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For some years now people have been telling me I “must be soooo fit“, simply because my default mode of local transport has been a bike. Not for every trip, but as often as I can I will take the cargo bike out to do the shopping, or ride to school to pick up my kids.

Back when the youngest was still in childcare I would pick up the older one in our Christiania bike (a big trike with a box on the front for the kids or the shopping), and then ride across to childcare to pick up the youngest. As a round trip it was only around 5km, but I was doing it twice a day, 3 days a week. They were very short distances, so I didn’t think of myself as fit.

Then I took up riding to work more regularly, and got to the point where  I could take the kids to school on their bikes and then ride to work and back myself.  I figured I was a little fitter than before, but they were still only short distances. My work ride is around 11km round trip, and while that would be a fair old walk, cycling is a vastly more efficient means of transport – there’s a lot of rolling involved.

Compared with my husband who rides to work every day and regularly does 60-100km rides on the weekend, I still didn’t think much of my fitness – I was still very aware of my tubby belly, and of how red faced and puffy I got on the hills.

Self image tends to get locked in during childhood, and I grew up pretty much a bed potato – getting as far as the couch would have been too much effort, especially when there were all those lovely books to read. I would periodically take the dogs for long walks, but I never did anything much to work up a sweat.

PE classes at school confirmed that I was hideously slothful and unfit, as they set us running around the oval as fast as we could as a “warm up”, by the end of which I would be collapsed in a wheezing heap turning a fetching shade of blueish purple. Then the real work would begin. No. Physical activity and I were not friends.

Oh, I can’t help myself
when I feel this way
I want to be someone else
When I get this feeling
it gets in my system
I can’t put the brakes on
Icehouse, Can’t help myself


Then I took up running, and although my running style and speed owe more to Cliff Young than to Cathy Freeman, I quickly found my fitness and strength took a sharp upwards bound. Still, I was painfully aware of how much shorter and slower my runs were compared to my sister’s.

Today I was idly flicking through the paper and noticed an article that said most people exercise less than 3 times a week. So I did a quick mental total:

Saturday: 2 hours of yoga.

Sunday: personal best run distance of 4.55 km, with hills.

Monday: 4.17km run with some serious hills – some kind of torture!

Tuesday: nothing.

Wednesday: 11km cycle commute, plus a little over 3km of walking across campus during the day.

Thursday: 6.4km ride up and down Wheelers Hill to the fruit & veg shop and back UP the hill with a 20kg load of shopping (on a 40kg cargo bike). (For those who don’t know, Wheelers Hill is STEEP.)

Tomorrow there should be a run of around 4.5km, time and weather permitting, then Saturday will be another two hours of yoga.

Somewhere, somehow I think I left the couch behind. I think the trick was building the exercise into my life, rather than making it something I take time out to do. Because I do a fair bit of riding – even though they are short distances – my base fitness has been creeping up. While I wasn’t looking I became a fit person. But what do I see in the mirror? The tubby belly and the tired eyes.

You know what? My belly is allowed to be a little tubby. After 4 pregnancies resulting 2 babies and a fair amount of trauma, my curves are a badge of honour, not a mark of shame. And my eyes? They have reason to be tired. Things are tough right now. But none of that defines me.

It’s not easy to change your self image – especially the negative parts that have been fired on the coals of adolescent insecurity. I am hoping that my self image will morph gradually, the way my fitness has.  Meanwhile when I am cruising to work on my bike, or concentrating on the slap of my sneakers on the pavement while I watch the galahs wheeling overhead, I am rebuilding myself, inside and out. Wish me luck!

That’s taken care of

Over summer we finally did something I have been meaning to do for years – we took a dolphin cruise on Port Phillip Bay.  Not, you understand, that we cruised on a dolphin. But we did step aboard the delightful Polperro in search of dolphins, seals and gannets.

Having nobly dragged ourselves out of bed in order to meet at the Sorrento pier at 7:45am (ouch!) we were greeted by Jess and Tom, both of whom gave us the feeling that we were the very guests that had been waiting to meet their whole lives. This is a rare and spectacular gift, and a wonderful way to start the day. The rapport was helped along by the fact that Jess also works at our favourite Sorrento institution, The Smokehouse, and she recognised us from our many forays there. Jess and Tom had quickly memorised the names of the 15 or so people on board. Those who were taking the swim option were kitted out with wetsuits, and the Polperro set off.

