HOW TO LIVE FOREVER?

I had an aunt who became very forgetful when she reached a certain age. It wasn’t an illness – her mind was fit and well, but she simply became absent-minded and lost things. As a child, her antics made me laugh. I remember when I was staying with her, one morning I found her standing on a six large books balanced precariously on a chair in the bedroom to search the top of a wardrobe for a fish slice. I have no idea why she should have put such an object on top of a wardrobe, nor did she didn’t explain when she found the missing object in the wash basket.  I didn’t ask because that was my aunt – unpredictable and eccentric.

I love eccentric people. I plan to become one myself, so that would explain why I love them so much… Jenny Joseph‘s Poem I Will Wear Purple I hope will describe me when I reach that certain age. Getting old should give you carte blanche to be a little strange, after all those pressures to conform are no longer so strong.

Like my baby grand daughter, when she starts losing teeth, so will I… The very young and the very old have a lot in common. One thing that does worry me however: will I still be funny when I get very old? By funny I don’t mean eccentric, smelly or mad, I mean will I be able to crack jokes? Will I get the point of a joke? Will I laugh at jokes? Many older people I know seem to have lost that ability to some extent. They appear grumpy and sour, complaining and moaning about everything. Will I become like that? Maybe my kids think I am already there?

The other day, standing at the supermarket checkout, I watched a handsome, well spoken elderly man arguing with the cashier because he could not understand something printed on his receipt. He joked about himself, saying he was sure he wasn’t totally ga-ga but he was certain there was a mistake.  The cashier, a young woman, seemed to think he was severely deaf. She started to announciate her words with the sort of dedicated perfection an actor might use when asked to play the lead in a stately home saga. She gave the other people in the queue beseeching looks, she rolled her eyes and not once did she treat the old chap like a sentient being. In the end, the man didn’t lose his temper, he just patted her on the hand and said in resigned voice: Sorry miss, but I’m older and wiser than you and you’ve got it wrong… Then he walked out. The cashier response was a shrug. The people in the queue, all younger than the man, grumbled and looked sulky.

I tend to ague forcefully in such situations. And I certainly won’t back down. I would rather be dragged out of the shop by my ears than to let some podgy faced juvenile win an argument if I think I am right. I will stand my ground now and when I am very old, I hope. Of course, it might be that I will get worn down by all the negative images I see every day about old people. (Some things have improved; we now have fashion models with grey hair. Yipee!)  But why do we have to accept images that make old people look as if they have two brain cells between the lot of them. Why are they ridiculed and patronised? After all, they seem to be the only section of the society that still have any disposable income! Most of them own their houses. But not all. I heard someone on radio say that debt amongst the over 60’s is escalating as are sexually transmitted diseases. Apparently some of our senior citizens are throwing caution to the winds and spending their kid’s inheritance while having copious affairs!  Interesting…

I think that the secret of staying young must be in what you eat. My secret weapon is garlic. I would have it on my corn flakes. Genetics plays a part too, but a good intake of that wonderful herb with all its amazing chemical constituents can keep your insides working, can make your skin look great, can protect your tummy from bugs and can make your breath smell which will put off any Lotharios after your money! Another magic food is water cress. Eaten raw every day in the summer will set you up nicely for a healthy winter. I’m not a doctor, but I know it works for me!

So how will I preserve my youth? If I knew that I’d be a billionaire. The magic elixir might be a mixture of water cress and garlic, mashed up and packed in a smart box with promises to make you live forever and sold to a gullible public via an internet site. There are similar scams out there. No, I will go down a safer route. I’ll keep laughing to preserve my sense of humour; I’ll keep eating the magic foods to protect my plumbing and I’ll love a lot – to make me happy. The perfect recipe for longevity!

AN UNSEXY CONDITION

Yesterday, I walked along the cliffs in North Devon. The wind was up and it was cold. I stopped to look at the stunning view of the some of the highest cliffs in the UK. While I was pondering on their beauty, a small white dog appeared and sniffed my ankles. A few moments later, the owner, an elderly man came up to me. He apologised and put the dog on a leash. We started chatting and he told me I was standing on the spot where a month ago, a young man had thrown himself to his death.

