It’s not me, it’s you

We tend to think it’s easy to spot a bully, because bullies are big, evil-looking people who loom over you, shout at you, and flush your lunch down the toilet.

But sometimes, in the real world, bullies are softly spoken, reasonable sounding people who “really are only telling you this for your own good”. When someone takes you aside privately to offer you feedback, is it because they are offering you an opportunity to improve without publicly pointing out your faults, or is it because any discerning, impartial audience would instantly detect their words as the poisonously corrosive barbs they are, in fact, intended to be?

Sometimes bullies even feel like friends, at first. Right up until you become a little too outspoken, a little too successful, or the bully just has a bad day.

So that’s the conundrum: How is it possible to learn to differentiate between genuine constructive feedback, and criticism that is both false and malicious? That is, in fact, bullying?

I wish I had the answer to this one. The one, definitive answer that makes all the pain, all the self doubt go away once and for all. (Although, of course, with no self doubt at all we’d be ravening, arrogant, destructive monsters. A little balance would be a fine thing.)

Sadly I don’t think there is one definitive answer. I think that those of us who care about trying to be the best we can be are always going to be easy targets for the kind of people who want to defuse us by persuading us we’re not good enough.

But maybe there are tricks we can use to fight back. Not by bullying back – that’s a losing game from any perspective – but by choosing who we listen to rather more wisely. We all have people in our corner. But it’s easy to discount it when they tell you that you’re awesome. We can be too quick to say “She’s just being nice.” or “He doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.”

It’s easy to dismiss your supporters as being biased, while somehow accepting your bully as perfectly accurate. But here’s an important question: Who do you trust? If your bully and your best friend were each telling you the safest path to walk to get through a minefield, who would you believe?

Ultimately, that’s exactly what they are doing. Life can be a real minefield. And sometimes you need someone to guide your steps. Who do you trust to do that? Because those are the people we should be listening to. Not the bullies, the doubters, and the people who would feel much more comfortable in themselves if we were a little less successful. A little less irritatingly good at what we do. A little less of a threat to their self-esteem.

Here’s another way to look at it: How would it make your friend feel, to know that you don’t believe him? How will your bestie react if you tell her you think she’s lying to you? Ahah! Got you by the short and curlies now, haven’t I? What you won’t do for your own good, you will do for someone else’s sake. It’s a fair point though. Those people who are truly in your corner need you to be in theirs, too. Trust goes both ways.

So next time the turkeys are getting you down, ask yourself this: where does your faith belong? In the hands of those who would take you down, or in the arms of those who want to help you rebuild? Who do you really trust? And what would you tell them if the tables were turned?

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The day the front fell off

I can’t bear the idea that John Clarke is gone. Goodness knows there is plenty in the world to be disturbed by, and I have been closing my eyes and breathing deeply and, I admit it, turning my face away from the news. But this – this death of a 68 year old I never met – this is what broke me.

John Clarke and Bryan Dawe had a way of taking our lives, our politics, our society, and lampooning them – with straight faces and the driest of wit – so that even the most rabid fan of a policy or faction could see its absurdity, its unfairness, or its incompetence.

I will never forget the hundred metre track from The Games. When we don’t want to answer a question around here, we always say “Not that I recall,” “not to my knowledge,”, or “can I have a glass of water?” They’ve made me laugh until I couldn’t breathe more times than I can possibly recount.

When world events were more horrendous than I could bear, Clarke and Dawe always gave me hope, because not only did they get it,  they could communicate it so clearly, so eloquently, and so incredibly wittily, that it seemed that it had to be obvious now, even to politicians.

Death and I are old foes. He has come too close too often. I have railed against him through long and desolate nights. I have been shattered by him unexpectedly, and I have seen him coming and been unable to dodge him. He has taken people close to my heart, and who knew me inside out. John Clarke didn’t even know I existed, but his death comes surprisingly close, because he meant more to me than I even realised until this moment.

