Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Some years back, we lost our Mother to Alzheimer’s.

She was a gregarious and loveable person, and we kept her at home for as long as we could, until her confusion and behaviours made it simply impossible.

In the end, in distraction, we found her a good old folk’s home, and with great difficulty, too, as the aged care sector in Australia is a nightmare to navigate successfully. And there she duly whiled away her final months – in safety, but often in tears.

The tears weren’t just “Sundowners” – a well-known mood-shift that occurs in Alzheimer’s patients, especially around late afternoon. Fading light seems to be the trigger. The symptoms can get worse as the night goes on and usually get better by morning.

It was distressing for her, for the care-worn staff, and for us, so we often used to try and time our visits for this time of day to give her a lift.

You can read more about it here: not to mention my own musings about ageing.

But her general distress was more than that.

Like a recent report in Australia revealed, she was one of 40% of old age home residents suffering habitually from depression.

The depression was caused by psychological dislocation – a loss of friends and family, a loss of whatever she could recall as “normal”, a loss of privacy, an inability to relate to the new world around her, or to make friends.

To get away from the psychobabble for a moment, in simple terms her biggest problem was that she was lonely. And in simple terms, there was very little anyone around her could do about it.

In the UK and now in Australia, TV series have revealed how teachers visiting elderly patients with a bunch of four year old pre-schoolers in tow is good for both groups. The elderly people experience physical and cognitive improvement, and improved mood, too. The kids just seem to love it. Care workers have known this for years – taking children, especially young children, into care environments is invigorating for the residents. Ditto animals, especially if they had companion pets before. They are both a dash of welcome reality, for people for whom reality has too often become dark and bleak.

As we move into a period where our aged care services worldwide are going to come under increasing pressure as the Baby Boomers start to age and die off, we wonder if we cannot find a better model for looking after our frail friends, family members and neighbours.

In less urbanised (and often poorer) environments, the aged stay in the community much longer – perhaps throughout their final days – cared for on an ad hoc basis by those in the village around them. They can wander safely, and access their neighbours, children, and animals.

They often still engage in food preparation, or piecemeal work.

For thousands of years, such elderly people have been loved and nourished in the environment they have lived in all their lives.

As a by-product of that situation, their lives are not endlessly prolonged by medical intervention which is freely available in care environments, but not necessarily to the long-term benefit of the patient. In a village in Africa, the Steppes, or Asia, an elderly person struck with an infection, or complications from a fall, may just fade away.

But in a Western care environment they are resuscitated, whisked off to hospital and then back to their care home, and regularly pumped full of prophylactic drugs.

So the question we need to face is: just because we CAN save an elderly patient, does that mean we should, if the point of saving them is simply to return them to a place that through no-one’s fault, they are uncomfortable and unhappy in?

There is another assumption that needs to be challenged, too, which is someone with a diagnosis of Alzheimers is someone who is gaga. This is simply not true. Increasingly, people live with Alzheimer’s for a very long time, buoyed up by better medication, exercise, deliberate mental engagement, engagement with other people and more. We are going to need to educate the public about the positive possibilities for people with dementia, and organise society so they are better integrated with the world around them. It is vital to their progress. And happiness. One thing that seems sure to us is that plonking them in “traditional” aged care will do little to prolong their useful life – and this is not to criticise the dedicated and skilful people that work in the sector. They do their best.

Ultimately, we need to ask “What is the most important thing for an elderly person with Alzheimer’s?” In our view, it is surely that they live out their final days with dignity and as much contentment as possible. Our current systems may provide the former – although they often do not – but very few people would argue that they do the latter.

A little contentment in our declining years shouldn’t be too hard to devise, but in our view we need to start rethinking aged care fundamentally, and now. Because right now, we are failing our older brothers and sisters, and it’s only going to get worse.

We need to think harder, and do better.

 

 

Angry dog

Hard on the heels of the research that dogs have evolved to look up to us with longing eyes to get … well, pretty much whatever it is they want, in our household at least … there is now a fascinating set of research findings that suggest dogs can discern when humans aren’t nice people.

Long suspected, it now appears to have been proven, as you can read below.

Science Confirms That Dogs Can Recognize A Bad Person

We have long suspected this to be the case. When about ten years old, we were walking our Norfolk Terrier – Tim, after Dickens’s Tiny Tim – down the hill to Langland Beach in Mumbles, at the bottom of which was a large art deco public toilet block.

A man – nondescript, forties, seemingly harmless – struck up a conversation on the way down the hill, noting how nice the dog was.

Except he wasn’t. Nice. He snarled, and bared his teeth, and ran in circles on the end of his lead, and wouldn’t let the man near him to pat him or any such activity. He snarled and barked all down the hill.

As his owner, and a polite little boy, I was shocked, and apologetic. It was totally out of character for the dog.

At the bottom of the hill, the guy asked if I wanted to come into the toilets with him, as I probably needed to go to the toilet, right?

Norfolk TerrierOh no I didn’t. My child safety training had been excellent. As he went in, I hightailed it back up the hill dragging the poor bloody dog behind me, to collapse in tears at my mother’s feet.

Looking back, I saw the man come out of the toilet again, and cast around looking for me.

Fuck him. And thank you to the dog. He knew.

PS Did we mention we had a bird who used to walk to the front door when I was still a mile away in the car?

Good day, Dear Reader

We were recently thrilled, not to say mildly amazed, to have a short story which we wrote almost on the off chance, selected as a finalist for the prestigious Ada Cambridge prize at the well known WillyLitFest.

It was our first time ever submitting a story to anything, so now, of course, we will submit endlessly to prizes all over the world, not to say publishers, and probably get knocked back by every one, but in the meantime we will bask in the misapprehension that all one has to do is write and enter, and all will be well.

Many people have asked if they could read the story, which is published along with all the other shortlisted and winning poetry and stories. But for anyone who can’t get to Williamstown to buy a copy, here is my story. It has been professionally edited, so any mistakes are mine alone.

The Blitz in Swansea

SCARLET NIGHTS

The woman emerged slowly from under­­ the corrugated roof of the Anderson shelter. The dawn light was barely discernible over to the east – a lick of paint along the edge of the clouds that spread across Swansea Bay like a dirty counterpane, towards where she knew the docks would already be rousing themselves.

The sky lowered an ugly black, and she shivered, despite wearing two jumpers under her thick woollen overcoat. It had been threatening to snow for days, and yesterday there had been momentary sleet as well as the endless drizzle and rain.

She looked at the soil banked up on the sides of the shelter.British convoy attacked

He’d done a good job of it, home on leave for those four days at Christmas, though a day of that was lost travelling up and down from Plymouth.

She’d hugged him tightly, chiding him, though, for making the journey, telling him he should have stayed in Plymouth with his mates and had a couple of days in the pub. He just laughed quietly and told her he’d never do that.

All he’d thought about on the convoys across the Atlantic was making it through to see her again, and the boy. She’d expected him to just take it easy and eat whatever she managed to pull together to spoil him for a Christmas lunch, but he’d shared a small celebratory whisky with her and then gone straight to the back garden, and started burying the new shelter in soil, hacking away at the stone-hard ground with a pick-axe.

After a day, the rest of the garden was effectively destroyed, but the shelter had its extra layer of protection.

Then Christmas Day intervened, and she insisted he go to the Prince of Wales for a pint while she prepared a chicken she had near-begged from her distant cousin the butcher, with all her meat coupons for a month, and a none-too-subtle appeal to family loyalty.

anderson shelterOn Boxing Day, he disappeared for an hour and came back with seedlings of cabbage and Brussels sprouts, and showed her how to keep them warm in punnets in the conservatory for a little while, and told her when to transplant them to the roof and sides of the shelter. And then he was gone again, back to the grey waves and hunting U-boats, his shy smile playing on his face in her memory. She had planted the vegetables, and prayed they would take. Food was getting scarce, and the boy was painfully thin. Despite the bite in the wind, it looked as if some of them might make it, at least.

She heard a cry and hurried back to the shelter. The boy had been grizzling; he had been awake most of the night before falling asleep just an hour ago. He definitely had a fever, since the previous morning she thought, and it seemed to be no better despite her giving him doses of aspirin powder mixed in a little milk. Feeling his forehead with the back of her hand, she was now alarmed. It was even more clammy, and hot.

She lifted him from under the blanket with ease, his tiny body belying his seven months, and rocked him gently, but he just cried. She dipped a cloth in a mug of water and wiped his head, but he shook it and turned it away from her. So she opened the door to the shelter a crack with her shoulder, and sat down with him again, willing the cool air to make him feel more comfortable.

She moved back with him into the mock Tudor-timbered semi-detached home. She loved the little circular close with its matching houses, though she never imagined she would live there alone for any length of time. The windows hid their secrets behind the white chintz. She was but a stone’s throw from the lawn tennis club where she had played almost every day as a teenager, and St Paul’s and Holy Trinity Anglican Church within whose dank medieval walls she took solace, but days like this she felt very lonely. She made herself a cup of tea, taking care to warm the pot as her mother had taught her, and stared helplessly at the little lad turning fitfully in his cot, still crying.

When she had finished, and washed and replaced the cup on the tall boy, and leaving him in his cot still crying but near, it seemed, to exhaustion, she went next door and knocked tentatively. She didn’t know Isabella Jones well, but she knew she was a nurse at Singleton Hospital, and so might have a better idea what to do.

‘Coming! Stay there!’ came from within. After a minute, the leadlighted door swung open, and Mrs Jones was there, fastening a nightgown, her hair tied up in a towel.

‘Oh, hello there, sorry, I just got off nights, was having a bath. I thought they were sending to bring me back again. It happens. Gosh, don’t stand there, you’ll catch your death. Or I will. Come in. Come in.’

She explained she couldn’t. The boy. She’d left him. But she didn’t know what to do. Could she come? Have a look?

A few minutes later they were standing over the cot. The nurse felt his forehead as she had, but also picked him up and put her head to his chest. Then she turned him round and listened to his back. She shook her head slightly, seeming confused. Did she have a teaspoon, by any chance?

She passed her the one she had just washed up after her cup of tea, and Isabella Jones, with some difficulty, managed to open the boy’s mouth and depressed his tongue a little with the back of the spoon.

She clucked, and returned him to his cot. After a few more tears for good measure, he quietened slightly and started to fall asleep again. She stroked his growing head of hair away from his eyes, and asked the woman for a block of ice from the little freezer box at the top of the refrigerator. She rubbed his forehead with it gently a couple of times, and then his lips, and worked it between her fingers, causing the ice to melt ever so slightly, and a trickle of cold water to enter the dozing boy’s mouth. It seemed to settle him further.

When he was quiet, the nurse went to the kitchen sink and washed her hands thoroughly with carbolic soap. She turned to the woman, a worried look on her face.

‘Look, cariad, I’m not a doctor, but you know I’ve seen just about everything in my time. We get to know things when we do half the doctor’s work for them nowadays, what with so many of them being off somewhere for the war, now.’

She paused, frowning.

‘There’s no point beating round the bush: I’d bet the King’s pound to a beggar’s penny he’s got Scarlet Fever. His throat looks very sore and his tongue is all white with little red spots. It’s an early sign. It’s called Strawberry tongue.

I’d say by tonight or tomorrow morning the white will have gone and his tongue will all be bright red, and then he might get spots on his body, and you can pretty much guarantee his little cheeks will go a nice shade of bright pink. Can’t miss it.’

The woman looked at each other, concern on the face of one and something close to terror on the face of the other.

The danger, the nurse explained, was the fever. Or that the infection would spread to the organs of the little body. Meningitis. Even rheumatic fever of the heart. It used to happen a lot, less so nowadays, thank goodness. She started ticking things off:

‘You’ve just got to get his fever down, and keep him as cool as possible. His temperature might go up to 102 and stay there for a while, so the aspirin will help, and it will help his poor throat too. There is an anti-toxin but it’s a toss-up whether there’s any around. I’ll walk back to the hospital and ask. And I’ll get Dr Mullaway to come round and look, too.’

