Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Happiness Factor? It’s a joke, right?

So there I was, aiming for human interaction resulting in happiness, or at least a semblance of contentment.

Fat chance.

Not that it was all bad. A friend and I went off to see a modern re-imagining of John Gay’s 1728 work "The Beggar's Opera" by Mid Wales Opera Company, a production for small spaces and therefore very intimate. Renamed “Mrs. Peachum’s Guide to Love And Marriage” it is a splendidly bawdy, ballsy take on relationships and the relative virtues of virginity. We enjoyed it and, what’s more, my friend and I didn’t fall out in spite of getting into politics.

Another event was a Spanish Evening set up by a local group. There was tapas, Spanish wine, some haphazard music and three short, separate, talks about the painter Joaquin Sorolla, Spanish food and how the speaker liked to cook it and wine talk. The wine talk was the only professional talk, which means that the whole hall could hear that speaker. The other two never remembered to speak into the microphone, in spite of an audience member begging them to do so. What made it worse for me was that I had chosen to sit at a table towards the back of the hall (ready to scarper?) just in front of the wine table where the volunteer wine server chose to use the time of the talks to rearrange his crates of bottles, picking up each bottle, checking it for dregs and plonking it back into its hole in the crate. He took absolutely no notice of my anguished looks in his direction and clinked on busily. Not the most enjoyable evening all told.

You can simply not rely on people to do as they say. I took a very wheezy chest to my doctor; yes, he examined me, asked a few questions and came up with the idea that my childhood asthma might have returned. And yes, he was going to investigate and consult another doctor. "So, should I make another appointment,” I asked. “O no, I’ll ring you later this afternoon.” That was two weeks ago. Not a peep out of the surgery since then.

Gadgets aren’t a whole lot more reliable, either. The whole area had a power cut. When the power came back on after several hours I mentally congratulated the electricity firm and settled down for a cosy evening. By and by the room cooled down, quite considerably by the time I bestirred myself to check on the boiler. One very dead boiler. This was Friday evening of the coldest weekend this year with frost and freezing fog forecast. I fiddled around and tried to relight it but it just grumbled and coughed at me. I spent some time online trying to find the nearest engineer but gave up and rang the manufacturer's company itself - Worcester-Bosch - who are many miles away but have always seen me right in the past. Many miles away also means an expensive call-out, of course. “Yes, we’ll come, On Monday.” Between Friday evening and Monday morning I wore thermal layers, several pairs of thick socks, my pyjamas under trousers and jumpers - who is going to undress completely in a freezing cold bathroom? - , carried around two small fires, and forgot about personal cleanliness entirely. What on Earth do people do who do not have immediate access to the wherewithal necessary to pay for an emergency like this? I had ice flowers on the windows, for heaven’s sake. The female engineer discovered that the power cut had blown the circuit board. She replaced it, serviced the boiler and made sure that all was back in order before she left.

Next stop a major building job. I had my windows on the South side of the house replaced, all eight of them. I was pleasantly surprised by the result. Beloved would have been livid, several years before we debated if we should swap wooden windows for plastic. “Absolutely not,” was his conclusion. "Wooden widows are so much more attractive.” No they’re not, says I. They require constant repainting, repairing and splicing, none of it cheap. So now I have perfectly fitting, draught excluding, plastic windows on the weather side. I was also pleasantly surprised by the workmen doing the job. They were relatively quiet, cleaned up after themselves and caused minor disruption, allowing me to escape to a different room with each window. Even so, there was a moment when the boss man and I almost fell out. Over Brexit, what else. He was a fervent Leaver who trotted out all the long-discredited lies we were told three years ago. There is no getting through to some. I wished him Good Luck and left the room quickly.  I had learned my lesson from a previous experience, much more painful and embarrassing, which I’ll come to next.

You see, there was this dinner party at a very good friend’s house, the guests being a couple from London, a couple from Valley’s End and me. We have met at this house in previous years, always get on well and usually have a splendid evening, with lots of wine, food, good conversation and a general feeling of goodwill to all assembled. Except this time I related my experiences and feelings about the need to apply for Settled Status after 50 years of living the UK, once Brexit has become reality. O dear. It appeared that the couple from London and the host, with whom they were staying for the weekend, had already had a falling-out the previous evening. So my remark simply stirred the flames all over again. It was most unpleasant for a while, a lot of wine had been consumed and tempers flared, in a quietly genteel way, neither bad language nor insults were employed, but tempers flared. I know that families have fallen out, co-workers have fallen out, friends have fallen out over this wretched business but I never imagined that a genial host and his guests would suddenly, in the middle of a most enjoyable dinner party, stage a mini-war. At the moment the UK is not a friendly place.

