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.

Riding the kindness wave

Don’t know about you, but I’m sick of the barrage of negativity that bombards us from all the news channels. I want to feel uplifted not besmirched when I think about our species and what we’re capable of. That doesn’t mean I’m for buying my head in the sand — I’m not hermit material, nor do I want to retire to an ashram and … er … I’m not actually an ostrich. In any case, as part of the ‘global village’ it’s my duty to be at least a bit informed about current events and geopolitics and form opinions and be part of the whole thing.

Yet there is just so much vileness, violence and vitriol splattered around these days, it’s easy to get cynical and despairing. Caring detachment is apparently the answer. But it’s hard to stay above the tantalising awfulising that vomits forth from so many channels. It’s all so ‘dialled up’ and following every sensational utterance of the Trumps of the world has become a new sport, if not religion. All that’s needed is an internet connection and a screen of some sort and hey presto, you’re plugged in and the ‘interwebs’ pedalling the good, bad and the ugly is your oyster. Lies, damn lies and fake news abound. We get trapped in our echo-chambers. For us liberals, it’s hard to ignore feeling that the barbarians are at the gates and our legacy to future generations could all too easily be a burned-out world with a broken eco-system.

So what can an individual do that really makes a difference worth a damn … other than vote of course! Well, lots to be honest. The possibilities are endless, but one option that’s really taken off is the concept of creating waves of energy to achieve positive reinforcement. Literally, spreading good vibes. Think about it — we plant trees to offset carbon emissions. Why not apply that thinking to offset hate, bigotry, misogyny, racism and all the other isms that have re-reared their ugly heads so forcefully around the world in this era of uncivility? The idea is that kindness — appreciation and caring for one another — in deed, in word, in thought or intent  — changes individual lives. Collectively, it can transform the world.

Clearly, orchestrated action is not a new concept. We apply it in all sorts of practical ways like several people lifting a heavy object on the count of three.. A rapidly growing number of people believe that this type of concerted approach can lift the world. Waves of Kindness is a movement where people take a moment at 8am and 8pm daily to form a complete and tangible wave ring around the world coming from a conscious state of unified kindness.

If that all sounds a bit ‘woo woo’ then perhaps a more accessible option is World Kindness Day that’s coming up on November 13. WKD aims to highlight good deeds in the community focusing on the positive power and the common thread of kindness which binds us. It’s intended to be a day that encourages individuals to overlook boundaries, race and religion and celebrate commonalities. Two thousand and eighteen is the movement’s 20th anniversary — it was initiated in 1998 by a coalition of kindness NGOs around the world and is now observed in a number of countries including Australia, Canada, Italy, India, Japan, Nigeria, UAE, Singapore and the UK.

Embarrassing that New Zealand isn’t yet on this list — shame on us! Having said that our inspiring Prime Minister Jacinda Adern included this sort of thinking in a speech at the UN a few weeks ago, and my home town  — NZ’s capital city Wellington — is celebrating its inaugural GKD this year. Better late than never!

People observe WKD in all sorts of ways. In Australia for example, it’s made it onto the school calendar of 9,000 schools and there are “It’s Cool To Be Kind Awards”. Activities include handing out kindness cards, staging flashmobs and concerts. WKD is also on the radar of individual non-profits such as Life Vest in the US and there’s clearly a big appetite for finding the international kindness taproot. Life Vest’s film Kindness Boomerang went viral, receiving more than 100 million views and coverage in serious media outlets such as TED, NBC, CBS and Adweek.

If you’re leaning towards joining the kindness wave, you might also consider becoming a Raktivist — the random acts of kindness movement might be more your thing. Much more of a JFDI individual approach without all the group hugging and collaborative stuff. According to the site, Raktivists are kindness ambassadors who live and breathe kindness, share knowledge and lead by example. Apparently you can tell where they’ve been because they leave a trail of ‘warm fuzzies’ in their wake.