The cruise was obviously brilliantly setup for the swimmers, but although we were only observing on this trip we never felt left out for a moment. Jess settled us at the bow and made the kids feel incredibly important, telling us that we had the best seats in the house, and that it was our responsibility to spot the dolphins and seals. She was instantly adopted by our girls, who hung on her every word, and despite Jess’s key role of joining the swimmers in the water, both to guide them and keep them safe, she spent a lot of time with us, telling us everything that goes on in the bay, and a lot about the Polperro as well.

Tom also spent a lot of time hanging out with us over the 3 hour tour, telling us all about the gannets and their chicks that we saw, and explaining the various behaviours that we saw. By the end of the cruise we knew that Tom was about to study vet science at James Cook University, and he is clearly well suited to the role. As we lingered around the seals collected on Chinaman’s Hat, Tom spent considerable time in the water trying to free one of the young seals from some fishing line he was tangled in. The Polperro reports any animals in trouble to the Department of Sustainability and the Environment, and also Melbourne Zoo, in the hope that someone will have the resources to help solve the problems, but there are never enough funds for DSE or the Zoo to do the job justice.

Meanwhile another crew member, Ben, took great care of us, distributing hot drinks with a liberal hand, providing freshly baked scones, and telling us more about the animals and the local area. We had a fabulous view of cavorting seals and gannet chicks, but sadly the dolphins didn’t come out to play on this particular day – probably scared off by some visiting Killer Whales seen in the area the day before. It is a tribute to the friendly professionalism of everyone on board the Polperro that even though we never saw the star attractions the trip was still the highlight of our holidays.

The perfect end to our day was the obligatory visit to the Smokehouse, where we received the same warm welcome, amazing service and magnificent food that we always do. The thing that links the Polperro and the Smokehouse is how pleased they are to see you. They greet you like long lost friends, and make it clear that they will do everything humanly possible to make sure you have a fabulous time with them. As customers, your happiness matters intensely to them, and that feeling comes across loud and clear. I can’t imagine visiting either the Smokehouse or the Polperro and not leaving happy.

Dolphins or no dolphins, I’d travel a long way for that feeling.

It’s not about you

One of the toughest messages I have ever wrapped my mind around is just this:

It’s not about me.

It doesn’t matter what “it” is, it’s almost never as much about me as it feels. Of course being human means (to some extent) taking things and internalising them, working out how they are relevant to you, making sense of them in some kind of personal way. But often the best thing to do is to step back and say “That’s not about me. It’s nothing to do with me. It’s Somebody Else’s Problem.”

I’m not very good at that. One of nature’s dictators, I want to fix everything, and tend to take responsibility for everything within a 10km radius (and sometimes a lot further – curse you, Internet!). And I am a big believer in the immortal words of Dr Seuss:

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not!”

We all need to take responsibility for the state of the world, for the health and wellbeing of the people around us. For the suffering that we could alleviate if only we could be bothered.

But it’s important to stop short of taking responsibility for the behaviour of others. You might be able to mitigate the consequences, but you are not responsible for the words that come out of anyone else’s mouth, nor the actions of their flailing limbs (ok, unless you stuck your foot out and tripped me, in which case really, why would you bother? I am self tripping!).

This morning I came across a post by Heather B Armstrong that took my breath away. In it she explains to her daughter why someone being mean to her was not about her. It was all about the person being mean and something going on in that person’s life. Heather expressed it so beautifully that I took that post and showed it to my 9 year old. It’s a great theory – something I have known for a long time – but an idea that’s incredibly difficult to hold onto when someone is screaming in your face, or sending abusive emails about you to a wide audience, or saying things that are finely calculated to carve your heart up into tiny pieces, each one a perfect replica of your deepest fears.

This is the thing I most want my daughters to know – some 30 years before I fully worked it out – that other people’s meanness is not about them. That they are not bad people because someone chooses to pick on them. That they are not natural targets, or somehow less worthy than anyone else because the school bully has decided to make them the focus of an inexplicable urge to hurt people. Or even that their best friend choosing to hang out with someone else doesn’t mean that they are not friends worth having.

Years ago a friend of mine who I had been very close to, Ted, invited us to his birthday. The day before the party Ted told me he had cancelled it, saying that so many people couldn’t make it he had decided to try for another time. A couple of days later I found out that the party had gone ahead – that my husband and I were the only ones “uninvited” in this way.

