There’s a fraction too much friction

I went to a workshop on conflict resolution today. One of the first exercises we did was to find someone roughly the same height (my first challenge, since it was an all-female workshop and I am 185cm tall – I think I was setup!). We were asked to shake hands, and then still holding hands, we were told we would get a point for each time we pulled our held hands over to our own hip. “Ready, set, go!”

Pause for a moment. There you are, holding someone’s hand, and you get a point for each time you pull her hand over to your hip. What do you do?

I thought it was obvious. We simply collaborated, joining forces to swing our hands back and forth between each other’s hips. My partner and I stopped counting after around 20 touches each.

To my astonishment, almost everyone else in the room turned it into a strength competition, achieving 2 or 3 touches at most. Some achieved none.

Of course, this was a setup. We were expected to fail in the way that most of the room did.
But why should competition be the default reaction? The only competitive term the facilitator used was “points”.

There’s a fraction too much friction
There’s a fraction too much friction
Don’t believe in opposing factions,
What we need is some positive action
There’s a fraction too much friction

Fraction too much Friction. Tim Finn.

All too often we allow ourselves to be fooled into this kind of competitive stance. Get a more expensive car than the neighbours. Measure success by the size of your plasma screen tv. Compete for hits on your blog (oops, guilty yer honor). Win that competition. The only thing that counts is the gold.

Not meeting the expectations leads to tears in the Olympic pool, crankiness in the road race, drama in the gym. We even get competitive about activities like yoga, that are really the antithesis of competition.

Life isn’t a competition. If you think about it, getting to the finish line of life alone is the saddest possible outcome. We get much further, and score many more points, when we work as a team. Supporting each other adds a lot more value than the most prestigious gold medal.

Yet we get sucked into the competitive mantra. My parenting technique is better than yours. My baby sleeps more/crawled first/talked earlier. I earn more than you do. I work harder/ride further/run faster than anyone else.

What are we teaching our kids, as they avidly watch the olympics? That anything less than a gold medal is a crushing disappointment. That unless you are the best, fastest, strongest, world-record holding, super-human (oh, and super-thin) gold medal winner, you have failed. Which is patently ludicrous. Consider the cycling road race. It takes team work to win the road race (or a stage at the Tour de France, or indeed the Tour itself). Yet only one person wins the trophy.

We all fail. Every day. One of the most inspiring talks I ever heard was from Nobel Prize winning scientist Peter Doherty, who said something I will never forget: Get used to failure. You will fail a lot. And you will learn from it. You will fail a lot before you ever succeed.

And to that, I add this: On your own, you will never succeed at all. Behind every success story is one heck of a support crew.

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Touching the sky

We are an oddly reserved society, here in Australia. For all our easy-going reputation, we tend to keep to ourselves for the most part. I know I harp on about the lack of “just dropping in” these days, but I think maybe that’s a symptom of something deeper. I’ve come to the conclusion that we just don’t touch each other enough.

The day my Dad died I was at work, and I was overwhelmed by hugs in the brief time between finding out and leaving the building. Those hugs kept me warm throughout that very, very rough day, and many days afterwards. Even now, nearly two months later, the memory of them lifts my mood and makes me smile.

Many of those hugs came from people who would not normally touch me. Friends, colleagues, and lovely people, they generally keep a respectful distance. I really needed hugs that day, and they arose quite spontaneously from gorgeous people who wanted to show their love and sympathy. Other days, though, most of us wouldn’t dream of hugging each other at work – or indeed anywhere else. Certainly there is an awareness of workplace norms, so that friends who might hug & kiss when they come over for dinner don’t greet each other that way at work, but I think it’s more than that.

I feel shy about asking for hugs, yet they are an amazing boost to my mood. It seems as though asking for a hug is an imposition, yet they are as beneficial and therapeutic for the hugger as for the huggee. There’s an awkwardness about asking for touch, but there’s also a fear of emotional complications. Too much touch has disturbing connotations. Because we are not a very tactile society, there is an expectation that being unusually tactile has sexual implications.

