Are you doing it this winter?

Are you taking the plunge this winter? Readying yourself to tap into a euphoric eruption of endorphins? Already wondering what I’m on about. I’m talking about cold-water swimming, of course. What? Did you think this might be a spicy little post about something else? Bad luck: you need to go elsewhere for your X-rated intake. 

We’re heading into winter in the Southern Hemisphere, so it’s time to consider the exercise regime of choice over the cold months. In the Northern Hemisphere, people are throwing in their cold-water towels and planning beach breaks and warm stuff. I just read a review of her second year at it by Caitlin Moran. She seems to like this what? Hobby … sport … therapy … self-inflicted act of sadomasochism? “Who needs drugs when I can get off my face cold water swimming?” Whatever you choose to call it, cold water swimming is riding a wave, as it were—I know at least two people in NZ who swear by it. Maybe in NZ, it’s worth a go. Where I live, we rarely even get frost, so it could add a bit of frisson to one’s day as winter sinks its fangs into the underbelly of autumn. But in colder climates like the UK, when you likely have to get a coast guard to chainsaw a swimming hole for you through the ice, it has to be nuts, right? 

But growing it is, and growing both in popularity and controversy. It seems to have triggered some resentments which have bubbled to the surface in its seasonal wake.  

Cold-water swimming seems like a relatively new thing. It’s not. It’s been a thing in many northern countries since … forever. In Russia, pre-Christians frolicked in ice water, and it became part of court protocol and was a custom among the ‘plebs’ throughout the Moscovian era from the late Middle Ages. Muscovy was a Grand Duchy or Principality founded in 1283, which morphed into the Russian Empire in the early eighteenth century under the first tsar. 

What’s changed is that ice-swimming competitions have sprung up like icicles after a deep chill. The establishment of the International Ice Swimming Association in 2009 formalised ice swimming as a ‘sport’. Swimmers compete in the Ice Mile (1608 metres). The water must be colder than 5 degrees Celsius, and competitors are only allowed the basics of swimming goggles, caps, and togs. There’s now also a metric 1500m version. Are they mad? To borrow from Gordon Ramsey, “Expletive me!” 

So why do people take the plunge? Caitlin says it involves “ten minutes of gasping, often agonised breaststroke through frost, sleet, hail and snow, but the endorphins make it all worthwhile”. Put like that, does it sound like something everyone should try at least once? Adherents say benefits positively affect the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems. There’s also the psychological and metabolical lift (remember all those endorphins). 

However, I would never inadvertently put my readers at risk by encouraging something that could negatively affect your health and well-being. For all the apparent benefits, detractors claim it’s pretty risky, particularly for inexperienced and untrained swimmers. So, if you’re considering it as your next wellness springboard, it’s recommended to go for a gradual acclimatisation. Dip your toe in the water, so to speak. Break yourself in one shivering inch at a time over time rather than jumping in at the deep end. While cold water swimming might be verging on a religious rite to some, this extreme version of total immersion can kill you. Heart failure brought on by extreme cold is one of the risks, as is the only slightly lesser possibility of hypothermia. 

I have tried it, though, so never let it be said that my opinions are based on prejudice and hearsay alone. One night, many (many) years ago, as an undergraduate at Saint Andrews, a few of us were having dinner at a friend’s house. Said house was a stone’s throw from the town’s celebrated outdoor swimming pool, located on a wind-blasted shore and filled by the incoming tide. Such pools used to be common in coastal resorts, but they’ve fallen out of favour. From the late sixties, we Brits deserted the bracing outdoor experience, lured by the advent of the cheap ‘bucket shop’ holiday. Cheap all-in packages allowed us to escape our dismal summer and flock in droves to Mediterranean nirvana, where we pursued the honourable pastime of frying ourselves to a crisp on a beach, falling into the bath-warm sea to break the monotony of hours prone on a sun lounger mitigated by copious quantities of lager and cocktails.

Back in historic St. Andrews, imagine the scene, if you will. About six of us are in the post-dinner alcohol-infused bravado stage that tends to herald trouble when you’re a student. At some point, someone (history doesn’t relate who) said, “Let’s go for a swim”. It’s February, in the middle of the Scottish winter, but we’re pretty drunk, and it seems like a great wheeze. Our host somehow rustles up towels for everyone. We lurch over to the pool, which is as wind-swept as ever, black as Hades, and we could just make out the white tops on the not-inconsiderable waves. Some brave soul sheds most of their clothes and jumps in, provoking the rest of us to follow quickly—no one wants to appear a wimp. 

John McMillan / St Andrews sea swimming pool

Gordon Ramsay’s ripe vocabulary applies here, too. It was beyond cold. Eskimo Pie cold. The sort of cold that makes your lungs want to collapse to avoid it. I doubt we stayed in for more than a nano-second as the freeze factor sobered us up, and we grasped how insane it was. I don’t imagine the current practitioners get in a wild sea pool at 2am at least five sheets to the wind. You’d have to hope not. How we survived without succumbing to hypothermia, I’ll never know. They’re right about one thing, though. The endorphins are incredible – once you’ve convinced your lungs to start functioning again and the blood starts flowing back to those important muscles, like your brain. As the chill receded along with the blue flesh and chattering teeth, the big-noting began, and a saga was born. 

A very long-winded way of saying that cold-water swimming isn’t new. But it’s spawned a new, highly divisive fashion accessory—the dryrobe. Ever ready to get on a new bandwagon, the fashion industry has seen this predominantly middle-class pursuit as a potential gold mine. Ergo, we now have the dryrobe as the accessory of choice for the dedicated cold-water swimmer. In case, like me, you’d missed the arrival of this seminal new garment, they’re huge coats with towelling lining. They break all the prevailing fashion rules, which require a garment to render the wearer less, rather than more, bulky. Dryrobes also apparently achieve the sleight of drape that makes wearers look triangular.

Nonetheless, swimmers love them so much that they’ve started popping up in the most improbable places— supermarkets, football stadiums, and even workplaces. It won’t be long before someone decides to discard their ball dress for one. Their popularity now goes way beyond the original purpose of post-dip warmth and modesty.

But in parallel, dryrobes have become a weapon in the class wars. Google and ye shall find headlines like Too Cool for the Pool: How the Dryrobe Became the Most Divisive Thing You Can Wear. (The Guardian) and Don’t Humiliate Anyone You Spot in a Dryrobe, Especially When It’s Me. (The Times). There even is (or was) a Facebook Page, The Dryrobe Wankers, with more than 80,000 followers. Let the games begin!

I live a hop, skip and a jump (or a slide, skate or slush trudge in winter parlance) to a waterfront. Once I’ve saved enough money for the eye-wateringly expensive, must-have dryrobe accessory, perhaps I’ll give it a go. Perhaps. If the tides are right. If there’s a full moon and I can see hair growing on the palms of my hands. If Hell starts freezing over. Wait, it seems to me that cold water swimming actually is Hell on Earth, so why opt to get there early, even equipped with a dryrobe? I like my swimming holes to be like the velvet warmth of the Mediterranean mid-summer or the waters inside the reefs in the Fijian Islands, where you can bask like a lurking shark for hours on end without getting cold. Without the sharks. Or the rip currents. Or even any waves when I think about it. I’m sorry, Caitlin, but you can keep the big chill, endorphins notwithstanding. I’ll take a long soak in a hot bath every winter.

Do the (Side) Hustle

Remember the 1975 disco hit The Hustle by Van McCoy and the Soul Symphony? The ‘song’ made No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Soul Singles charts during the summer of 1975 and on the Canadian RPM charts. It peaked at No. 3 in the U.K., No. 5 in New Zealand, and No. 9 in Australia. It only made 38 on the French Singles Chart, confirming (in case it needed to be) that the French are different. The Hustle won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance early in 1976 and sold over a million copies. 

But wait, there’s more. This catchy but annoying ‘song’ has been featured in films including Stuck on YouVampires Suck and The Lorax, T.V. programmes— Shark Tales, That ‘70s Show, American Dad! and Futurama, amongst others. You’d have to say it was a whopping success despite only having three words—Do the Hustle! 

According to wikiHow, The Hustle is a “fast-paced partner dance, related to swing, and commonly danced to disco and modern pop. The dance involves four basic moves: stepping, twirling, chicken dancing, a move called ‘The Travolta’, and turning.” Then it was rinse and repeat until you drop. 

If you want a walk down memory lane and the chance to brush up on your hustle moves or try them out for the first time, you’ll find instructions in this incredibly cheesy short video. You’ll love it … honestly. Despite my cynicism, listening to it brought a fun flashback to my mid-seventies teenage disco queen. 

Anyway, despite a cursory search into the background of the dance, I couldn’t find anything specific. Presumably, it was a nod to the need to hustle to succeed or survive in the hustle and bustle of the seventies. It’s become much more sophisticated these days—it seems everyone has a side hustle—as a cheeky ‘must have’ accessory to one’s working life. Side hustles are flexible work that you do over and above your primary job to bring extra cash, get your creativity flowing or add purpose to your life. It could be taking up a new hobby, learning a new skill or using an existing one you want to ‘monetise’ at some point. Could even be volunteering for a non-profit you rate. 

As professional speaker and coach Alissa Carpenter says, “We all know Millennials love a good side hustle—to fuel their passions and wallets”. But it’s not just Millennials. It seems we’re all at it, including me; you’re no one if you don’t have a side hustle. It’s the ultimate put-down of our contemporary world: “What, no side hustle!”. I exaggerate, but the concept of the side hustle is endemic. 

I feel we need an updated version of The Hustle—Do The Side Hustle. What a pity Van McCoy died in 1979, shortly after the hit’s success, so he can’t do a side hustle of his own by remastering the original and raking it in. Clearly, it’s a great opportunity for some keen hustler.

Of course, it isn’t new. People have been forced or opted to take up additional burdens to make ends meet since Adam and Eve were ejected from Eden without notice. I’m sure they hadn’t had time to build up a rainy-day nest egg. People bandy the words around like membership of an exclusive club, but for people living on the margins, it’s always been an unwelcome part of their reality—the only way they can feed their families and survive. There’s also always been the darker side. I’m thinking black marketeers during war and rationing when fortunes are made by offering consumer goods that couldn’t be bought in conventional shops at exorbitant prices. The side hustle all too often comes wrapped in the trappings of despair, manipulation or holding people to ransom.  

