, and she was deeply impressed when I responded “ily2”, because I had shown my dreadful texting ignorance many times before. I may be old, but now I can text like a teen.

Age is one of those stereotypes that tells you nothing about the person inside, yet gives you a quick reason for ignoring them. Challenge yourself. Next time you meet someone, look past their age, race, gender, height, marital status or whatever categories you have put them in, and look for the things you have in common, instead. Kindred spirits can be found in the most unexpected places.

Defusing yourself

Last weekend, while my husband, Andrew, was riding down Springvale Rd, he encountered a large load taking up 1.5 lanes, with an outrider with a warning sign driving slightly outside and behind it. This meant that on a quiet 2 lane road, on a Sunday, 2 lanes were blocked and moving slowly.

Andrew never objects to the opportunity to draft, so he was sitting happily behind this slow moving convoy, when a guy in a sedan started to get all stroppy with him, and muscled in to get in front of Andrew. He wasn’t going any faster, but now he was in front of the bike. This is a really common scenario – even when passing a bike won’t get you ahead, in heavy traffic or behind something slow moving, some motorists feel compelled to overtake. I would like to make some sexist comment about it being an affront to their manhood, but women do it, too. There seems to be a script in the brain that runs “Bike slow. Car fast. Must overtake bike. Ug.”

So this guy worked up a head of steam, probably shot his blood pressure sky high, and then created an ideal setting for an accident, all to follow the script and get in front of the bike. The irony is that the bike then had to overtake him again, because he was turning left, as was the convoy, while Andrew was going straight.

It made me wonder – how much of our lives, and our energy, do we waste, following scripts that don’t actually apply? If we could all take an enormous chill pill, what would the world be like?

Perceived threats cause strong physiological reactions, long before our conscious brains get involved. Hearing someone shouting, seeing someone looking angry, or perceiving a physical threat triggers what Daniel Goleman calls an “emotional hijacking”.  The subconscious begins gearing up to deal with a threat, and by the time we are capable of applying our much-vaunted powers of reason to the situation, we are strung tighter than an over tuned violin, and we are already dealing with the aftermath. Often, at this point, we are justifying the outcomes of the emotional hijacking – desperately trying to prove that we were in the right, and that chopping that guy’s head off with a machete WAS TOO a reasonable response to him looking at us in a funny way.

The interesting thing is that being prepared to handle a threat often actually precipitates a threat where there was none. A case in point is dealing with my kids. When I am expecting to find a problem, it turns out that I often create one, simply by the change in my approach to them. As I become more aggressive, more uptight, and more critical, my kids respond in kind, and we both set off chain reactions in each others’ physiology that, more often than not, leads to screaming.

This week, after reading an interesting article about the power of rituals, I have taken to reciting this little mantra to myself: “Be calm. Be Patient. Empathise.”

That’s all. That’s the only thing I have changed. I have been exhausted and grumpy all week, with a permanent headache from the aftermath of a particularly nasty virus, so conditions have been all set for the usual scream-first-ask-questions-never approach to family life. And yet there hasn’t been any screaming. By repeating that mantra, I seem to have been able to short circuit the emotional hijacking, take a deep breath and approach things differently. And it seems to me that my kids are behaving differently too, yet they don’t have the mantra.

I find that intriguing. We are surprisingly simple creatures, and remarkably easily trained. In Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, he talks about a psych experiment where, just  exposing people to words that we associate with old age, such as grey, wrinkled, and helpless, caused them to walk slower. Similarly, exposing people to words about rudeness, such as rude, aggressive, and shouting, caused people to be markedly more rude. (There is a nice summary of these experiments on psyblog.)

In light of those experiments, it’s not hard to see that my little mantra could have a surprisingly powerful effect. It remains to be seen whether it lasts, of course, but in the meantime it is helping me be more like the parent I want to be. Try it yourself. Make your own mantra, recite it several times a day, and see what happens.

All for one, and one for him-(or her-) self.

When, and why, did we become so obsessed with the individual? Why is independence now one of our most valued traits? Above all, how did we get the idea that relying on someone else was a sign of weakness?

It is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was not so many years ago that we were living in communities, and extended families under one roof were common – although more so in some cultures than others. My grandfather lived across the road for us, and then, when we moved, he lived in our house for years. My impression is that this has become far less common.

A friend of mine who recently lived with her mother for a while clearly felt embarrassed by the admission. She felt that most people would view that as weird, or weak – and I can see why she felt that way. Imagine that a female friend in her 30s tells you she’s dating a guy who lives with his mum – what assumptions would you make about that guy?

Let me confess right now that I am as guilty of these assumptions as anyone – even though I married a man who moved straight from his parents’ home into our shared one, and he is, I have to say, far more house trained than I will ever be!

