Letter to my teenage self

At 44 I’m still a work in progress. I had a pretty rough time socially, as a teen, although once I got to uni things improved dramatically. But there’s some stuff that took me so long to work out, it’s just embarrassing. Some of it I know intellectually but really struggle to apply, other bits I am still coming to grips with. So in writing to the teenage me, I’m also reminding a 44 year old who really needs to learn to stand up for herself. Maybe one day she’ll listen. This is a list of the stuff I wish someone had told me when I was a teenager. Or indeed anytime in the last 44 years.

  1. Being different, thinking differently, and acting differently are the things that are singling you out and getting you teased as a teen. But these same traits are huge advantages once you grow up. If you can think clearly about it (which I know is a challenge through the fog of shame, guilt, and anger that teasing makes of your brain), all those people who happily follow the herd aren’t going anywhere new or interesting. People who think so far outside the square that they don’t even know where the square is – those people will change the world. Outside the normal is where you find opportunities, new perspectives, and solutions. It’s where you want to be. It gets better here.
  2. Your own judgement of your actions is what matters. Don’t let anyone else dictate to you how you judge your own behaviour. Ask yourself whether you did what you believed was right, and treated people the way you would like to be treated. If you didn’t, then do your best to make amends. But if you did, then you have the right to defend yourself. Which brings me to point 3:
  3. Defending yourself assertively is not an act of aggression. There is a difference between calmly stating facts, and attacking someone else. Learn to defend yourself and make the truth clear. Sometimes this means taking a deep breath and thinking calmly about the situation before speaking. That’s ok. No-one has a stopwatch out, and one deep breath can completely change the outcome. Sitting quietly and allowing yourself to be slandered in the name of “not causing a fight” will not end well for you or for anyone else. Learning to speak out before you either explode or give up (or both) will make your life immeasurably happier and more successful in the long run. Even if it hurts like hell in the short term.
  4. Sort out your own behaviour. Don’t waste time judging other people’s actions, or wishing they treated you differently. You can’t change someone else, but you can certainly change yourself and how you respond to them. Look at how you handle situations, and consider how you could do better next time. There’s nothing more potent than learning from your mistakes. Fortunately there will be plenty of learning material in your life! Also, a little compassion goes a long way. Remember that you never know what’s going on in someone else’s life, so cut the people around you some slack.
  5. Admit it when you don’t know stuff, and value the stuff you do know. Trying to bluff your way through not knowing something only ends in embarrassment at best, disaster at worst. But when you do know stuff, be confident and stand up for yourself and your skills. They have worth. You have worth.
  6. Speaking of worth, it lies in what you do, what you know, and how you treat people. Never in how you look, what shape you are, or whether you shave your legs. Never. Wear what feels good and makes you happy, and damn the torpedoes.

I think that’s enough. If you can live by all of that, then things will mostly work out. But don’t forget that you’re not perfect, and also that there will be rough patches you can’t control. You are loved. Don’t forget to allow yourself to lean on that love. It will save your life.


Smokehouse Farewells

“Changing was necessary. Change was right. Masklin was all in favour of change. What he was dead against was things not staying the same.” Terry Pratchett, in Diggers.

January 25th is coming, and it’s coming way too fast. If I had the money and the time to spend every single night going out to dinner, I would spend the whole of January at The Smokehouse Sorrento, before it closes its doors for good in less than a month.

Run by delightful people David Stringer and Elizabeth Blane, The Smokehouse is our favourite restaurant in all the world. We found it when I was heavily pregnant with my daughter, who is nearly 9, and we basically stopped going anywhere else in Sorrento from that night onward. The food is just glorious, which is a useful quality in a restaurant, but it’s not just about the food.

It’s about walking in the door to be greeted like long lost friends, even the first time you go there. It’s about every allergy and intolerance being catered for not simply ungrudgingly (which is often the best you can hope for elsewhere), but with a wholehearted determination to make your meal not merely safe but actually delicious. They seem to have this fundamental belief that everyone deserves not merely to eat, but have a really awesome meal.