While this type of side hustle is still shamingly very much part of the human condition, the trendy contemporary version seems pretty harmless. Side hustles, after all, make us better, more rounded, more connected, or simply wealthier people. Where’s the harm? Who suffers if you decide to set up an Etsy Shop as an outlet for your creativity? Or if I use all my waking hours outside work trying to become a best-selling author? Surely, it’s good to pursue the paths that make our hearts sing beyond the 9 to 5 grind. Why not use our ingenuity to make money on the hoof?

I’m a side hustler with the best of them, but there are issues. I’m about to publish a new book, and I’m running on fumes, trying to keep all the plates spinning. Side hustles can be hungry beasts sucking up all your best energy. In my day job, I run a design studio, which I own. As my book launch date looms, I’m not entirely clear which is the side course, and which is the main one as I scramble to keep all the plates spinning and keep my business dynamic whilst doing everything it takes to give my book its best shot. I’m blessed with high energy levels, but they’re not infinite, and I’m conscious of the risk of burnout if I keep the candle lit at both ends. I live alone, so it’s my call how I use my out-of-office time, but side hustles can short-change friends and family, stealing time that should be theirs. 

I’m all for putting time into hobbies and gaining new skills. You meet new people, expand your horizons, and potentially earn a bit of welcome extra dosh. I’ve met a wide range of like-minded people through mine, something I didn’t even consider when I started my indie publishing business with my sister. However, the statistics show that side hustles as a necessity are on the rise. According to CNBC’s Gilli Molinsky, “44% of people with a side hustle think they’ll always need it—and more are picking one up”. According to an April 2023 Bankrate survey of 2,505 U.S. adults, more than 39% have a side hustle to help cover living expenses rather than for discretionary spending. Half of the Millennials surveyed and over fifty per cent of the Gen Xers have one. 

The tragedy behind these stats is that too many people are going backwards financially, often underpaid, and coping with eye-watering costs of living hikes. Inflation at least seems to be under control (for now), but that only means commodities stay at the same high rates; they don’t revert to their more affordable pre-inflationary levels, so the cost-of-living hike is hard-wired in even though the curve has flattened (again, for now).

Anyway, I’m sure you get my point. Side hustles can be fun and richly rewarding on many counts for those of us lucky enough to follow our dreams because we can. They shouldn’t be a survival mechanism for people who have no choice.

P.S. Sorry if I’ve given you an earworm. If it’s any consolation, I can’t get the pesky Hustle thing out of my head either.

Fun with flatpack furniture

How hard can it be? Seriously. Putting together a bunch of pieces to make an item of furniture? Child’s play, you might think. I certainly did, as I pressed Buy on a stylish mini-drawer set from IKEA, which looked perfect for my new home office. I live in an apartment, so space is always a consideration, and this baby offered bountiful bang for my buck in its miniature Scandi magnificence. 

Flatpacks, AKA knock-down furniture or ready-to-assemble furniture, are very popular. The concept is seductive—go to the online or physical store, buy the item, haul it home or get it delivered, and, after a bit of assembly time, voila, you have the perfect artefact for your home or garden or whatever. Right? Sort of.

But what a great wheeze flatpacks are…for their makers. Imagine the eureka moment when some eager beaver middle manager thought of an innovative way to make truckloads more money. Picture being a fly on the wall as said manager makes a presentation to their senior team, which might have gone something like this:

“I’ve been thinking outside the box to bring a major paradigm shift—or is it a pivot?— to the table here for your consideration. Thank you for the opportunity to run this game-changing idea up the flagpole. The central theme of the premise going forward is to let the customers assemble products themselves. Think what that will save us,” he/she/they enthuse as they rip through a PowerPoint full of quadrant graphs, up arrows next to dollar icons, etc. 

“We get them excited about affordability, convenience and the whole DIY bandwagon that’s kicking off—they’ll love it and won’t notice we’re selling them a pup. Next steps? Whiteboard a go-to-market strategy, take a deep dive, unpack the possibilities, and shift the dial. I’ll reach out in a couple of weeks to touch base and see if it’s in your wheelhouse.” 

In addition to being a walking cliché, our manager was clearly the identical twin of the towering genius who believed self-checkouts were a giant leap forward for civilisation. 

But love them we did—flatpacks that is, not the suits responsible for them. IKEA, the spiritual home of the flatpack, was founded as a mail-order retailer in 1943 by Swedish entrepreneur Ingvar Kamprad. By the early 2000s, IDEA was the world’s largest furniture seller, with three hundred-plus stores and infinite online buying options.

Anyway, in the same way, time heals all wounds—or wounds all heels, if you prefer—it also cauterises past flatpack traumas. I’m not a flatpack virgin—I’ve given a few of them a go since the London IKEA opened to much excitement in 1987. It’s brutal—every time. But if you leave it long enough between purchases, the scars fade, and you forget how awful it was. Your inner recovery mechanisms dampen any trigger warnings, and before you can say, “Flatpacks suck”, you’re back in that magical thinking place where hope triumphs over experience. In my experience, hope has always been the loser.

Returning to last Friday. My new flatpack duly arrives at my business and, with it, my first challenge. It’s heavy. When I bought it, I thought it was made of lightweight wood or MDF or something. Oops. It’s metal. The box itself is pretty small, but I can barely lift it. How to get it to my car and home without breaking myself? My business partner gallantly lends me his fold-up trolley, and, home from work, I’m feeling optimistic and light-hearted as I start unpacking. Until I look at the instructions when buyer remorse kicks in big time. There are 20 different steps involved. Surely, that’s overkill for a box with six dinky drawers. Realising this might be more than a two-minute job, I put it off until Sunday as I have more fun things to do on Saturday.

The next day dawns bright and sunny, but I’m a bit groggy, having got home at 3am and woken up at my usual first sparrows ludicrously early timeslot. Despite the lack of sleep, I know it’s now or never—if I don’t tackle the beast immediately, it will stay in its box for all eternity. It’s summer and already about 30 degrees. By the time I’ve got to Step 12, I’m sweating like a dyslexic on a spelling bee as I realise I’ve made all six drawers with the runners on the inside. Unlike Intel, which is a good thing to find within your computer,  for drawers, the big virtue is runners on the outside. OMG, kill me now. I unravel all six drawers, mashing my fingers with the out-of-control screwdriver and swearing like a trooper. You get the picture, I’m sure. 

It took me three hours. THREE HOURS! The miserable hours. But I have to say, broken nails and bruised hands and all, I am very pleased with myself and my wee drawer set. Here are some handy tips to consider as your mouse hovers over the BUY button:

  1. Understanding flatpack instructions is a near impossibility. Sometimes, you have to discern a build path from screeds of written instructions, typically in a font size requiring more magnification than the Hubble Telescope achieves. The IKEA people had helpfully reduced the one in question to mostly large pictures. Despite this, at most stages, I was still none-the-wiser and resorted to trial and error…which rewarded me with …mostly error.
  2. Putting the wrong pieces together or the right pieces the wrong way around is a certainty, and hours disappear like clouds driven by a gale-force wind as you undo it all and start again. 
  3. It’s easy to miss something in any given step. I’m unsure that the back of my drawer set is securely attached. But it’s the back, so who cares? Twenty-four hours later, it hasn’t fallen off. I’ll take the win.
  4. Think of a number, double it, then treble it, and you might end up with an approximation of the number of hours you need to allocate to this rewarding endeavour. 
  5. If you are a quitter, don’t bother. You need a backbone of Titanium— wait, make that Tungsten—and the determination of a terrier up a drainpipe after a rat to put this sucker together. 
  6. If you have high blood pressure or a heart condition, don’t bother. 
  7. On no account, try it alone. Even if the other person is as bewildered by the entire thing as you are, you need—nay must have—moral support, or you’ll risk insanity. 
  8. Flatpacks are a new level of pain, even if you’re a legend at DIY. I’ve done a fair amount of DIY in my time—hanging shelves, painting rooms, etc.—with reasonable results. Well, apart from that one time when I nearly electrocuted myself trying to wire up a small chandelier. Even this shocking experience had nothing on yesterday’s ordeal.  
  9. If you thought you were a ‘potty mouth’ before you started, you’ll discover profanities you didn’t know you knew before you finish.
  10. The opportunity loss is immense—so many other things you could be doing instead of breaking your hands and mental equilibrium, grovelling about on the floor, perspiring and cursing the gods of convenience as your body curses your choice. 

While researching for this post, I came across the previously unknown concept of flatpack assembly services. I felt immensely vindicated because if there are flatpack alchemists who can come to your rescue and transmute the base parts to furniture gold, that means flatpacks are impossible to put together—it’s not just me. How I wish I’d known. But OMG, the irony of paying someone to do what the manufacturers have offloaded—you pay less for the convenience of buying it in bits only to pay someone to put the bits together. Is the affordability thing, therefore, a delusion? Have we been suckered?  

Unless you are a DIY Wizard or professional carpenter (why would you need a flatpack item in the first place), my best advice is to buy the made-up version, get help from someone who knows what they are doing or even bring in a paid professional, however much it hurts to do so. In my case, note to self: never buy another flatpack. 

Hibernation mode deactivated

I’m excited—I’m writing a book. Please feel free to join my happy dance. I’ve been writing my book for several months now. Unfortunately, after a burst of energy over the (southern hemisphere summer), ennui sank its fangs into the jugular of my writer’s mojo, and I went back into a slough of inertia, if not outright despond. 

This whole pandemic thing and all the other unthinkable stuff that’s going on around us has challenged me big time. It’s like someone found Pandora’s Box intact, read the cautionary tale about what happens when you open it, but thought it would be a winning idea to open it anyway and see if it’s as bad as legend would have it. Just as an aside, Pandora’s box was, in fact, Pandora’s jar. There’s a long and boring story about Erasmus usign the wrong word when he translated the story from Greek to Latin…zzzzzz. Anyway, box or jar, it was left in Pandora’s care and curiosity drove her to open it. Epic fail! Imagine her face as she watched sickness, death and myriad other evils escape into the world. Even though she shut the box as quickly as she could — well, you would, wouldn’t you? — the only thing she shut back in was hope, surely the one thing humanity needed to survive the others? Eek! You’d have to think Pandora spent the rest of her life in therapy, coming to terms with her guilt.

