FOOD AND THE LONG ROAD BACK

I have read that the people of Emilia-Romagna eat more, care more and talk more about food than all other Italians. I am descended from the people of that beautiful place and I have to admit, food is something I dwell upon a lot of the time.

Pellegrino Artusi‘s famous book La scienza in cuncina e l’arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Good Eating) published in 1891 represented the ideal Italian cuisine. It was reprinted over one hundred times. It was the first book to deal with the whole of Italian cooking. The author wanted to ‘create a national cuisine that would achieve cultural unity’. Although Artusi did not come from Emilia-Romagna, the place was his model.

Emilia-Romangna lies in the long plain of the River Po and has always been the greatest food-producing area of Italy. I can trace my father’s family back  to the village of Morfasso for several generations. My mother’s family came from the nearby town of Bore in Parma. I know that my father’s father owned a farm of some 1000 hectares and that with his sons, he built the farm-house.  When the young people left to make their lives in the UK or America or Canada, the farm was handed on to older cousins and that strand of the family still own and work it to this very day. My father came to London and worked as a jazz musician, making early records and playing in the opulent clubs and restaurants in the 1930’s and 40’s. Music and food were his passion.

When I returned to visit the family house some years ago, those traditions – music and food, were alive and well. I remember walking around the local cemetery and meeting many relatives; their grave stones told me they were part of my family; their photos told me I looked like them. It was a salutary experience. The cousins that acquired my father’s house and land, welcomed me back and I spent a very happy day with them, listening to stories of his childhood and learning more about him from them than I had ever known, as he’d died when I was a child.

I discovered that Coppa, the dried meat that I ate so often when I was growing up, came from the area; that the recipes my mother cooked were recipes that had been handed down for hundreds of years in that village. They’d survived war and famine and were still being cooked. I remembered how much my father loved eating pigs trotters (I hated them!), that he would eat frog’s legs and offal and polenta, things that were the staple diet of the poor in rural Italy when he was a child. War and political upheaval made those lean times for him and his family, even though they owned a house and much land, land that is now worth a great deal of money. I remember him talking about the many kinds of Salami and this was backed up by my cousins. We always ate a selection of cured and cold meats and salamis at every celebration. No wedding or christening was ever without those glorious platters of meat, accompanied by figs or melon; the perfect way to start any meal.

Then there was the Parmesan Cheese. The cheese was originally created in Val D’Enza in the Province of Reggio, but it was first sold in Parma. That is why it is known as Parmigiano-Reggiano. The best of cheeses, its lineage is guarded jealously by law and a consorteum to control and manage quality.  I remember going to our larder where our store of the precious cheese was stored under a muslin cloth and breaking off small chunks of sweet, salty, golden heaven! I would secret it in a pocket and shut myself in my bedroom to nibble and enjoy.

Mum used Parmesan cheese in nearly every meal she cooked. She explained to me that the production had not changed in seven centuries and that it was made from a mixture of the morning and evening milk from cows fed on grass and clover from April to November. When it is made, it has to be aged for two to three years. I always pondered on how it was that something that had to be kept for three years could taste so wonderful. For me, no bowl of soup will ever be finished without a good sprinkling of Parmesan.

In Emilia-Romagna, pasta is very important. Fresh pasta must have been born here! There are so many recipes. Mum used a pound of flour mixed with four eggs – the yolks had to be very yellow to give the pasta that golden look – and made this raw material into dozens of different shapes with many different fillings. Nutmeg was one of the spices that was always used, as was butter and salt and chicken livers, in some form or another. Of course, Parmesan cheese was an absolute must! Sometime her pasta shapes would float lazily on the surface of a delicious soup or brode, sometimes they would be smothered with a tomato sauce and for plain, simple supper time, coated in melted butter and chopped fresh sage leaves. Fillings might be made of veal or pork or the ubiquitous chicken livers. When chestnuts were around in the autumn and winter, they would be used to make a sweet filling. The shapes to contain all this would include little hats, little squares, big squares, triangles, half-moons… The list was endless. The back of chairs were always covered in tea clothes with long strands of spaghetti or linguine hanging over them to dry!

So what about this small village  where my father and generations of his family lived? It is surrounded by the Colli Piacentini(Piacentine Hills), an important area for wine production. The most important wines produced in the Colli Piancentini are Gutturnio, Bonarda, Ortrugo, Malvasia, and Monterosso Val d’Arda. Other beautiful and historical towns  nearby are Veleia,Castell’Arquato and Bardi. There is a particularly ancient Roman town Veleia, known as the “Pompei of the North”. The area’s wine-making history was unearthed here by archeologists in 1760 when a small bronze statue of a drinking Hercules dated C I AD was dug out during excavations at Veleja Romana. In 1877, the “Etruscan liver” (C2 BC) was found in Settima, near Gossolengo in 1877. This small bronze model of a sheep liver used in divination is covered with inscriptions, including the name of the Etruscan god of wine. In 1878, archaeologists unearthed the famous Roman silver goblet called “Gutturnium”, in the waters of the river Po.

