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Not Just a Facsimile of Family

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!” –  Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

ImageI am well known as the Christmas Grinch in my family. I can’t really explain exactly why I dislike the whole thing so much, but as far as I can tell there are a number of tiny reasons why it gets up my nose.

I won’t go into the details as this is not the point of my post, but in part, I guess, my beef is that Christmas just never looks like the picture on the box.

We have all the right ingredients:

  • Loving family who mostly get along just fine
  • Great food
  • Presents
  • Tree
  • A little alcohol
  • Traditions

We mix it all up with care, set the temperature to “Melbourne Summer” and bake the lot for the requisite amount of time…

But, the thing is, unlike the Christmas movies, no one has a script for the cute jokes and light-hearted banter and it ends up being “just another family gathering”, only with too many presents, food that takes an age (and an army) to get to the table and a mountain of washing up.

See… Grinch.

Incidentally, my older sister is the opposite. I don’t think the entire Pacific Ocean could dampen her Christmas Spirit. No matter how many fights she has with our younger sister, or how many Cranberry Sauce stains get on the tablecloth or how many toddler tantrums accent the 5th replay of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, she remains joyful (if slightly bossy) about the whole shebang…

Sometimes I wonder how we can be related…but I digress.

Anyhoo, I recently heard an interesting discussion regarding Christmas and family on Radio National’s Life Matters program. It was a modern day dilemma:

A woman who grew up Catholic has married a Hindu man and part of their marriage agreement includes not having any kind of meat in their home. The couple are hosting Christmas this year and the woman’s parents want to insist that Roast Turkey be served at the meal. The woman politely reminded her parents of how their religion does not allow them to eat meat, but they were less than understanding, accusing their daughter of being fundamentalist and selfish (amongst other things). She was understandably upset by this interaction… torn between loyalties to her husband’s beliefs and her parents’ wishes.

The debate was an interesting one (and one which made me feel lucky not to have such controversy to overcome in our own Christmas lunch planning). However, one things stuck out for me…

One of the advice dispensers went against the idea of planning a meal outside of the couple’s home (eg in a restaurant) to avoid the conflict. Instead, he believed the couple should serve a meal appropriate to their household beliefs (their beliefs trumped her parents’ preferences in his opinion). He asserted that while Christmas may be held up as the season of peace and goodwill for all mankind, it often doesn’t go that way… and we shouldn’t expect it to.

What he said next made something in my brain go “ding!”…

He made the point that for many, Christmas has primarily come to represent an opportunity for a family to come together as a whole.  That is your family, not some manufactured “facsimile of family” – a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out following a script. These gatherings are a time to come face to face with the reality of each other and what that means.

The reality of each other…

The arguments, the present “fails”, the bored teenagers glued to whatever screen they can find, the cheesy bon-bon jokes, the washing up… the completely mundane “normalcy” of it all… that’s what family is.

So with 19 days to go, I will try to embrace the preparations with an open mind and heart… and not settle for the fantasy, the mere copy of a “Merry Christmas”… because I get to enjoy the real thing.

Lucky me!

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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

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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.

 

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“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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Good is the new “greed”

“We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you buddy? It’s the free market. And you’re a part of it.” – Gordon Gecko, Wall Street, 1987

ImageIt has been over a quarter of a century since Gordon Gecko made his grand declaration that “greed is good”, summing up Wall Street not just for the hedonistic 1980s, but for the foreseeable future…

But cynics be warned, there is a new girl in town!

Durreen Shahnaz has been many things in her life – the fourth-born daughter of a middle class Muslim Bangladeshi family, the first Bangladeshi female investment banker on Wall Street, founder of oneNest, an Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore, a proficient Indian Classical dancer…

Oh, and the founder of Impact Investment Exchange (IIX Asia), the world’s first social stock exchange.

IIX Asia is, put quite simply, an organisation that aims to connect “Impact Investors” with “Social Enterprise”.

It is important to note that Impact Investment is quite different from Socially Responsible Investment. This is a more proactive approach; you are not simply avoiding investing in companies whose activities you do not support (eg animal testing), you are looking to truly put your money where your mouth is and invest in companies whose core business provides social and/or environmental value (eg Sun-eee, a company providing renewable energy to rural areas in Cambodia).

However, make no mistake, this is no altruistic exercise – investors are also looking for financial ROI. The absolute worst case scenario for investors is that their investment returns their capital, with many delivering at or better than market rates.

