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NEW YEAR MUSINGS, 2015.

8 Jan

It’s another New Year- 2015. It seems incredible to think that we are now a full fifteen years since the momentous millennium when the world as we know it was supposed to come to an end.
The frenzy of Christmas shopping is now just a memory. Many are facing the cold reality of credit card bills and accumulating debt. The Christmas trees have been de-baubled and discarded. Millions of recently sent Christmas cards have now disappeared from mantle-pieces, shelves and window sills. It’s the time of year when I always think — what was all the fuss about?
I used to be a teacher and so can reliably guess that the theme of school assemblies up and down the country has been New Year resolutions. It’s a hoary chestnut. It is time to turn over a new leaf, students will be told, as if a new number at the top of the calendar, magically generates a fresh start for everyone. More erudite teachers may mention Janus to their pupils, the 2-faced Roman god which gives its name to the first month of the year. One face of Janus looks forwards into the future, while the other looks back into the past. This encourages reflection on what has happened as well as making resolutions for the year ahead. I think this is a sound way of handling New Year. The lessons of the past have to be learnt if progress is to be made in the future. It’s not just a case of wiping the slate clean and starting again, regardless of what has happened.
Many of my own reflections are centred on the family. Christmas is supposed to be the special occasion when families gather to spent quality time together. However, I believe that family interactions and commitments should be a whole year thing. Families, along with pet dogs are not just for Christmas! At the start of this particular New Year, my thoughts focus on two very important male members of the family: one nearing the end of his life and the other yet to begin his. My son and daughter in law are expecting their first child, a boy, in early March. I hope all goes smoothly and I am looking forward to being a Granddad again. I already have 3 lovely grand-daughters but this little one will be my first grandson. It will be a special moment in my life. I was lucky to spend some time with the unborn bump when he visited me over new year along with his parents. It’s an awesome thing, thinking about this precious new life about to commence, the newest member of the family. He will carry the Bates name forward into future generations.( if the present sexist system of selecting surnames, persists.)
Perversely, the birth of a new family member makes me think about my own advancing years and of my own mortality. When a baby is born, everyone shuffles up a place. I remember when my first grandchild, Esme, was born, I took my first look at her and thought — ” Blimey– I’ve moved up a generation!” I am now near the top of the family tree, with just my parents ahead of me.
Yes I am very lucky to still have both my mum and dad. Sadly, last year saw a decline in their health and fitness such that they both need regular care, especially my increasingly frail dad. However, even this cloud has a silver lining. The positive result of the situation is that my siblings and I have come much closer together in order to help and support our parents. Increased family harmony and unity has been the happy result.
Just like the birth of the baby, mum and dad’s need for more care in their old age, focusses my thoughts. It’s strange how the 2 very different developments are linked. Both remind one of the continuity and longevity of the family and also the unconditional love that binds us all together, from the youngest to the oldest. Once the baby has been born, the living members of my family will span over 91 years and 4 generations. Will my father ever meet and talk to my grandson? I certainly hope so.
So, as this latest year gets into its stride, I am thinking both backwards and forwards. I think back on the many happy times I spent with my dad, who is now in hospital. awaiting a place in a nursing home. I remember the toy garage he built for me, the holidays to the seaside he organised for us all, the second-hand bike he did up so that I could have a crack at my cycling proficiency test. I recall the unflagging support and encouragement he has given to me over my entire life. I also think forward to the times I hope to spend with my new grandson — playing with toys, reading books, trips to the park and those first simple but magical conversations. What will his first words be? I already spend precious times with my 3 delightful grand-daughters.
The future balanced with the past. That’s what life is all about, particularly in late December and early January, in the reflective time when the year turns. A friend recently told me of a lovely saying he had read in a shop or restaurant–” The past is history. The future is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called “the present.” Happy New Year!

Slipping Slowly Out Of The Mainstream.

