Space eaters

I am increasingly fascinated by the subject of space. A quick search on my blog has revealed lots of posts on the subject, from one angle or another. From our obsessive need to build walls around us to keep strangers at bay (perhaps those stranger danger messages when we were kids have hit home), to the large collection of electronic devices filling our every spare moment (plus many moments that weren’t spare and didn’t need filling).  Sorting through them, it struck me that we seem to have got our attitude to space all upside down. Keep people out. Keep noise in.

I remember a sign that I saw years ago that said “There are no strangers here, only friends we haven’t met.”  Everyone starts out as a stranger. Chance conversations in the supermarket queue, or on the bus, can lead to lifelong friendships – or just a momentary smile.

When was the last time you made an attempt to contact the author of a book, or an article, (or a blog!) that you particularly liked? Or complimented a barrista on a particularly good cup of coffee? We have a choice, in getting through the day. We can slide through the water of life making as few ripples as possible, or we can surge through making waves as positively or as negatively as we choose. Someone once told me that his ideal life was to avoid impacting on anyone – because it was a huge responsibility to have an effect on someone’s life. Better to refrain. A no-score win. A blank slate, from start to finish. Ugh!

How much more positive to reach out to people. To smile encouragingly at the parent with a screaming child, and say “Hang in there, you’re doing great! “, or just “Oh, I know that tune!” instead of shuffling your feet and looking away.  We all have moments when strangers make us smile, or feel that flash of recognition – that “oh, I’ve been there” moment. But how often do we share them?

Of course, it’s hard to share anything through the noise that permeates our lives. The constant nagging of texts, phone calls and email. The compulsive logging of our lives to facebook. The headphones that protect us from the world we are in and fill our heads with noise. Don’t get me wrong, I love music. I need music. But there is a music to the world that we miss entirely when we walk through it plugged in. The tree outside my study window just played host to a collection of Rosellas with a particularly sweet and melodious call. With headphones on I’d have missed them – the music of their voices and the vivid poetry of their flight.

I think the ability to connect with people arises from a core of stillness and calm that we rarely make space for in our lives these days. We don’t have time to talk to the cashier, because we are making and receiving important phone calls while we buy our bread. Even walking the dog, more and more people are using those precious moments to return phone calls and prepare the next few hours of chaos. Call a friend to organise an impromptu dinner? Can’t do that – we’re booked up 6 weeks in advance!

All this constant contact winds up the springs that power our stress. It’s a deafening barrage of noise that demands our immediate attention and response like a fretful 2 year old. There is no time to complete a sentence or finish a thought. No time to let our minds wander and our spirits regroup.

I don’t want to be permanently plugged in and tuned out. I want breathing space – the ability to take a deep breath, absorb the music of the world and communicate with the people around me. So don’t take offence if I don’t answer my phone or my email straight away. Every electronic stimulus is starting to feel like an electric shock. I’m working on letting people in, and shutting the noise out.

Ride to live

Since February this year I have ridden 863.5km on our Christiania bike.  (Note for new readers: that’s a big trike with a box on the front for kids & shopping.) Over 7 months that’s not a huge total – around 120km a month. But that’s 120km we haven’t been driving (and it doesn’t include the ~9km per week my husband uses the bike, or our work commuting rides, which we do on different bikes). It’s about 10% of our total travel.

Interestingly we’re not only driving less, we’re also using less petrol when we do drive. Our records show that fuel consumption per km has dropped by over 10% compared with the same time last year. Which makes sense, because we’re not doing any of those short, inefficient trips of less than 5km. They’re all being done by bike.

That’s definitely a bonus. We’re using around 180 litres less petrol per year just due to the Christiania bike. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but imagine if everyone did that? It would add up pretty quickly.

As I have written before, riding is a great way to feel part of the local community. There is the lady with a small girl in a pusher who walks past us nearly every afternoon. We smile, always say hello, and sometimes stop for a chat. The jogger with his headphones who sometimes asks for a lift up the hill – I’ve told him he can’t ride in the bike without a helmet, so I might be in trouble if he shows up with helmet at the ready! The crossing guard at the main road who notices if we don’t ride for a while, and checks to make sure we are ok. The cyclist friends who live along the route and often pop out to say hello when they see us going past. None of this would be possible in a car.

