There has been some interesting discussion recently about the death penalty, and its popularity with our near Northern neighbours as a punishment for drug crimes. There is a lot of international pressure, from the US, as well as from our neighbours to the north, to wage a fierce war on drugs. They see drug running as a terrible crime, worthy of the ultimate punishment. There are many facets to the issue, but one that has been prowling around my own head with increasing agitation is the very idea of a war on drugs.

Our attitude to drugs is very strange, and it’s not often that we are able to step back and examine where it came from. First of all the very definition of drugs seldom includes alcohol and tobacco – which is a strange omission. They are no less addictive, no less dangerous, no less destructive than many of the illegal drugs that we blithely declare war on, but they are socially acceptable by historical accident.

In fact, someone snorting cocaine in my vicinity is unlikely to cause me direct harm, even if they do it regularly, unlike the very clear and definite dangers of second hand smoke. I would much rather be around someone shooting up with heroin or munching on a hash cookie than have someone lighting a cigarette beside me.  Alcohol, too, seems to lead to vastly more antisocial behaviour than, for example, marijuana.

Then there are the personal downsides. Consider this list of short term effects of a well known drug: Speech slurred; Balance and coordination impaired; Reflexes slowed; Visual attention impaired; Unstable emotions; Aggressive behaviour; Nausea, vomiting; Unable to walk without help; Apathetic, sleepy; Laboured breathing; Unable to remember events; Loss of bladder control; Possible loss of consciousness.

Or this one, for a different drug: Confusion; Pain relief; Slowed breathing; Decreased blood pressure and heart rate; Constricted pupils; Dry mouth; Suppressed cough reflex; Reduced sexual urges; Drowsiness; Slurred and slow speech; Reduced co-ordination; Nausea and vomiting.

Both drugs pose the risk of death in case of overdose. Both are addictive, and withdrawal from either drug, once addicted, is physically and emotionally traumatic. If you look purely at short term effects, though, those of the first seem rather more alarming than those of the second. The first is, of course, alcohol. The second? Heroin.

Most of the serious downsides that we see as a result of illegal drugs seem to be a result of prohibition rather than the drugs themselves. Overdoses result from not knowing for sure the content or purity of the drug, which could be avoided if drugs were regulated, over-the counter purchases. Regulation would also deal with a lot of the peripheral crime (burglaries etc to finance drug habits), as drugs would presumably be cheaper and easier to obtain.

I have to admit that I am no expert – my personal experience of potentially addictive drugs is limited to alcohol (and limited even there) and caffeine. There is no doubt that drugs are bad for the body, and addiction to almost anything can kill you. I’m not suggesting that we all rush out and look for the nearest source of illicit drugs and get stoned. But I think it is high time (sorry) that we questioned the paranoid, hysterical rhetoric that gets trotted out any time anyone suggests something like decriminalising marijuana.

Prohibition doesn’t work. It doesn’t make sense. The winners in any prohibition scenario are the criminals who take over the supply. Even worse, prohibition of some drugs but not others seems to be randomly political rather than based in science. Truly the world needs more scientists and engineers in charge.

Wars are never won. They are inevitably lost by all sides – it’s just that some lose more than others. It’s time we took a more rational, evidence based approach to solving our problems. I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like if human beings were better at objectivity. If we were able to take the evidence, weigh up the research, and take the most effective, evidence-based approach to our legislation. Instead we seem to take the approach of soothing the loudest pressure group – regardless of their size, rationality, or relationship to the truth.

So next time someone rants about the need for a war on drugs, ask yourself – who is winning this war? And why are we waging it?

Discovering the wheel

Out there in the real world, which I occasionally visit out of curiosity, there is an image of cyclists as lycra-clad loonies. Nutters who regularly take their life in their hands and spend ludicrous amounts of money on both bikes and fluoro clothing, they are definitely “them” in life’s game of “them and us”. If you’re not with us, you may very well be wearing lycra.

Even commuting cyclists have a bit of a mad monk image. Encased in sturdy, rain-proof cycling gear, they plough through the storms, hunched over the handlebars, head bent, water dripping off the end of their thin, cold noses. You’d have to be crazy. In this country cycling is, if it exists at all, strictly a fair weather recreational activity.

