Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

I think 2008 has been characterised by Unexpected Developments. A few of these have been negative, but most not and more importantly, the positive ones have set things up for a very interesting 2009. Oh this is is just rubbish, but I'm really tired now and I can't possibly say what I want to say. Basically, 2009 promises to be one of the more interesting years of my life so far, if it goes according to plan. If it doesn't, well that's going to be interesting as well. But I am looking forward to seeing how things pan out.

It was a very good Christmas. Alexander liked his snake puzzle, although asked what kind of creature it depicted, he said, “Ssss – ssss – ssss – worm!” He has however learnt both our names and has over double the vocabulary he had in August.

But I am shattered, so after the vaguest and briefest of annual reviews you are likely to encounter, thanks for all your presence, comments and suppport during the last year and a very happy new year to you all!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

28 years later

The odd thing is that I really can't believe I'm only twenty-eight. I realise I haven't achieved very much - anything - with my life so far. Meanwhile, I do lose a lot of time to ill health, days and weeks just slip. But overall, I have had such a full and interesting life that I can't believe I'm still in my twenties. Don't ask me how old I imagine I should be, but twenty-eight years sounds like much less time than I've had so far.

I think I should record this in case anything happens to me and people think I had no time at all or a bit of a rubbish time. It is a bit rubbish sometimes, very rubbish on occasion, but mostly it is very very good.

This week, for example, is several times better than the last. On Monday, we met Jess and her chap, which was lovely - they came all the way from Pittsburgh to have lunch with us. Well, kind of. Today we are off to my folks' for Christmas. I might even get Birthday cake!

Merry Christmas Everybody!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Things that go bump in the day

This week I have fainted often, fallen down even more often, but nevertheless managed to get all my Christmas cards in the post (well, [...] put them in the post, but I did my thing). I have not been suffering terribly; I was far more miserable last week when I was going down hill. At the bottom of the hill, strategy is always much clearer. Even if not much else is. Like how long you've been lying on the kitchen floor and what were you doing before you got there.

Now I am picking up, although I am still wandering about with the strong sense that I'm about to pass out and/or fall down at any moment. Bathing is still a little scary, as you might imagine. And my heart is falling out of rhythm rather too often. I think my rock'n'roll lifestyle may be catching up with me.

A snake puzzle - I don't know how to describe itWe finished the one Christmas present we have managed to make this year (I had planned to make others, they all fell off the list). It is a puzzle for Alex. It was [...]'s idea; the snake's stripes come out and you have to put them back in the right order. [...] did most of the cutting and I did most of the painting. I realise there's no indication of scale here, it is enormous - about 16" wide.

Having come to terms with what I'm not going to achieve before Christmas, I am now looking forward to it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I wish I had a river, I could skate away on

It's coming on Christmas and I've done almost nothing. For some reason, this is making me terribly and stupidly anxious. At least something is making me anxious. And this anxiety is getting on my nerves, since I really have nothing to worry about.

It has been a bad brain week though. And I've had the usual niggle as to whether I can't write or paint because I'm just knackered or because I am lacking motivation, or at least in the wrong frame of mind. This is the great problem with fatigue and anything creative; if it was just sums, I could either make myself do them or I couldn't, whether I wanted to or not. Whereas people in perfect physical and mental health have creative blocks.

I suppose there are clues. Fatigue causes muddles and mistakes. Fatigue begins lots of sentences which, you know. um...

Trouble is, as soon as I ask myself whether my frame of mind is part of the problem, I begin to feel guilty and miserable. And being rather miserable, I have even more reason to suspect that it isn't just fatigue. Which makes me feel more guilty and miserable. And anxious. That and the Christmas thing. I was going to make cards and I realise that my cards are going to be crap, consisting of a great deal of glitter and not much else. If I actually finish them. Oh who cares? Do you care?

It took me all of today to write this. And that pisses me off.

Also, I realise that I was doing great last week, but feel like I haven't done one productive thing in months. And that pisses me off. My ingratitude! I am by far the most irritating person I have ever met.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Magnificent Nephew Rides Again

Amazing they found a hat small enoughAlexander rides a horseAt the weekend, Alexander got to ride a real horse for the first time. For some reason, the pony in question had attempted to disguise itself as a Christmas tree.

I wasn't there but I thought I should share a couple of the pictures with you. And it is a milestone. Alex has previously only ridden his rocking-horse, which is about the same size. I guess riding a horse is on one of those lists like "50 things to do before you're 3".

Apparently, Alexander is a natural. I guess he'd have to be, what with being two years old and managing to sit on the horse without support. They even managed to trot.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Myth of Monetary Meritocracy

I am afraid I have unpopular thoughts about the Credit Crunch. Well, the crunchiness may have passed; the BBC News website renamed the crisis a Downturn and even had a snazzy logo to accompany related stories (although they appear to have abandoned this). Meanwhile, back in October, Radio 4 had a season of programmes about the Credit Crash. Generally a crunch comes just after a crash. For example, if you fell against a stack of cereal boxes in the supermarket, it would kind of go crash and then crunch in quick succession.

For the UK at least, it is more of a Credit Crumble. It is undoubtedly bad news but for the time being it has been blown out of all proportion, with all manner of chaos, panic and disaster headlines when nobody is in mortal danger. We are poorer than most people, and whilst we're certainly aware of the increasing cost of fuel and food, there is significant room for further economy. It did tickle me the other week when a shop-assistant made me aware of a multi-buy offer on kitchen roll, saying in the gravest of tones,

“That's a saving of nineteen pence and in these troubled times, nineteen pence can make a big difference!”

Which is rather melodramatic coming from someone who takes no more than three minutes to earn such a princely sum*.

But all this has got me thinking about our ridiculous attitude towards money – an attitude which caused this problem in the first place and is going to make it all the more painful. Yeah, it's that kind of monster of a post, but if you make it to the bottom, you can have a picture of a terrapin!

The trouble is that we believe that money should be fair. It can't be. Money is just numbers. In this economy, these numbers are regulated by almost entirely by supply and demand (capitalism). Supply and demand are not fair.

Something you are going to sell to someone else – whether it is a thing or some work you can do – is only ever worth what somebody else is prepared to pay for it. Whilst hard work, skills, talent, intelligence, charm and cunning may increase the price you are paid, your control over the matter is very limited. If you are a brilliant footballer who gets all the right breaks, then you can make millions of pounds and compare your working conditions to slavery.

But most people who are brilliant at football never get to play for money. If you are a brilliant car mechanic or a fantastic florist, then there is a fairly modest upper limit on how much money you can make. This blog is not worth any money, and yet is infinitely more valuable than the work of certain newspaper collumnists who get paid a small fortune. Much fewer people read here, but much more charming, more discerning and generally better-looking people, which is a far more valuable reward.

A person cannot work themselves rich. Some people are smart, skilled and/ or work very very hard and accumulate massive wealth, but only if what they have to supply happens to meet a demand – that is, they get lucky. Most rich people were born rich. Meanwhile, most talented, hard-working, brilliant people are on average incomes, at risk of hardship should they fall upon bad luck such as unemployment or ill health. And thus a proportion of the most talented, hard-working and brilliant people are relatively poor.

But capitalism is not a bad thing. Financial inequity is not the same as social inequality. In order to make sure of this, we have things like a minimum wage, universal healthcare, education and the welfare state. We have certain controls on financial activity and the amount of social and political power that money can buy. And fortunately, once you don't have to worry about a roof over your head, having enough to eat and a little to spare, money doesn't make a great deal of difference to one's happiness. Work (renumerative or otherwise) has its own rewards. And our value as human beings has absolutely nothing to do with the money in our pockets.

The trouble is that most people don't believe this. Not truly.

Our particular cultural work-ethic is highly individualistic, based on personal economic reward. A good job is first and foremost a well-paid job. People have some choice about the work they do and some make altruistic choices, but principly, the purpose of work in our culture to provide for oneself or one's immediate family, for one's own independence, security and happiness. These things, we are told can be bought – a principle we have reiterated several times a day. Everything is for sale; in any given ad-break we are sold sexual attractiveness, physical wellbeing, a happy family and the envy of our peers, all in the form of yoghurt or soap powder.

