Columns

Here’s a small selection from a weekly column that I wrote for The Courier for two years until the summer of 2015.

Thursday, November 3, 2013

CHILDLESS OR CHILD-FREE?

I’m barren. Emotive word isn’t it? It’s also one that some people recoil from.
Admittedly, it does evoke images of a dry, dusty landscape where nothing can grow, but for those of us who can describe ourselves in those terms, it may be time to reclaim it.
What’s so horrific about it? It can’t be the word, so it must be its meaning. What we need to ask, therefore, is what’s so horrific about not being able to bear children?
Believe me, it’s terrible news to hear, but when it arrives and there’s no life-threatening condition attached, it’s not the end of the world. It may feel like it, but it’s really not.
Of course part of the problem is accepting that a body can’t perform one of the major functions it was designed to, and also that it can’t do the very thing that it had spent so long trying not to.
Did accepting that and moving on, concentrating on what life had given me rather than taken away mean that I had no real maternal instincts. If I had really wanted children, would I have pursued it to bankruptcy? Who knows?
The strangest part is that 13 years after receiving that news it’s still a question that’s asked of me, but it’s one that can’t be answered.
Women without children aren’t viewed with suspicion exactly, but there is a great deal of interest in just, well… why? Rather than pretend that it was never in the plan and small children repulse me as I did for a few years, I now just say “I’m barren.”  It’s an ice-breaker, believe me.
To some people it may mean I’m a shrivelled up old lady who runs into Mothercare to look at bootees before running off weeping. To others, the two Jack Russell Terriers who share my home (or I share theirs) are baby substitutes. Neither is true.
There’s no shame in not having a fully functioning reproductive system and I won’t be forced into making other people feel more comfortable with that. My eyes aren’t great either but I wouldn’t make excuses for being short-sighted.
It’s not for sympathy, it’s just the truth. The choice was taken away from me, so it’s not mentally healthy pondering on the “what ifs”.
There’s an element of being trapped between two extremes – on one hand the parents who complain that we live in a society that doesn’t treat children well. On the other is the quasi-militant child FREE people (never call them childless) who believe that those who choose not to have children are marginalised.
Those who don’t ask seem to presume it’s been a choice (as a “career girl”) and that I won’t be interested in hearing about what their little darlings get up to. Not true. I’m interested in some of it, just not all of it.
However, many of my closest friends don’t have children. And you know something, I’ve never asked them why. It’s just not my business.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

IT’S SIMPLE

‘Tis the season to reflect it seems. Apart from Christmas specials and re-runs of festive films, television schedules will be dotted with award shows and reviews of the year. There’s little doubt that this year those will be dominated by the loss of towering public figures such as Nelson Mandela and the birth of a new royal. The disasters, natural or otherwise, which have befallen so many around the world will also be recalled.
Global television news moves quickly and works at both ends of the emotional spectrum, with little room for what happens inbetween.
These extremes also operate in the kind of entertainment that claims to share a border with reality. Between comparing the equally unhealthy eating habits on Supersize v Superskinny and avoiding the overwhelming stench of bleach coming from the Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, it would appear that those people with balanced, settled lives are of little interest.
However, it’s those lives that we crave. Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to look away when walking past a house with open curtains on a dark night. It’s a window into what seems to be a contented, drama-free existence. That doesn’t seem to be high on the priority list of schedulers, however.
It takes an independent film-maker with an understanding of what makes lives truly great to present us with that.
And so, as world leaders paid homage to Nelson Mandela, I was inspired to live a better, simpler life by James Robertson Sinclair, who in his 83rd year is still tending the sheep on the croft where he was born, Clavel, at the south end of the Shetland mainland.
Would I have watched this short film if it hadn’t been made by Shona Main, one of my closest friends? Probably not. However, knowing the time, energy, and love she poured into this portrait of a man known only to his community, I was keen to see Clavel. The modesty of his life, coupled with the support that the community gives him as he becomes less able to look after the flock, is an absolute revelation.
The word “reality” has been hi-jacked to become a television genre rather than just, well, reality. And as we know, what gets served up is simply constructed reality, edited for dramatic purposes.
Clavel is as far from that as you can imagine, and when Main releases the beautiful short film on DVD, it should be available on prescription for those who are perhaps struggling with the perceived problems of modern life. Sometime we need to realise that life is what we make it.
It’s not only in the media that that the last few weeks of any year are packed with reflection. Although we always talk of learning from the past, we should stop for a moment. Turn off the TV and phone, log out of Facebook, stop Tweeting, and spend some time to think of what’s happening in the present. Perhaps that’s more relevant about how to assess what’s truly important for a happy, more fulfilled future.