The woman was all for simply picking the boy up and walking round there with her, but the nurse firmly said no.

‘They’d lock him and you in a room, dear and you’d be there for days. It’s very infectious, that’s why I washed up so carefully. And they couldn’t possibly risk having him in a place with lots of sick and injured people in it because they’d be dead set to catch it more easily. It could kill people, just taking him there. Dear me, no, that would never do.’

Excusing herself, the nurse bustled next door, and a little while later, with a wave, she headed off down the street. After what seemed like an age, with the woman just sitting at the kitchen table staring at the little boy, and occasionally wetting his forehead, she saw the nurse return and leapt up to have the door open before she got there.

Yes, she had told the Doctor, who had promised to call on his way home that evening. Meanwhile, here was some calamine lotion in case the boy developed a rash that was itchy – ‘Their skin feels like sandpaper, gets very dry, drives them mad. Specially on their back, and they can’t reach that, of course.’ – some more aspirin powder – ‘Give him a little more, it won’t kill him, but the fever might.’ – and she passed her a very light gown made of soft cotton. ‘Put that on him, not that thing he’s got on now. It’s too hot.’ She tapped the front door. ‘And keep this open a bit, and get the temperature in the house down. If he gets even hotter, pop him in the kitchen sink and let him have a cool bath. Pat him dry, but not perfectly dry.’

The woman nodded, taking it all in. Her neighbour excused herself. ‘I have to get some sleep. I’m on again at four. I’ll drop in before that.’

The day dragged by. Outside a light drizzle fell, whipped up by the west wind beating up the Bristol Channel. Mercifully the child slept, from time to time, his rest punctuated by bursts of distress. She slept in the kitchen chair for a few minutes here and there, but found his silences when she slept unnerving. She kept checking him to be sure he was still breathing.

She forgot to eat herself, but managed to get a little warm milk into him, but soon he rejected the bottle and took to crying again. When her neighbour reappeared, the mother’s red eyes were filled with tears with frustration, and gritty from lack of sleep.

The nurse repeated the earlier examination, and this time she had brought with her a thermometer, which she held under the baby’s armpit for as long as he would permit it, and then she examined it carefully. She nodded.

‘It’s just under 102. Bang on for Scarlet Fever. And his tongue is redder. But he seems tougher than he looks, poor little bugger. He’s still strong, going by that set of good Welsh lungs on him. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Mullaway will be along, but I expect he’ll say the same.’

She waited. An hour passed. Then another. It was getting quite dark now, and she couldn’t look out of the window, with the blinds drawn for the blackout. The boy was unchanged. She listened for the swing of the garden gate and a man’s steps on the path. She listened for a very long time.

It started, with no warning, at almost exactly seven thirty.

The ground shook with repeated tremors, each followed the moment after by the unmistakeable crump of a bomb exploding, and then soon after by the boom-boom-boom of anti aircraft guns responding and the distant howl of air raid sirens. She scooped up the boy and rushed to the front door in horror, flinging it open and looking out. It was not the first time Swansea had been bombed, of course, and she knew to grab her coat, a bottle for the boy, and head to the air raid shelter in the back garden immediately. But she paused, for just a few seconds, mesmerised by explosion after explosion from the east, over by the City centre, and the docks, and now and then a blinding series of flashes and resulting fire from Townhill away to the left. Uttering a quick prayer, she rushed to the shelter, pulling it closed behind her, and sat there nursing the screaming child in complete terror.

The barrage continued for hours. Whenever she thought it might have ended, the bombs started falling again. Once she heard an ack-ack gun nearby rattling out its furious tune, and she thought it must be the one sited atop the hospital. Most of the bombs seemed to her to be falling over to the east and north, but once there was an almighty crash from … from where? From what could have been her own home for all she knew, but she was too afraid to open the door to the shelter. It seemed awfully close.

After the alarms had subsided and it seemed there were no more explosions, she dared to look out. Her hand flew to her mouth as she could see that from one side of the horizon to another there seemed to be a continuous sheet of vivid flame and acrid smoke. And right nearby, in what must be the next street, a house was ablaze, its roof already well alight. She knew that people would already be there, passing buckets of water to douse the flames, and she would have helped, but she could not leave the boy, nor could she take him, so she just stared, mutely, in agony for the people concerned.

When day came, the true nature of what had happened was obvious. A massive pall of smoke hung over everything, seemingly incapable of being disturbed by the wind, such was its thickness. A sickly-sweet smell of burning oil pervaded the air. All her neighbours were gathered in the street, huddled in small groups; the occasional car came and went. As the boy seemed settled for a moment, she left him in his cot again and approached one tight knot of women to listen.

‘It’s all still burning. My Matthew, he’s over there, they’ve called in all the wardens and police, every single fire engine, and the army, too. It’s a right bloody mess. Brynhyfryd, Townhill and Manselton got it the worst. And Matthew says they flattened the Regimental HQ for the Royal Artillery, but even so they kept fighting back with any guns they had. There’s hundreds dead, they say. Hundreds. And God knows where they’re going to put all the people who’ve lost their homes.’ She gestured to her right. ‘They’ve lost everything. Only moved in there six weeks ago. And they’d done a lovely job of the bathroom. Such a shame.’

The woman knocked on Isabella’s door, but there was no reply. She walked her kitchen, back and forth, chewing on a finger, not knowing what to do for the best. At one point she went down on her knees by the little crucifix in the bedroom, and prayed for guidance. The boy seemed no better, but no worse. Although when she took off the little hospital garment and bathed him, she saw that a bright red rash had appeared on his lower legs.

She walked to the end of the road with him, but then walked back. The streets seemed eerily quiet. She picked up the phone in her hallway, but it was dead.

Around five thirty, just as dusk was falling, with the fires still burning in the distance, there came a knock at the door. Dr Mullaway introduced himself, wearily, and apologised for not having come sooner, but …

He simply waved his hand in the direction of the events of the night before.

The words tumbled out of her mouth chaotically, the emotion of the last two days finally breaking, like a dam: his fever, he’d been alright and then suddenly, and the nurse’s advice, his tongue, see? Her husband was away, she didn’t know what to do, but how is he, Doctor? You hear these things, such terrible things, about children dying from Scarlet Fever, and I can’t get out, and I don’t know, and look, look at his legs, now the poor thing, his legs.

She sucked in a great gulp of air and looked at the Doctor, her face a mixture of worry and anger. ‘His legs! Poor little mite! Now look at his legs!’

The Doctor looked at the little nuggety woman, and for the briefest of moments his eyes blazed. But then he caught himself.

‘At least he’s still got his legs,’ he said quietly. Almost in a whisper.

Mullaway looked at her steadily, while she composed herself, then proceeded to examine the boy carefully. She said not another word until he’d finished.

‘Just keep doing what you’re doing,’ he said in the end. ‘Good luck.’ And he left.

And that night, the sirens howled again. And the next night.

In later years – decades later, a lifetime later – when her man was long dead, and the boy had three children of his own, she would repeat Mullaway’s words to herself. Sometimes when she would sit and watch the boy swim, or run, or playing with his kids.

Or she would just look at him when he was standing there.

‘At least he’s still got his legs,’ she would say. To herself, mainly.

And then she would tap the arm of her chair, or clap her hands together, and change the subject.

As if she’d said nothing, and nothing had happened.

 

HISTORICAL NOTE

The worst bombing of Swansea in South Wales occurred over three nights on 19th, 20th, and 21st February 1941. The period known as the Three Nights’ Blitz started at 7.30 pm on 19 February. My mother and brother survived the event in an Anderson Shelter in Brynewydd Gardens, Sketty Green. By the time the ‘all clear’ siren sounded after three days, major parts of the city had been destroyed, and 230 people were dead and 409 injured. 7,000 people lost their homes. The city centre suffered direct hits that started major conflagrations, destroying many commercial premises. It has still not been entirely rebuilt.

A total of nearly 14 hours of enemy activity were recorded. A total of 1,273 High Explosive bombs and 56,000 Incendiary bombs were estimated to have been dropped. An area measuring approximately 41 acres was targeted, with 857 properties destroyed and 11,000 damaged. To raise morale following the blitz, the King and Queen as well as the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, visited Swansea.

Paraprosdokians #3

Posted: April 8, 2019 in Humour, Life
Tags: , , ,

Regular readers – you know who you are – will know that we are particular fans of a very particular kind of joke called a Paraprosdokian.

paraprosdokian (/pærəprɒsˈdkiən/) is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence, phrase, or larger discourse is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax. For this reason, it is extremely popular among comedians and satirists. Some paraprosdokians not only change the meaning of an early phrase, but they also play on the double meaning of a particular word, creating a form of syllepsis.

Anyhow, we came across a new bunch today, and they’re rather good:

You can lead a horse to water, but you’ll need help to drown it.

Too many cooks won’t fit in the broth.

A bird in the hand is a law suit waiting to happen.

Red sky at night, barn’s on fire.

Red sky in the morning, barn’s still on fire.

A fool and his money is good to go drinking with.

The lawnmower is mightier than the sward.

People in glass houses shouldn’t throw swinger’s parties.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single Internet search.

Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not really out to get you.

Got any others you’d care to share, Dear Reader?

 

Screen Shot 2019-04-08 at 4.43.23 pm

I want to write a poem

Just dripping with angst

Jam-packed with pathos

With oodles of empathy

To tear the hearts out of teenage girls

and stir those of tired old men

I want to write a poem

That years later will still sound fresh

Riddled with irony

Spilling meaning everywhere

Entrancing yet confusing

Illuminating but complex.

I want to write a poem

That drags you in,

locks you into contemplation

pesters you to deal with it

like a nagging ringtone

made solely of words.

 

But you got this, instead.

I need a gin.

 

#poetry #writing #poems #creativity

PS the book is still for sale – get one when you next Amazon yourself.
https://www.amazon.com/Read-Me-Poems-One-Story/dp/1409298604

Our regular Reader, and Facebook friends, will know that we are somewhat exercised over the collective insanity that is Brexit. Wandering around the world wide interweb thingy, we saw this: To us, it seems remarkably apposite:

Leavers “We voted for Brexit, now you Remainers need to implement it”

Remainers “But it’s not possible!”

Leavers “The People Have Spoken. Therefore it is possible. You just have to think positively.”

Remainers “And do what exactly?”

Leavers “Come up with a Plan that will leave us all better off outside the EU than in it.”

Remainers “But that’s not possible!”

Leavers “Quit with the negative vibes. The People Have Spoken.”

Remainers “But even you don’t know how!”

Leavers “That’s your problem, we’ve done our bit and voted, we’re going to sit here and eat popcorn and watch as you do it.”

Remainers “Shouldn’t you do it? It was your idea. We were happy.”

Leavers “It’s not up to us to work out the detail, it’s up to you experts.”

Remainers “I thought you’d had enough of experts?”

Leavers “Remain experts.”

Remainers “There are no Leave experts.”

Leavers “Then you’ll have to do it then. Oh, and by the way, no dragging your feet or complaining about it, because if you do a deal we don’t want, we’ll eat you alive.”

Remainers “But you don’t know what you want!”

Leavers “We want massive economic growth, no migration, free trade with the EU and every other country, on our terms, the revival of British industry, re-open the coal mines, tea and vicars on every village green, some nice bunting, and maybe restoration of the empire.”

Remainers “You’re delusional.”

Leavers “We’re a delusional majority. DEMOCRACY! So do the thing that isn’t possible, very quickly, and give all Leavers what they want, even though they don’t know what they want, and ignore the 16 million other voters who disagree. They’re tight trouser latte-sipping hipsters who whine all the time. Who cares?”

This was created by Ishtar Ostaria and kudos to Ish.

We’d like to engage in one more bit of speculation.

The best intelligence at the moment seems to be that May will bring a deal back to the UK Parliament to pass which leaves the situation virtually as it is now, with Britain inside the EU, except Britain will lose all influence over the EU by not having any input in the EU parliament or ministerial conflabs. How that improves Britain’s standing is beyond us, even though it is what we speculated would happen years ago.

