Feelings I don’t want to write about

I don’t want to write about this because I am ashamed. I feel a terrible, monstrous guilt, and I’m so busy judging myself that I can almost find no space in my heart to worry about how you might judge me. Almost. But what I’m about to tell you is pretty shocking. You might judge me. I wouldn’t entirely blame you if you did, because I’m certainly judging myself.

But it occurs to me that, although it feels incredibly lonely to me and my family as we go through this, this is actually not a rare story. So maybe there are other people out there feeling guilty, and ashamed, and believing they are utterly monstrous for feeling the way they do.

Maybe baring my soul will help them. Maybe it will help me. Maybe, even now, I’m putting off admitting the truth.

So here it is:

I wish my Mum would die.

Without context, those words are pretty shocking. I can’t quite believe I feel them, much less write them publicly like this. And I condemn myself, so strongly, for their callous truth.

But the truth is, we lost Mum years ago, and we haven’t the luxury of mourning her. Of accepting her passing, learning to live with our grief, and moving on. Because we are compelled to maintain the shattered shell of her brain, and her surprisingly robust body, regardless of how little of her remains inside it.

She doesn’t know her children. She certainly doesn’t know her grandchildren. And she is terrified of what is happening to her. She is unbearably confused and distressed. She wants to go home to her parents – perhaps to a time she felt safe – although even if they were alive she probably wouldn’t know them.

She used to have lucid moments, but I don’t think they happen anymore. She is easier to manage now as some of the rage and paranoia have eroded, along with the last of her personality. She used to remember – or create – fragments of her past, but even those are gone now.

And this is the best she will ever be from now on. Every day she will get worse. Every visit will be more traumatic. And we mourn her even as we keep her alive. We fight her to find ways to take care of her, and she resists them, every one, because it’s all so confusing and terrifying to her.

Every day another small window into ways that we can help her squeezes closed. Every moment she becomes more lost, more alone, less herself.

And all we can do is keep her alive. Even though she died so long ago.

I don’t want this to happen to me. I don’t want to put my children through it. I don’t want to go through it myself. Who benefits from dragging out her terror? From maintaining the trauma that is her – apparently – sacred life?

There is nothing sacred about the rigid enforcement of laws that promote infinite pain and endless sorrow. This is not about the value of life. This is callous, unfeeling, and fiendishly cruel.

We talk about quality of life as though it is something we have control over, but there comes a point where quality of life goes irretrievably negative. Where maintaining this life is no longer the ethical thing to do. Where keeping someone alive is simply torture.

Who benefits from this hell Mum is going through?

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Making sense of dementia

I hope you didn’t read the title expecting a solution. Because we are not in a solvable state. Dissolving maybe, but not solvable.

How do you make sense of dementia? How can you explain to someone the profound desolation when your own mother doesn’t know who you are? When she asks you whether she knew your Mum?

How can you possibly convey the heartbreaking trauma of having your 78 year old Mum begging to go home to her Mum and Dad? The Mum and Dad who died 45 and 30 years ago. Of knowing she is ill but being unable to get her to see a doctor?

How can you explain the soul shredding mundanity and frustration of the sheer volume of paperwork and complexity around a million little things like not being able to get her gas meter read, because she doesn’t hear the doorbell and is utterly paranoid about locking the gate?

It’s impossible to describe how agitated she gets when we try to fix something around her house. How difficult it is to do simple hardware jobs when she is overflowing with anxiety about what it means, how it happened, and whether she is going to get into trouble. And hovering over you begging to go home to her Mum and Dad.

I’ve heard people say it’s like caring for a child – that the positions are reversed and the children become the parents. But that’s far too simple. Far too benign. Because children learn. Children have hope. You can explain things to a child. At the very least, children can understand when they have gone too far.

Children grow and progress, but dementia is taking my Mum inexorably down. I lost her years ago, but there has been no funeral. No wake. No flowers. And every time I visit I lose her again. When Dad had cancer I was waiting for the phone call that would tell me he was gone. Now I wait for the next crack in the increasingly empty shell of my mother’s brain.

Imagine not being able to continue, but getting up every day and doing it again.  Imagine a soul as lost and helpless as a child, but as strong and angry as an adult. Imagine losing your mother over and over again. Imagine a death that takes a decade.

 

 

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?

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?

 

 

 

Wil to live

I went to a talk tonight. It covered Donald Trump becoming president, Climate Change and Climate Change deniers. It covered the post truth world, anti-vaxxers, and healthcare. It covered white male privilege, racism, and education.

And I laughed. I laughed until I almost forgot how to breathe (again. you’d be surprised how many times I’ve forgotten how to breathe over the years).

It took so many of the things that are wrong with the world, highlighted, examined, and derisively dismissed them.

It was a masterclass in story telling. In science, humanity, and compassion. In how to keep going. How to reach each other. How to listen. How to make sense of the nonsensical. And how to talk to the insensible.

It was incisive, but never cruel (although anti-vaxxers might disagree, but anything anti-vaxxers disagree with is worth paying attention to).

It was, incidentally, a lesson in not being late to a comedy show – I think Phill might agree with that, if he can ever bear to show his face in public again.

I love comedy, but I can’t bear the cruel sort. A friend had a bit of a facebook rant today about April Fools’ Day, and I have to agree. We don’t need more tricks. More lies. More fake news. More traps for the unwary. More “hah! I fooled you, aren’t I funny? and aren’t you gullible!”