There have been many excavations where fossils of vines and grape-seeds were found, together with stumps and small vessels (paterae) which date back to the pre-Roman period. The medieval city of Castell’Arquato, known as the City of Art, is a traditional medieval town which, like many Italian towns, still looks the way it did in the early 10th Century.  Castell’Arquato stands on a high rock, dominating the valley. Here events are held in the town hall, including gastro-fares, concerts and festivals in historical costume. Just across the Pellizzone Pass in the province of Parma is the medieval fortress town of Bardi. The fortress was constructed in 898 in a strategic position to defend the territory against attacks by the Hungarians. In 1868, the fortress became the local Town Hall.

Italy’s past has not always been happy. The Diaspora meant that many of its citizens left, but thankfully,  they took their culture and their food history with them. Today, Italian food is part of the mainstream across the world. Where would we be without the pizza, spaghetti bol, lasagna, pasta? Every supermarket stocks these foods now. When I was a child, they were considered wild and exotic!

Food is so important to me, not just as a way of keeping fit and healthy but as a representation of everything that I am. It is part of my genetic inheritance and without my passion for good food, my life and the lives of my family would be far less rich.

Now one of my daughters has taken up the challenge. She cooks beautiful and delicious food at MUCKRACH LODGE HOTEL in the Scotland. Well worth a visit.

EMAIL FRAUD

Basic creditcard / debitcard / smartcard graph...
Image via Wikipedia

This morning, I opened my inbox to find an email from my bank – at least it looked like and email from my bank. The mail informed me that my debit card had been compromised, it ‘implored’ me to open a link and hand over all my details. Implored? This is not a word that any bank would use. The thief obviously has a creative bent.

I forwarded the email to my bank’s fraud department and felt relieved that I was canny enough to pick up on this rather pathetic phishing attempt at the first reading. But what if I had not? What if I had panicked, believing that my card had indeed, been used by someone other than me? It’s likely that the panic would have led me to fill in the form that was attached to the email. Easy money for the crooks.

This email made me furious. If I could get me hands on the person that sent it I would cheerfully apply slow torture in the form of locking them in a small room and making them cut up and dispose of a million fraudulent bank cards. I’d get them to eat bits of them in the process.

Of course, you could see them as Robin Hood figures, causing mayhem for the banks, who are definitely persona non grata for ordinary folk like me, but on the other hand, I don’t think Robin Hood tried to steal from the poor as well as the rich! So in my eyes, these people are simply thieves and should be caught and punished.

The Internet, with all it’s advantages, was sure to attract a load of criminals. Policing the Net is impossible, so we users have to be on our metal all the time. The most innocent of emails could be a scam. When I am in a hurry and scanning through my mail quickly, it’s easy to open everything without thinking. If I am not sure about an email, I delete it before opening it. If it was bona fide, whoever sent it to me will send it again. I am sometimes tempted to answer these scam mail-outs by replying with the most colourful swear words I know.

One journalist recently wrote a series of short plays for BBC Radio 4 about responding to fraud emails. The plays were hilarious. The journalist replied to mail asking him to invest money into various scam business opportunities. He managed to string the sender along for weeks without parting with a penny. However, I wouldn’t recommend you take this approach. This journalist had the support of that great and powerful institution; the BBC!

The trick is to delete, delete, delete! It works.

PERCEPTION

Piebald Deer. Image taken in Hampton Virginia
Image via Wikipedia

Sitting at my desk this morning, putting off the inevitable – editing my book manuscript, I looked through the window and saw the most wonderful thing.

A deer stood in the field, quite still, like a sculpture. He was so still that I closed my eyes, rubbed them and opened them again to make sure I wasn’t imagining it. I wasn’t. There the animal stood, sharp against the backdrop of pale blue sky and green meadow.

I stared for at least five minutes, watching the animal make tiny movements with its head, a twitch of an ear, a shiver of the skin on its back.

Then, all at once a flock of birds flew across the sky and the deer shot across the field into the safety of the woods on one side of the field. I was immediately lonely without the animals presence. He’d given me something magical; the thrill of entering another world; the deer’s world, so different to mine.

In front of me on my desk,  my computer links me to the the rest of the world. At the touch of a button I can contact another person in Africa, America, China… but I am never really part of their life, because I cannot really see them; what I see it a projected image. Can I ever really see anything as it truly is?

My perception must be different from every other person. The way I saw that deer in the field was different from the way any other human being saw it. Perception is unique to each person, isn’t it?

I decided to research Perception and found this on Wikipedia:

In the case of visual perception, some people can actually see the percept shift in their mind’s eye.[4] Others, who are not picture thinkers, may not necessarily perceive the ‘shape-shifting’ as their world changes. The ‘esemplastic’ nature has been shown by experiment: an ambiguous image has multiple interpretations on the perceptual level. The question, “Is the glass half empty or half full?” serves to demonstrate the way an object can be perceived in different ways.

Just as one object can give rise to multiple percepts, so an object may fail to give rise to any percept at all: if the percept has no grounding in a person’s experience, the person may literally not perceive it.