Friday, February 7, 2014

BITTER PILLS

Regane MacColl. Recognise the name? Philip Seymour Hoffman. Maybe that one is easier. An ocean apart and 29 years difference in age but both succumbed to drug-related deaths on Sunday.There has been coverage of the 17-year-old schoolgirl, who died after taking what has been called a “rogue” ecstasy tablet at a Glasgow club on Saturday night. However, it has been nothing compared to every available detail of the also untimely death of the 46-year-old actor, who it seems died of a heroin overdose after hurtling back into a drug addiction he had conquered for more than 20 years.
A celebrity drug death is, I hate to say, not a huge surprise. Whether it involves illegal substances, such as Hoffman, Whitney Houston, or Paula Yates, or a death that was a result of prescription drug addiction such as Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Heath Ledger, the death of a musician or actor is somehow tainted by their fame. Almost lessened by the “glamorous” life they led.
There has even been the unsavoury  term “The 27 Club” created for, among others, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse – all victims of substance abuse at that age.
With Hoffman it perhaps came as a shock as he didn’t play the Hollywood game, but was a highly respected actor who lived a (seemingly) normal life off-screen.
None of these deaths will have any impact on those who might be vulnerable to being offered drugs. To a teenager Hoffman would appear to be an old man and unless they’ve seen The Hunger Games, it’s unlikely they would even know who he was.
There’s an unfortunate aspect of those who they would recognise and perhaps relate to. We watched in horror as Winehouse descended into a shadow of herself through drug and alcohol abuse – but we did watch. Her death, when it came, seemed like an inevitability. Entertainment shows and websites are whooping at the amount of material that former poppets Justine Bieber and Miley Cyrus are providing as they rebel against former squeaky clean image. Cyrus, at the grand old age of 21, has been quick to give 19-year-old Bieber advice about how not to get caught partying. In interviews she’s quick to extol the virtues of marijuana and how she loves getting high. The only hope is that any level-headed teenager has watched her transformation into a publicity-seeking cartoon character and decide that if that’s what it does, it’s best to stay away.
Isn’t it strange that we see far less of Britney Spears now that she’s turned her life around and is staying fit, performing well, and not shaving her head?
Not being a parent, I can’t say how I would try and steer teenagers clear of drugs. Wider education is vital, however, and harsher penalties for all those in the supply chain.
The death of Leah Betts, who died at 15 after taking ecstasy is almost 20 years ago. The picture of her in a coma was shocking but forgotten by the time today’s teenagers were born. We are still we losing bright girls like Regane McColl. It’s stories like hers that our teenagers need to hear.

Friday, March 7, 2014

THE X FACTOR VOTE THAT COUNTS

With fewer than 200 days to go until the vote on independence, it’s a subject that is quite obviously at the forefront of our minds. If we’re not sure how we’ll vote, it’s time to do some homework and make a decision. This isn’t one that happens just before entering the booth.
Unfortunately, there’s a growing feeling that it might change us as a country, whatever happens. Although I wasn’t of an age to understand the significance of the referendum in 1979, there’s no doubt that the intervening 35 years has seen some fundamental changes that form and shape the political debate.
Not the debate between party leaders or public figures, the discussions that happen between us, the punters. Where the political discourse previously was confined to workplace canteens and probably over a few pints in the pub, the arena in which we share out views has widened immeasurably through social media.
Having crumbled and rejoined Facebook (for Scrabble if nothing else), it’s clear to see that the culture it has created has led to some fairly unpalatable and, for most people, completely uncharacteristic vitriol.
People may not be anonymous on communication tools like Facebook, but in the heat of commenting on a post that goes against firmly held beliefs (yes or no) it’s much easier to get carried away with ideas than when a friend isn’t sitting across the table, looking you in the eye.
Friends are slinging bile at one another for one reason only – they don’t agree. I’m pretty sure there are many other crucial issues they don’t agree on but this process has crawled under the skin and created some terrifying temporary trolls.
It’s never worse than when it refers to the party leaders or public figures who have nailed their colours firmly to the mast. Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont have been the victims of horrific personal insults, many to do with their physical appearance rather than their arguments.
For those who intend living their lives in Scotland it’s an incredibly important decision and has galvanised a genuine interest in politics for some. Others have come into the process with minds made up and there’s nothing anyone can do about that. But surely such passion would be better utilised becoming involved in the real world with Better Together or Yes Scotland as a volunteer, in an attempt to convince the undecideds to cross their box. Staying at home and writing lengthy comments on status updates isn’t really much of a debate.
Many people aren’t particularly skilled at communicating nuances in an argument on paper and this can quickly lead to misunderstandings and escalation into mud-slinging. Standing at a bus stop composing lengthy ripostes on a phone isn’t really the way to engage.
The question is, will this apparent political mobilisation lead to a healthy turnout at the polls. Let’s hope so.
Because, ultimately we have to think not only of September 18, but also of September 19. Whatever happens, there’s nothing to do but shake hands and realise that we all want the best for Scotland even if we have differing ideas of how to achieve that.

