Book Launch – Severed Past by Anthony R Jansen

This is the text of the speech I gave to launch my dear friend Tony’s new book, Severed Past.

Tony and I did our PhDs together. Writing up a PhD is a long and rather torturous process – a bit like writing a book. The kind of thing no sane person would do twice.

During the write up phase a lot of people plan an escape route – generally something dramatic, like going off to be a pole dancer. Now, no-one wants to see Tony pole dancing, so our escape route was selling muffins. At the time I often made a particularly tasty butterscotch apple muffin of my own devising. Tony suggested we call them “Muffled Apples” and go into business selling them. My contribution was to make and sell the muffins. Tony’s, as far as I could tell, was to come up with the name and then sit back and rake in the profits.

Once I finished my PhD I wandered into a real job and forgot all about our escape plan, until Tony called me one day and said he had a favour to ask. To my astonishment he confessed that he had written a book, and he’d like me to read it and give him some feedback.

To say I was startled would be an understatement. Here was this close friend, who I had known for years and thought I knew pretty well, suddenly revealing a side I never knew existed.

Of course I said yes (having proof read his thesis, I figured this couldn’t be any worse), but I was worried. Tony’s a good friend. How was I going to read this novel and make polite noises enough to be useful, but not risk our friendship?

Worse still, he told me it was a thriller. I used to read a lot of thrillers, but I’ve gone off them in recent years, finding them all a bit samey, and generally depressing. I took home a huge pile of A4 printer paper with dread in my heart.

The next day I was headed into the city for work, so I took the first 80 pages with me to read on the train. It seemed like overkill, but I live at the end of the line. I figured I would read a little, then do some work on the way in.

By the time the train hit Flinders Street I was sending frantic text messages to Tony, DESPERATE to know what happened on page 81. I couldn’t believe I’d been stupid enough not to bring the whole book.

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I should have known better than to doubt Tony. When Tony sets out to do something you know he will research it carefully and methodically. He is thorough to the point of OCD. When I helped him move house once I was surprised and a little alarmed to discover he still had every one of the little plastic sleeves that his cutlery came in when he bought it. He was moving in with Karen, who is now his wife, and when I discovered that she, too, had all of the little plastic sleeves I really started to worry. Now they have children.

The trouble is you can’t write a book by being careful, thorough and methodical. Well, maybe a dictionary, but certainly not a novel. To write a thriller I think you need a certain crazy fire.

I can vouch for the crazy. And the fire is in this book. It’s an absolute ripper, from start to finish. I’m so proud to be able to say “I know the author, he’s a friend of mine, and I proof read this book!”

For proof, you can read the prologue here – judge for yourself!

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Feeling the burn

Like many of my left-leaning compatriots, I have spent the weeks following our federal election alternately despairing and angry, while “our” government dismantles anything to do with climate change and renewable energy, signals its utter contempt for women (they just don’t have much merit, apparently), and sets about making it illegal to publicly support boycotting companies who do environmental or social damage (a move even Chris Berg of the IPA  seems to feel is going too far).

Climate change scares me. Not, as the likes of Andrew Bolt would have it, because I am a crazy alarmist, but because there is an utterly unprecedented degree of scientific consensus saying that we need to act, and act now. That the world is very close to environmental catastrophe. That it may already be too late to avert the worst of it, but that we are making things worse with every day we deny the need to change. Scientists. Climate Scientists. The Scientists whose job it is to study these things.

Sadly Tony Abbott doesn’t feel we need science. What Tony Abbott feels we need is big business making obscene profits at any cost. That’s what’s important. David Suzuki, on QandA on Monday night, said “We now have governments who seem to believe that the corporate agenda is the job of government.” As I watched him debate the audience, I alternated between cheering him on and despairing at some of the questions posed. Not to mention the comments on twitter.

I feel helpless. I can’t influence the government – I lack the billions of dollars required for that. I can’t change the world. I try to live as sustainably as I can, but ultimately what difference does one person – even one family – make?

But then at the end of the program, Dr Suzuki said something striking. He talked about the old slogan “think global, act local” and pointed out that as soon as you think global you are paralysed with horror, and you feel unutterably helpless. He said we need to think locally and act locally. That maybe we can’t influence governments, but we can influence the people around us. We can organise on a local level, and when we do these things successfully, they spread.

I am already trying to organise on a local level – I have a facebook group dedicated to sharing home grown produce (the Monash Area Shared Home grown Produce network, look it up if you are local!) such as fruit, herbs and veggies when they’re in season. It has a small but dedicated band of members, and I have hopes that it will take off. We can do more, like planting fruit trees on our nature strips, and lobbying the council to do the same, rather than planting merely decorative trees.

We are involved with a group organising a veggie garden for our school. We cycle everywhere we can, and encourage others to do the same. There is evidence that your network of friends influences everything from your behaviour to your weight, so perhaps just seeing us out and about with our various bikes is helping to change our corner of the world, just a little bit – just as seeing other people out on their bikes has influenced us.