So, human interaction is all very well, but it does not necessarily lead to happiness.

Friday, 8 November 2019

The Happiness Factor - Can I get hold of it? Part I

`’Do you live here all by yourself?”

Micky was new to the German Conversation group. She hadn’t been to my house before and during her visit she went and stood at every window downstairs looking out on to the garden covered in gold, red and orange beech leaves, the dark shapes of the yews and hollies punctuating the afternoon gloom and the vistas of the hills beyond my hedges. “Beautiful”, she said, “it must be a lot of work.”

It’s only when somebody else remarks on it that you realise that, yes, you are all alone in too much space, that the space calls for more work than you could cope with if you had to do it yourself and that, really, could you be considered selfish? Apart from having it brought home to me in no uncertain terms that I am indeed completely alone now I pushed the thought away. Environmental footprints, paying others to do my unpleasant work, using up more resources than one person should are all genuine and valid concerns, but I don’t want to complicate my life more than it is. For now.

There has recently been yet another study into the happiness factor. Truly happy people are ‘people who need people’, who have strong bonds with friends and family and regular contact. As you all know I have no strong bonds with anyone, I don’t feel I need people, but there are periods when I feel lonely, dejected, depressed. So I am giving the happiness factor a chance to invade my world by accepting every invitation, grab every opportunity for social interaction, take up any cultural entertainment on offer, talk to people in the street and in shops and butt in to casual conversations of a general nature.

The cultural entertainment part has been a great success: Donizetti’s Don Pasquale with Bryn Terfel as the elderly bachelor conned into thinking he is marrying a supposedly demure convent girl, only to find her a domineering, even tyrannical wife the moment the ring is on her finger, was fun. Terfel was made for the role.

Then there was an excellent production of
A Midsummer Nights Dream with Titania being played by Gwendoline Christie. The theatre becomes the forest – a dream world of flying fairies, contagious fogs and moonlight revels.
Hammed Animashaun was a very funny Bottom.
I’ve seen ’The Dream’ a number of times, this production will stick in the mind and not only because of well known stars of small and large screens.

Lastly a new play ‘Hansard’ about the private life of a Conservative MP under Margaret Thatcher
who comes back to his house in the Cotswolds after a week of controversial debate in London. There are only two actors on stage, the MP and his wife, who start out sparring in a sort of routine way but as the day draws on the familiar rhythms of marital scrapping quickly turn to blood-sport.

Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings were excellent. Towards the end it became so harrowing I held my breath.

So, the cultural element of my past few weeks was a success, enough to let a chink of happiness through my anti-social armour. Now for human interactions.

Friday, 18 October 2019

Looking back , looking forward

My darling Millie has died. In her last days she could barely make it to the lawn and often poo'd on the flags of the terrace. She deteriorated quite quickly and I finally had to make the decision to call the vet to the house. Lovely Marzena, my Polish cleaner, was here. She too loves dogs and she sat with Millie, cuddling her and scratching her neck while we were waiting for the vet to arrive. I gave her her afternoon feed hours early, which she ate with visible enjoyment in spite of her wobbly legs. Without Marzena I could not have done it; as it was, I cried and cried and was ready to change my mind again.  The vet knows me for the wimp I am and she and her nurse came within the hour. So that’s that.

I’ve not been terribly happy since then, in fact, I’ve not been at ease with myself ever since Beloved died. Millie was the last living link with him, she was my companion, a creature I talked to and petted, who followed me around and gave me a reason to get up in the morning, to go out in all weathers, to feed and water, to keep as happy as she was making me. With all of them gone, Beloved and Millie, before them my parents, the goodwill of one child gone for good and only a loose connection with the other, I am truly alone in any meaningful sense. The house is empty and quiet. I have no family here or in Germany.

So now it’s time to come to terms with the remainder of my life. A peaceful existence is what I am aiming for. This should be my time for being, not doing. No more struggle, no more achievement, no more passion. All passion spent. A time for being only myself, in kindness and forbearance rather than trying to make changes, in my life or  that of anyone else.

Old age brings calm, if we are lucky. With so much experience, a lifetime of ups-and-downs, of miserable times as well as deliriously happy times, of ill-health and good health, much like any other human being, why do I still feel that I must be doing, actively go forward, get involved, be part of movements, experience new horizons?