Anyway, back to me. I don’t think I have felt so much lack of certainty before. Frankly, I’ve been confused in these oh-so-changing and identity-obsessed times. Every time I crank up my computer to start a post, I get bogged down in the deathly dichotomy of doctrinal duality (not to mention laboured alliteration). It’s not that I haven’t had ideas; it’s just that when I start to run with one of them, so many different pathways open up that I quite literally get overwhelmed and can’t decide which to follow. Like Robert Frost, I’d go for the one less travelled, but almost all of them qualify on that count these days. 

For someone who loves to comment, this uncharacteristic state of no comment—haven’t posted a blog at all this year and only a couple last year—is disturbing. There’s been such a one-dimensionality about life. The usual rites of passage have been cancelled or postponed, sometimes more than once. My choir is on it’s fourth attempt to sing the mighty Bach Mass in B Minor. Parties, weddings, funerals, festivals, concerts, celebrations with family and friends, travel and holidays. Many of the things that anchor our lives haven’t happened. Time seems to have folded into itself. Chronological memory has stalled—it’s hard to remember what happened and when it happened because the rhythm of our lives has been messed around so badly. 

However, I had a ‘Damascus moment’ a few weeks ago. I realise I’ve been in mental hibernation. We humans aren’t supposed to be able to hibernate, but I’m walking proof “the science” is wrong on this. Think about it. Hibernation is the thing that animals do to conserve energy so they can survive adverse weather conditions or lack of food. But isn’t hibernation just one great big sleep? Not at all. They’re not all a bunch of lazy fur balls—hibernation isn’t technically sleeping, and hibernating animals ‘wake up’ periodically. Hibernation’s more a state of torpor. The animal’s heartbeat and breathing slow, and their body temperature drops significantly. But they are still capable of some activity, including suckling cubs. Sounds scarily like my last two years, except for the cub suckling bit. Oh, and hibernating bears don’t eat, drink or exercise for around 100 days. I’ll leave you to figure out which of those abstentions apply to my hibernation experience. 

If animals can hibernate to survive stuff like adverse weather, why not me ? I’ve clearly been in a state of torpor avoiding all the crap unleashed by the idiot who re-opened Pandora’s box (or jar). I’ve been in my imaginary leaf and twig-lined den waiting for better times. What? I’ve woken up too soon? Well, even bears can only hibernate for so long. 

In any case, as there is SFA I can do about any of the stuff I’ve been hoping to outlast, I figured it was time to grab some of those lemons life has lobbed in my direction and make some lemonade. It’s time to zoom in on the certainties and consign confusion to outer darkness. So, I’m writing a book about branding for the founders of start-up and early-stage businesses. You may well think this is a giant leap from writing about random shit in this blog, but developing and managing brands is what I do for a living and, after a lot of years plus a fair few cracks at the entrepreneurial life to lace through it all, I have a lot of material. You might say my stash of lemons is a big one. Much tasty lemonade should result. 

OK, I’ll stop labouring the point and move on. But I am excited. It’s going well. Energy is high, optimism is loaded, and the world is again my oyster. Hibernation mode is most definitely deactivated.

An inconvenient wheeze

“Will it kill me?” I ask, fed up with the obfuscation that’s going on, staring him straight in the eye.

“Er … no,“ he replies, eyes focused, consultant-like, into the space above my head. 

Yay, I’m not in danger of carking it any time soon. At least, not from this. Great news, even though I do wish the man would volunteer some information instead of me having to drag it out of him like a mother trying to understand how their teenager’s school day went. Nodding to the squadron of pigs primed for take-off on the grass outside the window, I persevere with the list of questions I’ve prepared in advance.

“Will it get worse as I get older?” 

“No evidence that it will. You need to get flu jabs and stay away from people with colds,” is the best he can do after a lengthy contemplation of the inside of his eyelids. Interestingly, no mention of Covid implications. Well, I guess there’s no community outbreak currently, so I’ll give him a pass on that.

Silence descends on the room after this burst of conversational brio, and we stare at each-others’ shoes like a pair of accountants at a party, wondering who’s going to be brave enough to speak first.

What is it about medical consultants? They may be brilliant in their fields, but the ones I’ve experienced share a startling inability to communicate on any level that could remotely be called human. 

Many people believe that our stresses and emotional issues manifest in physical ways. I tend to agree with this as I’ve had minor respiratory problems for as long as I remember. My breathing kit is like a litmus test of my emotional equilibrium. When I get stressed, my voice gets all husky and breathless — think Marlyn Monroe singing happy birthday to JFK — and I get mild symptoms of a cold. As it’s always been short-lived, I’ve never really thought too much about it.  

At some point a couple of years ago, it stopped being an occasional thing. I reached some sort of tipping point where I’m coughing a lot — a worrying amount. The first year of joined-up-coughing, it stops for the summer. The second-year, it doesn’t. I’m not over-concerned as many people in New Zealand have coughs bestowed by our high pollen count from all the horticulture and similar. By mid-2019, it’s bad enough that I figure a visit to my GP is in order. Having put me through some rudimentary tests, she fobbed me off – somewhat predictably — with antihistamines. Pointless waste of time. Cough, cough, cough. Time passes, I box on. It’s my new norm. I just assume I’m stuck with it. 

By August last year, I’m notably worse and wheezing has long since entered the frame. So, I go back to see said GP, who finally accepts something is wrong, and I’m in front of a respiratory specialist faster than you can say Chronic Constructive Pulmonary Disease. The speed is courtesy of my eye-wateringly expensive private health care policy, which I’m deeply grateful I have kept going when handed the bill. It turns out, and this will likely surprise no-one — it certainly didn’t surprise me – that I have severe Asthma. However, this diagnosis was off the back of a lot of tests, and I was seriously relieved it wasn’t something much worse.

Just as an aside, try being a severe Asthmatic in the time of Covid — talk about an inconvenient wheeze. Convincing scared people that you’ve been hacking your lungs up since long before Covid-19 was even a blob on a laboratory microscope is tricky. They don’t tend to hang around long enough to appreciate the finer points of a dry cough (Covid) versus a wheezy damp one (Asthma). Forget social distancing; we’re talking crossing the street, making the sign of the ‘evil eye’ in their scramble to put as much distance as possible between them and you. And believe me, you do not want to have a coughing fit in the supermarket queue. The one benefit of coughing as if you have a 60-a-day fag habit? People stay the Hell away from you so are out of range of any ‘aerosols’ they might otherwise generously share.

But back to our action-packed story.

“I think the meds are making me worse,” I say somewhat confrontationally.

This elicits no response if you ignore the facial tick that’s starting to manifest.

“So, what happens if I stop taking them?”

“Why don’t you stop until they’ve cleared your system and then start again to see if there is any difference?” he says after another interminable silence.

This seems like quite a good wheeze if you’ll forgive the pun.

“How long will that take?”

“Couple of months.”

And that pretty much wraps it up. I sense we’re in the throes of a break-up. By this time, we have seen quite a bit of each other, and I have become accustomed to his face like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Leaving for the final time, I feel a little aggrieved that he’s just booting me out into the wide world without even the safety net of a six-month callback. Doesn’t he care? Haven’t we gone to Hell and back together? This little pity party lasts as long as it takes to get out of the building. Then I think, “So what? I’ve been on my own before. I can do it. Anyway, who wants to go on stuffing their system with pharmaceuticals when there are other fun options like hypnotherapy to explore?”

Of course, I’m exaggerating in the interests of a good story, and I do my specialist a disservice. He tried hard. As we worked our way through the tools in his toolbox searching for a panacea, he visibly deflated as each failed to be The One. I think he saw me as the proverbial riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that he was a bit peeved not to be able to solve. Damn it, why wasn’t I responding to the pharmacopoeia of Symbicort Turbohalers et al. on offer? I was pretty peeved myself. For a person whose favourite activities include singing and bushwalking, I’d hoped for better. Cough, cough, cough. Wheeze, wheeze, wheeze.

The trouble was, his toolbox was limited to the range of available medications, and there was no thought to try and identify the underlying causes or discuss this as an alternative to consider. These days, medication is generally the treatment of first resort, whatever the condition. Many things can trigger Asthma, but I do not doubt that mine resulted from a layering of traumatic events over several years, which caused no end of stress and sleepless nights. Then came a pandemic which didn’t exactly diminish the anxiety levels. 

Even though the medical outcome was disappointing — I badly wanted a quick, easy fix — I also didn’t want to be on large doses of inhaled whatever for the rest of my life and I stopped. Three weeks later, I’m sure you’ll be happy to know, I’m still here and none the worse for wear. If anything, I’m a bit better. The whole episode has helped me think differently about many things that I probably wouldn’t have if the meds had worked. As a result, I’m feeling happier and more in control, hopefully building a virtuous circle of improving lung function. 

Whatever happens from here, my pesky, inconvenient wheeze might just get me bumped up the Covid jabbing-order. Whether this is a silver lining, depends on where you sit on vaccines. I’ll take the win.

Do the Covid Shuffle?

“Did you have a good lockdown?” the wags are all asking since we moved back to Level 1. As if it really was a war. Maybe it was? Thinking about it, if it was a war, it’s still very much alive on many fronts. The phantom menace we’re ‘fighting’ — the pesky Coronavirus — still stalks the earth.

It’s still hard to take in. It’s as if a fictitious dystopian future has jumped off the page.Life BC seems to have happened in some parallel universe … far, far away. “Unprecedented” they say. Unprecedented, ‘they’ say a lot. It’s le mot du pandemic. The top cliché of our coronavirus times. In these times, our vocabulary has extended — flatten the curve, epidemiology, self-isolation, social distancing and bubble love. ‘Quarantinis’ replaced martinis for the fashionable set, and the WFM brigade came out of lockdown Zoomed-out, near Zombies reeling from Zoomchosis. You know the drill? All that pacing up and down the living room, head shaking purposelessly from side to side, unfocused eyes looking inward to some analogue paradise of yore.

Coronavirus pushed us to a locked-down standstill. A global pause. Emergency workers diced with death, the rest of us dug in at home and were forced to deal with whatever daily reality home represented. We got creative and entertained each other in profound and emotionally charged ways. We laughed We cried. We grieved. We rejoiced. We lost our jobs. We worried about our jobs. Our businesses. We valued things we didn’t before. We applauded new heroes. We teared-up as plucky, indomitable Major Tom shuffled his Zimmer-framed way back and forward across his garden earning staggering amounts for the British National Health Service. Those of us who could, counted our blessings.