I peered over the edge of the cliff. The rocks below were dark grey and jagged, like a set of razor-sharp knives. The dark blue sea lapped lazily against them. It was a calm sea that day, but I knew that when the storms hit this shore in past times, many ships had floundered on those rocks and lives had been lost, but I had never envisaged someone using them to take their own life. The man told me some walkers had discovered a rucksack by the cliff edge and when they looked inside they had found a suicide note. It told the story of a desperately unhappy young man who simply couldn’t cope with his life any more.

Walking back to my car, I began to wonder what drives someone so young, with so much life to live, to do such a thing. For them the end is quick. For those left behind the pain lasts a life time. So, is suicide a supremely selfish thing to do?  Not if your mind is unwell and this has not been recognised and treated appropriately. Mental health provision in this country is very poor.

There have been times in my life when I have hit rock bottom. When the last of my four kids left home to go to university, I wandered round my house like a lost tourist. The rooms became unfamiliar places because they’d been stripped of that comforting mess that I’d moaned about daily, but was now gone; no piles of dirty washing in the middle of the floor; no out of date library books; no cups growing penicillin under the bed. Some of my friends left their children’s room untouched, but not me. I had to lance the boil immediately. I tidied up! I washed the clothes and took the books back. I dusted and Hoovered and lit scented candles. Everything was so clean I could have opened a B&B.

I didn’t do this because I wanted to wipe memories away. I did it because I realised this was a new phase in my life and one I had to face head on. I’ve always like a challenge and this was one hell of a challenge! On that first night after my youngest left, I don’t think I have ever felt so miserable. But I wasn’t going to let anyone know and I was sure it wasn’t going to defeat me. Depression is not an option I thought.

I didn’t know I was depressed. I knew I was crying a lot and felt tearful at the most inconvenient times; at the checkout in Tesco’s; when anyone gave me a hug or was sympathetic. I knew I’d started eating too much; stuffing chocolate down my throat several times a day. And I couldn’t sleep. Each night was filled with bizarre dreams of loss and panic. I was always looking for something, or running away from something. And then there was the irritability. I wanted to bite my husbands head off, chew it and vomit it up all over him! Of course, I was able to put on a mask of ‘niceness’. I wasn’t completely out of control, but very nearly.

After some months, I awoke one morning feeling so bad that the only way out was to remove myself. I announced I was talking a trip, bought my ticket and much to everyone’s amazement, I left and stayed left for six months. In a new environment with new people, I started to feel better. It was a slow process but my mind, an amazing piece of kit, began to realign itself.

Depression for me felt as if  the workings inside my head had fallen apart. Something had grabbed the end of the ball of string in there and started to unravel it. After my break, something else took hold of the jumbled-up string and started knitting a neat little jumper. Everything started to fall into place. I could rationalise my feelings and be logical about my future as an empty nest mum. If I’d spent a few weeks in a mental hospital on drugs, would the effect have been the same? I don’t know the answer to that one.

What I do know is that any creative activity helps. Writing, painting, making things; all seem to assuage the grip of depression. But when you are depressed, you lack motivation. I found motivation by putting myself in a new world, a new place. It worked for me but that’s not to say it would work for everyone. Depression is a prison and only the sufferer holds the key to escape. To train your mind to think differently is a mammoth task when you are locked away. The professionals use Cognative Therapy to teach the mind to think in new ways. Anything that can help is worth a try because depression ruins and takes lives.

I often think about that young man on those North Devon cliffs. He didn’t get the help he so desperately needed. I’m sure it was no-one’s fault. Sometimes people hide their pain too well. To tell anyone you are depressed can be seen as ‘making a fuss’ in our get-up-and-go society. I wonder if all the financial cuts our new government is going to make will drive more people into depression? How will our mental health services cope if their funding is axed any further?

