Lie to me

Wild waterfall
True wilderness?

Today I saw a sticker on the back of a ute that said “The only true wilderness is between a greenie’s ears.” At first I sneered at the ignorant attempt to denigrate people who care about the environment, but then I kicked my wilderness into gear.  Let’s see now – wild, untamed, beautiful, containing abundant diversity, sustaining all living things… I’m proud to claim that epithet as my own!

I am happy to be called strange, weird, and freaky. It seems that to be normal in this world is to have a huge carbon footprint, to have the attitude that it’s a dog eat dog world, so it’s every man for himself. To believe that it’s ok to lie, cheat and deceive, because everybody does it. Toughen up, man, because that’s the way the world works now.

Last week we had a door knocker turn up with a strange story about high meter readings in our area meaning we were eligible for a discount. He said he was from our “utility company”, and only when pressed did he admit he was from TruEnergy – a company with which we have no account. He said we were eligible for an 11% loyalty discount, and wanted to know what our electricity and gas bills had been lately. I told him we weren’t interested and firmly closed the door, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised his story made no sense.

The next day I called TruEnergy, who said that there probably had been doorknockers hired by them (or at least a smaller company contracted by them) in the area, although they couldn’t be sure. When I said that he had lied, they said yes, they did that sometimes, best just to ignore it, really. When I persisted they put me through to their doorknockers department, who were most concerned. “Was he rude to you?” they wanted to know. “No, he was perfectly polite, but he lied – it was deceptive practice, and I want to put in a complaint.” They seemed nonplussed by this, but recorded my complaint (after asking me several times what I was actually complaining about), and then said they could get someone to call me back about it if I liked. I asked them to do that, and a week later have heard absolutely nothing from them. It is clearly not a priority for them.

He lied to make sales. Well, these guys are under pressure, they need to fill a certain quota. Best just to ignore it, yeah? After all, politicians lie all the time. Salespeople lie to make sales. Why should it bother us?

Until we expect and demand integrity from the people around us, and especially the people we elect to represent us, we won’t get it. Broken promises are par for the course. Deceptive practice is fine. Conflict of interest? Who cares. Minsters leaving politics and walking into jobs with companies that were directly affected by their portfolios – well, it just makes sense, doesn’t it? Ministers making decisions that will impact on their personal wealth via their share portfolios? Oops. No biggie. We all make mistakes.

Massive oil spills all over Africa – hundreds, if not thousands of times the impact of BP’s Horizon oil spill. Nobody is holding those companies to account, so guess what? They don’t bother to fix it. After all, the only people affected are poor people, and they don’t buy much oil. It seems we only get grumpy about lies and bad behaviour when it soils our own backyard.

I’d rather have a green wilderness between my ears than buy into that.  Let’s start a new movement, and aim for truth. Next time someone obviously lies to you, call them on it. Next time a doorknocker is deceitful, call the company and complain. A politician breaks a promise? Send them an email. It’s a couple of minutes of your time, but the cumulative impact could be huge. Let’s get really wild.

Turning Nasty

On Friday, as I was riding home through somewhat chaotic, peak hour traffic, I contemplated the gulf of understanding that separates most cyclists from most motorists. We all have those reflexive habits of thought: “Bloody cyclists, think the rules don’t apply to them,” and “Bloody motorists, think they own the roads.”

hand with right finger raised
Turning Right

We can easily get into a war: “Cyclists don’t belong on the roads, they don’t pay registration. I pay for the roads, I shouldn’t be held up by snails on wheels.” “Cars spew out toxic fumes and contribute to global warming – and they kill people. Everyone should be forced to ride or use public transport.”

The truth is that cars are a fact of life, and so are bikes. But we don’t have to hate each other. It all comes back to a way of thinking I am trying to teach my 7 year old: “Try to assume I’m not actually out to get you. Then see if you can work out why I did what I did.”

Here’s the thing – when I’m out on my bike, I just want to get where I’m going quickly and safely, preferably while enjoying the ride. Much the same thing most people want when they are driving somewhere.