We did the COVID Shuffle. That excruciating manoeuvre as you step off the pavement to maintain the requisite distance from an approaching person or bubble, whilst simultaneously smiling like the Cheshire Cat and offering hearty greetings to avoid causing offence. Also, to have a precious moment of human connection.

It’s a bleak time for the party animals in our midst — “introverts, your extrovert friends need your help” was one of the more entertaining and ironic truths coming through from the meme land. Life in the time of Lockdown was also something of a bonfire of the vanities. What’s the point blinging-up a storm to sit at home? Actually, I did smear a bit of make-up around most days — Zoom has a certain motivating quality on that score. Occasionally ditched the leggings for a skirt, or even a dress.

But hey, we succeeded. We flattened the pesky curve. For an intoxicating number of consecutive days, no cases at all — existing, new or prospective. “FOR NOW!” said our Prime Minister, another hero of the moment. Jacindamania isn’t only a New Zealand phenomenon. I know Aussies who’ve asked her to invade and spare them from the bigoted, climate denying MAN they’re lumbered with. How right she was as we now three new cases delivered to our doorstep by returning residents. This was always likely and wouldn’t be too troublesome if the border quarantine procedures hadn’t turned out to be a monster cockup. Jacinda and her plucky little team of five mission are now royally pissed at whatever ‘them’ was responsible. We’ve all eaten our greens and done what we’ve been told at … er … unprecedented cost. Why should other people be allowed to break curfew, even on compassionate grounds? Hey, ho, it is what is.

So, on reflection, it has been a sort of is a war. For more than two months, we sequestered ourselves in our home shelters while the Coronavirus sent its silent but deadly aerosols into our communities and ravaged our economy. Many of us wondered what will be left when the dust settles. For now, we Kiwis have won a battle, but the war itself rages on around the world and the breakout this week shows how easily we could get sucked back in. But it’s not just the pandemic. As we navel-gazed our way through the Lockdown fog, pondering the meaning of life the universe and everything, for even the most fervent deniers, it was hard to ignore the inconvenient truth that our planet and our lives are globally and intimately linked. And that our certainties can be upended in a heartbeat. We now understand in a visceral and undeniable way that there are bigger and deadlier risks on the horizon if we don’t dramatically shift our values, and how we live, spend and consume.

Countries are struggling to meet their sustainability commitments. People are worried — time is not our friend. It’s as if the Coronavirus has swept the lid off a contemporary Pandora’s Box and out has poured the sickness, death and other evils which have blighted the world while we watch the horror unfold with horror and incredulity in real-time on our devices. The gap between the super-rich and everyone else yawns like a gaping chasm that can’t be bridged. Extreme weather events get more extreme. It seems as if we’re fiddling while the Outback burns.

We make pacts with our higher powers that the future will be better. That sustainability won’t be thrown out with the bathwater. We talk about “the new normal” as if it’s a point in time we are waiting to arrive at. But there’s no pre-ordination involved. The new normal is a blank canvas waiting for our artist’s brush. The only question is what do we paint? Will it be a beautiful harmonious landscape? A primal scream? A world where no-one is left behind? I’m putting my money on the latter.

Crises serve up latitude to break moulds. To change the status quo. Shock allows for more shock. We’ve been through so much, what’s a little more if it turns this moment to benefit? As New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel put it, Right now, in the midst of a series of cascading, intersecting crises (racial and economic inequality, climate change, mass unemployment, a pandemic) what’s possible feels more of an open-question than any other moment in recent times.”

My sudden addiction to The Chase during Lockdown, did kick up a useful piece of trivia. Pandora’s Box didn’t only contain all the bad stuff. It also held Hope and we need Hope to soar around the world and work its magic. With hope loose in the world, I’m backing us humans to open our minds to the possible and make all the sacrifice mean something.

Counterfeit World?

Haven’t written a post for some time. When I turned 60 in March I came over all introspective and had an unaccountable urge to start writing my auto-biography. This was all going quite well until I got into a funk about how much of my life and times I actually want to share … honestly … and so I ‘pivoted’ (the moniker the start-up community apply to a whopping change of direction) and am now a funk-free zone.

However, today I read an article that actually made me get my blog groove back on. The article was about the fact that for several years, a number of the (credible) scientific community around the world have been testing the possibility that we are part of a simulated world. Oh great, another fear to be factored into the growing list. To be sure, this is not at all a new concept. In the seventies, I can remember reading sci-fi books like Counterfeit World (or Simulacron-3 as it was published, for some unaccountable reason, in some places) written by Daniel F Galouye in 1964.

Counterfeit World featured a total environment simulator created by a scientist to advance market research by reducing the need for opinion polls. The world’s  inhabitants are unaware they are only electronic impulses in a computer. As the story unfolds, the protagonist progressively grasps that his world is likely not “real” and struggles with inchoate madness brought on by this realisation. Well, you would wouldn’t you? Things get pretty nasty before they get better as the ‘gods’ controlling his  ‘world’ try to keep the lid on their unravelling experiment. I wonder if this fab little book provided inspiration for the spine-chilling gold standard for simulated worlds, The Matrix (1999)?

While I don’t actually believe that we are part of a simulated world, the fact remains that computer simulation has become a norm, even if we aren’t yet capable of creating actual populated worlds. As the article points out, since the 90s, computer simulations have been set up to try to get answers to Big Questions.  Questions like “What causes war?”, “How will climate change affect global migration?” and “Which political systems are most stable?” Does anyone else wish someone would answer the biggest question “How do I win Lotto?  … and please, I want more than the standard “Buy a ticket”.

As things stand though, computers aren’t really up to the job of mimicking the extraordinary complexity of our world. Or, at least, not very well. Anyone hear the “yet” hovering at the end of this sentence. I’m open to believing that someday they might be. That it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they could achieve a state of sophistication where they could create simulations of people in computer code who are to all intents and purposes just like you and me in the way they think and behave. Scary shit huh? But there are people out there — and not just ANY old people, people with the sort of credentials that give them a seat at the table  — who think this may already have happened, that we actually are living in a computer simulation created by a more advanced civilisations.

As far back as 2003, the philosopher Nick Bostrom suggested that if you can believe that we might one day be running many simulations from an anthropological point of view to better understand our ancestors and the history of our civilisation, it is logical that we are living in one of them right now. And why would that be? According to Bostrom, “If people eventually develop simulation technology — no matter how long that takes — and if they’re interested in creating simulations of their ancestors, then simulated people with experiences just like ours will vastly outnumber un-simulated people.”

This would mean that our current world could then just be one of many because any anthropologist historian wishing to get beyond The Age of Empires as a way of understanding the rise and fall of civilisations will make many simulations involving millions or even billions of people to assess all the possible scenarios. As tainted genius Elon Musk sees it, “the odds that we are NOT simulations are one in billions.”

While this sounds like so much more conspiracy bollocks, since 2012, at least some members of the scientific community have been testing Bostrom’s thinking, including a bunch of physicists at the University of Washington. I’m no conspiracy theorist and I’m too lazy to try and decode how they are going about the testing — and why bother? After all, if we are living in a simulation or controlled experiment, ignorance has to be bliss.

The sinister aspect to testing whether we are indeed a simulation and actually proving that we are, is that if we knew for sure we are living in our own counterfeit world, we would become pointless to our controllers and they would likely end the experiment. It’s like when new drugs are tested for efficacy. It’s important that the patients involved don’t actually now whether they’re on the drug or taking a placebo. If they find out, the trial loses its point and will be cancelled. As Green calls it, a ‘simulation shutdown’ would occur and then what would become of us.? I’d say, whatever the truth, let sleeping dogs lie!

Wag the (alien) dog?

I just read a wonderful hypothesis outlining a genius way of mitigating the threat of global warming. The hypothesis is that we need to invent a new and super-scary existential threat — like aliens threatening to annihilate the world if we don’t instantly come up with a convincing plan for drastically cutting emissions. Think about it for a moment, it’s a perfect concept!

The central tenet of this inspired piece of thinking is that we need a total “re-imagining” of the world political order. That business as usual just won’t cut it if we are to do enough, quickly enough. While that’s not exactly visionary — I could have come up with that bit — I wouldn’t in my wildest dreams have imagined inventing a threat from some green-minded ETs to get us fully focussed on the important stuff.  As far as I am aware, this let’s pretend it’s aliensthat are causing all the problems thing is genuine blue sky thinking by NY Times OpEd writer Farhad Manjoo.

But why on earth (pun intended) would we do that?  Well, according to the marvellously creative Mr. Manjoo, our current reality of fake news, alternative facts and outright, barefaced lying opens the door to bending the truth for the greater good. Let’s face it, playing ‘let’s pretend’ for something of paramount importance would be a refreshing take on the now seemingly acceptable art of the untruth.

In Manjoo’s Wag the Dog scenario (by the way if you haven’t seen this marvellous Hoffman/De Niro black comedy about a spin doctor and a Hollywood producer who fabricate a war to distract voters from a presidential sex scandal, you really should — it’s hilarious) the threat of an alien invasion is the lever to get humanity off its collective arse and working together to save it’s collective bacon. Imagine if you will, the world receives a tweet from the alien leader “We will boil your planet alive. Only a carefully designed plan for cutting and capturing emissions will save you now, suckers!” It might be a bit of a stretch that said alien leader has such a good command of the English vernacular. Maybe she was equipped with one of those Babel Fish so useful to travellers in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? You know the ones, when played in your ear, these clever fish will live there and translate any form of language for you. Yup, I believe everything I read.

All joking aside, we humans have always been stellar at responding to external threats. We’re not so flash at changing our own behaviours, particularly if it means trading off some of our comforts and taking decisions that will hit our wallets. But seeing off a threat from potentially “murderous aliens” to save the planet might just galvanise us.As Manjoo says, “Even for people who do believe in global warming, pretending that aliens are attacking the earth accomplishes a neat mental trick. It helps to frame the scope of the threat — civilizational, planet-encompassing — while also suggesting how we might respond: immediately, collectively and for as long as it takes.”