The processes of perception routinely alter what humans see. When people view something with a preconceived concept about it, they tend to take those concepts and see them whether or not they are there. This problem stems from the fact that humans are unable to understand new information, without the inherent bias of their previous knowledge. A person’s knowledge creates his or her reality as much as the truth, because the human mind can only contemplate that to which it has been exposed. When objects are viewed withoutunderstanding, the mind will try to reach for something that it already recognizes, in order to process what it is viewing. That which most closely relates to the unfamiliar from our past experiences, makes up what we see when we look at things that we don’t comprehend.[5]

This confusing ambiguity of perception is exploited in human technologies such as camouflage, and also in biological mimicry, for example by European Peacock butterflies, whose wings bear eye markings that birds respond to as though they were the eyes of a dangerous predator. Perceptual ambiguity is not restricted to vision. For example, recent touch perception research Robles-De-La-Torre & Hayward 2001 found that kinesthesia based haptic perception strongly relies on the forces experienced during touch.[6]

Cognitive theories of perception assume there is a poverty of stimulus. This (with reference to perception) is the claim that sensationsare, by themselves, unable to provide a unique description of the world. Sensations require ‘enriching’, which is the role of the mental model. A different type of theory is the perceptual ecology approach of James J. Gibson. Gibson rejected the assumption of a poverty of stimulus by rejecting the notion that perception is based in sensations. Instead, he investigated what information is actually presented to the perceptual systems. He and the psychologists who work within this paradigm detailed how the world could be specified to a mobile, exploring organism via the lawful projection of information about the world into energy arrays. Specification is a 1:1 mapping of some aspect of the world into a perceptual array; given such a mapping, no enrichment is required and perception is direct perception.

Preconceptions can influence how the world is perceived. For example, one classic psychological experiment showed slower reaction times and less accurate answers when a deck of playing cards reversed the color of the suit symbol for some cards (e.g. red spades and black hearts).[7]

There is also evidence that the brain in some ways operates on a slight “delay”, to allow nerve impulses from distant parts of the body to be integrated into simultaneous signals.[8]

Phew! And all because I saw a deer in my garden…


 

MIRACLE CURES?

Walking down the street the other day, I passed a shop selling Chinese medicine. There was a cure for everything! I could get a pill, potion or ointment for whatever ailed me. If you look on the internet, you can find everything to cure anything, too. It’s amazing and if you believed any of it, you would definitely live for ever and never get ill.

The NHS would have a hard time if every one of us switched to ‘alternative’ medicine. Mind you, there have been some miraculous cures, if you want to believe the stories. I’m not a cynic; well, not much of one, and I do really want to believe, but the older I get, the harder it becomes, because I know that the people peddling all this ‘stuff’ JUST WANT YOUR MONEY!

Friends of mine swear by a whole range of alternative therapies. They include reiki healing – you sit/lie with your eyes closed and someone walks round you waving their arms about, homeopathy – see the film clip above, crystal healing – you hold a lump of rock and it cures you… That’s just three methods being used by thousands of people who are sick and imagining that these strange practices will cure them. There are hundreds of alternative remedies out there.

Strangely enough, there is some truth in the fact that plants can cure you. Most of our drugs come from plants. There are many more amazing plants in the jungles that are fast being cut down; we haven’t had time to discover them. And of course, there are those amazing drugs: a stress free happy life, fresh air and exercise, good food and love – really hard to get all of those in one life time, these days!

So we subscribe to the rubbish the fraud doctors are trying to sell us and we believe it will work. I guess if you use it and it does make you well, then it works. But I really object to being sent emails promising me everlasting life, happiness, erections, a slim body, clear nasal passages, bowels and bladders or a flat stomach!  I cannot believe that people are gullible enough to part with their money for all this crap. But it seems they are.

My grandmother was something of a white witch. She knew how to put a cabbage leaf on a wound to make it heal and how to feed you cabbage water to ease a tummy ache (she was very keen on cabbages), and she did live until she was almost 100 year old. But she also lived in a tiny village in the mountains of Northern Italy, and getting the doctor to visit took three days. You were usually dead by the time he arrived. So I suspect it was needs must and if you believed that a cabbage leaf would make your cut arm better; if you believed with enough fervour then perhaps it would.

I still use good old honey and lemon to cure a sore throat and I’m partial to a piece of ginger to ease a bad stomach. I eat dandelion leaves, when I can pick them fresh and clear of dog’s pee and petrol fumes – they make a great salad, they are free and full of iron – and I love free food from the hedgerows; blackberries, bilberries, wild garlic, it’s all out there if you know where to look and it does you good because it costs nothing!

Another real miracle cure is pure water. In the West we are so lucky to be able to turn on a tap and drink what comes out of it, sure that it isn’t full of nasty microbes that will finish us off. When I see pictures of kids walking miles with a water jar on their heads, to save their families from dying of thirst, every glass or water I drink taste like a miracle cure.