Hand with left finger raised
Turning Left

Truly, a little understanding goes a long way. If you can get your nose out of its snit long enough to see things from another’s perspective, life is often far less stressful. In that spirit, I offer these tips from the point of view of a well-intentioned and well-mannered cyclist. Try to put yourself in my bike seat for a moment or two, before you assume I am a fiend from hell determined to break all the rules. And in return, I will try not to go postal on your duco next time you pass me too close.

1. Sometimes I ride on the footpath. Yes, I do know that this is illegal, and I don’t like doing it. But before you get all self-righteous about me breaking the law, there are two things you need to know. First of all, I only ever ride on the footpath in order to avoid a particularly dangerous piece of road. I am choosing to protect myself. Where the choice is to ride on the footpath, not ride at all, or ride on a very dangerous patch of road, I will choose the footpath every time. You could consider it a bonus – usually I do this at a bottleneck, and it gets me out of your way. On the footpath I also ride slowly and always give pedestrians right of way. I am not harming anyone by doing this.

hand with middle finger raised
Turning Nasty

Second, I can pretty much guarantee that you break many different road rules every time you drive. Do you always come to a full stop at a stop sign? Do you indicate for at least 5 seconds before you move off from the kerb? Do you ever speed up before you pass the higher speed limit sign, or cross a level crossing before the bells and lights have ceased? Check out what your house is made of before you start throwing those stones.

2. Sometimes I swing a little wide from the kerb. The thing to remember here is that you can’t see what’s on the road in front of me. There are often small things – like patches of broken glass, or holes in the road – that I need to avoid for safety reasons. You won’t be able to see these, so you need to make sure you give me room to move in an emergency.  The recommended clearance a motorist should give a bike is 1 metre, and the faster you are going, the more clearance you should give. When you are going fast, the wind you cause can buffet a cyclist powerfully. Especially if your vehicle is large.

3. One metre is also the recommended distance that cyclists should ride out from the kerb. This is to avoid cars trying to squeeze past where they don’t fit, and also to give the bike somewhere to go in an emergency. If something goes wrong, I need enough room to correct it. Space! I need space!

4. Bicycles are allowed to do hook turns at any intersection. Hook turns are those strange, peculiarly Melbournian tricks where you turn right from the left of an intersection. They involve moving through the intersection on left hand side, turning to face the right, and waiting until the lights are green the other way if there are traffic lights, or the traffic is clear where there are no lights, before you cross. The reason hook turns are legal for bikes is pretty clear – picture yourself on a relatively slow moving bike, trying to get across 3 lanes of fast moving traffic in order to get into the right turn lane. Sometimes it just can’t be done safely, hence the hook turn. It’s legal, it’s safe, it’s sensible.

5. If we are approaching a red light, I will almost always move to the front of the queue. This is not a calculated attempt to drive you insane. Research has shown that the front of the queue is the safest place for a bike to be. Right out in front, nice and visible, no surprise to anyone. Newer bike lanes reflect this by having bike boxes – explicit stopping places for bikes right up at the front of the traffic lights. So don’t try to rush past me to get to the red light first. I will only pass you again. Wait until the lights are green, pass peacefully through the intersection, and then overtake me in the next lane.

6. A bicycle is a vehicle like any other. When I am on my bike I am bound by the same road rules (with the exception of occasional special cases like the hook turn rule), and have the same rights and the same responsibilities as any motorist.

Yes, sometimes riders break the law, and it’s frustrating – especially when they do dumb things like ride through red lights. But we all know that drivers do dumb things too. Cyclists are just people. But until I ride through a red light or swerve wildly into traffic in front of you, try to assume that I am a nice, polite person trying to do the right thing. And I’ll try to assume the same about you. Our similarities are far greater than our differences. If we focus on that, maybe we can avoid turning nasty.

(Note that the road rules described here are Australian)

The frying pan of enlightenment

Some days it’s incredibly difficult to resist the urge to lay about me with the frying pan of enlightenment: whack Focus on what you have got, not what you haven’t. bam Help people in need. pow Take care of the environment. slap Speak up for the voiceless. biff Don’t wait for others – do what needs to be done. boom Love more, hate less. thwack Money isn’t what matters. thud Just plain do the right thing. It’s not rocket science, ok?