It’s not viewed that way in parts of Europe, of course. There are cities in Denmark where over 60% of all urban trips are made by bike. They don’t have our weather to contend with, mind you. No. They have it easy. They have snow.

It’s all in your point of view, and from up here on the seat of my new Pilen bike, the view is remarkable. It’s a girly bike – complete with basket – yet big enough for all 185cm of me to ride in comfort. It has no top tube, sporting instead a lovely, step-through frame that means I can simply strap on my helmet, throw a high visibility vest over my outfit and ride off into the sunset, regardless of what I’m wearing. It has a sturdy rack that I can simply clip my backpack to (no need for special bike panniers, unless you want them), built in lights and lock, and the carrying capacity of the basket is huge.

In this weather I regularly ride in a skirt and sandals, and it’s fascinating, because I get almost as much of a startled reaction on my Pilen bike in my long skirts as I do on the far more surprising Christiania bike. (And not just because of the combination of skirt + bike + windy day, which was a bit of a learning curve, let me tell you!)

I think it’s the combination of seeing someone riding in ordinary clothes, in a very upright position (my husband calls it a “lah-di-dah” riding style), complete with skirt flowing in the wind, and the foolish grin I am usually wearing. It’s a statement, and a radical (for us) shift in perspective. Perhaps it is different in the inner suburbs, but out here on the lunatic … er… sorry, urban fringe, people don’t ride for transport very often. If they do, they invest in The Gear. Simply getting on your bike in whatever you’re wearing, as a way of easy transport – that’s not something people here have wrapped their heads around before.

Years ago I was converted to cycling when I rode around Rottnest Island on a hired bike. I was a nervous, inexperienced cyclist without a clue – I had never even ridden a bike with gears – and I always thought that cycling must be hard work. Travelling all that distance under your own steam! Who has the energy??

On Rottnest I discovered the miracle of the wheel. Mankind may have worked it out thousands of years ago, but it was a stunning revelation to me. Wheels have this magic trick. They roll. Sit yourself on a bicycle, whisk the pedals around once or twice and the whole magnificent contraption rolls. For free!

No carbon footprint, no smog. Just the joy of flying down the hill. Sure, you have to get up it again, but even that isn’t so bad with the magic of gears (another revelation I came late to). Get yourself low enough gears and you can trundle up the steepest of hills without breaking a sweat. Granny gears, the lycra crowd call them. I’m not proud. I’ll take great-granny gears, if I can get ’em.

You don’t have to be a lycra loon. You don’t have to be super fit. Discover the magic of the wheel for yourself.

Time to stand up

Today I took time out from the chaos that I like to call my life so that I could hear scientist and environmentalist David Suzuki speak in person. There was nothing radically new in his talk – we have known for a long time what the problems are, and what kind of solutions we need, but the process of creating the political will to make those changes seems at times impossibly slow.

Indeed, when asked if he was preaching to the choir, David made the comment that preaching to the choir was a worthwhile exercise, because we all need uplifting. We need to know that we’re not alone. We need to be re-inspired. Tonight’s talk certainly did that for me.

David’s point was startlingly clear: “Economists and cancer cells think they can grow forever.” He asked us to reflect on what we think is important. On what brings us joy. And on what legacy we want to leave for our children and grand-children.

Those questions are what drove me, to my great surprise, to join the Greens some years ago. Not by nature a political animal, I shared the typical Australian distrust of political parties. Yet at the 2007 federal election I despaired of the major parties, and spent some time reading the Greens’ policies on their website.

When it dawned on me that there wasn’t a single policy that I disagreed with – that they were sane, rational, evidence-based policies that valued the things that were fundamentally important to me – I asked myself why I was not supporting this party. A party that prioritized compassion over corporations. A party that recognized our fundamental interconnectedness with the environment. A party that made its decisions based on evidence, not lobby groups.

So I joined. At first it was simply a matter of paying membership each year and doing odd bits of relatively unskilled volunteer work, like handing out how to vote cards, stuffing letterboxes, and scrutineering. I didn’t feel as though I was making a huge difference, but I was happy to be supporting an enterprise that seemed to be so aligned with my values.

As time went on I found myself more and more distressed by the political processes I saw going on around me. The new coal-fired power stations. The desalination plants. The astounding inhumanity towards refugees. The prioritization of the economy – which, as David Suzuki points out, is an entirely artificial human construct – over the fundamental things that keep us alive: the environment and our communities.

