Saturday, April 25, 2015

Cats and Dogs

I am spending three weeks petsitting. Pets have been noticeably absent from any of my blog posts, despite the theme being happiness. How can I defend their absence? I write on so many things that I have absolutely no clue about. Hence my regular pleas for guest blog posts. I have two Vets I am working on. But there is a balance between asking someone and becoming a mosquito

I had a wonderful dog growing up. I believe Milligan was a cross between a fox terrier and a poodle, but I don't think anyone knew for sure. He was awesome. I have a wonderful photo of the two of us sleeping next together when I was a little guy. He always seemed to know when you were ill and would sleep next to the couch or your bed. Like Mother Bears porridge, he was neither too big nor too small. Just right. I have to admit to struggling with yappy dogs, slobbery dogs or jumpy dogs.

As for cats. We had a couple. One named Tut, who we all loved dearly but had an unfortunate run in with our neighbourhood Pit Bull Terrier (unsurprisingly #1 on the first list of danger dogs I googled). The second had a few names - Fat Cat stuck best. Unfortunately Fat Cat soured my Man-Cat relations and was grumpy in the kind of way that doesn't make you millions of dollars.

My project for the next three weeks is to keep two dogs and two cats happy and healthy till their loving owners return. Maybe it will give me some more insight into animals and my own happiness. It has been a long time since Milligan left my world. The main handbrake for me has always been the fact that I been wandering the globe. I am also a little hesitant of messy pets turning my home into a zoo. It seems you have to be in one place and you have to live in a big house with a big garden to do pets justice.

Perhaps the co-housing model of the Danes would help solve that? You get less of the wasted space of one family living in a huge house, and you get enough people around so that you can go on holiday or travel without concern. I also like the idea of pets at Third Places. The well trained sort would make great additions to schools, hospitals, coffee shops, and even libraries (read a book, stroke a cat).

I know there are lots of dog and cat people out there. Anyone want to do a better job than me at stating the case for pets and happiness?

Friday, April 24, 2015

Breadwinner Homemaker

I used to work on a type of risk cover that covered your 'Own Occupation'. It covered more than 'Reasonable Occupation' cover. These are both forms of disability cover, which is actually more important than life cover. The cold hard truth, quite often, is that when you die the people around you will be more emotionally beat up than financially beat up... eventually. They can pick themselves up. Insurance is there to cover a disruption you couldn't afford to cover yourself. With disability, you are still around, you just can't 'bring home the bread'. Potentially your cost of living even goes up. You could move somewhere cheaper given you aren't working, but that depends on the other members of your family and your support.

The difference between 'Own Occupation' and 'Reasonable Occupation' is that the one covers your ability to do your job, the other covers the ability to do any job that you have the skill set for with a similar level of remuneration. 'Own' by being more specific, actually covers more. A little like Jared was talking about in 'Real Risk' - the chance of being killed by a terrorist is less likely than the chance of being killed by anything. In that case, being specific covers less. In this case, it covers more. It all gets very complicated. 

The rule of thumb I have always used is 'Get insurance for anything that will blow you out of the water, don't insure anything that would just suck but is part of life'. So I didn't get cell-phone cover etc. I did get disability cover. A friend of mine is one of those Buffett like 'under cover capitalists'. Buffett says he spends so little because he multiplies every price tag by ten. That is what he could grow it into. It isn't surprising that some of the people who are best with money don't spend a lot. Conspicuous consumption freaks them out. This friend of mine is one of the best investors I know. He also happens to not insure his car. He drives a small car, and figures he can take the hit. When asked, 'what if you hit a Porsche?', his response is that it would have to be his fault. As a careful driver, this is an unlikely event and by paying his premium he is covering all the other drivers too. After years and years of no premiums, it's a risk he can afford.

The 'Own Occupation' I said I would love to cover is that of 'Sandton House Husband'. That is my dream job. I have never had any issue with having a partner that earns more than me. In particular, I have never had an issue with having a partner who earns ridiculously more than me. A Sandton House Husband could have all the chores covered. His job would be to read widely, be as good looking as possible (gym etc.), cook amazing meals, do creative stuff his wife could boast about (e.g. art), and keep a wide circle of friends so that he could introduce his very busy high powered executive wife to people. Basically, the core of his job would be their happiness. I could roll like that.

