Say it like you mean it

birthday card
My ideal birthday card

Yesterday I received a truly awesome birthday card. It was beautifully hand drawn by an  11 year old friend of mine, and the particularly wonderful bit was the inscription, written by her 13 year old sister, which was thoughtful, heartfelt and perfectly tailored to me: “Wishing you a lovely bday and a year filled with learning interesting things you never knew. Have an awesome time!”

Contrast that with a hallmark card with some insipid generic greeting inside, and the inspiring words “happy birthday, love X”. The words may be heartfelt, but the card really isn’t worth the $5 or more that it probably cost. Much better to say it face to face, over the phone, or even on facebook.

Christmas cards are worse. Years ago I decided to boycott the Christmas card ritual, and I have never regretted it for an instant. I used to receive an avalanche of “Dear X, Merry Christmas, Love Y” cards, which I would then feel obliged to reciprocate, and I always felt that the only winners in this scenario were Hallmark and the postal service. I was therefore unsurprised today, while reading a Bill Bryson book, to discover that the Christmas card was invented by the British postal service, to encourage the use of the 1 penny stamp. Cha Ching!

I don’t for a moment object to those cards which truly have something to say (although I emphatically refuse to count Hallmark poems as something to say), and I do recognise their value in reconnecting people, when properly personalised. But I vigorously object to the idea that they are compulsory. They’re not. They are nothing more than an alarmingly successful marketing idea!

I quite like receiving christmas or end-of-year letters, even the photocopied variety with a space for my name to be written in. Even if they’re not truly personalised, at least I am learning things from them, and I find that the people who send those nearly always add a personal message to their cards anyway, so it’s win-win.

I still possess cards I was given 20 years or more ago, the ones with long personal messages in them – they are snippets of friendship history that still make me smile, and sometimes cry. I have farewell cards from past workplaces that contain snapshots of my working relationships at the time, and I treasure them. But I never keep the “dear X,  pre-printed platitude, love Y” cards. What would be the point? They are bland and meaningless. A testament to the power of advertising, not a memento of an event or relationship.

So next time I am facing a blank card with a pen devoid of inspiration, I will ditch the card and make a phone call.  If I have something special to say, I might put it in a card. Or write a letter. But if it’s just to say “Happy Birthday,” I won’t bother with the card. A hug carries so much more feeling than Hallmark could ever imagine, let alone express. I choose to enrich my relationships, instead of enriching card manufacturers.

Now I’m going to go and re-read my hand-drawn birthday card and spend some time smiling about the gorgeous friends who made and signed it. This one’s a treasure!

Memo to the fashion industry – I exist

Attention fashion designers, buyers, and clothing companies: I exist. Not only do I exist, in fact, but I also like pretty things, and I am beautiful – at least on the inside. I have the right to feel beautiful on the outside too, but at 185cm tall, the fashion industry has declared me non-existent. Frankly, I am over it.

Today I tried on a floor length skirt – Target thought it was a long strapless dress, but what do they know? It was a skirt to me. It’s not just that I want floor length skirts and dresses (although please believe me when I say I yearn for them). I can consign them to the too hard basket if I must (and learn to make them myself if necessary). It’s all the pretty things that I can’t find. A typical day’s shopping reveals shirts with sleeves that barely make it halfway past my elbows. Bustlines that bisect my bust rather than underlying it. Pretty, lacy, feminine bras that only go up to size 14B. Socks in attractive colours in size 6-8. Oh, and jeans that only make it halfway down my calves, and do up somewhere under my hips.

The comments from sales assistants over the years have really impressed me. When asked if they stock any pretty bras in size 16C, one commented “Oh no. Some things just don’t look good in that size, you know.”  And when asked for women’s socks in a size 11: “No, they’re women’s socks.” I refrained from asking what she thought I was – never ask a question you don’t want the answer to. The ultimate comment came while shopping for a wedding dress: “Well you’re just too tall, aren’t you?” My bridesmaids were all for committing murder on the spot, but I was so used to that sort of comment that I hardly reacted.

It is perfectly possible to make pretty bras in my size (they have them by the handful in France, but it’s a long way to go for some underwear shopping). For some reason, though few companies do – and even fewer shops stock them. I have come to loathe shopping, as even browsing the racks to find anything worth trying on takes hours, and I often come up empty handed. Not for me the casual wandering in to a shop and trying on a stack of clothing. It’s a long and tedious trawl through the bottoms of the racks (to see which pairs of pants are a little longer than the others through some freak manufacturing accident). An endless rummage through rack upon rack of clothing that is simply not made with me in mind.