I subscribe to a number of international media. One of them actually has a Week In Good News that you can sign up for and it’s great. Last week, from this and other sources, I learned that lavender is being mooted as providing a natural alternative to chemical anti-depressants, that Chinese workers has managed to save an old bear that had fallen into a reservoir and was close to drowning by scooping him out using an industrial digger, a woman who had been saved from a house fire by her cat and how a blind climber conquered Everest and went on to co-found a non profit to teach outdoor skills to others with physical challenges.

There are plenty of genuinely moving, uplifting, inspirational things going on every moment of every day, everywhere. I strongly believe positivity breeds positivity and the only way we’ll make change happen is if we believe we can and infect others in our orbit with this belief. Positive energy is infectious and it’s a virus we should be keen to share. Hope really can triumph over experience if we let it. Where we are now it seriously needs to! They used to say you need to be cruel to be kind. I’d say it’s more a case of you need to be kind to be kind.

 

 

A good man and true

My father died two months ago. He was 89, a sick old man and it wasn’t unexpected. In many ways our little family was glad he didn’t linger on because the last few weeks of his life were not the best of times. He was so very fragile and there was little left of our big proud Scotsman who always had a song in his heart. Despite this, when it comes down to that final good bye, I don’t think you’re ever really prepared. There’s really no way to pre-empt the emotions that are triggered when you realise one of the mainstays of your life is gone. I miss him deeply.

Dad died early on a Tuesday morning and we had the funeral three days later. It was small, intimate affair and a fitting tribute to the man. It truly was a celebration, full of joy and love and laughter. My sister and I gave the eulogies. Preparing these, we reviewed our family story at length and laughed and cried in equal measure while we pondered his life and what he’d meant to us. We discussed how lucky we were to be born to parents who gave us a wonderful and safe childhood. Parents who fed our ‘satiable curiosity’ and opened our minds to how much the world has to offer. They encouraged us to be the unique, creative individuals all human beings should be able to be. Most of all, they gave us the security to grow and experiment with our lives, knowing we could escape from whatever mess we could land ourselves in because there was always a safety net at home. We lived without the taint of violence or intimidation that is the awful reality for so many women and girls.

Of course, we had our ‘moments’ — what family doesn’t? It would also be misleading to sanctify his memory, he wasn’t’ a saint. But how many kids never experience the wonder of a kind, loving father who cares deeply for them and protects them? How many still live in terror as a drunken monster rampages round the house hitting out at anything or anyone who gets in his way? How many go hungry or have their lives and health ruined by their crack- or p-addicted parents? How many orphans simply don’t ever get to know their parents? How many have their dreams and confidence beaten out of them dashed on the rocks of ignorance and cruelty? How many kids are damaged beyond repair by toxic, Wars of the Roses style divorces?

My father was a man of high principles. An honest-to God, good man who loved and respected the women in his life and believed we could be anything we wanted to be.  In these #metoo times, we could do with more people like him. While we surely need to ‘out’ the bad apples and find ways of stopping the violence and inequality, it’s important to remember that there are lots of good guys like him around too.

Painting in feature image: William (Bill) Paterson by Joseph Guilford c 2016

 

Smile … an everlasting smile

I smile a lot. You might even say I’m a positive little joy germ … I’ve even been known to sing first thing in the morning. I see this as a great way to greet the day, others find it annoying. But I can’t help it, it’s just how I am. My rellies call me Tigger after the irrepressible bouncing tiger in the AA Milne’s wonderful Winnie the Pooh stories. Hopefully you get the picture? I’m one of nature’s smilers. Or at least I used to be. Life kind of got in the way for a while there and it felt as if Tigger had bounced up one tree too many and got stuck. Happily — smilingly — Tigger’s back bouncing around on the ground searching for adventure.

