Friday, 19 December 2014

All I want for Christmas

What do I want for Christmas?

Apart from dinner with the cast of Sherlock, prepared by Jamie Oliver, with Miranda Hart, Sue Perkins, Julie Walters, Steven Fry and Ian McKellan as additional guests, serenaded by all-the-kings-men and with a private viewing of the Paddington movie to follow.

Which is not asking for much, is it! Really? Improbable wants, yes - but not absolutely impossible, in that theoretically my dinner could happen, even though it almost certainly won't. Sadly. Although bits of it could ... is the Paddington movie out on DVD yet?

More improbable wants would include a fist edition of my own book under the tree; a Christmas morning not started at a ridiculously early hour because Four-legged-friend and Bertie Baggins decide it's time to get up; snow - just enough to dust the world with the spirit of Christmas, but not enough to prevent cars from travelling bearing family and friends and presents; an all-you-can-eat Christmas dinner that doesn't leave you feeling you won't be able to bend in the middle or sit down comfortably until New Year; cracker jokes that actually make you laugh; and brussels sprouts that taste good.

Impossible wants, on the other hand, would be wishing for Peter Ustinov and Carl Sagan to join my fantasy dinner; turning Four-legged-friend and Bertie Baggins into dogs that don't shed hairs all over the house, even in the rooms they apparently never enter; making Christmas day pause just long enough to get the cooking done and pause again to allow a good long walk in daylight hours without missing any of the good indoor bits; adding an extra hour or two to the days before Christmas; procuring magic presents that wrap themselves; finding a real Father Christmas; and discovering a pocket-full of Harry Potter's floo powder to enable hand-delivery of gifts, on Christmas day, to distant relatives.

Entirely possible, however, is wanting a Christmas with family. And I really can't think of anything I want more.

Except perhaps .... ?

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Inner Sheep Dog revisited

On Thursday 19th December 2013, I wrote and posted a blog titled Inner Sheep Dog. It was about skiing en famille. I wish to revisit all that I wrote then, only this time 'with bells on' as I now have an entire family of sheep to worry over and count in safe at the end of every day. Last year, I only had half a flock to round up. This year, the entire flock answered the call to disturb their sheep-dog-protector.

The mother of a friend recently described skiing as "that holiday when the best bit is the journey home." That is just so true. I couldn't have described it better myself. I can think of other activities that would stress my inner sheep dog more - bungee jumping and sky-diving spring to mind and if any of my flock ever think it's a good idea to base jump, I hope they never tell me - not even after the event.

I think the catastrophists who broadcast news of disasters both natural and man-made are largely to blame for the worry-fest that infects those of us with overactive imaginations. Tales of skiers wiped out by avalanches morph too easily into horror stories where the victims wear the faces of your little flock. You wake in the middle of the night, sweating and panicked. Haul yourself out of bed and tuck the duvet round their shoulders, not because they're cold, but because you want to touch them, feel their breathing, before you attempt to get back to sleep. Maybe, this is a form of OCD - one that specifically afflicts mothers. Over-protective mothers - yes, perhaps. But I'm pretty certain that it is mainly mothers, as the men I know, on the whole, don't appear to suffer in the same way. I'd like to suggest that is because men don't have the imagination to see the things that could go wrong. But that would be too sweeping a statement ... probably. Maybe men are better at talking to themselves with a stern, don't-be-so-irrational tone of inner voice. Or maybe they're men - the ancient hunting-gathering chieftains who can dig themselves out of anything. So they don't worry. They're invincible.

Like sons who want to learn how to snow-board.

Strapping two planks onto heavy, unwieldy, plastic buckets that clamp vice-like onto your calves and standing on a snow covered slope ... a steep slope! On a mountain! In the rain (today)! ... is mystifying enough, to anxious souls like me. Binding those buckets together on a wider plank, so that you can't move your legs is simply ridiculous. Surely! Unsurprisingly, the people who do snow-board are usually flat on their backs at the edge of the piste, like upturned beetles. Or sliding on their bellies head first, arms bent at elbows to make an ineffective snow plough that splatters snow overzealous-spritz-like into their faces and knees raised behind them with feet still clamped to the following board. Snow board artists aren't unaware of this - of course not! - they know that most boarders will fall, a lot, and a board bottom-up displays the artist's work for free. It's a truth generally observed that most boarders are youthful, attracted by the grafitti-splattered clothing and the belonging to a herd of like-minded thrill seekers - they have to be to have the energy to make windmills out of their arms and hop when not awkwardly scootering their boards, and they need to be able to bounce, frequently between the brief and probably exhilarating moments, when the theory comes together and they traverse from one side of the piste to the other, terrorising all the skiiers below them who freeze because they assume that the approaching roaring crunch is a boarder out of control. He usually is.