Friday, May 23, 2014

GOOD GRIEF

In the age of pop-up Prosecco bars and themed tearooms, I’m thinking of signing up to host Dundee’s first Death Cafe.
That’s not a misprint – there is a voluntary movement which sets up cafes in a wide range of venues to enable people to get together, eat cake, and chat about death openly and freely.
It’s not a counselling session for the bereaved, however. Its objective is to ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’.
Now, I think we’re all pretty aware of death, it’s just the talking about it but that we fall down on.
Billy Connolly’s recent two-part documentary struck the right note – not exactly laughing at death but looking at the business side and the increasingly personalised approaches to the final curtain.
The amount spent on a good send-off can be eye-watering, so those who would rather their families spent the inheritance on themselves than a fancy box need to set some ground rules unless they have money to burn (pardon both the puns).
There is another side of making money from loss, however, where people claiming to be mediums and psychics prey on the vulnerable who are desperate for just one more connection with their loved one.
I’m all for whatever gets you through the night in the midst of raw grief, and even if they are charlatans, that’s OK if someone gets some comfort. It’s charging vast amounts of money for something they claim is a “gift”. If I had a gift that helped people overcome heartache I would share it with them for free.
Religion can also inform what our attitudes to death. It was only when I managed to shake my Catholic schooling and all that talk of purgatory and Judgment Day, that it’s been easier to accept the inevitable. It’s so much more comforting to think lights out and I hope they enjoy the sandwiches. Why do we think that we’re so important that there has to be something else?
Is it death we fear or the unknown. Churches have profited from the fear, from the rattle of the collection box to the tithing system. The message is – be good now and there’s something lovely waiting for you. Why not – be good now because it’s the right thing to do?
When my wee dog died prematurely a few years ago, well meaning friends sent messages saying he would-be going to Rainbow Bridge and I would see him again there. No harm to them but at least it made me giggle. So where am I going? To heaven to meet my human relatives or to Rainbow Bridge to meet the dogs – or can I split my time between the two?
Having no spouse or children I was advised to make a Will, with not much to leave, I spent most of my time choosing music. If we embrace the inevitability and don’t waste our time worrying about what’s next, then life does become so much more vital.
If I’ve done all I can, I’ll happily go gentle into that good night…