If you have coeliac disease you tend to resign yourself to simply keeping fed, and sometimes even that is too hard. (On a recent trip to the US, when asked if the chicken in a salad as gluten free I got sneered at –  the friends I was with were outraged on my behalf, but I barely noticed. I was used to it.)

At the Smokehouse, though, you have choices. The pasta dishes can be done gluten free. The gf pizzas are just amazing. Nearly all of the mains are gluten free, or can be done that way. And it turns out that nearly all the desserts have gluten free versions which are indistinguishable from the real thing.

Years ago one of the desserts on the menu was a chocolate mousse cake that was on a pastry base and therefore not gluten free. Every time I made a booking David would carefully set aside a portion of the mousse for me while making the cake, so that there was a gluten free mousse waiting for me. It got to the point that I didn’t even have to ask. When I once decided not to have mousse because I couldn’t manage a whole serve, David provided me with a tiny serve of mousse, complete with cream and a mint leaf, to make sure I didn’t miss out.

There are little things, too, like conferring seriously with the kids over which colouring sheet they would prefer. Like remembering my food allergies and pointing out which of the specials is safe for me. Like happily altering any dish to make it safe. Like making spiders and milkshakes that kids and adults alike find irresistible. Like a house-made hot chocolate blend that is just incredible, that I rarely order because I am too full of mousse to manage anything else for days.

Sometimes taking kids to a restaurant is a sore trial both for them and their parents, but for the last 9 years our kids have clamored to go the Smokehouse, and we get into severe trouble if we try to leave them behind and have a night there on our own. Our whole family is going to be devastated when there is no more Smokehouse to visit.

Going to the Smokehouse is like visiting beloved friends. Friends with an amazing winelist and extraordinary talents in the kitchen.

So whether you’ve never been before, or know it well, go to The Smokehouse Sorrento before January 25th and enjoy the best restaurant experience of all time. And cry with me on January 25th when we say goodbye.

Soft stalkers

Some months ago Facebook started wishing me Good morning and hoping I had a great day. Yesterday it wished me a Merry Christmas, and today it wished me a very Happy and relaxing Boxing day and later on a Good Afternoon.

When I upgraded to iOS9.2 my ipad started telling me how long it would take me to get home if I left right now, perhaps anticipating that I might need to make a hasty get away.

Facebook has also taken to reminding me of memories from years gone by, in addition to its ever so creepy habit of suggesting people I might know. It is no longer content to simply notify me of friends’ birthdays – now it urges me to help them celebrate, prompts me to make them feel loved, and even gives me a button I can press to automagically send them a Happy Birthday greeting, because nothing says I love you quite like the ability to tap the screen once on Facebook’s orders.

It’s starting to feel as though Facebook thinks I can’t be trusted to maintain my friendships properly, so it is trying to take me by the touchscreen and lead me through life, tapping, clicking, and poking as optimally determined to maximise its profits… Sorry, I mean keep my friendships crispy and fresh.

There doesn’t seem to be any way to stop it. I don’t really want Facebook to wish me a good morning or send messages to friends on my behalf. Imperfect though my interpersonal relationship management may be, I would prefer it to be authentic rather than software directed. I mean, at this rate I might as well program my phone to go out to dinner with my friends’ phones while we all stay home and catch up on our sleep.

The funny thing is that I have a half-written post lying about that enthuses about how valuable I have reluctantly found Facebook to be. I love the way I see little snippets of my friends’ lives slip by, and they see bits of mine. It’s a bit like passing each other in the corridor. We might not always have time to stop for coffee, but we are, for the most part, keeping up with the essentials. That, of course, is probably only true for those like me who overshare on Facebook. Those who don’t post, or who only ever post the highlights are most likely wiser, but not taking part in the same level of contact.

It’s not real life. It in no way replaces the need for actual face to face contact. But it does keep me in touch with people I would otherwise rarely see, especially friends overseas and in other states. I thought long and hard about leaving Facebook a couple of years ago and eventually decided that it was now too embedded in my life, and that its overall impact was quite positive.