I believe we have the power to heal ourselves if we just let well alone, and if we are really sick, then the NHS is there to help us. But in some countries, especially the USA, the drug companies have made people believe that they cannot live healthily unless they self-medicate every day of their lives. I remember some American friends looking at me aghast when I told them that I didn’t ‘take’ anything; nothing at all, not a single pill!  Taking medicine was a way of life for them. You could not be healthy without it.

I dread the day when that attitude hits the UK. We are already vitamin junkies with huge amounts of money spent every day on all sorts of pills that we don’t really need. I wish I could understand why we have so little confidence in our bodies; why we think we constantly need help to be healthy? After all, the major killer diseases have all but been eradicated in the West – smallpox, measles, TB, plague! Why then are we so scared?

Advertising has much to do with it. We become convinced by all those ads on TV that induce us to fret about our health. It then becomes state of mind. We need props and they come in shiny little pill boxes lined up in the bathroom.

Take a walk! Eat some fruit! Make love! Help someone! Read a book! Make a quilt! Smile! Laugh! Don’t spend money! Sleep! Engage in a sport!  These are some of my miracle cures. They work, honest!

AGE REBELLION?

An early 20th century candlestick phone being ...
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When you reach a certain age, funny things happen, a lot.

It’s disconcerting to realise that your stamina is not what it was. I used to be able to complete at least 20 tasks during a day; now I’m lucky if I get through 19.

The spirit is willing but that bloody flesh…  When I get up in the morning and look in the mirror, I am always surprised to see my mother looking back at me. Yes, as the years roll by, she rolls into my expression, into the way I smile, into me. Not that I mind. She was a very attractive woman, but where the hell have I gone?

When I look at my husband over breakfast, he too had metamorphosed into his Dad. It’s something about the set of the mouth, the way he holds his head.

So are we all destined to become our parents as we age? God forbid!  I know I am more like my father in temperament, but there is no doubt these days, about the facial resemblance to Mum.

There is a way round this. I will just have to dye my hair bright red – she had brown/grey hair. I cannot afford a nip and tuck so I will have to use more make-up – she never wore any. I will try my best not to dress like her. I’ll find my own style as I grow older. But, hells bells, all the clothes for ‘mature’ women do nothing for my confidence and unless I could afford designer gear, I will almost certainly become a clone in those M&S shirts and skirts, her favourite apparel.

Another funny thing that happens when you approach old age is that your voice is compelled to change. My voice sounds young, so I am told. So that when I am on the phone and I want to act my age in order to get some twelve-year-old at the call centre to take my enquiry seriously, I have to ‘act’ old. The trick is the croak. If you croak you sound old. So when I am getting nowhere, I start to croak. (That’s also a metaphor for dropping dead, I believe). By the time I have been on the phone, croaking away for twenty minutes, I am ready to turn up my toes.

The strange thing is that it does work. As I croak out my age and  explain that I am a ‘grandmother’ the voice on the other end becomes all care and concern (if I am unlucky, I speak to a smug young-y who snaps at me and puts the phone down), but if I am lucky,  (it’s usually with the young men that it happens), I get lots of sympathy and stories about their Gran and my problem is sorted out with a cheery: ‘You don’t sound your age one bit! Have a lovely day’!

Using the ‘oldy’ voice works on the phone, but for some reason, it doesn’t work in shops, especially if you are a young-looking OAP and not an old crone, wrapped in a grubby shawl, clicking your false teeth. Sometimes, I think that is what is expected of anyone over sixty, these days. If you look too good, you are eyed with suspicion. It’s a sort of ageist racism really: ‘Get back to your own country, the country of the OLD! You’re not wanted here, in this shop that sells things for YOUNG people!’

Doctors really get to me. In fact, most of the employees of the NHS get to me. They can’t help saying things like: ‘You look good for your age, dear…‘ and, if you are a chap: ‘You’re a sprightly gentleman, aren’t you – for your age…’ And I can’t stand their obvious disconcertedness if you won’t allow them to ‘help’ you. ‘She’s very independent…’ I hear them mutter. That means you are a cantankerous old biddy with too much to say for yourself.

Working hard at staying and sounding and looking young means that you will probably really stay younger than your years. I have this notion that the body does what it’s told, so if you tell it that you are a good twenty years younger than your actual age, if you dress, walk, talk and act as if you are, those little brain cells get duped into thinking that you are….  Maybe…

Of course, I wouldn’t take it too far. Using your real age can be useful, as with those call centres. Talking about what you did in the war can work wonders when you want something for nothing. Making a fuss is always enhanced by grey hair and a walking stick. Then again, you also look like a good target for some druggy who wants your handbag. It’s swings and roundabouts, really.

I guess getting on in years is a bit like reaching your teens. You know that changes are coming, but it’s comforting to still be able to reach back and be a child now and again. Likewise with ageing. It’s comforting to move both ways – appear old and decrepit sometimes and  then become a ‘too young to be a Grannytype, all Joan Collins or Lulu, as it suits you.  It certainly makes for an interesting last stage of your life.