These statistics from the Mental Health Foundation are worth noting:

  • 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year
  • Mixed anxiety & depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain
  • Women are more likely to have been treated for a mental health problem than men
  • About 10% of children have a mental health problem at any one time
  • Depression affects 1 in 5 older people living in the community and 2 in 5 living in care homes
  • British men are three times as likely as British women to die by suicide
  • The UK has one of the highest rates of self harm in Europe, at 400 per 100,000 population
  • Only one in 10 prisoners has no mental disorder

Here are some more facts about suicide from the MHF:

  • In 2004, more than 5,500 people in the UK died by suicide – Samaritans suicide statistics
  • British men are three times as likely as British women to die by suicide – Samaritans Information Resource Pack (2004)
  • Suicide remains the most common cause of death in men under the age of 35 – The National Service Framework For Mental Health – Five
  • Years On, Department Of Health (2005)
  • The suicide rate among people over 65 has fallen by 24% in recent years, but is still high compared to the population overall – Samaritans Information Resource Pack (2004)

Maybe we should be willing to be more engaged; to notice when someone changes their behaviour or becomes withdrawn? But we have become an isolated society. Mrs Thatcher told us: ‘There is no such thing as society…’  David Cameron wants us to take part in The Big Society. He has told us he wants to give the power back to the people…  Power means responsibility.

Should all be more aware and keep an eye on our family, friends and neighbours for the signs? What do we do if we think someone we know is depressed? There is a wealth of information out there but depression is not sexy condition. Would you want to get involved? You might simply say pull your socks up. You might just be too busy trying to make ends meet.

I’ll continue to walk along those beautiful cliffs and I won’t forget that young life lost.

POLITICIANS MAKE ME WANT TO EAT!

Last night, I watched Question Time on BBC TV. This is a great programme and one I try never to miss.  Jonathan Dimbleby was, as usual a calm and efficient chair. The panel consisted of Vince Cable, Business Secretary, John Redwood MP, Ian Hislop – Editor of Private Eye Magazine, Caroline Flint MP and Mehdi Hasan, Political Editor of The Independent. I was expecting an exciting debate. The questions from the Liverpool audience were varied and topical but I sensed there was little fire in their bellies for a fight. Secularism, ASBO’s and the police, the bankers; all provoked degrees of passion from each of the panel. Vince Cable had to work hard to hold his own when Caroline Flint and Medhi Hasan became conjoined in their attack on the Coalition that he represented. These two Labour supporters were at times spitting nails at Cable, who along with John Redwood, came across as measured and mature. Ian Hislop can always be relied upon to burst any pomposity bubble that threatens to rise with all the hot air and that’s just what he did.

When the programme ended, I was exhausted! I woke in the night thinking about it. What had the politicians said that would reassure me that they truly had a grip on what is happening in the UK. The frailty of their humanity stares them in the face in such situations. The audience let them off the hook because I think they felt sorry for them. There was the smell of apologetic resignation in the air. Medhi Hasan spoke at times with energy and conviction and with no hint of bitterness. He was well informed, after all he is a political editor. But in retrospect, he did not totally engage me. He was trying too hard to convince himself as well as the audience. But he was a voice that was needed!

So, after listening to them all, I was compelled to go into the kitchen and make coffee. With the coffee I had to eat something sweet, to dispell the sour taste that those pundits had left in my mouth. So a large slice of chocolate cake was the answer. But as I ate, I began to feel guilty. The country is on its knees, we are up to our eyes in debt, we are still involved in a war that no-one really believes we can win, our kids are struggling to pay huge university debts and divorce is on an all-time high! People are scared to go out after dark in our cities and the very old live under constant threat of neglect in many of our nursing homes and hospitals. There are to be cuts. The word has a diabolical ring to it.  I am eating chocolate cake!

So, what to do. Outside my window the rain falls and the sky is grey. Summer is over. A cat has decided to use my veg. patch as a toilet. I want to talk to Nick Clegg and David Cameron, personally! I have as much chance of doing that as I have of catching that cat in action…  Maybe today is the day to make a rich and hearty winter soup? Will that disperse the sense of foreboding?

Suddenly, a Robin appears on the windowsill. He eyes me up with a knowing look. Then he flies to the bird feeder and gorges himself on the seeds. The cat sits on the fence and watches. That bird knows that any moment his life could end and what does he do? He eats.

Oh well, back to the chocolate cake.

THEATRE MEMORIES

A rainy afternoon in the West Country and I have just watch the film Carousel on TV. What memories it brought back.

In 1950, the musical show by Rogers and Hammerstein opened at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. The cast included Stephen Douglass and Iva Withers. Carousel played in London for over a year and a half.