Ted, of course, tells the story entirely differently. There were, indeed, friends who couldn’t come. He decided to cancel the party and have just a small dinner. It just so happened that we were the only ones he had to tell. He was mystified by my reaction.

That wasn’t about me, but my goodness it felt like it. It was the final straw in a long line of unpleasantness, and it hurt so much that I eventually ended the friendship. What bothers me most about that incident was how badly it affected me. True, there was other stuff going on in my life at the time that lowered my resilience drastically, but it felt like a complete rejection of me personally. It took me a long time to get to the point where I could shrug it off and label it as about him, not about me.

I have a strong suspicion that this is the foundation of self-confidence, resilience and tranquillity. Being able to watch the barbs fly and see them bounce off rather than penetrate. I still don’t know how to do it – I hope that understanding it earlier might help my daughters work it out better than I have. Knowing the truth is only half the battle – feeling it is a whole different ballgame.

Blaming or judging myself for other people’s behaviour is a losing game, and puts me at the mercy of everyone with an axe to grind or a bat to swing. I suspect it also means I take less responsibility for my own behaviour, because I feel free to blame it on others. There is no cry more disempowering than “she made me do it!”

So this is my aim: that the only behaviour I will take personally is my own, and that I will teach my daughters to do the same. And when the barbs penetrate regardless of my best intentions, I will forgive myself, take a deep breath, and remember that it’s not about me.

Early adopters

My girls are early adopters. At 5 and 9 years of age, they bond fast, they bond hard, and they bond for life. Repeatedly. Over the last few weeks they have adopted my friends Heather and Sylvia. They have re-adopted my friends Michael, Chelsea and Rachael, and they have vigorously adopted my husband’s friend and colleague, Sorrell, together with his partner, Lynn.

Their hearts are wide open and all-encompassing. There is room in there for the whole world.

Sometimes it’s a tough road for them, when the bond is not reciprocated. Z yearned for her best friend from kinder years after said friend had moved on. JB is still planning to marry her kinder sweetheart, even after 12 months at a different school, and she still worships her kinder teacher, even while she adores her prep teacher with every fibre of her being. She is fully prepared to offer her next teacher her undying devotion, despite not having met her yet.

A year ago they met my friend Rachael, who threw herself wholeheartedly into water fights and games on their level, so that when she visited  a week ago, after meeting her just the once and 12 whole months ago, they could not wait to see her again. Now they are badgering us to visit her in Brisbane. Right after we visit their beloved adopted grandparents in Tasmania, their cousin and his girlfriend in Perth, and everyone else they have ever known and loved in the meantime. They have to visit them all NOW!

It’s hard when you’re always afraid
You just recover when another belief is betrayed
So break my heart if you must
It’s a matter of trust

You can’t go the distance
With too much resistance
I know you have doubts
But for God’s sake don’t shut me out

Billy Joel, A Matter of Trust

You could be forgiven, reading newspapers, watching TV or just reading status updates on Facebook and Twitter, for thinking that the world is a dark and dangerous place where you must guard your heart, your family and your wallet.  There are hoaxes flying around the world warning about hypodermic syringes on petrol pumps, deadly rat-borne viruses on cans of drink, and tracking devices on your car. We are building to a fever pitch of paranoia that threatens to break down the very fabric of our communities. That old saying “there are no strangers here, only friends we haven’t met” takes on a very hollow ring. The overwhelming message is: Trust no-one. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t make eye contact.

Years ago I used to walk to kinder with my eldest daughter on her bike.  There were few people out and about on the footpaths, but those few that did walk tended to walk often, and we got to know the locals – especially those with dogs. One day one of them knocked on my door and said “Do you have a wood fire?”

I hesitated to answer, afraid that he was going to complain about smoke, but it turned out he had just cut a tree down and wanted to know if we wanted the wood. Later we took him some cookies as a thank you. In the years since then we have built a firm friendship with him and his family. A friendship which never would have existed had I stuck to the “don’t talk to strangers” rule.

Now that I am running regularly, I see many of the same faces out and about. We are beginning to recognise each other and share a brief moment of humanity in passing. Who knows which of these faces will become friends given time. Many would tell me I should guard against them. I have often been told I am too open. Too trusting. Too gullible.