But my point? Other than smiling, walking is one of my great joys in life. When I walk I think, I process, I solve problems and dream up ideas. Some people smile while they dial. Me, I smile while I walk. Weird you might say, but why not? Walking makes me feel great, all I have to do is leave my house to do it. I usually walk in glorious places which make my heart sing and, even better, it’s usually free. What’s not to smile about? So what if I look like some scary humanoid version of the Cheshire Cat to the rest of the world?

But I think smiling’s great and an encounter I had a couple of weeks ago is a perfect example of why. Picture the scene. I was striding happily along the waterfront near my home, inhaling the beauty of a glorious day and enjoying the antics of the canines on parade. I’m wearing scabby old exercise clothes, but I figure glam shades, some violent red lippy make up for that … and the beaming smile. Of course, most people scuttle away when this apparition goes past. A few manage a muted ‘Hi’ in response to my breezy greeting — usually this comes with all the enthusiasm that you might put into acknowledging a slimy thing that’s just crawled out from under a stone. Sad … as he who should not be named would say.

Why are people so afraid? That a smile is the façade for an out of control lunatic? That they might somehow get caught up in my life if they smile back? That I’m on the make?Makes me think I need to carry a placard, “Really it’s OK. I’m smiling at you because I’m having a Zip-A-De-Doo-Dah day. I’m high on the sun, the sparkly sea, all those wonderful dogs, the way the rhythms of walking make my body feel and, by the way, I would like to share my joy with you.” Don’t other people feel the same?

Imagine my surprise  when I find a kindred spirit in amongst all the avoidance — another happy smiling face. I see her dog first. I love dogs (in case you missed that) but there are some breeds I particularly like and hers happens to be one of them. Patrocles (as I find out he’s called) is a liver spotted Dalmatian that would have given the leads in 101 Dalmationsa run for their money in terms of street appeal. I turn to compliment the women on the gorgeousness which is her dog and ask if I can pat him. That’s when I really clock her. She’s staring out over the water with a radiant smile that would make Julia Robert’s best look dim. I take it she’s as intoxicated by the day as I am. She turns to answer my question … our eyes meet … and we share a ‘moment’ as we acknowledge that we both get it. That whatever else is going on in our lives (and it’s not been a good year on a number of counts in mine) we’re smiling because right now, in this moment, the world is a wonderful place. Even Patrocles is smiling!

Anyway, after mouthing platitudes about dogs and the loveliness of the day, we have that conversation about why people look away when you smile at them. Then, a little reluctantly it has to be said, I walk on. But somehow, I can’t let the moment pass and turn back because I want to tell her she’s made my day with her beautiful energy. It’s the same for her she says. I pat the pooch again and continue on my walk feeling good at having had such a random and uplifting encounter.

It really did make my day and I’m still smiling thinking about it. Was such a good reminder of how much we can influence our world through the energy we bring and the simple gift of an open and genuine smile. So smile people, because nothing shakes the smiling heart and remember that happiness looks gorgeous on you. As Chris Hart said, “All the statistics in the world can’t measure the warmth of a smile.”

So get your smiley face on and dazzle everyone you meet. Tough shit if some people think you’re deranged. You’ll have a great day and hopefully also make those of of the people you cross paths with.

Happy World Smile Day!

(5 October 2018)

 

 

 

Thrift — the new black?

I read a great article the other day about a trending topic, ‘The Cult of Thrift’. The gods of this cult are minimalisation, debt-free living, frugality, decluttering and zero waste, gods I’ve been progressively bending the knee to over the last few months. In fact, it was so similar to my own experience, the article felt as if it had been written by a doppelgänger. Hadn’t realised I was part of a new wave — how advanced of me!

The main difference between us was that the writer has consciously embraced the thrift ethos whereas I’ve kind of blundered into it in a necessity being the mother of invention sort of way. In fact, after a couple of financially disappointing business investments, I’ve really had no option other than to pull my belt in big time. Thinking about it, said tightenign of belt was purely metaphorical. As the funds ran out like beer from a leaky barrel, epic levels of comfort eating kicked in meaning that I actually would have had to let out the  belt a few notches … if I’d wanted to wear one that is. During this nadir, I pretty much stopped wearing belts or any other clothes with shape given the results of all the snout in trough stuff. However, I’m sure you’ll be as uplifted as I am by the knowledge that not only have I started wearing belts again, I’ve actually clawed back one of the lost belt holes and have confidence a normal waistline is in sight!