We need more laughter, but Wil Anderson made it very clear tonight that comedy doesn’t have to be cruel. It doesn’t have to be mean spirited or vicious. Comedy is at its best when it’s clever, and well read, and thoughtful. When art holds a mirror up to life and laughs at it – when we see life as it is and know its absurdity – that’s real magic. And Wil Anderson is one hell of a magician.

 

So angry about girls in STEM right now

I tell you, if one more person tells me that they think girls aren’t into tech because girls just don’t have the aptitude for it, I am going to go off like a firecracker. In fact, I think it’s firecracker time right now.

I can hardly believe that we are STILL, in 2017, saying girls go into biology because they are more nurturing, but I have heard this line repeatedly over the last few months. First of all, saying that boys are less nurturing is simply absurd and offensive. And secondly, suggesting that nurturing people should not go into computer science is how we wind up with software like Centrelink’s robodebt system that completely fails to take actual people into account. In an age of ever increasing artificial intelligence, we need a diverse and compassionate Computer Science workforce more than ever before, lest we  wind up with our whole lives controlled by systems that are rigid, uncompromising, and quite antithetical to human happiness.

Now, leaving nurturing natures aside, it is true that girls in STEM overwhelmingly go into Biology-based areas, and that “harder” sciences such as Physics and Computer Science have far more men than women. This is often touted as proof. Women, they say, just aren’t choosing Computing and Physics. They’re just not that into it.

But here’s the thing. As a society, as an education system, and as parents, we are constantly pushing girls towards “girly” things, even without realising it.

Quick: Picture a Computer Scientist. One of my students recently told me that when I asked him to do that, he pictured me, because I’m the only Computer Scientist he has met, but it seems he’s in the minority. A google image search for “Computer Scientist” produced 33 men on the first 8 rows, to only 6 women. That’s actually a much better ratio than I was expecting. Trying it with “programmer” got 35-3. Google, society, and almost every film or tv show we’ve ever watched is telling us that Computer Scientists and programmers are men.

Interestingly, a similar count for “Biologist” shows 24 men and 23 women, despite the fact that women make up 58% of Biology graduates in the US. Go figure.

We give boys tech toys, we give girls barbies and soft toys. And even if we try to be gender neutral in our own parenting, the gifts they get at birthdays will be overwhelmingly gender-skewed, and they will constantly see the kids around them playing with the things they are “supposed” to like. This kind of thing has a powerful impact on a child’s developing sense of identity. Girls who manage to break out of this mould and choose “boy” games/activities/clothes/hairstyles get sooo much pushback (having a daughter with short hair I can attest to this personally) that it is even more unlikely that other, less bold girls will take the risk.

It is, I admit, possible that gender plays a part in aptitude, but you can only say it’s proven if you provide a level playing field, with equal pressures and opportunities from birth and then see a gender difference. We are so far from this, worldwide, that we couldn’t even see it with a telescope.

Studies overwhelmingly show that we hire people who fit our stereotype, and our stereotype of “technical people” is men. We judge competence based on gender all the time, while being completely unaware that we are doing it. Even women in tech are more likely to judge a man than a woman as competent, even when all other factors are identical. We have been really well trained.

Girls are also pushed out of STEM by “invisible” factors, such as vocal boys in class who know a lot of tech stuff already, and therefore leave girls (and also inexperienced boys) feeling as though they are no good at it. They are pushed out by teachers subtly implying that they don’t belong. They are pushed out by all the people who are surprised that they are studying “boy” subjects. They are pushed out by being the only woman in the room. And they are pushed out by their male colleagues who tend to belittle and underestimate them because of their gender. Not to mention outright sexual harassment.

But the final nail in the coffin of the gender based aptitude myth is Harvey Mudd College. When Harvey Mudd decided 10% of CS graduates being female was not enough, they tackled these factors directly. They asked the more vocal, advanced students to keep their questions for afterwards. They hired more women to teach the courses. They stream their courses so that people with no programming background can learn without feeling inadequate next to people who have been programming forever. And it worked. Fast. Harvey Mudd now has 55% female CS graduates.

It’s not rocket science. But we have to stop saying “we shouldn’t push girls into careers they’re not good at” and we have to start saying “what are the factors keeping girls out, and how can we change them? ”

What if, for every time girls get nudged away from technical areas, they got nudged back?

What if, instead of saying “Oh, there just aren’t any women interested”, engineering companies went out to schools and started trying to recruit girls into STEM early. What if every girl, at some point in her schooling, had an engineer (or computer scientist, or physicist) (whether male or female) look her in the eye and say “You could be an engineer/computer scientist/physicist.” And mean it.

It’s so much easier to be complacent and say “there is no problem”. Companies, and universities, need to put their time and energy where their complacency is. Get out there and actively recruit women. Have “professional experience” days for girls so they can find out what it’s like to be an engineer. Give them engineers to talk to. Take girls seriously.

In my Computer Science classes in both year 10 and year 11, I have beginner girls who are picking up the concepts super fast. And, despite myself, I’m still surprised by it. As a female in Computer Science, I am still deeply conditioned to accept the stereotypes. If we don’t force ourselves to see beyond them, we can’t possibly make change.

Even if there’s a gender skew in aptitude (which, given that Computer Science was largely founded by women, I find difficult to believe), it means nothing in any specific case. A bell curve of aptitude tells you about populations, but not about a person.

So it’s time we started believing in our students, both male and female. It’s time we actually believe it when we tell them they can be anything they want to be. And it’s time we gave them the opportunities to find out what that might be.

 

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.