Category Archives: the one who

The problem of Stuff

My problem is not acquiring too many things. My problem is to do with getting rid of the things I already have.  As a result I am surrounded by Stuff which fails William Morris’s test that I either know it to be useful or believe it to be beautiful.  I keep stuff only because I find it too agitating to throw it away.

The one I share my hoard with bought a copy of this book the other day and we read it with separate feelings of awkwardness and unease.

My particular epiphany was that I feel an obligation to dispose of things responsibly.  I cannot blithely throw something away unless it is useless and biodegradable.  I have to reuse, reduce recycle, in every way I can.  

This is inhibiting.  Yesterday in an effort of self-liberation I threw away a perfectly reusable jiffy bag. (I have boxes of the buggers upstairs on a shelf, waiting for the moment I need them).  I don’t mind throwing away the bio-degradeable kraft paper outer, but the bubble-wrap inner makes me feel uneasy. Why can’t jiffy bags be filled with paper waste any more?  Note the tense of that sentence: it makes me feel uneasy now, even though I threw it away yesterday.  Yes, it was worse at the time, but the agitation remains. We should not fill landfill with plastic bubble-wrap.  We certainly should not fill our seas with things that we use once and which then bob around for hundreds of years, killing marine animals for generations to come.

http://blog.etoncorp.com/index.php/2013/04/green-perspective-how-long-trash-really-lasts-infographic/

Although this is not quite a compulsion for me, it’s more than a moral imperative which I can comfortably ignore.  Every time I went to a beach the last time we were on holiday, I ended up filling  bin bags with rubbish.  I am shocked and horrified by the amount of trash blowing in the wind.

But it’s not just about preferring recycling to landfill. It’s avoiding waste in the first place.  My Grandmother could Not Abide Waste. She and my Ma raised me, and both were adults during WWII and both had a pack-rat sense of scarcity. Both kept things “in case they were useful”, like the jiffy bag. And both would be horrified by the idea that two people can fill one wheelie bin in a week.

So the only way I can dispose of something in good working order is by making sure someone else gets to use it.  Freecycle saved my sanity the last time I moved house.   Before Freecycle I had a “jumble sale box”.  (I remember picking over it once to make sure any erotica I was giving to the Village Hall did not have my name in it. Small village, small world). I take things to Charity Shops, give them to friends, give them to volunteer groups and charities.  Plastic toys upset me hugely; why can’t they still be made of wood? I’ve had three bags of  toys in my shed for four months waiting for me to take them to a charity which cleans them and gives them to impoverished children.

I do feel a sense of relief having read the book. I stand by my logic (we should be far more careful with plastics, we shouldn’t waste landfill on things that still work), but I now know my agitation is unusual.  It’s helped me throw things away rather than keep them, like the jiffy bag, and it is energising my attempt to find new owners for the things that are too good to bin.

The next thing is to strengthen my resolve to get rid of family things and things I’ve been given.  Not sapphires.  I am keeping those.

You are what you read – II

“What books have changed how you think about things?” I’ve mentioned already that the one who asks me these sorts of questions asked me this particular one the other day.  These are the books that have changed my opinions over the years.  Here, in date order, is a selection of the books that influenced my opinions and changed my mind.

A book I cannot now find about Washoe – the chimp who could talk. The book recounted animal experiments done in the 1970s when some young chimps were taught American Sign Language.  The Wikipedia article includes a number of skeptical challenges to the interpretation that the chimps had mastered language.  But what ever way you chop the logic, this book led me to believe that animals and humans are not qualitatively different – we just appear to be brighter than they are.  At first I concluded that all creatures are equally spiritual, now I conclude that we are all equally animal.

Games People Play – Eric Berne – this turns up here in the “what” list because it demonstrates so clearly that most of the time we aren’t driving our own bus, we merely think that we are.  Call it confirmation bias, but I’ve rarely come across anything that’s challenged my opinion on this since it was first formed by this book and its rather peculiar sequel What do you say after you say ‘Hello’?:  I honestly believe we are 99.8% unconscious chimpy-instinct and only 0.2% conscious human intelligence.