Friday, August 1, 2014

PET PROJECTS

The heartbreaking decision to let a terminally ill pet go is one that many of us have experienced. Those who have been through it will shudder at the memory.
Monday was my second experience and unlike many of life’s obstacles it wasn’t easier the second time round.
Friends and family had known that my 12-year-old Jack Russell was gravely ill and that I would be devastated by her loss. When it happened, like all good people, they found it difficult to know what to say.
Yes, “she had a good life”. Yes, “she was loved”. There were many things we hear when a human dies.
There were some differences, however. One is “at least you’ve got another one”, but the best is “are you going to get another one?”
It is well-meaning and does come from awkwardness regarding what to say, particularly for those who aren’t animal lovers but want to show that they recognise your bereavement should not be underestimated.
A wee bit of advice though – don’t say it. Pets aren’t property. The correct term is pet owner of course, not personally subscribing to the “mum” or “mistress” tag, but pets aren’t interchangeable.
I can’t get another Kali – I can get another tan and white small dog with pointy ears, but I can’t get her spirit, her vocalisations, her pickiness with food, her balletic morning stretches… I could go on.
It’s perfectly true that if you haven’t experienced this familial bond with a pet, it can seem strange from the outside.
Of course there are working dogs and show dogs, but they are mainly kept as companions.
Unfortunately, there is also a growing culture of dogs, in particular, as property. This ranges from those who train otherwise good dogs to be fierce and enhance their status as hard men, to frou-frou fashionistas who carry teeny pooches around in designer bags as little more than another accessory.
While the latter isn’t a danger to wider society, neither of these allow the dogs to be what they are. Animals shouldn’t be about status – they also shouldn’t be bred as a “standard” version, with all the associated health problems that can bring.
Perhaps the worst example of animals as property are those who spend sickening amounts of cash to clone pets rather than say goodbye to them and then, when they’re ready, give another animal a home.
Greater control is also needed over those who breed for quick cash, selling pups from boxes in a pub to whoever wants to buy them. If anyone decides to buy a pet on the spur of the moment after a few pints then it’s far from the best start for any animal.
Truly some people treat their cars and other possessions better than their pets and feel they can discard them in the same way when the novelty wears off or something more attractive comes along.
Pets aren’t children but neither are they possessions – they are another of life’s responsibilities, but such a rewarding one.

Friday, September 29, 2014

DRIVING AMBITIONS

It’s come to this. A wee shopping trolley on wheels. Not tartan, although that would be “on trend” I believe. The fabric choice is actually rather overwhelming and snazzier than expected.
A few months ago these handy little fellows wouldn’t have crossed my mind. Now, having lived without a car for a couple of months – for the first time in 17 years – there are practical issues that need to be addressed.
With two supermarkets equidistant from home, not far enough to wait around for buses but far enough for taxi fares to mount up, shopping is being done on foot. Great for fitness, and the trolley (which has enjoyed some admiring glances, oh yes) ensures that the Maris Pipers and dog chow don’t dislocate a shoulder on the walk home.
Apart from having absolutely no interest in looking at cars after the last one blew up rather than be driven by me, this is something of an experiment. Is a car strictly necessary when I have no daily commute, no school run, and live within a few minutes’ walk of several bus routes?
Getting behind the wheel holds no real pleasure. Like many people who learn to drive slightly later (29 in my case), the first burst of youthful confidence had evaporated and this was a practical rather than a thrilling experience. And an expensive one, having only been allowed a licence following ten driving tests. I did pass the tenth – I didn’t get the licence for persistence.
My argument was always that I was a better driver for having the extra practice but many friends suddenly discovered an affinity with buses rather than accept a lift, as if everyone has a one in ten chance to pass and this was something of a fluke.
There’s also no denying that car ownership is expensive and MOT day is always a nail-biting experience. Still, according to this month’s RAC Foundation research, almost three-quarters of people over 17 in Great Britain are licensed to drive – 35.8 million people, including 191 people over the age of 100.
And there are 34.6 million licensed vehicles. I’m now part of the 25% of households that has no car or van.
It has to be said that the money we put into our cars buys more than the petrol or the insurance. It buys a sense of freedom and independence – that’s not so easily given up.
There’s no bundling the dogs into the car and popping over to Tentsmuir on a whim. No last-minute trips to Broughty Ferry for a quick coffee with a friend, not when it’s 40 minutes each way by bus.
Once the convenience of a car has been part of life, everything takes so long. It buys time and time equals money for the self-employed.
So, while the experiment is still ongoing, if anyone knows of a reasonably priced, easily parked car with an engine only slightly more powerful than a hairdryer, you know where I am.