And, of course, I have been burnt just like my girls by friendships that weren’t reciprocated, or that ended badly. But I share with them the faith that there are strangers here, and many of them are indeed friends we haven’t met yet. I will no doubt get burnt again, as will my girls, but in the meantime we will love and be loved with everything we have. We are early adopters, and it’s worth the risk.

Fiddling while we burn

Our earth is burning up.

 ‘‘We know that global climate doesn’t respond monotonically – it does go up and down with natural variation. That’s why some years are hotter than others because of a range of factors. But we’re getting many more hot records than we’re getting cold records. That’s not an issue that is explained away by natural variation.’’

Dr David Jones, Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s manager of climate monitoring and prediction as quoted in today’s Age.

We know the world is warming. We know it’s driven by human activity – primarily carbon dioxide emissions. We know the ice sheets are melting. We know the consequences are going to be catastrophic. We have a degree of scientific consensus unparalleled in human history. Gravity was more contentious that climate science is today.

“globally it has now been 27 years since the world experienced a month that was colder than average.”

And yet we have not significantly changed our behaviour. We still drive to the local shops, and use massive air conditioners to cool office buildings that are appallingly badly designed – without even windows to open. We still build coal power stations, clear fell forests and complain that we can’t possibly use recycled paper because it’s rather pricey.

The dangers we are facing are monumental. A decade ago David Suzuki made roughly this analogy (paraphrased):

“It feels as if we’re all in a giant car, hurtling towards a brick wall at 100 miles an hour, and we’re arguing about where we should sit. There are people screaming ‘stop! look out! turn the wheel!’ but they’re all locked in the trunk.”

The brick wall is really close now, and we’re still arguing about where we should sit. In part, this is the tragedy of the commons. No-one wants to be the one who pulls back from using our shared resources first, because of the economic cost. If we reduce our carbon emissions and tackle climate change vigorously, what’s to stop, say, China from overtaking us economically? That would be crazy, right?

Never mind that Australia had a chance to lead in climate friendly technologies. That we could have positioned ourselves to be the economic and technological gurus of renewable industry. That ship has sailed and is now sinking in climate-change induced super storms. It’s really not the economic arguments that depress me beyond bearing. It’s the climate change deniers who persist in believing that climate change is a vast and expensive hoax, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Melbourne is having a cold day today, so global warming is a myth.

Melbourne had rain over the last two years, so global warming is a myth.

Follow the money, they say. Climate scientists just want funding, they say, so they are trying to scare us into funding them. Well, ok, if you want to follow the money, at least be internally consistent, people. Where is the money in climate propaganda? Is it really coming from climate scientists? Nope. It’s coming from big business. From Coal and Oil companies. From mining magnates. From people whose fortunes are at risk if we suddenly decide to do something about the fate of our planet. What?? Industries mislead us on matters vital to our health? Unprecedented. Unless you consider Lead. Tobacco. Asbestos.

‘‘We are well past the time of niceties, of avoiding the dire nature of what is unfolding, and politely trying not to scare the public. The unparalleled setting of new heat extremes is forcing the continual upwards trending of warming predictions for the future, and the timescale is contracting.’’

Liz Hanna, convener of the human health division at the Australian National University’s Climate Change Adaptation Network.

I wish that I could finish this article with a positive message. With an answer. A solution to the political and social apathy that is allowing the whole world to plunge over a climate cliff that will make the American fiscal cliff look like a child’s sandpit. But I’ve got nothing. What have you got?

PS if you wish to comment here about climate change not being real, or not being human induced, don’t bother. I won’t publish it on my blog.

Run for it

Today I forked out $99 for a pair of running shoes. There were scientific looking machines that measured my gait, my stance and my balance (turns out I am very balanced – I almost asked to have that in writing. My husband will never believe it.). The sales person went to a lot of trouble. We tried 3 different shoes and she offered me a pair for $170, managing not to wince or wrinkle her nose when I asked rather sheepishly if there were any on special. Having only just taken up running I am not nearly fanatical enough yet to spend close to $200 on a pair of glorified sneakers.

If you had told me a year ago that I would take up running and get hooked within a week I’d have offered to refer you to a good psychologist I know who specialises in treating the delusional. SO not going to happen. Running is why we invented bicycles. Waaaay too much like hard work. And yet… and yet… it began as a whim, rather like the time I shaved my hair. My husband has been telling me for years that running builds stamina and would improve my cycling, and I have time and time again said “Never.”