Isn’t that the cruel irony of death? That sometimes in losing someone you suddenly know how much they meant – too late to let them know. I wish I had emailed, or tweeted, or written to him somehow. I suspect I’m not alone in knowing now, in this moment, sharply and painfully, how priceless he was, and how grievous a loss this is to our public life, and our understanding of the world.

John Clarke made the world a happier, more bearable, more intelligible place. He helped us understand it. He made us laugh. He made us think. He made us better.

Who could ask anyone for more?

 

 

 

When life hits back

On Friday morning I was excited to be heading to Geelong for a workshop on Diversity in Computing, as part of the Australasian Computing in Education Conference. I have dear friends in the Computing Education Research field, so stealing away from work to brainstorm how to increase awareness of, and interest in, Computer Science was great in itself – especially because I had huge respect for the stars running the workshop – but I was also going to catch up with friends. I was all set for a great day.

I’m not a fan of driving, for the most part. It’s a necessary evil, it seems to me, but since we got a hybrid driving has been much more fun, so I wasn’t even worried about the relatively tedious drive down the Geelong road. But as I cruised over the Westgate, having left early to make sure I beat the peak hour traffic, I suddenly realised that this was my first trip to Geelong since the day my Dad died, over four years ago.

God knows my dad and I had a complex relationship. By the time he died I would go so far as to say it was quite dysfunctional. His death was mingled relief and pain: relief that he was no longer suffering (his long deterioration from cancer had already been traumatic for years), pain that so much went unsaid. The day he died was pure shock.

My sister and I picked Mum up from Ocean Grove, where they had been when he died. He had gone for a walk and died in the street. Mum, who doesn’t drive, was stranded. So we gathered ourselves together, faced the practicalities, and raced towards her, where she sat comforted by a generous and kindly neighbour. I remember Tina Arena, Songs of Love and Loss, coincidentally on the car stereo as we drove down. I remember stopping for coffee at a really odd little drive-through coffee booth near Geelong station. I had chai tea, thinking I had had enough caffeine that day. I remember tears. Worries about the future, especially Mum’s future, and shock. So much shock. I don’t really remember much about arriving at Ocean Grove. I’m pretty sure we didn’t stay long, although I had packed an overnight bag just in case. In truth “packed” suggests a level of thought and planning that wasn’t possible. I had thrown some things into a bag that may or may not have been adequate.

I haven’t been to Ocean Grove since that day. I haven’t even been through Geelong. And even though much has changed – Geelong seems to have grown up somewhat, it is shinier, and more glamorous than I remembered – being there was a shock that I was completely unprepared for.

The morning was fine. I was catching up with friends, talking about work, brainstorming projects. A dear friend who, it turns out, believes in revenge gifting, gave me two very fine bottles of wine to take home with me. I was planning lunch with other friends, before a really great workshop.

But after lunch I felt ill. I thought maybe I had been glutened, but it was different somehow. I went to the workshop and halfway through felt an unbearable urge to burst into tears. For a moment there I was lost. I messaged a friend, scraped myself together, and it was ok.

But it was weird. I haven’t cried for my dad in years. In many ways the trauma of his passing was eclipsed by the trauma of the year before his death, which was truly horrendous. I cried for him. I miss him. But in many ways I miss the father I wished he could have been, rather than the father he actually was.

After the workshop I dropped two friends at the station, and in the middle of light and happy conversation we drove past that coffee place. By this time I was wise to what my confused brain was doing to me, so I was ok. But it was still a shock.

I was in the present, but I was unexpectedly back in that dreadful day at the same time. It’s probably just as well my car didn’t choose to play me any Tina Arena on the way home, or I’d likely have had to pull over and cry. I’m crying now.

Grief has a way of leaping out at you at unexpected moments. I try to be kind to myself when it happens, but the middle of a workshop isn’t really the right time. Sometimes it’s necessary to suck it up, and then write about it the next day with a divine glass of wine, as a form of therapy.

