Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult’s books are often the victim of some snobbery. They are seen as the cupcakes in the literary patisserie; light, airy, and fun, but hardly serious. However, there are times when what you fancy is a cupcake and you don’t want anything too serious or fancy. These are perfect for a ‘by the pool on holiday‘ or ‘last thing at night to get to sleep’ read.

This one follows the usual formula –take a moral dilemma, populate it with some stereotypes, and join it together with a narrative thread. In Lone Wolf the dilemma is turning off life support in the setting of brain injury. To be fair it does air the conflicts that exist and does show the impossibility of being dogmatic. If it had stopped at this it would have been a respectable, workmanlike, novel but it unfortunately had to include a side story of a man who went to live in the wolf pack.

This part of the book was wildly inaccurate and exaggerated and did not serve to amplify any of the points of the main story. Indeed, if anything, it made the reader think ‘if she can be as gullible on this, how accurate are her other views? ‘. Rather like finding something hard, crunchy, and out of place in your cupcake.

If you are packing a bathing suit and heading abroad this book might be a good choice, but if you are packing an overnight bag for a hospital visit perhaps not.

Gaeaf Glas wna Fynwent Fras.

We had a cold start to the day this morning and we have more promised to come. Though I was not too keen on this first thing today, when I had to break all the ice from the animals’ water troughs, I am generally glad to see the season behaving more like a normal winter. The cold snap reminded me that, while I had cut and collected enough timber for fuel, I have not split enough logs nor prepared enough kindling. So now I have my weekend planned.

I saw in the agricultural diary, when I was writing our log, that the Welsh proverb of the week is “Gaeaf Glas wna Fynwent Fras“.  This can be translated as a harsh or cold winter will lead to full cemeteries. It reflects early awareness, of now scientific knowledge, that winter is the most dangerous season. Indeed the 7th of January is the day of the year on which  more people die than any other. Possibly reflecting two factors : the first is the winter season itself,  and the second may be the ability of people to hold on or persevere until after the Christmas period – slipping off the mortal coil at a more timely point.

Gaeaf Glas literally means a blue or green winter. Although now ‘glas’ is used to mean ‘blue’, earlier the celtic languages didn’t distinguish in words between blue and green and used ‘glas’ for both colours.  This is why the “dear green place is called “Glasgow”.  Now, in  Cymraeg (welsh) we use glas for blue and gwyrdd for green and I am not sure that this is a step forward. Sometimes I think the prior situation may have been better.

At the moment we are trying to renovate our holiday let’s kitchen and this entails choosing the colour of the doors of the cabinets. You might imagine that this is an easy task. Think of a colour you like, blue, or green, or red, and decide on that colour. But unfortunately this does not work. I have now discovered that there are bluey-greens and greeny-blues, as well as greens that are too greeny. I have been asked to look at  cards and select between sage green, pale verdigris green (which is gray), soft pastel mint green or soft duck egg green (which is blue). Once we have selected an apt green for the cabinets we can then open the big book of paint colours for the splash back. I think there are over 20 blues and greens in here.

I really have no hope of contributingcolor_differences to this debate. Indeed I don’t know why I bother, my wife will make the decision anyway. Not only can I not distinguish between these imperceptible shade differences (Imagine being asked which you prefer “magnolia” or “almond white” or “cream” ! They are all the same). But also there is the mystery of matching to come – “Do you think this brown picks up the brown in the carpet ? Or is it too reddy brown ? I have no hope of playing this game. I don’t know the rules and I am also wired wrongly. Studies have shown that men and women differ in what colour differences they can perceive and as a consequence men and women have different colour categories and nouns.

In this area I think expansion of categories is a hindrance rather than a boon and we should start a campaign for real colours. We would permit red, blue, green, yellow, purple and orange but suggest that all the other colours are simple figments of the home-decorating and furnishing industry and banned as fraudulent advertising. Although of a libertarian inclination this is one area in which I could support some increased legislation. Think of the marital disharmony it would prevent and the number of divorces that would be avoided. Think of the errors that could be avoided day-to-day – no longer could somebody be asked to get the taupe cardigan and make a mistake and get the gray one. Bliss.

 

 

Don’t leave a mess when you leave.

Don’t leave a mess when you leave.