Stuff being the principle reward in life, it would make sense if people were rewarded according to their virtues. And we would very much like to believe this. Certainly most governments sell us economic meritocracy because it puts everyone in our place; those men have power and earn many times the average wage because they are the very best people for the job – you are relatively powerless and poo because you're not so bright and didn't work as hard as they did. And look at the chav thing; people love the idea of an underclass of people who are in the gutter because of their own personal failings – and love to hate them because even though they remain poor, they do appear to have a lot more stuff than they deserve.**

And this has ruined our economy. The first effect is (or at least was) hubris in the face of short-term prosperity. During the boom, those who were doing well thought they'd earnt it. Home-oweners spoke about the artificial rise in house-prices as if this was something they had achieved through hard work – and something for keeps, which of course it wasn't. Meanwhile, in the City, people were making money in all manner of strange and inventive ways and oh, how very well they were rewarded!

If you believe that your wealth is a product of natural justice, then it is difficult to conceive of it ever going away. I am not going to work any less hard in the future, so I shall always be this wealthy. In the context of reduced financial regulation and a sustained economic boom (so sustained that many young city types had never known any different), this got completely out of hand.

The second effect is that most ordinary people, most of the time, don't actually perceive that they are doing well at all. Most people you speak to will complain that they are either underpaid, or that they might have enough coming in but they pay too much tax.

This is not greed. Surrounded by messages which say that the accumulation of stuff is the reward for virtue and the thing that's going to make you happy, respectable, secure and so on, you're bound to feel short-changed. You're smart and you work very hard, so why shouldn't you have all the shiny things you want – shiny things that far less smart, less hard-working people seem to have?

In this culture people who have no problem paying for essentials nevertheless become very frustrated with financial limitations. One friend recently complained that there is no state help for people like her, because benefits and tax-credits are means-tested according to your income and don't take into account how much money you have going out. Yeah, I know. And yet I sympathise; she works very hard, and only wants decent things. A decent house in a decent area, a decent car, decent holidays, decent technology. Since this standard of living is a struggle, she feels like she's going without.

Add cheap credit into the equation, and an enormous personal debt problem results. I don't work or own property, and yet even I was receiving offers of thousands of pounds in loans. Treat yourself, the literature said, give yourself the break that you deserve.

Now, I don't believe that people need protecting from themselves, ought not to be loaned money or subjected to advertising. I think people who have borrowed beyond their means for non-emergency purposes are responsible for their choices. Not that they need berating; it'll be tough enough as it is just now and anyway, some degree of luck is always involved. Some first-time buyers got 125% mortages – which seems ludicrous - but others in their peer group got help from Mummy and Daddy and hardly took on any burden at all.

However, we are all free to reject this culture. For our own sake, for the sake of an economy which impacts on everyone, and for the sake of the environment. Money is not moral. The consequences of our attitude towards it are.

An enormous terrapin rising Kraken-like from the deepThis enormous terrapin and its similarly proportioned friends live at the school where Alexander goes to nursery. Previously, I'd only seen terrapins the size of small apple (though not quite that shape); these were the size of a melon (though not quite that shape). And no, I don't have any pictures of kittens - the terrapin will have to do.

* In fairness, I was buying kitchen roll in Poundstretcher, conscious that I was paying 0.4p a sheet – closer to 0.3p with the special offer, as opposed to 0.5p a sheet in Wilkinsons and a shocking 0.7p a sheet in Tesco. In case you wondered (I'm pretty sure you didn't), if you take absorbency into account, Wilkinsons is the best value – it is about the same quality as Tesco, whereas the Poundstretcher stuff is very thin. I hope this confession mitigates for any degree of sanctimony above... and it takes two minutes and four seconds to earn 19p on the UK minimum wage – a few seconds longer after tax.

** Meanwhile, we participate in the exploitation of the poor in other countries and use more than our fair share of the planet's resources because we don't really believe that the world could be as extraordinarily unfair as it is – but that's another subject.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Cake, some action's what I need

A round cake covered in white icing with flowers and holy on topGranny and I decorated this year's Christmas cake last week - well, we started last week, but I fell asleep and had to finish it off at home this week. It's quite pretty, only it's not everso Christmassy (not nearly so Christmassy as last year's effort), and those white flowers are supposed to be hellebores (Christmas Roses). Unfortunately, they look rather more like lillies. Perhaps they are Christmas Lillies.

Still, I think we did pretty well considering the lack of time. And the bit I sawed off in order to make the top flat was scrumdiddly. There's enough brandy in that there innocent-looking cake to make an elephant dance the Macarena.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Our Ikea Adventure

Sixty-something years ago, a group of bright young minds, including the great Alan Turing went to Bletchley, to perform complex mathematical equations in order to crack Nazi military codes and eventually defeat the forces of tyranny. It was perhaps an ill-fitting tribute that this weekend, [...] and I went to the Ikea in Bletchley, to perform complex mathematical equations in order to buy a new kitchen, taking the 2.5% reduction in VAT into account.

We certainly overcame tremendous odds, such as lack of sleep, van-no-brum-brum and cold heavy rain which meant that, once we got going, we had to drive all the way there with the windows open so that the windscreen didn't steam up. And the Sat-Nav which didn't know that Milton Keynes existed (perhaps she just hates going to Ikea).

However, fate smiled on us in a number of ways. Highlights included:
  • Since it was so far to travel (for us) and we had so much to do, we planned to stay overnight in Milton Keynes. On a Sunday night, if you book in advance, you can get a room – including complimentary teabag – for £30. It was by happy coincidence that the new VAT rates came in on Monday, so we were able to save our landlady about £30 on the kitchen. So our stopover paid for itself in a roundabout way (there are a lot of roundabouts in Milton Keynes).
  • Staying in a hotel is still a terribly exciting thing for me which I get to do about once every three or four years. I think hotels are terribly exciting places where all sorts of weird and wonderful things go on in close proximity. I could barely sleep for thinking about all the illicit affairs, murders and mafia dealings taking place in the rooms around us.
  • We bought new plates and bowls! Since I break everything I touch, we've been needing some more for ages - if anyone came round to eat, we had to take it in turns. And they are very nice, as plates and bowls go. Cobalt blue,Iguess you'd call them.
  • For the first time ever, I was able to go round Ikea under my own steam (uh, it's a very old-fashioned coal-fired wheelchair). It was much better. I could look at all the things I wanted without having to give directions or answer the question, “What do you want to look at that for?” and I could fondle the soft-furnishings to my heart's delight.
  • I could also participate in the warehouse bit – every other time I've been, I've had to be parked somewhere and sit like a lemon for half an hour. Then there's always been this difficulty of how to get both myself and a trolley of stuff out through the checkout. But as my powerchair goes pretty fast, I could go and collect things for [...] and he could be the lemon. I did have to stand up on tip-toes for some of them, but I waited until nobody was looking.
  • I almost ran over a hedgehog! It was a cuddly hedgehog, but it still would have gone squish. Fortunately I stopped just in time and was able to return it safely to the little girl who had dropped it.
  • I managed to resist the temptation of a great number of toys I might have bought for Alexander, thus maintaining my record; two and a half years of auntihood and I haven't bought him any toys (although I've made him lots). It took some effort though; they had plush woodlice!
It was such a busy couple of days that on Monday night I was wound up like a spring and couldn't sleep. So I watched an episode of Spooks (daft spy thing) on BBC iPlayer. I then dreamt about espionage being conducted in Ikea; secret codes written on those shopping-lists, spies hiding in the wardrobes, the boxes in the warehouse really having missiles in them.

Yesterday I could sleep and did a great deal. I attempted to wash up and woke up with my head in the sink, still clutching the sponge.

Coincidentally, Mary went to Ikea this weekend (although a different one - otherwise we might have met unexpectedly and ripped a hole in the space-time continuum) and Sara lost her Ikea virginity last month.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

My name is

Alexander can now name most of his family and friends. He can cope with polysyllables; for example, there is a little boy at his childminders' who is known as Baby Luke and he can say that, no problem. His Grandad sounds very much like Gandalf but I think this may be a satirical point as opposed to mispronunciation.