And it could work! All you have to do is consider the hysteria that broke out in the US on October 30, 1938, when a 62-minute radio dramatisationof The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells (confusingly produced and narrated by Orson Welles) was broadcast. Apparently even people who had never heard Welles reading the HG Wells story about invading Martians wielding deadly heat-rays later claimed to have been terrified. Welles used simulated on-the-scene radio reports ostensibly by the military and air force about aliens advancing on New York City to pep up the story. According to popular myth, thousands of New Yorkers fled their homes in panic, with swarms of terrified citizens crowding the streets in different American cities to catch a glimpse of a “real space battle”. While this over-reaction has lately been outed as largely urban myth it’s not hard to imagine something similar happening in our current reality. I’m thinking about the arsenals of special effects available to film makers that could achieve genuine mass hysteria and harness it for good. Sadly, it’s also totally imaginable that we could harness it for worse, but let’s give humanity the benefit of the doubt here and assume we’d do the right thing.

OK so this is just fantasy, but it’s the most engaging solution I’ve read so far. Let’s face it, if we hit or exceed two degrees further warming, the scale of potential devastation will be catastrophic. This is not something even progressive governments can tackle in isolation, however well-meaning. Mitigating climate change is no longer just one item on a governmental ‘to do’ list. If we don’t act now, it will become the only thing that matters a damn. The build a wall thinking, the isolationist ‘dwarfs are for dwarfs’ ignorance imaged in C S Lewis’s Narnia finale The Last Battleunderpinning MAGA and, slightly differently, BREXIT, will be patent nonsense in the face of what is to come. Go aliens — pretend or otherwise — save us from ourselves.

P.S. Farhad Manjoo’s articleis entertaining and (by my way of thinking) totally on the money if you have a few minutes to spare.

Statements of the bleeding obvious #201: Nice doctors really do make a difference!

It’s amazing how many times what’s billed as breakthrough new research really just confirms what we already understand from experience. Stuff like the fact that singing is good for us and can prolong our lives. That dogs and other animals lift the spirits of long-term hospital patients … as well as mostly everyone else. That laughter is infectious. That lovesickness is a genuine state.

OK, so we’re in an era where it’s possible and considered desirable to research esoteric and non-fundamental subjects. I’m cool with that — non-fundamental subjects like these actually make a lot of difference to our daily lives bringing cheer and happiness, often in dark times. So providing evidence that they really do achieve what  we intuitively feel they do is fab … even if the headlines they provoke seem more like statements of the bleeding obvious than radical insights into the  human psyche.

It most definitely is good to know that singing regularly could prolong my life — I do enough of it after all. It’s a bonus to know that, as well as the immediate buzz from   opening your larynx and letting rip, it’s a gift that keeps on giving in the all-of-life context. Also great to know empirically that my love of animals — near obsession it has to be said — is healthy. That bringing animals into hospitals is genuinely therapeutic and can bring comfort to people in pain or despair. Who hasn’t ever listened to a friend break out into a great belly laugh and  been been compelled to laugh too? Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone … so true. And love sickness? Well, it’s been a while since Apollo fired an arrow into my tender  heart and catalysed all the turbulent symptoms I described in an earlier blog You Make Me Sick! But I haven’t forgotten the visceralality of it all — there’s no question in my mind, it’s a lurg just as debilitating as a fluey cold.

At the weekend, I read another about one of these completely unsurprising research findings. Can A Nice Doctor Make Treatments More Effective? Well dear reader, if you were in any doubt on this count, according to new research by Stamford University in the US, having a doctor who is warm and reassuring actually improves your health. REALLY? Who knew? Most of us I would have thought. I found this astonishing non-news in weekly round up of good news from the New York Times. It’s full of great stories and I love it.

Last week comes Romeo the Sehuencas water frog to my inbox. Romeo is a very rare creature. He was thought to be the last of his type. No Juliet to be found anywhere, let alone on ‘yonder balcony’. Day after endless day, sad Romeo croaked out “Juliet, Juliet, wherefore art thou Juliet?” from his home in a Bolivian museum. Actually what he said was, “ribbet, ribbet, ribbet …” but where’s the poetry in that? Cutting to the chase, biologists had pretty much given up their search in the remote and inaccessible areas of Bolivia where said Juliet might have been found. Then behold! There she was. Juliet the miracle frog — a potential mate for our lonesome hero. Being the only two Sequencas water frogs in existence, it was set to be a fine romance and I’d love to be able to say, “and they both lived happily ever after”. But even for a frog with only one possible mate, the chemistry still has to be right. Imagine the pressure! Without mincing words, would you be prepared to shag some random stranger to preserve our species? Fine if it’s George Clooney.  Not so fine if … well, the list is endless. But then again, unlike Romeo, no one I know is faced with the decision to take one for the future of our species and it’s easy to be precious when we’re in no imminent danger of extinction … unless we keep  messing with our natural habitat that is. All joking aside, a lot is riding on our precious frog prince. Let’s hope the chemistry is there and they soon start producing copious numbers of wee froglets to perpetrate their froggy line.

But back to nice doctors. Apparently the simple things a doctor says to you can have an impact on your health outcomes. Even a brief reassurance can relieve symptoms faster. The reassurance is more efficacious when it’s said in a kindly manner rather than barked out as a “you’ll be fine” afterthought when you leave the surgery. You can’t quite get away from the fact that the doctor has to be skilled and competent as well as nice. However, most of us have been on the receiving end of one of those grumpy types whose you mistake me for someone who cares demeanour is more likely to cause you to lose the will to live altogether than get well. Their cool indifference renders you as articulate as … well .. a frog .. when you try to describe the pain that was giving you hell until it magically disappeared nano-seconds after you made the appointment..

Anyway, the conclusion of the research was that doctors who don’t connect with their patients my risk undermining a treatment’s success. Apparently doctor-patient rapport is much more than the sum of it’s feel good parts. It’s a important aspect of medical care that significantly affects a patient’s physical health. Are you kidding me? It really does feel like a statement of the bleeding obvious that someone who is kind and sympathetic as well as good at their job is likely to achieve a better result.

The article ended by questioning what this means in the brave new world of artificial intelligence. AI opens the possibility of not having to go to the doctor for minor health issues. If interacting with a human being and hearing words of encouragement is part of the cure, this begs the wider question of whether our increasing isolation is actively bad for our health. As the opportunities and need for actually connecting with a fellow human in many aspects of our lives become progressively fewer, what collateral damage are we setting ourselves up for. Romeo the frog couldn’t help his plight. We can, and yet we continue to write people out of the script of our lives. When us humans humans actually get together face-to-face is, we open up the possibility for  laughter and  love. For conviviality and banter. We get to share the good and help each other through the bad times. You don’t need to be a Stamford luminary  to recognise that gentle and kind connections with other people — Doctors and the rest — are seriously good for our health and unkind, cruel ones are not. Comforting to know this is now “proven by scientists”.

 

Happy New Year … you’re under arrest!

Two burly, unsmiling cops barge into my office and stride purposefully to my desk. “Frances Manwaring?” the taller and meaner of the barks at me. “Er … yes,” I say a little tremulously, wondering what they want. “Frances Manwaring, you’re under arrest. You have the right to remain silent … ” As the cop reels off my Miranda rights, I wonder if I’m in the middle of a nightmare. I pinch myself to be sure, but voice drones on…

OK, so I didn’t get arrested — just wanted to build the drama of the piece. But seriously, it was how I imagined things might have gone down if my business partner hadn’t gone to collect our mail from our PO Box on Tuesday. This is a rare event — nothing of any use comes by snail these days so weeks can go past without either of us stirring our stumps to go and pick up whatever dross has gathered dust. In this case it had been only been a relatively short gap since the last visit and that only because I’m in the middle of a transaction in the UK with an antediluvian, seemingly technophobic insurance company for whom physical mail, for some unfathomable reason, is the only way it will communicate.

Anyway, back comes John with a bundle of letters, mostly bank statements and the usual junk promos. While we’re on the subject, what is it with banks? Mine seem hell-bent on squandering whole forests by continuing to send paper statements, even though I’ve opted for digital versions more times than Kim Kardashian changes her handbags. But I digress — back to the main event. Because I’m hoping to find a reply from the annoying UK insurer, I don’t just lob the whole lot into the recycle bin as I often do. Thats an inspired decision as it turns out. Irritatingly, the hoped for insurance missive isn’t in the stack. Instead, lurking amongst the wad of bank statements, is a formal looking item with “OPEN IMMEDIATELY!” emblazoned on the envelope. How intriguing I think … how very Alice in Wonderland. Then I notice the Ministry of Justice crest and figure it must be something follow up from the Jury Service stint I did in early November. Being a complaint sort of person (!), I open it immediately as instructed without any concerns. But a brief first scan of the the short letter almost stopped my heart.

Nothing magical about this missive! Turns out it’s a summons to appear in court on Thursday at 11am. I’m reading it on Tuesday at about 4.50pm, so the imminence is pretty alarming. Has to be a mistake I think. Must have read it wrong. Reading it again does nothing to alter my first impression — it’s definitely a summons and it’s definitely addressed to me, so not a case of mistaken identity. And the heinous crime that requires my presence in court? A speeding infringement from mid-2016. The letter contains a helpful, but not very imaginative infographic (being MD of a creative agency, I’m quite up on what makes a good infographic) depicting the scary steps involved in the apocalypse triggered by this infringement. If you don’t pay the fine instantly, you get a reminder and some grace to stump up (Step 1). After continued ignoring of reminders (Step 2), the up the ante with a summons to court (Step 3). Failure to appear leads to arrest (Step 4).

Poorly rendered though this infographic is (note to self – send our credentials to MOJ and see if they need a new creative agency), I’m now more than a little freaked out. Us head girl types don’t get summoned to appear in court, it’s just not in our DNA! Anyway, it’s now 4.59pm and I panic dial the Ministry’s 0800 quicker than you can say Great Train Robbers to see WTF is going on and what I can do about it. I thank my lucky stars to find someone still taking calls (at a government agency) after 5pm and I have a very convivial conversation with this saintly person who clearly doesn’t think I’m an axe murderer. Having cleared that up, we quickly cut to the chase. The problem turns out to be a timing issue. I’d just moved house at about the time it happened, so didn’t receive the original fine notice (thanks whoever moved into that house after me and didn’t forward my mail). Then I didn’t notify my change of address to the powers that be before the reminder was sent out, so I also didn’t receive that (another heartfelt thank you to the new incumbent).