The London run followed the Broadway production that had opened at the Majestic Theatre on April 19, 1945. It was directed by Rouben Mamoulian and choreographed by Agnes de Mille. It ran for 890 performances and closed on May 24, 1947. The cast included John Raitt as “Billy”, Jan Clayton as “Julie”, Jean Darling as “Carrie”, Eric Mattson as “Enoch Snow“, Christine Johnson as “Nettie Fowler”, Mervyn Vye as Jigger, with Bambi Linn as “Louise”.

The London production was a very special one for me, because my older sister was in the show. She’d trained to be a classical singer and for awhile tried to find work, but jobs with opera companies were hard to come by in those austere days after the war, so she auditioned for musical comedy shows; there were quite a few in London at the time. It was obvious that Londoners needed cheering up. But Carousel was anything but a merry romp.  Oscar Hammerstein II used the show to explore social attitudes and prejudices at the time. The themes include domestic violence,  social class, hypocrisy and behaviour. They would continue in this vein with  South Pacific, highlighting and attacking racial prejudice.

Carousel is no ordinary musical comedy. It can be presented and translated in other languages because of its universal social themes. According to Wikipedia: it was produced for the first time in Spanish on December 12 and 13, 2009. Presented in Puerto Rico‘s most prestigious theater, Sala de Festivales Antonio Paoli in Centro de Bellas, Luis A. Ferré presented by Santa Bernardita Productions for a charitable purpose. The money collected went Puerto Rico’s Protected House Julia de Burgos, a shelter for women and children victims of domestic violence.

I was a very small child when I first saw my sister in the chorus of the production at Drury Lane. Little did I realise that the story of the play would mirror my own life in many ways. I was taken back stage after the show, to meet the cast. They included Iva Withers, Stephen Douglass, Margot Moser, Marion Ross, Eric Mattson, Jack Melford, William Sherwood and Kenneth Sandford. A few years ago when I was putting together some family momentoes for my kids, I wrote to a website selling old theatre programmes and managed to buy one for the show. Inside, under the cast list for the chorus, was my sister’s name. This was so poignant for me, as she died in 1989 at the age of only 59.

I remember that we had very good seats, near the stage and that I could clearly see my sister in the opening scene. As the curtains opened, there was the magical carousel with it’s brightly painted fairground horses. The chorus girls were sitting on them as that wonderful Carousel Waltz was played. The carousel revolved in time to the music. A group of girls, in their colourful long dresses, stood nearby and my sister was one of them. I cannot describe the thrill of seeing her up there on that huge stage.

One afternoon, I went with her to a matinée and I was allowed to sit on a chair in the wings and watch the show. During the interval, I was bundled off home with my mother who’d arrived to collect me. For a child to watch such a fabulous show in that wonderful theatre was extraordinarily magical. It certainly wouldn’t be allowed today, I’m sure. I went on to watch The King and I with Valerie Hobson and Herbert Lom, in the same way. More of that in my next blog!

Another time, I went with my sister to collect her wages! All the boys and girls in the chorus lined up on that vast stage between a matinée and evening show to collect their wage packet. The stage was in darkness except for a couple of low lights and a table lamp on an old wooden table at the back of the stage. A man sat at the table, handing out little brown envelopes full of money to each of the chorus. As far as I can remember, it was £6 a week! (That was good money in 1951!)

The story of the show moved me deeply. In the scene where the male lead comes back from heaven to see his daughter, I was horrified to see that my mother, sitting next to me, was crying. She had just lost my father. He’d died very suddenly of a heart attack. It was years later that I realised the significance of the story and how it must have affected her. In the show, Billy Bigalow dies. Julie, his wife, is expecting their child. There is a lovely scene where he watches his daughter, now fifteen years old, from the heavens and sees that she is suffering without a father. I now understand how my mother must have worried about me and what my future might be without a father.

The music still resonates with me. Whenever I sing any of the songs, I am moved. Sentimental? Maybe. But the memories haunt me to this day. When I saw the film this afternoon, I still shed a tear or two…  But the film will never come close to the magic of those performances I saw all those years ago. They influenced me in a profound way, so that my own work as a writer, theatre director and film maker always had a social slant to it and I was never able to write anything without wanting it to change the world in some small way!

ARE WE HAPPY?