Now that I am old I have the great fortune to be able to watch afternoon television. The programmes  run in the afternoon are obviously cheap fare; either rubbish to punish the unemployed, or easy nostalgia to appeal to the older viewer. These programmes are innocuous enough but I am rather worried by the type of advertisement which predominates. I don’t mind the repeated ads for stair lifts and incontinence pads. This is fair enough, my time will come when I need these things. I don’t even mind the adverts for capital release – suggesting I’m gullible enough to give over my home, and all its value, for the short term fun of a holiday or giving a gift to my children. No, these are all fine. What annoys me are the repeated funeral plan adverts.

Advert after advert tries to worry me about the cost of funerals and urges me to buy a plan now so that I don’t have to worry about it in the future. Now, to tell the truth, I never really worry about the cost of my funeral. I can be pretty sure that the one person who will not be around to worry about that bill is me ! If I have money left when I die then this will be used to pay for my funeral. If I am so short of money that I will have none left then the last thing I should be doing is spending money on my future corpse. I obviously need that money now, use the money during your life to keep life tolerable or fun. Don’t waste scare reserves on the one purchase you will certainly never be able to enjoy.

This is the thing about funerals. They are about how the people who knew you, and are still alive, decide you should be remembered. They are not your choice. Sure, if you think you are so unloved that you are going to be put out in a bin bag with the garbage then it might be better to buy a plan and avoid the ignominy. But a better plan might be to behave better, become better regarded and thus secure some positive attention following your demise.

Funerals are for the survivors to express their sadness and to celebrate the life of the departed. They should choose how this is done. If they want to have a big event with much gnashing of teeth and wailing then that is their right, likewise if they want a low key affair then that too is correct. We hope that we will be missed because we hope that we were well regarded and loved. No amount of money will sort this problem other than perhaps by how beneficent you are during your life. So if you are really keen on preparing for your death and funeral look to how you are living not to planning your funeral. Imagine the terrible scene there could be if you bought a wonderful funeral, with black horses, banks of lilies, a marble mausoleum but there was no one there because you had been so miserable during your life and so self-centred that no-one really missed you.

Don’t buy a funeral plan, make a gift to a friend, help a family member in their time of need, or make a charitable donation if you are really concerned about how people will think on you once you are gone. Think that it might just be possible that this is a scam by funeral directors to get people to pay more and earlier for their services. They play on the elderly’s guilt; suggesting that we should give up our possession now as we really shouldn’t enjoy them, and also suggesting that we are a burden and we should be very careful that we stop being a burden when we die. Really saying, make sure, when you go, you leave no mess for us to clear up, no awkward bills or planning. Tidy up and close the door after you ! Sorry, I’m not doing it, I’m using all my money wisely and hopefully generously because, as they say, there are no pockets in a shroud.

 

The Love Songs of the Elderly.

The Love Songs of the Elderly.

As the relentless march of time carries me ever onwards towards my demise I find, perhaps as a useful reminder, that I spend increasing times at funerals. It seems that each month I am on a pew listening to the service, recalling the life of a friend or acquaintance. Each time I am aware at how increasingly close to my age they were when they passed. I listen to the services and to the stories of the lives of my friends and find it very comforting that everyone gathers together to remember the departed and to show respect for their life.

This respect is real. It doesn’t depend on the person having done anything spectacular or unusual it is simply respect for a life well lived : a parent to brought up children, a spouse who supported their partner, a neighbour who played a part in the community. It is respect earned by living a good, normal life. However, it is not shallow respect or deference, this is respect that was earnt as it came by the passing of time. It came by being a good person day in and day out for years. It follows from raising children to their maturity. It is respect when a spouse helps through the thin times as well as the good. It is respect that is often earned in those times at the end of our lives when illness and infirmity make our lives harder. A partner who sees beyond these elderly problems and gives support and love despite them certainly deserves anyone’s respect.

We often talk of love in our teenage and early adult years when we are setting out on the road of our lives. The songs we hear are about our love being as deep as the oceans or as wide as the mountains. We will face and conquer all for the person that has conquered our heart. But how little we know. In many developed countries the average length of a marriage, until separation or divorce, is a little over 10 years. The romantic songs of our youth often profess undying love but for many a decade is the length of eternity.

At these funerals I hear the tales of marriages which have lasted decades. Stories of couples who, split by death, lived longer together than they ever did apart. Stories of children bereft of parents who have always been part of their lives. It is clear when you listen to these tales of normal life that there were good times and dark times, but the latter were faced down and defeated. It is clear that, it is the sharing of these difficulties that is important in the person’s love, probably more so than the simple sharing of enjoyment. During these years families and couples grow into each other and grow deeper in love. Like watching a vine growing over the years round a tree, in time the vine supports the weak and broken branches; were the vine not there neither would be the tree. Pleasures are important, and obviously enjoyable, but it is the facing difficulties together that tempers love and makes it stronger. The more problems you solve together the deeper is your attachment and affection.