And then something happens that changes the political landscape. Suddenly the world seems a different place, and maybe there are more positive weapons than frying pans. Maybe those positive weapons are even in the hands of real people, rather than corporations and billionaires.

Last night, GetUp, at a few hours’ notice, raised enough money (well over $16,000) to win time with Tony Abbott, the Australian Federal Opposition Leader, through a charity auction.  GetUp is making sure that time gets put to good use: Abbott will be spending it with Riz Wakil, a former Afghan refugee who spent months in the appalling conditions of Curtin Detention centre, According to GetUp’s email: “these opportunities are normally claimed by mining magnates and other corporate donors, but instead you can give that opportunity to a voice that wouldn’t normally be heard in the corridors of power.”

Riz has the opportunity to put a human face on the trauma of mandatory detention. On the reasons why people become refugees, risking their lives to get here, only to be locked up. Given that Abbott and Rudd both seem oblivious to Australia’s legal obligations (among other things, we are signatory to a UN convention that states that refugees must not be discriminated against on the basis of how they arrive), perhaps understanding the reality of the lives they are using as political footballs might be more effective.

It’s clear that Tony Abbott is impulsive and can be swayed by emotion. It’s clear that Government policy is frequently a race to the right against the Opposition. What would happen if the Opposition Leader actually recognised the inhumanity of his position, and  became aware of the human consequences of his political games… well, that’s anybody’s guess.

But until last night I’d have said there was no chance we’d ever find out. GetUp has changed the game on a moment’s notice. What else could be possible? Perhaps the frying pan of enlightenment can be shelved in favour of the power of a motivated populace. It’s a cheering thought!

Total Perspective

I am currently the odds-on favourite to win the Mountains out of Grains of Sand competition. Not for me the simple paranoia that leads to making mountains out of molehills. That would be far too easy. No, I aim to scale the Everestian heights of total perspective failure that can craft Krakatoas of catastrophe out of the dust of irritation. And I am alarmed to report that I am well on the way to a hands down win.

This is a clear indicator that it is time to go in to work. I am very fortunate in my work in that the pay is good, the time is flexible, and nearly all of it can easily be done from home. But this is also a trap, because if I don’t get out of the house and into the company of the companionably insane, then things start to go horribly wrong. It all comes back to connecting with people, and thus maintaining a sense of perspective.

I am constantly reminded how important it is to have friends and colleagues who regularly push your boundaries. Who take you by the hand and lead you step by step out of your comfort zone, murmuring words of encouragement, or sometimes screaming “Banzai!”

Years ago I regularly hung out with a group of ScEngs who fulfilled this role admirably. Whether it was pushing my intellectual boundaries in the office, or cajoling me into doing crazy things in kayaks (“you won’t get wet, I promise.”), the one thing they refused to do was let me stagnate, get comfortable, take life for granted, or indeed, stay dry.

This may sound harrowing, but in fact it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me at the time. It stretched me (sometimes literally), made me stronger, and broadened my mind in strange and entertaining ways. Above all, it kept my metaphorical feet on the ground, even though my physical feet were often to be found flying through the air.

In a similar vein, during my last foray into the lecture theatre before resigning from Monash, I was teaching a subject I didn’t much care for. I worked hard to make it interesting and worthwhile for the students, regardless of my own feelings on the subject matter, but by far the best part about the subject was a group of students who generally sat together in a row (I think you can guess which row).

They were fantastic. They were intellectually engaged, and they were not afraid to challenge me on anything they thought didn’t make sense, or was just plain wrong. They argued with me, asked intelligent questions, and picked out errors in the material.

I was recently delighted to meet one of these students again, some 3 years later, and was amazed to find that she was somewhat hesitant in approaching me. She was afraid I had found them immature and annoying. Sure, they were back row dwellers with all that entails – they occasionally turned the screen of the lecture theatre pc upside down, or heckled from the back – but it was all good natured fun.