The Heartland – Stuart Legg – Almost impossible to find these days, Legg documents the heartbeat of Asia pumping people out from the central grasslands century after century into China, Russia, India, the Baltics and Europe.  It inverted my historical map of the world.  It is a book which should have done much better and which certainly deserves re-reading now that China and Russia have opened up.

Green Pharmacy – Barbara Griggs – This is a history of herbal medicine and a scathing indictment of modern medicine which set me firmly on the path of mistrusting medics and following in my grandmother’s alternative footsteps.   However, I am now won over by the fact that evidence-based medicine is based on evidence and so I plan to re-read this to see what I make of it 20 years on.

Why me, why this, why now – Robin Norwood – this book is immensely comforting if you are willing to accept its basic premise, that reincarnation is the mechanism by which unfairness is balanced out across lifetimes, in other words, that shit happens because it’s meaningful shit.  It’s articulate, sane, solidly argued, tough-minded and encouraging.  Unfortunately I now think it’s all lies.  Oh well.

The Healing Power of Illness – Thorwald Dethlefsen and Rudiger Dahlke – This multilayered book argues that the illnesses we get are expressions of who and what we are.  It’s a bizarre book with interesting things to say about the dangers of polarised thinking but it goes sliding off into discussions of reincarnation and karma.  I gave it to my homoeopath, my osteopath, my cranial-sacral therapist, my NLP practioner, my pet medical student, all of them.  However, it’s worth noting that scientifically- trained medics are also exploring the idea of illnesses which benefit the patient.  So call it co-incidence, but it may be right about the effect if not the cause.

An assortment of Discworld books by Terry Pratchett – It is rather embarrassing to admit this, but Pratchett has articulated a lot of what I think and feel about belief, about cause and effect, about duty, responsibility and the balance between “personal” and “important”, and even about the casually murderous nature of cats.  I’ll spare you the specifics though.

The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins – this should be essential reading.  This is Dawkins on his own subject and it’s fascinating.  His argument comes down to the idea that a chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg.  This is a bit of a mind-fuck which is what makes the book so challenging.  He explains why evolution works like this, and a lot else besides.  Dawkins may be a scientist, but he can certainly write.  This helped me form my view of the world and our entirely incidental place within it and it was probably the pivotal point on my journey away from flakiness.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors – Carl Sagan
Billions and Billions – Carl Sagan
The Demon-haunted World – Carl Sagan
In fact – everything I have ever read by Carl Sagan. Sagan leads us through a wide variety of subjects with simplicity, honesty and lucid clarity.  Forgotten Ancestors is almost impossible to get hold of, but it explains why it is inevitable that mankind should pick stupid vicious and pointless fights, and why it has been inevitable since the first piece of RNA replicated itself.  Billions and Billions comprises essays on a wide range of subjects including the simplest clarification of the abortion debate I have ever read.  The Demon-haunted World looks at contemporary superstitions and compares them with those of our ancestors.  We don’t come out of it well.  They are all, however, optimistic and inspiring books.  If I could, just once, form a thought as clear and apparently simple as any of the thoughts in any of these books I would sell tickets.   These have taught me to value clear, simple, logical, evidence-based thinking.  I unhesitatingly recommend any piece of non-fiction Sagan has ever written.

Snake Oil – John Diamond – this one put the nail in the coffin of my preference for alternative medicine.  Diamond’s insistence that medicine should be evidence-based is hard to argue with.  He acknowledges the sincerity of many alternative practitioners but his rage with their follies as he was dying of cancer flames through the book.  Oddly, I now think alternative practitioners provide a real service by curing psychosomatic illnesses with placebos (I was that nutter, I took an imaginary treatment for an imaginary illness and suddenly the crippling pains I really felt really went away) but that’s another thing altogether.  I strongly recommend this book.

Reincarnation: a critical examination – Paul EdwardsThis was recommended to me by anticant, and it finally put paid to any ideas I had that we live in a spiritual world.  I’m still working through the implications of this one.   Life actually is a bitch, and then you do die.  Bummer.