Tuesday evening I went to a restaurant with a friend who is madly active, who has just spent a week in London as a First-Aider during the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations. Once again I felt ashamed that I seem to have lost all fight, all passion. That I feel disinclined to climb on barricades, take up new studies, a new cause, an all consuming hobby. Soon people are going to suggest that I must be bored at home, that I must lack much needed stimulation, that I ought to go on exciting holidays. Etc.

Basically, if I am truthful, I must say that I am rather lazy now. There is a battle going on inside me, a battle between letting go on the one hand and feeling that I must not be seen to have stepped off the treadmill on the other; that my own little bubble, now much shrunk, is where I would like to live without shame or guilt. Being lazy makes me want for the desire for disappearing into my bubble to win. There are so many things right here at home which please me, books, talking to friends, my garden, modest social occasions, tv and visits to see plays or listen to concerts. Instead I seem to be recycling the same thoughts, the same questions, the same uncertainties, over and over again, without ever coming to a decision. I would be happy and contented if I could come to no more than simply a workable resolution that doesn’t particularly lead anywhere except to an acceptance of the status quo.

My friend Jay called this afternoon to help me with my Application for Settled Status in the UK post Brexit. About time too that I got down to that. Having prevaricated for ages is just another sign of my current state of mind. The Home Office still can’t cope with iPhones; my friend uses Android so she very kindly made the application for me on that. Afterwards we came to chat and I told her about my current lack of motivation. I speculated if I should go and see a therapist to rid me of the feelings of guilt and shame at my idleness. I have an inkling where these feelings come from: years and years of being responsible for the smooth running of my life and that of first, my parents, and then my children. My friend said, fine, now we know why you are feeling useless, but, and this is the big but: whose rules are these? Who says you must be doing, achieving? You are no longer responsible for anyone but yourself. Jay became quite heated. “If you want to sit all day picking your nose, you can.” She is right, of course, but how do you change the conditioning of a lifetime overnight?

This is getting to be a long post, I’d better stop now. No doubt I will be pondering these existential questions for some time yet, like many others have done before me. And many who come after me will do. And also no doubt, I will be rehashing them here. For now writing this down is helping.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Sheer Escapism

Fully autumn soon, the nights are drawing in, there’s a chill in the air and the leaves of the Japanese ornamental cherry show just the faintest tinge of burgundy. Millie is still with me, she seems to be having a reprieve in her general health - not the arthritis, alas - and I have decided to shut the back door at night. It keeps the warmth in and she has a more comfortable time of it in the scullery. If I have to clean up after her, so be it. It won’t be forever. And it doesn’t happen every night either.

The hedge cutters are here, another sign of autumn. Raindrops are dripping on them but they are hardy young men; “it’s only water”  said the one I took round the perimeter of the garden to give instructions on what needed trimming. True, but I myself still sheltered under a big umbrella. And I needed his arm to help me over a very steep slippery grassy bit without falling over. He promptly fell over himself, should have asked me for my arm in return.

There is so little that is pleasant in this world at the moment that I am seriously keen not to add to the misery for myself. Yes, I am still obsessed with current affairs, yes, I still shout curses at politicians whenever they appear on TV spouting barefaced lies, yes, I still dread what is happening to our climate and the environment. What to do? Withdraw from the whole unholy mess of it? Could be. Escape at least occasionally. Evenings start earlier, earlier evenings require indoor activities rather than balmy nights spent outdoors. Reading, TV and maybe closer attention to this blog of mine again, after several years of neglect.

Which brings me to another question: are you old enough to indulge in bad taste books, films, TV shows without embarrassment? To my surprise quite a few of the ‘ladies who lunch’ admit to doing so. Well, in that case, so do I. Not exclusively, of course. I couldn’t possibly live on a diet of sweets and chocolates, burgers and ready meals, neither can I feed my brain exclusively on pap. However, a Georgette Heyer Regency romance, a cosy mystery from the 'Golden Era', a Mary Stewart adventure, a Robin Hobb fantasy, even a Scandi noir thriller insinuate themselves on to my Kindle now and then. (I am too embarrassed to put hard copies on bookshelves). All of the foregoing have one thing in common, they all end happily-ever-after. As for TV, well, the ladies admit to switching on certain channels which run endless repeats of British and American sitcoms, British country village thrillers and long running soaps. I have to be very tired before I give ‘Midsomer Murders' another go - it’s too much like painting-by-numbers - but it’s been known to fill the odd otherwise sadly depressing space. Morse, Endeavour and Shetland are more to my taste. I can take Agatha Christie's Miss Marple or Poirot as well, if needed. I am not so good on films, but a romcom would hit the spot nicely too.