I am planning to work really hard on my veggie garden this year, and share ideas, techniques and produce with the local network and other friends. I’m going to try to buy seasonal produce grown locally wherever possible, rather than grapes from the US in winter. I am going to stick with my “old” mobile phone when my contract falls due (sorry, telcos, no churn for me!), and put off buying new appliances until the old ones are quite, quite dead. I’m going to drive even less, ride and walk even more, and talk more about it.

Recently I had a birthday and several friends gave me plants, most of them edible. It might be that I have collected like-minded friends around me, but I think it’s also that they know me and know what I like. One friend said she thought about buying me flowers but decided on strawberry plants instead. They make me smile every time I see them, and soon they will be flowering, I hope, and making me salivate too.

Maybe I can’t change the whole world. But I have hopes that I can at least improve my small corner of it. And maybe, just maybe, we will build a future for our children.

The truth shall make ye fret

We live in a very economical world. We don’t lie, these days. We are economical with the truth. We don’t break promises – some of them were “non-core”. And Qantas didn’t have a near miss with two of its aircraft recently. It had a “loss of separation”.

As a teacher, I know that if I lie to my students, try to pretend I know something I don’t, or bluff my way though, I lose their respect. I teach Computer Science, and I have 26 kids in my class – every one of them interested in a different aspect of the subject, in a different programming language, or using packages I have never seen before. It’s not like it used to be when I was an academic when I taught a prescribed curriculum and didn’t deviate from it. In this class my students are going off like firecrackers in every different direction. In my first year I quickly discovered that I could not possibly keep up with all of them. The best I could hope for was catching up occasionally when they needed a hand.

So when they ask me curly questions, right from the start I would say “I’ve no idea. I haven’t used <whatever arcane language or piece of software they were playing with>. But try looking here and here. If that doesn’t work, give me a day or two and I’ll find out.”

At first I was a bit nervous about this approach. Here I was, regularly confessing to a huge amount of ignorance. How would I earn their respect? But gradually I realised that something strange was happening… the more I confessed to not knowing stuff (but at the same time taking an interest and working alongside them to solve the problem), the more I seemed to actually gain their respect.

I’m pretty confident that if I had tried to bluff my way through instead, they’d have seen through me immediately, and written me off then and there.

Early on in my lecturing career I got asked a question that I didn’t know the answer to. Young, naive, under-prepared and insecure, I bluffed the answer – to the obvious scorn of the questioner, who had been giving me a hard time all along. Then I went home and checked and found that I was completely wrong. So I went in to the lecture the next day and confessed. Told the class the right answer and then expected to crawl under my rock and cuddle my humiliation like an old and malodorous soft toy. To my utter astonishment, the student who asked the question came up and thanked me for the correction, and treated me with a lot more respect from then on.

If you search for tenderness
It isn’t hard to find.
You can have the love you need to live.
But if you look for truthfulness
You might just as well be blind.
It always seems to be so hard to give.

Honesty is such a lonely word.
Everyone is so untrue.
Honesty is hardly ever heard.
And mostly what I need from you.

Billy Joel, Honesty.

Honesty and respect have a very close relationship. If you are known to be direct and scrupulously honest, people know they can trust you. It’s possible that I take it a little too far, feeling uneasy even about talking about the tooth fairy with my kids. I don’t want to ruin their fun, but I don’t like lying to them, either.

Unfortunately our public figures – politicians, CEOs, businesses and journalists, just to name a few – seem to believe that the truth is a dangerous beast to be kept caged and thoroughly hidden at all times. Don’t tell the public what you are going to do, or what really happened. Tell them what you want them to think, or what you think will make them vote for you/buy your product/support your cause. Nothing else matters. And we let them get away with it. We accept it as inevitable that they will lie to us. Unless they are female, of course. Then they are lying witches, but that’s another post.

We seem utterly unable to hold our leaders to account. To say to them, loudly and clearly, WE DEMAND TRUTH. We demand integrity. Any time anyone even tries, the answers weasel around, prevaricate, and dress things up in obscure language.

It seems that honesty and politics have suffered a near terminal increase in separation.

RUOK?

Human beings are remarkably resilient creatures. We crash down, but we also bounce back. Sometimes we are easily overwhelmed, but often it doesn’t take much to rewhelm us (I know that’s not a word, but it should be, ok?!).

Last night I was feeling massively overwhelmed. I have a crazy hectic week at work, something on every night after work (and a work commitment on my one day off). Lots of people want “just one little thing” from me, to the extent that I feel I have farmed out so many pieces of myself that there are none left physically attached. When I am tired I am about as emotionally stable as a house of cards in a hurricane, so it doesn’t take much to bring me down. I was quite convinced that one more demand would tip me right over the edge.

