Monthly Archives: November 2013

I feel like there’s something between us: how well do you know your neighbours?

“It is easy to believe we are each waves and forget we are also the ocean.” – Jon J. Muth


Do you know your neighbours? Do you know their names, their kids’ names, what pets they have? Do you know where they work? Their phone number? Would you recognise them if they appeared at your door?

According to the stats, for the majority of us, the answer to all of the above is “Not really, no”. Apparently we are most likely to refer to our neighbours as “freaks” and the closer together you live, the less likely you are to know or talk to your neighbours. Indeed, a 2010 survey of the situation in Australia revealed that:

  • 60% of Australian’s don’t speak to their neighbours
  • 38% don’t know their neighbours at all
  • 73% would like to know their neighbours better

That last one gives me a little hope, but I am concerned about this. I wonder, if I were ever in any real trouble, who would I, indeed could I, call on for help? Most likely it would be those who would care most, but are too far away to be of any real assistance.

This is a new problem for a modern age; most of the people we “live with” would call us strangers.

It would be easy to fool ourselves into thinking that this doesn’t matter much. Thanks to our vast choice of communications technology, we have the indisputably miraculous ability to stay close with the people in our lives who are the furthest away.

We have become extremely adept at building online communities – old friends, overseas family, a bunch of people whom you have never met, but are just as nuts about vintage hat pins as you are… who could doubt the good that the Internet has done for our social lives.

My only quibble is that this ability to remotely “connect” with our not-so-nearest and dearest, seems to have made us lazy at getting to know the people standing (quite literally) next to us… you know, in the real world.

While our phone batteries are charged up and our Internet connections are active, we have a false sense of being surrounded by friends. But in real terms, we couldn’t be more alone. Sever from those virtual moorings and suddenly you are once again that proverbial island – part of the archipelago that is suburbia.

But perhaps this is not just laziness. I think in some ways the meaning of being a good neighbour has changed completely.

A neighbour used to mean someone who you could ask to feed your pets or water your garden when you went away. You would have been happy to have them watch your kids, borrow your lawn mower or use your pool on hot days without asking. There was a sense of, dare I say it, community.

Now it seems that the fences between us are barricades – preferably 10 feet high! The new definition for a good neighbour could be one that minds their own business, doesn’t make too much noise and, if at all possible, doesn’t appear to exist.

If you extend the definition beyond real estate terms and take “neighbour” to simply mean somebody near you – at the shops, on a train, waiting in a queue – you still get a general sense that any form of direct communication wouldn’t really be welcomed. Earphones act as fences, body language creates an invisible shield, a friendly hello is met with a nervous fake smile that should come with a subtitle of “OMG, please don’t TALK to me!!!”

So what is going on?
Is this a symptom of our current obsessive need to control every aspect of our lives? Is this the rise of Individualism? Have we lost the art of making polite conversation with strangers? Is it because we work long hours at stressful jobs and feel like we have no time for this sort of thing?

 I don’t know… but I don’t think it would be too much to ask for us to make a bit more of an effort.

Perhaps we should consider what we can do to let more people “in” and widen our social circle to include those physically closest to us: strike up a conversation with that lady at the bus stop that you see every day but have never spoken to, use the looming holiday season to throw a street party, make a conscious effort to say more than just “hi” to the guy next door when you take the bins out for collection…

Who knows, they may not be such “freaks” after all!



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Family Stories: the things we know by heart

“Every family has a story that it tells itself, that it passes on to the children and grandchildren. The story grows over the years, mutates, some parts are sharpened, others dropped, and there is often debate about what really happened. But even with these different sides of the same story, there is still agreement that this is the family story. And in the absence of other narratives, it becomes the flagpole that the family hangs its identity from.” – AM HOMES

ImageSometimes I feel for my older sister. Almost as soon as she opens her mouth, one or all of us will grumble “get some new material!” You see, blessed with a memory fit to shame an elephant, she has taken on the role of the family story teller, the keeper of our collective histories, a walking reminder of all things forgotten… and sometimes repressed!

I might remind myself (and the rest of my eye-rolling tribe) that storytellers were once revered. Indeed, they were our first historians. In my sister’s defence, she is part of a grand tradition spanning back to the very beginnings of the human experience…

It is understood that humans could speak for a couple of hundred thousand years before we undertook to write stuff down. There is not much consensus on dates, but the latest evidence seems to indicate that it was as late as 2900 BCE. Around this time, so bountiful were the food stores of Mesopotamia, that memory no longer served and the Sumerians were forced to resort to keeping written records of their animal and grain supplies.

Prior to this, the memory was one of our greatest tools. Unlike the present day, where we need remember nothing but our passwords and all information is uploaded and downloaded from a digital “somewhere out there”, our oral traditions were essential, not only to our identity, but to our very survival. The stories passed down through the generations contained vital information about how to find and safely prepare food, treat illness, spot and outsmart predators and also offered inspirational or cautionary tales of those who had gone before and what we could learn from their mistakes and victories.

It has always been the sharing of (and learning from) this, the most ancient of narratives, the human family story, which has provided the primary way for each generation to progress, to become something “more” by adding a new chapter.

This is why the technologies of communication have always had such an immense impact on our development, both scientifically and socially. The invention of writing, the first library, the printing press, the telephone, the cinema, the radio, the television, the computer, the mobile phone, the internet… what these technologies have in common is what they have done to broaden and speed up our ability to share our stories.