And then what? I do find it hard to believe that it all goes black after that last gasp, don’t you? Of course, the older you get, the more you think about it. What should I wear for the box?  How will I look when the undertaker has finished with me?  What flowers would best compliment my personality?  Stuff like that.  Actually, most of us oldies these days think about how we will afford to be buried, it’s so bloody expensive!

Me, I want a cardboard coffin and a nice tree with good earth underneath it where I can rot away in peace with the wood lice using bits of me as canapes for their drinks parties. As long as my mind stays sharp and my body stays chipper, I’m happy to go on forever… or at least until  I look like my grandmother!



 

DO WE LIVE IN A CALLOUS SOCIETY?

 

Last year, in October, this coalition government told us that they were about to cut the mobility part of the Disability Living Allowance. This allowance is specifically for people who live in residential care homes. There are thousands of people across the UK who use this benefit. It keeps them mobile and allows them to be part of their community.

I cannot imagine what this government were thinking about when they made this decision. This cut will take away independence from people in care; I thought the idea of The Big Society was to encourage people to reach their communities and contribute to them?

This government seems to be totally confused about where their priorities lie. Disabled people living in care homes will now not be able to take part in activities, may be cut off from family and friends and the wider society – The Big Society! Is that what Cameron and Clegg want? I’m confused now…

Is the idea to only encourage people who are well-heeled, educated and able-bodied to contribute to this Big Society idea? Anyone who doesn’t fit the model must be alienated and rejected? By cutting this vital benefit, I think that is what will happen.

Then we have the horrendous revelations by Ann Abrahams the Health Service Ombudsman. Can it be that in 2011, there are thousands of elderly people in our hospitals who are left unwashed, hungry, thirsty,lying in their own faeces and suffering terrible pain because no-one is nursing them adequately or with compassion? It beggars belief. And I don’t think it can be all about a lack of funding, because the last government pumped millions into healthcare. So what’s going on?

The NHS has become an impersonal megalith with over a million employees. Do these people have any real connection with the patients they are employed to serve? Some of them must, because there is good practice in the NHS, but where elderly people are concerned, is something else happening? Over ten years ago, in the course of my work, I woke up to the fact the NHS seemed to be run for its staff and not for its customers. Ticking boxes and meeting targets cancelled out empathy and compassion, big time.

£20 billion will be have to be cut, we are told. If caring for patients is bad now, where are we going with this? In my recent blog about compassion I looked at how we as a society have lost our humanity for our older people. How we are focused on self and youth and celebrity. Consumption has become the new religion and we are fanatical about it. We have become selfish and self-obsessed and as this has built up over decades, we will not change overnight.

Who will carry the brunt of all this callousness and selfishness? The old and the vulnerable, of course. This coalition government seem to be closing their eyes to this fact and  even encouraging it. Again, at odds with the other propaganda that is being thrown at us; The Big Society idea.

Old people come from a time when ‘you didn’t make a fuss’ but I think and hope this is changing. There are people over sixty years old who are studying for degrees, who will stand up and make one hell of a fuss, who want their voices to be heard and will not stop shouting until they are.

Younger people should be aware that the old in any society hold wisdom that is unique. They have something to offer! They should not be written off as being ‘past it’! By being patronising and belittling our older people, by treating them without compassion and real care, younger people lose their own dignity in the process and devalue themselves.

This hard-heartedness against those who are vulnerable is brutish. I for one, question the integrity of a government that is allowing it to happen. If you are reading this and you are over fifty, remember to make your voice heard, stand up for your rights and ask questions. If you are young, remember you will one day be old and vulnerable…

My film TAKE CARE was made in 2000. Has anything changed? I hate to say this, but it seems to be a lot worse in 2011. Now we hear that older people are going to be ‘evicted’ from hospital beds…  What’s the next stage in this big society?  Round up our old people, our disabled, our vulnerable in cattle trucks and send them down the line to the incinerators? They are our mothers and fathers; our grandparents; our brothers and  sisters; our families!

We seem to be moving towards an acceptance of cruel intolerance of the most vulnerable in our society. It is sickening and it has to stop.

GOOD/BAD BULLYING?

Bullying on IRFE in March 5, 2007, the first c...
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Kids are being bullied in primary schools across the UK. Where are they learning such behaviour?  Friends tell me it comes from watching TV or using video games. Does it? Or are there other causes? Is it something to do with the way people interact with each other, generally?

If you listen to conversations on buses, in restaurants, in the street, there is a change in how we speak;  how we communicate to each other. Young people have always sounded surly and rude, haven’t they?  Especially when they are teenagers and living at home… We parents know that’s par for the course. But something else is going on today.  There is a sharpness of tone; a bluntness, an indifference, a carelessness in what we say to each other and how we say it.

Shop assistants used to be keen to win your custom. Now it’s the school of ‘don’t give a toss’. Estate agents really wanted to sell you houses once. Now they come across, for the most part, as superior, disinterested and bored with you. The fact that you are taking time to chose the most expensive item you will ever buy in your life, appears to mean nothing. They want you to say yes to the first house they show you and tell them it’s completely wonderful, even if it’s a run-down hovel with holes where doors should be.