So, there you have it, Friko’s image as culturally high-brow is shattered. I always knew it and now that escapism has become ever more urgent I am old enough to blow a raspberry at anyone who feels judgement coming on. Not you, obviously.

For those who like natural history and the science of it here’s a recommendation which is neither pap nor instant escapism: Peter Wohlleben’s ’The Hidden Life of Trees’, an informative study and fascinating look into the enchantment of trees that can talk and sometimes walk - no it’s not a fairy tale. You’ll gain a whole new perspective on the amazing processes of life, death and regeneration of woodlands. The better sort of escapism.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Trials and Tribulations

After three hot days the rain is back. From my window it looks like the whole world is weeping. Summer? What summer? I have that English disease of always complaining about the weather, whether it’s godawful or, as it occasionally is, only mildly godawful.

Things started out ok, I had a medical - which my surgery forces on people over 70 with underlying conditions like dodgy hearts or kidneys or whatever - and the results came back fine. I’ll live to complain another day.

Then I called the vet to the house to check Millie over. He came prepared to do the foul deed but she was having a good day, gave him a little wag and went to her treats corner all hopeful. Apparently, she is on her last legs, riddled with arthritis, has a heart murmur and water on the lungs, both of which make her pant, wheeze and cough intermittently. Her organs are weakening and her toilet habits leave much to be desired. The vet gently pointed out that things aren’t really fair on me now, what with her special needs, but damn that dog, she looks at me still bright-eyed, follows me around, even climbing the stairs, and eats like a pig. (How do pigs eat? Are they much slandered?) I just couldn’t do it. The vet says she may deteriorate next week or next month, that it won’t be long now and every day I dread the evening when I have to shut the kitchen door on her and leave her in the fast cooling scullery with the back door open. Last night I shut the back door. I had taken her out down the drive for a few yards about midnight and she actually did a big poo, to my relief.  Surely she wouldn’t do another one during the night? She did; I know she cannot help herself but cleaning up after her is far from undiluted joy.

On top of it all Beloved is getting in on the act. I woke up with a start at seven on the dot this morning because he called to me. “Are you awake?” I swear it was his voice. My dad once spoke to me clearly like that too. A long time ago. I hate being woken up abruptly and called out “I am now, leave me alone.” If only. It took a couple of seconds to remind myself that he has been gone for more than two years. Is his spirit fluttering around somewhere in the cosmos making sure I treat our dog properly ? If so, he should have woken me up an hour earlier, I could have let her out sooner and might have gone back to bed after feeding her.

Things get worse, if you are at all squeamish stop reading now. The night before last I committed murder, involuntary frog slaughter. It caused me a lot of stress and I can’t see why those of you still reading shouldn’t get stressed too. Once again the back door was involved. It’s wide open all summer long, not just for Millie’s sake. Normally, I lean it against a chair at night, stopping it from flying open under a sudden gust of wind. And also so I can hear the noise of it being pushed open by a burglar, which would cause me to jump out of bed, grab the truncheon I inherited from my dad, fly down the stairs with a blood curdling yell and lay about me, scaring any intruder into fleeing for his life. That’s the plan, anyway.

So, night before last, I was ready to shove the door against the chair, or vice versa if you like, and it wouldn’t shut. I tried again, pushing a bit harder. Still no luck. I looked down into the corner of the frame and the body of the door where the obstacle appeared to be and found a frog, very dead by now, bleeding over the doorstep, having been squeezed out of his life.  The silly creature had come in out of the cold several nights earlier and I had forgotten about his habit of seeking shelter just inside the frame. I hardly slept all night, envisaging his final horrible minute. I kept telling myself his death throes can’t have lasted very long, him getting squeezed would compare to one of us being pushed against a wall by a juggernaut, which would see the end of us in no time flat. But still, harming any creature, (apart from one of the current crop of politicians, of course), is wholly against my nature.

The pictures are of Millie and the frog in happier days.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Room to Think

Rain, rain, nothing but rain.

Yesterday, when I saw the weather forecast, I was pleased. A whole day to myself with nobody to disturb my peace. It’s been a busy  couple of weeks, with gardening, a shopping trip, a family visit, a couple of luncheon engagements with friends, nothing arduous or stressful, but enough to make me look forward to solitude.  It was the American poet Marianne Moore who said "the cure for loneliness is solitude” and I must admit that seeing too much of people often leaves me feeling lonely.