The one chink in that theory is that she would be at work. This idea that there needs to be a breadwinner and a homemaker is flawed. If you aren't extravagant, your money can become your own breadwinner. All those things that I listed as the role of the Sandton House Husband don't cost a lot. What likely costs a lot is having to live close to where the money is made. What costs a lot is having to pay other people to do those chores because you are busy. Keynes and other economists thought we would be working shorter work weeks by now. The reasons we aren't may simply be because we are simply scared of free time, and we define ourselves by our occupations.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Normalising Suffering

One of the reasons we are uncomfortable with people sharing things that matter to them on Social Media is our inability to act when seeing a call to action. For all the accusations that people are selfish flying around, put in a situation where there help is required and they can help - most people I have come across in my life are pretty helpful. If they don't feel helpless. If something personal and difficult is shared in public, that helplessness can make us get a little annoyed. It isn't a fun feeling. Hasn't this person learnt to keep personal stuff to a small circle?

There are dedicated spaces where we feel safer, both to hear and share difficult stories. Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins star in a great movie about a group of people dealing with addiction. In a space specifically set up for people to share, where they receive mentorship and support, and we know all that is required is a kind word - we are okay with listening.

One of my Aussie cousins is a psychologist who specialises in people dealing with pain. He said one of the things he works on with people is the ability to accept, rather than fix, pain. Many of us have this in built call to action when it comes to stuff that sucks. I certainly fit that bill. The reason I find yoga so appealing is because it is so practical. It basically comes down to exercise, food, breathing, relaxing and positive thinking. You can do something about it. Sometimes it is not about the nail. It is just about listening. I find that really hard. I think that is part of why we struggle with sharing real life tough stuff on social media.

Why do we need to? Well although I think we are growing up, I still think there is a disconnect between the story we think everyone else is living and the story we are living. There is a wonderful movie about Alfred Kinsey. He was a scientist who studied bugs. A subject not many people follow. Then he got married and had sexual problems with his new wife. So he applied his scientific mind to the problem. The first step wasn't to have an opinion. It was to gather information and reflect life as it is rather than as we think it is. His works on male and female sexuality highlighted the chasm between the reality of people's sexual lives and what they thought everyone else was or wasn't doing. His work started conversations where people could realise they weren't weirdos. It allowed people to start sharing.

My cousin describes the need for 'normalising suffering'. Once we accept the difficult bits as part of what life has on offer, they lose their magic power. If we were able to share some of our challenging bits, along with an 'I am ok, you don't need to do anything'/'I have support, you don't need to do anything', perhaps it would be easier for others to read.

We can't be upset that social media doesn't reflect our lives if we don't do anything about it. Unless all we want is cheese with our whine.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Saving Starfish

There was a story I was told when I was young when people were feeling overwhelmed with all the problems in the world. An old man is walking on the beach and sees a young lady throwing starfish into the water. He asks her what she is doing and she says the sun will dry out the starfish. She needs to return them to the water. He points down the beach at the hundreds of starfish and says she can't possibly make a difference. She picks up another, and as she throws it back to its home she says, 'I made a difference to that one'.

This story was a founding parable for the Starfish Greathearts Foundation and they do great work. I love the tale and the lesson, but I have been mulling over a problem that it doesn't recognise. I am a big believer in the power of people on the front lines to know better than some grand central plan. Often we know the right thing to do without being able to communicate it. On the flip side, we struggle to increase our circle of empathy. In fact we quite often don't even know about the problems beyond those that come into our field of vision. At worst, we actively don't care.

We often think of leaders as people who will get things done. The leader has the power and represents groups of people's interests to make sure everyone is heard. That doesn't work if decision making is best left in the hands of individuals. I think a leaders role is perhaps to remove obstacles and let people get on with it, but also to ask tough questions. To point out inconsistencies.

A blaring inconsistency for me is the noise being made by 'the 99%' in America. The inconsistency lies in the fact that most of those 99% are in fact part of the 1%. You need just $34,000 annual income to be part of the global elite. The global median salary is $1,225.  I am not saying that inequality in America is not a problem. I just have two issues I need help with.