Is it any surprise that kids pick up the attitude? It’s all around them. It says it’s okay to be rude and indifferent; to be unjustly critical and down right nasty. That’s what the grown-ups do.

Today, I heard that Chief Executives of the five major banks are ‘furious’ because the government is going to ask them to pay more tax. They are furious… It beggars belief. What does that say to our kids? That it’s okay to steal money, pay yourself a bonus for doing it and then utter words like ‘furious’ because you’ve been challenged to repay some of those ill-gotten gains in tax.

Bullying seeps into everything these days. Politicians bully each other on TV. You even see bullying in TV commercials. Women are bullied openly by the sexist remarks made about them, men are bullied in the workplace to reach impossible targets and programmes like The Apprentice sanctify bullying as the right way to do business.

I am becoming increasingly worried about the way small children are reading the world they live in.  We seem to accept that it’s okay to bully, to be disrespectful, to be nasty. We make it okay to be bullish and unpleasant. If that’s what we do in our everyday lives, then that’s what our kids will do. It will seem right to them.

Could it be that there needs to be more emphasis on teaching kids to think, not just pass exams? And does the ability to think well, take an understanding of values; the values we adults promote?  Where are the right sign-posts today?

I love Charlie Brooker’s take on the world. His style of journalism is spiked with humour that could be described as cruel and perhaps a bit savage.  You might even say he comes across as a bit of a bully, but he’s doing it for a reason – to attack and expose all the hypocrisy and trash that litters our world. His humour gets to you; you don’t forget his hidden agenda. It sticks with you.

Teaching kids the difference between bullying out of sheer nastiness in order to hurt someone and using a touch of it to try to expose the bastards in our society, could be the way to go.  But it takes the ability to think.

 

 

THE TROUBLE WITH OLDER PEOPLE…

This clip made me laugh, but then…  What do you think?

Does the way we live today set people against each other? The government’s obsession with targets in recent years has created a society full of soulless individuals and public organisations that compete with each other to reach these ‘targets’ with little real thought about their customers.

David Cameron tells us we need a new idea called the ‘Big Society‘. Will opting for this strategy make us organize ourselves into more co-operative and independent networks? Will our voices become more powerful or less? It that what Cameron wants? He is cutting funds from the public as well as the charity sector, so is the plan that we citizens take over from them, without any money?

I can see people being treated like cattle. Under funded services makes us feel under-valued. Will we become objects on a conveyor belt?  The world already feels uncaring and indifferent towards us.  If services are run on the cheap, so will we be treated, ‘on the cheap’?

We need to feel valued, whatever our age or social class. I think we need to reverse a bit; go back to ancient values, where people pulled together in a groups, because if they didn’t their lives were threatened.  Those early interactions were based on contribution to the group as a whole and on a personal reputation for being trustworthy and reliable. In our competitive and greedy society, we compete in the most unlikely of places, for instance, mothers  competing with other mothers in how they parent their children. The Yummy Mummy craze was a way to market a certain type of woman who could manage three kids under six and still look like the cover photo on Vogue. Fantasy, but many women aspired to that version of womanhood.

To be connected with other human beings, brings happiness. When we withdraw, isolate ourselves from others, we can become depressed, feel an outsider and start to experience a lack of self-worth. That is why it is so important for societies to value older people because the aging process inevitably makes us feel marginalised in a culture that is so youth orientated. By working together and supporting each other, we can achieve a lot.

I am skeptical that this is what Cameron means by the Big Society, especially when considering our ever growing older population. The cuts being made to the NHS will affect that section of our society the most. So will we have a situation where targets will still have to be met, but on ever diminishing budgets, with intense pressure on individual hospitals to compete with others to maintain standards that because of a lack of money, will be impossible?  Who will bear the brunt of all this?

When I was in hospital a couple of years ago, I was genuinely appalled at what I saw in the ward I was in. Over-worked nurses with little time for very elderly patients; an atmosphere of people running as fast as they could but getting nowhere. Visitors having to nurse their relatives because the staff were too busy writing up paperwork to answer a call for a commode promptly. It was an experience I never want to be part of again, but as I get older, it is likely that I will have to.

Many people worry that this government wants to privatize the NHS through the back door. I suppose if you cut funding enough and services become increasingly bad, people will turn to private medicine. The NHS will be for the very poor as free medical care has been in the USA. Obama hopes to change things over there, while over here, are we going in the opposite direction?

There is a sense in some quarters, that being ‘efficient’, being one step ahead of everybody else, being coldly focused on success is a necessary evil we must subscribe too, if we want a flourishing economy. Many of us ordinary folk question this. The Bankers have been ‘efficient’ making money  and ‘efficient’ in losing it and they have bought this country almost to its knees. We are paying for their’ efficiency’ by facing the biggest cuts in public services we have ever seen.