So there you are, a journey from a world-view which assumed that we are just the material aspect of a spiritual universe quite possibly perfumed with scented-candles and flower-essences, to a world-view which accepts, however unwillingly, that we are no more than the culmination of four billion years’ of evolution, and bloody impressive it is too.  I’m embarrassed by the gaps – very little history, no politics, no actual science, just a reluctant journey towards empiricism.

You are what you read – I

“What books have changed how you think?”  The one who asks me this sort of question asked me this the other day.

I don’t know if it’s a meme or not, but if it isn’t out there it damn well should be, so I’m asking Anticant, Charlotte, Hairy Farmer Family, Teuchter, Reed, SoRB, Sol, the Singing Librarian, whether they would like to consider this one, and share with us the books that have changed how and what they think.  It’s an arduous process and an impertinent request, and I know that each of you are busy or pressured at the moment, so please ignore it if it’s not appropriate.  And of course, anyone else who feels like it is more than welcome too.

Anyway, I asked him if he meant how (as in processes) or what (as in content) and he said “both really”.  But the whole list is too long to bore you with in one session, so I’m splitting it in to two.   I’ve listed the books in the order I read them.

Books that have changed how I think

Games People Play – Eric Berne – the whats, whys and hows of how we get stuck with the same old patterns of behaviour with strangers and with our nearest and dearest.   My Ma read this when I was in my teens and promptly started playing more games rather then fewer.  However after thirty or so years of trying, I am now reasonably good at not playing games, though not perfect by any means.  This definitely changed my thinking processes, and it is a book I would recommend anyone to read today.

The Earthsea Trilogy – Ursula le Guin – I’m putting this in the “how” list rather than the “what” list because even though they are fantasies, these books helped me accept that reality isn’t cosy and reduced the amount of denial and surprise I go through.  I still get shocked, but I’m less frequently surprised.  Their impact has lingered and deepened over the years; Le Guin is one of the least self-indulgent writers I have ever read, and I guess these books introduced me to Kantian ideas about about responsibility, obligation and duty, you do what you do because that’s what you should do.  I’m not really a Kantean at all but I try to out-stare reality even if it’s always me who blinks first and looks away.

Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit – Adelle Davis – Davies points out that the devil is in the detail, when she calls one of her chapters “Which apricot, grown where?” in reference to the statement “apricots are a good source of Vitamin A”.  The book itself is a collection of rather dated nutritional advice that I’d hesitate to recommend.  However those four words kicked off a professional lifetime of listening out for what’s not said and poking around for data that isn’t there.  It’s a phrase that definitely honed my thinking tools.

How to Master the Art of Selling – Tom Hopkins – The simplest and most accessible introduction to questions that I’ve come across, whether you want to influence people or discover things.

The Phoenix Seminar – Brian Tracey – a set of tapes and not a book, but this self-help course has given me the tools I use when I have to pick myself up, dust myself down, and start all over again.  I still occasionally listen to these tapes even if I’m more sceptical about some of his approaches than I was at the time.  There is a lot of sense here, and some powerful techniques.

NLP for Lazy Learning – Diana Beaver – I’ve undertaken various forms of NLP training and this was the book that introduced me to NLP in the first place.  I feel very conflicted about NLP: it is cultish, anecdotal and subjective and everything I dislike with my critical thinking head on.  But on the other hand NLP techniques have helped me learn presentation and public speaking, given me a whole bunch of linguistic tools, and taught me a lot of techniques I use at work in problem-solving and analysis.   Diana Beaver is as clear-eyed and un-cultish as you would ever want, and this is a grounded and sane introduction to NLP.   It’s wholesome and healthy even if it might become a gateway drug.

The British Medical Journal – Yeah, I know the BMJ’s not a book, you know the BMJ’s not a book, let’s move on from that, shall we?  This is the first scientific journal I’ve read regularly, if intermittently, and it encouraged me in the habit that Ms Davis started of prodding information to see what it was made of and of going to the sources.  It’s also a journal for generalists and is full of really ikky pictures.  The ones of dental abcesses so bad they’d worn right through the cheek were particularly gross.

Eating Less – Gillian Riley – I’ve written this up elsewhere, but this book and Riley’s weekend course have helped me tackle my addictive eating.  This book has changed how I think in a very literal way by tackling thoughts and habits right there where they occur, in the well-worn paths my synapses created in my brain.  I strongly recommend this book if it is relevant to you.