As a young and naive postgrad student, I was fascinated by a talk from Professor Frank Fisher, in which he expressed his disgust and discomfort at the automatic “Happy Birthday” messages that came on our Monash payroll slips (yes, I am old enough to have received paper payroll slips. Quite a lot of them. In fact my first pay packets were actual pay packets – envelopes full of cash. Which these days would signify something a lot less legit than a sales assistant job at Myer!).

Frank felt that there was something grossly wrong with software wishing him a Happy Birthday. It was too long ago for me to remember his precise arguments, so I may be misrepresenting him somewhat, but the argument that stuck in my head was that software pretending to exhibit human behaviour somehow devalued that behaviour, and it has taken Facebook making chatty comments to me every day to really bring home what he meant.

The comments bug me. I want to push them away with a sharp stick. They get in the way of my real human interactions by filling my feed with something that has all the nutritional content of a cardboard potato chip – and is just as satisfying. Despite what social media detractors might say, online interactions can be real and human. They aren’t always. But they can be. And if you curate your friends list and your news feed carefully, it is possible to make social media a positive and useful feature of your life.

But I don’t want to have a relationship with Facebook’s system software. I’m kind of glad my husband isn’t on Facebook, because otherwise I worry it would start meddling in our relationship, and sending me flowers from him if it felt our marriage needed a bit of a wash and brush up. (At that point, of course, the jig would be up, because my husband does not do that sort of thing.)

I don’t want Facebook to manage my friendships for me, and nor do I want it to aspire to a weird facsimile of friendship itself. I’d much prefer it kept its cheery greetings for its little software friends, and instead occupied its time data mining my information for ways to sell me stuff, as expected. I know I’m not the customer, I’m the product Facebook is selling. I’d prefer it didn’t pretend to love me while it does so. My friends and loved ones, for the most part, don’t sell me, and I’d like to keep it that way.



The end of the year, the emptiness of the tank

I don’t even know how to begin to describe this year. I feel that way at the end of every year, but this year has been more momentous than most.

I had year 10 students who couldn’t code at the start of the year, who came to me after the end of the year to say “I didn’t think I could do that! It was awesome!”

I had other year 10s who chose our “real world challenge” and worked with academics from the Monash Department of Physiology to create simulations of muscle activation, multiple sclerosis, and brownian motion and cell diffusion, just to name a few. They did extraordinary things, completely vindicating the leap of faith we took in offering the project.

I had year 11s who worked with Earthwatch and their Climatewatch program to create programs to verify, analyse, and visualise their data. I had other year 11s who worked with Neuroscientists to analyse and visualise some of their data.

Some of these real projects will receive a bit of polish and go on to be used by our partner organisations. Imagine doing a project in year 11 that gets used for actual scientific research!

I took 4 amazing year 10 students to SC15, a huge supercomputing conference in Austin, Texas. We met researchers and business people. Listened to talks. Recorded masses of footage of people talking about their amazing projects, and ended the week equal parts exhausted and exhilarated.

I had 5 students create the most awesome sensoring project, that won first prize in the senior category at the Victorian Young ICT Explorers competition, and went to the inaugural National Finals.

I designed and ran the Science Communication Challenge at the International Student Science Fair, held at my school in December. The communication challenge was a new event, unlike anything that had been run before, and the students did amazing things with it.

I’ve farewelled too many much loved and incredibly talented colleagues, applauded the graduation of some extraordinary year 12s, made friends, made contacts, started writing a textbook, started building a network of people interested in high school computer science curricula, taught, marked, written reports, and completely collapsed.

And that’s just work. And just the big stuff at work, come to that.

We don’t often do this – put our achievements and efforts down in a big list, but seeing it all lined up like that makes me realise it’s actually been a huge year.

Some days it all got a bit scary, a bit daunting, or oppressively overwhelming. And every time it did there’d be someone there pitching in, supporting me, and making it all possible. Former students. Current students. Workmates. Former workmates. Friends. Family. All of the above. Really, it’s my support networks that make everything I do possible.

Every time I stumbled, somebody was there to pick me up. Every time I felt like I couldn’t go on, somebody made it possible. At home. At work. Online. You know who you are, and wordy though I am, I can’t even begin to tell you properly how grateful I am. You’re all amazing, and knowing you’re around me means I can do it all again. Thank you.