It was a little un-nerving how much information about my movements my new BFF was able to access while we were talking. I did vocalise somewhat stridently (not too stridently as I didn’t want to get offside with MOJ) my disappointment and surprise that only the one reminder appears to have been sent, and that there had been no subsequent communications until this summons to court more than two years later. In any case, I had to agree it was a fair cop as I hadn’t sent the change of address out immediately and it was therefore on me that the documents never found me. As you can imagine, I threw in a few mea culpas at this point. I’m sure youll be very happy to know that all it took to fix the problem was a credit card and $60 of creditworthiness. I certainly was! The irony of it all was that the original fine was only something like $12, the rest being penalties and court fees which couldn’t be waived because of my failure to notify change of address. However, she assures me I dont  have to make an appearance in court appearance and the long arm of the law wont be reaching out for me and we’re done. Phew!

Later, I pondered the astonishing amount of effort that goes into a minor misdemeanour when so much other big crime goes unchecked. That’s a story of its own, but there’s another side to this issue. I’ve moved several times in the last few years. I’m pretty diligent about sending out change of address notices to people like the Transport Authority, and I genuinely thought I had notified them all after that particular move. Apparently not. Some time ago I decided to get around this by using my business PO Box as my personal address to avoid all the hassle involved.

But my point is how easy it is to get offside with the law. Many people less advantaged than me also move a lot for all sorts of reasons, including financial or family difficulties. Many more have temporary addresses or no address. For sure, a proportion of these won’t own or drive cars, so won’t be in line to clock up traffic offences. However, I’m sure many of them do and I wonder how much of our policing time is spent arresting people who, like me, didn’t ever get the fine notices in the first place? Being generous, I’m sure most of us would actually stump up, particularly as they offer payment terms.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing with the law. Curtailing the speed at which people drive makes us all safer and I do try to stay within the legal limits. I’m sure there are recidivists who never pay and deserve to be prosecuted because they clearly don’t care about the consequences. However, from this experience it’s easy to see how quickly things can escalate and suddenly you’re in trouble. I’m sure I wouldn’t actually have been banged up, but I might have landed a criminal record if I’d been convicted. I ended up thinking there but for the grace of God go I if John had postponed his trip to our PO Box by 2 days. Timing is everything! Happy New Year indeed.

Ghosts from Christmases past #2: Hip hip hooray!

Spending Christmas in hospital would not high on my Dear Santa wish list. I apologise in advance to all those dedicated and wonderful doctors and nurses who are rostered on through holidays to look after the hapless hoardes who are ill or break themselves at Christmas. Nope, those guys do a heroic job. But hospital at Christmas – it’s just not living the dream is it? It has to be said, I have been one of the hapless Christmas A&E admissions, having snapped my Achilles tendon on holiday on Christmas Eve a few years ago and I was truly grateful (a) that it happened in the early morning so I wasn’t competing with all the drunks that clog the system later in the day/night and (b) that those dedicated and wonderful types were with great good grace (amen) to put this Humpty together again without any kings’ horses or men in sight.

Still and all, a festive hospital visit is just not anyone’s top choice as a holiday destination. And yet, fifteen years ago, it actually was. I needed what is amusingly referred to as ‘elective surgery’. Elective because you can, in theory, choose whether to have it or not, and when, as the condition doesn’t need to be dealt to at a particular time — i.e. it isn’t life threatening. The whole elective thing is laughable. Big yeah right! In many cases there is a choice, but that happens when your surgeon accepts that your pain is so extreme that you’d likely go insane if you had to bear it for a nano-second longer.

To give you the back story, I had both hip joints replaced in my late thirties. I was unusually young, but by no means unique. There were a number of things wrong with me each one of which on its own wouldn’t have been much of an issue, but collectively combined to wreck the joints. Because of my age, my surgeon held the surgery off as long as he could because he was worried about future complications — the prostheses only last so long and there are only so many times you can effectively replace the replacements because apparently you run out of femur to play with (sorry if this is a little close to the … er … bone for some). It was all about probabilities. How long the replacement joints would last, how long I would live If the first was shorter than anticipated and the latter longer, I faced seeing my life out in a wheel chair. In any case, my condition deteriorated at a rate that would have made an Apollo Space Craft seem laboured. Movement became very limited, quality of life nose-dived and ultimately the pain became so bad he relented. I had both of them ‘done’ within a year of each other. Happy days!

Anyway, the ops were a tremendous success. I got my life and mobility back, the pain was miraculously gone and I was a happy little camper. Then several years later comes ‘The Fall. Before you get worried about my state of innocence, I don’t mean fall in the Biblical sense. No, my fall was getting a bit carried away at an al fresco party and missed my footing in the dark on the edge of some concrete circle we’d turned into an impromptu dance floor. Seemed like a great idea at the time. Wouldn’t have been too big a deal if I hadn’t landed so hard that one of my prostheses came loose. Back to limping, pain and the certainty of more surgery.

This time, there was no question of the surgeon putting up a fight — the revision clearly needed to be done and it was only a question of when. Luckily for me, I have a private health care plan which meant I really was in a position to choose a time that would be the least disruptive to my life. The first slot that my surgeon could offer was just before Christmas, meaning I would be in hospital for Christmas and Boxing Day. The next option was weeks away and, once I’d thought about it and got over the poor me aspect of it all, the Christmas timing was actually ideal. The private hospital I went to was very close to my house, so easy for family visits and minimal unscheduled time off work.

In all seriousness, apart from the fact that undergoing surgery of this sort is not a walk in the woods, once I’d got over the immediate effects of the anaesthetic and the post op trauma had passed, it was actually quite fun. I had a lovely big airy room on the corner of the hospital all to myself. The nurses were a great bunch, some were old friends from previous incarcerations. I think they were grateful to swop stories with someone who was under 85 to be honest as they dropped in more than was strictly necessary and we had a lot of laughs. It didn’t stop there. I had had more visitors than I probably would have had at home, and I didn’t have to lift a finger on the festive cooking front. The food wasn’t half bad, particularly a pretty yummy (for an institution) roast turkey dinner on the big day, washed down with one of those cute little miniature bottles of a hearty red and the decorations were pretty flash. Best of all, I didn’t have to suffer through all the endless repetitions of canned Christmas music. By the way, does anyone other than me find the whole idea that Santa sees you while you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake a bit creepy and stalkerish? Anyway, I was out by New Year and well into the familiar rehab routine.

Now that we’re in the hiatus between Christmas and New Year, there’s a bit of time to ruminate about stuff. This morning, in one of those desultory conversations one has with friends and family, my mother and I somehow meandered into comparing the vintage of our artificial joints. Tragic, I know but hips seem to be our family thing. We’ve all had them done. Big difference is when they were done; grandfather (late eighties and only one), father (early eighties and only one), uncle (well into his sixties and only one), mother (both — late fifties and early sixties) and sister (mid-fifties — one so far, but counting down to the next). Then there was me in my late thirties, not sure what happened there! Anyway, my mother’s first prosthesis is a venerable 25 whereas mine is a stripling at 20. No-one really knows how long they will last because everyone’s activity levels are different. Equally the vast majority of the recipients of artificial hips are quite old and so it’s difficult to measure average lifespans as the first one generally sees them out. However, 20 is thought to be a pretty good age, so mum and I were musing how much longer ours would hold out.

We also reprised a regular foray into imagining what our parallel universes would have thrown up  if this amazing technology had not been available to us. To be honest, It doesn’t bear thinking about. If we’d been born before the middle of the last century, we’d both likely be cripples, even if either of us was still alive.Early attempts at hip replacement were carried out in Germany in 1891 using ivory to substitute for the femur head. These were attached with nickel-plated screws, Plaster of Paris and glue. Hmmmm. Not surprising this approach didn’t take off. The pre-cursor to current techniques was pioneered in 1940 in South Carolina by US surgeon Dr Austin T Moore who performed the first metallic hip replacement surgery.  A more sophisticated version – the ‘Austin Moore Prothesis’ — was introduced in 1952 and is apparently still used occasionally. Like modern hip implants, it is inserted into the medullary canal of the femur, and depends on bone growth through a hole in the stem for long-term attachment. Another apology here if this creeps anyone out!

It’s always so tempting to think about the golden age that we perceive existed in our grand parents’ eras. Apparently, every generation since the newspapers rolled off the early printing presses felt this sort of nostalgia for imagined glories past, underlined by a fear of change and what it means for the future. Every time I get caught in this sentimentality for the halcyon past, all I have to do is think about my great good luck in living now and being on the receiving end of the incredible medical science and technology that is our norm. Even with all the problems we’re facing as a species, I’m grateful from the bottom of my soul that surgical advances have allowed me to live a full, pain free and normal life. When I think of Christmas miracles, my hospital experience in 2003 would have to be one of them. If we can achieve all this, surely we clever, inventive Simians, can find the tools to figure out the other stuff. Hip hip hooray to that!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ghosts from Christmases past #1: What a cracker!

Earlier in the week I did one of my favourite parts of Christmas — delivering Christmas gifts for my (Moxie’s) Wellington-based clients. While I was arranging my gaudily sequined Christmas hat as jauntily as I could and wondering whether I could still get away with this look, I had one of those incredible déjà vu moments as I remembered a ghost of myself from a Christmas past.

Thirty years ago, almost to the day, a lovely friend Daniella and I, resplendently festooned in Miss Christmas costumes, were hauling sacks of giant Christmas crackers around the streets of the City of London. We were delivering the contents of said sacks to commercial real estate agents and the crackers were a promotion to announce that the owners of one of the city’s newest tower blocks had decided to break down the floor space into smaller units for rent. Well, dear reader, what a buzz! Everyone was thoroughly into the festive spirit (some literally) and we turned heads, stopped traffic and generally had great banter with the people we passed. Lot of ‘you better be good for goodness sake’ sort of jive. It has to be said, the hats were coy, the skirts short, the heels high and the legs long. Of course, the clichéd red velvet and faux white ermine outfits had their own tacky but exotic allure. In these highly PC days donning we then this gay apparel might appear like the ultimate in objectification. Back then, we just saw it as a bit of harmless fun — it was for my business, no-one forced us and, in any case, we probably thought we looked ‘hot’ and enjoyed flaunting it. A whole topic for a different blog!