We see gang-gangs, sulphur crested cockatoos, long billed corellas and flock upon flock of rainbow & musk lorrikeets, together with the usual magpies and currawongs. Now that spring is approaching we smell daphne, jonquils and wattle in the gardens we pass.

Quite apart from all the benefits to me, the kids are learning some very important lessons along the way. They see us being habitually active, and they know that there are alternatives to car travel. They know themselves to be a part of the natural world, and not separated from it by steel and glass cages. They know that it is perfectly possible to ride in the rain, in the wind, in the cold and in the heat – unlike many adults we know, who assume that as soon as the weather varies from a balmy “25 degrees with clear skies and still air” we will retreat to the car (from balmy to barmy is a short leap, apparently).

My 7 year old complains that she feels lazy in the bike and wants to do her share of the work. It seems that our ideals are rubbing off on her. She is just learning to ride without training wheels, so I expect that in a month or two she will be riding beside me, instead of sitting in the box, and the weather will be perfect for it by then.

I don’t wear special gear to ride, apart from my bike helmet, and a reflective vest that I put on over my normal clothes, so that we are extra visible. I ride in everything from long skirts to suit pants, and in ordinary shoes (I admit I haven’t tried it in stilettos, but only because I don’t own any!). No lycra, no expensive gear. Once I am off the bike I look quite ordinary (as long as I remember to take off the helmet and the reflective vest!). This is a standard part of our daily routine. Anyone could do it. It’s not particularly hard work, but the rewards are high.

The few times we’ve had to drive, generally due to illness, I have really chafed against the traffic, and the parking madness.  I don’t know how I managed to play the peak hour traffic game for so long.  Cycling is a whole new game, and we’re having a ball.

Here comes the rain again

Here in Melbourne it is grey. The skies are grey. The ground is grey. The politics is incredibly grey (but developing a greenish tinge). In Canberra the guinea pigs go around and around on their treadmills making incoherent squeaking noises, and we don’t seem to get any closer to intelligent, sustainable, compassionate governance.

I am by nature optimistic, but this winter, with its combination of gutter politics and grey skies has totally done me in. It has been so cold that the climate sceptics are holding little victory dances in the streets (in between the hailstorms). Notwithstanding the catastrophic floods, disintegrating ice sheets and devastating droughts elsewhere in the world.

“Pah!” they say. “Global Warming??? What about this, then? Coldest winter we’ve had in years. World’s getting colder, y’know.” I would like to beat them about the head with facts, but their minds are generally locked tighter than a safety deposit box at the bottom of a crevasse. Even when the glacier melts, you know that box will get washed away. There’ll be no getting inside it.

We have a ghastly, grey, gloomy government. We stand on the brink of something that can be so much more, or so much less, but today’s stark absence of sunshine seems to cast an impenetrable pall over any positive outcome. Rob Oakeshott proposes a unity cabinet and is treated as an amusing sideshow – faintly disturbing, not something you should expose the kiddies to, but nothing to take particularly seriously.

Yet the major parties have little in the way of a policy divide these days – so what makes it so ludicrous? Malcolm Turnbull wants action on climate change, so ill-fitting with his party’s official stance. Petro Georgiou wanted compassion for refugees, which neither party seems to give a rodent’s rump about. Kevin Rudd is an economic conservative. Both parties want whatever the polls tell them to want, which suggests they want nothing so much as the power to jerk on the end of those media strings.

Never mind the faceless men, the party factions and the spin machines (makers of a strange sort of metaphysical fairy floss?), it’s the media who control public opinion. You can complain all you like about Gillard, Arbib and Shorten and their involvement in the removal of Kevin Rudd from office, but it was the media reports in the days leading up to it, screaming for Rudd’s demise, that scared the willies out of me.  Media screams for PM’s head. Days later, PM is gone. Doesn’t anyone else find that a little spooky?

