RUOk? is an everyday thing…

A friend of mine succumbed to depression recently. It persuaded him, presumably, that life was too hard, that he was too worthless, and it pushed him over the edge. I won’t eulogise Wally here – many people knew him better than I and can be far more eloquent than I ever could. We were distant friends, but I will always remember him as a happy person – a positive influence on the world. If I picture his face, it is smiling. He was a happy person who made people happy. I hope I will eventually be remembered as fondly as he is.

Yet he struggled. I only know that now because the struggle, in the end, overcame him.

This was going to be a ranty post about feminism, arguing to win instead of to find the truth, and manipulative behaviour. I was going to get all cranky up in the world’s face. But you know what? There’s enough cranky in the world without me adding to it. And anyway, a funny thing happened when I was getting all righteously indignant about the way I’d been treated… I started noticing the people who don’t do that.

I am incredibly lucky, and my life is full of people who choose to lift me up rather than slap me down. Who won’t hesitate to pull me up when I’m being a jerk, and who catch me when I stumble. I have so much love around me.

But there are still days when I feel isolated and alone. Most of us have very little community around us now. I’m not religious, but I am aware of what we miss out on in the absence of a highly prevalent, organised religion. We don’t, for the most part, know our neighbours. We don’t have the safety net of a community wrapped around us. And sometimes we get caught up in getting up, going to work, and coming home alone. Even when we have close friends who would not hesitate to reach out to us if they knew we needed it, we can feel desperately alone.

It’s days like those when life can seem too hard, and when an illness like depression can so easily overwhelm us. Sometimes reaching out for help is more than we can manage. Although we may have plenty of loved ones, we don’t necessarily see them every day, and we are not necessarily in their field of view when we fall over.

Some times in our lives we all have pain, we all have sorrow

But, if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you’re not strong. 

I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on.

For, it won’t be long, til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on

Lean on Me, Bill Withers

Yesterday I spent an hour fuming and then a lot more hours contemplating the positives in my life. And that was, in large part, the influence of a couple of friends – one over coffee, one over the internet – who helped me turn things around and make a pretty sucky experience into one that will change my life for the better. I was lucky. But luck is sometimes what you make it, so I’m making a point of spending the weekend with some of the people who lift me up.

The more people I talk to about this, the more I realise that there are a lot of us out there feeling very isolated. And we’re all feeling alone in this feeling even though it is, dare I say it, actually almost universal.

So I’m making a conscious effort to reach out and reconnect. Face to face as much as possible, but also online. Life chips away at us sometimes. I need to rebuild my foundations with the help of the people who make them stronger.

It’s easy to get busy and caught up in the rush of the day to day. It’s easy to forget that there are friends a street, a suburb, a country, or a world away who are equally caught up, equally isolated, and equally keen to connect. Don’t wait to fall over. Reach out and help someone else up.

 

The time of my life

I’m spending a lot of time this weekend trying to catch up on my marking and get ahead on my lesson planning. Because I’m teaching Science for the first time, I’ve been sending a few emails checking on different details. From two different teachers I’ve had emails back almost immediately, answering my questions and apologising that they couldn’t do so in more detail, or fix other things, because they were out. They promised to get to it ASAP.

But it’s the weekend! When you think about it, it’s really disturbing that they felt they had to respond while they were out, and even more disturbing that they also felt they needed to apologise for not doing more. ON THE WEEKEND.

Unfortunately, this is normal. Not merely in education. Most professional roles seem to expect people to be on constantly, at least as long as they’re awake. To some extent we have done this to ourselves with our fervent embrace of the smartphone, but in other ways the “productivity” expectations of our workplaces have done it to us.

I love my smartphone, I have to admit. I have close friends interstate and overseas, and with a smartphone those friends are in my pocket all the time. I love that. I can reach out when I feel stressed, tired, lonely, or when I have good news to share, and have someone reach back. That’s priceless.

But it was months ago that I turned off work email notifications on my phone. Last week I also turned them off for my personal email. Because when I saw those emails come through, I felt obliged to respond to them immediately. An immediate response was almost never truly necessary, but as soon as I saw it, it nagged at me until I responded. Which led to me walking out of my daughter’s school after the drop off in the morning, answering email. Or pausing in the supermarket to reply to a query. Or waiting in line for the cinema typing frantically in response to an email that could very easily have waited until Monday.