This cameo role was related to a business that I tried to help a friend’s son Ralph get off the ground. He’d already started it, but it wasn’t gaining traction beyond his immediate locale. We called it Absolutely Crackers!and the giant crackers for the city building were one of our biggest successes. In its short life span, Absolutely Crackers! really rocked the corporate promotions market — we made bespoke, weird and wonderful crackers for a range of iconic brands including Arsenal Football Club and top end chocolate manufacturer Charbonnel et Walker. Then there were the sumptuous crackers designed to match the splendour of art deco Pullman Carriages on the Venice Simplon Orient Express.  Fillers for these were white silk evening scarves for men and exquisite hand-painted ones for women from VSOE’s merchandise range. For a city broker, crackers made from the Financial Times were the perfect accessory for their annual bash.

The jewel in our crown was creating the invitations to CBS Records (now Sony Music) Christmas party in 1988. I don’t recall how we got in front of CBS — might have been via my then husband who was involved in music sponsorship — but we put together a very ambitions proposal for they invites which they, somewhat amazingly, accepted. In retrospect, they probably went for it because we ludicrously under-priced the whole gig.

The theme for the party was ‘Old English’ and, let me tell you, these weren’t just any old crackers. No, no, no, these were masterpieces of ingenuity and engineering. What we proposed, and they ultimately got, were individually boxed crackers — we designed a sleek triangular box to make them easy to post or courier to the who’s who of the musical world that were on the invitation list. In keeping with the theme, the crackers themselves were made from a beautiful burgundy and gold paisley patterned paper and the gifts were boxed miniatures of Glen Fiddich. Nice touch we thought even though Glen Fiddich is clearly not English. Nor is it even that old, having been founded in 1886, but good luck getting boxed miniatures of mead! Anyway, CBS seemed to agree that the single malt met the spirit … hem hem … of the occasion.

So far so good. The glory of the piece was the invitation which was hand-written by a calligrapher using medieval ornamentation on the lettering and then reproduced on parchment style paper. Most sane people would simply have rolled the invite up inside the cracker. Not us! No, we figured that to be authentic, they needed something else. So the invite was rolled, tied with red satin ribbon and then sealed using a custom designed CBS seal and traditional red sealing wax. The scroll this made was glued to the top of the cracker and the finished articles looked amazing.

And that’s where the wheels fell off. We had to assemble 350 of them. Anyone like to hazard a guess how long it takes to hand seal 350 parchment invitations? What calibre of satin ribbon can withstand the heat of the sealing wax being dripped onto it? No clue? We didn’t either. I can remember sitting at home at my kitchen table, the ceiling paint slowly blackening with the somewhat greasy smoke from the melting wax, my fingers progressively covering with Band Aids as the skin reddened and blistered, and the frustration grew as each ribbon sample melted down. I think we finished them off in the Board Room of my day job. (Happily I had a great boss who thought the whole cracker madness was great fun and might even have been the genius behind a device that got created to allow us to make about 10 ribbon seals simultaneously.) Anyway, the crackers were a huge hit even if we made no money out of them (on account of never having done anything like this before — has anyone?  — and not being able to price them effectively). But hey, luminaries like Mick Jagger and George Michael got our crackers … and what price a few first degree burns between superstar friends!

But how did crackers get incorporaed into the Christmas lexicon in the first place? It’s not like Matthew’s Gospel told us of wise men bringing gold, frankinsense, myhrr … and … er … crackers. You can sort of understand where Christmas trees and all the Easter paraphanalia like eggs and bunnies got adapted from the pagan festivals the Christian ones replaced. But crackers were unashamedly commercial. Wikipedia (bless) tells the story of how one Tom Smith was first to market.  He apparently created crackers as a development of his bon-bon sweets, which he sold in a twist of paper (the origins of the traditional sweet-wrapper). But the novelty wore off, sales of bon-bons slumped, and Smith sought new promotional ideas. Apparently, he added the “snap” when he heard the crackle of a log he had just put on a fire. The size of the paper wrapper had to be increased to incorporate the banger mechanism, and the sweet itself was eventually dropped, to be replaced by trinkets. This new product was initially marketed as the Cosaque (i.e. Cossack), but quickly morphed into the onomatopoeic “cracker”. The other elements of the cracker we all know and (many of us) love —the gifts, paper hats and mottos — were all introduced by Walter Smith (Tom’s son) to differentiate their product from competitors who’d grasped the opportunity and got on the cracker bandwagon.

Back to Absolutely Crackers! Despite the genuine success of some of our promotions, the cracker empire never eventuated. Behemoth’s like Tom Smith still dominated the retail market and made it pretty much impossible for us to succeed. Without cracking (sorry couldn’t resist it) the retail market, relying on promotions was too random as they didn’t happen evenly during the year. Our vision was to make the cracker a ubiquitous part of the corporate party circuit, not just at Christmastime. Instead we coped with high stress peak times during October – December which, fun though they were … and they were … were also unsustainable. In any case, as with CBS, we didn’t really know how to price the jobs properly and lacked the confidence to just think of a big number and double it, then double it again, so we didn’t manage to build any reserves.

We did try quite hard to get into the ‘high end’ retailers like Harrods, Fortnum and Mason and Asprey but other independents peddling top of the line product, had got to them first. Asprey in particular offered eye-wateringly expensive crackers at around fifteen hundred quid for a dozen. Think gold plating and diamonds designed for wealthy Saudis! We didn’t have the working capital to really get stuck into this level of ostentation. In the end, we decided to throw in the towel and, with extreme regret, closed our little factory unit outside Hereford. I re-focused on my day job which likely pleased my long-suffering boss, and Ralph went off to study drama.

Despite this, I loved Christmas crackers  long after Absolutely Crackers! went to the big Christmas party in the sky and have re-prised my cracker making skills for family and friends on many occasions over the years. To me, specially designed crackers are like icing on the cake of my table setting themes. I also found them to be a very personal and loving way of wrapping carefully chosen gifts. I guess my feelings about table settings and crackers were akin to the way others offer love through food. However, it’s increasingly hard not to be sickened by the overt consumerism of this time of the year. All the advertising for too many things we don’t need and there’s no place to hide behind the knowledge of the damage we consumers have wreaked on our environment.

Apparently there’s a memorial water fountain to Tom Smith and his family at Finsbury Square in London. Perhaps this is another monument that ought to be removed? Crackers may well be a beautiful augmentation of the Christmas table and add some fun to the moment. But it is only a moment and they are just another layer of landfill when it all comes down to it and we need more of that like we need to colonise Mars. Well actually, we probably will need to colonise Mars if we don’t stop creating landfill like crackers, but I’m sure you know what I mean. I’ve stopped making or buying them even if I have to psyche myself to step away from the tantalisingly presented boxed sets in stores and mourn the creative opportunity loss for my table decorations.

Having said all that, all that remains is to wish you a cracker of a Christmas and a very happy New Year full of peace, joy, hope and love.

You make me sick!

If a Martian landed anywhere in the Western World this minute, he or she could be forgiven for believing that “love is all there is”. Bombarded by headlines full of “luvved-up” celeb couples, best-seller lists heaving with love-stories and radio-station play lists top-heavy with “love is in the air” lyrics, the hapless alien could be forgiven for not noticing much else. Love’s young — or not so young these days given the prevailing divorce rate — dream is all around us and we can’t seem to get enough of it. To our Martian, it could well seem as if love really does make this world go round. It is after all, the age-old human obsession. As some wag once said, ‘that old devil called love — if I could find him I’d probably kill him’.

I can just about remember the feeling … you look innocently into a stranger’s eyes, fall hopelessly in love and, in a heartbeat, your life is no longer your own. It’s like you’ve been flattened by a runaway train. One minute you’re your own person, happily putting one foot serenely in front of the other, emotionally un-encumbered and working on a satisfying life plan. The next you’re a quivering mass of lust-infused, hormone-driven confusion, carrying on like some tragic heroine in a third rate bodice-ripper. A force of nature has taken over your life, dominating every waking moment (and most of the sleeping ones too), striding around the windmills of your mind like a colossus on speed.

But is love good for us? According to an article I read recently, apparently the jury’s out. For sure, we talk about “lovesickness”, but this is generally tongue in cheek when we’re taking the piss out of stricken friends or rellies who are moping around and sighing a lot. However, there appears to be growing recognition from the medicine and science that it actually isn’t a joke. As with so many other human afflictions, this isn’t exactly news. If you asked any self-respecting medieval person, they’d be astonished at our cavalier attitude. To be honest they’d also be astonished at Disney’s take on Princesses!

Prior to the 18th century and as far back as written records were kept, lovesickness was accepted as a genuine, common and sometimes fatal condition, on a par with any other self-respecting mental illness. Medieval doctors thought that it was a disorder of the mind and body similar to melancholia, and their training typically included checking for symptoms of love such as the patient’s pulse quickening at the mention of the loved-one’s name. Apparently, obsession was the principle symptom and cause. Treatments varied; baths, good food and wine and sleep were all considered efficacious. Distractions such as as business and sports and games which could take the mind off the obsession were also thought to be worth a go. “Therapeutic sexual intercourse” was the ultimate remedy! But wait, there’s more. If there was no-one in the get-your-leg-over frame, paying for your therapeutic sex was recommended.

It’s only in relatively recent times that the concept of lovesickness lost its currently.  The advent of ‘scientific’ psychiatry blew a scientific raspberry at such a foolish notion, and lovesickness was chucked into the medical dumpster in the ‘enlightened’ age that followed. Nowadays the pendulum has swung again; an increasing body of credible research suggests that our ancestors did know a thing or two after all. The belief that many people cannot cope with the intensity of falling in love, or suffer severely from their love being unrequited is experiencing something of a Renaissance.

Symptoms are said to include mania (mood swings, higher than usual self-esteem, extravagant gift giving), depression (tearfulness, insomnia, loss of concentration), obsessive behaviour (preoccupation with checking text messages/emails) and psychologically created physical symptoms (upset stomach, change in appetite, insomnia, dizziness and confusion). A recent Italian research programme concluded that the drop in Serotonin levels in a lovesick person’s brain were similar to those found in people with serious health problems such as compulsive disorders or drug addictions. The good news is that sufferers are not deranged, just madly in love, and love is quite literally making them sick.