That’s why, when my local Greens organizer asked me to consider running for a seat in the Victorian Upper house, I didn’t say no straight away.  In fact, I didn’t say no at all. Assuming I make it through the selection process, it will be 4th spot on the ticket in the South Eastern metro region – not exactly a Greens heartland. It’s not high profile, nor likely to be a winning proposition, yet every candidate helps raise the profile of the Greens, and the issues that really matter. It may well be a step on a longer political road.

Ultimately, though, the reason I said yes is that I am tired of whinging behind the scenes – or behind my computer – about how appalling it all is. About how no-one is doing anything about it. About how the priorities are all wrong. It’s time for me to stand up for what I believe in.

David Suzuki says that human ingenuity got us to where we are today. It is our ability to envision a different future – to look ahead and avoid the dangers, and design ourselves a different path – that made us the dominant species on the planet. We have never needed that ingenuity more than we do today. It is time to design ourselves, our species and our planet a new future. One in which we value the things that are truly important.

Not the shiny new cars and plasma TVs. Not the prestigious jobs and ever-growing, cancerous economies. But the people, the families, and the communities that sustain us. The earth, air, fire and water that give us life. The other animals that share the planet. The plants that give us air to breathe. All these things that in our economy are valueless. These things we will die without.

Even when we recognize that things are going wrong, we sit back and say “but what can I do??” Well, I’ve been doing that for too long. This is something I can do. I can speak up for what I believe in. I can stand behind it.  What can you do?

The halting problem

Struck down with a particularly vicious virus, I wanted to head to the shops for a miracle cure. Or at least some vitamin C, which is probably the closest I can get to a miracle drug that won’t also poison me for some reason. In my current state of health riding wasn’t an option, so I leapt into the car. Click. whirr. groan. All the unmistakable sulking of a car with a dying battery. Forward progress was clearly not going to be a happening thing.

I dragged myself back inside to await my beloved’s descent from the nap cave, where he was trying to persuade our 3 year old that sleeping for an hour or so was a vastly preferable alternative to spending the afternoon crying hysterically whenever something happened. Or didn’t happen. Or nearly happened.

Fortunately our Christiania bike has carrying capacity for the evacuation of a small town, so it was more than adequate for a quick trip to kmart to buy a new battery. Sadly  there were no safe sources of vitamin C at the same shopping centre as the car batteries, so the waiting, the shopping, and the battery fitting delayed my urgent trip to the shops by over an hour. Which time I spent lying on the floor with my 7 year old, making loops out of train track, and deciding which bits of track needed outfitting with trees, hospitals and people that made the trains and buildings look Lilliputian. All part of the same set, so you have to wonder what the manufacturer was trying to say with this combination.

My point, should I ever manage to stop digressing long enough to make one, is that despite feeling extremely seedy and wanting a new head, respiratory system and immune system pronto, not being able to continue with my plan to hurtle about meant that I chilled out, had fun, and bonded with my daughter. Quite by accident. Oops.

In an absurdly hectic week, far more full of chaos and rushing than justified by my effective progress on any of the tasks I was allegedly pursuing, I had forgotten how to chill. Too often when my kids ask me to play with them I wind up saying “I just have to…” and then listing 5,000 things from the top of my todo list. Fortunately the whole idea of having two kids is paying off beautifully and they spend a lot of time playing together, despite a 4 year age gap. In fact they play so well that I sometimes forget that every time I say ‘not right now’ is a missed opportunity.

We have lots of cunning games involving me lying on the couch. It’s a dangerous position, because something about a recumbent adult just BEGS children to leap onto them and apply all kinds of pointy anatomy at speed. Elbows. Knees. Bottoms.  I know that bottoms aren’t typically pointy, but somehow these particular bottoms are. I can’t explain it. But I have the leg wounds to prove it.

Whether I’m lying on the floor playing with trains, or lying on the couch being a vet (surely if this gets out it will trigger a radical rethink of the standard veterinary surgery), reading stories or looking at old photos on the laptop (“Mummy! What’s that on Daddy’s neck???” “It’s his hair.”), there are plenty of ways to relax and still play with my kids. They don’t require me to leap about and perform amazing feats of ingenuity (apart from untangling the slinky). They just want me there. Physically, and mentally. Away from the laptop. Not reading a book. Present in their game, and in their world.