Last year I wrote about skiing slowly. Very, very slowly. My policy of better the safe and steady tortoise than the reckless hare has been replaced this year by better the restaurant-internet-seeking, blogging and happily book manuscript editing, coffee-drinking, hot-chocolate-supping time killer, happy to be wearing walking boots instead of calf pinching ski boots and happy to hear about minor mishaps rather than see them. It's the seeing that sparks nightmares. I stroke my inner-sheep-dog, quietly telling her it will be over soon and we'll all be safely on that coach on the way home.

Oops ... okay, so it's not always hot chocolate or coffee. The occasional vin chaud slips in.


Most days.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Jack attack

Roughly (or should that be ruff-ly) 7kg of solid shouty muscle, with teeth, the Jack Russell is a small terrier with a furious 'someone-lit-my-touch-paper-and-I'm-about-to-explode' temper and a belligerent 'you-think-I'm-small!-Tell-that-to-my-face' attitude.

We share our home with two not very well behaved but loveable labradors. They are friendly, somewhat lacking in intelligence, funny and gentle. They lie at your feet; lie waiting at the foot of the stairs; lie in doorways; lie anywhere inconvenient and in the way to force some interaction from their human co-habitees; and they also 'lie' about whether or not they've been fed by one of the other human co-habitees. Perhaps, it is all this unexciting idleness that turns some people to the Jack Russell. Variously described as stubborn, energetic and aggressive, this is a working breed used to flush out foxes and definitely not prone to lying around.

But why would you want to welcome into your family an angry creature with boggly eyes that look like a bad case of exopthalmos, a jaw of shark-like dentition framed with thin, rubbery lips and legs just long enough to allow it to chase the postman and launch itself missile-like at your thigh? Why have one in your home?!! Are you afraid that the big bad wolf might come down the chimney? Maybe the Jack Russell could keep guard at the hearth ready to chase it back up the chimney. Wolf versus Jack Russell - no match! - that unfortunate wolf would pop out of the chimney stack faster than a wolf with a firework strapped to its bottom.

And if the teeth, temper combination isn't bad enough, the Jack Russell's bark is ferocity personified. A high pitched, spluttering, bared-lip-trembling, foaming at the nostril, "Wawawawawawawawawawawa!!!!!" Lovely? - I don't think so. Neither did Bertie Baggins and Four-legged-friend when we met one on a walk. Sorry ... on their walk. The walk that (they think) belongs to them. That no other four legged creature is permitted to cross without causing their heckles to rise, proprietorial-like. The garden belongs to them. Aren't the neighbouring fields just an extension of the garden? After all, Mum picks the brambles and surely she wouldn't pick anything that didn't belong to her?

Anyway, this Jack Russell, doing his furious shark impression about six inches from Bertie Baggins's nose, was apparently "Just being friendly." I've seen friendlier wasps! It's owner reluctantly put it back on its lead and dragged it away, while I clung desperately to my two.
"He just wanted to play" called the Jack Russell's owner, somewhat huffily.
What at? ... Chase the fox? ... Terrorise the labrador? Having ten minutes earlier, observed Four-Legged-Friend and Bertie Baggins perform a perfect pincer manoevre to catch a rabbit and demolish it, I was more concerned that their idea of playing with the mouthy midget might involve dinner. I think, or rather know, that they probably wouldn't have done anything braver than run away, but they were between me and the enemy - would they have attacked it to save me? Would it have been their fault if they had? I didn't want to find out. So I twisted my fists into their collars and held on tight. They got a lot of the biscuit gravel out of my pocket once the Jack Russell was safely away (still 'wawawawawa-ing,' but huffily, like its owner.)

I am sure there are some Jack Russell owners out there whom I have now seriously offended. Perhaps my opinion is skewed by the nastiness of every Jack Russell I have ever met. Perhaps, there are good-natured, placid, quiet Jack Russells. There is, after all, a lovejackrussels website for all things jackrusselly. They are ,agile and intelligent.' Apparently. And good at ball games and frisbee. But inclined to still have juice in the battery long after their poor owners are worn out. And 'inclined to boredom and destructive tendencies' if left on their own for too long - I once saw the shredded inside of a car, ceiling fabric hanging in torn ribbons - punishment perhaps for the owner who had left his Jack Russell in the car for "ten minutes." I wonder if the insurance paid out on that one?

