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.

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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.

 

Lonely in a crowd

Locals have left tributes for murdered West Heidelberg toddler Sanaya. There are outpourings of grief and rage, and messages to Sanaya from people she never met. While I understand how crisis brings people together, and sometimes it takes a shock to draw attention, it saddens me that Sanaya’s mum, now accused of also being her murderer, was described in the media today as having 1000 Facebook friends, but no-one in Melbourne she could really talk to.

It feels to me as though we are very good, these days, at signing petitions, attending vigils, and leaving offerings at the scene of crimes. But we’re not so great at drawing isolated people into our community.

We drive to and from huge, impersonal shopping centres without seeing a familiar face. We drive to and from work. We don’t know our neighbours. All too frequently we don’t even socialise with our work colleagues. We’re too busy to put down roots, to know our community, and to see the loneliness on the faces around us – in fact we’re often too busy to see the faces at all.

And some of those faces are struggling. Lonely, isolated, or even trapped in abusive relationships, we give them total privacy, when what they need is a hand stretched out.

My students will tell you I’m not a fan of the Facebook attitude to privacy, but sometimes I wonder if it would be better if Mark Zuckerberg was right and privacy really was dead. I think we venerate it too much. I think we are so concerned with each other’s privacy that we sometimes fail to reach out.

We build fences, create higher walls, and plant screening hedges so that no-one can breach our defences, but maybe it’s our defences that are killing us.

I’m really lucky. I have an incredible collection of friends. We catch up with each other, but frequently need to schedule catch ups weeks or months in advance, because life is so busy. Just dropping in is a luxury we can’t afford – often because we don’t live close to each other. Community is no longer the people around you. That means we can choose our friends, and it’s easier to stay connected with the people we love even when they live on another continent. But it also means that the people we walk past every day are often not people we connect with.

It means when you’re having a rougher day than usual the people around you won’t necessarily notice or care. And it means that when you’re like Sanaya’s mum – struggling and lonely – there may be no-one around you who will smile and reach out a hand. It turns out that we were great at giving her privacy, but not so great at giving her community.

I worry about our future. Online communities can be wonderful, but they don’t see you walking past. I get a lot of support from my Facebook friends, but they can’t pick me up if I fall down in the street. If I couldn’t post for some reason, I doubt my Facebook presence would be missed for quite some time. Reaching out, whether on Facebook or on the phone, is really hard when you are feeling raw and vulnerable. Sometimes you need the people around you to notice.

Of course, it’s not easy to reach out to total strangers, and I don’t know what Sanaya’s mum’s story is. Maybe people did reach out. But I do know that I don’t reach out enough to the people in my own life. There are so many small ways we can keep each other from falling, and I think I could do more.

To check in with friends at work who have been absent for a while, to see if they’re ok. To stop when I see someone is upset, and ask if there’s anything I can do. To arrange more coffees. To send more emails – or better yet, make more phone calls. To really listen when I ask someone how they are, and not just take a quiet “ok” for an answer. To put a flower, a chocolate frog, or a cup of coffee on a friend’s desk when they’re struggling. To take the time to be really appreciative when someone does something nice. Even to admire a new haircut. Just to connect.

Sometimes we all fall through the cracks. Some land harder than others. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all do a little more catching?

 

Stop Violence against who?

I’ve always been a bit uneasy about the slogan “stop violence against women”. Not because I disagree with the sentiment, but because I think it leaves a huge hole in the issue we need to tackle.

We certainly do need to stop violence against women. And against children. But also against men. And animals. Recent reports of native wildlife being shot with arrows, and wombats being deliberately run over in a NSW campground are horrific. Who does this sort of thing for fun?? Someone who sees violence as entertainment!?

What we have is a society that sees violence as a solution. That manages crowds of refugees with tear gas and water cannons. That deals with a bloody revolution by bombing civilians.

That deals with frightened, desperate people by stripping them of their human rights, exposing children to horrific abuse, and putting their lives at risk so as to appear “tough on border control”. Which, by the way, wins votes for the perpetrators.

We live in a society where violence is perceived as a solution to many things. Where a drug problem becomes a war, instead of a health problem that can be managed. Where our collective instinct, when threatened, is to lash out, notwithstanding the simple truth that violence begets violence, and that wars create wars.

So yes, let’s stop violence against women. There’s no question there’s far too much of it. But let’s also give everything we’ve got to build a society where violence isn’t the answer. Where communities are built and connections made. Where unhappy people can reach out for support, and the foundations of our society are the connections between us, not the walls we build around ourselves.