Not just for the big stuff, like performances, but for the wandering around afterwards eating sausages. Not just at key points like bedtime and school pick ups. They just want me with them. And how great is that?

Bait and Switch

We have a rather bizarre collection of dietary issues in my house. There are 4 residents, 3 of whom have dietary intolerances – and no two are alike. We do an awful lot of label reading and cooking from scratch, and can’t eat a lot of things others take for granted. When we find a product we can all eat, it is a hallelujah moment.

Sadly, we have to be ultra paranoid. There is, for example, one type of mayonnaise that we can all eat safely, but it’s not as simple as it seems. That type of mayonnaise (Kraft Classic, as it happens) comes in both a glass jar and a squirty bottle. They are both labelled Kraft Classic, with identical looking labels and logos etc. The only difference between the two appears to be the type of container.  Recently the one in the glass jar ceased to appear at our local supermarket, so we bought the squirty bottle instead. Fortunately I have a well developed sense of paranoia, and I read the ingredients on both packages.

The one in the glass jar contains no milk. (This is important, as one of us has an extreme sensitivity to milk protein.) The one in the squirty bottle contains milk solids. Same name. Same brand. Same label. Different ingredients. Why would they do that? Are they actually trying to torture those of us with dietary intolerances?  Because they are wasting their time – I can categorically state that life with food problems is hard enough already. The torture is built in. There is really no need to go the extra mile and do the old bait and switch.

I searched and searched for an alternative mayonnaise – no lemon, no garlic, and no milk narrows the range of candidates down to none, as far as I can tell. And in desperation I picked up a new squirty bottle to read the ingredients again. No milk. Bought 3 weeks apart, with, again, identical labels, one bottle contains milk solids and one does not – always assuming I can believe the ingredients list.

So now we possess two apparently identical bottles of mayonnaise, one of which is allegedly safe for my daughter, and one which is not. Bear in mind that my daughter (who is 3) is an autocondimenter who loves sauce and can’t have tomato sauce or just about any other kind, so mayonnaise is a staple in our house.

It has become clear to me, thanks to the disappearance of the mayonnaise in the glass jar, that we have to read even more labels now. Once we have found a safe product, we need to keep rereading the label every time we buy it, just in case the manufacturer has decided to arbitrarily switch ingredients on us. And it’s not even as though dairy is a rare intolerance – this must be a problem for many, many people. Common sense doesn’t work, because dairy is hiding everywhere – I have found milk listed as an ingredient in orange juice – not just in the “may contain traces” sense, but an actual deliberate ingredient. (true story!)

I know that many people don’t understand the difficulty of living with food intolerances, but surely the food industry has a responsibility to understand the health implications of their products. If nothing else, they are positively begging to be sued. They try to get around that by labelling everything “may contain traces”, which is a particularly cruel kind of torture when your food choices are incredibly limited to start with, but really, some day they are going to get the labels sued off them. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving industry.

You wouldn’t do it to a dog

Freedom of speech seems to be a fickle, selective beast. We must apparently defend Andrew Bolt’s right to make hateful, racist comments, yet I have so far waited in vain to hear freedom of speech loudly championed in the context of pro-euthanasia ads in Australia. They have been banned amid feeble protestations about encouraging suicide – which can only have come from people who have not seen the ads in question.

Far from encouraging suicide, the ads merely state the case for law reform with respect to euthanasia. Apparently this is a shocking, subversive, and unconscionable act – to the extent that the ads must be suppressed. While I accept that there are many issues to be debated around any law in favour of euthanasia, and a host of valid concerns, suppressing the conversation can only harm our society. The fact is that palliative care is not always sufficient. The fact is that people are dying, every day, in horrible, traumatic, undignified, appalling ways. If we sat back and watched our pets die this way we would be justly condemned.

Fear and ignorance make us into our own worst enemies, and the only solution to ignorance is education. Debate. Open discussion. A public tabling of facts. Let’s discuss the issues. As an excellent starting point, I recommend Peter Singer’s “Rethinking Life and Death”. It contains numerous examples of cases where life and death are not the clear, rationally delineated concepts that our emotions (and religions) would have us believe. It also succinctly and effectively debunks the “slippery slope” argument that seems to be the basis of much of the terror that surrounds euthanasia laws.