OR May will come back to the Parliament and say “This can’t be done, we need to defer Article 50, possibly for quite some time.”

This will create a political furore in Britain, even if it actually makes sense.

May might then go to the country for a renewed mandate, and with Labour languishing because of their leadership’s inability to oppose Brexit, and the Lib Dems seemingly unable to make up significant ground on them, she will probably get it. Which won’t make Brexit any easier, but which will entrench probably the most incompetent Government in recent British history in power for another five years.

British civil discourse is being rent asunder by political toxicity, and the country is led by donkeys. It’d be funny, if it wasn’t so tragic.

Oh those crazy, whacky Catalonians.

In Catalonia – that’s the bit in the North East of Spain constantly arguing with Madrid – think Barcelona and surrounds – don’t be surprised if you’re admiring someone’s nativity scene and there, hidden among the traditional nativity characters, is a little figure, trousers down, doing his business right in the middle of the holy scene.

As the BBC report, a pessebre, a Catalan nativity scene, contains all the usual suspects. There’s Mary and Joseph gazing down lovingly at baby Jesus, sleeping in his manger. There are the oxen, gently lowing, and perhaps some shepherds. But look closer, and hidden among the traditional characters is a little figure, trousers down, “taking a dump” right in the middle of the holy scene.

 

Yes, he’s doing what you think he’s doing.

 

The caganer – literally ‘defecator’ – is a staple of Christmas in the area. The traditional figure depicts a peasant wearing black trousers, a white shirt and the classic red Catalan cap – the barretina. He may also be smoking a pipe and reading a newspaper. As you do, when …

“It’s like the funny part of something that is supposed to be very serious – the nativity,” laughed caganer collector Marc-Ignasi Corral, 53, from Barcelona. Yes, the figure is so popular it even has its very own society, the Friends of the Caganer Association (L’associació Amics del Caganer), of which Corral is a proud member. Founded in 1990, the society has around 70 members – some from as far afield as the US – who meet twice a year.

Traditional caganers are made from clay, fired in a kiln of more than 1,000C, then hand-painted. As the industry has grown, the caganer has evolved; now there are many different kinds, both in design and material.

“I’ve got ones made of soap, I’ve got chocolate ones, but those are meant to be eaten of course,” said Corral, whose bookshelves are dotted with his collection of more than 200 caganers. “I’ve got glass ones… I’ve seen them made from Nespresso capsules.”

Firmly planted in folk tradition, the roots of the caganer are vague, but generally agreed to date from around the late 17th or early 18th Century when the prevailing Baroque tradition, both in Catalonia and beyond, focused on realism in art, sculpture and literature.

In their book El Caganer, authors Jordi Arruga and Josep Mañà write: “This was a time characterised by extreme realism… all of which relied heavily on descriptions of local life and customs. Here, working conditions and home life were used as artistic themes.”

The reason it has been passed down the generations, however, is clear: the idea of defecating has traditionally long been linked to everything from good luck to prosperity to good health.

“Excrement equals fertilisation equals money equals luck and prosperity. Or so say the anthropologists,” said historian Enric Ucelay-Da Cal, emeritus professor at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University“It is said that to not put a caganer in the crib will bring bad luck,” added caganer maker Marc Alos Pla, whose family runs caganer.com, the world’s biggest caganer producer. This year he predicts sales will surpass 30,000.

And far from seeing the caganer as uncouth or even graphic, Catalans have a relaxed view of them as merely depicting a natural act.

“We don’t see it as rude. I mean as rude as when you go to the toilet,” Corral laughed. “We hide things – we’re in a society where we’re hiding everything. We hide death for instance.”

Furthermore, Catalans do not stop at one unusual Christmas tradition.

 

Give the poo log a whack!

 

Caga Tió, literally the ‘Defecating Log’ (also called the Tió de Nadal, the ‘Christmas Log’) is also a staple in many Catalan homes in the run-up to Christmas. On the feast of the Immaculate Conception, on 8 December, families start ‘feeding’ Caga Tió scraps of food. He is covered with a blanket to keep him warm until, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, when he has had enough to ‘eat’, the children hit him with sticks while singing a song that encourages him to defecate:

Caga tió / Poo log
Caga torró, avellanes i mató / Poo nougat, hazelnuts and mató (cheese)
Si no cagues bé / if you don’t Poo well,
et daré un cop de bastó / I’ll hit you with a stick
Caga tió / Poo log!

Of course the log doesn’t produce any old excrement … he defecates Christmas presents.

Before hitting the Tió, children go to another part of the house to pray for him to bring them gifts, while their parents take the opportunity to stash small treats like Christmas sweets under the blanket.

“The Tió seems to be a pretty old Christmas idea… in medieval times it was found all over Europe, from Scandinavia down to the Western Mediterranean: the idea of a ‘Yule Log’, which lasted until about World War Two,” Ucelay-Da Cal said.

What is it about these traditions, which in other parts of the world might be seen as explicit or rude, that attracts so many Catalans?

“I love the transgression of norms, the tradition they represent and the artwork in itself,” Corral explained, while Ucelay-Da Cal said the caganer “has a pleasantly subversive quality, naughty but nice, as it were.”

In fact, the themes of defecation are reserved not only for Christmas, but run like a common thread through Catalan culture, from idioms to art.“This fits in with a Catalan (and Spanish) taste for egalitarianism: everybody [poos], however important they may be,” said Ucelay-Da Cal.

When it comes to language, Catalan is filled with stool-related sayings and idioms. Where in English we might say two extremely close people are ‘as thick as thieves’ and in Spanish that phrase would be ‘como uña y carne’ (like [finger] nail and flesh), but Catalans cheerfully say two are people are like ‘cul i merda’– backside and excrement.

“There is a cliché that Germanic languages are [full of] faecal metaphors, while Romance languages stress virility. But certainly the Spanish tradition – and very specifically Catalan scatological custom – would deny this assertion,” Ucelay-Da Cal said.

Defecation has also appeared in Catalan art and literature going back hundreds of years.

In his book, Barcelona, which looks at Catalan history, art and culture, art critic Robert Hughes writes that the figure of the caganer “makes an unmistakable entrance into 20th-Century art” in the work of Joan Miró.

Really? Look closely at Miró’s 1921-22 painting The Farm, and you will see what looks like a small child squatting close to his mother while she does the washing.

This boy, Hughes writes, “is none other than the caganer of Miró’s childhood Christmases. It may also be Miró himself, the future painter of Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement (1935).”

A whole new take on Santa

Christmas is full of funny stuff.

At our business, Dear Reader, Magnum Opus Partners, we have had some fun this year with the Santa Claus tradition.

Did you know the image of Santa we know in many parts of the world today was crafted by ad agencies – and especially Coca Cola’s team of creative thinkers?

He’s not even the same the world over – the traditional British Santa is actually supposed to wear green and has a wreath of holly on his head, and in Russia Santa is a demon accompanied by a snow maiden! In Sweden Santa is a dwarf, in Iceland he’s thirteen naughty elves, and in Holland Sinterklass is a saintly character wearing a bishop’s hat.

In Germany, Austria, and the Czech and Slovakian regions, Santa Claus isn’t even male – children are visited by a female “Christ Child”, who is a benevolent gift-bringer with long curly blonde hair! In Spain and other Hispanic countries, kids welcome Three Wise Men bearing gifts. And it doesn’t even happen on Christmas Day, but on January 6th, the day the Three Wise Men supposedly arrived at the stable.

So what, we wondered, what would Santa look like if his legend was being created by some groovy lunch of creatives today? No great big rotund guy with a white beard, that’s for sure!

Have a look and see what you think of our musings!

 

 

And a very Merry Christmas to all Wellthisiswhatithink readers.

May your Christmas-time be filled with wonder, joy and contentment. And may 2019 bring you at least some of what your heart desires.

 

 

A grieving NSW mother, whose teenage daughter was sent home from hospital a day before she died from meningococcal, has warned others to be aware of the potentially deadly symptoms.

Central Coast student Mischelle Rhodes, 19, came down with a fever last Tuesday, but was sent home from hospital with painkillers and died the next day.

“The hospital did some blood tests, gave her Nurofen, gave her Panadol and sent her home,” the student’s mother Anjini Rhodes said.

“They said she was okay.”

A Central Coast mother is grieving after her teenage daughter Mischelle Rhodes, 19, died from meningococcal.

Central Coast student Mischelle Rhodes, 19, came down with a fever last Tuesday, but was sent home from hospital with painkillers. Source: 7News

By Wednesday morning, Mischelle was getting worse and began vomiting.

Her mum took her back to Gosford Hospital and by lunchtime there was quick-spreading rash.

“And she told me, ‘Doctors told me I’m going to die’,” Ms Rhodes said. Her organs were indeed failing and Mischelle sadly died that afternoon.

“I thought she was going to be okay… [she was] such a healthy, beautiful girl. I didn’t think this was going to happen,” the grieving mother cried as she described her pain.

“It just took my beautiful girl away so fast.”

A Central Coast mother is grieving after her teenage daughter Mischelle Rhodes, 19, died from meningococcal.

The teen died the next day after a rash quickly spread. Source: Mischelle Rhodes / Facebook

Symptoms to watch for include sudden onset of fever, joint pain, nausea, vomiting, headache, neck stiffness, sensitivity to light and a blotchy rash.

Her mother issued a warning to parents and others presenting symptoms, saying: “Don’t leave hospital until everything’s been looked at.”

Mischelle is the second meningococcal fatality on the Central Coast in a month, following the death of a 38-year-old woman. But the cases are not linked. There have been 41 meningococcal cases across NSW this year, including three which were fatal.

“It can strike pretty much anybody and at any age,” NSW Health’s Dr Peter Lewis said.

“We see cases at all ages and throughout the year, but this is actually the time of year where we tend to see more cases occurring.”

A free meningococcal vaccine is available for children aged 15 to 19.

Mission Beach, Far North Queensland, looking over to Dunk Island

A flying visit to Far North Queensland – in this case a wedding at seemingly endless Mission Beach – reminds me powerfully of my childhood visiting the coastal tropical paradise than runs almost the length of the Eastern seaboard of South Africa.

Like South Africa, the bizarre and the wonderful and the otherworldly abound in FNQ. Driving along little country lanes one passes over rickety old bridges covering deep slashes of dark, mysterious water; streams that tumble and cascade through the rainforest to the ocean turning into turgid, broad estuaries where the rainfall and sea mix.

This is not a place to step out of the car. There is hardly a waterway here that is not home to the ubiquitous salt-water crocodile. Slowing down and gazing out of the car window for tell-tale eyes or snouts reminds me powerfully of driving around African game reserves spotting rhinos amongst the thorn trees and bushes. You don’t get out of the car there, either, without the benefit of a guide and good running shoes. Here neither would help you much if you ventured incautiously into the creek, looking for some barramundi to BBQ for dinner, nestling beneath the waterside vegetation. Mr and Mrs Croc can make about 30mph through the water, and you’re easier to catch than a barra.

Better to stick to the beach, except swimming is unwise, even out of stinger season. The waters hereabouts are stocked with jellyfish of all kinds. Some will give you a nasty sting that’s reasonably easily treated with vinegar, or if none is to hand, urinating on the wound. The well-known “bluebottle” is one such – a blob of nastiness followed by a seemingly endless strand of stinging tail that wraps round your leg all too easily. But that’s just a nasty annoyance. Others, such as the virtually unspottable irukandji, will kill you, if the people with you don’t know that when you stop breathing you’re not yet dead, and if they perform mouth-to-mouth you’ll wake up again. But even if they are so briefed, who wants to find out how good their memory is? About a centimetre across at the biggest, their tendrils can be up to a metre in length. Their sting – they fire little barbs into you just to make sure – is 100 times more potent than a cobra and 1000 times more potent than a tarantulas. And that’s just the irukandji. There are others.