I know I’m a little naive. I’m not suggesting that the answer to Daesh is a group hug. I don’t know that there is an answer, although something clearly needs to be done. But I’m pretty sure that bombing them isn’t going to make them turn around and say “Sorry, you were right. We’ll just leave our weapons in a pile over here and become nice peaceful citizens. Sorry to trouble you.” More likely is that they will ensure, as far as they can, that civilians die in their place, and the west gets blamed.

I don’t hit my kids. But sometimes I do lose it and shout at them in a pretty aggressive way. And I know that when I do that it’s because I have failed to find a constructive way through whatever situation we are in. When I lose control of my temper it means I have failed to find a workable solution. And I always, always regret it.

Asimov once wrote that violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. To be fair, he had a character say that, and we probably can’t accuse him of believing everything any of his characters ever said. But it’s a compelling line. Violence isn’t a solution. It’s a failure.

Maybe I’m looking for more change than we can manage from where we’re starting, but it would be nice to see it at least part of the conversation. Stop violence against women, definitely. But let’s see if we can’t make violence itself unacceptable.

PS It’s been suggested to me by someone I respect greatly that I may be distracting from the effectiveness of the Stop Violence Against Women Campaign, and that stopping violence altogether is too hard. We have to tackle it piece by piece. But the more I think about it the more I think that it’s not going to work. Malcolm Turnbull today said “Real men don’t hit women.” With the very clear implication that real men can hit men and that’s ok. And that’s wrong on so many levels. Women are weak and can’t take it (rubbish). Men are strong and can take it (rubbish). We are all weak and strong in our own ways, but no-one should ever have to take it. Violence is wrong, and we can make it wholly unacceptable, not just against women but against anyone. We shouldn’t do a clothing check, or a DNA test, before we decide whether we can hit someone or not! That kind of attitude makes it ok to hit a transgender woman (“because she’s really a man”), or a homosexual man (“not a woman but not my sort of a man”). It relies on stereotypes that we should all be trying to leave behind. Of men protecting women. Of women needing protection. Of men not needing protection.  Support the Stop Violence Against Women Campaign – it’s important. But work towards stopping violence, full stop. Real men, real women… real people don’t hit.

Where’s your village?

“Year 12 farewell assembly. The tradition is they walk up the middle stairs while staff form a kind of honour guard. One student was hanging back and I wasn’t sure why. Then his friend arrived who has a knee injury and can’t handle stairs. He was waiting for her, and he piggy backed her all the way up. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my school!”

On average my facebook posts probably gather 5 likes each. Even the cute pictures of sugar gliders get maybe 10 or so likes. But this post, by the end of a single day, had 44 likes. This story resonates. People go “awww! That’s beautiful!” There is something about people looking out for each other, going a little further to help each other out, and quietly being there for each other, that speaks directly to our hearts.

Do you know why? I think it’s because we know it’s missing from our lives most of the time. In general we live incredibly isolated lives. It’s not that we don’t have friends – most of us do. But we don’t see them every day. We don’t necessarily notice if we don’t speak to them for a few weeks running.  Huge upheavals can happen in their lives without us ever knowing, even though we love them very much.

I don’t believe we do any less, care any less, or love any less. We have friends, we have work, we have busy, busy lives. But what we really don’t have, most of us, is community. Many of my closest friends live 10, 20, or even thousands of kilometers away. We are pretty good at keeping in touch. We call. We email. We facebook. But we don’t live next door. We don’t always notice the pauses in the conversation that might mean something has gone badly wrong, because we are all so busy that pauses happen all the time. Packed into those pauses might be the death of a parent, an episode of depression, even an ambulance trip to the emergency room, and we might never even know.

If you ever find yourself stuck in the middle of the sea
I’ll sail the world to find you
If you ever find yourself lost in the dark and you can’t see
I’ll be the light to guide you

Find out what we’re made of
When we are called to help our friends in need
You can count on me like 1, 2, 3
I’ll be there
And I know when I need it
I can count on you like 4, 3, 2
You’ll be there
‘Cause that’s what friends are supposed to do, oh yeah

Count on me – Bruno Mars.

We don’t know our neighbours beyond a cordial chat when we happen to be getting into our cars at the same time. We certainly don’t drop by to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar. We don’t walk to school and get to know all the families on the way. We don’t shop at the local shops and know the shopkeepers’ children. We live in huge cities and commute from one side to the other for work. We shop at massive shopping centers surrounded by strangers.

George Monbiot argues that this is killing us. In our busy striving for individualism and wealth, we are losing contact with the very things that bring us the deepest satisfaction and contentment. I’m really lucky, I find many of these things at my school, with both staff and students. There is a sense of community there, beautifully exemplified by the piggy back, that fills a vast hole in my life. I can’t imagine leaving, and it breaks my heart a little each time we say goodbye to the next crop of year 12s.