Some time ago an article showed up on Facebook about how Universities wouldn’t be able to sort the diversity issue until they accepted 40 hour weeks as reasonable. A friend shared it along with a comment about how people get treated when they are part time. And it struck me (although my friend didn’t necessarily mean it that way) that 40 hours per week has, indeed, become part time. That a full time workload sees many of my friends working 60 or 70 hour weeks – and that’s just the ones who try to have a life. 80 hour weeks are not uncommon. And this is taken for granted as normal.

Indeed, people who try to advocate for more reasonable workloads are often asked if they are really serious about the job, or the organisation. “Do you want this job?” can be both question and threat.

The thing is, we know from many studies that this is both bad for workers and bad for the organisation. There have been numerous studies showing that real productivity goes up when working hours go down. Longer working hours, with their accompanying tiredness and stress, lead to bad decisions. Lack of work-life balance damages both work and life. We know this. But as far as I can tell from looking around me, working hours and expectations are both on the rise.

We’re slowly killing ourselves in the name of doing bad work, and lots of it. Heart disease and other stress-related illnesses are on the rise, and our response to that is to push harder. It’s like an arms race. When everyone else is working harder it’s hard to dial back without both feeling guilty and looking bad.

It’s time that we all banded together and said “this is not ok”. France has made a good start, by legislating the right to switch off. Organisations can take control for themselves, by banning out of hours email and placing limits on working hours. As individuals, we can stop contributing to the problem by not sending out of hours email ourselves, and by not replying to it until we’re next at work. We could even be really radical and not read them until it’s work time (but that one will be a challenge for me, at least!).

Let’s face it, urgent requests that are actually urgent don’t come via email. No-one will die if you don’t read your email until Monday. Not finishing a report or not getting your marking done this instant has never been listed as the cause of death on any real life death certificate. But working too hard can literally kill you.

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.

 

Why we are all feminists

Sadly, I’ve been reading a lot about feminism of late. And the reason that makes me sad is that there have been so many powerfully disturbing reasons why feminism has needed to be written about. From Gamergate to our “single sex party”, as the Chaser crew so aptly described the Australian Federal cabinet recently, and the astonishingly ignorant responses to No Gender December, you could be forgiven for thinking that we have regressed to the 1950s, when women were expected to be content with their place at the kitchen sink, with occasional forays as far as the laundry and the supermarket.

And yet it was not that long ago that I resisted describing myself as a feminist. I justified this with vague statements about “isms” being disturbing things, and how I was for equality, not for a particular fight on behalf of one sex or the other. And certainly that second statement remains true. But it has finally dawned on me what feminism is truly about. It’s about making it possible for everyone to find their vocation.

Whoa. What? Was that a huge non-sequitur, or the crunchiest of crunching gear changes? Actually no, if you’ll bear with me, I think I can explain. You see, I believe that everyone has a vocation. A career that they are good at, that they love, and that they can be passionate about. The problem is that not everybody finds that vocation. Because although some people seem to be born knowing what they want to do, others need to try a bunch of different things before they find their calling.

I was sure I was going to be a vet, but instead of animal hospitals, my science degree led me inexorably towards Computer Science, after a chance encounter with my cousin Chris’s commodore 64 when I was a kid. Chris encouraged me to program this bizarre device, and I was lucky enough to be ignorant of the fact that, as a girl, I wasn’t supposed to enjoy this kind of thing. This chance encounter led me to spend a lot of time in the library at school, toying with Apple IIc’s and, among other things, playing the Infocom Hitchhikers game, until eventually I chose Computer Science as a fill in subject in first year university.

When it turned out that I was good at it, I ran with it further and further, until I wound up, almost by accident, doing a PhD and becoming an academic. My academic career persuaded me that research, while fun, wasn’t my vocation, and a few startling twists and turns later I wound up where I really belong, teaching Computer Science in a high school.

All because Chris encouraged me to try programming his computer.