Back to the resort pool after a nice walk on the beach, then.

Mind you, while we’re discussing tarantulas, when walking after dark it’s wise to avoid the spiders webs that end up strung across paths in what seems like no time flat, especially as, yes, most of the spiders round here will give you a nasty suck. Luckily we spotted one substantial specimen crawling on our arm yesterday and flicked it off as it reared up to go for a nibble. We were not stung, but a blood pressure count taken up to an hour afterwards would have seen us whisked off to ER quick smart.

There are actually more killer sharks down south than there are up here, but they’re around. Mind you, their threat (which really is not very great, if you look at the stats) seems trivial when compared to the crocs. We were told that just a few days before our arrival a 4.2 metre specimen was spotted patrolling up and down the beach – not lurking in his estuary where he was meant to be. Backwards and forwards, with a hungry look in his eye.

Why are the crocs so numerous? Well, they’re protected, for one thing. But the real answer is easy. Lots of fish to eat. Lots and lots of fish. These waters are swarming with tasty comestibles for croc and man alike, which is why fishing would have to be pretty much the number 1 leisure activity in these parts, after drinking cold beer – and, of course, no one said you can’t drink beer and fish simultaneously.

None of the above should deter you from visiting. For one thing, the plant life in the area is worth a visit on its own. Riotous bursts of variegation and colour in endless variety are testament to a growing environment close to that of the Garden of Eden. Hot … damned hot … and very wet. Plants that are mere pot specimens in our home town grow here to above head height. With the blazing tropical sun broken up by the high branches of palm trees and then filtered again by the progressive layers of ferns and other delights, not only is it possible to stay cool, but one can also wander as if in a primordial landscape just metres from civilisation. So long as there are no water courses nearby.

Port St Johns “Second Beach”

As I said, it reminds me powerfully of childhood holidays in Natal and the Transkei/Pondoland. I fell to thinking of one time – we were at a delightful out-of-the-way spot called Second Beach at Port St Johns – and I would have been perhaps 11 – when a local Xhosa boy called Winston (after Winston Churchill) offered his services to our family as a gillie. Essentially, a baiter of hooks, a runner of errands, and a stand-in babysitter for me. Winston was maybe 14 and ineffably cool. Wise beyond his years, always smiling, never fatigued, endlessly obliging. For being permanently available to do whatever was needed, he was rewarded with what was then probably two or three pounds a day – enough for him to live moderately well, although I am sure it went home to his family, and he was gifted the occasional fish, which definitely did.

He seemed to have an almost magical ability to tell us where to cast our lines into the waves to catch the hard-fighting great-eating South African shad, even when there weren’t tell-tale flocks of seabirds diving into the waves to eat the bait fish on which the shad would gorge themselves. Indian shop-keepers – always at the beach before us no matter how early in the pearly dawn light we rose – would walk off the beach muttering “one fish, one fish”, which was code for “Not much around today, man.” But Winston would just stand looking at the water, one leg resting on the knee of the other in perfect balance, until he would point and motion to where he thought there might be fish. He was always right. It was freakish.

Winston saved my life twice that summer. One time, he took his eyes off me for a second when we were playing, (I was playing, he was nursemaiding), and I waded across an estuary to look at a metal sign on an obelisk in the water. As I got there, and started sinking inexorably, I saw that it was a warning against quicksand, in which I was now stuck. Winston swam across the top of the water and grabbed both my hands, pulling me up and out. I was terrified. He just chuckled.

Another time, we were in one of those yellow inflatable oval dinghy things that hang off the back of bigger boats, paddling around in the estuary, doing nothing much. I think I was carelessly dangling a line off the back, which might have stirred up the local fish population a little, as suddenly there was a massive crash on the bank next to us, and vast turbulence in the water. Ignorant, and excited, I went to the side of the boat to see what was what, and was batted back into the middle of the boat by Winston, who then stood there with his paddle raised. “Ingwenya!” he said to me urgently, “Ingwenya!” After a few moments he grabbed both oars and rowed for our lives. I have no doubt that had I leaned over the edge of the boat I would have been crocodile dinner. And Winston would have been in deep shit for having got “little baas” eaten.

When we got back to the holiday hut we were staying in I went and stole two Peter Stuyvestants from my brother’s pack and gave one to Winston, who I had admired smoking the most disgusting bush cheroots imaginable. From the pocket of his ragged shorts, which seemed cavernous enough to hold a seemingly endless cornucopia of useful things, he produced matches and we lit up and strolled to the beach to calm down.

“Ingwenya!” he laughed at me again, and did a little pantomime of a massive jaw closing shut over my head. “Ingwenya!” I assured him I had the point, and tried to convince him I wouldn’t be so stupid as to look over the edge of any boats, ever again. Certainly not in tropical waters. He didn’t understand a word I said, of course, but we just laughed and nodded, him smoking an entire cigarette in two or three huge draughts of smoke, which he blew out of his nose, and which I tried to emulate, but just ended up sneezing with watering eyes.

As I stared into the murky depths of forest and creek today, I caught myself wondering what might have happened to Winston.

Did he end up coughing his life away in the dust-filled gold and diamond mines around Jo’burg?

Did he get swept up in the communal violence that plagued South Africa during the transition to majority rule?

Or did he stay near Port St Johns, baiting hooks and rescuing little pale boys, and now he sits somewhere high on the hills in Transkei, surrounded by his family, and his cows, and watches the ineffable sunsets, and warns his grand-kids to watch out for crocs.

I like to think he does. I hope he has a long and happy old age. I hope he still catches fish. And has plenty of cigarettes.

The “little corporal” Napoleon, standing at about 5 feet 7 inches, was actually taller than most of his compatriots.

According to the National Post, this misconception may have arisen because of the difference between French and British inches at the time. In French measurements, Napoleon was 5 feet 2 inches, but French inches were longer than British ones.

 

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Others believe it all started with a satirical cartoon with Napoleon being held in an British general’s hand. Or is that the King? We’re not sure.

Just another example, we feel, of “history being written by the victors”. If Napoleon had won at Waterloo we suspect Wellington would have become a silly creature of fun with boots up to his arse, and Nelson a bent and hobbled cripple.

This historical oddity, though, raises an interesting question. How many sources for history do we really need if we are to attain a “balanced” view. What weight should be placed on various sources? And what duty do we owe to the living to get it right?

One would suppose very few French people feel especially hard done by because we generally think Napoleon was a short-arse. But let us take, for example, the history of indigenous owners of land since appropriated by Empires various or immigrants: the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, for example. They see the arrival of the British as a murderous, genocidal invasion of lands they had occupied for at least 40,000 years. Our view of the North American first peoples is founded almost entirely on the myth making of 19th century broadsheet writers and comic books, the owners of which had a vested interested in selling the “white man” as a brave and honourable creature, a position gleefully adopted by Hollywood who were selling movies to those white people’s descendants, of course, and not the grandchildren of the noble (and more often ignoble) savages. Blacks in Africa were invariably shown as feckless and ignorant, despite have created civilisations that pre-dated Europe by thousands of years – ditto the Arab world which was apparently entirely composed of wild eyed zealots with flashing knives and not some of the greatest scientists in history, Aztecs and Mayans did little more with their time than cut the hearts out of slaves and toss their bodies down the sides of pyramids despite centuries of learning on astronomy and mathematics that were centuries in advance of the “West”, the Chinese were corrupt satraps despite their progress in civil administration, medicine, art and literature, and so on and so on ad infinitum.

All these civilisations were the victims of “othering”. The process by which we ridicule, marginalise and often slaughter those whom we defeat, and we simply do not concede either honourable or laudable characteristics to the defeated.

So it is perhaps instructional to consider those who are “othered” by the media, politicians, and common opinion in the West today.

The myth-making runs in overtime about, in no particular order, “lazy, venal” South Americans, “disaffected, drug-addled” American people of colour, “dangerous, inhuman, violent” Muslims, (we are sick of pointing out that if Muslims as a group were really violent the West would currently be at war with 1.2 billion of them, and probably losing, but there it is), disorganised and corrupt Italians and Greeks, drunken Irish, endlessly warring Africans, and many more.

Well. It is our birthday, today, Dear Reader. We are getting older. As someone so kindly pointed out in a message to our mobile phone earlier, “your senior years are now really upon you”. Well, yes, they are. So if you will permit me, an observation from the full height of the mountain I have so far climbed.

Whomever we are discussing, and wherever they are in the world, what has struck me most forcefully as I have gone through this life is actually how similar people are. Whoever they are. Wherever they are. No matter what their cultural background.

People everywhere simply want to live in peace. To celebrate family, and have a chance to provide for them. To speak, walk and breathe freely. To live free from fear, and with enough wealth that they don’t fear want, either.

The same things essentially frighten all of us, and the same things usually please us, inspire us, and elevate us.

We are all much more alike than we are unalike.

One of the most educational things today is to observe on social media how a “meme” of something silly, charming, and encouraging can be shared by people of all cultures, all types, all ages, and all sexes, umpteen millions of times. Very often, those memes involve conspicuous acts of kindness. Of gentleness. Every time someone clicks “Share”, they are affirming our common humanity.

If social media has a true purpose, it is perhaps to remind us that what unites us, as a species, is much more than ever divides us.

This is not to argue for a common or enforced blandness. Educator, campaigner and orator Booker T Washington once said, “In all things social we can be as separate as the finger, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress”.

That’ll do me. For my birthday present, I’d really like it if you agreed, Dear Reader. Let’s stop “othering”, and be the hand that creates mutual progress.

 

 

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Sitting in the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County, California looking back on his wasted life is Sirhan Sirhan, the aggrieved pro-Palestinian Jordanian who fifty years ago today fatally shot Bobby Kennedy for his support for selling war planes to Israel.

But what he killed that day was not only the wildly popular primary contender for the Democratic nomination for President, but also the post-war “big government” consensus that had held sway in America since the Depression. With Kennedy effectively died the idea that Government had a legitimate role in enabling social cohesion and attacking evils such as poverty and the racial divide.

After his death, the Democrats turned to Hubert Humphrey as a consensus candidate, but the bumbling Humphrey was never going to be a match for the charismatic and experienced Richard Nixon.

That event began a thirty year or more realignment to the right in American politics, which eventually led to a wider realignment around the democratic world, which affected both future Democratic candidates (such as Carter and Clinton) as well as notable Republicans such as Ronald Reagan. By the end of the process the “post war consensus” around enabling government and Keynsian economics was largely broken, and it is not clear yet whether or not it will ever be revived.

Texan political scientist Walter Dean Burnham’s 1970 book Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics presents a theory of American political development that focuses on the role of party systems that endure for several decades, only to be disrupted by a “critical election”. Such elections not only hand presidential and congressional power to the non-incumbent political party, but they do so in a dramatic way that repudiates the worn-out ideas of the old party and initiates a new era whose leaders govern on a new set of assumptions, ideologies, and public policies. The elections of 1860 and 1932 are perhaps the clearest examples of critical elections, and scholars have disagreed about how well Burnham’s theories still explain American electoral politics. Others contend that 1968 was a realigning election for Republicans holding the presidency from 1969 to 1977 and again from 1981 to 1993.

Some political scientists, such as Mayhew, are skeptical of the realignment theory altogether, saying there are no long-term patterns: “Electoral politics,” he wrote, “is to an important degree just one thing after another … Elections and their underlying causes are not usefully sortable into generation-long spans … It is a Rip Van Winkle view of democracy that voters come awake only once in a generation … It is too slippery, too binary, too apocalyptic, and it has come to be too much of a dead end.”

That is in all probability true. “Realignment” elections are probably the result of long-term trends that then coalesce around an individual or event. In this sense, the election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK is unquestionably onesuch, in that it can be seen as not so much an enthusiasm for Thatcher personally (for some time after her election in 1979 she actually languished in the polls and could arguably have been defeated in the 1983 election were it not for the Falklands War) but as an enduring and growing response to militant trade unionism that had disrupted the country during the previous Heath and Callaghan premierships.