But not everyone can work or study at my school. Not everyone will find their community in their workplace. And whoever we are, however introverted, however independent, we need community. We need that sense of people looking out for us, and that meaning and fulfillment that comes from looking out for others.

I think what we’ve failed to recognise is that friends are not the same as community. Community is, of necessity, a local thing. If you start to feel depressed and can’t bring yourself to call anyone, people who see you every day might notice and have the chance to help. But if your friends are all remote, they’re not likely to notice until the time between phone calls becomes obvious, which could be weeks, or even months. If you break your leg, have a sick child, or a sick parent, and you don’t call for help, community has the chance to notice because of the change in your routine.

The problem is that our cities are built in ways that actively discourage community. Our houses are getting bigger and our fences higher. Our local shopping strips are dying, to be replaced by huge, impersonal shopping centers miles away that we have to drive to. Our public transport, which at least allows us to walk through our neighbourhood on the way to and from our very remote jobs, is slow, erratic, and expensive. Everything about our town planning encourages us out of our neighbourhoods, into our cars, and away from any potential community we might otherwise build.

And the trouble is I think it takes a community to fix it.

The new normal

Here in Melbourne, Spring has suddenly sprung. Truly it has – don’t bother me with your petty calendar-based technicalities, I know Spring when I bask in it.

Outside the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, and the temperature has reached that balmy level where, if it were summer, we’d all be muttering about brass monkeys and their frozen … er… seed cases (this is a family friendly website, ok?). Truly, it’s 17 degrees out there and we’re breaking out the t-shirts, shorts, and thongs, making plans to head for the beach. Weather like this in January would have us reaching for our coats and beanies. But coming as it does after a grey, cold winter, 17 degrees is pure, unadulterated bliss.

We are a remarkably adaptable species. We adjust quite quickly to new circumstances, and sometimes we forget that anything has even changed. What’s normal today is entirely dependent on what happened yesterday. Was it 12 degrees and rainy? Then 17 degrees is fine. But sometimes it pays to examine the new normal, and wonder if we have actually progressed. So here is a random list of normalities that could use some adjusting.

1. Politicians lie. They do. It’s a fact. We’re so used to it that it’s not even newsworthy anymore. It’s just a thing we know they do. I don’t know what the point of elections is anymore. We vote for some party on the basis of promises that we know they will break. We accept the lies, the inhumanity, and the gross inequity of their actions. Perfectly intelligent people swallow all kinds of lies like “saving lives by stopping the boats” and “budget emergencies”, even when evidence has shown them to be complete rubbish. And we are neither surprised nor horrified when they turn out to be corrupt. It’s just the way they are.

But we don’t have to accept it. We don’t have to vote for politicians. We can vote for independents, and minor parties. The major parties would have you believe that it leads to chaos, but Julia Gillard steered a hung parliament and a very fragile senate through some of the most significant progress Australia has seen in years. We got a National Disability Insurance Scheme, we got a price on carbon – a step that much of the world is now implementing, while watching in horror as we dismantle ours. The worst thing that can happen to a government is to have complete control. Good government is a process of negotiation, balance, and compromise.The more independents and minor parties get the vote, the more politicians will take note and start to listen to us. Your local member broke a promise? Sack ’em. It’s the only way they’ll learn.

2. We need new stuff. It’s hard rubbish time in my area, and the number of large, fully functional televisions that have been thrown out because their owners have shiny new flat screen tvs is ASTOUNDING. All because we need new stuff. We picked up a coffee table that needs a couple of nails and a polish to be as good as new. It’s a sturdy, high quality table. It’s lovely. But it was chucked on the scrap heap, because we need new stuff. More with the shiny things. Newsflash: We don’t need new stuff. Things can be repaired. Things can be polished. I can imagine a whole new class of profession in the future: people who fix stuff. Freaky, eh?

3. There’s rubbish everywhere. Yes, there is. But like politicians, we don’t have to accept that. We can take responsibility for our own rubbish. We can create less rubbish (don’t get me started on coffee pods), and dispose of what we do create carefully. We can pick up a little of everyone else’s rubbish every now and then. How many times have you walked into a school, a shopping centre, or a carpark and thought “how disgusting, people are such pigs!” and yet not done anything about it? Be the change you want to see in the world.

4. We need cars. We don’t, you know. We have feet. We have bicycles. We have public transport. Sure, there are arguments against many of those things, but you have more power in your body than you give it credit for. You can walk further than you think you can. You can ride further than you think you can. And the beautiful part is that the more you do it, the more you can do it. Got kids to transport? Get yourself a cargo bike. Cheaper than a second car, and you’ll save yourself the cost of a gym membership too. I’m not saying cars aren’t useful, but does your family really need two?