These are scary times. The scariest I can remember. But life goes on. And sometimes it gives you an unexpected beating. But there are workshops, passionate and dedicated people, and good friends with divine wine. There are people to hold you when you fall, and people who will come looking for you if you fall silent. There is hope all around, even when grief seems to be taking you down.

Some days life pushes us over, but we always have the option of pushing back. Push back. Hug your friends. And be kind to yourselves.

 

***this has been posted unedited, not even proof read, as a stream of consciousness grief reaction. It is as real as it can be. I hope it speaks to you. It helped me. You helped me, by being along for the ride.

Every single valedictory

Monday marks my sixth valedictory dinner. The sixth class of year twelves who will take a piece of my heart with them as they fly free into their amazing futures.

For my first valedictory dinner as a High School teacher I sang in a choir of people who felt more like friends than students. I couldn’t wrap my head around saying goodbye to them, even as I dwelt on their extraordinary potential.

It was impossible to imagine feeling that way about another class. They taught me everything about becoming a teacher, a huge amount about being human, and quite a lot about computer science – PhD or no.

Yet every year a new class enmeshes itself in my heart – winning my admiration, my trust, and my affection. I know teachers are supposed to be dispassionate – calmly objective observers of studentkind – but I can’t operate that way. Each new class has a claim on my heart like no other.

I don’t teach year twelve classes, but my year elevens are profoundly special to me, and I love seeing them around the corridors once they move on into year twelve, and finding out what they are up to. I always get teary when they leave. With any luck next year I will see them around Facebook, or when they come back and visit, so that I don’t really have to say goodbye.

Last year’s year elevens taught and challenged me in a host of new ways. They took on extraordinary challenges and produced amazing results. From the ones who were outspoken and passionate during class discussions to the ones who sat quietly, and when pressed would add just one well chosen but deeply insightful comment that sealed the debate.

From the ones who had been programming for years and took on the craziest problems, to the ones meeting programming for the first time who came away with astounding skills. Not to mention the one who wasn’t actually in the class but aced it anyway.

From the shy ones to the ones who are still seeking me out to talk to me about their projects. From start to finish, pass to high distinction, these are my people.

We shared insights into the nature of intelligence, and the need for privacy. We solved problems and questioned orthodoxy. We evaluated some amazingly unusable websites, and learnt new approaches to user centered design. We tackled real problems in computational science with some very bizarre data sets. And we gave variables some truly inexplicable names.

We stretched and challenged each other, and we laughed quite a lot. We searched, sorted, and danced our way through Computer Science and out into a wider understanding of ourselves, computation, science, and the world.

In just a few short days they will be done with school, and face the relentless barrage of those daunting exams, but whatever the outcome each and every one of them is a searingly bright star in the firmament of the world. Each and every one of them will light up the world in their own unique way.

Some of them will no doubt go on into Computer Science, and some won’t. But if they learnt as much from me as I learnt from them, they’ll have a great foundation for whatever they choose to do.

 

 

How much health can you afford?

Australians tend to be rather contemptuous of the US health system. We brag about universal healthcare, and deride a system that only provides care to those who can afford it. But our universal healthcare is being steadily eroded, as people are pushed into private healthcare.

I have a minor heart condition. For the most part it’s not an issue, but it has escalated over the past week or so and I felt pretty ordinary this morning. I called the Nurse on Call advice line, described my history and my symptoms and she calmly told me that I needed to get myself to an Emergency department. Now. She said if I couldn’t get there within 45 minutes I should call an ambulance. She was quite forceful about it. Unnervingly so.

So I told my husband and we scuttled off to the nearest public hospital. Where I stood in a queue around 6 people deep and waited for 20 minutes before even telling anyone why I was there. They took my history, checked the oxygenation of my blood, and then told me to talk to the clerk and give my details, and then sit down and someone would come and get me to do an ECG.