Listening to a programme on BBC Radio 4 recently, I heard a man say that in the UK today,  you could not be happy unless you were earning a minimum of £50K a year. Another man said that the 1930’s were a much happier time than now. It was a phone-in programme and the first response came from an older woman whose childhood had been spent in the East End of London in the 30’s. She was incandescent. The journalist running the phone-in allowed her to speak for some minutes and my radio shuddered with the power of her words. She described her childhood; the poverty and deprivation she and her family experienced in the 30’s and 40’s. She then went on to ask for an explanation from the man who’d said we all need to earn £50K to be happy. The poor fellow tried to explain himself. He didn’t have a chance.

In my work with Carers, now almost 20 years ago, the same arguments were being put forward by the pundits. We cannot expect the Welfare State to do it all, we must allow the bankers to pay large profits as they are the engine of the economy, even though ordinary working families are struggling. They also said that to be happy we should do more, should take part in the community, be happy to be Carers (7 million of them in the country today) looking after our loved ones on miniscule budgets.

And here we are, 20 years on with Cameron’s Big Society.  It could be interpreted as getting the people to do what the government can’t pay for any longer because they have made such a cock-up of the economy. So when will you be asked to sweep your streets and take away your rubbish; when will you be told the NHS is no longer free at the point of need and that as well as keeping your community going you will have to pay to see a doctor? But remember, they will still tax you and you will still pay NI. The woman on the phone-in said that her baby sister had died at 3 months because her parents couldn’t pay for medical help. That was pre NHS. Will we be asked to go back to that? The NHS is in huge debt. There are still more managers than nurses. We need millions more pounds to fuel research. Cancer Patients are being denied the drugs they need to stay alive. It goes on and on.

A mass of contradictory political ideology seems to be coming from this coalition government. I have a feeling that they mean well. They have inherited chaos and out of that they seem genuinely to want to make heaven. But at what a cost to us? So will doing more in our communities make us more happy? It’s a mess. We have been used to the Welfare State, to benefits for those who need them, to a safety net. What happens now? We are told that huge cuts will be necessary and as usual the poor will be hit hardest. Cameron himself took a wage cut when he came into office. But 7% of public service workers still earn more than the Prime Minister and the bankers still pay themselves obscene bonuses.

You can type Happiness into Google search and come up with am amazing number of sites. Everyone seems to know what happiness it. Do you? If you are reading this, please write and tell me your definition. For me, happiness is complete peace of mind. But I know I can never reach that perfect place. Any parent will tell you it’s impossible. There is always a child to make you anxious and even when you are feeling wonderfully happy, joyous even, a child will become ill and even if it is only a bad cold and you appear cool and in control in your role as parent/nurse, I defy any parents not to admit that when the wailing baby stops and sleeps, you have not, just once, felt that awful state of fear, panic, anxiety? How quickly happiness becomes a negative emotion. What if you have no children?  You turn on the TV and see graphic pictures of soldiers dying, people blowing themselves up, car crashes, babies dying of starvation… It goes on and on every day. We become acutely aware of suffering, so much so that we can be blase about it. It starts to rub out our empathy. We become numbed to it all. So buying a shiny new car, eating a large box of chocolates, spending money we haven’t got is a panacea for all the agony that is out there. We are back to the bankers. They fuel (or at least they did fuel) the businesses that make the products that we buy to assuage the guilt we have because we know we cannot stop the on-going misery in the world. We’ve come full-circle. Is this the true definition of capitalism?

Here are some other definitions of happiness:

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.
Mahatma Gandhi

Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.
Ayn Rand

Happiness is something that you are and it comes from the way you think.
Wayne Dyer

Happiness is essentially a state of going somewhere, wholeheartedly, one-directionally, without regret or reservation.
William H. Sheldon

Happiness is not a reward – it is a consequence.
Robert Ingersoll

Happiness is different from pleasure. Happiness has something to do with struggling and enduring and accomplishing.
George Sheehan

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.
Aristotle

Happiness is not something you experience, it’s something you remember.
Oscar Levant

Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.
Margaret Lee Runbeck

Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude.
Denis Waitley

Not sure I agree with all those definitions, but I suppose all of us have a different way of viewing happiness when we think of ourselves and those close to us. One way of exploring what makes you truly happy is to shut out the world. No newspapers, no TV, no radio, no books. The door to the world is closed. Live day by day. Grow your own food and eat only what you need. Suffer loss – crop failure, illness, hunger, no sewers, no running water, no supermarkets… Will that make you happy? Many thousands in the Third World live that way. Are they happy? Religion might say they are.  But in those Third World countries, some live on more that £50K a year. Politian? Bankers?