5. Productive=Busy. We are greatly invested in being busy these days. Wasted time is anathema. Got to be up and doing! But if there is one single thing I have learnt from being ill for a long time, it is that sometimes the most productive thing we can do is nothing at all. Mindfulness, stillness, peace and quiet – whatever you call it, we all need it, and we don’t value it nearly enough. I recharge my phone with ferocious obsessiveness, rarely letting it get flat. But I let myself get flat all the time. When was the last time you prioritized recharging yourself?

6. We mustn’t interfere. I have friends who live on a beautiful beach in Tasmania, where signs say dogs aren’t allowed, as it is a significant nesting area for a number of threatened species. Nonetheless, dog owners take their dogs there regularly, even off the lead. Rather than tut-tutting under their breath, my friends call them on it. Gently. Tactfully. But ever so firmly. They’re clever about it. They give people a chance to save face with comments like “Did you realize that dogs aren’t allowed on this beach?” which gives the owners the chance to say “Oooh, no, thanks for letting me know” and scuttle away with their tails between their legs (sorry). They still see dogs on that beach, but there are less of them, and they rarely see anyone they’ve spoken to coming back. This is how progress is made.

The mum next door screams at her kids a lot? Strike up a conversation. Maybe she really needs someone to talk to. There’s a dad in the supermarket with his toddler on the floor, screaming up a storm? Reach out to him. “Hah, I’ve had days I’d have liked to do that!” or “we’ve all been there, eh?” to let him know he’s not alone. When I was away from work for an extended period, I got lots of messages, emails, texts and phone calls, just checking that I was ok. I even got a few visits.

The world needs more reaching out, not less. So often we have no idea what’s going on, even next door to us.

What’s normal to you, and how much of it needs to change?

Ping

There’s an old computer command that you can use to check if a remote machine has crashed – it’s called “ping”. So you can ping a machine, say one called Captain Carrot, and get the response “Captain Carrot is alive”. If the machine is down, or the network is down between you and the machine, you will eventually get “No response from Captain Carrot.”

Far back in the mists of time, when I was a postgrad, this was a handy shorthand among computer scientists. If I hadn’t heard from Fred for a while, but didn’t have anything particular to say, I’d just send a ping: “Ping Fred”. Usually I’d get the response “Fred is alive.”

Occasionally I’d get something more creative, like “Fred has been eaten by his thesis.” Either way, it would trigger a conversation, of varying length depending on the ferocity of the thesis. It was a light way of checking in with each other. Ping says “I’m thinking of you, how ya doin’?”

It says “I don’t want to interrupt, but I’m here and want to stay connected. If you’ve got time, let’s chat. If not, just know that I’m here.”

It says “I’ve got a moment of spare time, and thought of you.”

These days our spare time is spent trawling the web, reading status updates, and watching meaningless youtube vidoes. When I have a moment free, I sit down and check my email, then trawl various news websites, read various articles I’m only marginally interested in, and check a host of social networking sites. I used to sit down, breathe, think of a friend and ping them.

Of course, there’s no need for pings these days. After all, we see Fred’s status updates on his social media of choice, and he sees ours. We know what’s going on in his life, right?

Notwithstanding the tendency of platforms like Facebook to heavily trim the number of updates that you actually see, hands up if you post everything that’s going on with you online? Do you post the huge argument you had with your boss (who, incidentally, you are friends with on facebook)? The health dramas going on in your family? Every last detail of your fears, worries, and uncertainties?

Few people do. We all have lines we don’t cross when it comes to broadcasting our lives (even me, tough though that may be to believe). And even if we did post it all online, clicking “like” doesn’t come close to a ping. Clicking “like” says “I saw what you posted”. Ping says “I thought of you of my own accord and wanted to see how you’re doing”.

That’s when I think of you
It’s all that I can do
I’d go mad if it wasn’t for you
If not for the thought of you
The promise of dreams come true
I’d go mad if it wasn’t for you.

“That’s when I think of you”. 1927.

Even the facebook “poke”, more often than not, means little more than “Facebook suggested I poke you”.

Ping often leads to coffee or lunch. At the very least, it is a brief two way interaction. Clicking “like” leads to… well… to scrolling off the page. Moving on. Trawling the endless interwebs in search of lolcats.

Maybe we computer scientists were on to something with this “ping” stuff. Maybe the humble ping is a way of reconnecting in our highly connected but oddly detached world.

On that note, I have to go. Things to do, people to ping.