This is truly my vocation. When I talk about what I do, I light up from the inside. And I’m not about to reject it, as a newly minted feminist, because teaching is a “female” sort of thing to do. The whole point of feminism is the ability, and the opportunity to choose – not based on stereotypes, but on passion. To do what you want to do, wear what you want to wear, be who you want to be, because it works for you, rather than because it fits some notional checklist of who and what you are supposed to be.

How many girls are there who would be mad keen programmers, except that they have not been given the opportunity to even try, because that’s a boyish kind of thing to do? How many boys are there who would be the most amazing nurses, childcare workers, or primary teachers, except that it’s not manly, so they have been steered safely in the direction of something more… suitable? How many people are being robbed of the chance to discover their vocation because society is telling them they won’t like it, can’t do it, and are really not as masculine/feminine/predictable as they should be for even thinking about it?

Oh, but people aren’t put off that easily, you might say! They don’t believe all this guff about stereotypes. These outdated societal expectations don’t rule us, and they certainly don’t control our behaviour. It’s innate. Some things are girly, some are manly. That’s all there is to it.

But controlled we are. Manipulated, we are. Conditioned and boxed, we most certainly are. How else can you explain intelligent, well-educated women who believe that they can’t go out in public wearing shorts until they have shaved their legs? Shaved legs are not innate. I’m pretty confident I was not born with the fundamental belief that hairless legs are more feminine, and yet I’m damned if I can persuade myself that not shaving my legs is ok.

Hippy, greeny feminist I may be, but hairy legged I can’t quite bring myself to accept. And don’t even get me started about the impracticality of female clothing, or underwires in bras.

So if I can be so easily manipulated as to my clothes and my leg hair, what messages have I accepted about my career options? What things, moreover, will my daughters shy away from trying because they get mocked, or because they watch someone else get torn down for even thinking about it? How many girls resolved to stay the hell away from politics after watching what happened to Julia Gillard?

So here is what I want for my daughters, and my niece, and also for my nephews. In fact I want it for everyone: I want them to be able to try everything that looks interesting, until they find their vocation. I want them to know that no door will close to them, or indeed open to them, on the basis of gender.

Above all I want them to be happy pursuing the things that truly speak to them, that nourish their souls. The things that they are passionate about, and damned good at. Without pausing to wonder whether these things are boy things or girl things. Whether they are suitably feminine or appropriately manly.

This, to me, is what feminism is truly about – that boys and girls alike have the opportunity to be who they really are, and to do what they really love. Surely, in this, we are all feminists?

What is the most important thing you will do today?

What is the most important thing your daughter will do today? What do you want her to believe is the thing people will judge her on? Because, as a society, even here in 2014, we are still teaching our daughters that the most important thing about them today is the way they look.

“Oh!” you scoff, “surely you exaggerate!”

But let me ask you this: If you are female, how much time do you spend on grooming in the morning? Are you careful to ensure that your handbag matches your shoes, and that they both match the rest of your outfit? Do you always put on makeup before you show your face in public? Do you ever ask “Does my butt/tummy/body part of choice look big in this?”

Do you ever say “that dress makes me look fat” or “gosh, she shouldn’t wear that, it makes her look old/fat/short/tall/flushed/pale”? Do you obsess over whether your hair is frizzy/curly/straight and spend hours with a straightening wand/curling iron/leave-in conditioner and a hair dryer?

What do you think this says to your daughters?

Some time ago I was chatting with a bright, talented young honours student. She was about to deliver her honours talk, summarizing a year’s amazing research. Do you know what was worrying her most? She had a pimple on her nose. What would people think?? Never mind the quality of her research, it was her appearance that she was convinced people would care about, and remember. I never, ever, heard a male honours student fret about his looks before his honours talk.

But who can blame her? Our first ever female prime minister endured regular commentary on her dress sense and hairstyle. Yet, apart from the occasional justifiable shudder of horror over the budgie smugglers, our current PM’s dress sense rarely rates a mention.

Karl Stefanovic recently wore the same suit on TV every day for a year. Do you know how many people noticed? None. Until he started to make noise about it to make a point, bless his smelly jacket. Imagine if his female co-host had worn the same outfit every day for a year. The screaming! Actually there’s no way it would have lasted a year, it would almost certainly have cost her her job inside a week.