The first is wrapping my head around why people who don't think money buys happiness should be so concerned about there being people who have lots more than them. As soon as you benchmark your own happiness on someone else's level of wealth I think you can lose track of what is important to you. I am not saying that there aren't impoverished people in America. I would argue that most of them have 'enough' already. Most of them are cultural billionaires. In fact, if you are reading this blog, you are probably also a cultural billionaire. Money is a seductive measure because it is easy to quantify and compare. The good stuff can't be compared. The good stuff is priceless. We may just be scared of the good stuff and so making a noise about inequality gives us a way to kill time.

The second issue I have a problem with is getting emotional about 'high bar' problems when there are still lots of low bar problems for us to solve. There are enough people in the world that have enough to spare to deal with issues like ending absolute poverty. In America. In the World. That isn't the kind that depends on what other people are earning. That is the kind that ends lives.

I think it is good to focus. I think individuals are best placed to pick up the starfish and throw them in the water. If you live in a liberal democracy with a strong constitution, you don't need government to sort everything out. You don't even need consensus to sort some of the big problems out. You just need to care about the big problems first. The American '99%' can make a huge difference to global inequality if they want to. Perhaps that is the role of leaders, not to govern, but to tell stories. And to build a bigger tribe.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Keeping in Touch

Regular get togethers are one of my favourite things. When I was 24 I started playing a regular poker game at my place. Although the people who were there weren't always the same, the regularity meant I got to see some people really often. Without a weekly event, sometimes you can go months without seeing good buddies even if they live really close. Whether or not you are religious, that is one of the advantages of old school church on Sundays. The habit means you see people and build a community. A friend in New Zealand told me of a secular movement called Sunday Assembly where they try recreate the good bits that don't create theological differences of opinion. Interesting idea.

Another challenge with us all spreading out is that you can't do these sorts of regular face to face engagements. I don't like gender stereotypes, but culturally it does seem that in the circles I have been in, families with boys tend to be less good at keeping in touch than families with girls once a chunk of kilometres are thrown in. 

I met up with a friend from a Contiki tour I was on many moons ago. Although a diehard Kiwi who is still coming to terms with footy (to her credit, she did pick a side), she chose to come to Aus because the bigger population and economy gave her more work options. It does mean she is away from her family. They have a cunning plan to keep the benefits of communication habits. Every Friday, her mother, brother and sister each email each other three things that have happened in the week. The email can be short or long, but the point is that it happens. One of them starts the trail each week. Three things isn't that much, and can be as random as 'working really long shifts'. It then provides a trigger for further thoughts or follow up.

Not everyone feels comfortable writing. Finding a medium (phone/Whatsapp/Email/Facebook) that works for everyone can be a challenge. I am not great on the phone at all. If I had my way, everyone would have a blog. But I don't have my way. Even the guy who introduced me to blogging doesn't blog any more. Although he then got me onto Twitter so the banter is still there. Some people are anti-social media and want to hear your voice. Even though I am not great on the phone, it is something I know I need to get better at. Literally the only time someone who is juggling multiple wriggle worms may have, may be the half hour they have to themselves in a car. You can't type and drive even if you are an uber parent.

Nowadays there are so many different flavours of ways to communicate. I don't think it is the how that is a problem. The challenges are trying one of those flavours you aren't necessarily that comfortable with, and forming the habit.

Tourism at Home (by Gemma John)

Guest Post

Gemma is a ridiculously smart and creative anthropologist who now works in the context of design, planning and architecture. She pointed out to me that the struggle I often write about, of silencing your perspective in order to be able to truly empathise, is right at the heart of what anthropology is about. To often when we listen to people, we are just waiting for our chance to speak. Whether we go on the defence or the attack, we still have our own story playing loudly over the person we are supposed to be communicating with.

Having recently won a prestigious Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship, Gemma is going to be travelling to the USA and Europe to research the interior designs of libraries in the light of their changing demands for users. In all my talk of third places, I must admit to having forgotten about libraries. Our shared spaces and living places tell a lot about what is important to us, and how we think about happiness. Gemma shares a story about what she saw on a recent trip.

Tourism at Home
by Gemma John

What does the architectural landscape tell us about our notions of happiness and wellbeing?