The Tiger that Isn’t – Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot – an accessible introduction to how numbers are misreported by journalists and turned into lies by politicians.   This book has given me tools to help with my habit of prodding statistics to see what gives.  I’m not sure if its influence will last with me, but I certainly recommend it right now.

So we have the book that taught me how to be honest in my dealings with people,  a set of tapes that helped me manage my emotions and the book tthat’s helping me control my addiction to food.   On the thinking side, there are the books that taught me reality’s real, several that turned my insatiable curiousity into a tool, one that started me on a journey which enriched my linguistic and analysis skills, and one that I’m using to hone my numeracy.

You?

The starting gun

One summer’s evening ten years ago I sat on the sofa while my guts moved nine foot to the left.  This placed them about a yard outside the house I was sitting in, which is a tricky sensation if you are trying to have a rational conversation.  But when your partner of 15 years says he wants a divorce, it does that sort of thing to you.

It was, not surprisingly, the start of an entirely new phase of my life.  It took us a long time to shift from where we were then to where each of us is now; it took us a good two or three years just to sort out the legals.  It would have been much quicker if we’d divorced in bitterness and acrimony. (Doesn’t acrimony sound like a wind-swept purple wild flower or a homoeopathic remedy for – well – acrimony perhaps).  But we were remarkably leisurely about the whole thing.  It’s irrelevant now if that was because of laziness or denial.

Suddenly I realise that something which has always felt very recent was in fact a long time ago.  For ages the late 1990s has been just before now, and suddenly it’s a decade behind me.

1999 – I am with a group of colleagues in the centre of Glasgow – a place I had run to out of dire economic necessity and where I was finding my feet in my brand new single life – and someone hands out a card advertising a nightclub.  I realise that the only words on the card I have any cultural references for are ‘the’, ‘of’, ‘to’ and ‘and’ and the dates.  I guess I’m not in my 20s any more.

2000 – I cross a road in Hamburg from a business hotel to the offices of the multinational company where I have a shiny new contract.   What happens if it all goes horribly wrong?  What makes me think I have anything to offer this giant company in this foreign country who are paying top dollar for my unexpectedly rare skills?

2001 – I walk back to the friend’s house where I’m staying in Sweden through sunlit suburban woods and find myself thinking fondly of the way my lover talks almost entirely about himself when we go out for a meal.  In a moment of self-awareness I realise that I’m falling in love.  I stop myself almost physically, by reminding myself that – no – his self-obsession isn’t endearing; it’s actually rather discourteous.  And a good thing too, since our affair has run its course and he leaves a few days later.

2002 – I unpack my suitcase one Sunday night in the business hotel where I have been staying for three months; I’ve been to Sweden for a wedding.  As I unpack, I find myself thinking “It’s nice to be home”.  Then I realise that, no, the Holiday Inn in Leopoldstraße in Munich is not my home.

2003 – I pick up a car from the airport just outside Stockholm, and drive it carefully north through Uppsala. “How’s the driving?” – “Fine; I could go right the way up to the Circle” – “You mean that, don’t you!” I think about it for a moment and realise that yes I do.  So we drive through hundreds of miles of austere Swedish woodlands right the way up to the Arctic circle, and photograph each other wearing sunglasses at midnight when we get there.

2004 – My life becomes briefly like a French art-house movie as I spend afternoons in a hotel with a married man whose name I never know and I become a way for middle-aged men to experiment with infidelity in the same way that they’d experimented with drugs in the 1970s, and I spend one unexpected night in bed with a bisexual woman and a transsexual man.

2005 – I accept a job with a Great Big Company in the spring and in the autumn I buy a small and awkward house on the edge of nowhere with a fabulous view.

2006 – I sit among fellow-members of the WI while a moan of appreciation emerges unanimously from 20 different female throats as we watch a cookery demonstrator fold melted chocolate into whipped cream.  It is exactly like the scene in Catch 22 when the Colonel’s secretary crosses her legs and the entire gathering of enlisted men groan.