In this sense, though, it is interesting to debate what type of America we might now see had Robert Kennedy survived and won the election. Would we have seen a rejuvenated consensus around government intervention, led by Kennedy’s personal charisma, and fervour? Or was Kennedy a “man out of time”, a liberal consensus man who belonged ten or twenty years earlier? It is an enticing discussion.

Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in response to the dissent brokered by the civil rights movement thoroughly moved large numbers of older, conservative and male whites (most directly) into the Republican camp. Whether or not Kennedy’s personal appeal and rhetorical flourish would have kept them in the Democrat fold is impossible to say. Republican leaders consciously appealed to many white Southerners’ racial grievances in order to gain their support. Whether or not Kennedy could have “sold” a different narrative is hard to say. The Southern Strategy and its effectiveness certainly annoyed black and other minority voters. In 2005, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman formally apologised to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a national civil rights organisation, for exploiting racial polarisation to win elections and ignoring the black vote. The very substantial preference for the Democrat ticket currently evidenced by the black population stems in part from this period and there can be little doubt that the election of Donald Trump reresented the most stark division between black and white voters in modern electoral history. Would Kennedy have reduced or prevented that divide? Who knows?

Certainly, many left-leaning leaders at the time felt Kennedy’s loss very keenly and for many Kennedy’s death ended the revival of American liberalism.

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 2.31.06 pm“King had prepared us for his death, and after it [MLK’s death] happened, there was no weeping, we immediately started figuring out how we were going to carry on the Poor People’s Campaign,” says former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, one of King’s closest aides.

But that maintenance of effort was scuppered by Kennedy’s death. “That was when I broke down,” says Young. “I think that the rational liberal democratic socialist view of the world, from Franklin Roosevelt all the way to Lyndon Johnson, was really cut short by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.”

Others disagree. “By the end of the 1960s, the forces that were swelling up against the Great Society, which was an extension of the New Deal of the 1930s, were going to defeat whoever the Democrats put up,” says HW Brands, historian and author. “Americans were disillusioned and angered by the violence of the 1960s, and by the failure of the Democratic governments of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to take Vietnam to a successful conclusion.”

Brands notes how also the Civil Rights movement had largely achieved its legislative aims, and so if either Martin Luther King Jr or Robert Kennedy had lived they would have had to battle the great American conundrum of economic inequality and poverty that has thwarted all others.

“That’s a much tougher nut to deal with going off the last 50 years of American politics,” Mr Brands says. “You can repeal laws against blacks, but can you mandate economic equality? Nobody’s figured out how to do it … for a society that is organised economically along capitalist lines.” It’s a fair point.

 

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Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 1.44.58 pm.pngWhat is certain is that the election of Nixon and the general drift to the right that continues to this day resulted in economic policies – an understanding of the economic framework – that are wildly different to what went before … right up to until, perhaps, the election of an innately interventionist Trump administration, with its talk of directly investing in rustbelt industries, trade wars, and all the rest of it – which election can at least in part be squarely laid at the door of voter dis-satisfaction with the actual out-workings of the very “trickle down” economics that the Republicans for a generation have been enthusiastically promoting.

Yet as the result of the Trump revolution, American economic policy is now a curious (and not necessarily sustainable, or necessarily successful) mixture of lowering taxes and increasing spending, of triumphalist nationalism and “America First”, and an apparent rejection of free tradeism. Aided, no doubt, by Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity in some sections of the population, Trump’s election was above all a reaction to the fact that the new consensus, established after Kennedy’s death and pursued by both Democrats and Republicans, hasn’t really “worked”, either.

So it is at least worth speculating exactly what Sirhan Sirhan destroyed that day, 50 years ago. Jeremi Suri, a history professor and author, has commented: “Kennedy … was the last politician who came from a background of Franklin Roosevelt-influenced social welfare policies who could connect with rural voters,” Mr Suri says. “What ended in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a set of policies of expanding rights, expanding government services and assistance for those in need, and the backlash against that was facilitated by the absence of effective figures like Robert Kennedy.”

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So was Kennedy-ism the last gasp of the liberal consensus, or will we see that consensus revived, at least in part, by a new crop of populist centre-left politicians, in America and around the world, of whom Trump is merely, perhaps, a somewhat confused example?

How do we judge, for example, the huge popularity of a character like Bernie Sanders, a self proclaimed “democratic socialist”, whose economic prescription for America could have been written by any “big Government” thinker from 1926-1966 without anyone finding it in the least unusual or even worthy of much comment?

Was Kennedy’s death merely a pause in left-liberal consensus building, or the end of it?

Time, as always, will tell.

(Some of the quotations in this article previously appeared in a BBC article.)

To get uplifting words of wisdom in your Facebook feed every day, free of charge, just go here https://www.facebook.com/thoughtfortoday/ and click the Like button at the top of the page, where the pink arrow is pointing at it …

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Thought for Today, Day 54 – feel with your heart; remember what’s important.

Helen Keller said: The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.

At 19 months old, Keller contracted an unknown illness which might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness left her both deaf and blind. At that time, she was able to communicate somewhat the six-year-old daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs; by the age of seven, Keller had more than 60 home signs to communicate with her family.

Even though blind and deaf, Helen Keller had passed through many obstacles and she learned to live with her disabilities. She learned how to tell which person was walking from the vibrations of their footsteps.

Later in life Keller became the world’s most famous activist for the disabled and a noted campaigner on many other issues.

One meeting she held was reported thus: “a message that will linger long with those fortunate enough to have received it. The wonderful girl who has so brilliantly triumphed over the triple afflictions of blindness, dumbness and deafness, gave a talk with her own lips on “Happiness,” and it will be remembered always as a piece of inspired teaching by those who heard it.

According to those who attended, Helen Keller spoke of the joy that life gave her. She was thankful for the faculties and abilities that she did possess and stated that the most productive pleasures she had were curiosity and imagination. Keller also spoke of the joy of service and the happiness that came from doing things for others … she imparted that “helping your fellow men were one’s only excuse for being in this world and in the doing of things to help one’s fellows lay the secret of lasting happiness.” She also told of the joys of loving work and accomplishment and the happiness of achievement. Although the entire lecture lasted only a little over an hour, it had a profound impact on the audience.

Now: what were you worrying about again?

#helenkeller #deafness #disability #courage #hope #thoughtfortoday

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I’m waiting for my Son to die. At least in Heaven there’s food.

 

Compassion fatigue?

Boredom?

Distracted by the Winter Olympics closing ceremony? Massacres in American schools? Trump’s latest tweet? Football?

What will it take to make you sit up and take notice?

Perhaps this. Warning: distressing.

http://www.bbc.com/news/video_and_audio/must_see/43163173/syria-war-children-struggle-to-survive-in-eastern-ghouta

#assad #syria #russia #civilians #children

If you want to share this story, which is something you could to do immediately to raise awareness of this utter disgrace, please cut and paste the link at the end of this sentence, and post it to your Facebook page or wherever: wp.me/p1LY0z-3ya

NEWS UPDATE

There appears to be some success in the outpouring of anger over Russia and Assad’s behaviour. Please KEEP sharing this story as often and as creatively as you can to ensure that pressure is kept up.?

See: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43200956

 

Screen Shot 2018-02-15 at 1.28.58 pm

Watching video footage of a Florida student recording the noise of a gunman firing an “AR-15 style rifle” inside their school – killing at least 17 people, and possibly more when the injured either recover or tragically do not – was not good for one’s peace of mind.

The horrific and terrifying noise that such a rifle makes just a few feet from you will live in the mind of viewers forever. What the long-term effect will be on those who were actually there will be, God only knows. The by-now all too familiar photographs of traumatised children and parents are almost too awful to contemplate.

Indeed, one of the greatest dangers of the current situation in America is that people will turn away, feeling helpless, or simply ignore events through compassion fatigue.

This was the 18th school shooting in the USA this year. Which, it should be pointed out, is not even into its third month.

Worse, the alleged perpetrator was known to the school, had been disciplined while there, and previously banned from the campus with a backpack on.

The time for America to ignore its hugely powerful gun lobby and take action to prevent more occurrences of these acts is now so long overdue that it is not even worth fulminating in shock any more.

America must do take following steps now, or accept that disenfranchised marginalised youths – nearly always male, and clearly disturbed – will continue to act like this with relative impunity.

No, this problem will not be fixed overnight – the solution will be long, tortuous and depressingly tough and complex – but every day that is wasted simply invites another such event. America has to start this journey sometime. If not now, when?

  • “Assault style/AR-15” rifles must be banned throughout the country. For everyone. They are unnecessary for vermin control on farms, they are unnecessary for hunting, they are unnecessary for personal protection, and in the wrong hands they are irreparably and uniquely harmful. That’s it, no discussion, the time has come. Someone needs to show some leadership and get this change implemented.
  • No gun of any kind should be sold, by anyone, to anyone, without thorough psychological and background checks. America needs, as far as it can, to keep guns out of the hands of people who are likely to turn them on themselves or others.
  • The USA needs a gun amnesty to encourage legacy guns out of the community so they can be destroyed. This will reduce the number of guns stolen (currently 200,000 a year from legal gun owners) that end up int he criminal community.
  • People keeping unsecured weapons in their home should be subject to tough new nationally-agreed sanctions including, but not limited to, the permanent removal of their weapons and a ban on them replacing them

None of these aims should be rejected by reasonable advocates of gun ownership. Most people outside of America consider, as we have said many times before, that the right to bear arms is as inherently unwise as the right to arm bears. But it has to be accepted that the American public has a unique view of the matter. But that view can still be respected while making America’s children – indeed, all their population – much safer.

Some will say, again, that the problem is schools that are gun free zones, that all that is needed is more and better armed security. This is, of course, a simple nonsense. No school facility can ever be adequately secured against a madman with a semi-automatic rifle, and that’s the only point that matters. Unless you want to turn schools into the equivalent of armed prison camps, which is not only impractical, but is also not healthy for the children inside them. Why would America want to do that, when Americans can choose instead to rid society of semi-automatic weapons if they so wish?

Some will say, again, that guns are not the only deadly weapon available to assailants. And they’d be right. But it is much more difficult to kill 17 people with a knife, or a baseball bat. And that’s the point. And it is unarguable. It is also unarguable that the vast majority of attacks are carried out with guns, and the most deadly have always been with AR-15 style weapons, simply because of the ease with which multiple shots can be got off.

Some will say again that getting rid of such weapons is too hard, that illegal arms will continue to circulate amongst the criminal classes, and the argument needs to be confronted honestly. Yes, it will be hard to eliminate such weapons from the streets of America, and it will take time. As each such weapon is discovered, it must be destroyed. The population of such weapons will fall only slowly. (Although a gun amnesty will speed the process.) But people committing massacres are not career or professional criminals. They are not even gang members. They are loners, and normally not criminal in any other identifiable sense. In other words, the argument is a simple furphy.

The argument in favour of starting the process of reducing the population of such guns vastly outweighs any difficulties.

Because the question always comes back to “if not now, when?”

parkland-florida-school-shooting-05-ap-jc-180214_4x3_992

Without political leadership – without bi-partisan political leadership – America is simply doomed to seeing these scenes over and over. What is clear is that the current situation is unacceptable in a modern, free country. If anyone doubts that it is, they should visit 17 households in Broward County tonight.

Already there is evidence that tourist numbers to the USA are being negatively affected by the widespread perception of the country as riddled with gun violence.

And the psychological impact on America’s own population can hardly be imagined.

Let’s work together on what CAN be done, rather than waste any more time arguing about whether anything should be done. And before any smart-alec remarks that this is nothing to do with a writer in Australia, we would simply make three points.

  • Sometimes, a little distance is required to give perspective.
  • We have successfully tackled this problem in Australia and largely eradicated these weapons from our society.
  • We have friends in America. Many of them. And some of those friends have children.

Only when we have sought to address the core problem is it appropriate to say “Prayers and sympathy” to the victims. Because to express such sentiments, but to refuse to even begin to seriously tackle how to prevent events like today’s terrible massacre, is utter hypocrisy. Damnable hypocrisy. And it should be called out as such.