So I did all that. And I sat. And I waited. And I looked at all the people who had been there before me, who weren’t being taken in. And I reminded myself that clearly the oxygenation of my blood must have been ok, or they’d have rushed, right? (Although they hadn’t actually told me what it was…)

So I sat.

And I waited.

After one and a half hours I asked them if they had any idea how long it would be. They said “hopefully not long, now that we’ve got some more staff on. But we don’t know how long it will be before you actually see a doctor.” They looked harassed.

So I sat.

And I waited.

Meanwhile I was getting dizzy, and nauseous, as well as very aware that my heart was doing funky things. My heart.

So I bailed. I called the two nearest private hospitals with emergency departments and asked about their queues. One had a queue of 2 (there’d been a “bit of a rush in the last half an hour” apparently). One had no queue at all. So we went there.

Two hours later I had been tested, treated, fed, and sent home. Not two hours of sitting in the waiting room. Two hours of active treatment, compassionate care, and several interactions with nurses and a doctor.

Had I not been able to afford the private hospital, I have no doubt I would still be waiting in that public hospital 8 hours later. Likely in a bed in the emergency ward by now, but maybe not even having seen a doctor.

I was lucky. I am fine. But that whole scenario could have ended very badly.

My bank account determined my level of care.

Apparently being financially secure means I am worth looking after.

No.

My bank account does not determine my intrinsic worth as a human being.

The quality of my healthcare should NEVER be determined by my ability to pay.

People are worthy of compassion. Quality healthcare. Timely healthcare. And dignity. All people. Bank account status just should never appear in this context. We already have an education system that allocates opportunity and resources based on wealth. And it is so many levels of wrong I can’t even begin to cover it. But we are now moving faster and faster towards a health system that does the same.

We have to stop. Now. Malcolm Turnbull with his millions is worth no more as a human being then a homeless woman without a penny to her name.

Money should not determine the worth of a human life. Not now. Not ever.

 

Stranger Danger Danger

“Mummy, why did you talk to that lady? She’s a stranger.”

The question nailed me to my chair. I had been idly chatting with a fellow passenger in an airport, and my daughter found it difficult to reconcile this with what she has been told (not by us!) – “Never talk to strangers!

I always talk to strangers. I smile at people. I strike up conversations. And I have made personal, professional, and profound connections this way. When I was 15 I started writing to a complete stranger in Germany, and we just spent a week visiting him and his family, absolutely enveloped in love.

Some of my best friends now are people I just started talking to at random. In fact, if you think about it, everyone is a stranger at first. When you first start school. When you start a new job. When you move into a new neighbourhood. If you followed the “don’t talk to strangers” rule, it would be an extraordinarily isolated and lonely life.

But this is what we are supposed to be teaching our kids. That strangers are dangerous. That you should never talk to strangers. That strangers are scary.

Although the official messages, such as those you find on kid safety websites, have mostly shifted to identifying troublesome behaviours (such as asking kids to keep a secret from their parents) rather than avoiding strangers, apparently my 9 year old still knows that you don’t talk to strangers.

And where has this led us? This has led us to lifts where we rigidly face the front and don’t make eye contact. This has led us to neighbours who remain strangers to each other forever. This has led us to a distressing, and indeed hugely damaging, lack of community.

“Make sure that you are the kind of person who is positively contributing to your neighbourhood. Smile at everyone. Don’t ever stand at the bus stop with a stranger and not say ‘looks like rain’ or ‘why is the bus late?'” Hugh Mackay, DumboFeather Podcast, July 2016.

It’s true: Strangers can be dangerous. So can family. So can friends. But we would never teach our kids – or ourselves – to avoid family and friends. We are social creatures who need community in a very visceral way. And by teaching our children to fear the world, to believe that anyone they don’t know is dangerous to them, we are harming them profoundly.

We should be nurturing our kids’ ability to form connections, and to build networks. These are the skills that will keep them safe and make them fulfilled and productive adults. These are the skills that can even save our world and enable people to work together to solve our greatest problems. Yet we are actively teaching kids to repress their instinctive urge to talk to people, on the tiny chance that those people turn out to be dangerous.