5 Mar

DON’T GET OLD SON. —-  My father Maurice recently gave me a piece of advice. “Don’t get old son,” he said. Mum and dad are now in their later 80’s and in most definitions of the word, are now “old”. They are still quite happy and retain some degree of independence, although they now have a small band of people who come in to help. My mum, Jessie, sleeps with a stick by the bed because she has a bad leg that she “could do without.” My dad finds it difficult to serve up a cup of tea because his hands shake. He is reluctantly having to give up driving soon because he no longer has total command of the foot- pedals. They both take an array of tablets to counteract various problems. Their short term memories are slowly declining although long term recollection still seems to be intact. Yet they remain contented and happy despite the extra visits to the doctor. Their life is quiet and comfortable. They have their family, their friends and their faith. Most of all they have each other and their enduring love.

But I know what dad means when he implores me not to get old. The advancing years have seen the whittling away of their health , fitness and mobility. They have seen a slow erosion of their independence. Their life has gradually shrunk. This year they finally gave up the idea of having an annual holiday because they didn’t want to have to cope with the effort of travel. Their life has in effect been marooned in a quiet backwater, well away from the hectic, hurley-burley of the mainstream. They have changed from looking after their 3 children, which they did very well, to having to be looked after to a certain extent. It’s a delicate business — judging how much help an older person needs and how much independence they can safely retain. It’s a question of treating them with respect and dignity. Looking out for someone includes looking out for their feelings as well. I am well over 20 years younger than my parents, but even now, in my early 60’s, I am starting to experience some of the consequences of age and the feelings they induce.

60 IS THE NEW 40 ISN’T IT?  —-  Some people may already regard me as an “old” person or at least getting that way. I am 62. To a young child I must appear ancient with my grey hair and the wrinkles fanning out from my eyes. I have acquired a bit of a beer belly despite hardly drinking any beer ( life’s so unfair) and I am so dependent on  my reading glasses that I go into a panic if I lose them ( which I frequently do!). I have decided not to be bo-toxed or have plastic surgery, even if I could afford it. I have also decided not to die my hair or disguise myself behind make-up. As a friend of mine used to say:” What you see is what you get.” However, with life-expectancy rising and retirement/pension ages being constantly pushed up, I don’t really think of myself as old. Didn’t somebody say that 60 is the new 40? ( or maybe 50.) Either way, I think they have a point. I feel fairly fit and healthy, don’t get out of breath when climbing up the stairs, have an active mind and numerous things I still want to do . Thus I’m not ready to be written- off just yet.

A YOUNG PERSON’S WORLD.  —-  Despite all of the above, I still sense the clock ticking. I’m also aware of a subtle change in attitude to me, especially from younger generations. I don’t like it and in my unkinder moments I dub it “the arrogance of youth.” Let’s face it — it’s a mostly young peoples’ world or so it seems. One only notices that as one gets older. To judge from our TV screens and especially the adverts, a visitor from Mars might think that the World consists of exclusively 20 and 30 somethings. We see young people: eating, drinking, cooking, joking, wearing the latest fashions, driving the latest cars, putting on make-up, styling their hair, partying, travelling and so on. Just every now and then an ageing Michael Parkinson appears, advertising insurance or a funeral down-payment scheme. but mostly it’s the young who dominate. Not many from my generation appear in this “glamerous” media world or on the air-brushed covers of glossy magazines. Apart from the odd distinguished actor like Maggie Smith or Anthony Hopkins, or “evergreen” rock stars like Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart, we “oldies” have largely disappeared from the mainstream of public consciousness.

ON THE SCRAPHEAP?  —-  The perceived change in attitude to me probably started when I retired. I was lucky enough to attain slightly early retirement at the age of nearly 57. I was ready for it after the stresses and strains of nearly 35 years in the front-line. I don’t know how my dad carried on in full-time work until the day before his 65th birthday. He did extremely well, as did many others, and I admire him, and them, greatly.

At first people congratulated me and wished me well. But then, as I have written before, I experienced a subtle change of attitude. Some felt sorry for me because I had “nothing to do”. Two friends suggested I might like to do a part-time job or take up charity work. The attitude was (is) that one is only doing something worthwhile if one is doing a job.( preferably paid.) Reading, writing, blogging, listening to music, singing, walking, travelling, photographing, meeting friends, going to the theatre or cinema, playing and watching sport, visiting museums and galleries, researching family history etc – didn’t seem to be good enough. One aquaintance even described retired people as being on “the scrapheap” and thus kindly gave me my blogging title. It was as if I had changed from a figure of envy to a figure of pity.