Oxytocin researcher Paul Zak says we need at least 8 hugs a day. Touch gives us a measurable oxytocin boost, which increases our empathy, trust, happiness, generosity and even our wound-healing ability! In short, touch makes us nicer people.

A dear friend recently sent me this fascinating TED talk, in which Jane McGonigal talks about simple ways we can make ourselves healthier and happier. One of her suggestions is touch – even a simple handshake can cause a measurable change in our oxytocin levels, and hence our behaviour. Another is to do something that makes us happy, to boost our positive emotions to balance the negative ones. “If you can manage to experience three positive emotions for every one negative emotion,” she says, “you dramatically improve your health and your ability to successfully tackle any problem you’re facing.”

Touch is a 3 for 1 deal, in that it boosts those positive emotions as well as boosting oxytocin, so it reinforces a positive cycle – feel good because you touched someone, which boosts your ocytocin, which makes you feel good, which makes you more likely to touch someone… and on and on, ad infinitum.

Of course, you can’t go from zero to hug monster in 0.3 seconds. I’m not about to waltz into work on Monday and hug everything that moves. I don’t have any easy answers here. I am trying to edge up my hug quota by seeking and offering more hugs, but that’s a cautious, long term project. There is no doubt that some people are uncomfortable with touch, so it’s important to choose your huggees with care and discretion. But at the very least least all those times when I feel like hugging someone and am not sure if it would be welcome, I can push past my shyness to ask: “would you like a hug?”

With those who I know hug freely, I can hug more often, and the world will be a slightly happier, more generous and trusting place – which sounds like something to celebrate. How about a hug?

So how am I?

People keep asking me how I am. There’s a brittle edge to the question, a certainty that what you see is not what you get – that all the “going about my daily business” hides a slew of crises just under the surface. And it does.

Grief is a strange beast. On a day to day basis it consumes cognitive capacity.  5 weeks after my dad’s death I still can’t think straight. I am exhausted but not sleeping. I forget whether I have done simple things like locked the door or closed the garage. I don’t know what I did 5 minutes ago, but I can remember with crystal clarity a conversation with my dad 25 years ago.

The first shock passes, the funeral comes and goes, and life settles into a new rhythm. People move on – the first flush of support washes by us and now we expect ourselves to get on with the everyday things that keep us fed and moving. My five year old shocks me with her perception when she cries “nothing will ever be the same”.

I find myself on a hair trigger. I rage over small things, yet some days I can let the big stuff float right past. I grieve for life as it was and as it wasn’t. For what I lost and what I never had. It turns out that it’s not when you die that your whole life passes before your eyes – it’s when someone you love dies.

In life I couldn’t always see past the day to day. Now that my dad is dead I can see past him to our whole life together.

I think we forget, or perhaps never fully realize, the profound and lasting impact of grief on our lives. We wonder if we are going crazy, and when it will get better. We expect ourselves and others to move on, and in some ways we do, but in other ways we are anchored here by our pain and loss.

You don’t get over grief. It never goes away. You just learn to live with it. In some ways it’s necessary to make peace with it. To accept that sometimes it will wash over you in a wave of heartbroken tears, leaving you drained and empty, and that the next day you will get up and get on with things. The very intensity of the wave is a tribute to the strength of our love.

We are very fond in our society of doing the “stiff upper lip” thing. Pretending that everything is fine. Stuffing the grief down into its box, where it corrodes and consumes us behind a veneer of perfect makeup.

In my eternal quest for truth, I wonder what it would be like if we were more open with the people around us. If we felt safer answering “How are you really?” with “Actually, I’m really struggling today.” Instead we toss “how’s it going?” at each other as we fly past down the corridor, often well out of earshot before the answer that never comes.

Some days I am ok. Some days I am not. Some days even honest answers to well meant questions are too hard. It’s one foot in front of the other, one day at a time.

They just don’t get me

You know that feeling when you find someone who totally gets you? You don’t necessarily agree on everything, but they understand where you’re coming from. You speak the same language, think on the same level, and laugh at most of the same jokes. A raised eyebrow between you can convey volumes – volumes that would have to be documented, translated, and broken down into their component pages for anyone else to understand. It’s an incredibly precious feeling – here is someone like me.