Of course, the burning question is what to do about it? The current cure of first resort is counselling. Doesn’t seem a very romantic solution for such a delicate problem. But don’t despair! Now that we know our ancestors weren’t entirely clueless about the illness, maybe we should take their remedies a little more seriously. I’d say long sleeps, bathing and chowing down copious medicinal doses of great food and wine would be a pretty good anti-dote to any sickness, love induced or not. In any case, if all else fails, there’s always the “therapeutic intercourse” option! Alternatively, just grab yourself some good old Love Potion Number 9.

Cover image Lovesick by Canadian artist Keight MacLean — buy here at Saatchi Art.

Days of our lives

Well it’s Mothers’ Day again and I’m very happy to be spending another one with mine. I could write a whole heap of smoochy stuff about how much I appreciate my sainted mother — and I do — but, to be honest, I do have some ISSUES with Days of this type.

For one thing, while it’s a nice concept that, on at least one day a year, children should really think about and nurture their mothers, it’s as clear as the crystal waters around the Red Sea reefs that Mothers’ Day should be every day of the year. Being respectful, loving and kind to people shouldn’t need a dedicated day for heavens’ sake! For what it’s worth, I also feel the same degree of party-poopery about Fathers’ Day and the whole shebang of themed days that now litter our calendars for the same reason. Many of them are about causes or issues that should at the forefront of our thinking and behaviour if we can in any way lay claim to being civilised. But I’ve singled out Mothers’ Day because … well … it’s today.

Before I take this diatribe any further, let me say immediately that I have absolutely no issue with mothers. In fact, some of my best friends are mothers. Nor do I have any overt gripe with children. It’s just that I believe the little possums should be eternally grateful for your gift of life, not to mention the sacrifices you have endured to love, nurture and care for them and keep them in designer toys, food and princess parties.

Of course I don’t have kids, so I get that what I’ve just said kind of screams of sour grapes. But I can justify my comments because I haven’t entirely missed out. For several years in a row I did get a Mothers’ Day offering from my late and loopy Springer Spaniel. It was incredibly sensitive and thoughtful of him even if I wouldn’t have necessarily put a handful of dog biscuits high on my wish list, however exquisitely gift wrapped! It was a wonderful arrangement. He was never in the slighted offended when I didn’t scoff his carefully chosen biscuits instantly. Nor did he sit and watch me with a rapt expression on his face until I did. If anything, he was seemed rather pleased when I offered to share them with him or, better still, just lobbed them all on the floor for his sole and very happy consumption.

In all seriousness, I really don’t have a gripe per se with Mothers’ Day other than with the overt consumerism it spawns which makes me shudder ecologically. I’m thinking all that unnecessary additional landfill. Oh and there’s the issue about all those people who are separated from their families by wars and dirty regimes who can’t be together etc. etc. But those are not my gripes-du-jour.

No, my gripe is where’s the day for us childless people? You know the ones who take all the difficult shifts and work through holidays so people with kids can spend time with them? The ones who don’t have access to state benefits to help bring up their children? The many, like me, who’ve worked relentlessly all through our lives and delivered on-going tax contributions to the exchequer, helping to ensure the aforementioned benefits? Who (somewhat wistfully) help step-progeny create suitable outpourings of love for their real parents each year? Us un-childed do a lot of stuff that never gets mentioned in dispatches and is usually just taken for granted. So, where’s the day for us? Surely, in the interests of equality for all, if there’s a day for mothers and fathers, there should be one for the rest of us?

But what to call it? I started with Global Un-childed Day (like un-waged), but that’s just plain horrible and lacks the required level of mawkish sentimentality that Mothers’ Day achieves. International Childless Day is a little better but still sounds pretty drab. More fitting for a charity perhaps and the name needs to inspire respect and gratitude, not pity.

If only I could think of a great and grabby name, I’d write a strongly worded letter, maybe get up a petition even, directed at the Godhead person who decides which things get allocated a Day. I’d demand a new one for all of us unsung non-parent types. In the meantime, I’m arbitrarily selecting 25 December for International Childless Day. Oh what … there’s a clash? You bet there is! But there’s method in my madness — it would get us all out of lifting a finger on Christmas Day!

In any case, happy mothers’ day to all you moms out there … particularly to my much-loved mother and sister and niece-in-law and my dear friends who are mothers.

PS let me know if you’d like to sign the petition …. and also if you have any clue who the mighty dispenser of day is that it should be sent to J

The well known feature image of vomiting hearts is by the irrepressible Banksie — if you’ve been there, done it, why not wear the tee-shirt.

 

 

Take your shoes off when you’re wiping your feet on me!

At a dinner party some years ago the host came up with a provocative challenge which I’ve subsequently put to many others in the intervening years. Imagine the scene. We were still sitting around the table after dinner and and had got to that mellow point — i.e. belt-looseningly full and well wined —  where you get stuck into the really good conversations. The challenge was what would we call our autobiographies. “Great question” we all agreed.

As you can imagine, silence descended on the table for some time as we all tried to think of something suitably impressive, witty, challenging, ironic or, frankly, all of the above to impress each other with. Unfortunately, I can’t actually remember any of them because there were somer crackers, and we spent a couple of hysterical (serious LOL stuff) hours reviewing peoples’ choices against what we collectively knew about them.

Being known as Frankie to that group, I think I opted for something frivolous like Frankie’s Follies. “Not bad” was the verdict of my fellow diners as they considered the chapters that might make up this clearly racy little number. The ‘they’ at the dinner being people who know me quite well rather than the faceless ‘they’ who are generally cast as the common enemy. It was an eye-opener to understand from their comments that my fellow diners saw me as something like  Bridget Jones meets Barbarella!

Even at the time, I interpreted ‘not bad’ as ‘could do better’. Frankie’s Follies just felt feel a bit frivolous and try hard as a life story, and I’ve been on the hunt for an improved one every since. But I hadn’t been able to come up with a better option — try it, it’s really hard — until recently when I started writing this blog and now I’m spoilt for choice. The title of one of my recent pieces — @shit creek #no paddle — was a contender for a while. This was getting close I felt. Whether or not it could be the perfect moniker for MY book, it would certainly be a fab one for A book. Ultimately, I ruled it out  as I’m determined that the next part of my life will be shaped to avoid any more time wasted in the waiting room for the Shit Creek Express.

But while I was writing it, I did a lot of soul-searching about my life trying to find re-curring themes, good and bad, that underpin my story.. One of the big ones was loyalty. I’m extremely loyal person to people I care about. On too many occasions that has strayed into loyalty beyond reason where I’ve given too much — personally and professionally — putting other people’s interests way ahead of my own. Typically I’ve ended up with my head in my hands to play with; a financial loser with broken heart. That piece of navel-gazing prompted a post that’s been in the hopper for a while but, like Shubert’s majestic last symphony, remained mockingly unfinished — Take Your Shoes Off While You’re Wiping Your Feet on Me! I love this title. It’s got everything really … drama, bathos, victimhood, irony, insight … except authenticity for me now. Like the cast off @shit creek persona, the door mat who allowed too many people to wipe their feet on her is also banished from the narrative these days.

As you might have guessed, the search for the definitive title for my autobiography has become something of mission. At sleepless moments other people count sheep, meditate, name cities … whatever … I start thinking about autobiography names. Maybe this is not for everyone but, for someone who loves words, it’s the perfect way of passing time. You know the deal. When you’re sitting in a cafe or restaurant trying not to look like Jonnie-no-mates whilst waiting for friends who are running late? Or whiling way and hour or too on a cold, dark winter Sunday afternoon at home when there are no fires to fight?

Challenging other people, like my long ago host did, to name their autobiographies has produced some of the most entertaining and thought-provoking conversations I can remember. Last year when I started this blog under the title Never Succumb to Beige I think I finally nailed it! The whole idea of not succumbing to beige has  become a personal metaphor for always being who you are, despite the pressure to conform to all manner of often uncomfortable societal norms. It represents my commitment to the ideology “to thine own self be true”, even if that true self is more bling than Ming. It captures the desire to not give in. To get back in the saddle again after falling off. To be indomitable and bounce back after the proverbial shit has hit the fan. It’s also an enduring reminder of the  husk I become during my last and very damaging long-term relationship. Most of all, imagine the epitaph it would make, ‘she never succumbed to beige!

Seriously though, how do you frame your life story? After all, what’s in a name? Does it matter? A life’s a life isn’t it? Should be. Nonetheless, I think names do matter. When you name a child it does seem that their name helps shape their personalities because of some deep-rooted need to live up or down to whatever they’re called.  Someone named Storm is likely to be a very different person from a Daisy for example. You’d be a laughing stock if you were a scaredy-Storm cat. Daisy? Well … er … I’m thinking … all those dairy cows.

Parents-in-waiting agonise over what to call their embryonic children. Any one who’s started a business will have agonised in equal measure over what to call their commercial ‘baby’ because the one they choose will shape the perceptions of every person who engages in any way with the business. I think equal dedication should be put into naming our life stories because it helps identify the values by which we want to live our lives, our primary vision and mission, and distill to its essence how we see ourselves as human beings.

We can choose to do this retrospectively when the story has already been long in the telling. This is the time when we are moving towards its ending and the denouement is becoming clear. Or we can name the story early on and allow it to shape how our plot develops and ultimately the conclusion we wish it to have. Of course, we can only stack the odds — life throws all sorts of curved balls at us which, without a crystal ball or other psychic assistance, we can’t possibly factor in from the beginning. This likely will result in a least one, if not several revisions or tweaks. But that’s a good thing, in the way that a quality business plan should be a living document evolving as circumstances change and understanding deepens.

If I had my time again, I’d take great care to more pro-actively shape my life by thinking about the story I wish to write. I don’t think for a moment I’d choose the schematic that would be required in the Take Your Shoes Off When You’re Wiping You’re Feet on Me version! If I’d started out with the Never Succumb to Beige ethos, I wonder how my life would have differed? While there have been shades of both through the years, giving a positive name to my journey earlier could have saved me from going down a lot of unnecessary rabbit holes along the way. The good news is I feel like I’m tracking pretty well against my chosen epitaph!

Thanks to College Artist for the perfect cover photo.