Without their challenging, demanding, engaging presence, the subject would have been dull to learn, and even worse to teach. The presence of just a hand full of bold, switched on, interested students made that subject one of my standout teaching memories, after nearly 15 years of teaching experience.

Perhaps it is some form of masochism on my part, but I find that not being challenged is my greatest challenge in life (it must be some sort of zen). If I am not regularly dragged from my comfort zone, life becomes distinctly uncomfortable. Small issues become huge volcanoes of stress. Everything anyone says gets analyzed for the tiniest particles of offense to be taken personally. And it gets harder and harder to drag myself out of the house, even though getting out of the house is the only cure.

So to those people who challenge me on a regular basis, I salute you. I am so grateful to have you in my life. (But you can put me down now, thanks, I’m getting dizzy!)

Thank God You’re Here

I sometimes feel as though my life is an extended episode of Thank God You’re Here. I rarely know where I am, who I am, or what I am supposed to be doing. I also don’t know who, or sometimes what, my children are. This is not because I suffer from some debilitating dissociative disorder (apart from the one known as parenthood), but because of my children. Yes, it’s just as Chloe, my 7 year old, has long suspected – I believe that everything is her fault.

Well, perhaps not everything. But certainly my children delight in changing the game plan without notifying their parents. As evidence, I offer you this snippet of my life, which repeats on a more-than-daily basis (you’d think I’d learn, wouldn’t you?).

My 3 year old, Jane, calls out “Muuuuuum!”

I respond in some way, perhaps with a “yes?” or an “I’m over here, Jane.”

Jane says “Not you! Chloe’s my mum!” Often with an “I’m not Jane, I’m Jasmine” thrown in, just for good measure.

Sometimes Jane, I mean Jasmine, is a cat, a dog, or a penguin. Sometimes Chloe wants to be a dog, but Jasmine, I mean Jane, would prefer her to be a snow leopard – “Because dogs are scary”. I am sometimes Grandma, Mum, or Mrs A (their teacher), but I don’t get told in advance, of course – that would be too easy. Instead I am expected to slot into the game, and respond to the relevant name without any hints in advance.

To complicate things, Chloe and Jane are also sometimes Grandma and Mrs A. Either of them can be mum, and sometimes I am a vet. My goodness, I lead a full and varied life.

In some strange way, though, this is all starting to work for me. You see, if I’m not me, then Chloe screaming in my face when she has a tantrum can’t be personal. It’s not nearly so traumatic if she’s screaming at someone else. For maximum points, it should be someone who doesn’t really exist, like “the Wicked Witch”. I have often speculated somewhat despairingly over the ease with which she pushes my buttons – if she’s this good when she’s 7 at making me go BOOM (usually without so much as a warning “tick tick”), how on earth is the world going to survive her teenage years?

It’s all too easy to take shouting personally. We are psychologically geared to mirror the emotions we see around us – which has great advantages when the emotions are “Argh! Run from the sabre toothed tiger!”, but isn’t so wonderful when they’re more along the lines of “Argh! I’ve lost my (insert indispensable toy of the moment here) , what did you do with it???” Being someone else for a moment and letting it all wash over me could be the secret to keeping my cool.

After all, in my rational moments I know it’s not really about me. It’s about Chloe being tired, or hungry, or just having a crabby moment. I used to think that she was running around with a cigarette lighter, deliberately lighting my fuse. But now I realize that the truth is much more random, and in some ways a lot scarier than that. In actual fact, Chloe is walking around with a huge, flaming torch, rather like the ones jugglers use for juggling fire. But she’s not threatening anyone with it – at least not consciously.

She’s just whirling through life, aimlessly swinging her fire stick, completely oblivious to what it might come into contact with. Sure, the carpet often winds up on fire, bushfires start unexpectedly, and the explosives that are wired to my chest suddenly go off with a shockingly loud BOOM, but she genuinely has no idea why or how this happens.

She’s just ambling about, twirling her fire stick. It’s nothing to do with her, and it’s certainly nothing to do with Grandma or Mrs A. The important thing is to make sure that whoever I am today is really good with a fire extinguisher.