Friday, December 19, 2014

SECONDS OUT

The trolley jousting has begun in earnest. Determined, furrowed brows concentrate on smooth negotiation of supermarket aisles, cursing the fact that those slow pulled pork and popping candy mini muffins (well, that’s no more ridiculous than some nibbles on offer) are stamped Use By December 23 – Oh the humanity!
So another trip is required a few days later to get them, leading to yet another trolley filled with the goodies that would absolutely ruin Christmas for everyone if they weren’t on the groaning table.
It’s widely known that Las Vegas casinos vaporise fragrances into their gaming areas, in order to attract players and keep them spending. While I don’t think our big stores are piping roast turkey and cinnamon through the air vents, it’s clear that there is strategic placing of giant tubs of chocolates and packaging that makes an everyday sausage roll into a festive delicacy.
The tinsel-clad TV ads show a level of saccharine family Christmas that would even make The Waltons wince, with one message – piles of food equal happiness.
It’s a time for family traditions and that’s fine, but maybe those food-related in-jokes where something is served up every year only to be ignored by everyone at the table –from past experience it was bread sauce – aren’t quite as funny when the use of food banks is becoming more widespread.
According to research by the Love Food Hate Waste campaign in 2012, we threw away two million turkeys, five million Christmas puddings and 74m mince pies – no decimal point missing there – seventy four million.
And when Unilever looked at waste, they found that the discarded Brussels sprouts would fill 1000 wheelie bins, and scarily that it would take an average family four days to eat everything bought for Christmas Day consumption. It has partnered with Oxfam for the #clearaplate campaign where every finished plate posted on social media will prompt Unilever to donate to help Oxfam’s work in the UK, providing meals for families below the poverty line.
Also, in Dundee this week, Meal Makers launched, with the simple idea of making an extra meal for someone who might be struggling to cook for themselves.
This isn’t Band Aid “feeding the world”, this is Oxfam feeding people that you might pass in the street today. Meal Makers is spreading not only a spirit of community but home-cooked food that might be the only decent meal that a neighbour gets that day. We can ask why of course, but to many people receiving the meal the fact that someone cares enough to do it will probably mean even more.
It’s an absolute disgrace that anyone should be going hungry at any time of year but at this time of year when there’s an inescapable culture of spending and excess it feels particularly cruel.
This is said without any apology for anyone thinking that I’m somehow spoiling the fun. Just keep it in mind when another packet of salted caramel bombes (just in case…) are being shoehorned into the fridge.

Friday, December 26, 2014

RESOLVING THE PROBLEM

On December 31, all across the land, pristine notebooks were opened, new pens clicked for the first time, and good intentions were deliberated, ready to be committed to the blank pages. It’s the ultimate plan for a new life. A better life. A chance to make 2015 better than 2014.
After all, once it’s written down, we can’t go back on the promises we make to ourselves. Except when that page is torn out when we consider that we’ve failed, even if it spoils that expensive journal.
We tend to make changes because we’re unhappy with something about ourselves – physical condition, professional situation, relationship status – so resolutions tend to be focused on punishing the “bad” self and congratulating the “good”, which means that they are doomed from the off.
If we label ourselves as someone who hasn’t lived up to our own lofty standards, then it’s a sure thing that we will feel that someone we don’t deserve to be fitter, more successful, happier. Unless we start from the basis of improvement rather than banishing a part of ourselves that we dislike, all these promises are doomed to failure.
Self-improvement is a good thing, particularly if it means getting healthier, but we need to view ourselves as a work-in-progress rather than a new person. When individuals who have lost large amounts of weight are quoted as saying that they feel like a new person that negates the person they were before. Once again overweight = bad while healthy weight = good. So what happens if weight is gained again? It’s a vicious circle.
Maybe we should look on ourselves as a business. Many of us will have come across SMART objectives at work and carried them out. Even if it isn’t a favourite part of the job, it can provide a useful way of looking at personal goals and making them into more of a project than a never-ending fantasy.
If you haven’t come across them, SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant (and Realistic) and Timed. Even without a business degree, it’s easy to see how those could be applied to our own objectives for the coming year.
It can be helpful to do them with others too. There’s a good chance that friends have their own ambitions for the coming year and that group dynamic might be a little more motivating. Try to choose friends who will be supportive rather than competitive. It needs to be something that complements everyday life rather than dominates every waking hour.
I have a large number of notebooks with several pages ripped out, the ragged edges a reminder of failures rather than a celebration of good intentions, but not this year. OK, there might be a couple of new apps on my Smartphone but it’s a change of attitude rather than where the lists are made.
The turn of the year is always emotional with looking back and wondering what lies ahead. But if we are serious about making changes then we need to step back and be a little more business-like.

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