Yet the screaming and the clothing critique is largely a female phenomenon. It’s not men imposing this on us. It’s not men saying “hey, aren’t you going to hide your face before you go out?” (Except possibly in the media.)

This is only the norm because we make it so. We say “I have to put on my makeup before I go out.” Newsflash: you don’t. I haven’t put on makeup in 15 years, and I make it out the door just fine.

We say “I can’t wear that, it makes my tummy look huge.” and our daughters hear “Big tummies are shameful. We have to be careful of how we look.”

We say “I have to go to the beautician, my legs are hairy” and our daughters hear “Hairy legs are shameful. We have to be careful of how we look.”

We say “Hang on a minute, I have to put on my makeup before we can go” and our daughters hear “Our faces are shameful. We have to be careful of how we look.”

Pretty soon our girls are obsessing over their weight, their pimples, and their hair, and we wonder why. After all, don’t we tell them they’re beautiful? Well yes, we do, but what we show them, is that beautiful is a perfectly made up face, a meticulously composed ensemble, and matching shoes. What we show them is that this stuff matters. That when they leave the house tomorrow what they will be judged on is not the quality of their work, their kindness and compassion, or whether they leave the world a better place, but whether their makeup cracked or their hair frizzed in the rain. Oh, and whether their clothes are so last season.

What we show them is that appearance is all important. That we must always be careful of how we look before we show our makeup (and never our faces) in public, because we will be judged by that more than anything else.

But you know what? We don’t have to be careful about how we look. Sure, it’s lovely to wear nice clothes and to feel like we look good. But it doesn’t matter. We don’t have to spend hours applying makeup and styling our hair before we leave the house. If you don’t believe me, ask Tracey Spicer. She has cut down her grooming time by an hour a day (AN HOUR! PER DAY! I haven’t got the patience to spend that long on my looks”). And you know what? Nobody died. These things only matter to us because we let them.

We shouldn’t be judging ourselves, or anybody else, by how well our earrings match our designer dresses. And we shouldn’t be teaching our daughters to, either.

 

Hands off Point Nepean

Have you ever gazed out over a pristine beach and felt both awed and calmed by its beauty?

Beach scene

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a forest, breathing in a sense of peace?

Have you ever wondered what it is about natural places that causes them to speak to us in this profound way? That changes us every time we interact with them? That draws us in and gives us a sense of connectedness and belonging?

These are the reasons we preserve these magical places in National Parks. According to the Australian government:

“National parks are usually large areas of land that are protected because they have unspoilt landscapes and a diverse number of native plants and animals. This means that commercial activities such as farming are prohibited and human activity is strictly monitored.

Like zoos, national parks have several purposes. The foremost of these is to protect native flora and fauna. But national parks are also there so Australians and foreign visitors can enjoy and learn about our unique environment, heritage and culture.”

Unfortunately somebody will need to update this – it is becoming increasingly clear that national parks are now nothing more than commercial opportunities. After all, we wouldn’t want our forests “locked up”, would we, Mr Abbott? The Federal government plans to put a coal port slap bang in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef – not merely a national park, but a world heritage area. An irreplaceable treasure.

And now the Victorian government plans to excise a huge chunk of the Point Nepean National Park for commercial development.

Pt Nepean was declared a National Park in 2009, after years of vigorous campaigning by the local community.

Beach at the Quarantine Station, Pt Nepean National Park
Beach at the Quarantine Station, Pt Nepean National Park

Understandably, they believed this meant that the park was now protected, open to the public for ever more, to be preserved and maintained as a national treasure.  Point Nepean includes the old Quarantine Station, and if you have never visited, I urge you to make the time to go while you still can, because it is an amazing site – a wonderful combination of stunning scenery and the incredibly moving stories of those early settlers, brought off ships and housed in quarantine on this wild and remote patch of coast.