I have just finished reading my uncle, David Penington’s, autobiography – a slightly surreal, but fascinating experience – but there is one comment in it that keeps echoing around my head. David says the best political advice he ever received was this: politicians won’t do anything that might affect them badly in the polls. If you want to get a politician to do anything, you have to mobilise public opinion first.

The current style of Australian politics relies on the compliant silence of the apathetic majority. Silence is taken as agreement. It is the vocal (and often cashed up) minority that rules politics – simply because they can shout the loudest. The squeakiest wheel gets the grease, as the mining industry so effectively proved.

So that’s your answer, right there. Care about climate change? Care about compassionate treatment of refugees? Care about anything at all? Squeak about it! Never mind the incoherently squeaking guinea pigs in Canberra – let’s give them coherent squeaking. Letters to politicians (amazingly enough, some of them actually answer them). Letters to the independents whose decision (and demands) will shape the next 3 years.  Letters to papers. Talking to friends. Make more noise! There is no better time than the present.

Don’t wait to see what sort of government we actually get – let’s demand the government that we want!

Well of course it is!

So it looks as though Australia might have a hung parliament for the first time in 70 years. (I first typed that as “hug” parliament – the mind boggles!) After the initial horror, I now see that it makes perfect sense. It was the only plausible result. Labor deserved to lose, but the Liberals didn’t deserve to win. Whatever the chaos that results over the next three years, this is actually a result that gives me a lot of hope.

I have written, and indeed ranted, a lot lately about how the major parties were offering us nothing. It was all negative campaigning, calling on fear, racism and self-interest. And the electorate has said, more clearly than ever before: “No. That’s not who we are.”

Sure, there were the rusted on Labor and Liberal voters that delivered those 73 seats to each party. There was a large portion of the population that, perhaps, believed the lie that they had no choice – you have to go for one or the other, anything else is a wasted vote (despite the fact that preferences in the house of representatives get distributed at full value – so a vote for a candidate who doesn’t get in will get passed on in full to your second preference).

But over 11% of the population voted green, and we have a handful of independents as well, so there are people out there – whole electorates! – waking up to the idea that the vision of ourselves and our country that Labor and Liberal are peddling, is just not our colour, darling.

The onus is now on the Greens to prove that they can make realistic, rational compromises without compromising their beliefs, and to show that they can bring better outcomes for Australia. This will be a huge challenge with a hung parliament, whichever way the independents jump and whoever forms government. The bizarre nature of fixed term senate positions and variable house of reps means that our new senators don’t take office until July next year – a scary proposition for the next ten months, regardless of which minority takes control.

But yes, Julia, the people have spoken. And I think it’s quite clear what they’ve said, both to you and to Tony.  We don’t want your negativity. We don’t want your fear. We don’t want your racism.

Meanwhile the world is going to hell in a toasty warm hand basket, and we need to act on global warming – not before it’s too late, because it probably already is – but while we are still alive to do so.  Neither major party is willing to do that, so it’s down to the independents. What will you demand as your price for government? Make it good, people.

Manifesto

“Most of the people living on [earth] were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small, green pieces of paper, which is odd, because on the whole, it wasn’t the small, green pieces of paper which were unhappy. “ Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.

Social change is tricky. It’s never easy to stop a runaway train. It’s far easier to simply go along for the ride than to attempt to slow down and contemplate steering, especially when steering involves building an entirely new set of rails – nothing less than a radical restructure of the world we live in.

Society progresses so fast that there is rarely, if ever, a chance to stop and plan the next steps. Any attempt to do so is rapidly overtaken by the frenetic pace of technological change. We don’t have a good mechanism for sitting back and taking stock of where we are now, or where we will be in 5 years’ time, let alone where we should be, or how we can get there. I am convinced, though, that it’s something we really need to talk about.