But what of the little histories that do not make the TV news or even rate a “tweet” amongst friends. What happens to our family stories?

These are the tales nannas tell at Christmas lunch after a few too many shandies, embarrassing uncles loudly thigh-slap in impromptu weddings speeches and mothers lovingly whisper to their children as bedtime stories. They are the anecdotes that are always soothing, funny, thrilling or shocking no matter how many times they are heard, not least of all because they are always just a little wilder in the retelling.

Some cultures pass on a short summary of the family story, a strange sort of mission statement in the form of a family motto. My husband and I both happen to descend (on our respective paternal sides) from two Scottish clans. It is interesting to me to see my husband’s clan’s motto (“Either action or death”) reflected in him (rather amusingly) in his impulsive nature and inability to “do nothing” in any situation. My family’s motto was “They flourished despite it all” – unfortunately very apt in my family’s case. Perhaps this explains our resilience…?

For my part, I have had the benefit of living in a family of great story tellers. I know all about my great grandmother’s prize winning chocolate cake, my nanna painting “seams” along the back of her sisters’ legs to look like stockings during the war, my mother running away from home (aged three-and-a-half) and wandering down High Street Northcote to the cinema, where she snuck in with a band of older girls and stayed all day (meanwhile, nearly the whole suburb was out searching for her). I love my dad’s stories of wandering his family’s sheep farm conducting whole games of cricket in his head and his life at boarding school which sounds at once severe and cosy.

I know that these are the tales I will tell my children about their family before them. They will add these to my husband’s family stories and start a new book all of their own.  

This passing down of family history has a greater impact, however, than just mere entertainment. A psychological study, conducted by Dr Marshall Duke and Dr Robyn Fivush, showed that the more a child knows about their family’s past, the more resilient they will be. Referred to as the “Do You Know?” scale, the doctors were astonished to find that this was the single best predictor of a child’s emotional health and happiness.

It makes sense when you unpack this idea. When you have some impression of the trials your ancestors have survived and the great achievements they have accomplished, in hard times you can turn your mind to those characters and say “I have that inside of me, somewhere”.

So it would seem that we should be grateful for our retrospective relatives and groan no more. They are performing a most important task.

And to my darling sister, on behalf of us all… sorry xoxo

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Tolerance: I do not think it means what you think it means.



“You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means” – Inigo Montoya, Princess Bride

For the first time in a while, I actually enjoyed watching Q&A the other night – it came to us from the Sydney Opera House as part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (don’t you just love that concept!?!).

The panel comprised Germaine Greer (feminist and historian), Peter Hitchens (journalist, author and “Burkean Conservative”), Hanna Rosin (author of The End of Men) and Dan Savage (gay activist and sex advice author) – an eclectic group of intelligent, passionate people, all quite capable of building compelling arguments for their different (often diametrically opposed) points of view; it was a situation where on many topics, they really were all “kind-of-a-bit-right”.

However, even more interesting to me than the content of their “discussion” (and I use that term loosely) was the subplot of “Tolerance” that seemed to develop throughout the show. It popped up quite a few times wearing various disguises, creating a sense of irony that I found at once amusing and thought provoking.

“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.” – John F. Kennedy

If we take President Kennedy’s definition of the word, none of the members of the panel seemed to be able to demonstrate anything like tolerance for their fellow speakers, nor the audience members who asked questions.

No one surprised me in the least with their reactions to one another (how well do we really expect a born again Christian conservative and a gay rights activist to get along?) What did amuse and disappoint was their complete inability to let one another make their arguments without interruption or any level of respect – the obvious irony being that all of them were there to argue for tolerance of their own ideas, cause or point of view.

Watching this unfold, a thought wandered into my head and stood there blinking at me for a moment…

All the guests on the program (save perhaps Rosin, who insists she is a mere observer) were (or have been) activists of a sort. Is it unfair to expect such people to be tolerant of one another… can tolerance happily co-exist with activism of any kind? I mean, aren’t all activists quite intolerant by definition?

Was Gilbert K Chesterton correct in his assertion that “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions”? Does the concept of tolerance imply a certain amount of apathy in its application?

After noodling this over for the past few days, I have decided the answer is “no”.

I have come to understand that we have a dangerous tendency to confuse tolerance with acceptance. As my husband put it to me, the difference is that “tolerance is listening to the sales pitch – acceptance is getting your wallet out to pay”.

The confusion works both ways; sometimes, where we have said tolerance we should demand acceptance. This is certainly the case when talking about how people are treated based on their gender, race, age, sexuality, disability or any other personal attribute over which a person has no control – in these cases, nothing less than acceptance will do.

But ideas… ideas are where blind acceptance can be the enemy. Opinions can change with time, context, knowledge and experience. As such we must always be asking ourselves “is that right?” It is in the arena of ideas where we can demand tolerance… but not necessarily acceptance. Acceptance of ideas without thought and challenge is no different from apathy – the true enemy of activism.

So in this case, I find myself guilty of my own charge… of course tolerance can happily live next door to activism. I must respectfully disagree with you Mr Chesterton!

I think that the Q&A panelists were acting out of the fear that arises from this same confusion – they worried that tolerating the discussion of ideas opposing their own was tantamount to acceptance, so chaos reigned and no one was prepared to listen.

Indeed, the value of tolerance is that it gives us ears. We must listen to ideas, wherever they come from, so that our own are constantly challenged. How else can we know if we are right?



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