Something must be done. Starting today. That’s the bottom line.

 

 

This tragic story of an 18 year old student who died of an anaphylactic allergic reaction AFTER she warned the waiter of her allergies AND the waiter checked with the kitchen.

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But she’s still dead.

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-manchester-42623423

We do not seek to pre-judge the deliberation and findings from this particular case before the coroner, at all, but in a general sense it can hardly be stressed enough the duty of care required of anyone who gives or sells food to another person.

Restaurants, specifically, have to protect the recipient from even touching, let alone ingesting, food containing problematic ingredients, or contaminated with them.

In an industry bedevilled with casual staffing arrangements, this is fiendishly tricky, but people simply have to take it seriously.

Quite apart from the moral responsibility, losing a criminal or civil case that resulted from a matter like this could result in imprisonment, fines, massive damages, or both.

It also highlights the absolute need for people who suffer from extreme allergies to keep their Epi-pens up to date.

Very sad. Very scary.

As the parent of an anaphylactic child (who has safely made it to 26, so far, fingers crossed) we protected her by building up her self-confidence to say “No”, and by simply not trusting wait staff and kitchens to take the matter seriously.

We lost track of the time, with eggs, for example, when she was offered cakes and biscuits, where the response to our worried enquiry “Er … wasn’t that made with eggs?” was met with dumb ignorance.

Sometimes a list of ingredients would be produced – good idea – and we would point to “Albumin” on the list. What about that? “Dunno mate, what is it?” “Um … egg white?” “No, really?”

So when she travelled round Europe as a young adult, we equipped her with a laminated explanation of her allergies and how seriously they needed to be treated, in a variety of languages to suit every country she was visiting. A total pain for a footloose youngster to have to brandish wherever she ate, to be sure, but then again she made it home alive.

Shahida didn’t.

civilianAs we have wandered Facebook and Instagram and all the rest of it, catching up on friends’ and acquaintances’ (and a few celebrities’) wishes for the New Year, one thing has struck us forcibly.

In the 1980s and 90s it seemed to us, most of the wishes were about health and happiness and wealth – hope the New Year brings you lots of money and the energy to enjoy it, essentially.

In this new century, the world seems a more anxious and thoughtful place. And as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, even more so.

It’s easy to see why. The old order is collapsing, or at least seems to be, at least to a degree.

The European experiment, which was always about unity and not just economics, regardless of how it was “sold”, seems mired in intractable problems. Not just the misguided Brexit – an especially self-immolatory act of political lunacy born of lies, anti-immigration sentiment and a generalised angst given something to focus on by weak leadership, especially that of David Cameron – but by the difficulties in keeping Eastern European countries with no strong tradition of liberal democracy signed up to the particular rules demanded of that heavy burden, and the eternal problem of encouraging people to work to a common good rather than a local or regional one.

Those in rich countries or areas are rapidly becoming sick of bailing out poorer areas.

The ultimate failure, of course, is political – as it always is – is in explaining to them why that’s good policy, and a burden worth shouldering. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking Brexit, Greece, Catalonia, Northern Italy or elsewhere. The failure is not economic, it’s political.

The United States, for so long the arbiter of seemingly everything both good and bad in the world, at least from, say 1943 onwards, now seems lost and uncertain of its role.

In part, this is very obviously because economically the country is no longer the source of unending world wealth, but also because Russian and China (in particular) have parlayed their growing economic might into political clout. Rumours of America’s demise have been hugely over-inflated – it is still the world’s biggest economy by far, with the largest armed forces by some distance, and massive diplomatic clout. But increasingly the country looks like a wounded beast thrashing around in its death throes. There is inadequate investment in the technologies of the future which America must lead in order to maintain its competitive advantage, and its political influence is deeply harmed by the perception outside the USA that its political leadership has, essentially, collapsed.

trump handsThe President looks to all the world, and increasingly to even his own supporters,  to be a scary mixture of stupidity and even mental illness, the Congress seems little more than a quacking collection of self-interested ducks, and any level of informed debate which might turn this miasma around seems largely drowned out by a mixture of bread and circuses and mindless partisanship.

Ranged against this, and perhaps most worryingly, significant numbers of young people look to the command economies of America’s greatest rival with some degree of envy. And every excess of bluster (of which the current standoff with Iran and North Korea are only the most obvious) makes the apparent stability of Russia and China look more attractive, and by implication, their systems. In reality, of course, Russia is little more than a dictatorship by kleptocracy, with highly dubious international ambitions and no regard for the freedom of its own people, and China is run by a ruthlessly domineering state apparatus that papers over substantial internal divisions whilst attempting to feed the middle-class ambitions of its people.

There are, of course, great problems with poverty and lack of opportunity in both countries, just as there are in the rust belt states of the USA or the china-poor-migrant-workers.jpgwobbling rural American states trying to make their way in a world where the produce market is increasingly borderless, or in Latin America, but we hear very little of the problems faced by the command economies of China and Russia (and their imitators) because the first thing throttled by their leadership is a free press.

The argument that judiciously managed free trade conducted by democracies is the fastest and most reliable route to the greater good of all – which should be the clarion call of all sides of Western politics – has sadly morphed, driven by localised economic hardship, into rampant protectionism in the USA, which is hardly how to inspire the people to believe in the system long term.

Capitalism’s own internal contradictions gave us the GFC in recent memory. Instead of pinioning it for what it was – a failure of sensible regulation and the inevitable result of uncontrolled greed by a small elite – America has circled the wagons and thinks it can fix the problem by being rude to its friends and neighbours, investing directly in protecting industries that should rightly be exposed to the winds of competition, and continuing to ramp up endless castles of debt, the construction of which mountain will now be enhanced by reducing its tax take.

To those casting about for security and predictability, it looks like madness, and it is.

The paper claimed mainstream climate models misunderstood the role of clouds

Pile on top of this the very obvious fact that the weather is getting “worse”. This worrysome trend is becoming patently obvious to anyone with half a brain, and debates about why seem so yesterday when the facts are faced up to. Against a US President who jokes in a snowstorm that some global warming might be helpful is a growing understanding in the population as a whole that something serious is up. The message that global warming really (and immediately) means more (and greater) extreme weather events is hitting home. Bigger and more destructive storms of all kinds, including snowstorms. Habitat change threatening species (and many more than polar bears) and subsistence farming across the planet. Large populated areas of low-lying country threatened with likely inundation. Industrial-scale farming patterns worldwide need adjusting and fast.

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And last by by no means least, the entire world seems doomed to engage in a seemingly never-ending asymmetrical war with the forces of extreme violence – now, notably, “Islamic” violence – which represents a tiny fraction of the religion’s worldwide ummah, but which taints it all with sometimes tragic consequences, despite the very obvious fact that many more Muslims are killed by the extremists than are Westerners.

The current paralysis of world political thinking is nowhere better illustrated than by the failure to deal with the philosophical basis of the extremism. The philosophy of extremist Islam is nothing new, but its ability to de-stabilise the world is new. Free availability of arms both large and small, (many supplied from the West), instant digital communication, and a perpetual media spotlight make the menace much greater than it ever has been.

And to even say “Maybe if we stopped bombing towns and villages with enhanced munitions then at least some people might stop becoming radicalised?” is to invite howls of derision and even cat-calls of “Traitor”. As we move into 2018, patriotism has become not just the refuge of scoundrels, but also those who wish to deny palpably obvious realities. The equivalent for Muslims is to say “Maybe we Shia and Sunni should stop killing each other and live in peace?” Even to voice the opinion risks swift retribution.

It is hardly surprising, faced with all this, that worldwide people are retreating into a sort of mutualised depression, for which social media provides one poor outlet, with plaintive appeals to enjoy “A peaceful New Year” replacing “Health, Wealth and Happiness”.

Part of the problem is the seemingly intractable nature of all these problems.

In all these scenarios, the themes seem simply too large, too complex, and too “far away”, for ordinary people to wreak any meaningful change in a positive direction. And it is in this specific context that we propose a return to basics.

We offer you these critical commandments to guide us all in troubling times.

  • Get out and vote for what you believe in.

Abstention-ism is not a viable option. It is leaving “it” to the elites that has got us into this awful mess.

The First Vote

But don’t just vote. Get involved with the political party of your choice. Ask questions, and demand answers.

Get involved in policy-making. Be a squeaky wheel. If you don’t feel qualified to talk about the niceties of defence planning or international economics, then start with what you do know. Your local school district. Rubbish collection. Parks and gardens. Traffic flow. Take back control over your life.

The resulting empowerment is not just good for society, and good training in how to effect change, it’s good for your own psychological well-being, too.

The demise of party membership is just the first and most obvious example of how we willfully gave away our influence over those that rule us.

This is as true in China and Russia as it is in Australia and America. Governmental systems vary, but the power of the people doesn’t. Ultimately, when exercised, the power of the people always and inevitably wins, because there’s more of “us” than there is of “them”. And their control rests on our acquiescence. (That’s why the elite are more than happy to keep us satiated with sports and hamburgers and alcohol.)

So if you want to win, get in the game. Don’t be a spectator. “Subvert the dominant paradigm”, whoever and wherever you are.

Secondly, if the drift towards climate disaster or world conflict terrifies you, (and it should), then channel that fear into something that makes a difference.

  • Don’t like climate change? Turn it off. Reduce your energy consumption.

flashing-panda-wall-switch-light-nightlight-6-led-aaa-batteries-led-wall-switchEveryone can do this, even if it simply involves turning a few lights off.

Only use heating or cooling systems when you really need to.

The planet will be grateful, and your hip-pocket will thank you too.

It really is that simple. And spend two minutes more a week recycling properly, and encouraging everyone around you to do the same.

While you’re making this change, eat a little less meat. Meat (which we freely admit we adore) is highly harmful to the environment. If you’re a dedicated carnivore, maybe enjoy just one vegetarian meal a week?

Never was “Think global, act local” more true, yet we seem to be bored with that call already. Familiarity breeds contempt. It’s time to remind everyone that tiny changes, multiplied by millions, really do make a massive difference.

  • And don’t be silent on violence. Ever.

Silence equals consent. Our silence. Your silence.

libanon25-2

It is odd, isn’t it, how we can become deeply involved in the consequences of a mugging death of a grandmother round the corner from where we live, but become inured to images of warplanes bombing civilian areas, often carried out in our name? The grandmother killed in such an event is no different from the grandmother who got mugged. Each grandmother hoped for a quiet and happy retirement, with enough to live on in a simple, life-sustaining way, surrounded by the happy cries of her grandchildren, tending to a few plants, passing the time of day with friends and neighbours in the sunset of their life. And then this dream was cruelly snatched away from them.

How do we decide to be broken-hearted about one, but cold and unmoved by the other?

To reduce and then prevent war, we simply have to – en masse – make it clear to our leaders that violence conducted in our name is not acceptable to us, and we will withdraw our support from those who conduct it.

Sounds simplistic? It is. That’s the beauty of it. It really is simple.

Over-complicate the goal and it becomes un-do-able. So keep it simple. Support candidates who support peace, and don’t support those who don’t. And make your choice known, on social media, to family and friends, and to the politicians themselves.

Want to do more? Start by arguing that our governments should not sell arms (of any kind) to other governments. Over 90% of the deaths in armed conflicts worldwide are from bullets. If we stop making those bullets, many of those people will not die. Better still, shorn of the ease of pulling a trigger to resolve a conflict, many such conflicts will be more likely to result in negotiations.

Continue by demanding that we choose to withdraw career progression from those who ache to create conflict in order to “use” the weapons and service people at their disposal. Bellicose commanders at all levels are progressively replaced by those who know the reality of war, and will do anything to avoid it. We do not do this partially, we do it on all sides.

And then tell those that govern us that we demand that they reduce the reliance on weaponry to “achieve peace”. (In reality, of course, it is not about peace at all, but is used to achieve political influence.)