Single adults who live with their parents send up big red flags, in the dating game. Couples who live with parents/in-laws receive heartfelt commiserations – “oh, you poor things – that must be really hard!” We prize personal space above all things, and personal space seems to have become bigger and bigger, as empty nesters move into 4 bedroom houses with multiple living spaces, and young couples with at most 2 kids inhabit mansions with room for several families. Again, I am guilty of this – our place could easily fit two families with room to spare.

What is driving this need for space? True, it can be difficult to share your personal space, and much time and effort needs to go into defining reasonable and workable boundaries when families share their living spaces. Yet look at the high density housing in, say, a typical northern European city. Many families live happily in a single apartment building, sharing, if they are lucky, a small patch of garden. It is perfectly possible to have personal private space, together with shared spaces, and to find a harmonious balance.

Of course, not all apartment dwellers co-exist peacefully, just as not all neighbours get along. As long as there is a shared boundary of some sort, there is potential for conflict.

But I don’t understand where this desperate need to separate ourselves from others comes from.  When you catch a train, do you always take a seat surrounded by empty seats if you can? I do just that, yet the happiest train journey I have had in recent times was when I got chatting to a friendly Big Issue vendor. Not when I was safe in my empty cocoon, failing to interact with the people around me.

A friend recently described how her 13 year old daughter’s best friend lives across the road from them, and drifts in and out of their house, treating it as her own. She raids the fridge, makes herself a sandwich, and generally makes herself happily at home. That sounds like heaven to me, yet is is increasingly rare. We treat other people’s homes almost like a demilitarized zone – you can go there, but you have to be incredibly careful, and there could be landmines.

Sharing your life, your space, and your time with others is a high risk activity. A friend of mine recently warned me against relying on him, because if you depend on someone, you risk falling when they let you down. But the secret is to depend on lots of people. No-one can ever be there for you 100% of the time, for ever and ever. Everyone has times in their lives when they turn inwards, just barely able to keep their heads above water, and with no energy for anyone else.

Like a house on stumps, if you have 10 supports and one crumbles, the other 9 will keep you upright. But one lone support can be knocked clean away, or even break under the strain. We isolate ourselves at our own peril, yet it seems to have become the dominant paradigm in our society.

We need to welcome people into our lives, not build more and more walls to lock them further and further out. I just wish I knew how to knock down those walls.

How to save a life

I have been at a very low ebb this week. Really very down and depressed – purely because I’ve been sick. It’s nothing serious, just a nasty cold and cough, making me tired, rundown and massively out of sorts. No-one would find it surprising that being sick makes you miserable, but it amazes me that we still haven’t got our collective heads around the idea that being miserable makes you sick. The corollary, of course, is that happiness & community can keep you healthy.

A startling illustration of the health benefits of community was documented long ago. It is known as The Roseto Effect. I first read about it in the introduction to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers”, and it blew me away. In the 1960s (yes, over 40 years ago) a chance conversation led an American Physician named Stewart Wolf to study the Pennsylvanian town of Roseto. It was unique in that the inhabitants had stunningly low levels of heart disease. In fact, the death rate in Roseto from all diseases was 30 to 35% lower than anywhere else in the US. That’s an astounding difference.

The entire town of Roseto then went under the microscope in a big way. To cut a long story short, Roseto was a very close knit town of Italian immigrants. Their diet was horribly high in fat. They didn’t exercise much, and many of them smoked. Yet they were almost ludicrously healthy. They also had a zero crime rate, and never applied for government assistance of any kind. Their diet, their genes, and their environment were picked apart, to no avail. It turned out that the only difference anyone could find in their lifestyle was social. They were close knit, families were large and coherent, and everyone was in and out of everyone else’s houses. They were totally involved in each other’s lives, to a degree that is increasingly rare in Western society.

That was it. That was the difference. They looked out for each other. They knew each other well, talked and interacted heavily every day, and were generally a warm and tightly interconnected community. And this, quite literally, saved their lives. This was identified way back in the 1960s. And yet we still find our society moving further and further away from community, and pushing the idea of the individual above all else.

Have you ever been to the doctor feeling unwell, to have her ask you about your social networks? Neither have I. Yet these days we are also finding that community boosts your intelligence. It makes you healthier, it makes you wiser, and we just can’t seem to get our collective heads around the idea that it is crucial to our society. And although we know that social networks are crucial to health and well being, the infrastructure is simply not in place for the kind of large scale social change that would bring back community.

Community is found in the people you see every day – if you have the time and energy to involve yourself in their lives, and invite them into yours. Workplaces frequently don’t foster it, and workforces are increasingly mobile anyway. Local shops are not meeting places anymore, and people no longer walk around their neighbourhoods.

