Tuesday, February 23, 2010

House of Cards

My poor old mother has lost the ability to sleep. A lingering chest infection over the Christmas period, the remorselessly grim weather and grief at losing her only sibling have combined to rob her of this most basic faculty. My Mum is not generally a moaner, being (as I have noted before) from a generation far more stoical and emotionally buttoned-up than the present one. She is blessed(?) with a vivid inner mental life which, when all is going well, is an asset but without an outlet has a tendency to toxic introversion, lying awake in the dark and dwelling on matters, or over-analysing conversations.
All the things that usually cheer her up, getting out and about, walking the dogs and gardening have been severely curtailed by the permanently icy ground, of which she is understandably wary. She has been on a very restricted round of activities, now rendered almost intolerable in their predictability, all with my Dad in tow. Although they generally get on well enough, being in such close quarters 24/7 has caused a great deal of friction, particularly as he insists on an almost military approach to life and won't countenance any sort of deviation. This entails breakfast, lunch and tea on time, but he would never consider lifting a finger to help.

To be quite honest, it is partly my mother's fault for putting up with this ridiculous situation for so long. The old-school bargain 'I'll be the breadwinner, you take care of the home' is fine up to a point, and that point is retirement. Then all roles should be reconsidered.
I think that they were probably happiest just before my father retired: Dad was immersed in a career he loved and Mum, who had learned to drive late in life, came into a small inheritance which allowed her (without having to ask permission) to buy a small car of her own. She happily pottered about, guiding at a local NT property, shopping on her own and visiting friends, or even me, when she felt like doing so. When my father retired she lost this autonomy in a matter of weeks, and her car became their 'standby' car which she drove less and less until she ceased driving at all.
I really couldn't believe the way that she relinquished this small measure of independence apparently without struggle -it was so hard won, she had passed her driving test at the seventh attempt - but when I quietly took her to one side and queried the wisdom of giving up her freedom, she said she'd basically done it for a quiet life. 'Your father' she said 'can be difficult and very petty' but wouldn't discuss the matter further.
Poor Mum. She painted herself into a very miserable corner, and there now seems very little prospect of escape.

I have absolutely no doubt that she is, unsurprisingly, grieving and depressed. Fortunately, she seems also to recognise this may be the case and has made an appointment with her GP. I hope that she will get a sympathetic hearing and some pharmaceutical help at least in the short term. But in this lies another problem: for many years both my parents airily implied that people with depressive tendencies are lacking some sort of moral fibre or 'intestinal fortitude'. My father, cornering me for 'a quiet word' intimates that he considers my mother's current problem as 'all in her head' and that she has brought it on herself by morbid thinking. Which, even if partially true, doesn't make it any the less real or distressing for her.

Once again I am brought back to face the problem of the contracting life and expectations of old-age.
By and large, my parents have been an extremely good example of keeping going, although they have recently started to manifest signs of slowing down and being less adventurous. The last thing they need at this stage is to perceive one or the other as 'ill' in any way, as I believe that this will bring all their plans grinding to a halt and, like Mum's abandonment of driving, that will be it. Timid old age, fearful of harm.
One the other hand, being 'ill' might actually be a way for my mother to abrogate her role of housekeeper and second fiddle. Perhaps she subconsciously realises this, but I don't think so - she prides herself on her ability to 'keep house'. However, she manages to simultaneously resent the burden of expectation that it puts upon her and dismiss as 'lazy' people who -actually - don't allow themselves to be used in such a manner.
Peoples' happiness seems to be very much like a precarious house of cards - as long as everything is in place all is well: but one puff of the wind of adversity and the whole edifice comes tumbling down around their ears. Its stability rests largely on good luck and an endless amount of minor recalibration.
Roll on the good weather!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Beware of the Leaven....

Half-term - that which universities euphemistically term 'reading week' - has once again holed the work schedule beneath the water line. The SS Good Intentions is slowing slipping under the waves of lassitude, with all hands shrugging their shoulders and the captain picking her nose vacantly at the helm.
Well, it's maybe not quite that bad: although I've not churned out that many words this week, I've nailed a number of very satisfying references in the original Greek or Latin. This has proved quite a task, quite akin to detective work and has necessitated a few leaps of imagination and pretty inspired guesswork (though I say so myself). It's also something that I can do whilst nominally tending to other things i.e. the children, so I don't feel too guilty on either the work or the parenting count. What I really should be doing at the moment is writing up a piece of lit.app. on Gunter Grass for my German reading skills class which, whilst not being compulsory to my studies, seems to be taking up an inordinate amount of time. I've translated the poem and all I need to do is string together a few observations backed up by textual evidence. Yawn.

Lent having started, I've decided that I'll try to be a bit more committed to the whole process this year. Things started badly last year as Ash Wednesday coincided with one of my day-long trips down to university and I was unable to make any of the Impositions of Ashes. So having been sealed yesterday with a sooty blob on the forehead, I feel that I have made a 'proper' start. No more wine or chocolate for the next forty days, and an attempt to be kinder and a bit less judgmental.