We demand that armed forces everywhere are pared back to the lowest level concomitant with providing an effective defence posture against all likely events. In countries like Britain, for example, historical nonsenses like the “independent” Trident nuclear weapon system are simply scrapped. The money released by this ratcheting down of defence spending become a “peace dividend” to re-engineer businesses that rely on the military-industrial complex for survival, and to support servicepeople adjusting to civilian life.

Yes, we know we will immediately be accused, of course, of being namby-pamby, of not living in the real world, of misunderstanding how power works, of being naive. You will, too. But we are none of those things.

We have spent a life watching closely (and sometimes intimately) how the people at the top of power structures work. What motivates them. And what motivates them most is the maintenance of their power.

It is not always that they are simply power hungry, although power is unquestionably very attractive and an aphrodisiac, both to the practitioner and those around him or her. But few people get involved in politics in any system merely to aggrandise themselves, merely for career-ism.

Most genuinely believe they are acting in the greater good, and this motivates them to stick with the long hours, the dangers, the disrupted family life, the huge responsibilities, the petty treacheries, and all the rest of it.

Threaten to take that opportunity to “do good” away – the psychological bedrock of their career – is the most powerful thing any of us can do to affect their behaviour.

That is why the consent – or withdrawal of consent – for politicians to simply do as they wish regardless of our opinions rests on every single one of us. Alone, we can achieve little, but building a consensus rests with every single one of us. We can hide under the covers, or we can speak our mind. We can stand up and be counted, and when enough people are counted, politicians and rulers react.

Every single one of us can say “Not that, this.” Some of us will be ignored. Some of us will mocked for doing so. Some will lose friends. Some will even be injured or killed. But every one of us has the capacity and the right to say “Not that, this.” It is the one thing that no one can take away from us. We control our own opinions. Our voice is our own, whatever the cost. And the choice to use it is always ours and ours alone.

And that’s why this is our New Year’s wish. For you, and for the world.

Because war really is over. If you want it. Badly enough.

Here’s a thought. Why not share a link to this blog? That’d be a good start.

PS A number of people have asked why Churchill – a famous war leader – heads this column. The answer is simple. As someone who actually experienced war, Churchill hated it, whilst nevertheless waging it ferociously. His most relevant quotation on the topic is also perhaps his least quoted: “Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war”. That’s why. If Churchill “got it”, anyone can.

Paul Alexander spends almost every moment of the day inside his iron lung. Photo: Jennings Brown for Gizmodo

This article is reproduced from Gizmodo, with thanks, and without adulteration. It deserves to be read by every anti-vaccination campaigner, and every parent frightened by their propaganda.

Martha Lillard spends half of every day with her body encapsulated in a half-century old machine that forces her to breathe. Only her head sticks out of the end of the antique iron lung. On the other end, a motorised lever pulls the leather bellows, creating negative pressure that induces her lungs to suck in air.

In 2013, the Post-Polio Health International (PPHI) organisations estimated that there were six to eight iron lung users in the United States. Now, PPHI executive director Brian Tiburzi says he doesn’t know anyone alive still using the negative-pressure ventilators. Recently, I met three polio survivors who depend on iron lungs. They are among the last few, possibly the last three.

Martha

Their locations form a line that cuts directly through the heart of the US – one in Dallas, one outside Oklahoma City, and one in Kansas City, Missouri – what some call tornado alley.

Storms have always been especially difficult for Lillard because if the iron lung loses power, she could die in her sleep. She lives alone, aside from three dogs and 20 geckos that she keeps in plastic terrariums filled with foliage and wool. “They like to sleep in the fleece, wrapped up like a burrito,” she said as she introduced me to a few of her favourites.

Lillard sleeps in the iron lung, so it is in her bedroom. Even though the tank is a dull canary yellow it pops in the room, which is painted chartreuse – like the rest of the house, inside and out – and filled with toys and dolls that she has collected throughout her lifetime. On the walls hang a crucifix, a plush Pink Panther, and mirrors strategically placed so she can see around the room and into the hallway.

Her iron lung has portholes and windows on the side; a pressure gauge at the top. The machine is actually cobbled together from two iron lungs. One, the March of Dimes gave her when she was a child. The other, she bought from someone in Utah, after she haggled him down from $US25,000 ($33,127) to $US8000 ($10,600). The body has also been modified over the years. Her grandfather invented a motorised pulley system that closes the bed tray into the tank after she climbs in. He also replaced the brushed aluminium mirror above the neck slot with a real mirror so that she could have a clear view to the rest of the room when she’s locked in the canister. A local engineer used a motor from an old voter registration device to build a mechanism that tightens the collar around her neck after she slips her head through the portal. The fan belts and half-horsepower motor have been replaced about 10 times.

“It seemed like forever because you weren’t breathing. You just laid there and you could feel your heart beating.”

When Lillard is outside of the tank, she can breathe using a positive-pressure ventilator, a smaller device that pushes air into her lungs. But that instrument doesn’t provide the same relief as when she puts her entire body into the 290kg, 2.3m-long apparatus. Plus, forcing air into the lungs can cause inflammation or damage the air sacs. When she’s sick, she can only heal if she spends full days in the iron lung. She calls herself “a human battery” because she has to recharge every day.

Lillard is 69, 145cm and weighs 44kg. Her back is arched from scoliosis. She didn’t get surgery when she was a child because doctors didn’t expect her to make it to her teenage years, and she never had an operation as an adult because polio survivors can stop breathing when they’re on anaesthesia.

She was infected with polio at her fifth birthday party at the Joyland Amusement Park on 8 June 1953. Nine days later, her neck ached so bad she couldn’t raise her head off the pillow. Her parents said it was probably just a summer cold, but Lillard could tell they were afraid. They took her in for a spinal tap, which confirmed it was polio.

floorLillard looks through a photo album on her living room floor. Photo: Jennings Brown for Gizmodo

Lillard asked me to take out a photo album so she could show me snapshots of her youth as she sat on a blanket on the floor of her living room, where it’s more comfortable for her to sit when she’s out of the machine. “I wanted to be a ballerina. That was my big wish. I started walking on my toes when I was one, and I just constantly was after ballerina dolls. We didn’t have a dance school in town until I was five and my mum was going to enrol me that year, but I got sick,” she told me. “I think now of my life as a ballet. I have to balance so many things. It’s a phenomenal amount of energy I have to use to coordinate everything in my life.”

Polio is a silver bullet

“All the mothers were just terrified because people were just getting it right and left,” Lillard said. “They didn’t know if it was a virus or bacteria or how you caught it.”

Poliomyelitis is a highly contagious disease that can cause paralysis of legs, arms and respiratory muscles. “The polio virus is a silver bullet designed to kill specific parts of the brain,” Richard Bruno, a clinical psychophysiologist, and director of the International Centre for Polio Education said. “But parents today have no idea what polio was like, so it’s hard to convince somebody that lives are at risk if they don’t vaccinate.”

When Lillard was a child, polio was every parent’s worst nightmare. The worst polio outbreak year in US history took place in 1952, a year before Lillard was infected. There were about 58,000 reported cases. Out of all the cases, 21,269 were paralysed and 3145 died. “They closed theatres, swimming pools, families would keep their kids away from other kids because of the fear of transmission,” Bruno said.

POLIO EPIDEMIC
The emergency polio ward at Haynes Memorial Hospital in Boston, 16 August 1955. Patients are using the same Emerson iron lung model that some polio survivors use today. Photo: AP

Children under the age of five are especially susceptible. In the 1940s and 1950s, hospitals across the US were filled with rows of iron lungs that kept victims alive. Lillard recalls being in rooms packed with metal tubes – especially when there were storms and all the men, women, adults and children would be moved to the same room so nurses could manually operate the iron lungs if the power went out. “The period of time that it took the nurse to get out of the chair, it seemed like forever because you weren’t breathing,” Lillard said. “You just laid there and you could feel your heart beating and it was just terrifying. The only noise that you can make when you can’t breathe is clicking your tongue. And that whole dark room just sounded like a big room full of chickens just cluck-cluck-clucking. All the nurses were saying, ‘Just a second, you’ll be breathing in just a second.'”

In 1955, Americans finally had access to the polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk. “It was hailed as a medical miracle and the excitement about it was really unparalleled as far as health history in the United States,” Jay Wenger, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s polio-eradication effort told me. “No one who remembers the 1950s, in terms of polio, wants to go back there and be in that situation again.”

By 1961, there were only 161 reported cases in the US. But in 1988, there were still an estimated 350,000 cases worldwide. That year, the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and the Rotary Club began an aggressive campaign to end polio everywhere. Last year there were 37 cases reported in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

According to Bruno, if an infected person in either of those countries visited family in an area such as Orange County, California, where many parents are opting out of vaccinating their children, “then we could be talking about the definition of a polio epidemic.”

Wenger said that’s why the Gates Foundation recently joined the other organisations in the global effort to eradicate polio. “If there’s a virus anywhere in the world, it could just come back in,” Wenger said. “Some little kid could get on a plane and fly in and reinfect an area. And if the kids in that area are not vaccinated, you could start the virus circulating again.”

But even though the last wild case of polio in the US was in 1979, it still haunts the country. “A lot of people think of polio as a disease of the past and don’t realise there are people here today that are still suffering the effects of polio.” said Brian Tiburzi, executive director of Post-Polio Health International (PPHI), an advocacy group for the estimated 350,000 to 500,000 polio survivors living in the US.

Some polio survivors were only partially impaired or got better. For instance, Mia Farrow only had to spend eight months in an iron lung when she was nine, before going on to become a famous actress and polio advocate. And golfer Jack Nicklaus had symptoms for two weeks as a child, but as an adult only had sore joints.

But many polio victims have breathing difficulties for the rest of their lives, or have issues later in life when overworked neurons burn out, a condition called post-polio syndrome. “I breathe 20 per cent of what you breathe with every breath,” Lillard explained to me. “You still have the neurons that work the muscles that you breathe with.”

Let it breathe for you

Lillard offered to let me try out her iron lung about an hour after I met her. She showed me how to operate the ad hoc mechanisms that would lock me into the tank and tighten the collar around my neck like a camera shutter – tight enough that no air can escape, but loose enough that I don’t choke myself.

I climbed into the bed tray, slipped my head through the hole, tightened the collar, then flipped the switch that controls the pulley that closes the tray into the main canister. As the system locked me in, I had a quick wave of claustrophobic panic and my instinct was to take deep breaths, but a motor was controlling that. I tried to describe the feeling to Lillard, but the machine was inhaling for me, so no sound came out. I had to wait a moment for the release.

“Let the air out of your lungs and let it breathe for you,” Lillard said. “Imagine if you were real tired of breathing, how good that would feel – if you were struggling to take a breath.”

Being in an iron lung was the most relief and discomfort I have ever felt at the same time. I slowly got used to the mechanical rhythm and began feeling a little relaxed. I tried closing my mouth, and air still rushed in through my lips. I felt like a vacuum cleaner.

As I climbed out, Lillard warned me to be careful and not break any of the switches or pulleys. If I damaged anything, and she wasn’t able to get someone to repair it within a few hours, she might not have made it through the night. A few weeks earlier, the collar-opener broke and she was trapped inside. Fortunately, her housekeeper was there to help her force it open, and a friend who does custom metal fabrication for motorcycles, planes and other machines, Tony Baustert, came a few hours later to repair it.

Recently, an ice storm knocked her power out for three days and the generator malfunctioned. The fire department came over but they wouldn’t run a power line from down the street or provide a temporary generator, Lillard said. Fortunately, one of the firefighters came by when he was off-duty and fixed the generator. During the panic, Lillard thought about Dianne Odell, a polio survivor who died in her iron lung in Memphis in 2008, after she lost power during a storm. Her father and brother-in-law took turns pumping the bellows by hand but couldn’t sustain the rhythm long enough to keep her alive.