So much for metaphor! In any case, what started out as necessity quite quickly morphed into choice and I appear to be well on my way to becoming a paid-up Thrifter and feeling more virtuous by the moment.

So what has given me the keys to the Thriftdom? Unsurprisingly, given the above, a fair amount of it revolves round food and eating habits. For starters, bargain food hunting has become an obsession, if not actually a new sport. This has led to the dark art of cooking proper meals again instead of giving in to the Siren call of endless takeaways after too many stressful and long days at work. Sometimes the new me even cooks a casserole or soup or similar at weekends to stretch over several weekday meals.

I finally get the joy of auction sites like eBay and Trademe although I continue to try and buy as ethically as possible. I can’t exactly claim that Upcycle has become my middle name, but I have looked at a few things and had an ‘aha moment’ about refurb rather than trash. ‘Pre-loved’ clothing shops are very much on my radar. Having moved into a much smaller apartment, I no longer get small space envy whenever I watch a George C Clarke TV programme and I feel positively virtuous for the level of de-cluttering that’s resulted. I can thoroughly recommend this tactic to wannabee Thrifties. When you have limited space, it makes you think long and hard about what stuff you actually want to shackle yourself to. Choices have to be made people! It won’t all fit! In the spirit of transparency, I have to fess up to the fact that I haven’t yet been able to get myself to offload the many boxes of books I’ve been trailing around as I’ve moved into successively smaller homes to a second-hand book seller or book fair, so my sister’s enormous garage is currently multi-tasking as my library.

Limited closet space is also a great incentive to apply some of the anti- clothes-hoarding rules. You know — if you  haven’t worn it in the last two years, it’s toast. If you buy a new garment, something must be consigned to the outer darkness of the clothing bin to make room for it. If it doesn’t work with something you’ve already got, put it back on the rack. And how many pairs of shoes does anyone not called Imelda need?

In all seriousness, after the initial trauma, de-cluttering is a very liberating activity. It’s not just stuff I’ve been getting rid of either. The thrift thing can be applied across all the facets of life. I’ve shed one business and stepped back from a couple of other professional involvements so I can concentrate fully on doing one role well. I’m also training myself to say no to all those ‘should dos’ that my inner crowd pleaser sees as obligatory.

Although thrifty has been a virtue since Adam was a boy (actually since around 1300 if you read dictionaries), the Thrift evangelists are out in numbers these days. You’d have to think that’s a direct result of the all the inconvenient truths we’re facing as a society and the fear the we might be going to Hell in a handbasket sometime soon if we can’t get the lid back on our contemporary Pandora’s box. Among the evils unleashed on the world when some fool opened it in this is the spend-thriftery (extravagant, irresponsible spending) that has come to define our consumerist western lifestyle.

But how could it be otherwise? We’re literally bombarded with subliminal and not-so-subliminal messaging carefully crafted to make us dissatisfied and want more, bigger and better everything. But don’t worry, if you can’t afford it, someone will lend you the money, up your credit card limit or provide ‘interest free credit’ so you can keep on consuming and owe a bit more of your soul to the company store. It’s unsustainable on so many levels — personal, community wide and for our equally stressed planet.

Actually, it’s obscene. Or at least in my rapidly de-cluttering life, it seems so. The concept of retail therapy — when the going gets tough the tough go shopping — sits at the centre of the problem. Particularly when the results are growing mountains of recycling that can’t (yet) be re-cycled, oceans stuffed with plastic and other toxic detritus and all the rest. Maybe we should create a new mantra; when the going gets tough, the tough go … on a peace march?