I married a man who was once a stranger (very strange indeed). Strangers are just people we haven’t met yet. Some of them will hurt us. Some of them will love us. Some of them will save our lives. By closing ourselves off to strangers – building walls, not making eye contact, and preventing ourselves from connecting – we are killing ourselves emotionally.

Talking to strangers can, indeed, be dangerous. But not half as dangerous as never letting them in.

 

The Heartbreak kid

Have you ever noticed how, when things get really bad, sometimes it’s not the blows that knock you down? Sometimes you get hit, and hit, and hit, and stay standing, right up until someone asks if you’re ok – and then BAM! You’re down for the count.

This morning I got a package from a dear friend in Queensland. I shared a pattern on Facebook ages ago for crocheted sandals made out of thongs, and she had made me some. It made me a little teary. I’m very lucky in my friends. I had a visit to Mum planned, so I resolved to hug the thought of those sandals to me, to remind me to smile.

I knew when I called Mum this morning that it was a bad day. She couldn’t hold a thought even for a moment. Meaning eluded her. She wasn’t sure who I was, or what was happening. Her conversation, usually fragmented, was in a lot more pieces than usual.

I think I’ve already lost you
I think you’re already gone
I think I’m finally scared now
You think I’m weak
I think you’re wrong

“If you’re gone” Matchbox Twenty

When we left her house Mum pointed at the possum box in the tree and asked me if I knew who had put it there. “It was my Dad,” she said proudly. “It was a long time ago but he must have been quite old when he did it.”

Her dad died twenty years before Mum and Dad moved into that house. I’m pretty sure he never installed a possum box in his life, and he certainly didn’t install that one. On the way to the cafe she pointed to a bench that she keeps telling me her Dad used to sit on, but this time she had an elaborate story about how he helped them move in and then sat on that bench. It’s as though she’s papering over the holes in her memory with stories that never happened.

We had lunch. I ordered something I thought she would like, because she couldn’t make sense of the menu. Chris and Bruce, the cafe owners, know what she has anyway. They treat her like royalty – which is nothing unusual, it’s the way they treat all their customers. She kept fretting about whether she had enough money to pay for lunch. I showed her some photos and she remembered some people but not others. She must have told me 15 times over a half hour period that she had a dog called Toby when she was little. I smiled, nodded, died a little inside, and kept it together.

Then, when I went to pay, Chris quietly told me that Mum has been coming in every Sunday for some weeks now, looking to buy a paper and some chocolate. Chris was so sweet about it, he said he just takes her next door, to the general store, and makes sure she’s ok, but he and Bruce wanted me to know. We talked for a bit about how Mum is deteriorating, but because she won’t see a doctor or let anyone into the house there’s nothing we can do. Bruce said “as long as she’s happy and not distressed.” But of course she is distressed quite a lot of the time. I think she only ventures out of the house when she’s in a positive frame of mind.

And then Bruce said “and as long as she’s not causing you girls distress” and it broke me. It absolutely broke me. I joked that that was a much longer conversation that would need something stronger than tea, but when I got back to the table I had tears rolling down my cheeks.

Where do I even start? How can I tell him about the hysterical phone calls demanding to know where Dad is? How can I tell him about the tears when she is looking for her parents? How can I tell him about the way my heart shatters when she doesn’t know me? Or about the times she gets angry over things I can’t understand? How can I explain how desperately we want to get her help? How helpless and alone we feel, unable to access any support services, because we can’t even get her assessed? (We really can’t. Believe me. We have exhausted every avenue. Don’t even go there.)

Things with Mum are so hard. Others only see a fraction of the story, but there are so many people who look out for her, and for us. There is so much kindness woven through our trauma. So many hands waiting to catch us each time we stumble. But here and now, today, I’m not sure I can keep doing this. How many pieces can get torn out of your heart before it stops beating?

I’ll be over here, clinging to my slippers.