A place to stand

There’s a thing called the Holmes Rahe stress scale. It’s a list of life events – both positive and negative – and associated scores that gives you an idea of how much stress you are currently dealing with, and therefore how likely you are to get sick. Naturally it doesn’t include everything that could possibly be a cause of stress, but it’s an interesting exercise nonetheless. The associated research suggests that a score of over 300 leads to an 80% chance of getting sick in the near future. Last night I  calculated just the big stuff going on in my life at the moment, and found I scored 420.

When you factor in all of the things that aren’t listed on that scale – like lying awake at 4am trying to work out how you will persuade your demented, no-longer coping Mum into residential care when she has spent her entire life determined to avoid such a fate – my score should probably be a lot higher.

All that tension means that my temper is on a hair trigger. It’s easy to blow up over stuff that I know really doesn’t matter, though it drives me over the edge in a heartbeat. It’s important to remember that the reason I am so close to the edge may not be related to the thing – or person – that threatens to tip me over it.

The interesting thing about finding myself in this whirl of incredible stress is that it concentrates my mind wonderfully. I have no choice but to prioritise, and focus on what really matters. I can’t afford to be darting about, so I need to find the right place to stand.

I don’t want to waste time and energy on things that don’t matter.  Reasoned debate, and having my perspective challenged, is more important to me than ever, because when I get stressed I have a tendency towards tunnel vision. I value the friends who will challenge my views immensely.  But I’m finding that more and more debates, especially online, are not reasoned.

It’s hard to put my finger one exactly why, but there are “debates” that make my skin crawl. I find myself pushed into defending things that I did not, in fact, say, and lambasted over positions that other people are hypothesized to have taken. I get setup as the fall guy for whole segments of society with whom I am not actually associated, and who often don’t even exist. My words get twisted, and my ideas ridiculed. The goal is to win – to assert dominance – rather than to honestly debate ideas. We’ve all seen it. And we’ve all stood by and let it happen.

I recently complained privately about this behaviour on a mailing list, saying it was disappointing that the group didn’t call it out and make the mailing list a safer space. And even as I hit send, I realised that the group was merely a collection of individuals, and if I was going to complain about nobody calling it out, I didn’t have a leg to stand on unless I called it out myself. So I did.

It wasn’t easy. I was already under extreme stress, so the idea of picking another fight was literally sickening. After I sent my response I fretted that I was opening myself to more abuse at a time when my resilience was already at rock bottom. What I got, though, was an outpouring of support and measures to make the group less toxic in future. I wasn’t the first person this guy had bullied on this mailing list, but because I found my place to stand, I will be the last. I wish I had called his behaviour out earlier, when he was targeting others. There have been many times, I am ashamed to say, when I have stood by, shifting uncomfortably, unsure how to help without making things worse, while people have been rude, hectoring, aggressive, and unfair, towards others.

It’s hard, because if you challenge this behaviour, you become a target yourself. You get accused of being unable to handle debate, of being unwilling to hear a point of view that’s different to your own. You get called a snowflake, or politically correct, or fragile. And in a particularly brutal twist, you wind up accused of exactly the kind of behaviour you are standing against. You get told you are shutting down debate, overly aggressive, and horribly unfair.

The hard part is that it’s really hard to judge and quantify this stuff, and when your words are twisted you wind up fighting accusations based on things you didn’t even say. So you have to work hard to keep your eye on the ball, and not get distracted by the flying red herrings. You have to take a deep breath, get a sanity check, and make sure that everything you are saying is true to your own values. If you stay true to your values, you may misstep at times, but you need never be ashamed.

The greatest thing that can happen at this point is that someone backs you up, either publicly or privately, and calls bullshit on the slippery, manipulative twisting of your words. That twisting is a form of gaslighting, and can easily make you doubt yourself. So if you’re not keen to engage publicly, lest you become a target, the next best thing you can do is to support someone privately. When you’re being accused of all kinds of nastiness, to have an objective voice go “nope. you’re on the money!” can make all the difference in the world.

Edmund Burke is famously quoted as writing “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” When we ignore, excuse, or dismiss bad behaviour of any kind, we tacitly approve it. Whether privately or publicly, I think we need to take a stand. To draw a line and say “You don’t get to be rude or aggressive here. Debate ideas all you want, but only if you treat everyone with respect.”

I’m trying to be the change I want to see in the world. I fail a lot, but at least I know where I need to stand.


Close to home

Let’s be clear: The current hot air around marriage equality in Australia is not a debate. The term “debate” implies rational discussion on both sides. There is no debate here. Just as the video going around about the Safe Schools anti-bullying programme peddles outright lies about the content of the programme, the “debate” around marriage equality consists of conservatives screaming “but think of the children” and other unrelated, emotive cries, and progressives saying “it’s a human rights issue”.

There is no place for debate here. There is nothing to debate. It’s like saying racial segregation needs to be debated. Nope. It really doesn’t. According people basic human rights should never be up for debate. You don’t get to declare me more, or less, worthy of human rights than you are. And I don’t get to do that to you. Because we are, or are trying to be, a civilized society that believes in justice.

There is no way to “debate” this, without saying that gay people aren’t full members of society.

The chances are that this ludicrous postal vote will come down to marketing. Who has the best campaign? Who mobilises more people to vote?  It will come down to who has the most persuasive arguments.

But there’s one argument used on the left that makes me a little sad. It’s probably effective, but that makes me even sadder. It’s this line: “I have a loved one who is gay, that’s why marriage equality is important to me.”

It makes sense that we care about things that hit close to home. But this is why the Australian government is still getting away with torturing refugees, and why marriage equality is not a done deal. Because human rights are only important to us when they are being denied to someone we care about.

As it happens, I do have loved ones who are gay. Given the numbers, we almost certainly all do, whether we know it or not. But that’s not why marriage equality matters.

Marriage equality matters because without it we are telling gay kids that they are less than straight ones.

Marriage equality matters because without it we are telling gay couples that their love is less than straight couples’.

Let’s turn that around: Marriage equality matters because gay people are people just like straight ones. Marriage equality matters because a gay relationship is just as committed, just as valuable, and sometimes just as broken, as any straight relationship. Marriage equality matters because we need to prove to gay kids that they are fully paid up members of this club we call “civilized society”. Marriage equality matters because gay kids, gay adults, and gay relationships matter, just the same as straight ones.

Not because it’s close to me, or close to you. Because love should be celebrated, and people should be valued. Your sexuality is not relevant to anyone you’re not trying to go to bed with. It should not be the deciding factor in any other decision anyone else makes.

Marriage equality matters because people are people, and love is love.




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.