“For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A love that cannot overcome difficulties is a weaker thing, these elderly couples demonstrate that their love was so strong that, ultimately, only death could break them apart and, even then, could not break their love. These eulogies of the bereft are the love songs of the elderly and they remind us that love can last for ever. They sing not of the possibilities of love but of the proof of enduring love over time. They also remind us that working to stay together can strengthen and deepen love. We should be wary of viewing love through the eyes of the young and foolish, looking only for pleasure and joy. No-one’s life can be unalloyed joy we will all need to face difficulties, dangers and disappointments. If we have a family these dangers will be multiplied (although so will the joys). Finding someone who cares about you enough to stand by you throughout is a remarkable feat and should demand that you are steadfast in return. If both of you can do this, you will have found something the young can only sing about.

“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,

the last of life, for which the first was made.

 

Our times are in his hand who saith, ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half;

Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!”


Robert Browning

The shame of Britain’s jewel.

The shame of Britain’s jewel.

The Learning Disability Mortality Review was published this week and it has largely gone unnoticed in the press and news. While we flaunt the successes of our health service, and describe it as the “the envy of the world“, we have ignored the fact that there is a serious problem with how the NHS treats one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. The report looked at those with learning Disability dying in NHS care and found that in about one in eight of those deaths neglect, abuse or incompetence had “adversely affected” the care that the individual had received.

The report makes harrowing and upsetting reading. It is clear that this group of people are being sold short by our health service, that they are often felt to have lives not worth saving. There are reports of staff failing to recognise the worth of the individual and thus they are discriminated against. This utilitarian view of life is very dangerous and particularly dangerous, in a system such as the NHS, where the client is not the patient but the state itself. The state will have the tendency to value some lives are more productive than others, more valuable than others, and thus worthy of more attention. This group of people find themselves at the bottom of the pile when priorities are being drawn up. When the calculus of how much someone is worth is reckoned their values – the pleasure they bring to their families, the love they express, the friendships they make – don’t weight well in the scales and they loose out.

Staff recognise this and start to behave accordingly; they care less for the patients and come to view them as obstacles in the path to giving better care to more deserving patients, and, in extreme cases, unworthy of using the resources which could be better used by someone more valuable. All of this has echoes of the film “Dasein Ohne Leben ” (“Existence without Life”), the 1942 Nazi propaganda film which was intended to soften the public’s opposition to the euthanasia, or murder, of the physically and mentally handicapped.

Although this group of people almost certainly suffer the most from this neglect they are unfortunately not alone. When I was working I was repeatedly shocked by the contempt that medical and nursing staff could express for patients with dementia seeing them as nothing more than “bed blockers” who were misusing scarce resources. Recent scandals about breast screening errors again show that ageism is still prevalent. Older women have higher risks of breast cancer but screening is avoided because it is “not worth it” in this group. Were the NHS an insurance system, as it was initially intended, then people who had been in the scheme longer, and contributed more, would expect better dividends not a scheme which rewards their involvement by reducing their entitlements.

But advanced age is not necessary to be a victim of this type of calculation. The high profile cases of severely disabled children being removed from their parent’s control causes further concern. In these awful cases, the parents asked for nothing extra from the NHS other than to get out of the way and to let them try what they could for their babies. Their hopes for their offspring were almost certainly futile but it may have helped the parents to know that they had done all that was humanly possible for their sons. But the system felt is was important, having assessed the importance of these infants lives, to stop the parents and other systems doing what the might lest they squandered resources.

When systems become too large they often become inhumane. When the patient and their family is not the focus then the system operates on economic principles of value for money. It stops being an insurance scheme to protect us form the high costs of health care, by aggregating risks, and becomes a system to ration care. In a rationing system the vulnerable groups of the disabled and elderly always loose out particularly in times of scarcity. As the NHS becomes increasingly unable to meet the demands put upon it it will start to ration ever more strictly. Then it matters not a fig, whether you paid your taxes diligently, or worked productively, or are a valued member of your family and community, if you are deemed too expensive and too unproductive then your services are going to be poor. You will get the minimum that can be offered if a callous system allow even that to happen.

Our sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters, with learning disabilities are not lesser people than us. They have every right to care and we should feel ashamed that a system what we hoped would provide universal healthcare  is failing to do so for the weakest and most vulnerable of our fellow citizens.