2007 – I rage, endlessly, futilely, week after week as the government destroys an entire generation of junior doctors.  My energies are almost entirely taken up with this.

2008 – I take stock, and realise I’m surprised to that find ten years have got behind me, that I’m older and – as Pink Floyd remind me – shorter of breath and closer to death.  But I sure as hell heard that starting gun.  And I sure as hell have had an interesting time since.

 

Two weddings and a car park

The GherkinHow bad is it to not turn up at a wedding because you can’t find anywhere to park?

It’s bad isn’t it?

Mmmm.

I tried though.  I looked up the venue online and checked where local car parks were on Google Maps, left at 7:30am to get there, drove around the area for an hour and a half, and Everything.

Let me excuse myself by saying that my friends were getting married in a church in the City of London.  For those who have no reason to know, the City of London is not in fact the great metropolis.  Ho no.  The City is ‘the square mile’ of the original Roman frontier town.  2000 years later it is the financial district.   During the week, like the Tory Party, it is full of bankers, spankers and wankers, but at the weekends it is shut.

My friends were to be married in a church in the City at noon and then a bus would take us all to the reception somewhere outside the M25, with buses back in the evening. My plan was to find a car park as near as the drop off point for the returning bus as I could.  Easier said than done my my chickidees.  Easier said than done.  Not only are the sandwich shops and food stores all closed on a Saturday, so are the car parks.  I got up at 7:00, set off at 7:30, and arrived in the City at about 10:15am. Plenty of time to find one of the half dozen car parks marked on my map, park up and walk to the church for a service that starts at noon.

You’d think.

There doesn’t appear to be a road in EC1 which is not bounded on one or both sides by orange barriers surrounding piles of dug up pavement.  I know.  I drove down all of them.  Twice.  Three times in some cases. Not to mention a couple in Whitchapel and Bethnal Green.

Up and down the City Road
Twice past the Gherkin
Fuck knows where the car parks are
Pop goes the wedding

By 11:30 I realised that even if I found a car park, I would still struggle to find the church, so I phoned the one who wasn’t with me and arranged to meet up with him.  At 11:50 I discovered that the car park in the Minories is open on a Saturday, but on the other hand the Minories is a good 20 minutes walk to the church and I didn’t have a map which showed both, so I could have spent another 40 minutes trawling around on foot.

It was a baking hot day.

I was wearing velvet.

I know when I’m beat.

Fortunately the one I’d just phoned was at wedding in Birmigham that very afternoon. So I gatecrashed that one instead.

The Privilege meme

I picked this up from the Singing Librarian, and decided that it was an interesting quiz to do.

It was devised by PhD students at Indiana State University – Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, and Stacy Ploskonka. If you participate, they ask that you please acknowledge their copyright.

My parents were what’s now termed asset rich and cash poor. We lived surprisingly frugally in a great big house so we looked flash on little cash, and it’s left me slightly uneasy about privilege ever since. That, and the combination of being raised by women who spoke like Celia Johnson while growing up surrounded by the inverted snobbery of the 60s and 70s. I notice that today’s young hackerati are perfectly comfortable describing themselves as “middle class kids”, but I still feel slightly embarrassed and uneasy about it.

1. Father went to college.
2. Father finished college.

Sandhurst counts, presumably.

3. Mother went to college.
4. Mother finished college.

She was told she hadn’t studied hard enough to return for her second year, which left her with no good argument to put for me when I… Oh, never mind.

5. Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.

Well, my sister’s a solicitor and I’m stepping out with a doctor.  Oh, and my father-in-law was a university lecturer. I have to conclude that we’re as professional and middle class as all get out. So, despite the Americanisms, yeah, I guess.

6. Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers.
7. Had more than 50 books in your childhood home.
8. Had more than 500 books in your childhood home.

Had more than 5,000 books in my childhood home, though I doubt it was up to 50,000. As Scout says in To Kill a Mockingbird: “I did not love to read; you do not love to breathe”.

9. Were read children’s books by a parent.

Until I was over 18, graduating from Winnie the Pooh through to Jane Austin.  One of the formative experiences of my life.

10. Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18.