The odd thing is I am no longer unusually tall – there are plenty of women as tall as me these days, and some even taller. I know some teenage girls who are going to tower over me when they finish growing. It’s time the fashion industry woke up to this untapped market. To be fair, the footwear industry is slowly getting a grip on the idea. I recently bought a pair of tall boots (my first ever!) and a pair of court shoes. Both on special, and in both cases I had choices – 10 years ago I wouldn’t have found one pair, much less had choices. Progress is a fine thing.

This might all come as a surprise to those of you who are not vertically blessed – after all, isn’t the ideal model magnificently tall?  Sadly the clothes models wear on the catwalk are not the off-the-rack variety.  They are specially made, and impossible to buy. Also I am not a size 8. (Can you imagine? Size 8 and 185cm tall – you could slip someone like that under the door. Terribly handy if you forget your keys.)

Just because I am tall (never, if you value your life, use the words “huge”, “enormous” or “gigantic” – although “statuesque” is acceptable) does not mean I am unfeminine. I love frilly, lacy, pretty things. Fashion industry, hear this: I want to give you money. Why won’t you let me?

Who makes you smile?

On Thursday I had a quick lunch in the city with a friend. We hadn’t caught up for ages, except at his 3 year old’s recent birthday party. The party was a lot of fun, but short on coherent conversations. (It was, however, long on the theme of “Oh wow! Check out the catbus cake!” – if you have ever seen My Neighbour Totoro, this cake was the catbus. It was spectacular. If you haven’t seen Totoro, SEE IT. It’s truly wonderful.)

It was delightful to see my friend and to trade whole sentences – uninterrupted by small, sugar-buzzed, bouncing people – while grazing from a sushi train (a new and delicious experience for me), but what really left me grinning like a loon was the way he treated me.

Although he is only a year or two older than I, he belongs in a distant, aristocratic and vastly more civilized era. He opened doors for me, wouldn’t seat himself until I was seated (which must have been a prodigious effort of patience on his part, when I spent what seemed like an age fussing with coats, bags, and far too many feet and thumbs). He ordered sake for me when I confessed I hadn’t tried it, and insisted on paying for my lunch. It was delightful and perfectly charming, and I felt cherished in no small way.

I know that it is terribly unfashionable, both to treat people this way, and to admit to enjoying it. But I think that these efforts to cherish and treasure people are vastly underrated. I have heard it argued that holding the door open is a weapon in a battle to subjugate women. That it is a subtle attempt to reinforce the notion that we are the weaker sex and unable to take care of ourselves. But I did not feel at all oppressed or belittled. I felt cared for. In the context of a friendship of mutual respect, it is simply gorgeous behaviour.

I always find it a little strange to be treated like a girl – being 185cm tall and having worked for years in a male-dominated industry and workplace, I am far more used to being treated like one of the boys. I am the kind of person who finds it quite difficult to ask for help, or even accept it when it’s offered, so being taken care of in this way was a slightly surreal experience. Nonetheless, it made my day, and still makes me smile every time I think about it.

Of course, there are any number of different ways to cherish people. When I was telling my husband the way I felt about this old-style chivalry, he asked if that meant I didn’t feel cherished by him (he is not the door opening, handkerchief-peeking-out-of-the-top-pocket type). His cherishing is perhaps more subtle, but nonetheless potent. He looks after me in hundreds of small ways (and quite a few large ones) on a daily basis. It’s all the ways he makes life easier, nicer, and more fun for me every day that leave me feeling cherished. He does not buy flowers (he hates to see them die), and although it took me a while to ditch the cinderella style “flowers=love” myth, I wouldn’t trade him for any number of flower-wielding, suit-wearing prince charmings.

Other people make those around them feel cherished by listening, paying attention and remembering them. My yoga instructor manages the startling feat of making every one of his students feel as though they are the reason he is there that day. I am convinced that every single person feels as though they are the centre of his focus.  In a room of 15 students, that’s a remarkable achievement. He remembers everyone’s preferences, adjusts his instructions to each person’s particular needs, and is always thrilled to see every person who walks through the door. He has a large collection of regulars who would follow him just about anywhere, and he thoroughly earns that loyalty.

Contemplating all of this has made me realise how many wonderful people there are around me, who pay attention to me and look after me in hundreds of different ways. Next time life is getting you down, try thinking about all the different ways people cherish you. Even better, see if you can think up some new and interesting ways to cherish others. Let there be more cherishing in the world.

Life on the edge

It may seem that this blog has taken a somewhat squeaky turn of late. It feels to me as though there have been more than the usual level of whines and whinges, and less than ideal levels of coherence. This is what sleep deprivation does to you, people. It scoops your brain out with a spoon, scrambles it, maybe adds some cheese, and then stuffs it all back in as best it can. Things tends to leak out the edges. Things like sanity, optimism, and the ability to make any kind of sense.