I recently visited the capital of Slovakia, called Bratislava, which is a small place in a rapidly developing part of Eastern Europe. Since it is relatively unknown throughout Europe, Slovakia was a bit of a random choice for a holiday, not to be confused with Slovenia. A friend of mine and I had decided to make the most of the long Easter weekend and it was the cheapest flight that we could find. We arrived in Bratislava in the morning in time for an afternoon walking tour....

The rich political history of Bratislava is written in the urban landscape. As a tourist, the landscape is a true reminder of the fact that architecture is more than material, but embodies ideas (or doctrines) about happiness and wellbeing. These ideas might be considered, by some, as about sadness and repression. To some, they might be disagreeable, but they are nevertheless concepts of social existence that remain evident for all to see.

The walking tour was an opportunity to be given a potted history of this great city. During the two and a half hours walking around the city, exploring the old and the new, we gained an initial impression of the complex history.


Bratislava was originally part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the Ottoman Empire defeated the Kingdom of Austria  around 1536, it became the capital of Hungary, and the home of kings, archbishops, and the nobility. Before World War I, the population of the city was mixed, consisting of Hungarians, Germans, and Slovaks. But, the city's demographic, and its landscape changed, becoming less mixed and more segregated over the years. Bratislava declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919 as part of Czechoslovakia. Hungarians living in Bratislava, who continued to show their allegiance to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, retreated or fled. The city became predominantly the home of Czechs and Slovaks.

World War II

During World War II, Nazi Germany put pressure on the Czech and Slovak population to separate, and Bratislava was declared the capital of the new Slovak Republic. Slovakia fell under Nazi influence, and its Jewish population deported to concentration camps, further changing the character of the city. At this time, much of the Jewish old town was destroyed. At the end of World War II, most of Bratislava's German population was evacuated by the German authorities, and expelled from Eastern Europe.


The Communist Party seized power of Slovakia in 1948, which once again became part of Czechoslovakia, and Bratislava was turned into the industrial capital. Prague became the cultural capital of Czechoslovakia.

1. Highway - Under the Communist Party, much of the old town was destroyed, such as the Jewish quarter. This was bulldozed to make way for an industrial highway, Panonska Cesta, connecting Prague and Bratislava.

2. Concrete Tower Blocks - It built the biggest concrete housing complex in Eastern Europe, Petrzalka, to house the majority of the population. The policy of the Communist state was orientated toward one of assimilation. Amongst many others, the Roma were resettled to urban settings, and the settlements were liquidised. The second largest minority ethnic group in Slovakia, and a nomadic group, the Roma were forced to live side by side.

3. UFO - Inspired by the optimistic futurism of the 1900s, the Communist Party built the "UFO bridge" in the late 1960s and early '70s, at the height of Communist excess. Since then, the metal clad UFO, perched on a two-legged tower, has been staring menacingly at the array of classical buildings across the Danube.

The Czechs and Slovaks fought for independence from the Communist Party in 1989 through means of peaceful demonstrations, known as the "Velvet Revolution". Czechoslovakia was dissolved in 1993, creating two separate countries, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The people of Bratislava have become tourists in their own town: they use the features in their urban landscape to provide others with a narrative about their own past. The architectural structures reminiscent of the Communist era clearly fascinate them. They reveal the approach of the Communist Party to happiness and wellbeing. Every day, the city architecture reminds them of the ideas that shaped their past and their future, and that determine who they are today.

Mum and Dads

I visited Vancouver for the first time just short of seven years ago. I fell in love with the place instantly even though I was only there for three weeks. If it hadn't been so far away from the world I knew, I would have tried to move there in a heart beat. Part of the appeal of London in trying to get 'big picture experience' was that it was a Global City, but it was in the same time zone as people I cared about. Actually there were lots of people I cared about already there, and my niece was in the oven.

Vancouver also felt a little bit like a bubble. Sometimes you can get overwhelmed by big issues like 36%+ unemployment, crime, economic exclusion and tensions over whatever you look like in the mirror. Vancouver to me felt like this awesome place where all that mattered was living a good life. The people are friendly. The restaurants, bars & coffee shops create a buzz. You can walk places easily. I went to my first ice hockey game (It seems Canadians channel all their aggression into enforcers - must be why they are friendly everywhere else). The public transport was awesome. To the North there are mountains where you can go Skiing (I still need to try that), and to the South was warmer weather. It reminded me a little bit of Cape Town. Cape Town is awesome, but it does have problems you can't ignore.