I have a notion that it is only when we are living in a state of true equality in the wold will people achieve real happiness. But like animals, there will always be a pecking order, won’t there? The poor will always be with us and the rich will always get richer and each will have their own definition of happiness.

SNOWTIME!

Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...
Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday, a funny thing happened on my way to the shops. It started to snow. Within an hour, cars were slipping and sliding all over the road. I had to ditch mine and hike the mile up a hill to my house. It was a total whiteout. Four inches fell in the following hour and then it froze. There was milk and bread in the freezer and lots of homemade jam in the cupboard. There was a bottle of Champagne under the stairs. I was sorted.

The white silence was beautiful. As night fell, an unearthly glow covered the hills as the snow gleamed. It was gleamious!  (A new word for the family dictionary, made up by my son thirty years ago when he was three and describing the first snow he’d ever seen.) No one wanted to watch the insistent coverage of thisunprecedented weather event on TV. My neighbours were outside, using skis and toboggans. And something else was happening. We were talking to each other. We had time to stare and gawp together at the amazing vista all around us, and discuss it!  It certainly was an unprecedented event; we were interacting in a way that had never happened before. The snow had bought us together. We were a group of people against the elements. We might need to dig each other out, or shoot rabbits for food or build a bonfire on a hill to send signals to others.  In fact, after the conversations about snow memories where exhausted, we gathered round someone’s open fire and drank wine, delighted with our new friendships. We made plans for summer gatherings and talked about politics. That was the interesting bit.

Somebody mentioned Obama’s victory. The majority of us made all the right noises; it was great, he was great, it was a new start for the Western world etc… But one person, after a second glass of wine, suddenly said: “Actually, I’m not so sure…”

There was a very pregnant pause. Our neighbour had said the unsayable. Could it be that unbeknown to us, we had a racist in our midst? No, that was not what he was saying. He went on to tell us about a conversation he’d heard on American TV, between two megaliths of right wing broadcasting, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.  During the broadcast Limbaugh responded to Hannity’s question about Obama’s victory with a negative; he clearly stated that he wanted Obama to fail. To me, this is dangerous stuff and my neighbour went on to explain that he agreed and felt very threatened by this man’s opinion of Obama. There had, of course, been a response from the American people. Limbaugh was almost accused of being a traitor, of being non-patriotic during a time when America was in the most terrifying economic meltdown since the thirties.  My group of stoic English neighbours, battling the rigors of the worst snowfall since the nineties, decided to finish their drinks and shuffle through the white stuff, back to their houses. But it left me thinking and I sat by the window gazing out at the gleamious hills and clear, star-filled sky, trying to make some sense of Limbaugh’s statement.

Barack Obama is a stranger to me. Living in a country town in the UK, I know only what the media tell me. I know he is an eloquent and believable orator, that he has a very attractive wife and two charming kids. I know he seems enthused with the same self-belief and passion that JFK had. As the leader of the free world, he is facing monumental challenges; two wars and global insolvency. He could be the Messiah that we have been waiting for. But he has hardly reached the first step of the temple when they are calling for his blood. It’s apparent that the man wants to change the way certain Americans think, not an easy task. You can change laws and end wars by signing documents, but changing the way people think, well that’s something else.

Can this man really change the views of the anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, anti-international collaboration set?  People are listening to the likes of Rush Limbaugh. TV and Radio reaches millions and the anti brigade know all about manipulation using the media circus. Limbaugh gets millions of listeners to his radio show, which airs three times a week.  He’s an undisputed radio star, with a listening public that numbers 14 million.  So what is Obama to do? Somehow he has to win over that audience, many of whom believe what Limbaugh says, not Obama. Hate and bigoted beliefs can be broadcast on radio, in a way that makes certain people think they are the truth.

Obama has a huge task ahead of him when it comes to what factions of the American people listen to and ultimately support on radio shows like the one Limbaugh hosts. He must make such presenters look inconsequential and trivial so that they lose credibility. To my mind, such early predictions of the new President’s approach already sound fatuous and sensationalist; simply a good way of holding onto an audience. Limbaugh and those who follow his views are punting with dangerous stakes so early in the game. The ratings may be booming but the country is sinking and President Obama comes across as a man with a genuine desire to make things better for the citizens of his ailing country. He should be given the chance.