I suspect I am not alone in feeling that we have lost our way on countless fundamental aspects of our lives. There are plenty of lobby groups on everything from climate change to urban development, yet there is no coherent force trying to forge a new way forward. It would be lovely to think that we could, as a society, use evidence based, rational planning strategies to try and correct even some of the problems we are facing, yet it feels as though evidence gets buried under a sea of small green pieces of paper – which demand so much more attention than they deserve.

It is surely the role of governments to think of the welfare of their nations as a whole, for the benefit of both current and future generations. Planning for sustainable, livable, bearable futures should be fundamental to their operations – no other organization has such far reaching access both to the data and the means of implementation of significant change.

And make no mistake, we do need significant change. We need to rehumanise our lives, and by that I mean bring ourselves back to the things that sustain us as fundamentally social animals. The very social structures that have contributed to the rise of mankind are rapidly being lost in our haste to progress. We need to get back into our streets – to walk to the local shops (which means there need to be local shops), play in the local park and get to know our neighbours.

We need to get out of our cars and back in touch with the world. I have lost count of the number of people who assume I can’t ride my bike if it’s raining – we seem to have decided that rain is toxic. Sure, these days that’s not quite as far from the truth as I’d like, but it is possible to be out in the rain and survive (and we have remarkable devices like raincoats and umbrellas that can keep off the rain – the things technology can do these days, eh??). It is even possible to walk the streets at night without being mugged, raped or murdered, despite what you see on the news.

We need to get real about the connection between ourselves, our food, and the natural world. We need to stop throwing away perfectly edible bananas because they are a funny shape, or precisely the wrong shade of yellow. (More than 100,000 tonnes of bananas in Queensland alone are trashed each year, simply because they are not aesthetically pleasing.) Our connection with nature, seasons and growing cycles needs to be restored. We need to reject homogeneity and recognize the value of diversity – even if it means embracing humorously shaped vegetables. We need to grow more of our own food and stop demanding strawberries in winter.

We need to stop thinking that reality tv is real, that twitter is communication, and that important conversations should be had via email.

Governments can foster this kind of change by changing planning laws to favour local developments over large scale hubs. By fostering public transport infrastructure at the expense of freeways. By making our streets pedestrian and cyclist friendly, and by changing laws to favour them. By investing in public health and education.

This is not the kind of big ticket bribe that buys votes. It is not the kind of corporate-pleasing announcement that brings funding to the party coffers. But it is the kind of far-sighted, positive strategy that invests in our future well-being, and that of our children. What government will be brave enough?

Leading us on

It would be so nice to think that our politicians were leading us – taking charge, and steering the nation in the right direction. Frankly, any direction other than down would come as a refreshing change. In general it seems that the best they can offer is to lead us on. Occasionally offering a tantalizing glimpse of integrity, compassion and reason, they snatch it away at the last moment in the ultimate game of bait and switch.

What really disturbs me about the election campaign we are currently enduring, though, is that they’re not even bothering to lead us on anymore. There seems to be a perception that no-one cares. We all accept that politics is a grubby game, played by even grubbier people, and it would be foolish to expect anything positive from them.

Tony Abbott seems almost proud of the fact that you can’t believe anything he says unless it was pre-scripted for him (and even then it may turn out to be a non-core promise). He is so tightly tied down in this campaign that it is clear he is more marionette than free agent, begging the question of just who is pulling the strings.

Julia Gillard offered to bring out the Real Julia ™, which was a startlingly radical concept, guaranteed to make us wonder which Julia we had been seeing before. How real is Real Julia ™?  If Real Julia doesn’t work, will she bring out Really Real Julia? Or will she switch horses and try for Genuine Jules?

Tragically, it seems that our politicians are really just amoeba working on the stimulus-response model. Opinion polls are the stimuli, jerking knees are the responses.  Those knees have been jerking so wildly it’s amazing they don’t knock themselves out more often (although that could explain a lot about the first couple of weeks of Labor’s campaign).