Gifted kids don’t get that.

Not at school. Often not at home. They go through life feeling weird. They are lonely. They try to fit in by being the same as everyone else, excruciatingly aware that in order to be accepted they have to pretend to be someone they’re not. They know full well that no-one gets them, no-one thinks the way they do, and no-one understands more than about 20% of what they want to say. Things that interest them are bizarre and inexplicable to everyone around them. Eventually they begin to feel that they are bizarre and inexplicable too.

Sometimes they wind up getting aggressive, more frequently they are the ones found in a corner with a book when everyone else is outside having fun. They don’t necessarily get good marks in class, because that would make them stand out – and besides, the work isn’t interesting. Often they have a learning disability or processing delay that makes them feel even more different.

Gifted kids often have high anxiety levels – they internalize things, and think too much about everything that goes wrong, because their brains have nothing better to do, and above all those brains need stimulation. If you aren’t interested in your school work, and you can’t talk to the people around you, there is no escape but to hide deep inside your own head.

You can spot them in a classroom, if you know the signs. They will be the ones who find a receptive adult and talk to them endlessly, because the adult is more likely to be able to interact on their level. They are the ones reading fantasy books, escaping into a world where they can be themselves.

Well-meaning advice can be so frustrating. “Find a good private school,” people say. But private schools kids are richer, not brighter. Private schools are no better at catering to gifted kids than public schools.

Sometimes, if they are incredibly lucky, gifted kids get the opportunity to associate with other gifted kids. They might go to a school with a SEAL program (Select Entry Accelerated Learning), a selective school, or a specialist school. Or their parents move heaven and earth to find them a peer group somehow. And then a miracle happens. They find out that there are others like them. They find people they can talk to. People who get their jokes. They make friends, and develop a real peer group. They blossom, and finally begin to reach their potential, both academically and socially.

That, my friends, is why gifted kids need gifted programs. Not for their academic results – bugger that! But for their sense of self. For their self-esteem and self-image. To have people around them who value them for who they are. To know that someone truly gets them. At last.

Money isn’t everything

Ah, money. The lengths we will go to to save a few cents, or get a bit more for our money. Queueing for hours at Shell so that we can save that 4 cents a litre that we just idled away in petrol fumes while we were waiting. For international readers, one of our biggest supermarket chains, Coles, has teamed up with one of our largest petrol companies, Shell, to “give” people a 4c/l discount on their petrol. Spend more than $35 at Coles and you get a discount voucher that you can take to Shell.

It’s a magical marketing move. People don’t shop around for cheaper petrol anymore – they go straight to Shell, brandishing their discount dockets. Woolworths shoppers are not left out – they can take their dockets to Caltex to get the same deal. Bonanza! Cheap petrol at your fingertips! That’s worth queueing for, right?

Except… it doesn’t seem to matter if it actually is cheaper. You get a discount. That makes it cheaper! Never mind that it’s less than 3% of the price, saving a massive $2 on 50 litres of petrol ($70 worth). And never mind that petrol could easily be more than 4cents per litre cheaper elsewhere (highest petrol price in Sydney today for unleaded was 149.9c/l, lowest was 119.9 – a 30c/l difference!).

We are thoroughly bought by a marketing device so effective that the queues outside our local Shell frequently disrupt traffic quite severely.

But here’s the radical part. Even if it were reliably cheaper (which it’s not – I have bought petrol at the local independent for less than the discounted Shell rate), it would not necessarily be a good idea to buy it.

Whoa!

Heresy!

Same product. Cheaper is better, yes? Of course. It’s a no brainer.

But… but… but… Big companies frequently use discounts and promotions to drive prices down (hey, still good news, right?) and squeeze out smaller retailers… sorry, I mean “gain market share”. Once there are no small retailers, the big guys have the playing field to themselves and can set the price, and indeed the quality, to whatever they want. Want to argue? Go buy from an independent. Oh. Sorry, you can’t. We ate them all.

And it’s not just petrol. Big chain supermarkets manipulate the fruit and vegetables we buy so that they are cheap, robust, long lasting and great looking. Notice any significant qualities missing?