Today, I feel differently. This rain is too depressing and I’d love a bit of company. So, in the absence of ‘live’ companions, I am turning to you.

One of solitude’s gifts is room to think. Not that thinking leads to much in my case on a day like today, but when I sit doing nothing else thinking stray thoughts is a natural consequence. Normally I’d sit and read but, unlike my natural hedonistic attitude to life, I felt a bit guilty for doing nothing all day. So I sat and thought. Mainly about people and my perception of them as relating to me. And that is, of course, where things get complicated. I do tend to overanalyse.

I may have mentioned it before: do you enjoy a good argument or do you go with ‘anything for a quiet life’? When meeting groups of acquaintances and friends do you prefer like-minded people or are you happy to leave your comfort zone and listen to opinions you don’t share? Do you bite your tongue when someone expresses themselves in a forceful manner on subjects which you find yourself diametrically opposed to? Do you allow them to have and hold opinions in the spirit of free speech or do you fight your corner, always realising that that might lead to a fight? Or do you say ’there is no arguing with some people’ and leave it at that? Some of the ladies I meet read newspapers I wouldn’t keep for toilet paper and they do insist on repeating the viewpoint, angle and stance such papers espouse. Sometimes it’s just gossip, for instance the permanent negative bias towards Meghan Markle or ridicule of the environmentalist teenager Greta Thunberg, at other times it's the vicious anti immigrant, anti gay, racist mindset. Bearing in mind that these subjects do not come up every time you meet and that these ladies are actually friendly and helpful in many other respects do you continue to meet with them? Or is meeting with them just not worth the hassle?

Tell me what you think.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

All Is Only Transitory

I was looking for a quote to express what I want to say today; there are many, of many words, whole passages, to say just this one thing: nothing lasts for ever. So I gave Goethe pride of place, for he expressed my thoughts in just these four words.

For days on end I have been out in the garden, morning and late afternoon, whenever the temperature allowed. In the middle afternoon I had siesta, sitting reading or snoozing indoors. So gardening is much on my mind. Particularly one aspect of it made me turn philosophical. I don’t know what made me think that gardening is a pursuit which follows the same lines forever, you’d think I should know by now, after close on thirty years of it. Having more or less ignored my garden for the past three years I was greatly surprised when I noticed that many of my special shrubs and whole hosts of perennials look much the worse for wear this year. A bit worn, a bit elderly, a bit tired. Indeed, some look like they need urgent resuscitation.

Of course they do. Highly bred creatures never last as long as your ordinary mongrel, in plant language: your weeds and common versions. Species remain true to themselves, anything bred from them, sub-species and fancy varieties, give up after a few years. So my surprise is rather surprising.

What I need to do now is ruthlessly expel all shrubs past their best, perennials ditto, particularly the kind that flop all over the place and need careful (and boring) staking or those that have turned into congested clumps which barely flower now. A bit of redesigning is in order.

That might be fun. Costly fun even. It would need purchasing new plants and shrubs and involve quite a bit of digging and rearranging.

Which brings me to Paul. We seem to have settled into a relaxed working relationship. When he came yesterday I asked after his well-being, as I always do. He asks after mine too, by the way.

“Not so good today”, he said, “I’m a bit unwell”. He rubbed his chest although I don’t think that was where the source of his discomfort lay.

I made suitable noises and suggested he might want to leave after two hours’ work, before it got hot. “We’ll see”, he said. “I didn’t want to let you down, so I thought I’d better come”.

Two hours in and I asked him if he wanted to continue. “Oh yes”, he said, “work takes your mind off things”.

Later we sat on the bench in Beloved’s memorial patch and had tea, it’s the only really shady spot in the garden any time of day. (How cross Beloved would be, he loved the sun above everything and sat in it for hours, whereas I avoid it when I can. So I win.)

Paul and I got to talking about work. “I don’t really have a choice,” he said, "I need to keep my income up which is stretched perilously thin anyway”. He told me he has only four regulars and a few now and then-ners but he couldn’t really do much more because of his health problems. At the moment he gives me a regular slot on Mondays and an additional slot on another day if he has a gap.

"Thank you”, I said, “but then I’m not such a bad employer?” He turned his head as if I had surprised him and looked me full in the face, not something he does often. “Oh I think we rub along tolerably well.” he said.

For now it’s all good but I’d better not count my chickens just yet.

I added the picture of the phormium in bloom because I still can’t quite believe that is has flowered. Positively pre-historic!