I’m a cosmopolitan sophisticate
Of culture and intelligence
The culmination of technology
And civilized experience

But I’m carrying the weight of all the useless junk
A modern man accumulates
I’m a statistic in a system
That a civil servant dominates

And all that means is that I’m running on ice
Caught in the vise so strong
I’m slipping and sliding, cause I’m running on ice
Where did my life go wrong

You’ve got to run, run, run, whoa-oh-oh-oh
You’ve got to run, run, run, whoa-oh-oh-oh

As fast as I can climb
A new disaster every time I turn around
As soon as I get one fire put out
There’s another building burning down

They say this highway’s going my way
But I don’t know where it’s taking me
It’s a bad waste, a sad case, a rat race
It’s breaking me

Running on Ice, Billy Joel

Regular readers and those who know me well may remember that I have a bad record with the N word. I have been frustrated over the last year of trauma and health challenges, watching my weight rise and my stamina sink. I ride my bike several times a week for commuting or shopping purposes, and I walk a lot, but I haven’t pushed my physical limits in years. I was stagnating.

Half way through December last year I was idly speculating about how little time there is to socialise with a particular friend, when my husband joked that I’d have to take up running to spend more time with her. And there it was. A pregnant pause. An indefinable moment during which I failed to brandish the N word. I actually thought about it.

The next day I pulled on my ancient sneakers and headed off around the block twice. Now, it’s a largeish block. Twice around it amounted to around 2.5km. The day after I did it again. And for the next week I could barely walk, and I disturbed my workmates for days with small yelps every time I stood up or sat down. I stubbornly continued to use the stairs at work, but I couldn’t help moaning all the way up and all the way down. I suspect the rest of the staff thought there was a particularly heavy footed ghost haunting our new building.

Yet once my quads could flex without screams of agony, I did it again. This time I went slower and was careful to stretch. I also ran on grass in an attempt to lower the impact on my poor feeble body. And I did it again. And again. And again. I used an app on my phone, RunKeeper, that told me exactly how far and how fast I had gone. Like a super-enthusiastic best friend it told me about personal bests almost every run. Indeed, the first time I ran it beeped enthusiastically about how many personal bests I had just achieved – never mind that they were, in fact, personal firsts.  Nonetheless for a geek like me the numbers were cheering – even the time the gps glitched and had me running out in the middle of Port Phillip Bay with a speed of around 52kph.

I was completely hooked on the blissed out endorphin rush I got when I stopped (yes, just like beating your head against the wall. Stopping is FABULOUS.). I was amazed at how fast I was improving. The first time I ran I did more walking than running. Within a week I was running for 25 minutes non-stop. For those of you who are regular runners that may not seem impressive, but to a committed non-runner like me it was a revelation.

I am fitter, stronger and have vastly improved stamina already. Much of that improvement may be psychological, but that’s not to be sniffed at. The mind is often harder to change than the body. Anything that makes me feel better and stronger is priceless. But here’s the thing: even though my kids don’t run with me, they seem to be getting fitter too. Perhaps because we are walking more and driving less. Perhaps it’s because they are running around more with me, and I am less likely to collapse into a chair and tell them to leave me alone. Perhaps it’s simply that being active is contagious. But this was a benefit I did not expect – that my own fitness level would directly impact on my kids.

With all the noise about the obesity crisis, I have heard all kinds of strange theories about combating it.

Ban junk food advertising.

Change the food in school canteens.

Add more exercise into the school curriculum.

Print their weight on their school report.

But nowhere have I ever seen the advice: Encourage their parents to be more active. Yet we are their role models, their inspirations, and the foundation of their lifestyles. We set the pace, the duration and the format of their lives to a huge degree. How can we expect them to be healthy and active if we drive them everywhere and spend our home lives slumped in front of facebook or the tv?

It can be hard to motivate ourselves to get fit. It’s probably one of the most broken New Year’s Resolutions of all. What if we knew it was crucial to our kids?

Running is my own private bliss. I zone out, becoming meditative and calm, and incredibly mindful, as I focus on just making it to the next milestone. It has had an incredibly positive impact on my life. And it helps my kids, both directly through their own fitness, and indirectly through their happier, less stressed out Mum.

I think I won the race.