The first two (wine and chocolate) will torment me for the first week or so but, when determined, I can usually stick to this sort of regimen. To be quite honest, my wine consumption was getting a bit out-of-hand, and chocolate is an indulgence that is predicated on boredom. The second two (kindness and being non-judgmental) will not come easy at all. I am supremely intolerant and have a tendency to form initial opinions based on nothing more than gut-reaction. Not good. And I've noticed that I'm getting worse as I'm getting older so, not wishing to end up a bitter and friendless burden, I'm going to try and knock it on the head, using Lent as a kick-start.

I've also gone through my blog list and deleted a large number of blogs that have become increasingly stale - purging the old leaven, if you like. Many of them speak with such staggering arrogance and hostility about their fellow man that I am amazed that they have the gall to trumpet their Christian affiliations, yet they do, and trumpet it as the sure and correct framework for life and religion. They're gone, so their hatefulness can't spread in my direction any more.

Kindness is a much underrated virtue in the modern world. I don't mean the sentimental treacly sort of self-congratulatory kindness that would, say, put money in a charity box or help an old lady across the road, but a more wholistic appreciation for another person's feelings.
Empathy rather than sympathy. The latter is an 'external' sort of thing that allows for less involvement with the recipient, the former requires a great deal more effort to put oneself in their place (it's all to do with the Greek prefixes, but I won't bore you) and internalise their feelings. It's something that I am signally not very good at (not surprising given my childhood, but that's no excuse) and have noted with alarm the small pains inflicted on (mostly) my family with what I thought were smart and witty observations or ripostes, but in fact were unkindnesses and failures of imagination on my own smug part.

It's going to take some serious governing back -having modelled most of my adult conversational skills on either Oscar Wilde or, more worryingly, Dorothy Parker - but I'm going to give it a good go. Charity, in this case the good leaven of loving-kindness, really must start at home.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Engagement as Strategy

Following on from yesterday's post on the projected increase in dementia sufferers over the next few decades came a very interesting Horizon programme called (ironically) 'Don't Grow Old'. The thrust of the programme seemed to be that, although certain strategies could assist longevity (calorie restriction is one I that I shuddered at, looking at the joyless existence of its practitioners), it ultimately came down to a combination of good genes and attitude. Good genes - that is a hereditary predisposition to live to a good old age - is something that will continue to be a matter of luck until the precise suspects are identified and utilised in gene therapy.
It's no surprise that people who are happier live longer, but that in itself is a bit of a circular argument in that it is easier to be cheerful and upbeat if you don't have to live in pain or with any other sort of physical, mental or psychological burden. Good health, as noted before is mostly a matter of genetic good fortune, ergo happiness is inextricably linked to a good genetic hand.
Interestingly enough, researchers noted that there was a section of the very elderly population (i.e. healthy centenarians) who defied the received wisdom on not smoking, drinking or eating 'naughty foods'. Despite being told of the horrors that lie in wait for those foolish to enjoy a pack of Capstan full-strength a day, brandy in your mug of tea or butter on everything, they looked a picture of sanguine lucidity, positively relishing their daily treats and with no intention of relinquishing them.
A third and very important factor seemed to be that of expectation: people who saw themselves as being old pretty much fulfilled their own expectations. In an bold experiment, a featured gerontologist removed the carers from some conspicuously doddery old men and made them live for a week in an environment where they were made to fend for themselves. They had strict instructions to live just as they had done a couple of decades previously, and to that end were provided with props that reminded them of that earlier time. Amazingly enough, at the end of the week, all the men who had taken part had improved in physical, mental and psychological strength. Their attitude had changed from expecting help and a disinclination to push themselves to a far more positive 'can-do' state. Their balance, co-ordination and alertness had improved dramatically, they had put on weight and even looked younger and were mostly unwilling to return to their former dependent state. It seemed to be not only a real case of 'if you don't want to lose it use it' but 'if you want, you can get it back again' which is most encouraging!

I look at my parents who, in their eighties, are very active and completely independent and see a positive model of old age. My father is still bright as a button and is fascinated by politics (I swear Prime Minister's question time can't start without him!) and my mother acts as a voluntary guide in a civic trust property and has a voracious interest in history (she is currently 'doing' the Crusades). They get plenty of exercise with their dogs, plan holidays and diversions and generally have a tremendous appetite for life.

However, my husband's parents (in their sixties) seem to be slipping almost gratefully into old age. Having got her bus-pass on the dot of sixty, my m-i-l declared that 'was now old'. Their curtains are drawn tight shut by dusk and the doors bolted. They never go away on holiday preferring day trips (always to the coast, 40 miles away, on the train as my f-i-l prefers not to drive) and their world is regulated by mealtimes (always 'home for tea') and grocery shopping. They have no hobbies, no pets and no outside interests and, as far as I can tell, read only the local newspaper, being politically and intellectually disengaged. They are lovely, kind people, but I fear that their old age (which they have already welcomed with opened arms) will be long and increasingly dull and, with their lack of mental stimuli, I am not a little concerned at the prospect of them being affected by dementia.