Shopping as our primary leisure time activity is particularly ironic given that we humans have so much innate creativity. Less time spent shopping leaves time for things that so often go on the back boiler. I love writing this blog as it helps me sort out my priorities, worldview and values. But when I get stressed and my life and mind get cluttered, I can’t write. There’s just no headspace to think about anything other than whatever is causing the stress, and I have sometimes gone for weeks without writing anything.

It has to be noted that the cult of thrift is not a judgement on the genuinely poor for whom thrift is not a virtue but potentially a life sentence. Rather, it is being held out as an alternative for people with means who want to get off the consumer treadmill and start living within them, taking responsibility for how their actions affect the present and future. It’s not about austerity, just changing our personal values and thinking more deeply about how we live.

Taking my own recent experiences, while I’m as keen to have the good things in life as the next person, I’ve found a lot of joy in appreciating what is instead of lusting after what isn’t. In this context, less is most definitely more. Getting my thrift on has become a highly creative and engaging new way operating which ironically becomes a much more sure-fired way of being able to afford to do the things I would like to. I feel up-lifted by the challenge not deprived. There’s certainly more time to smell the roses.

 

 

 

 

Be yourself no matter what they say

On a road trip a couple of weeks ago, my playlist dished up a song by Sting that I hadn’t heard for a while — An Englishman in New York. Glad though I was to be reacquainted with this old favourite, it’s been stuck in my head since like … er … a stuck record.

The Englishman in question was the infamous eccentric gay icon Quentin Crisp, who moved from London to New York in 1981 (incidentally the year I moved to London from Scotland as an starry-eyed post-grad). Crisp – or Denis Charles Pratt as he was born in 1908 — apparently came from a fairly conventional suburban English background. How he then made the leap from that to wearing make-up, painting his nails and including items of female clothing in his ‘look’ is anybody’s guess. Well actually, that’s not quite true. His autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, which ultimately became a cult TV production starring John Hurt, made him a household name from the mid-seventies and removed the need to guess about his Genesis.

Quentin Crisp was many things in his time; a ‘rent-boy’, a professional model for life-classes in art colleges, a raconteur — his one man show filled theatres for many years in Britain and America — as well as a TV actor and personality. But it was the interviews he gave that fuelled the legend, particularly his take on manners and the cultivation of style, both of which he wrote about at length. He famously labelled himself as “one of the stately homos of England”.

I admired him hugely for his commitment to living life on his own terms in the certainty that everyone has a right to fulfil their true and unique potential. He seemed to accept that flying in the face of convention would not be a comfortable ride, particularly when you don’t evangelise the party line on divisive issues such as gay rights, and openly criticise wildly popular figures such as Diana “the people’s Princess”. While the ‘outrage factor’ certainly added to his allure, it also brought vitriolic criticism and disapproval. Whether or not this bothered him, it certainly didn’t change him. As Sting so elegantly put it, “It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile. Be yourself no matter what they say.”

Thinking about this concept of being yourself, no matter what they say, it’s always been one that’s been very dear to my heart. While I’m no rebel, like Crisp, I’ve always rated individualism and done my best to foster my own. Our human DNA seems to be infused with deep-rooted tribal instincts. In my own case, despite many years as an ex-pat, I still identify strongly as a Scot. But this only goes so far. Much as I like being around my own kind, I’ve never wanted to be one of the pack. For as long as I can remember, I had a highly developed sense of my own individuality which has always seemed to me to be a precious thing that made life fuller and more interesting.

Very early on, I found my own sense of style which I’ve built on through the years. I can remember teetering around the cobble stones of my alma-mater, Saint Andrews University, in the depths of the Scottish winter wearing outrageously precarious shoes and a moss green corduroy pencil-line skirt and jacket which I made myself. That was one of a number of similarly outstanding, if impractical ensembles in my wardrobe. I mention this only because it was a time when most of my peers were content with uniform blue jeans and Guernsey jerseys.