But he cannot say my name. For the purposes of this post, you have to know that my off-line alias is Deborah or variations thereof. And to begin with, Alex appeared to make an asserted effort, calling me something like Dib-dab, which is close enough. I would be quite happy to be Auntie Dib-dab indefinitely.

Alexander performs a three point turnThen one day, about six weeks ago, Alexander decided to give up and call me Bum.

When he first came out with this, his mother corrected him.

“Bum bum bum bum bum!” Alex responded.

So I thought he was just messing about. Only Rosie and I had a chat about other things, and when she said goodbye and asked Alexander to do the same, he said, very tenderly, “Bye bye, Bum.”

Then the next time we spoke, when Rosie asked him to say hello to his favourite auntie, Alexander greeted me with, “'Ello Bum!”

Which I guess at least proves consistency. Once again, Rosie corrected him.

“Bum bum bum bum bum!” he insisted.

I did ask and no, he's not calling anyone else that - it is just me. And so it continued. But then last night, there was a change. When I was talking to him on the phone and I asked if he could say my name, he cried


I'm yet to decide whether this is an improvement.

Friday, November 21, 2008

In Search of Cheryl

On Wednesday, we visited a friend and on the way home popped into the supermarket. At the checkout, all the magazines spoke of a woman in great trouble. Her name is Cheryl. On every magazine cover, she was at some stage of emotional collapse;

Cheryl Breaks Down
Cheryl Is Humiliated
More Heartache for Cheryl
Cheryl says, “It's all over!”

I have no idea who Cheryl is. I don't have my finger on the cultural pulse, but I do know roughly what's happening in films, music and stuff. Yet the only famous Cheryl I can think of is Cheryl Baker who used to co-present Record Breakers in the 1980s and I don't think it could be her. I'm not even sure what the lady looks like, because the magazines seemed to have different women's faces on their covers. But Cheryl has my sympathy. She's obviously going through a rough patch. And she is clearly either very famous or there is nothing else to print just now.

But it also raised a question which often occurs to me. How could the life of any celebrity be so fascinating for you that you'd buy a magazine on the grounds of such headlines? I am wired much the same as the next person and whilst I don't buy any magazines or newspapers, my curiosity can be aroused. If I had some admiration for or interest in the enigmatic Cheryl, I could understand wanting to look inside having read headlines such as

Cheryl Reveals Her Dark Secret (I would want to know the secret)
Cheryl Wears An Incredible Hat (I would want to see the hat)
Cheryl Takes Off All Her Clothes (I'm human) or
Cheryl Spills the Beans on Nuclear Fission (I never fully understood the difference between fusion and fission)

But if Cheryl is merely breaking down, I already know what happened. I don't know why she broke down, but I imagine that if it were more exciting than her actual breaking down, they'd probably have referred to it in the headline. Something like Cheryl Breaks Down Over Odd Sock Shocker. The lack of detail suggests Cheryl might have broken down over nothing at all. Unless she is so very famous that her recent tragedy is such common knowledge and it doesn't need mention - just as we now see headlines referring to Strictly Come and know it has something to do with a television programme as opposed to a new kind of eco-friendly hair-styling product.

The last time I asked my question about appeal of dubious celebrity gossip, I was told that I couldn't understand because I was "middle class". As if it is the proletariat buying Heat with their benefit money, whilst I'm sat reading Lawn Magazine or Kumquat Monthly in the breakfast room.

If anyone does know who Cheryl is, or doesn't know and would like to make something up - or indeed would like to explain the difference between nuclear fusion and nuclear fission - you know where to click.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On Voluntary Euthanasia #2

That's enough frivolity for now, let's get back to matters of life and death!

The Right To Choose and The Obligation to Interfere

It never made sense for suicide to be a crime (although it was before the 1960s); a person's body does not belong to anyone other than its inhabitant so ultimately, one is free to do whatever one likes with it.Meanwhile, a person who is dead cannot answer for their actions, and the main concern with someone who has survived an attempt on their life is to keep them safe and help them feel better – an objective somewhat undermined by criminal prosecution.

But suicide is the only non-criminal activity I know of which we are allowed to use physical force to prevent. If you see someone about to jump off a bridge, you're allowed to tackle them, drag them away, knock them unconscious if necessary without being charged with assault. It's reasonable force, you understand; deadly force would be to defeat the point.

If you fail to prevent a suicide when it would be reasonable for you to do so, e.g. if you fail to phone an ambulance following an overdose or potentially fatal injury, then you risk being charged with manslaughter. Assisting suicide carries up to fourteen years in prison and even verbally encouraging suicide is a serious criminal offense. Meanwhile, if healthcare professionals believe you to be a serious risk to yourself, then they are allowed to detain and forcibly medicate you.

This does kind of make sense. What it means is that ultimately, you do have the freedom to die if you want to, but the rest of us are going to try and stop you. And the potential benefits of our interference greatly outweigh any harm we can do to you. If you are still alive, you still have the opportunity to choose. If you survive and go on to have a wonderful life, then what a glorious gift that is! If you still choose to die and go on to try again, then you haven't lost anything. But if we butt out, all will be lost in any case.

So it could be said that you have a right to die by your own hand and you certainly have a right to refuse medical treatment (or food, hydration etc.). But if you are not in need of life-sustaining treatment and you don't have the physical capacity to kill yourself, you're kind of stuck.

In most countries which have legalised euthanasia, it is exclusively about hastening an inevitable death. The Swiss example is pretty deplorable; assisted suicide is not a crime at all, so long as it is not done out of self-interest (e.g. you can't be paid). So for example, if your friend is unhappily gay, becomes suicidal about their sexuality and you happen to agree that it is better to be dead than gay, well you can help your friend shuffle off their deviant mortal coil. I think that lfe is worth a whole lot more than that.

And yet, I can't quite believe that a person must be condemned to be alive because an impairment stops them opting out. It's not a right, exactly - since we're talking about another person's (remarkable) participation, assisted suicide could never be guaranteed. Hmm, I don't think I'm going to get any further with that one.

But I completely reject the idea that we shouldn't comment on other people's decisions on this matter. I don't believe in harassing people or threatening them with the seventh circle of hell, but I do believe in trying to make the most fundamental decisions a person can make as informed as they possibly can be. We all have a responsibility to give one another the best shot possible.

The Last Resort

Most people who commit suicide have depression, which is a treatable (if not universally curable) condition. Meanwhile, very many people, including myself, have contemplated and/ or attempted suicide, failed and feel that the whole thing was a ridiculous mistake. Most people know someone who has succeeded and rarely it is anything but an unequivocal tragedy, a terrible waste and one of the most devastating kinds of bereavements for those left behind to come to terms with.

I don't believe that many people want death; what people want is change and it can seem that death is the only way to bring about that change. This is not an easil- corrected mistake; I spent about a year of my life thinking in this way, and it wasn't particularly irrational given my circumstances and my understanding of the world then. Because of illness, I could not have the sort of life that I had always wanted and expected, and while I had imagined myself to be quite open minded and flexible, it seemed that the doors had slammed shut on every other option. I had lost my future.

Meanwhile, I couldn't do any of the things I wanted to do. All the things I liked to do with my time had either been taken away from me or were massively disrupted by illness. All my friendships had been changed by my illness and at this point, I didn't really trust anyone any more – since I was so boring and inarticulate, I imagined the friends who stayed did so out of a sense of duty. I was living in a place I didn't want to live with people I didn't want to live with – which in turn I felt very guilty about.

I've often said that [...] saved my life, because if he hadn't come along, well I had a date and it was coming up very fast. Even so, it took much longer to learn that my life didn't need to have been like that - it wasn't just a question of “snapping out” of it or even a gradual recovery from depression – whilst I did get very depressed, none of the above was fantasy.