So is there another way? There is, but it takes courage. It means we have to make our voices heard. It means never giving up on making things right, even in small ways, by fighting against local injustices that we see all around us. In small ways, together, working in supportive groups, we can make small changes that will eventually lead to larger and more long term change.

Older people have to understand that they have a right to be heard, that what they have to say is valid and is based on life experience and wisdom. We have to let our political leaders know that we do realise that we too have power, the power to vote them out of office.

Finding your  voice, your inner dignity, your self-esteem as you age is like finding a precious jewel. We can lose that jewel if we are undermined in vulnerable circumstances or  when we are alone and treated like a ‘thing’ on a conveyor belt; if we have no-one to speak up for us, if we cannot find our own voice and keep it well oiled and ready to challenge injustices against us.

I don’t know if the ‘Big Society’ idea will work, but I do know that if you go into hospital and you are treated badly or if you see others treated badly, it is important to speak out. We must never be afraid to challenge what we judge as bad practice. We are a nation of ‘nice’ people, overly polite in uncomfortable situations. But you can be assertive and be polite. You can point out bad practice in a polite voice that your listener will know is actually underpinned by granite, because something in the way you won’t be fobbed off will come through and make itself felt. No-one need get hurt in this process, but dignity, self-esteem, knowledge and empathy will win the day.

The world is changing very fast, the way we interact is much faster than it was, even fifty years ago. Older people must keep up, must stay informed and canny.  It will keep your brain sharp and protect you from those who think you are a pushover. Knowledge is definitely power and to mix natural wisdom and experience with an up-to-date knowledge of how our fast changing world is run, will be a powerful and empowering cocktail that should be drunk daily.

SENIOR MOMENTS

I’ve been given a pair of fighting Grannies.

Don’t fall off your chair; they are made of plastic, are about four inches high, dressed in boxer shorts and vests with their grey hair in neat buns. You press a button on their stands and watch them bash the living daylights out of each other.

They sit on my desk and when I feel angry about where the world is heading, I press their buttons and let them slug it out. Very satisfying. Of course I could take umbrage and feel a deep loss of dignity, that somewhere, some designer thought up the concept. But I have discovered that now, you can get fighting grandads, fighting chickens, fighting cows… Grannies are just one of a kind.

I am a real Gran  and I am often tempted to use my fists, because life can make me feel as if I am a contender in a boxing match. The injustices I see around me every day make me feel very angry. But I am well-behaved and play the role of mature woman as society wants me to. The other day, I notices a grey haired, wrinkled model in a newspaper!  So life isn’t all bad.

There are certain things that really get my fists going. (metaphorically, of course…). Why is it that once you reach sixty, you have to be treated as if you are a moron? The other day, I was out with one of my grand children, and as we strolled though the park, a man passed me and commented: ‘Make the most of it, while you can, dear. They grow up so fast…’  Thank you. I am not your ‘dear’ and I am not so stupid that I don’t know that little kids grow into adults. And why am I being instructed by a total stranger to ‘make the most of it’? Make the most of what? The fact that I can still keep up with a three year old? Make the most of the fact I can still see, hear, breathe, am alive?

The thing about getting old is that it is a condition that nobody wants. Even if you are champion in your field, if you are female and old, people can’t help letting you know how sorry they feel for you, subtly… You might have just paddled a canoe across the Atlantic or climbed Everest, but if you are obviously old and a woman, all those achievements will be devalued the minute the  TV interviewer says: ‘And what made you take up such a challenge AT YOUR AGE?’

And you have to work so hard! Recently, I watched a beautiful and talented sixty plus actress on a chat show. She struggled to find her place among the young ones; not be too flippant or too sexy, say the right thing – not be too clever,  lower the eyelids and look demure, make a reference to all the wonderful up and coming young actors she’d had the great fortune to work with and thank all the directors who saw fit to still want to employ her… at her age!

Then, I watched Bob Geldof.  Now, Bob looks old. He sat on a couch in the TV studio looking like the wisened old man he actually is.  BUT – we were shown a clip of him trampolining. Yes, trampolining! When have you ever seen a clip of a similar aged woman trampolining on TV or Utube without it being ridiculed?  No-one mentioned Bob’s age. No-one said ‘ Amazing, at his age!’. No-one blinked an eye.  There is definitely a different code of practice for over-sixty year old female celebs.

Occasionally, you see a parachuting eighty-year-old woman on an early evening TV news show. Next time you see such an event, listen carefully to the tone of voice and the words spoken by the young interviewer. I guarantee they will patronize as a matter of course. (But what the hell, the woman did the jump, why should she worry)?  But, it’s so irritating!

I remember how my own grandmother used to behave in company. She knew she was required to sit quietly in a corner and knit. She knew it was a rule to ask for a cup of weak tea every two hours or so and occasionally add a digestive biscuit to her request. She knew she had to offer to wash-up, do the ironing, read the bedtime stories and she also knew she must keep her opinions to herself. The fact that she had experienced life for seventy-odd years, was neither here not there. No-one ever seemed to want to get her take on things, except us grand-kids. We loved her wise stories and would compete to sit on her lap and hear her tell us about the time she and grandad went up the Eiffel Tower; the time she risked her life in the resistance in Italy during the war, the way she understood my maths homework!  Gran had time to listen and she wasn’t obsessed by football and food, like grandad was.