Moving to London post grad was like diving into a cornucopia of opportunities for self-expression. I found my spiritual home working in international media where anything goes, and idiosyncrasy was par for the course. With the natural advantage of statement hair of the blonde cork-screw variety I was the right fish in the right pond. Of course, I hated my hair with a passion when I was a violin-playing nerdy kid, but it became a real asset during those  years for its sheer ‘out-there-ness’. I used to festoon this riot of tresses with all sorts of bows, bands and ornaments.

Coming back to Quentin Crisp, it takes courage to keep your faith. It’s much easier to wear the uniform, join a tribe, embrace the jargon. Several times in my life I’ve tried very hard to contort myself into being something I’m not — to conform to the expectations of a partner or to succeed in a job — with all the success of a gaudy tropical fish trying to survive in the freezing waters of Southern Ocean.

I’ve lost my way badly on a couple of occasions, somewhat ironically coinciding with a compulsion to straighten my hair! At one point I took a job in the Masters of the Universe realm of venture capital and attempted to become a ‘suit’. But even on the conservative end of my spectrum while I was trying to be one of them, my clothing selection was severely career limiting. I remember being sat down by my then boss for a talk about dressing for success a little like parent broaching the topic of sex education with their teenage daughter. He underlined his point by giving me a very chic and very suitable briefcase for Christmas the first year. I tried to confirm. I really wanted to. If nothing else, the financial incentives were very compelling. But after three years (I’ve never been a quitter) I did both of us — me and the firm involved — a sanity returning favour by understanding that Corporateland was not my natural habit and I’ve never ventured back.

I started this blog under the title Never Succumb to Beige. That was the best articulation I could find of my belief in the need to embrace our own uniqueness. It seems that as we grow up we’re conditioned out of liking those sparkly jelly shoes and garishly colourful ensembles most kids revel in. After all, they’re tawdry gewgaws that should be consigned to the dress up box as we grow up aren’t they? But who is the ‘they’ that impose the boundaries on our self-expression and creativity? If my sense of self says I lust after purple boots with fringes, what’s stopping me? That would be the crushing tyranny of good taste and what’s appropriate for my age and stage. But seriously, who cares? If a visual cacophony is what does it for you, why not? After all, girls just wanna have fun … even vintage ones like me.

I’ve just returned from another multi-year walk in the ‘who am I?’ wilderness. Every time I come back to my senses and remember the answer, I’m reminded of the Ivy Compton Bennett quote, “A leopard does not change his spots, or change his feeling that spots are rather a credit to him.” Unsurprisingly, my hair’s curly again and I’ve regained the feeling that it’s still rather a credit to me.

Be yourself, no matter what they say!

 

Those little joy things

Late on Friday night I decided to do something I should have done months ago and put an end to a situation that’s been causing me anguish. This has been a trap largely of my own making and one which my sense of obligation has held me hostage to way beyond the call of duty. A number of small things combined as the straw that broke this camels back and forced me to finally take action.  Nothing changes if nothing changes!

After this liberating decision, I’d love to say I then slept like a baby. I didn’t! Had one of those terrible, wakeful nights full of churned up thoughts that went nowhere. Eventually drifted off near dawn and slept fitfully for a couple of hours. Late in the afternoon, I took myself out for a walk along the waterfront. The sea was as still as serenity and sparkling like silver-dust. On my way back, in the gloaming, the last of the sun glimmered with such beauty on the mountains at the back of the harbour I stopped to drink it in. A tiny grey warbler landed on a bush next to me, closely followed by a chittering fantail. I stood transfixed for long minutes smiling at the antics of these two little creatures. It was delightful and I finished my walk with renewed spring in my step and warmth in my heart despite the encroaching chill of evening.

Earlier in the day, someone close to me, understanding my distress and the dichotomies involved, reminded me to look for the little joy things when life feels bleak. So true. I slept like a baby for 10 wonderful hours that night.

Thanks to the New Zealand birds website for the stunning cover photo.