If I had died, it would have died because of an inflexible and unimaginative attitude towards education, work and the value of my existence, the stigma of chronic physical illness, the stigma of mental illness, my own disablist prejudice, self-disgust, inadequate pain management, unintentional familial pressure, careless drug prescription, inadequate options for housing, homophobia and living in Ipswich (it is a terribly depressing place). Not because of my physical and cognitive limitations.

It wasn't purely a change in my feelings which changed my mind, but different information. Feelings cannot be either legitimate or illegitimate, but you can have the wrong data. If every other option for improving a person's life and happiness has been totally and utterly exhausted before they decided to die, then it would be difficult to argue with that decision. But there is rarely any clue to that in the way these stories are reported.

Unintended Consequences.

Any change in the law is likely to effect only a small number of people directly, but disabled people are affected by the mere discussion. As it is, the lives of disabled people are not seen as on a par with those of non-disabled people. We are both pitied and regarded as a burden by very many people very much of the time. If society is able to forgive some disabled people for wishing to end their lives, will it be able to forgive the rest of us for wishing to live?

Almost all media stories about euthanasia ramp up the tragedy in ways that they could never get away with talking about disability in another other context. Generally it is pain which makes a condition unbearable, but instead these stories tend to focus on things like the level of personal care people need. Yesterday the BBC news website published an open letter from Lizz Carr to a chap called Noel Martin who wants out (and wrote back), concluding it with a video of the man getting his hair washed. As if this offers the other point of view; Carr says that life is worth living, but look, he needs someone to wash his hair for him!

However, I don't think a change in law could make society value us less. I certainly don't believe in any slippery slope where we begin find ourselves under social pressure to die - or that when disabled people are in despair, that those around us will agree that death is the answer. (Tayi points out in the comments to my first post on this subject that things might be different where there isn't socialised medicine, and illness is far more of an individual economic burden.)

I reckon that debates on euthanasia merely bring to the surface the stereotypes that people have always held - and then allow them to be contradicted. We're getting louder and more visible all the time; a fact demonstrated by the BBC publishing a bit of a debate between two disabled people as opposed to two non-disabled 'experts'. Meanwhile, people sneaking off to abroad to die and recently bereaved people risking criminal status is not doing anything for us at all, let alone what it is doing for the individuals who find themselves compromised in this way.

A small but significant proportion of disabled people will ultimately face a very slow and painful death. Some of us would be able to face that with less fear if we knew that we'd continue to have control of our lives, whatever happened to our bodies. I think the time has come for a change.

But I'm still not terribly happy about the subject!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Party Dresses!

The thing about the dresses that come into the shops at this time of year is that, even if you hate everything that's fashionable in any given season, these dresses are always lovely. It's always the most gorgeous fabrics; velvet, satin, chiffon and tafeeta and despite the permanent prominence of black, those that come in colour are usually very nice deep colours. And they're always the nicest shapes, effectively gift-wrapping that most beautiful form in all of nature, the adult woman. Well, it is true.

I guess this is more about aesthetics (or possibly lechery) than some girly thing about dressing up; I have never been invited to anywhere where I might require a dress anything like these. If I were, I would find more fault with them. For one thing, I am an odd shape and don't usually fit into dresses. They are all incredibly skimpy given that it's winter, this is Britain and women tend to feel the cold more than. None of the dresses are fair trade or made from recycled materials and despite their expense they are the sort of thing which one wears very rarely, perhaps only once – and needs shoes and things to match, and don't get me started on the sheer hell that is shoe-shopping. If I were in the market, I'd probably make one myself. Out of an old sack.

In fact, I'm not sure quite who it is who wears the dresses that come into the shops about now. Most women never need a dress like this - I reckon that the sort of Christmas parties where women were posh frocks only happen in movies or perhaps for Office Parties if you worked in a really swanky office where they had mahogany desks and lead crystal mousemats or something. British high schools have started having “proms” in the last few years, but I think that happens in the summer.

My sister is the one person I know who owns these sorts of dresses, but then she goes to lots of weird weddings (you know, the sort that don't have a pirate theme) and does lots of concerts in orchestras where the chaps dress up like penguins – I don't think the audiences dress up so much. However, the one time I did go shopping for dresses with her was incredible; at one shop they gave me a cup of coffee while she tried something on. Free! Although at the end of that trip, we found the perfect item, full length, bright red and extremely flouncy, for £5 in a charity shop.

Anyway, since my futile and frankly slightly shameful window-shopping is usually conducted at home by myself, and since there is a very small chance that someone reading this might want to buy a dress this year, I thought I should share with you the top three dresses that I have seen this year.

3. This one I like because it is a great curvy shape (too many of these dresses require the wearer to be stick-thin). It is also almost black (it's described as graphite) and therefore fairly safe, also sparkly so one isn't a dark mass from the neck down. And the sparkly balance is just right; a lot of sequined dresses may be dazzling to behold, but make a person look like they put on their chainmail but forgot the suit of armour. It is from John Lewis and is called an Elise dress, like the car or whoever Beethoven wrote that tune für...

2. This is my second favourite mostly because it is a very nice colour and it is has a very pretty neckline (I'd be such a good fashion writer, all so very very nice). Also it is called a Boudicea Dress for reasons I can barely fathom, and I like the idea of a woman who was glamorous enough to wear such a dress turning up at her party in a chariot. It is from Monsoon.

1. This is my most favourite, because despite everything I said, I guess I imagine this might suit me if my fairy godmother showed up and it did, by some bizarre manufacturing error, fit. It is a lovely purply shade of red, it's got two textures in it and I don't know, it is sensible enough such that I probably could find some excuse to wear it between now and the End of Days. It is called a Matt & Shine dress and is from Marks & Spencers. It's also the cheapest out of these at £55. So I think practicality won the day despite myself.

probably have the biggest range of dresses, including an entire section of red ones. Also, if you are a funny shape and did want a party dress, you can "design" one and get one made in the UK through somewhere like StyleShake which I've never used but looks like a great idea.

I don't think shops will mind me pinching pictures for the purposes of admiration, but I shall merely link to what is by far the ugliest party dress I have seen this winter. It is leather. It is gold. It is pretty much without shape. And it is £175. Any positives? Well, I guess could easily be wiped clean...

Friday, November 14, 2008

On Voluntary Euthanasia #1

There are two things on my mind at the moment; euthanasia and party dresses. I got to writing about euthanasia and it got so long it will become two posts, but I'll do the one about party dress in between. If only I could post a cake recipe and some advice on dieting, this could be the blog equivalent of daytime TV!

Truth is that I long ago established that suicide might be one way to go. Much later on, if things get really grim. It is a rather morbid thought for someone who is neither depressed nor in any imminent physical danger, but it means I don't worry too much about future some worst-case scenario in which everything is suffering and pain. Might never happen, but if it does, I shan't be stuck here.

Meanwhile, I believe people should be allowed to do whatever they like with their bodies as long as they don't harm other people. However, the debate on voluntary euthanasia has always troubled me. It is one of those debates where I find myself disagreeing with everyone, so I am going to try and unpick this for myself.

We'll start with something relatively straightforward.

The Sanctity of Life

Human life is very precious, but I have no God to make it sacred. Death may be final, but it is not the worst thing that can happen to a person – which is a relief, since it's going to happen to everyone of us. Yes, maybe even you, should you accidentally eat some garlic or if someone set your alarm clock to go off before dusk. Meanwhile, the value of a life is all about quality, not the number of years, months, weeks or days that it can be sustained. Life-sustaining treatment is not always in an individual's best interests. Nor is it always reasonable; in the UK it is too high to effect many of us, but there is a limit on the resources that can be dedicated to maintaining any given pulse. I don't believe in life at any cost.

What's more, we bring life to a premature close all the time when the dose for effective pain-relief during the end stages of terminal illness becomes deadly. We don't take years away, but maybe a few days of agony here and there. An American friend told me of her childhood preacher who objected to diamorphine on the grounds that dying people could no longer feel the flames of hell licking at their feet and might miss their final opportunity to repent. But that's the only objection I've ever heard of.