Private lessons I assume – my parents very sweetly paid for piano lessons and riding lessons.  Pigs were more likely to fly than I was ever likely to play the piano, and ponies and pony-girls just intimidated me, so it was a lovely gesture but a complete waste.

11. Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18.

No.  The failure of the piano lessons and riding lessons probably put them off.

12. The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively.

I don’t know what or who “people who dress and talk like me” are, and I never watch tv anyway.  Um. My family could have stepped out of an Agatha Christie in many respects (those Celia Johnson voices) or Morse, or the Midsummer Murders even. Is being a murderer with be-a-u-tifully en-unc-i-at-ed vowels a positive representation or a negative one?  You decide.

13. Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18.

No freaking way.  Credit cards for teenagers?  No. Absolutely not. My parents had more than enough problems preventing their own costs from turning into debts to give us little debt-lets of our own.

14. Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs.
15. Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs.

Local Education Authority Grant.  I didn’t realise at the time how lucky I was.

16. Went to a private high school.

Er.  Yes. It was pants though. A very nice school for the sweet but unintellectual daughters of doctors. Loathed it. Still get flashbacks.

17. Went to summer camp.

Mmm. Opera camp. Just typing it makes me blink in amazement.

18. Had a private tutor before you turned 18.

Nah.

19. Family vacations involved staying at hotels.

Do guest-houses and pubs in English and Scottish seaside towns count as “hotels”?  They do, don’t they.  In fact my parents were pretty frugal with regards to summer holidays, and we tended to lig off family and friends who lived nearer the coast than we did.

20. Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18.

Hah! No. None of it was.  It was either second hand (school uniforms) hand-me downs (I had two big sisters) or home made.

21. Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them.

Surely a 10 year old Fiat 127 doesn’t count?

22. There was original art in your house when you were a child.

But all painted by relatives. Pretty good, some of it, though.

23. You and your family lived in a single-family house.

I’m not sure what this means.  We were a three generation household, grandparents, parents and kids.

24. Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home.

Mmmm.

25. You had your own room as a child.

Mmmm.

26. You had a phone in your room before you turned 18.
27. Participated in a SAT/ACT prep course

28. Had your own TV in your room in high school.

I can remember being shocked by people who had TVs in their rooms at uni.

29. Owned a mutual fund or IRA in high school or college.

30. Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16.

I’d never even been abroad before I was 16. In fact the first time I went to Europe I was 28 or so and married.

31. Went on a cruise with your family.
32. Went on more than one cruise with your family.

33. Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up.

Oddly enough, they didn’t, but that was more a matter of their own philistinism than anything else.  I think it was “educational” and so they delegated it to the school to do that. My Ma read a lot of pretty middle-brow stuff, and that was it.

34. You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family.

I remember once, aged 5, being held in front of an open internal door and being told that I could feel the heat coming out of the room (I couldn’t) and that I should learn to shut doors. I also remember having baths by candlelight because of a mixture of powercuts and fuel prices.  I remember frost on the inside of the windows, though that was only one winter. I do remember lying in bed for an hour because it was too cold for me to want to get up. I may not have known how much the bills were, but I was very aware that fuel costs money, and still am.  I cannot leave a light on in an empty room to this day.

So 16 yeses out of 34.  I was raised and educated with middle class values but my parents were surprisingly uncultured: lots of books, but no trips to the theatre, art galleries, museums or concerts.  Privately educated, but definitely on the cheap.   There wasn’t, as I said, a lot of spare cash to go round.  However, I am irredeemably middle class. I’m nervous around plumbers and comfortable with lawyers, and I guess that proves it completely.

Oh well.

Flash Parks

Some time ago there was a fashion, or a flashion perhaps, for flash mobbing.  Wikipedia’s current definition says: “A  is a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual action for a brief period of time, then quickly disperse.”

The other day I took a trip from Settle to Carlisle, and when we got there, we found what I can only describe as a flash municipal park.

Carlisle Flash Park 02

The plants were orderly and very very plentiful and

Flash Park 01

so healthy and cheap that the one I was with had to remind me just how difficult it would be to wrestle them on and off the train.  Otherwise I’d have flashed my cash and bought half the pavement.