Sleep deprivation and chronic illness have a lot in common, and the most crucial characteristic that they share is that anyone who has not experienced them in desperate detail has NO IDEA what they are like. None. Not a clue. You can empathize, sympathize and nod intelligently all you like, but you cannot possibly understand. Since I have a penchant for exercises in futility, I am going to try to give you some small inkling of how it feels.

I am not talking about a couple of late nights and leaning on a caffeine crutch. Sleep deprivation is months, and sometimes years, of insufficient sleep. I am talking about a sleep debt bigger than a modern Melbourne mortgage. Sleep deprivation carries with it massively increased risks of all kinds of charming health conditions, like heart disease, diabetes, and mental illness – even to the point of psychosis. This is serious stuff.

Chronic illness is a more varied beast, but for the purposes of this article, I am going to talk about relatively mild illnesses. These are the ones where it is possible to appear normal for hours at a time, on a good day, but that make it completely ludicrous to stay up past 9:30pm ever, and that require social occasions to be carefully rationed to avoid complete system collapse. Where catching a simple cold can set you back months. There is no imminent risk of death, but any appearance of a normal life is just that – purely appearance.

I read recently that chronic sleep deprivation is linked to mental illness in young people, and it makes perfect sense to me (of course, right now “plurdled gabble blotchits” makes perfect sense to me). Sleep is physically and mentally crucial to remaining healthy. It gives the body time to process everything from stress to dinner. As your sleep debt builds, you begin to accumulate frayed edges everywhere. Minor dramas become full scale operatic death scenes. You become easy prey for every passing virus, because  your body lacks the energy required to fight back. (I swear there is a sign on my forehead that reads “Party! No immune system inside!” in bug-speak.)

Chronic illness and sleep deprivation both take a toll that is not readily visible to the casual observer. When you are dragging yourself through each day, even on a good day, you can’t afford any late nights, so social functions are strictly limited. If this goes on for long enough, people begin to see you as anti-social, or at least you fear they do. Invitations to social functions that begin after 7:30pm are a painful reminder of your limited capabilities.

As for getting things done during the day, forget it. While you might be able to manage the basics of keeping yourself clean and fed, actually making progress on anything significant becomes an incredibly dispiriting battle. Little things like organising the paperwork become mountainous millstones that weigh you down and never get any smaller, because you need any spare energy just to get the kids off to school, or to hang the washing out. Life becomes a constant trade-off between things you want to do and things you have to do. And things that are not crucial to survival frequently wind up so far down the list of what’s possible that they drop off the end.

Meanwhile you struggle with the sensation that everyone is watching you and wondering why you aren’t coping better. You become convinced that everyone around you is appalled by your messy house, your un-ironed clothes and your antisocial tendencies – because in truth you are appalled by them yourself. You just lack the energy to do anything about any of it.

I have been lucky – I have lived with both chronic illness and severe sleep deprivation and made it out the other side. But some people live with them permanently. I am temporarily back in sleep-deprivation land due to a house full of winter bugs, and it’s a dreadful place to visit. Spare a thought for the people who live there. I hope you never walk a mile in their shoes, but it might be worth contemplating their reality. It could just as easily be yours.

Do your best

(First published in the August 2010 Issue of Melbourne’s Child)

This morning I picked a fight with my 6 year old, Chloe. I didn’t set out to fight, of course, but she was really pushing my buttons. Her claim that she had finished her writing homework was giving me some trouble, as her “story” consisted of a single sentence. When I pointed out that she hadn’t actually written a story, she wailed “but we don’t have to, Mum!”  After a brief tussle over the difference between “best” and “quickest”, I gave up and stormed out, muttering despairingly to her father “she’s just like me. I always did the bare minimum at school.”

I spent a few minutes in gloomy reflection, remembering the endless battles between my parents and I throughout my childhood.  The house was often full of the wild battle cry that still echoes around my skull:  “You can do better than this!”

Suddenly, I stopped. These days I have a PhD, a wonderful family, work that both enthralls and fulfils me, and the finest network of friends I could wish for. It could be argued that doing the bare minimum didn’t actually do me a serious disservice.

It was then that I took the leap into full on heresy – could it be that the mantra “always do your best” is actually really bad advice? After all, there are some areas where most people would agree that near enough is good enough. Few of us believe we must do our best to line up the rubbish inside the bin in neat rows. As long as it fits, who cares?

Long ago, when I was a sales assistant at a department store, I was carefully wrapping a wedding present for a guest who was already late to the wedding. He didn’t want my best wrapping, he wanted it fast. Being a control freak, I found it incredibly difficult to do a sloppy job, and in the end he grabbed the tape in frustration, slapped some on the other end of the parcel and left at a dead run. Although I loved to wrap things beautifully, complete with hidden tape, that was one situation where my best was not only not required, it was completely out of place.