My income dropped considerably once I retired but so did my status in society and possibly my level of respect from others. How many times have you been asked at a party : “What do you do?” It usually comes straight after: “What is your name?” The person in question is probably not interested in your recreational pursuits or voluntary activities. He or she is primarily interested in your paid employment. Your answer to that question goes a long to deciding someone’s opinion of you.

THE PENSION PROBLEM  —-  Just as respect for the unemployed is probably quite low as shown by the benefit “scroungers” campaigns in certain newspapers, so I suspect ( in my current hyper-sensitive state) that respect for retirees also dips after they leave work. I have been quizzed by people who genuinely cannot understand how I fill my time. I have also been the butt of the occasional “joke” about them having to work even harder to pay my pension. The big increase in the pensioner population has become a massive issue for the government. Where is the money going to come from? Thus I cannot fully enjoy my retirement because I’m aware that some regard me as a financial burden on society and a contributer to one of the country’s biggest problems. I don’t like this feeling of being regarded as being a bit of a “parasite”, although nobody has actually said this to my face. Maybe it’s all a figment of my over-active imagination? In answer to my imagined accusers I say that I’ve always paid my taxes in full and still do, as an occupational pension is far from tax free. However the feeling still persisits that some respect me a little less because I am no longer fully “contributing”.

WHEN THE CHILDREN FLEE THE NEST.  —-  I feel as though I live a full and stimulating life which I enjoy. However, along with paid employment, another of my major life functions, that of being a full time parent, has now slid away into the past. My 3 children have all grown up into adulthood and lead their own independent lives. One of them, my daughter Joanna, now has her own two daughters with her partner Allan. So I am not completely redundant as I have an important part-time job as grandad. Obviously I have not entirely given up my role as a dad. Once a parent, always a parent. For instance I was recently called upon to make one of the speeches at my son’s wedding and I was also enlisted to help cut the cake. If Joanna, Catherine or Ian need help, I am always there. However, I am no longer required on a day-to-day basis. I no longer have to work hard to support them financially as they now support themselves. It’s inevitable , but once your children leave, you experience that uncomfortable feeling of redundancy and of being inched a little further away from life’s centre stage.

BECOMING OLD FASHIONED.  —-  It is futile to try to remain in employment indefinitely or to try to stop your children from leading their own lives. Both retirement and children leaving home are inevitable and highly desirable developments once the right time arrives. However, other developments as one gets older are not so easy to swallow. For instance one gets slightly mocked for being old-fashioned. There I go — being super-sensitive again! I feel this is happening to me even though I have tried hard to keep-up with ever-changing trends and technological changes. Change is a permanent feature of our society. Being resistant to change opens one up to the accusation of being “out of touch”. Popular music is a case in point. I rejected my parents’ “boring” brass bands and light classics in favour of pop, blues and rock music. Mum and dad hated all that and I categorised them as “old-fashioned” — ie unwilling to change with the times. I lined up with Bob Dylan when he sang:” The Times They Are a Changin'” However, now it’s my turn. I refuse to give up my rock music in favour of: House, disco, rap, hip-hop, boy bands or X factor winners. To me they are all pretty “rubbish”, the same term used by my parents in the ’60’s. Despite trying to move with the times, and I am getting into new artists all the time, my tastes have diverged from the mainstream of popular music and I have ended up in a minority taste, “alternative” world. Some might say I now exist in a sort of musical time-warp although I try not to wallow too much in nostalgia.