See it while you can, because if the State government has its way it will be rezoned, stripped of its environmental and heritage protections, and access restricted to wealthy clients of the “Wellness Centre” and “Geothermal Spa”. Of course, there is no geothermal spa at the site, but it’s only a matter of drilling around one kilometre into the earth, and with any luck they will find some nice hotsprings to bring to the surface – without damaging the surrounding bushland, you understand, because of course drilling one kilometre (one thousand metres! Can they really be serious?) into the earth is so easy to do in a non-disruptive, non-destructive fashion.

The proposed development includes a jetty designed to allow easy access for speedboats coming from around the bay. Which sounds all very fine until you realise that the jetty would be right in the middle of an integral section of Port Phillip Heads Marine National Park, and a known dolphin nursery. According to Parks Victoria, the thinking behind the park is this:

“By keeping some of these marine areas in a natural state, free from potentially damaging human activities, we will protect these environments into the future. Victorians will also benefit from the positive effects that this protection will have on recreation and tourism, community education and scientific research.”

Which seems rather at odds with a high-traffic jetty encouraging speed boats and jet skis through an already fragile area. The development is being fast tracked and deliberately placed outside normal planning controls and public scrutiny, which is always a red flag. If it is truly of benefit to the community why try to hide it, and avoid public discussion and debate?

I often think that the measure of a truly civilized society is the value it places on intangible things that don’t fit in traditional economic models. On community, on nature, on sustainability, on relationships.  On things we can’t easily label with a price tag. Our relationships with these wild places are irreplaceable. As we break down our connection with the natural world and base our lifestyles on foundations of ipads and concrete, we lose a vital part of ourselves.

I often walk on the beach at Pt Nepean, and I frequently see dolphins playing in the shallows. My family and I pick up rubbish along the beach, most of it washed up from other areas of the bay. When I told my girls, aged 11 and 7, that there was a big development proposed for the area, they were horrified. “There’s too much rubbish there already!” they cried. Sums it up, really.

PS. If you want to protect our history and our national parks, you can contact your member of Parliament and urge them to act.

Danger, Will Robinson!

Much of the Australian Government’s current behaviour seems to be predicated on danger. Apparently, aside from the “only visible out of the corner of your eye” budget emergency, we also have a security emergency, a border protection emergency, and a desperate need to sacrifice privacy and freedom in order to be safe from the ever increasing terrorism emergency. Indeed, one news article I read today suggested we Australians live in “increasingly dangerous times”.

Certainly we feel increasingly unsafe. The news is full of reasons why we should be terrified of, well, just about everything. Of strangers (especially around our children). Of hijabs and head scarves. Of hoodies. Of refugees. Of politicians (actually that one seems pretty logical).

We are told that we need to sacrifice the presumption of innocence, together with our privacy, and accept laws creating a new level of surveillance (maybe, depending on who’s talking today), and requiring people traveling to “suspect” places to prove that they were not there with nefarious intent. We have to accept this, or be on the side of the terrorists. Obviously. Because we are in so much danger.

And yet… Are we actually at risk? Are we more likely to die? The Bureau of Statistics says that in 2003 132,292 people died in Australia, whereas in 2012 the number was 147,098. So we are more at risk, no? Well… no. If you factor in population in those years, in 2003 the ratio was 0.0067. In 2012, it was 0.0064. So you were actually less likely to die in Australia in 2012 than you were in 2003. The overall death rate has dropped.

If you consider the facts (a proposition neither politicians nor the media are keen on, it seems), we are growing older, safer, and more prosperous all the time. We are increasingly blind to how good we’ve got it. We have an unprecedented degree of financial security. We can afford to extend our good fortune to refugees. We can afford to protect our privacy, our freedom, and the presumption of innocence. We can also afford universal healthcare and high quality education, whatever Tony’s cronies might say.

What we can’t afford to do is reject science, facts, and the reality we live in, in exchange for a politically constructed illusion that is convenient for people trying to gain power, but catastrophic for the rest of us.

There is increasing danger in these times, but it is neither terrorism nor economics. The real danger is ignorance and credulity. It lies in blind acceptance of political spin, and a failure to question the statements and the emotive slogans that are stuffed down our throats every day.

Whatever your political views, whatever your beliefs, the one thing we must all do is to keep asking questions. It may be too late to keep the bastards honest, but it’s not too late to call them on their lies.