Tuesday 4 November 2014

The Legend...

Me being daft
Once upon a time, not really that long ago, The Legend began. 

Lots of things happened. 

Then he met me.

In a moment of near insanity, my then partner and I thought  that it would be a REALLY good idea to buy a newsagents in Lowestoft just as the recession was getting into its stride. So we uprooted our lives in Guildford and journeyed East, 3 weeks before Christmas 2009. The trials and tribulations of our experiences could fill many a blog but, I think it’s fair to say, life would have been much tougher, and certainly a lot less fun, without The Legend’s help and humour.

He first came to our attention during the school holidays when he helped Monkey unload after a trip to the cash and carry – a favourite job involving bringing in about 4 billion litres of milk. We offered him a paper round when he turned 13 and he informed us he was 13 already (Ooops!) but couldn’t do a paper round as he left too early to catch the bus to school. So we created a job specifically for him after school (hoovering the shop, doing the newspaper returns for collection the following morning etc.)

At this point we called him Our Little Cherub – boy were we gullible!

Then he started coming with me to cash and carry on a Saturday morning, pushing me in my wheelchair as if we were at Brands Hatch. On one occasion we were heading for the bread at top speed – obviously this was essential in case it sold out (!) – I had complete faith that he would stop in time. And he did. So did the wheelchair. I, however, did not and ended up sitting on the floor. I’d like to say that he rushed to my aid full of concern and remorse. He didn’t. He laughed. A lot. And, in fairness, so did I.

As I said in I couldn’t eat a whole one, I am not naturally maternal. I am still too much of a big kid myself. It doesn’t help that The Legend reminds me A LOT of my school friend, Pieman, so I tend to regress very easily to behaving like a teenager in his company and instances like the aforementioned were not uncommon.

Anyway, The Legend became a regular visitor and it didn’t take us to long to realise that maybe “Cherub” wasn’t quite the right word for him.

Trumpton Fire Brigade
So, he battled his way through his early teens in a not uncommon storm of anger, frustration, rashness, bravado and foolhardiness, tempered by his charm, kindness and wit. He got through his GCSEs and headed off to East Norfolk Sixth Form College to study Public and Uniformed Services.

The Legend was studying this particular course with a view to being a firefighter. From my childhood I remember the Trumpton Fire Brigade had two main responsibilities: Putting out fires and rescuing cats that had got stuck in trees. I believe in both respects I aided The Legend’s career path significantly.

Putting out Fires

1.   In one of those moments when I completely forgot I was supposed to be an adult I showed him how to move your finger through a candle flame without burning it and how to get two matches to stick together end to end and then get the flame to burn the whole flimsy structure to a blackened crisp (this is tricky, can waste a lot of matches and burn your fingers but when you get it right it is SO satisfying. Try it.)
The Galvanised Incinerator

2.   When he passed his GCSE maths retake and asked if he could burn his text book in the garden I, of course, said “Yes. Why not?” I understand now that the parental “No” reflex becomes hypersensitive to the words “Can I…?” uttered in a certain tone. At the time, I was not burdened by this knowledge and so the sacrificial cremation took place.

3.   The recent emptying of the garage was combined with the nightly burning of anything vaguely flammable (including the garden waste that actually NEEDED burning) in the newly acquired Galvanised Incinerator.

You could say I fuelled the flame of his fascination with fire into a burning ambition to be a firefighter (but probably best not to, way too many groan-worthy puns.)

Rescuing Cats

When The Legend first starting venturing beyond the shop and into the living space at the back (and above) he was wary of animals. That could have been a problem as at our peak we had 4 rats, 3 cats, a snake and a dog (a bit like a Dr Seuss version of The 12 Days of Christmas.)

Tina 1 week old in the palm
of  The Legend
Not long after The Legend started college, the shop closed, my partner moved away and Beardy Man entered my life. He had recently been made redundant and so it wasn’t many months before the strange dual existence of living partly in Abingdon and partly in Lowestoft began.

So I was spending a lot of my time in Abingdon and The Legend was chief cat carer in my absence. Monster (the kitten formerly known as Poppet which was a misnomer in the same league as Cherub) was about 9 months old and she and The Legend had bonded well, his confidence in dealing with cats growing enormously from knowing her as a kitten. Then she got pregnant (I am a responsible pet owner, honest, we had booked her in to be spayed but cancelled as I ended up in A&E, which is another LONG story.) I arranged to be there when the vet said the kittens were due but Monster hasn’t played by the rules EVER and so she had them 10 days early. The Legend then became chief kitten wrangler in a vaguely Dudley Dursley-esque kind of way which did, at least, ensure that nothing the children did to the kittens was going to phase them at all.