If we are happy with this, it seems that there seems no fundamental problem with ending life. There is some argument about a big difference when killing is not the primary intention, but clearly it is regarded as an acceptable side-effect in these very extreme circumstances. It seems to me that in the case of someone who is dying and in great physical suffering but wants to shorten their suffering (and thereby, their life) by months or years, the only difference is one of timescale.

However, not everyone who seeks euthanasia is on their way out.

Manner of death vs. quality of life

There have been two news stories about voluntary euthanasia in the last month. I don't wish to write about individual cases, since these are ordinary people's lives and deaths, but the contrast between them is very important.

One story is about a lady with the sort of MS that can kill you, who says she would like to go on forever but she was seeking reassurances that, should the situation arise, her husband could travel to an euthanasia clinic abroad and not face prosecution on his return. Her case has failed. The other story is about a young man whose parents took him to Switzerland to undergo assisted suicide. This chap was in his early twenties and had been tetraplegic (quadraplegic) for just eighteen months. His parents supported and facilitated his choice in order to relieve their son of what they considered a second class existence. It is unclear as to whether they will be prosecuted.

These two stories demonstrate a big problem for me because one case seems totally reasonable - I instinctively wish that the lady didn't have to travel abroad to do what she wants to do - and the other makes me feel very uncomfortable indeed. One is about the kind of death a person hopes to have, the other is a rejection of a certain sort of life.

The life of someone in the latter stages of a terminal condition is as precious as anyone else's, but having decided that they want to die, it is extremely unlikely that they would change their mind should they survive. There is unlikely to be the time to develop a completely new perspective. The things which might make life pleasurable are only likely to decrease as the things which make life seem intolerable increase.

Someone whose life is not in any danger – especially someone whose condition is stable and might even improve – has a lot more to lose. I don't think there are any statistics on this, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if most people with any kind of acquired impairment, an injury or chronic illness, experience a period of despair. Similarly, people experiencing a nasty divorce, sudden bereavement, a terrible assault, financial ruin, some great personal humiliation or other, are likely to have a spell when they can't see how they could ever be happy again.

But they will be. When people say, “If I went through what you've been through, I would have killed myself,” the chances are that they wouldn't. Most disabled people were once non-disabled and almost all of us survived the change. So why should we condone someone's pessimism just because they have a physical impairment? How is a spinal cord injury different from a broken heart or bankruptcy?

I suppose there are three differences. The first is that we kind of think of non-medical disasters as recoverable from. One's heart is broken, it will heal with time, whereas physical symptoms won't go away. I'm not entirely happy with this. Physical symptoms can often be improved, and most certainly the impact of those symptoms on one's quality of life can be changed completely. Not always, not necessarily, but very very often.

The second difference is that one acquires impairment in a culture which completely accepts the idea that we live a second-class existence. If the whole world believes your life must be rubbish, then your own suicidal feelings on the matter are likely to seem completely reasonable.

But perhaps the most pertinent difference is that something like tetraplegia and certain other conditions, a person who is desperately unhappy about there situation can't escape it without help - or without a terribly painful and degrading death like starvation. We encourage one another to stick it out through the bad times, but there is no law against suicide. Which brings us onto the matter of Human Rights.

Which I shall write about after I've written about party-dresses. I bet you can't wait!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Visiting Hours

The great things about visiting other people in hospital as a wheelchair user include the fact that everywhere is flat, there are plenty of spacious lifts and nobody bats an eyelid at your presence. The bad things about visiting other people in hospital are much the same for everyone, and thus are bound to outweigh the good.

My Gran took a bad fall on Friday night. She's not that badly hurt; nothing was broken, but she fell on her face hard enough to knock herself out, she is rather confused and terribly distressed about the whole thing. She always been prone to confusion and depression, but following this concussion she apparently found out that she is much older than she thought she was (that is, how old she thought she was when she came round). She thought she was sixty-three, and is terribly upset to learn that she is fact eighty-two. She says she has all manner of wrinkles that she never had before. A curious concern for someone whose face is currently every colour of the rainbow.

She hasn't lost nineteen years of her life; it's not that she didn't recognise me from my eight year-old self or she thought my Grandad was still alive or anything like that. But it has thrown her. She is also very frightened about what happens next; she is frightened of going home and having another fall, she is frightened of having to go into residential care. It's impossible to reassure her and just now I feel very very sorry for her.

However, my mother made me feel very useful. I helped, apparently, with both comforting my Gran and given pertinent information to the social worker. I'm not sure whether I was at all useful or not, but it was a novel feeling to even think I might be.

Gran was, of course, completely and utterly oblivious to the US presidential election. But thank you very much, my American cousins for all you did for the world on Tuesday. Passing by the US Airbase* today, the stars and stripes took on a certain nobility that it may have lacked over recent years.

Oh and Happy Bonfire Night! Of course, the failed terrorist atrocities on 5/11 back in 1605 were used as an excuse for wholesale percecution of Catholics and religious non-conformists of all ilks. One such group of Puritans suffered so much that, following a detour to the Netherlands, they got on a ship called the Mayflower and sailed away in that direction [points West]. You see, everything is connected!

* In fairness, the Americans don't fly the flag at their airbase because it's really Ministry of Defence land; the flag was flying outside a nearby car shop where the US service personnel can buy tax-free gas-guzzling vehicles (the sort with wheels as big as a house) to fill with um, tax-free petrol, but we'll put that to one side for today.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Goldfish Guide to Keeping Warm

I have spent the last week or so running myself into the ground, but I had written most of this before then. Apologies to Seahorse, to whom I had promised this following her advice on Not Dying of Cold.

I'm pleased to say that Friends of the Earth and Help The Aged are attempting to sue the government for their broken promises about fuel poverty. Gordon Brown has attempted to deal with the problem by offering money for home-improvements to help poorer people be more efficient but most poorer people are in rented accommodation and have limited control over such matters. That having been said, AJ and I are getting a free load of insulation from the Warm Front, who also sent us free lightbulbs.

My advice is meant mostly for duffers. Those of us who find ourselves sick and unable to get out much which means (a) we have to stay warm all day at our own expense (b) we don't have much money with which to do so and often, (c) health problems and poor mobility make us suffer from the cold more than most.

Excuse another list of points but I would suggest that there are three important principles to keeping warm against these odds:
  1. Keeping warm is much easier than getting warm once one is cold.
  2. We are much warmer when moving about than when we are staying still – especially if we are lying still for many hours.
  3. The culture we have now is a centrally-heated one.
The last point was difficult to phrase so I shall explain. One example would be that most people (that I know) work on the basis of having just one hot meal a day. This is no problem when you already plenty warm enough. If not, replacing one's cornflakes with porridge and one's sandwich with a bowl of soup can make a significant difference to one's overall comfort.

Similarly we were all brought up never to wear certain clothes indoors - coats, scarves etc. - because we wouldn't feel the benefit of these items when we went outside. However, if you think about the historical costumes of our culture, people always did wear sMy funky thinghawls, cravats, bonnets, headscarves and headpieces and so on indoors, as well as full-length and high-necked clothing. If you feel the cold and/ or you don't want to keep the heating on full for six months of the year, there's nothing wrong with this - you just need to put even more clothes on when you go outside.

I wrote quite a bit about warm clothing before. Indoors, it is important that extra layers are things which it is very easy to get on and off; shirts, shawls, cardigans and so on. Arguably the favourite and most-used item of clothing I have is my thing here on the right which might be called a body-warmer or a gilet or whatever you like. This is much easier to get in and out of and probably more effective than a thick jumper.

Fingerless gloves are a must and ones that most people would only buy for aesthetic purposes – like my lacey Madonna ones – are great. Fingerless glovesThey keep your hands at a reasonable temperature without any risk of sweaty palms. You can also get fishnet ones – fishnet being a wonderful fabric for keeping warm.