And then I got an email from an enthusiastic student who is doing great work in one of my subjects. He was just talking about the work he and his group were doing, and asking a few pertinent questions, but it gave me a real boost. The project is one I am excited about, and proud to be involved with. This student’s enthusiasm picked me right back up and set me on my feet again.

It was a small thing, but sometimes that’s all you need.

Sometimes there are days when the pick me up never comes, but the blows seem to accumulate. Sometimes we convince ourselves that we are alone in the world, that no-one else has ever felt this way, and that things could not possibly get better.

Sometimes everything is wrong
Now it’s time to sing along
When your day is night alone (Hold on, hold on)
If you feel like letting go (Hold on)
If you think you’ve had too much
Of this life, well hang on

Everybody hurts
Take comfort in your friends
Everybody hurts
Don’t throw your hand, oh no

Everybody hurts, REM.

You can usually see it when someone is having one of those days. It shows up in the set of their shoulders. In their tone of voice. In the unconvincing way they say “fine, thanks” when you ask how they are. Sometimes all it takes is a light “that’s not very convincing!” and genuinely listening to their response. It’s embarrassing, for some even humiliating, to cry in public, and there are days when even honest answers to sincere questions can seem out of our reach. Sometimes reaching out for help is just too hard. So we pretend everything is fine while drowning in our private misery, and feel utterly alone in the middle of a crowd of people who would support us if only they knew.

So take the time today to make eye contact with someone. To smile, ask how they are, and take interest in their response. Sympathise with someone who’s going through a tough time. Maybe even ask if someone nearby needs a hug (there’s nothing better than touch therapy).

It might just change a life.

Why I volunteer

Today my husband and I spent around 6 hours and 45 minutes volunteering. Partly campaigning for The Australian Greens in the Federal Election, and partly fund raising for our kids’ school with the obligatory election day sausage sizzle. Why would we do that? What on earth is in it for us?

Partly, I must admit, I am a soft touch. Wherever there are people gathered together trying to achieve something laudable, you can be sure that I will get roped in. Even when I am maxed out and in over my head, I have terrible trouble with the N-word. And yet… and yet… that’s not what kept me on the committee of our community run childcare centre for the entire 8 years my kids were there.

It’s not what made me help out with reading in my daughters’ classrooms, when reading was not something my own girls ever needed help with. It’s not what makes me hand out how to vote cards at every election, nor what often sees either me or my husband cooking sausages at the school sausage sizzle on the same day. Or help out with cleaning, selling chocolates and more sausage sizzling for the gymnastics club. Or any of the other things we find ourselves lavishing time on.

The thing is that volunteering, while hard and sometimes even traumatic work, has added a dimension to my life that can’t be found elsewhere. It brings me into constant contact with like-minded people, some of whom have become lifelong friends. It gives me immense satisfaction, as I put my time and effort where my mouth is, and contribute something worthwhile to my community.

Take the childcare committee, for example. We chose a community run child care centre on ethical grounds – like health and education, we don’t believe childcare should be a money making enterprise. It is a public good. Community run childcare centres put any profits back into the centre. They are able to have higher staffing ratios, lower fees, and better services (like cooked meals). They also seem, on average, to be nicer places to be, with happier staff who are devoted to the centre and the children.

The price, of course, of a community run childcare centre is that it requires the community to pitch in and run it. Sometimes this means little more than one evening a month of a friendly committee meeting. Sometimes it means hours and hours of hard work and stress. Sometimes finding enough parents to fill the committee was hard. Other years, for some reason, we were full to overflowing. But for the most part the parents who volunteered were well worth knowing. They were compassionate, dedicated and honourable. I have immense respect for them, and feel enriched for knowing them. Two years after leaving that centre, and hence the committee, I remain grateful to them for their dedication, their friendship and their support.

As a result of being on that committee I got to know the staff much better, and developed an in-depth understanding of the childcare industry. I gained management experience and learnt things about financial management I never expected to know. I can tell you all about incorporated associations and the model rules that govern them. Together with others I rewrote the constitution and now know more than I ever wanted to about childcare regulations in Victoria. I met politicians and navigated the murky waters of conflict resolution. It was an astonishing education.

The first time I handed out How to Vote cards for The Greens was also a learning experience. I found that there was a sense of solidarity amongst the volunteers that crossed party lines. In between waving our bits of paper at innocent voters we laughed and joked and even talked politics, with a surprising lack of animosity. I met interesting people, and scared my neighbours (who may have been afraid that the Green was contagious). And without consciously trying to teach them, I showed my kids what it means to stand up and speak out for your beliefs.

Being a compulsive volunteer has changed my life. I am part of my community in a way I never was before. I have learned things I never thought to know. And I have met people I will never forget. I have given a lot of myself, over the years, but I have received much, much more.

So next time you are looking for a hobby, or just something to fill in a weekend, think about volunteering. Join the school council. Volunteer on the kinder or childcare committee. Fund raise for something you care about. Volunteer for a charity or an ethical organisation with values similar to your own. You never know what you might gain.