So that’s him trained to join Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grubb. 

Or maybe not. 

Children’s TV didn’t really cover dealing with RTAs, chemical spillages etc. As I am writing this firefighters are risking their lives to get the fire at Didcot Powerstation under control. My main concern for young people studying courses like Public and Uniformed Services is that the reality of a genuine emergency cannot truly be replicated in a learning environment.

In March this year The Legend appeared on both ITV and BBC local news as a result of his part in helping at the scene of an accident that took place in front of the college minibus as it was taking him and his fellow students to do survival training in the Peak District. He helped to get the rear passenger out of a vehicle that was leaking fuel. The man concerned was struggling to get out and was very distressed. Another member of the class performed emergency first aid whilst The Legend talked to him, trying to keep him calm and making sure he knew he wasn’t alone.

The man died at the side of the road.

When the emergency services arrived they congratulated the students on their actions and The Legend and 6 of his fellow students were nominated for the Bernard Matthews Youth Award for Bravery and came second (Bootiful, really bootiful) and he is receiving an award of some sort from Norfolk Fire Service. I have tried and failed to find out more details but have been met with a typical teenage vagueness.

He has done it for real now and, far from being put off, is even more driven to succeed.

His uni course is Fire and Leadership Studies. I’ve covered the firefighter bit and, just to end on a slightly lighter note, I am just as confident in his leadership skills. There were a number of girls who would hang around while he “worked” in the newsagents, one of whom had a younger brother and he had a friend. I would watch with interest and a wry smile as, in the manner of Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence, The Legend would offload his duties onto this posse. Usually with such subtlety that his “victims” didn’t realise they were being delegated to. Sometimes he met with resistance but, after a period of hard negotiation involving sweets, he would eventually succeed in subcontracting his jobs.

The boy will go far. 

He is The Legend.

Sunday 19 October 2014

School's Back for Autumn...

The new academic year has begun for everywhere now. Even the hallowed halls of Oxford have accepted that they need to spend a few weeks teaching their students (what a bother and inconvenience) and week one of Michaelmas Term has just come to an end.

For most school teachers, however, the summer holidays will be a faint memory as they claw their way desperately towards half term and the chance to catch up with themselves.

I love the smell of the new school year, the strange mix of butterflies and excitement it sets off in my stomach. It worried me that this feeling was still so strong until I worked out that of my 45 Septembers/Octobers 27 of them have seen the start of some kind of study – don’t worry, I revel in my geekiness!  

I am a little perturbed, however, that I began to experience those strongly evocative scents in MID-AUGUST.

Aah, memories...
When did August defect from summer and join forces with autumn? 

Did I miss the memo?


How come Scotland had insider info? 

Their autumn term has started in mid-August for yonks. Scotland definitely have it sussed – the children are on holiday during July, when it is often hot, and back to school in August when it is often wet. I hadn’t noticed this fact until, about 10 years ago, a gardener friend of mine pointed out that she lost more days work through rain in August than any other month. Since then I’ve paid more attention and, yes, the weather in August - the month around which our entire tourist season is based – is crap!

I digress. 

This academic year brings with it three things I would like to ramble on about…

My PERFECT Doc Marten's
1. My niece, The Brilliant, has completed her Masters in the History of Science and Medicine (or something like that) at Oxford – hopefully she will carry on to do her PhD and become Doc Martin, DM to her friends. I wanted to be Doc Martin myself once but, being realistic, she’s not only smarter than I am, she’s not as lazy. She also has a lot more stamina. In other words she can burn the candle at both ends with more aplomb than I could ever muster – she’ll pull the all-nighter to meet her essay deadline AND still get a good mark; I would be more likely to negotiate an extension and then procrastinate a bit more. So, as she is a genetically superior version of me, I am happy to yield the title to her youth and brilliance!

2. I am doing a 10 week course in web design through Oxford Uni’s Department of Continuing Education – so I can do clever techie stuff with this blog and make it look incredible…or that’s the theory. Eeeek! Still, at least I can now genuinely say I’ve studied at Oxford. Pretentious? Moi?

3. The Legend has started a course in Fire and Leadership Studies at the University of Central Lancashire. So, like a proud parent (he is, after all, The-Son-I-Never-Had) my next blog post will be all about him. The great thing is I can say anything I like without fear of repercussion – he’s way too busy partying…I mean studying hard…to read my blog!

Mwah ha ha!
Me. On a good day!

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Sciatica sucks. Who knew?