When I was a lecturer at university, teaching first years the glories of computer science, we used to talk about a certain type of student – usually Science Engineers – who would calculate precisely how much each prac session was worth, and how many marks they needed to get to pass the subject. They would then do exactly the right amount of work to get their pass, and stop. At the time this was a source of some despair among the staff, high minded academics that we were. Now, though, I see this more as a rational, intelligent strategy for getting the most out of life, which is, after all, about more than perfect marks and endless study.

Realistically, it’s doing the bare minimum sometimes that allows me time to play with my kids, to sit down and read a book occasionally, and to stop and smell the roses. Yet the rhetoric I throw at Chloe regularly implies that if she’s not doing her best, she’s not doing enough.

Obviously, we don’t want Chloe to produce sloppy work all the time, and we want her to achieve her full potential. But now I wonder whether badgering her to do her best every time is actually counter productive. Perhaps we would do better encouraging her to determine for herself the right level of effort in different situations. Clearly there are some situations that demand the best, and some where it is wasted. The trick lies in learning to tell the difference.

Just as permanent perfection is an impossible dream, we can’t give 100% 24/7. Physically and psychologically, we simple have to have downtime, low periods, times when we don’t give everything we’ve got – otherwise we wind up running on empty. I am starting to suspect that one of the most important skills we can teach our kids is how to prioritize. How to decide when a little slacking off is fine, and when to pull out all the stops.

Above all, I need to stop telling Chloe that she has to do her best all the time, because either she will fail and feel perpetually guilty, or she will burn herself out trying. Either way, that’s not something I want for my daughter. It’s clearly time to retrain myself. It won’t be easy, but this is one time when I’ll definitely do my best.

I can’t take it anymore!

After weeks of sleep deprivation due to our 3 year old’s coughing, we are hanging onto sanity by our fingernails. My goodness, health problems with kids can feel never ending. The worst part is listening to their distress, unable to help. Last night she wound up in bed with me, coughing almost continuously despite the cough medicine, and crying piteously because all she wanted was to be asleep.

Today she is happily watching television, but still coughing non-stop – not a chesty cough, but a dry, tickly cough with no pause longer than about 45 seconds. Cough. Cough. Cough. Sometimes between coughs she rests her head sadly on my shoulder, yawns deeply and looks as though she could just nod off, until *COUGH*.

This has been one long, virus laden winter. We started with gastro, which became gastritis and vomiting blood (they call it coffee ground haematemesis, because it looks just like coffee grounds – if you ever see that, trot off to the doctor PDQ), moved onto a case of shingles for dad, and then collapsed into the cold zone, where cold, wet weather was miserable, damp and gusty, inside and out. AH CHOO! Hack. Hack. Hack. We have been there ever since.

I don’t remember when we last slept well. It’s nothing serious. Nothing life threatening. Just a constant assault on our immune systems, sleep, and general well being. It gets to the point where I want to be permanently armed with disinfectant guns, ready to shoot anyone who comes near us with so much as a sniffle. I do try not to be paranoid, but with a house full of permanently sick people, the idea of someone knowingly bringing another virus to our door is more than I can stand.

Many people are very considerate, warning us in advance of their collection of bugs, so that we can make our own decision about whether to take the risk. But I remember when our oldest was only a few weeks old. We went to a friend’s place for dinner, and discovered that he had the flu. Had we known that before we got there, we would never have gone, but we didn’t have the choice. Within a week or two we were all down with it – and there are few things sadder than a 6 week old baby whose nose is so blocked that she can’t even feed. I wanted to strangle that friend, but I didn’t have the energy.

Too many people share their viruses around with an alarmingly generous hand (or nose). If I were brimming with energy and enthusiasm now I would wage a campaign – Keep Your Bugs to Yourself! Don’t “soldier on” and take your flu with you to work. You will recover quicker, as will your workplace, if you keep your bugs at home and rest. Don’t send your sick child to child care, on the premise that “he probably got it from there anyway” – you are dooming other families to illness.

Above all, do not believe the myth that “once you are showing symptoms you are not infectious anymore.” This is rubbish. It may be true of a vanishingly small proportion of bugs, but many rely on transmission via droplet infection – that is, they are most infectious when you are throwing billions of them into the air with every cough and sneeze. Go and look at the health department’s advice on infectious diseases – you will find that many of them are transmitted via the symptoms – the coughing, sneezing, and dribbling out of various other orifices that I won’t disturb you with here.

Sure, it might be just a cold, but to anyone with a lowered immune system, a chronic illness, or who has simply been suffering from a succession of infections, it may be the last straw.

So please, if you are ill, don’t spread it around. If you are sick and planning to visit someone, warn them and let them make the choice: to take the risk of infection, or to postpone the visit. To you a cold might be a mere inconvenience. For many, it is one more intolerable burden in an overburdened, sleep deprived and desperate time. Do everyone a favour and keep your bugs at home.