Stanley Park - Vancouver

When people start having kids and they start building themselves a life, it becomes a case of priorities. When the worlds problems seem to overwhelm, a natural approach is to batten down the hatches and focus on a few things - Job and Immediate family (the one you chose, the ones you made). I guess the tough question is deciding how much you feel you owe the rest of the world for the opportunities you have had. Related, but less guilt laden, how much more happy could you be still making a contribution to the those less fortunate?

Melbourne is another one of those ridiculously awesome cities that I have immediately fallen in love with. As someone who is a fan of the idea of Global Citizenry, the multi-cultural flavour of Sydney and Melbourne cities appeals a lot. The suburbs I have been to still seem bubbly, but I guess progress takes time. The big difference for me from Vancouver is that some of my family made their home here a few decades back. Aussies also care a lot about cricket and a little about rugby - Canucks not so much. 

My cousin describes living in Aus as a little like living at Mum and Dads. Mum and Dad build a big house with lots of rooms and life is very comfortable. To go out and start a life on your own seems like a lot of effort. Mum and Dads has everything and so the incentive to move out is murky. Life is good. Aussie humour often reflects this. Last night we went to watch Sammy J & Randy at the last evening of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. There was a fantastic song about first world problems and the perspective gained from knowing that one day you'll be dead. The news also reflects this, the stories that are newsworthy can be amusing. Boring in terms of drama can lead to a very happy life though.

I don't know what the answer is. I do know that the world is getting smaller and we are more in touch. John McInroy, an inspirational friend, is starting on foot (about 1750km) from Cape Town to the start of the Comrades Marathon on 1 May. I know of at least 1 guy who will be 'walking the first km' with John but in London (finishing at South Africa House in Trafalgar Square). I will be in Sydney and am way too unfit to join John this year. That is next years challenge. But I will also make a plan to walk that first km. We don't have to be physically together to provide support. It does help, which is why John is getting off his bike (the traditional Unogwaja Challenge) but I think the key point is that people do what they can. Even more important a point is that we can do something.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Barrack Bombers

It isn't good enough to know the rules of a game to get into it. The stuff that matters is being able to have a little righteous indignation and be able to shout at the ref. Yesterday I went to my first Aussie Rules game at the MCG ('The G'). I was very excited about seeing the G after having grown up waking up at ridiculous hours to watch Test Cricket. My introduction was through two Ruddock cousins and the chap who indoctrinated them. Cameron was James first buddy as a 7 year old when they arrived in Australia. He has supported the Essendon Bombers since then, and partnering up with his brother Charles (the world's tallest psychologist), they were able to get some banter going with Dad who supported another team. In Aus, you don't support a team. You Barrack for them. That makes sense since it refers to the housing Soldiers had. Theirs is not to question why, theirs is just to do or die.

James reckons the key to happiness lies in three things. You need to have someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. Footy provides one of those things for Australians, even though most of the rest of the world don't get it. The Irish play the Aussies in an international game which mixes the rules of their national games which have similarities. All around the world though, people have that thing that they look forward to on the weekend. A sports team who represent something more than the rules to them. The rules can be adjusted. In Footy, the thing to shout indignantly is 'Ball!!!'. It means your guy has tackled their guy, and their guy hasn't passed the ball cleanly. You should have a free kick. When this doesn't happen, you get to tear at your hair and enquire after the refs IQ, vision, and peculiar taboo tastes.

I still need to figure out how to get into games I haven't grown up with. The downside of caring is that every four years I get punched in the stomach. I used to think the upside was when you actually win. Although, I have to admit that I was very proud of the way the South African side played, and the way they lost in this most recent World Cup. I think the upside is actually the banter and friendships. Looking forward to something together. The cost is that rollercoaster of emotions seems to take years off your life.

Here is an interesting look at the world's most popular sports. Of the top ten, I currently only really care about 3. Tennis and 4. Cricket. I have some work to do if I want to be a Global Citizen.