Thank you to Jaime for her fantastic piece about pain, insomnia and the difficulties of having either a hidden diagnosis or no diagnosis at all. Ironically, while she was writing that I was lying in bed languishing with sciatica.

After my last blog I spent the best part of two weeks in Lowestoft where I completed my ice bucket challenge and then, at last, after nearly 5 years, with the help of The-Son-I-Never-Had, the shadowy figure pouring icy water over my head, (hereafter, The Legend) I unpacked my book collection.

It was like being reunited with long lost family.
I would like to digress here to make a small addition to my comments in The Little Things...

Although I am still completely against ratings for books, it would have been SO helpful to have had a little info box a la DVDs indicating levels of violence, bad language and scenes of a sexual nature. Instead I had to read all the blurbs of the piles of unread middle grade and YA books and skim through their contents to establish which would be suitable for the 10-year-old she-cub. Not exactly a hardship but, my goodness, did it eat away the time.

Anyway, according to the chiropractor, scar tissue from the op I had a year ago is meshing itself round my sciatic nerve causing 5000 volts to periodically shoot down my right leg. This only happens when I’m sitting. Not enormously helpful when I use seated transportation to get around most of the time – wheelchair, Rascal, car. It has also made working at the computer a bit like sitting on a time-bomb.

I have, therefore, become very cautious and prefer to remain horizontal as much as possible.

“Aha!” I hear you cry. “So how are you managing to write this blog?”

And that is, indeed, a good question. The answer is I am dictating to a piece of software called Dragon Naturally Speaking. I love the idea that I have a dragon PA taking dictation for me but before we could start I had to teach her to speak Jane which involved reading out loud what felt like the complete works of Roald Dahl. Sadly, Dragon is not a fast learner and a fair bit of editing is required. The following, for example, is so far from what I actually said that, returning to it a week later, I haven’t a clue what I was on about:

This was fine when McCain would should stand my leg last a few seconds and then disappear. However, while Citigroup rented me completely immobile and necessitated recall, including the at work.

Bless my little dragon, if nothing else she makes me laugh!

Chiropractic magic, time and an ability, learnt over a lifetime, to adapt to new physical impediments mean that I am now able to type more easily and do more stuff around the flat – much to Beardy Man’s relief (although he is very good at it, he HATES cooking.) I have found that if I stand up at the first fizzing hint that a zap is on its way, I can head it off.

So now I look like I have Tourette’s Syndrome, as I will suddenly leap to my feet mid-sentence, mid-mouthful… you get the idea. We decided that this was probably incompatible with going to the theatre especially to see a stand-up comedian! It was agreed that Beardy Man, The Brilliant and Sylvester, in various combos, would attend separate shows by Jon Richardson and Alan Davies while I stayed home quite literally getting on my own nerves. Hey ho! 