Despite my stated feelings on wheelchair blankets, when indoors it is entirely reasonable to use blankets and, if necessary, hot water bottles when you are sitting or lying down. However some tips;
  1. Don't stay in bed all day for the purpose of keeping warm. I have always found that it is much much better for my mood and my long-term mental health, to get dressed every day and camp out in a different room, even if I am dozing a lot.
  2. Be disciplined about moving about. If you've found your warm place, it can be a struggle to motivate yourself to get up, but it is both better for your health and your temperature control to move about every once in a while.
  3. If you are snuggled up most of the day, you don't necessarily need to heat the entire house or flat all the time. Save the fuel for the room(s) you occupy.
  4. Avoid heat sources which are likely to further impair circulation; resist the temptation to sit close to a heater or putting your feet against the hot water bottle. Also avoid having very hot baths.
On the subject of bathing, if you are a idle duffer, you're unlikely to be sweating much and needn't bother with anything like daily bathing. However, when you do bathe, make very sure that you get your self and most especially your hair completely dry as soon as possible.

Thanks again to my friend who gave me this most appropriate hot water bottle a couple of years ago.

Finally, a word about tumble-dryers. Not everyone can afford or has room for one, but even a greeny like myself recommends it for the winter (with dryer balls, of course). Drying clothing or towels on a radiator makes your heating have to work much harder and you are left with a choice between opening the windows and letting all the heat out or else allowing your house to get damp and mouldly, which not only creates work but is not good for your health. Items can also fail to get properly dry and there are few nastier sensations that getting out of a warm bath and wrapping oneself in a cold damp and slightly acrid-smelling towel.

Tumble-dryers, involving as they do an amount of heat and a big motor, use a lot of electricity in one go, but they do get the job done properly. One simply has to be efficient with their usage; don't wash clothes that don't need washing and don't bathe more often than you need to.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Dalek CakeSometimes, blogging can influence the very traditions of our families, customs and rituals to be passed down from generation to generation. Following the success of my sister's Dalek cake which she made for my mother's birthday last year - inspired by a post by Lady Bracknell where Jess commented, linking to the Dalek Cake pool on Flickr - may I present my own attempt for her birthday this year.

Two years on the trot, we'll be doing this forever now. Probably long after my mother is gone, long after I am gone and maybe even after people have forgotten what the heck a Dalek was, the family Goldfish will be making Dalek Cakes at this time of year.

I seem to be cursed with technology just now and although I took some lovely pictures of my mother with her birthday cake, this was the only one that came off the camera. But you get the general impression. My Mum said it looked like a cat. Charming.

Friday, October 10, 2008

I went to the shops and I bought...

A gorgeous ukelele...a ukelele! Isn't it a thing of beauty? Most importantly, it sounds beautiful and within a matter of weeks, I daresay I should be able to do this sort of thing.

The guy in the music shop tried to sell us a mandolin case to put it in. I suggested that having a ukelele in a mandolin case was a little like keeping your machine gun in a violin case. The guy looked kind of nervous.

We bought it in Cambridge where we also had a look the new clock at Corpus Christi. It is almost five feet wide and has an evil-looking grasshopper on top, which is munching up the time.

A lady who was standing by the clock said, "I'm sure the grasshopper is supposed to do something on the hour, like light up or wave its arm in the air."

To which [...] responded, "It climbs down and bites your leg off. At least that's what happened to her." and he nods towards the wheelchair.

Later I wheeled into a tree, although I was pretty knackered by that point and it was a tree coming out of the floor in a shopping centre. And I lost our parking ticket. And my computer died. But today I am too busy rearranging Linkin Park songs for ukelele to care!

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Goldfish Guide to Domestic Bookeeping

There are a lot of investment bankers and other pinstriped types who are suddenly finding themselves with a lot of time on their hands, and they shall undoubtedly turn to blogs like mine for tips on how to cope with their changed circumstances.

Right now, I feel ever so slightly smug about AJ's and my ability to manage money. Clearly some very clever and important people aren't nearly as good at this as we are. We have been very fortunate in some respects, but we have also worked hard such that we have never owed money and we have always had a small float to cope with unforeseen circumstances.

This post was going to be The Goldfish Guide to Living Within Your Means, but actually the most important thing that we do is proper bookeeping. And since this takes a bit of instruction and if you're not interested then it's going to be unreadably dull, I thought I would give it its own post.

Knowledge is power, and the most important step towards living within one's means is to know exactly how much money you have, how much is coming in, and how much you are spending. I am absolutely amazed that other people don't seem to do this, even when they are worried about money. What's the point in worrying when all the information is available to you, should you be bothered to put it together? Now we've all got computers, you don't even need to do the adding up.

Here is the way I do it, although there are other ways:

I have two spreadsheets; our Budget, our Accounts.

The Budget one involves four columns and two sections. The first column is the name of the item, then weekly amount, monthly amount and yearly amount. The first section is Income, which involves four different items because of our various benefits. The second contains all our Fixed Outgoings (rent or mortgage, utility bills, insurance, Council Tax, annual MOT etc.).

Different items come in or go out at varying frequencies, For example, rent is every month, contents insurance is once a year. To fill the three relevant columns, I enter the known figure and use the following formulae;

weekly sum = monthly x 12 / 52 or yearly / 52
monthly sum = weekly x 52 / 12 or yearly / 52
yearly sum = week x 52 or monthly x 12

At the bottom of each section, I find the total for each collumn and then at the bottom of the spreadsheet I find the differences between these totals. So I know how much money I have left over after my bills are paid each week, each month and each year. I thus know exactly how much I can afford to spend on food, clothes and sundry expenses without going into the read.

These are absolutely crucial figures. For example, if you know you have roughly £50 a week to spend, then you could be overspending if the real figure is £48 and worrying unnecessary if the real figure is £52.

Another very useful feature of having the Budget is to save up for the annual expenses. We pay contents and car insurance in two annual chunks, plus our heating is oil-fired and it is much cheaper to pay for the oil outright when the tank is filled (much cheaper being relative considering how dear the oil is). If the money is tight, one is unlikely to be able to accumulate enough of a float to cope with these.

So instead, I add up these one-off annual items and divide by twelve. I then have a standing order such that this amount goes out of our account each month and into another account (banking on-line this is a doddle to manage). This way, we are paying for everything on a monthly basis.

The other spreadsheet represents my Accounts. I have two accounts because we use a credit card which we pay off every month in full (we get dividend). The sheets for these are the same as one another.

Five columns; Date, Item, In, Out and Running Total. We used to have a column for cheque numbers but we only write cheques once in a blue moon now. You start your Running Total column with the balance at the end of your last bank statement. Then, assuming that you've started at the top left hand corner of the sheet, you put =D1+B2-C2 into D2. If that makes sense. You then drag it down the column.

You then put in everything you know is going to happen for the month, so all your fixed income and all you direct debits and so on, complete with the dates – it is vital to keep all the data in chronological order so that you know how much you'll have throughout the month (if things get messy, you should be able to sort the data by date (ascending) using the spreadsheet program).

Then you add everything else you spend as you spend it. This is a bit of a chore, but it is necessary if you have any concerns about going into the red. When the next bank statement arrives, the new balance should be exactly where you thought it would be. And at any given point in the month, you know exactly what you've got to spend.

This way you learn the pattern of the month, you know when your balance peaks and when it gets ropey. It's also a failsafe against fraud. This may sound melodramatic, but it does happen and if a penny goes out when it shouldn't, you know straight away.*

However, the most important thing is that you know where the money is going. It is very easy to loose track on spending – I'm not talking about excess, but buying a few bits and pieces at one end of the month and then wondering where your money went by the time you get to the other.

* Oddly enough, supermarkets frequently over or under charge us by a penny or two. Not that I'm so petty as to complain about it.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

A happy ending

So I spoke to my folks towards the end of yesterday and managed to worry them. It is rather odd to have one leg so much worse than the other, and to have this level of pain on my current pain pills. My folks thought I might have a clot - and they weren't just being mean about AJ. I thought this unlikely in the extreme and I'm sure it was only in their minds because my sister's father-in-law had exactly that last weekend. Nevertheless, I was coerced into phoning the doctor out of hours.