There are a few progressive places in the world, such as Oregon in the USA, and Belgium, where dying with dignity laws have been in place for some time. It would be nice to see a reasoned, rational debate of the issues, where the outcomes in those places are examined. Instead, in the few public debates that have been had (which have been so widely reported that one might think they had taken place in the cellar of a monastery under a vow of silence), the focus seems to have been on fear and religion.

I don’t know what I would choose to do, were I terminally ill. I hope that I would fight to the last. But if there came a point where the battle was clearly lost, and I could save my loved ones the everlasting psychological scarring of watching my drawn-out suffering, I want the choice. I want to be able to say “I’ve had enough. This far, and no further.”

The issue, as I see it, is actually straightforward. There are diseases that cause horrendous, intensely traumatic and sometimes protracted deaths. These are an unconscionable torture for both the patient and the loved ones who must watch (to say nothing of the health professionals involved). We have the power to make those deaths vastly easier.

Certainly it is difficult. There are risks, and complications. It won’t be easy to craft the perfect legislation. But it can be done – it has been done elsewhere. And can you look into the eyes of someone suffering unimaginable pain and distress and say “I could help you. But it’s a bit too hard.” I know I can’t.

You can join an eRally in support of Dying with Dignity laws, or simply find out more about the issue.

Following your bliss

An article in The Age yesterday talked about research findings that suggest people can choose to be happy. Among other things, those that prioritised family over career, and those who chose to involve themselves in altruistic activities were, on average, happier than those who focused on career or material gain. The article argued that this overturns the popular belief that personality is the main thing that determines happiness, although I suspect that personality probably determines your life goals to some extent, so that conclusion may not hold.

Another article in one of the weekend magazines talked about Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Eat, Pray, Love”. Gilbert broke out of her life and spent a year travelling, exploring her spirituality in Indian Ashrams, among other places. Apparently there is now an epidemic of women wanting to follow her example and cut themselves free from their commitments, travelling the world in order to find themselves.

Talking about wanting to find yourself always makes me think of Terry Pratchett’s character Granny Weatherwax, whose dismissive response is generally along the lines of  “I don’t need to find myself. I know where I am. I’m right here.”

When I was a lecturer dispensing course advice, I dealt with many parents (not usually the students themselves) who were anxious to know what degree their children should choose. Which one would give them the best/most prestigious/highest paying job? I always argued vigorously that they should do what interested them most. You can’t excel at something you don’t enjoy, and even if you do well enough to secure a job, it will hardly be the job of your dreams.

Perhaps I have been ludicrously lucky, but I have more or less tripped and fallen into my dream job, simply by taking every attractive opportunity that came my way, and always doing things I was interested in and passionate about. This time I had a goal, and a plan, and every intention of working hard at it until I achieved it, but in the meantime something else entirely fell into my lap, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

I find that doing what I love leads to more opportunities to do what I love – it’s a blissful form of circular logic. Doing something you are not really interested in leads to opportunities to stagnate and become ever more depressed. I don’t know if I convinced any parents of that – although many of the students seemed to like the idea – but I’m pretty sure it’s true.

I don’t think it’s necessary to go away in order to find yourself – although a little space for thinking can be a good thing. But it’s all too rare that we sit down and think about what’s really important to us. The hectic pace of life can mean that we lurch from day to day and crisis to crisis without ever stopping and saying “is this what I want?”

I was lucky, some years ago, when my workplace offered redundancy packages just at a time when it was natural for me to reflect on my priorities (my second child was only 2 months away). Since then I have been incredibly fortunate to be able to pick and choose, and earn some money doing things that I have found both satisfying and thrilling. I never expected that to lead me to an entirely different career, but it seems that, again, doing the things I enjoy has worked out.

A little time spent reflecting on what I am good at, what I enjoy, and what is important to me, has led to a slew of fantastic opportunities for me. I will write more about them when they are signed and sealed, but for now it strongly confirms for me that following your bliss should be a part of your every day life, not a brief interlude in an Ashram.

Think about it. What makes you happy?