Understandably, Lillard lives in a constant state of anxiety over the functionality of her iron lung. But she said the company responsible for servicing the device, Philips Respironics, hasn’t been much help. She recalls one time when a repair person disassembled the machine to make a repair, then tried to leave before putting it back together. Another technician took it apart and couldn’t figure out how to fix it, so Lillard had to call another mechanically skilled friend, Jerry House, to help.

These days her biggest concern is the canvas spiral collar that creates the seal around her neck. She used to have to replace them every few months after they wore out and stopped keeping a seal. Back then she could get them for a few dollars each, but she recently bought two from Respironics for a little more than $US200 ($265) each. She said the company wouldn’t sell her any more because they only have 10 left. For years she’s been trying to find someone to make a new collar. She uses Scotch guard on her current supply and tries not to move her neck around, hoping to make them last as long as possible.

I asked her what happens if she runs out.

“Well, I die,” she said, in a matter-of-fact tone.

Iron lungs became the responsibility of Philips through mergers and acquisitions. The March of Dimes supplied and serviced iron lungs until the end of the ’60s, around the same time the J.H. Emerson company stopped manufacturing the product. Once Salk’s vaccine diminished the need for polio support and advocacy, March of Dimes handed off iron lung responsibilities to Lifecare Services. Medical supply company Respironics acquired Lifecare in 1996, then merged with Philips in 2007.

Over the years, Lifecare and Respironics have tried to get more polio survivors to use alternative breathing aids – devices that were newer, cheaper, easier to service, and didn’t require parts that were no longer manufactured. In 2004, Respironics gave iron lung users three options: Transition to another ventilator device, keep using the iron lung but know that Respironics may not be able to repair the device, or accept full ownership and responsibility of the iron lung and find someone else to repair it. According to the Post-Polio Health International, responses “ranged from ‘it is understandable that repairing a device made that long ago would be difficult’ to ‘a multi-million dollar company should be able to just make parts'”.

Philips Respironics denied multiple requests to comment for this story. But polio advocates believe the company can do more to help polio survivors who have struggled with the effects of polio their entire lives.

“It would be helpful if the people who are contractually responsible and morally and ethically responsible for polio survivors did something to help these people,” said International Centre for Polio Education director Richard Bruno. “It would be like if you bought a used car, you drove it a block and the car stopped working. Then you go back to the car dealer and you say, ‘Hey, the car stopped working.’ And they say, ‘Well too bad, you bought it and that’s the way life goes.’ Except instead of a car it’s a machine that you need to live.”

The iron lung’s a part of me

Like Lillard, Paul Alexander, 70, also relies on a mechanic to keep his iron lung running.

I met Alexander a few times in his small house in Dallas. He spends nearly every moment in his iron lung in the centre of his living room, which is decorated with degrees, awards, pictures of family, and a drawing of the Scottish folk singer Donovan, who had polio. When people enter the front door a few metres away from him, he usually greets them with a warm upside-down smile, reflected in the mirror above his head.

One of the times I visited Alexander, I walked in on him editing a memoir that’s set to be published in a few months. He types and answers the phone with his mouth, using a capped pen attached to a plastic wand he clenches with his teeth. During another visit, his friend and mechanical saviour Brady Richards stopped by to check in on Alexander.

Alexander, who got polio in 1952 when he was five, is almost entirely paralysed below the neck, but that hasn’t stopped him from going to law school and becoming a trial lawyer. “When I transferred to University of Texas, they were horrified to think that I was going to bring my iron lung down, but I did, and I put it in the dorm, and I lived in the dorm with my iron lung,” he told me. “I had a thousand friends before it was over with, who all wanted to find out what’s that guy downstairs with a head sticking out of a machine doing here?”

Alexander hasn’t been to a trial in a few years now as it has become nearly impossible for him to get out of the iron lung for a few hours like he used to do when he went to court and represented clients in a wheelchair.

In 2015, a friend of Alexander uploaded a YouTube video of Alexander explaining the issues he was having with his iron lung, hoping it would be seen by a machinist who knew how to repair the respirator. Finally someone connected Alexander with someone kind and skilled enough to help. “I looked for years to find someone who knew how to work on iron lungs,” Alexander said. “Brady Richards, it’s a miracle that I found him.”

Richards runs the Environmental Testing Laboratory, which does rigorous testing to make sure equipment and products meet environmental standards (everything from checking if a TV mount is earthquake proof to checking how an ambulance will handle a T-bone collision). In one of Richard’s garages, he keeps his side projects – hot rods, desert race cars, and a small collection of iron lungs and parts. This is where Richards refurbished the current machine that Alexander uses and where he is fixing up another replacement. “When we first brought the tube into the shop, one of my younger employees asked me what I was doing with these smoker grills,” Richards said. “And I was like these are not smokers, these are iron lungs. And all my younger guys had no idea what that meant.”

Alexander had been in the refurbished model for about a couple months when I first met with him in September. To him, it was like a new skin. “Once you live in an iron lung forever, it seems like, it becomes such a part of your mentality. Like if somebody touches the iron lung – touches it – I can feel that. I can feel the vibration go through the iron lung,” he said. “If there’s a slight bit of a vibration that occurs as the result of the mechanics – worn out the fan belt or it needs grease or anything like that – it tends to change the breath slightly. Yep, the iron lung’s a part of me, I’m afraid.”

My worst thought

My final visit was Mona Randolph, 81, who lives with her husband Mark, 63, in Kansas City, Missouri. When I first arrived, a helper was tucking Mona into the machine for the night. They lift Mona into the iron lung using a mechanical arm attached to their ceiling since Mark’s back problems prevent him from lifting her into the iron lung, like he used to do when they first met in the ’80s.

Mona got polio at the age of 20 in 1956. At the time, she was a skilled pianist planning her wedding. She needed an iron lung for the first year, until she went to rehab in Warm Spring, Georgia, where she was able to wean herself off. But 20 years later, in 1977, she had a series of bronchial infections – possibly due to post-polio syndrome – and her doctors told her she needed to start using an iron lung again. “The ‘yellow submarine’ is my necessary, trusted, mechanical friend,” she told me. “I approach it with relief in store at night and thankfully leave it with relief in the morning.”

Mona is covered under Mark’s insurance and Medicare, but neither of those help with the iron lung or the caretakers that Mona needs. The Randolphs opted to take full ownership of the iron lung when Respironics was making its big push to offload them. Since then, Mark, a software engineer who has many other engineer skills, and Mona’s cousin, a former aircraft mechanic, have maintained and repaired Mona’s “yellow submarine”. Mark said the medical costs are about the same as a new car every year, “But what would I spend it on if not for Mona.”

When I met with the Randolphs, Mark gave me photocopies of old service manuals and operating instructions. He filled me in on little-known history about the Emerson iron lung and its inventor, whom they met at a Post-Polio convention. I realised what each of these iron lung users have in common are the aid of generous, mechanically skilled friends and family. And that’s probably the main reason they have been able to live long and full lives, despite the hardships and anxieties of depending on ageing machinery to survive.

But another thing they all had in common is a desire for the next generations to know about them so we’ll realise how fortunate we are to have vaccines. “When children inquire what happened to me, I tell them the nerve wires that tell my muscles what to do were damaged by a virus,” Mona said. “And ask them if they have had their vaccine to prevent this. No one has ever argued with me.”

Alexander told me that if he had kids he would have made sure they were vaccinated. “Now, my worst thought is that polio’s come back,” he said. “If there’s so many people who’ve not been – children, especially – have not been vaccinated… I don’t even want to think about it.”

Lillard is heartbroken when she meets anti-vaccine activists.

“Of course, I’m concerned about any place where there’s no vaccine,” she said. “I think it’s criminal that they don’t have it for other people and I would just do anything to prevent somebody from having to go through what I have. I mean, my mother, if she had the vaccine available, I would have had it in a heartbeat.”

This girl.

As we all celebrate International Day of the Girl (Child) let’s remember that smashing glass ceilings in Western countries is ALL our job. And all well and good. Bravo. Let’s be in that with bells on.

But let us also remember that many of the girl children born into the world are perpetually hungry, don’t get even the most rudimentary education, are virtual slaves at the hands of their fathers and male relatives, and subject to horrific “honour” violence, too. Let us remember that the laws in their lands protect them inadequately, and that they are marginalised and ignored in decision making.

Painting by Amrita Shergil

So let’s not just make this International Day of the Girl who needs equal pay in her cossetted Western society, or who needs to aspire to be a Board Director like her male sibling. Yes, she does. Yes, those things are very important.

But in other societies – societies we do business with, and visit –  the girls would just appreciate pay. Any pay. Any chance for anything beyond the grinding poverty that locks them into a life of walking miles to collect clean water, scrabbling in the rubbish for food, or spending from pre-dawn to late at night engaged on domestic chores and caring for men.

So let’s make this “day” about them, first.

It’s also “Mental Health Day” today.

An ironic juxtaposition in so many ways.

Whilst we focus on the very real needs of everyone who suffers from mental health problems –  and Lord knows we need to do that – let’s also remember that food, shelter, a job, and dignity are the basic building blocks of a happy life.

And we owe it to the world to ensure everyone gets at least a start. A chance.

Because that’s really good for their mental health.

Here are the top 10 toughest places for girls’ education:

  1. South Sudan: the world’s newest country has faced much violence and war, with the destruction of schools and families forced from their homes. Almost three-quarters of girls do not even make it to primary school
  2. Central African Republic: one teacher for every 80 pupils
  3. Niger: only 17% of women between the ages of 15 and 24 are literate
  4. Afghanistan: wide gender gap, with boys more likely to be in school than girls
  5. Chad: many social and economic barriers to girls and women getting education
  6. Mali: only 38% of girls finish primary school
  7. Guinea: the average time in education among women over the age of 25 is less than one year
  8. Burkina Faso: only 1% of girls complete secondary school
  9. Liberia: almost two-thirds of primary-age pupils out of school
  10. Ethiopia: two in five girls are married before the age of 18

A shortage of teachers is a common problem across poorer countries.

Last year, the UN said another 69 million teachers would need to be recruited worldwide by 2030 if international promises on education were to be kept.

Let’s keep our promises. “Girl child” is asking us to.

Alarm as ‘super malaria’ spreads in South East Asia

The rapid spread of “super malaria” in South East Asia is an alarming global threat, scientists are warning.

This dangerous form of the malaria parasite cannot be killed with the main anti-malaria drugs.

It emerged in Cambodia but has since spread through parts of Thailand, Laos and has arrived in southern Vietnam.

The team at the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok said there was a real danger of malaria becoming untreatable.

Prof Arjen Dondorp, the head of the malaria unit, told the BBC News website: “We think it is a serious threat.

“It is alarming that this strain is spreading so quickly through the whole region and we fear it can spread further [and eventually] jump to Africa.”

Failing treatments

In a letter, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, the researchers detail the “recent sinister development” that has seen resistance to the drug artemisinin emerge.

About 212 million people are infected with malaria each year. It is caused by a parasite that is spread by blood-sucking mosquitoes and is a major killer of children.

The first choice treatment for malaria is artemisinin in combination with piperaquine.

But as artemisinin has become less effective, the parasite has now evolved to resist piperaquine too.

There have now been “alarming rates of failure”, the letter says.

Prof Dondorp said the treatment was failing around a third of the time in Vietnam while in some regions of Cambodia the failure rate was closer to 60%.

Resistance to the drugs would be catastrophic in Africa, where 92% of all malaria cases happen.

‘Against the clock’

There is a push to eliminate malaria in the Greater Mekong sub-region before it is too late.

Prof Dondorp added: “It’s a race against the clock – we have to eliminate it before malaria becomes untreatable again and we see a lot of deaths.

“If I’m honest, I’m quite worried.”

Michael Chew, from the Wellcome Trust medical research charity, said: “The spread of this malaria ‘superbug’ strain, resistant to the most effective drug we have, is alarming and has major implications for public health globally.

“Around 700,000 people a year die from drug-resistant infections, including malaria.

“If nothing is done, this could increase to millions of people every year by 2050.”