The doctor diagnosed sciatica, which meant that I had a nerve trapped in my back and happened to be feeling it in my leg. This made me feel better straight away, because it could have been so much worse - pain in leg is much nicer than pain in back. Hooray for my arrangement of nerves! Plus it wasn't going to get any worse and knowledge almost always has a positive effect on pain.

But then this morning it is much much better and amputation has lost all appeal. I have decided to put this down to love-making, as it is the only notable event between then and now. There are other explanations, of course. I did eat a small amount of chocolate, which may have helped. I tend to think that sex and/ or chocolate can account for most positive health outcomes. Medical science can play a supportive role, but only that.

The doctor did suggest that the trapped nerve might have something to do with my barely-functioning bowels and there might have been some change there, but that's just not nice to think about.

Anyway, having had such a moan yesterday, we are still pretty worn out and still worried about AJ, but I am much more comfortable myself.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Oh life.

It has been a kind of crappy week here. It has not been terrible, at one point we struck upon a genius idea, which I can't possibly publish here in case someone nicks it and makes a small fortune (it's not that profitable an idea, but it still a very good one).

However, AJ has been ill. He has chronic digestive problems which were so under control as to be unnoticeable for years and years, but have become increasingly worse over the last ten months. This last week he's been in great pain and vomiting all night on three thankfully non-consecutive occasions. He has more effective medication now, but he has to it investigated. Which starts with an endoscopy. Which is gruesome.

So that's completely wrecked our sleep as well as being most unpleasant. AJ's problem is very unlikely to be anything too sinister, although I'd be lying if I said that all the morbid possibilities hadn't occurred to me. And it is going to be a rather stressful; I think I may be more upset at the thought of someone putting a tube down his throat than he is.

Meanwhile, my pain has edged up whilst I've been moving about more, trying to look after AJ. This is really depressing on the tablets I'm taking, which made me feel invincible over the summer (I acquired both sunburn and nettle-rash and didn't feel more than a tingle). One leg is so bad just now that if it hasn't improved by the afternoon I will cut it off with a bread-knife*. I know it would hurt so much less.

However, all this does read somewhat grimmer than it really is. We remain in good spirits, if rather fragile and weary. And now we're both going back to bed.

* I probably won't though; I don't think I have the strength.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Shivering and blog-pruning

I am under the weather just now and extremely cold, given that it isn't yet cold enough to have the heating on. I am wearing my woolly hat indoors.

I've been thinking about pruning my archives. I know some bloggers regularly delete old posts which weren't particularly interesting or even delete everything before the last six months, but I never have. At one point I deleted one or two posts which were less discrete than I would like to be – things I wrote before I figured out that people might actually read this. You didn't miss much, I promise.

However, I have always felt it might be a little... inauthentic to delete stuff that I actually blogged. Like keeping a diary and cutting out certain events. Almost rewriting history. Not that this is that kind of diary, not really.

And now,I have got over seven hundred posts up here and I am beginning to feel some sense of responsibility for clogging up the internet. No, I know, I'm not, but there are lots and lots of posts in which I don't really say anything. And I don't blog in the way I used to and I suppose I am a little embarrassed about some of those little nothingnesses. I'm only talking about taking out the total crud, not deleting a whole year's worth or anything like that.

So what do you think? Given that I might go ahead anyway, I'd still be interested in your thoughts.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Morality without God

John Locke was a very clever man who made an excellent and influential argument for religious toleration in the middle of the seventeenth century. This followed a over century of violence in Europe between the old and new denominations of Christianity and a much longer period of resentment and ill treatment of European Jews and Muslims. Locke said that you can't and shouldn't try to make people believe something they don't, because true faith is something an individual must come to by themselves; if they convert to the “right” religion under torture or because they were persecuted, then it doesn't count. What's more, it is sinful to torture or persecute one another so you'll have buggered things up for your own immortal soul in the process.

But despite all this, he didn't trust non-believers. If you didn't believe in God at all, he said, then there was no disincentive (i.e. the threat of eternal damnation) to stop you being naughty.

And this view persists among some people of faith; a different kind of faith is okay, but no faith at all is not. Religious ethics are privileged, in the law, in education and the media above non-religious ethical frameworks such as Humanism. And the really sad thing is when atheists buy into this, and conclude that there are no absolutes and everything is relative. So...

We know that morality exists without the Abrahamic God. We have had many great civilisations who, whilst believing in supernatural entities, did not have anything like the benevolent Father who wants everyone to behave themselves. You might negotiate with the gods, spirits, ancestors or whatever, make sacrifices and give thanks, but there was no one divine law to which everyone had to adhere. What there always has been is a set of social rules to which everyone has to adhere. It is only for certain periods in our history where they have been completely inextricable from religious doctrine.

Of course, not all cultures are equal, but there is no evil unique to societies without God. Nor do monotheistic cultures have the monopoly on freedom, compassion, social cohesion or anything else we might value. So where does goodness come from?

Nephew Alexander has a dreadful book he asked me to read to him, full of religious poems (there's nothing wrong with religious poems, but these were all dreadful). I had to read a poem where a child misbehaves in all sorts of ways. Among other offenses, the child thumps his sister. But in the end he stoped because his mother explains that this is not the way that God wants the child to behave. The poem doesn't explain that misbehaviour harms other people, but merely God.

Now clearly, that's not where morality comes from. Christians don't refrain from assaulting one another simply because they're frightened of the wrath of God. A good Christian refrains from assaulting other people because other people are valuable; their feelings matter. Also, justice matters and violence is unjust. A Christian may add that God loves and feels for all people and justice is God's will, but that merely supports the decision they have already made not to thump a person. I hope.

I don't think you can describe a two year-old as a Christian, but Alexander is most certainly a moral person. His interactive play is very much concerned with working this stuff out. One of his earliest games involved giving and taking. It doesn't really matter what the object is, but he wants to give it to you and take it from you and give it back and so on. Sometimes he offers a thing, but doesn't give it. Sometimes he snatches a thing away. He is very interested in objects that are forbidden; he might attempt a swap or get upset if you won't hand over the thing he wants.

And he exhibits kindness and appreciation for others. He feeds his friend and teddies, he shares thing out. He gives hugs and kisses and says Peas when he wants something – something we've interpreted as please (although quite possibly, he just likes peas). Not yet two years old, Alexander already has a rudimentary grasp of that fundamental rule of all human morality, the Golden Rule, do as you would be done by. *

A small child is in an extreme version of the position we all share; he is dependent on other people. If he was to mess up in a big way, and everyone walked away from him, he could not survive. So his interest in co-operation is as deep-rooted as his fear of loud noises and his pleasure in sweet food. He cannot afford to be neglected or abandoned.

This is not to suggest that we are all born good. Small children must manipulate those around them to meet their needs, whatever that takes. Alexander is learning by example, experience and experiment. He is very fortunate to be finding that kindness is met with kindness, but he has to keep testing. He pushes at the boundaries, he tests patience. He has to find out what's possible. Other children learn other strategies, some not nearly so nice.

We are excellent adaptive organisms in this respect; our instincts are at once selfish and altruistic. There isn't always even a clear dichotomy between altruistic and selfish motives – nor should these be necessarily be associated with good and bad. Someone once pointed out that true altruism, in evolutionary terms, might be to go round pricking holes in condoms, thus facilitating other people to pass on their genes far more often than they would otherwise. But passing on one's genes is not the goal of the individual. It is merely side effect of other instincts we have (sexual desire and the love of children); it doesn't actually make people happy just to be a biological parent.

Christian doctrine acknowledge this, although tends towards the view that all actions motivated by instinct are bad and sinful and good things can only come from spirituality (a rather scathing attack on the designer). In any case, both heathens and theists can at least agree that we are somewhat conflicted.

Morality is the answer to this conflict. I 'm not sure whether to steal your pretty stone; on the one hand I want it, on the other hand I don't want you to lose it. A moral code informs me that it is better not to steal so I refrain. And where does that moral code come from? Well, it's logical. The potential consequences of an action outweigh the potential gain.