They measure bananas with callipers to ensure the correct amount of bendiness. Anything that doesn’t measure up is binned. Growers have to provide picture perfect produce or chuck it in the bin.

We have allowed supermarkets to divorce us from real food. But it’s cheaper!

I buy my fruit and veg from a local organic shop. They know me by name. They carry my shopping to the car (against my frequent protests, I might add!). They know my kids and they ask after them all the time. I know their names. They know mine. My butcher recognises my voice on the phone and tells me if I’ve left something out that I would usually order. He knows my address.

And then there’s fairtrade, where how you spend your money can change lives.

All these things are priceless, but they are also very easy for me to enthuse about, because I am not wondering where our next meal is coming from, or how I am going to afford the rent or mortgage payments this month. I get to make choices that aren’t limited by price. But I am not alone.

We all make economic choices every day. And most of them we make thoughtlessly, driven by the latest marketing campaign or cunning discount. Often we can buy the fairtrade version, or go to an independent retailer, for the same amount we would spend at a big name company. Even if we only made the thoughtful choices that cost us nothing, we could change the world. What kind of world would it be if we thought about where, how and why we spend our money?

Long shots

Around 10:30am this morning my phone rang.It was Chris.

Chris: “Is that Linda?”
Me: “On a good day.”

Chris: “This is a really long shot, but we’re in the area and wondered if we could drop by?”

Me: “That would be perfect, as long as you can ignore the mess!”

And indeed it was. Chris dropped by with his 2 year old daughter, who played very happily with my girls and our visiting bunny, Hugsy (aka Vicious Attack Rabbit, but only in the eyes of the local scaredy cat, who can’t quite get over the fact that It Moves!! It MOVES!!!!).  Meanwhile Chris and I caught up over coffee and fortuitous cake (the best kind).

It was a short visit, perhaps an hour or so, but it made my day. Before Chris’s call, I was moping and feeling rather flat. I recognised that I needed company, but I couldn’t quite work out how to make it happen. Life was getting on top of me, and it was a short ride from there to grumpyville. One phone call and a visit changed all that.

There were hugs. There was chat. There was eye contact and cake. It was enough to take the edge off my mood, and it was delightful to reconnect with Chris, who I hadn’t seen for ages. We had been scheming to catch up over the school holidays, but as so often happens, it didn’t quite work out, and our schedules got rather full without us actually booking each other in.

We don’t seem to be very good at dropping in on each other, as a general rule. Sometimes I feel as though everyone else has a hectic and full social life, and an unexpected visit would be an unwelcome intrusion. And then I wonder if we are all thinking the same thing? Between weekend sport, language classes, dancing or drama classes and work commitments, the flexible gaps in our lives can easily shrink to vanishing point. But how many of those activities nourish us and feed our souls?

So often I will wind up spending an unexpected hour with a friend and come away feeling loved, cherished and revitalised. And saying “we must do that again soon!”, yet falling victim once again to those crazy schedules, and not catching up for months, if not years.

I was particularly lucky today, because my husband’s riding partner, Allen, also dropped by this morning.

Me: “Is Allen coming this morning?”

Andrew: “Maybe. He said he might leave early and ride out this way.”

Me: “So I need to decide between getting dressed or getting sprung in my jarmies?”
Andrew: “Yep.”
Me: “Jarmies it is.”

So there I was, in dressing gown and jarmies. Hair as the pillow intended. Coffee firmly in hand. And Allen duly showed up. I made him a coffee, chatted, and felt completely unfazed about slobbing about in my PJs. It helps that I have known Allen for a rather long time. But I think there is an important point lurking somewhere in that story. Allen caught me in my PJs, Chris caught me with the house in a mess. Both of them saw me real and in the moment, and we connected easily.

I think that spur of the moment realness is something we don’t often make possible in our lives. We schedule catch ups, bake cakes, clean the house, put on make up and the good clothes, and we never see what’s under the surface. We don’t spring ourselves on people because we don’t want to intrude. And I think that takes the spring out of all our relationships.