I look out of the window. The snow is falling again. A large snow cloud has obscured the beauty of the stars. It won’t last. It will melt away like the bad fairy in the Wizard of Oz. Rush Limbaugh take note.

COMPUTER KIDS

Professor Susan Greenfield coined the phrase: The Nobody Scenario. She describes what might be happening to our children and young people by spending hours each day on a computer.

Greenfield says that their brains could be radically changed by this addiction to cyberspace. They will be bled of morals, imagination and awareness of reality, submerged in a virtual world where the consequences of their actions can be annihilated by pressing the off switch. They will lose the ability to judge who or what they are; they become nobody.

Einstein told us that imagination is more important than knowledge. Greenfield tells us that our time is up; we have to look at the impact technology is having on our one greatest asset – our children. We already know that computer games boost dopamine in the part of the brain that is the pleasure centre and that is linked to the prefrontal cortex. If there is an excess of this chemical, it can distort a young person’s awareness of the meaning of their actions.

She has further developed her theory on the influence of IT on juvenile brains, saying that given the time that children now spend looking at a screen, their minds may be developing in a different way to those of past generations. It is a terrifying thought.

The brain has been likened to a computer, but it is a delicate, exquisitely programmed piece of kit that can easily be affected by behavior, experience and environment.  We can already see the decline in linguistic and visual imagination in our children; just look at the way they use text messaging. Language is decimated by the lack of grammar, construction and verbs that are so necessary for imaginative and complex thinking.

There has, in recent years been a debate about whether or not our education system teaches children how to think. A computer games’ set structure that emphasizes what Greenfield says is “process “over” content – method over meaning – in mental activity, replicates that set menu of exam-focused learning, where facts have to be crammed in without any time to mull over things, discuss and think. There seems to be a relapse in the ability to construct an individual conceptual framework, which is the true purpose of education and the core of identity.  That is Greenfield’s theory.

The recent enthusiasm by companies to embrace e-learning for staff training is depressing. It is cheaper to sit employees in front of a screen and give them a CD to learn from, than to engage a training team made up of skilled human beings who will use a variety of creative and imaginative methods to teach the information in a way that will be remembered.

The reliance on computers to absolve human beings from the responsibility of interaction with others is beautifully described in one of BBC television’s Little Britain scenarios – The Computer Says No!  The sales woman in the travel agent can only respond to enquiries through her desktop, which gives her the answers to all the questions asked by the perplexed customers. There is no interaction on a human level because the screen and its pre-programmed responses has taken over.

All through life, we question who we are at important events – the birth of a child, the death of a parent. Middle age brings its own set of uncertainties, exacerbated by the sense of failure we feel if we haven’t quite “made it” in the affluence stakes.  By the time we reach fifty, we feel we should be “someone” We should have the right car, house, holidays in Spain that advertising tells us we must have if we are to feel that sense of superior identity to our less fortunate neighbours.  If older people can feel so influenced by media-driven goals they are told they must subscribe to and achieve, then what of our children and grandchildren? These computer kids may well become increasingly self-obsessed and hedonistic, with a mindless approach to life that makes them, as Professor Greenfield describes, a generation of “nobodies.”

In our culture of celebrity when you are “nobody” unless you are “somebody” there is also a group of young people who want to hide themselves in religious extremism. The draw to be “somebody” by aligning yourself to a religious sect or a rebellious group can be away to express a hidden anger that can be channeled into acts of violence against others.

The crisis of climate change that we all face can make young people feel cheated. Older people may have faced bad governments and world wars, but they did not have to consider the prospect of the planet’s demise through global weather catastrophes and face such an uncertain global future. Entering a cyber world where the thinking is done for you, where your hands and brain do not have to consider how to reclaim and build a new earth from the destruction your elders have already created, may well be a cyber security blanket too attractive to ignore.

Evolution happens. Humans will change and evolve. Whether or not computer games will impact on evolution by changing the brains of our children, is not proven. Like the causes of global warming, we will disagree, but it is something we should investigate and be aware of.