Sunday 21 September 2014

Chronic Pain, Insomnia and A Persecution Complex Walked into a Bar,,,

As much as my life sometimes feels like someone’s twisted joke, I still haven’t quite figured out what the punch line is yet. Some may think having chronic pain would be the punch line but I think of it more as a set up to a comic story that only the most warped of minds might appreciate.
Although, I can barely remember what it is like without pain, I can live alongside it most of the time. Not to say I don’t grumble and moan about it, I do, quite a bit in fact but usually the things I don’t talk about are the things that bother me the most.
There is nothing more wholesome than a good night’s sleep. It refreshes you and sets you up for a new day and a new approach for tackling life’s obstacles. For a person who suffers with insomnia such a thing is elusive. As I write this I am chuckling to myself because Lord Fester is slumbering peacefully beside me after waking me up at some ungodly hour puking up half-digested cat biscuits outside our bedroom door. Half of me wants to poke him and wake him up, “If I can’t sleep, then you can’t sleep either!” Oh, how I envy that woolly ball of tranquillity, sprawled out in that haphazard way that only deep sleep brings. It makes me hope that in my next life I can come back as a pampered house cat so that I have a good excuse as to why I want to sleep all the time. I have a feeling that this is an unlikely outcome and I will more than likely come back as some sadistic child’s hamster.
When my aches and my pains aren’t keeping me awake (and occasionally the cat) then it is my mind. “Damn you be quiet I’m trying to sleep!”  With that, the overwhelming chattering in my head dulls down to a soft hum as I roll into a more comfortable position. This isn’t comfortable,” the little Gremlins in my head snarl at me. At this point various body parts start clicking and grinding in agreement. 
If you didn’t over do it today it wouldn’t hurt so much, why don’t you do something else to get your mind off the pain? I have a great title for a book, I’m not sure what it’s about yet, maybe it could be about the pain, or possibly about your childhood, you could even write a short story about your dead dog? Hmmm, maybe not, after all, someone will inevitably be offended by what you write, best to keep it to yourself, nobody wants to hear that depressing shit.” 
Only the best and worst of thoughts come to you when you are trying to sleep.  “AHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!”  Now my arm has gone numb, my mouth is dry and I need to pee for the third time since trying to attempt sleep. This usually goes on most of the night, and I find myself having futile conversations with myself that lead me to think that perhaps I am, in fact, crazy and a stint in a loony bin would do me some good. Eventually, I pass out and my bilious thoughts start leaking into my dreams leaving me feeling groggy and irritable when I inevitably pass back through to the land of the living and the relatively sane. Yet, everybody seems to feel the need to say “You should get more sleep.” Sigh.
My better half doesn’t tend to utter “You should get more sleep”, the phrase that turns me into The Hulk’s twin sister with PMS and makes me want to rip people’s heads from their bodies and use them as bouncy balls. He seems to understand that the only thing this phrase is going to change is my mood. However, so many people do feel the need to say it to me. Family, friends, people I meet in the supermarket, taxi drivers, but funnily enough, medical professionals no longer feel the need to offer this “nugget of wisdom” since I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. In fact, once they discover you are not actually a hypochondriac, an attention seeker, a “drama queen” or clinically insane and that the pain is not “in your head”, they start trying to teach you how to manage the insomnia rather than making you feel bad because you aren’t.
I’m sure there are many people who still think my pain is imaginary and worse, actually I know there are and for many, many years I was led to believe the same thing. I still do in my more defeatist hours. The difference these days is that despite feeling dark thoughts about myself and the people who may judge me, I KNOW I’m not imagining these obstacles that have so radically changed my life. They DO exist and nobody else’s opinion can make me doubt myself anymore. In future when somebody utters the abhorrent “You should get more sleep” phrase that makes my hair stand on end or, if someone says to me “You look better today” I will try to remember these are concerns and compliments and not accusations and barbs over the validity of my illness and even if they are, I will smile and politely answer while my alter ego is silently praying for a plague of fleas to infest their nether regions.
There are many set ups to jokes that you can apply to chronic pain, sometimes the joke may start like mine but everybody’s punch line is different, some are so blatant that every uncle across the country has adopted it as ‘the’ joke to tell again and again to their nieces and nephews at the family gatherings and others are so subtle that they didn’t spot the crudity of the joke until someone has to spell it out for them.

Either way, it is not always the joke that is funny but the way that people perceive it that counts.

Friday 29 August 2014

Why the frosty reception for a cool idea? Ice bucket critics challenged

Oh my!! The world has gone ice crazy.

I have been watching videos on facebook of my old school friends, new friends, young people, old people and celebrities tipping icy water over their heads and laughing with glee at their discomfort. I have also donated to MND. I have, therefore, had the pleasure of both schadenfreude and giving – the awesome musical Avenue Q has songs about both of these which can be accessed by clicking on the links.

I have also read with bafflement the proliferation of anti-ice bucket challenge stuff that has been posted and so I feel the need stick my two penn’orth in to the debate.

There seem to be two main arguments against the ALS ice bucket challenge
It is an obscene waste of water

Yes. It is appalling that while we pour bucket loads of the stuff over our heads there are many parts of the world where water is a precious commodity and clean, fresh water almost unheard of. However, we waste water every day in the first world – showering, bathing and flushing toilets, watering gardens, washing cars, doing laundry.

When I was at school we had two dinner ladies (playground supervisors) who could have been the inspiration for Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. These power crazed hags took it in turn to supervise the pig bin and on Mondays (salad days but not in the good way) I would spend my entire lunch hour presenting my plate in a twisted parody of Oliver Twist 

“Please, miss I DON’T want any more”

I would be sent back to the table, where I would hide the pickled beetroot and coleslaw under the lumpy mash in the hope that this would fool Aunt Sponge or Spiker into thinking I’d eaten something else. 

It didn’t.

Inevitably I would be told that there were children in Africa who would be grateful for this food and as I forced down another couple of mouthfuls, trying not to gag, I wished I could stick the whole vile plate in the post.

I couldn’t do that then any more than we can send our buckets of iced water to those who need it so desperately. What we can do is use that water to raise money and awareness.