The way we talk to, listen to and treat older people needs looking at. Sugary niceness isn’t enough. Patronising, forced patience is not good. Shouting is hell. WE ARE NOT ALL DEAF! And even if we are a bit hard of hearing, wait can’t you? Give us time and we’ll get there. Remember, we can still spend money, so gear up shops to attract us and not just younger people. If we need help, give it to us in the way you would help any one; not with that ‘I’m being kind to old people‘ air that sometimes surrounds do-gooders. And respect our experience and wisdom; it’s taken years to acquire!

Time to set off the fighting Grannies again. Otherwise, I might go and punch someone…

My Fighting Grannies!

CONSIDERING BEHAVIOUR

La parabola del Buon Samaritano Messina Chiesa...
Image via Wikipedia

I have been thinking about compassion. What does it mean? Does being compassionate enhance your well-being, your life?

There are many thinkers and philosophers who say it does. Religions have long stressed the importance of compassion in our lives, yet religions have been the cause of wars and unrest for thousands of years.

Today, we are driven to be competitive, to do better, to ‘get one over’ on each other. We play games that are often cruel and bullish in order to achieve what we perceive is a successful life. In business, the tough guy wins. We accept that it is a cut and thrust society, full of unpleasant people. We accept that you have to be ‘nasty’ to be a winner. Why? And if you live your life like this, will it make you happy?

We know that being born into either a kind, loving family or an abusive one can affect the way our brains grow and how we behave. It’s where we learn to use compassion, or not. As an adult, it seems to me that compassion is not just a way of taking up a moral stance or as simple as ‘I’ll scratch your back if your scratch mine’ attitude. It can be a way of re-instructing our brains, so that we learn new ways to think and ways to stimulate feelings of acceptance and contentment. We may then feel at peace with ourselves and the world, without the intervention of fanatical religeous doctrine in our lives.

In our society, I think we still adhere to a class system and to rank. There is a social hierarchy and we respond to that with a certain type of behaviour and the need to find social comparisons. We continue to compete for status, trying to impress those we think have lots of power, and we submit to them by showing deference, while we want to subdue those people we see as beneath us.

Compassion in a leader, is I think, essential. Business leaders, politicians in fact any one who holds any sort of power should understand and use compassion in their day-to-day negotiations. The very nature of being in a position of power produces narcissism. These people may come over as caring, but  power and perceived social rank affect how they think and the way they treat those around them.  People who become powerful very often neglect and even dismiss those they see as being beneath them and not worth considering on the same level as themselves.

Confronting the power of others can become an exercise in appeasing and submission. Those working closely to people with power will defer to those above then and then, can turn into bullies to those they see as under them. I call it the ‘Uriah Heap‘ syndrome. The second in command will often have worked hard to reach this position and will probably not have used much compassion to get there!

Fighting for your rights and using compassion to do it, is a difficult task. Some people who like to run battles for those they see as disadvantaged, could simply want the acceptance and approval they did not get as a child. But, thinking beyond this type of behaviour brings me to consider the notion that we  need to continually wonder about the influence we have on the people around us.

Bad behaviour increases stress and that leads to health problems. Kindness does the opposite. It increases our well-being, lowers stress and gives us a feeling of being safe. You could say that we are all, in some way connected mentally, as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings across the other side of the world affects us here, so each of us has an influence for good or bad on those we meet and interact with throughout our lives. Yet, how many of us consider this?

So, how can we consider the use of compassion in our lives?  The way we communicate can cause anxiety and depression, even paranoia. So would stopping and thinking more about how we use compassion in our communication with others, help? Greek philosophers told us that if emotions and passion are let free, without considered reason, chaos is the outcome.  They suggested that we trained our minds to use reason; to look at things carefully, using rationality and debate. Reason should keep our emotions in check. But then where does that leave the compassion issue?

Changing the way we think might go someway to answer that question. If I listen carefully to my thoughts, if I take a step back and reflect on them and maybe think about other ways of seeing those thoughts and consider lots of alternatives, if I face up to things and try to modify my behaviour, even though I would rather not, will that inform the way I interact?  Will it temper how I deal with difficult and conflictual situations? Or will I play into the hands of those who are using the power to defeat me and come across as slow and meek, rolling over to acquiesce to their demands?

Maybe using compassion in our every day dealings simply means that even when we are angry, we infuse the anger with warmth and kindness? We temper any feelings of hostility with a generosity of spirit, without losing reason in the process? Would that work? Our thoughts inform actions and if those thoughts are disjointed and chaotic, or based on greed, how can we switch on that light to have the insight to recognise this?

I think the secret is learning how to balance our thoughts and to understand how to be compassionately assertive in our communications and negotiations with others. But these are things that, if as children, we never experienced in those caring for us, will be difficult to learn in adulthood. But practice makes perfect.