VERDI MAGIC

Listening to Verdi’s Requiem the other day and knowing that he came from the same region of Italy as my maternal grandmother, I began to wonder if there is such a thing as a genetic memory that runs through people of the same nationality and birthplace. Everyone knows that Italians love to sing. I love to sing! My father, brother and sister were all professional musicians and like me, Italian classical composers always had a profound affect on them. Listening to opera makes me go into a sort of trance-like state; it’s almost mystical and certainly spiritual. So, when I put the CD of the Requiem into the player and listened again for the first time in many years, I was relieved to experience that same magic again; just as acute and deep and emotionally uplifting.

Answers.com came up with this information about the man: Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was born Oct. 9  1813 in the town of Roncole, near Busseto in the duchy of Parma.  He was the son of an innkeeper, and he showed musical talent early. He earned a living as an organist while writing operas.  In 1839 his Oberto was successfully performed at La Scala, and it initiated Verdi’s long association with the publisher Giulio Ricordi. His next opera, Un giorno di regno (1840), was a failure. Much worse, Verdi’s two young daughters and his wife died. He overcame his despair by composing Nabucco (1842); it was a sensational success and was followed by the equally successful I Lombardi (1843). For the rest of the decade he wrote a hit opera every year. Rejecting the prevailing structure of Italian opera — a patchwork of open-ended scenes and inserted arias, duets, and trios — he began conceiving of an opera as a series of integrated scenes, then as unified acts. Specializing in stories in which people’s private and public lives come into conflict, he produced a series of masterworks, including Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore (1853), La traviata(1853), Don Carlos (1867), and Aïda (1871). A fervent nationalist, he was regarded as a great national figure. After composing his Requiem (1874), he retired, but when Ricordi brought him together with the poet and composer Arrigo Boito, initially to revise Simon Boccanegra, their mutual esteem led to the two great operas of Verdi’s old age, Otello(1886) and Falstaff (1890).

Just listen to this piece from the Requiem:

Pure magic and although this piece of music was written to celebrate death, it makes me glad to be alive.

GOOD GIRL BLACK FOREST GATEAU

This cake was served by my friend’s mum on Sundays when I went round to watch their TV. We didn’t have one! I was about nine and if we’d been very good, she would serve up large slices topped with lashings of whipped cream. Heaven!

  1. 175g butter (or sunflower spread)
  2. 175g Caster Sugar
  3. 1 tsp espresso instant coffee granules dissolved in 50ml boiling water
  4. 6 eggs, separated
  5. 75g cocoa
  6. 150g Self Raising Flour

FOR THE FILLING:

  1. 150ml Double Cream or substitute
  2. 50g Dark Chocolate
  3. 400g can Morello Cherries
  4. 2-3 tbsp orange liqueur (optional)

TOPPING:

  1. 150ml Double Cream (or substitute)
  2. 3 tbsp Icing Sugar
  3. 50g Dark Chocolate

METHOD:

Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Grease 20cm loose bottomed tin and line base with greaseproof paper. Beat butter and sugar until pale and creamy. Add coffee and egg yolks one at a time, stirring all the time. Beat egg whites in another bowl until stiff with peaks. Sieve cocoa and flour together in another bowl. Add one spoonful of the flour mixture to the cake mixture and gently fold in, then add a spoonful of the egg white. Repeat until all the egg white and flour has been folded in. Pour into tin and cook in the centre of the oven for 40 minutes. Cake is cooked when it comes away from the sides of the tin and is springy to the touch. Allow to cool in the tine for 5 mins, then turn out onto a wire rack. For the filling, heat the double cream in a pan. When it starts to simmer, remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate until it melts. Put into a bowl and let it cool in the fridge. Drain the cherries from the can. Put the syrup into another pan and add the liqueur. Warm through.

THE TOPPING:

Whip the cream with the icing sugar until it forms soft peaks.

To assemble the cake, cut it in half, place each piece cut side up and drizzle with the cherry and orange syrup. Take the filling from the fridge and spread over the cake base. Add the cherries, keeping 12 for decoration then place the other half of the cake on top. For the topping, whip the remaining cream with the icing sugar and cover the cake. Finish with the remaining cherries and some shaved chocolate pieces.

Total Magic. Enjoy, but remember to run a mile the next day!