It is an unnecessarily showy way of raising money  

Yes, it is a showy way of raising money but why is that a bad thing. Someone who doesn’t appear to have a name, has blogged about this saying

We live in a real ‘look at me’ culture with anyone able to post on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, hash tagging for followers, soliciting for likes and comments.

Absolutely, (and blogging is part of that look at me culture, by the way, anonymous blogger) but isn’t it good that instead of endless posts of cute cats and what’s for dinner social media is actually doing some good?

This Australian news anchor makes some good points. Yes we should all give to charity regularly and there are many out there to choose from but I strongly suspect that many of the folk I’ve watched getting iced don’t have an account with the Charities Aid Foundation or even put money in street collection tins. They are, however, making their £3 donations through their mobiles.

He also informs us that “more than $30million has been raised for ALS (which is what the Americans call Motor Neuron Disease MND) I for one can say with a fair degree of certainty that this is the first time I have donated to MND and yet I have given to cancer charities, the British Heart Foundation, Alzheimers, HIV, animal charities, both domestic and wild, children, Africa many times each.

This infographic is meant to make us rethink where we should be focusing our giving, but heart disease and respiratory illness are largely the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices ALS/MND is not. 

Please watch this video all the way through. I know he gets a bit tedious acting the fool in the first part but the second part is worth waiting for.

So to the people who have been pouring cold water on a brilliantly conceived fundraising initiative I challenge you to give something to any charity you like. You have 24 hours.

To donate £5 to MNDA text ICED55 to 70070. See full details at justgiving.com.

Friday 15 August 2014

The Little Things Part 2

In Part 1 I mused about our jigsaw pieces and to what extent we could, or should, legislate to protect children from media that may adversely influence them. In Part 2 I want to ramble on about taking  responsibility for ourselves and our children, although Ben Elton does this so brilliantly in Popcorn that I could just leave you to follow the link…

…No. Sorry, Ben, can’t do it. So here goes…

Yes, we are made up from random instances that for some reason profoundly affect our psyche but to what extent can we blame our adult shortcomings on childhood experiences? I believe the answer is quite a lot. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can abjugate responsibility for our adult actions or spend our time pointing the finger and seeking retribution. We need to take responsibility for the person we have become, look at those jigsaw pieces that we don’t like or that are hampering our happiness and try to reshape them. 

Easier said than done?
Of course.

And just to make it more difficult we need to take responsibility for the things we say and do that might shape a dodgy bit of jigsaw for someone else. Especially if we are in positions of influence. Like celebrities (yes, Rolf Harris, I’m talking about you again.)

And teachers…

I heard about two instances from the last few weeks of teachers who have treated students unfairly. Their actions may have cut a jigsaw piece for the youngsters concerned. I could also relate several more cases of pedagogical injustice from my peers who have, indeed, been shaped by their experiences – “I don’t think I’ve given 100% to anything since” is not the kind of legacy for which most educators are aiming.

Injustice seems to be quite universal in its ability to carve jigsaw pieces. The phrase “Life’s not fair, get used to it” makes me want to scream and pull my hair out, so often is it used to justify an unnecessary act of unfairness. Life is often unfair because of the actions of people and if we all tried a bit harder then maybe life wouldn’t be so unfair. I certainly have no intention of getting used to it.

This is werewolf on the wane.
It's way too cute for full werewolf!
Don’t get me wrong, I am very capable of saying outrageously unfair things (usually at the time of the month when the werewolf is lurking) Beardy Man takes a deep breath, removes himself to safety waits for the rational me to return, realise my unreasonableness and apologise.

Let's be clear, apologising doesn’t give us license to behave as badly as we like and then say sorry, but I’m sure many a jigsaw piece could have disappeared under a metaphorical settee if a few more apologies had been forthcoming.
The trouble is if we don’t take responsibility for our impact on the world around us, then injustice is almost inevitable. Because if we don’t take responsibility then the government and the courts have no choice but to legislate for every aspect of our lives. And rules that are made to control the few but apply to the many will inevitably be unfair. They will also stop those who were taking responsibility from doing so in the future.

It’s happening already.

And the more it does, the less we need to think, to consider consequences, to make choices.

Really? Who knew?
And the easier it is to blame someone else…

“Hey MacDonalds! I burnt myself on that coffee. You shoulda told me it was hot. Pay up.”

Maybe if we all tried not to say or do things that have a good chance of cutting a duff bit of jigsaw for someone else, maybe if we took the time and effort to make sure the children in our charge are not watching Saw or reading James Herbert, maybe if we said sorry when we know we’re in the wrong, maybe, just maybe, we could stop blame-culture from running rampant.

(Here endeth today’s lesson)