Like maths, moral philosophy is partly instinctive; most of us would be naturally able to tell that a group of seven pebbles is greater than a group of six pebbles, but we get a lot further quicker when we are taught how to count and do arithmetic. At this point in history, we inherit a lot of knowledge about both maths and moral philosophy, but none of it is useful if we swallow it raw. We need to be able to understand and to argue for the the things we hold to be true.

If I assert that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two lengths in a right-angled triangle (breath), I don't need to claim this is true because Pythagorus said so and Pythagorus was magic; I can show you that it is the case (here, see). Similarly, if I assert that we should not murder one another, I don't need to justify this because it was written in the Bible and the Bible is magic. The validity of a moral argument lies in reason, not revelation.

And yet morality as arrived to by reason is by no means inconsistent with religious belief. The vast majority of moral philosophers in our history have had religious faith of some variety. God would be logical too, right? However, belief in God is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for knowing the difference between right and wrong.

A white duck
Congratulations to anyone who read this far on a weekday. Here is a picture of a duck as a reward.

*In her The Bible: The Biography, Karen Armstrong writes about a Pharisaic sage called Hillel,
It was said that one day a pagan had approached Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if he could summarize the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Standing on one leg, Hillel replied: 'What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is commentary. [...]'

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Reporting of mental health stories "horrifying"

Not a revelation, I guess.

There were two important mental health stories on the BBC News website last week. One was a report from the Healthcare Commission on the treatment of people with mental illness, much of which was rather damning. Another was about how people with mental ill health were being routinely detained in police cells instead of being taken to hospital for assessment. But the only one that made a big headline – the lead story one morning – was a story entitled Mental care escapes 'horrifying'

Using the Freedom of Information Act, the Today programme had uncovered that 94 people had escaped from medium and low secure psychiatric hospitals during 2007. The word horrifying comes from Sir David Ramsbottom, former chief inspector of prisons. Not sure quite why he was asked about this subject, but he said;
"It is a horrifying figure of course, but not one that surprises me because the medium and low secure units in the NHS do not have same degree of security a prison does."
No, that's quite right. That's because secure psychiatric units do not serve the same purpose as a prison.

Your psycho-killers of myth and legend, your serious criminals with mental health problems end up in high security hospitals, such as Broadmoor or Carstairs. Of course, criminality is not the only reason why someone is detained in such circumstances, but those are the places for people who are considered highly dangerous. I don't know how many people escaped from high secure psychiatric units in 2007. Probably none at all.

The vast majority of people who wind up in secure units do so for their own protection. The purpose is not incarceration so much as constant supervision. Prison, on the other hand, is primarily about punishment. People in prison have broken the social contract and have forfeited their liberty. Most people detained because of their mental health haven't committed any crime. They need protecting. The general public do not need protecting from them.

Sometimes this goes wrong. Last year, a young man with autism escaped from hospital and went on to rape a young girl. This is a terrible story, a terrible crime. However, most people who commit rape are considered mentally healthy and neurotypical; just because a crime is committed by a person with mental illness, autism or an intellectual impairment, that doesn't mean that other people should have seen it coming a mile off. I mean, they maybe should have done for all I know, but this tragic case is not evidence that thousands of people need locking up.

And so, a few days later when there are concerns about people with mental illness being put in police cells rather than being taken to hospital, we wonder why police officers feel that it is appropriate to treat innocent and highly vulnerable people like criminals. Cause and effect, anyone? And how many people were subject to this horrifying experience in a year, compared to the 94 that got away? 11,500.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Picture This

A painting of my sister and brother-in-law

Alexander correctly identified the subject of the latest addition to the Family Portrait Gallery (my Mum's upstairs corridor) as his Mummy and Daddy. That having been said, he has recently pointed to a picture of Sean Bean and declared it to be his Daddy. Rosie, however, responded with a complaint that I had given her grey hairs. It's supposed to be light.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Not the end of the world

This is one of those times in life where a lot is going on, and life seems to be moving in a very positive direction. Yet instead of feeling great about this, I find myself anxious. It's coming and going, I'm not consumed with worry, but that it is coming at all is a source of great irritation.

The subject is pretty much unbloggable at this stage. But as with anything worth bothering with there are lots of uncertainties. Worse case scenarios are scary, but very unlikely. Up from the bottom, there are scenarios which could be very stressful, but remain unlikely. However, this is a risk we've decided to take because if all works out (most likely scenario), it should be very good. Obfuscation is making this sound terribly exciting – it's really not, at least not for anyone else.

I hate worrying. I hate that about myself. For I am, alas, one of nature's worriers and in recent years I've worked very hard at suppressing this tendency. All the nonsense I used to worry about still occurs to me, but I have learnt to close that book and move on. To some extent.

The thing I hate most about worrying is the possibility of wasting time. My maternal grandmother is in her eighties now, but has wasted an enormous proportion of her life to upset and worry. Probably the greatest and most ironic source of her anxiety is illness and death. Even now, when one might have thought she had triumphed over those two spectres as much as a person might hope to, she worries terribly about diseases she might acquire, about vague symptoms which she fears may indicate something sinister.

I wouldn't suggest that older people should not worry about their health, but one imagines that age brings significant perspective; at eighty-something, you're lucky to be around at all and you're even luckier if you're mobile and independent. George Bernard Shaw got to ninety-four and died of kidney failure; he damaged his kidney when he fell out of a tree. Now that's the spirit!

It is the greatest waste of time worrying about one's health. If it is worth worrying about, it is worth making a doctor's appointment and waiting to hear what an expert things. If it is going to get worse, then you are wasting the time you have now when things are not too bad. Even if you are going to die soon, then you are wasting the time you have now when you are alive and blissfully ignorant of your impending demise. I mean, it's not as simple as that if you really are going to die, but I mean during the stage when it is merely a persistent cough, a curious lump, a steady loss of blood from the jugular vein or whatever.

The same applies to all Bad Things Which Could Happen. Say the unbloggables go wrong and disaster strikes in a few months time. Well, everything is okay now. And of course, everything may continue to be okay and I will have wasted all this okay time. Because Bad Things are going to happen in life. Jobs are lost, marriages fail, hopes are dashed and people die – often with poor timing. However, these things are relatively rare in the course of life. Hopefully, there are periods of years where none of these things occur to us as individuals.

Often the things we worry about are Super Bad Terrible Things which hardly ever happen to anyone, or perhaps haven't ever happened yet. I don't know whether anyone was actually worried about the end of the world happening yesterday, but people do worry about that stuff, as Jack wrote about earlier in the week. Human beings will not go on forever, but it is unlikely that we will be destroyed by a single whoosh!, or indeed a bang! and almost certainly not a pertwang!. There are far less dramatic and more preventable disasters we should concern ourselves with.

So anyway, although this post is being written largely in an attempt to reason with myself, I shall nevertheless provide my five top tips for coping with a worrisome mind:

1. Accept that despite all the logic, your mind will be troubled by this stuff from time to time. This is natural and can't be resisted – any more than we can stop farting. But much of the time, that's all it is; sometimes there is a problem that needs wrestling with, often it is just an emotional waste product.

2. Worrying a lot about unlikely or fanciful events is usually symptomatic of some other problem. It is important to make a conscious effort to look after oneself, address sources of stress, watch our diet, exercise and sleep.

3. A cliched but nevertheless excellent test - and sometime cure - for worries is to write it down or tell someone about it. Often the mere thought of sharing this thought with someone else forces one to realise how silly it is and thus cure it. If not, putting it down in words or talking it over can often do the trick.

4. Keep a list of the most important things in your life. These may include people, your job and past-times, aspects of yourself and your life which make it worthwhile. Most of the things I worry about have very limited bearing on any of the items on my list. When I consider this fact and concentrate briefly on the many good things I have going for me, I gain a lot of perspective.

5. Schedule a time to worry. This is a trick which I find very useful. If you find yourself anxious a lot, decide that you shall give your worries your full attention at a certain time of day, for at least ten or fifteen minutes. Decide what time that'll be, use the same time every day and stop everything else for that period. Almost always, I find those worries that haven't fizzled out in the mean time can be reasoned with and resolved quite painlessly.