CHANGE FOR CHANGE SAKE?  —-  As I get older, I find myself getting more and more resistant to change. I used to criticise  other people  for this very thing, but now it has crept up and happened to me. Sometimes, particularly in the fast moving world of technology and communications, I suspect it is change for change sake. Actually, I know the real motivation — it’s to make money by generating constant demand for the new. Back in the 1950’s it used to be about buying the latest washing machine or vacuum cleaner. Now we are constantly being enticed by the next generation of cell-phone. I’m waiting for the one that can do scrambled eggs! A slick marketing campaign probably featuring David Beckham, persuades us that something we had never even thought of before is now absolutely essential to our lives. I laughed out loud when they came up with the idea of the camera phone. Surely it’s better to use a specialised camera to take a picture rather than something tagged on to a mobile? It doesn’t even have a zoom! But I was wrong. It caught on big time, partly because people desperately wanted to keep up with the Jones’s but also because the technology improved so swiftly that the pictures were ( are) actually pretty good. So the laugh is on me. You cannot even buy a mobile these days that doesn’t have a camera. It’s now thought of an integral component of every mobile along with: a clock, a radio, the Internet and a sat-nav, things that until recently we would have imagined to be “essential” componants of our phones.

My resistance to these so-called new necessities of life has pushed me further into a side stream and out of the main current. There I wallow around in an ever-shrinking pool of people who don’t want to, or cannot stay in the hectic mainstream. I suspect that I am sometimes derided as being out of touch or being a sort of modern Canute. However I think there is more to life than scrabbling around trying to acquire the latest gadget.  I still don’t use a mobile very much and agree with the comedian who said that ” mobile phones are for people who are frightened of being alone.” What’s wrong with a bit of peace and solitude? Until recently I thought  blackberries and apples were tasty fruits that  made delicious pies, but now I find they are actually smart-phones and laptops. I somehow struggle through each day without using the now ubiquitous I-Phone, but if I proudly announce this to yonger people I am greeted with cries of disbelief and derision. I think they think I am joking. Another example of how old-fashioned I am is that I refuse to have a machine telling me where I am and where I have to go . I would rather use my brain and something called a map.

THE GENERATION GAP  —-  By the time one gets to a certain age, one has enough experience of life to work out quite a bit about it. I have worked out a set of values which form the foundation of my life. In fact I think my well thought out values are worth sharing with others in order to give them the benefit of my experience. Therefore it is a bit galling to be criticised for repeating what I sincerely and passionately believe. Repitition is seen as boring even if one believes that what one is saying is valuable. It’s a case of knowing looks which interpreted mean: “There he goes again. We’ve heard it all before!” This is very frustrating. Even if I have genuinely discovered that the meaning of life is a lot more than 42 ( as in the Hitch-hiker’s Guide), I am only allowed to say it once and then have to move on to different topics in order to avoid being a social embarrassment. It’s also a bit irritating trying to impart knowledge and “wisdom” to people 2 or 3 generations younger than me but finding that they think they already know it all.

What I’m saying in my grumpy old man way is that experience is not valued enough in our society in my opinion. Once a person is regarded as “past it” or “over the hill”, then his or her opinion doesn’t count so much. Older peoples’ views are more frequently dismissed and as people get older they are more and more likely to be patronised.  Maybe I’m getting a bit too sensitive here but I feel it has started to occasionally happen to me. My wife feels the same. It’s very frustrating — this feeling that I am gradually being marginalised. The irony is that I am guilty of the same behaviour with regards to my parents. I quite often claim that I know better than them or decide not to discuss certain issues with them because they “wouldn’t understand.”

RESPECT AND DIGNITY.  —-  My conclusion to this rambling piece is that I don’t enjoy some aspects of getting older, even though I’m still only in my early sixties. I don’t like being eased out of the mainstrean and into a back-water by some of the attitudes of society. However, to be fair, if I want more respect from others who follow in my footsteps, then I must confer confer more respect on those who have gone before. Now that I have shed some of my major life roles I am very sensitive about being categorised as a : “has-been.” I also a bit touchy about being labelled as “old-fashioned” or ” a stick in the mud.”. I know I also have to moderate my behaviour to an even older generation in order not be seen as a hypocrite. In my wisdom of 62 years I believe that “respect” and “dignity” are two of the most vital ingredients of a happy life. That includes self respect as well as respect for others. I agree totally with what one of my former teaching colleagues put up on his classroom door: “Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.” I must phone up my mum and dad for a chat!