The definition for Social Enterprise (SE) is similarly specific:

  • Positive social impact is the company’s primary reason for being (as opposed to a Corporate Social Responsibility program)
  • The business model must be one of sustainable growth for all stakeholders
  • The business must have a market orientation (ie responds to customer wants and needs)
  • It can operate as a not-for-profit or for-profit entity, but is not a charity

The idea of a social stock exchange is a total win-win scenario: with the exposure to Impact Investors and access to capital a social stock exchange supplies, these amazing companies can enjoy the financial growth they require in order to make a real difference in their communities. On the investor side, standardisation of reporting on social impacts and increased transparency offers a confidence not currently provided by the traditional stock exchange where a number of SEs are already listed.

The really encouraging thing is that this idea has legs… long ones!

Prof Shahnaz reports that trends indicate an increased interest in this sort of investment opportunity. Socially responsible investment has grown over the past 15 years from $0 to $7 trillion. Impressively, IIX Asia currently sits at just below $100 million, but projects growth to $0.5 trillion dollars in the next three years.

The IIX Asia was launched in 2012 in partnership with the Stock Exchange of Mauritius, allowing for expansion throughout both Asia and Africa. A second social stock exchange has also been launched in the United Kingdom. That covers a large chunk of the world, but what about the rest of us?

I feel that this is a really exciting idea and one that could form part of an economic solution for many social issues.

Here in Australia, for example, we are currently grappling with how to best address the issue of climate change. While I realise that this idea of a social stock exchange doesn’t completely solve the problem of how to reduce carbon emissions, it may contribute in a positive way by enabling more environmentally focused SEs to get off the ground and helping investors to more easily vote with their wallets and choose to invest in companies who are supporting these goals.

As it turns out, Gordon was more right than he knew – we are all a part of the free market…

and our choices have impact.

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Giving: As good as it gets

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” – Winston Churchill

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The other day, as I drove my daughter to Kindergym, I had the fortune to catch Margaret Throsby interviewing Sylvie Guillem on Radio National.

It is a true pleasure to listen to Sylvie speak. She is so intelligent and has the kind of mellifluous voice which I imagine only a French ballerina could possess. She spoke on all manner of things to do with dancing and performance, but one particular thing she mentioned in passing really struck me.

Sylvie talked about “giving”.

When describing her experience of performance, she said,

“I give to an audience… the audience comes to receive and I am here to give”

This simple idea, the desire to give pleasure to her audience, is what enables her to push her body and mind to the absolute limit and deliver those incredible performances she is so famous for. (Just check out that “6 o’clock” move she’s pulling off in that photo!)

It was one of those things that makes you sit up a bit straighter and pay attention. For just a moment, I saw the concept of “work” quite differently.

I am ashamed to admit that, perhaps like some of you, I tend to look at most kinds of work as something foisted upon me – an utter inconvenience and drain on my time and energy. As a Mum I catch myself too often thinking “I would rather stick a fork in my eye than build one more thing out of play dough”…

I don’t think I am alone. Way too often, we front up to our “work” (whether this be at an office or within the home) not with a sense of giving, but with a sense of entitlement. “Show me the money!” we cry, often expecting a reward just for showing up, let alone giving a great performance.

What would happen if we just plain forgot about the endgame (money, recognition etc) and just delivered that A-grade performance for the art of it; for the delicious satisfaction of a job well done?

We have all heard the old adages “it is more blessed to give than to receive” and “money cannot buy you happiness”. These concepts collide in social psychologist Elizabeth Dunn’s recent study.

The two things in her presentation that really stuck out for me were

a)      once you earn around $75,000 per annum, money stops having a significant effect on your happiness – this falls way short of the millions most of us think will have us spinning on an Austrian mountain side singing “The hills are alive…” à la Maria Von Trapp.

b)      spending money on others creates a greater sense of happiness than spending on yourself.

The above study is just one amongst the many you can readily find hailing the benefits of generosity. Most seem to agree that people who give of themselves are happier, healthier and more satisfied with life in general.

This is because giving to others leads to lovely feel-good things, like a rush of Endorphins – fighting stress and boosting your immune system, a tap into a positive feedback loop (those that give feel happier, so are more likely to give) and being socially more engaged and accepted (well duh – who doesn’t like someone who is generous!?!)

So all this giving is making you happy (yay!)… BUT, the fun doesn’t stop there!

The funny thing about happiness is that it makes you more likely to DO. The one thing you can probably observe fairly easily about really interesting and successful types is that they often

a)      are very happy

b)      work very hard indeed.

Not always things we put together in our modern lifestyle!

So the theory goes like this.

Instead of:

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We can reinvent the wheel:

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In that case, I am off to give myself fully to playing with and teaching my kids, because as a Mum that’s my “work” and today I am not just going to “get it done”, I’m going to do it superbly and with great enthusiasm. I am sure that my little audience of two will give my performance a rave review… and that just might make me happy!

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