I myself am not particularly bothered by the thought of old age: I am not particularly vain, so I don't mourn excessively the fading of my looks as some women (and indeed men) do. I would certainly never any countenance cosmetic 'procedure' more extreme than buying a new mascara. Having abandoned the gym as boring, my interests are now such that they can be carried into extreme old age (as long as I can still see - I would consider surgery to ensure this): in fact many Bible scholars are very long-lived. I am a bit on the heavy side, but can still run when I need to, and it is a medically counter-intuitive fact that women live longer if they are mildly overweight (query: protects against osteoporosis which finishes off many a skinny old bird). I enjoy a glass of wine, bar of chocolate and the occasional Gitanes or cigar and I have no intention of giving any of these things up.

The Husband's main hobby (competitive indoor rowing) however, relies on him being in tip-top physical condition, which he has to work very hard at during his four sessions a week at the gym. He has always prided himself on his physique and to this end spends an additional few hours lifting weights. He used to play the piano (beautifully), but this became sidelined in his quest for peak fitness. This complete somatisation plus the unhelpful paradigm of his parents is, to say the least, a bit worrying. If you perceive yourself a mainly a body which, even with the best genetic hand will indubitably wither and age, your old age not only be devoid of the focus of your younger years, but will also be tainted with nostalgia and regret that the best has gone.

An ability to see old age as just another phase rather than a full-stop to the life that has gone before, and a handful of interests seem to be vital in ensuring a 'good' old age.

Engagement - yes, that's what it is - a willingness to engage, and be engaged by life.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Shadow of Old Age

The reasearch published today jointly by the London school of Economics and the Institute of Psychiatry telling us that, by 2051, more than 1.7 million people in the UK will be suffering from dementia should really come as no surprise to anyone, least of all the medical profession.
The exponential development of ever more effective pharmaceuticals over the last seventy-five years or so has meant that people no longer die from simple diseases. Which is good in one way- no one really wants to die from something that is easily treatable - but the flip side of this advance is that the only things left to die from are the Big Nasties; cancer, heart disease, stroke and degenerative illnesses. What a delightful prospect.

People are living longer and mental degeneration is part of the territory, and one that is greatly feared. Quite right too. I would far rather die at an earlier age from, say flu, than be cured, only to spend my old age wandering and widdling to the disgust and exasperation of the children and grandchildren.

And there is the continuing debate over assisted suicide.....

The government both want us to live longer, hence the constant nagging about cigarettes, alcohol units, 5-a-day fruit and veg, yadda yadda, so we can keep bringing in the cash to the treasury until we retire in our seventies (or whatever the latest figure is), and don't want us to live longer, as the the hand-wringing over the increasingly elderly placing an ever-greater burden on social, financial and medical resources shows.

My solution: stop giving out antibiotics to patients over fifty (that includes me - I'd happily take my chances). That'll cut down on the old buggers cluttering up the place.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


One of the most difficult things about doing a PhD, I think, is marshalling information. There is just so much of it. I was becoming slightly concerned about becoming lost in a sea of words and wondering why it was like wrestling a jelly, when it occurred to me that my first chapter (now nearly complete) is, even as it stands, more words than my entire undergraduate dissertation and a third of the length of my MA thesis. Then I didn't feel quite so bad about it! There is a lot of info to handle and I think it behoves one to get a grip of it in the early stages. As my supervisor said to me "It's rather difficult to organise oneself retrospectively".
One of my main problems is the uniformity of digital information. I am a big fan of notebooks and my most important vade mecum is my large Moleskine soft-back academic diary. It's a wonderful, familiar, tactile object. In here I write all my meetings, references, quotes and ideas. Listening to the radio the other day, I was intrigued to hear my views backed up completely: a woman talking of her devotion to writing stuff down long-hand echoed my sentiment that she could picture in a jotter where she'd committed stuff to writing, visualising the side of the page used, the colour of pen and even the position on the page. Me too, I thought!

And that is the problem I have with digital information: it all looks the same!

When I download a PDF and mark it up or highlight text, I have an image in my head of both the marking up and content. This simply doesn't happen, even when using Adobe's finest editing tools. True, the computer stuff is neater, but it is so anodyne and I haven't had any physical interaction with the text, which appears to be necessary in my case if I am to remember it.

I am also a somewhat creeped out by the fact that digital words no longer 'exist' once they're gone from the screen. Why that should worry me, I just don't know.
I had a bit of an epiphany when I read an article (in the Times, I think) about a guy who was learning Russian and had, at the behest of his tutor, started to use index cards as aides memoires for conjugations and vocabulary, and carried them about with him. I largely abandoned the idea of index cards after my undergrad years, when my work became more diverse than just language, but I am seriously thinking of reviving their use in my studies. There's something about the act of writing that opens pathways in the brain, certainly in my brain, that is not replicated by using a keyboard or mouse.
Sure, I would not even attempt writing my thesis out long-hand - thank God for cut and paste!
I love my computer for being a portal to the world, and I think my smart phone is great, but give me a pen and paper for the stuff that I really want to remember.