Yet we can interact more than we do – we can still make the most of the opportunities each day presents to us.  Simply by looking the supermarket cashier in the eye and asking about his day, or pausing to exchange a comment about the weather with a passerby, we increase our connectedness to the people around us. This morning as I rode to a friend’s place to go for our weekly walk, I chatted to lots of passersby – some of whom walked intently, head down, even scowling. Yet they all responded to a cheery “good morning”, and many of the interactions left us both smiling more than we were before.

Even that much interconnection can boost our health – studies have shown that even a forced smile causes genuine and positive physiological changes in blood pressure and blood chemistry. Imagine what a real smile and a moment of warm human contact can do.

How often have you bought groceries, paid for petrol, or walked past a school crossing guard without ever looking at the faces of the people you were dealing with? Engrossed in our own worlds, listening to our iPods or busy texting, it’s easy to forget that there are people around you. Next time you are out and about, take the time to connect with someone you wouldn’t normally notice. And next time you are miserable, instead of reaching for the chocolate or indulging in some retail therapy, visit a friend. It just might save your life.

(more on the roseto effect)

The wicked witch of the west

This morning I have been cast in the starring role in a new musical entitled “People (and things) out to ruin my life”. Written by a most precocious nearly-7-year-old, the musical recounts the trials and tribulations of an innocent maiden who finds the world is out to get her.

It is an intense piece – every interaction is the source of a remarkable level of dramatic tension. Her sneakers are conspiring against her with her mother, intent on, yes, ruining her life. Her socks are evil co-conspirators, and don’t get her started on her schoolbag.

The music is oddly dissonant, and though Acts 1 through to 3,456 are each fast paced,  the piece as a whole tends to drag, leaving the observer drained. Interval feels like it may never come.

The peak of intensity comes as the wicked witch insists that the maiden must wear her jacket outside, where the temperature is 16 degrees. This is an act of treachery for which our heroine is entirely unprepared, despite the mounting evidence that deceit and evil surround her on every side. Her intensely emotional reaction is the highlight of the piece, and so spectacular that  it is difficult for the audience to remain detached.

The mystery is that this display is carried out without a fireworks license. I can’t wait for the teenage years.


We have a remarkable faith in our own powers of cognition. While our brains are amazing beasts, we have a tendency to believe our own press all too often. We are quick to label things we disagree with impossible, and we excel at selectively finding the information that confirms our beliefs, while throwing away anything that doesn’t fit with our position. (Look up “confirmation bias” and “cognitive dissonance” for fascinating, if somewhat alarming details of the ways in which our brains deceive us on a regular basis.)

Years ago I had an intense argument with someone about the age of my dog. She insisted the puppy had been bought in 1989 – a year later than I thought. I was convinced I had won the argument when I was able to produce vet records showing not only the dog’s birth year (1988), but that the dog had received immunisations in 1988. My opponent didn’t give this evidence a moment’s credence. “It’s obvious that the vet wrote down the wrong date,” she sneered. And that was that.

I was speechless. Two different immunisation dates in 1988, plus a recorded birth date, swept aside as irrelevant mistakes. I was young and naive, and tempted to trace the logical path through the immunisation dates, to show that the timing was unmistakably accurate, but I recognised it as doomed to failure. I was up against unshakable belief, and there is no room for logic there.

Another time, at morning tea, a friend was decrying the poor quality of the eclairs available at the local cafe. “It’s not real cream, and only chocolate icing, not real chocolate.” After I had bought one, and proved to her that it was actually real chocolate, and real cream, she agreed that she had been mistaken. But a few days later I heard her saying exactly the same thing. Despite the proof, she had reverted very quickly to her existing belief.

We are distressingly good at believing the stories our brains tell us. We make a lot of noise about being rational, logical beings, but that’s just another story. Either that or “rational” does not mean what we think it means.

What we believe is mostly what we want to believe. It’s really comforting to believe that climate change isn’t real, so we pay disproportionate attention to the few scientists who argue against it. Or we believe that technology will ride in on a huge white horse and save the day at the 11th hour. On that score I am reminded of the parable of the man standing on the roof of his house in a flood, refusing all offers of help with the line “god will provide.” He drowns, goes to heaven and complains to God, who says “I sent you a raft, a boat, and a helicopter – what more do you want???”

We have the technology. Solar power can’t be used at night? There are solar plants operating in Spain RIGHT NOW that store the power and operate as base load power – even at night. Australia could be 100% renewable within 10 years using existing technology. But it’s expensive. Much easier to believe that it’s not needed, and that we can continue with business as usual without paying a price.

We like fairy stories, they make us feel good. So we believe that he’ll change. That she is really sorry this time and won’t hit me again. That somehow the world will be ok without us having to change. Anything else is inconceivable, surely?