Polls say Australia is a nation of racist xenophobes, terrified of drowning under the rising tide of boat bogey monsters.  A true leader would challenge that and bring out the best in us – showing us the truth, bringing out our humanity and compassion. Sadly, Gillard and Abbott are pandering to the worst in us by demonizing targets that can’t fight back (and don’t vote). Abbott is even going to stop the boats personally – I have visions of him standing on the shoreline in his speedos, forearms bulging like Popeye as he turns those boats around. No wonder I have nightmares.

A leader would respond to the astonishing level of scientific consensus on climate change and take direct action. We know that climate change is real. We know it’s man made. We know it requires urgent action. But the polls say that people are more concerned with their own hip pockets, so our politicians try to look as though they are doing something without actually doing anything. The “greatest moral challenge of our time”, tackled with a simply breathtaking level of prevarication and procrastination.

Will the real leaders please stand up? The leaders who are willing to make the hard decisions. To lead the nation instead of running to catch up (or rather, down) to it. To show us the best we can be, with integrity and compassion. Real leaders don’t choose the most popular road, or the easiest road. They choose the right road. It’s a difficult road to get onto, but it leads to a far, far better place.

No mum is an island

A week or two ago there was a rather smug article in the Good Weekend about how, really, we’re all a pack of whingers, and being a mum is dead easy these days. After all, the article chirps, our mums did more, with less, than we are doing these days, and you never heard them whinge. They had more kids, less dishwashers, no dvds or laptops to entertain the kiddies. The author did confess that she had an easy baby who is, as yet, only 9 months old. My husband, when he read the article, commented that here was an opportunity for a new business – selling voodoo dolls of the author.

Annoying though the article was, it did raise some interesting points. You do hear a lot of parents (myself among them) saying that parenting is hard work. That it can be distressing, depressing, and downright terrifying. Even though we adore our kids and wouldn’t turn back the clock for anything, there are times (for some of us it’s most of the time) when parenting is an incredible struggle.

Why should that be? I have frequently wondered what it is that we’re doing wrong. Is there a way we could have made it easier on ourselves? Have we made the wrong parenting choices, as many would argue, creating rods for our own backs and making life unnecessarily difficult, or is there something else going on here?

We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village to raise a child.” I think that’s a huge part of the problem, right there. Few of us have a village these days. Of course, most of our urban mums didn’t live in villages either, but it was far more likely that mums lived in neighbourhoods with other mums. They shopped locally – meeting local people. They played with their kids in local parks. They went to local kinders and local schools. They were far more likely to have neighbours with kids.

Research has shown that simply being near a familiar person – even an acquaintance, let alone a friend – can have amazing health benefits. Everything from lowered blood pressure to improved immune function and dramatically reduced depression. These days we rarely see familiar faces in the course of an average day. We go to huge, distant shopping centres (and we drive there, avoiding any inconvenient personal interaction along the way, apart from occasionally bursts of road rage). Most of us have a community in our workplaces, and that’s where becoming a stay-at-home parent can be a particular shock, because it may be the only source of community in our lives. Its loss can be startlingly difficult to cope with.

Forming friendships and local networks requires frequent interaction. It is not easily replaced by well-meaning attempts to create mothers groups out of random groups of mums – even when a group works well, meeting once a week means it can take a long time to form the kind of friendships that really support us. It’s running into the same people day after day that allows connections to form and relationships to build. We can certainly build friendships with people we don’t see so often, but it takes time, and you don’t get a whole community that way. You get one friend who you see sporadically, if you’re lucky.

Our whole lives are arranged in such a way that we don’t form the local networks of friends and neighbours that used to sustain our lives. For the most part we don’t have local shops, and we don’t walk in our local streets, or even play in our local parks very often. The local neighbourhood is somewhere we pass through, not somewhere we truly live.

I have a mental image of neighbourhoods full of kids, running in and out of each others’ houses, and parents sharing cups of tea and the odd glass of wine. Of course, that image didn’t always exist in the past, and isn’t always absent now. But I think it is becoming increasingly rare, perhaps particularly in the lives of those who need it most. I think that may be why parenthood isn’t a walk in the park.