While I'm prepared to accept that the Jack Russell of our walk may, when not confronted by two big beasts and an anxious stranger,  in fact,  be a friendly little beast, I do wonder if the Rev John Russell of Black Torrington in Devon was perhaps not too keen on his parishoners. "Meet my little dog," would have had them running for the door, long before they could get into the pernickity details of uncle Fred's funeral. And allow the good parson to get on with his main love, the important job of fox hunting.

On keeping one’s follies intact

The Broadway lyricist E Y Harburg correctly, in my (too rapidly ageing) opinion, observed that even when one’s body is 
‘bent and bowed and cracked, it is too soon to give up the ghost if one’s follies are still intact.’ 
Does this perhaps mean that as we age, we should ensure that we notch up a number of follies, the resolution and eventual correction of which will be as long and as arduous as it is possible to be long and arduous, in order to keep us going; to keep us young? 
Or if not young, then to keep us determined, single-minded, driven and old? 
Is this licence for a deliciously naughty, disreputable old age? 
Or another anxiety to add to the ‘to do list’ as the years pass? 
What about a bucket list of follies? Permission to wear purple and behave badly. Aided and recorded by an overly sensitive finger on the button for taking 'selfies.' In fact, as most selfies are in fact follies, a selfie diary of the elderly years would suffice. Explaining those on social media would keep the brain active for at least another decade. A decade during which more follies could be added to the album. And so life would go on. Decade by folly-creating decade. The secret to a long life solved. I bet that isn’t what E Y Harburg had in mind, though his is a cheap and easy recipe for growing old - both happily and disgracefully. It's a pity perhaps that he is no longer around to promote his follies-for-life approach in a world obsessed with reversing the ageing process.
In the West, huge sums of money are thrown into research which will ultimately benefit only those wealthy enough to afford the manufactured elixirs of youth. We all know that smoking, alcohol, greed and slobbery shorten life expectancy, but it appears that we would rather spend money on potions, pills and surgery, instead of seeking the fresh air, exercise and sensible eating that would lengthen it. I’m not phenomenally wealthy and I don’t trust the botox merchants and don’t have the goods as it were to bother (no striking cheek bones, no sleek Romanesque nose, no meltingly romantic eyes, no classically chiselled chin etc). I’d rather go grey and line gracefully. And I don’t want to live forever. Living as long as possible, as healthily and as happily as possible is another matter. In my opinion, only idiots smoke (and the biggest idiots are asthmatics and diabetics who smoke). I reckon few are aware that for every year of smoking beyond the age of 35, life expectancy is reduced by three months – this means that smoking from 35 to 50 will shorten life by 45 months. That’s a massive 3 years and 9 months. If you smoke to 60, you throw away over 6 years. Do the maths. All that lost folly-creating time: those selfies of your bulging, bathing-suited body, spread-eagled in the paddling pool with the grandchildren; of bad granny behaving despicably and cheating at two in the blow out the birthday cake candles on the count of three; and dressing up as father Christmas for the local toddler group because you’re the oldest granddad around. What a shocking waste.
There are advantages to growing older. Yes. Actually, there are. It’s all about not giving a damn. You pass the age when you worry about your appearance (... much. It’s okay to worry a bit. A bit is normal. Too much and you’ll brim over with regrets, until you realise that the only person worrying about how you look is you.) You also stop worrying about what people think of you. This can however take two very separate routes – the first is passive and happy, and essentially involves you no longer caring: life is too short to get up-tight. Arguing makes you unhappy and compromise is key to everything. The second is to stop worrying about what other people think because you have been alive long enough to know that you are right. This conviction is absolutely concrete and you don’t care who knows. You are belligerent, argumentative and miserable. In essence you are a curmudgeon. A lonely old one. And probably too cross to recognise your follies. Of which there will be many. But probably not of the selfie sort. Those who neither care nor give a damn will be happier, more rounded (because they’ll eat more) and wealthier (see below) people. All the rest will have to face an ever increasing expense as they dye, and plump, and preen, and inject and exercise the husk of their youth into shape.
Another advantage of advancing years was paraphrased beautifully by Peter Ustinov when he said of growing older “I feel I can talk with more authority, especially when I say ‘I don’t know.’” We spend so much of our younger years greedy to know, to explain, to answer the whys that life hurls at us. It makes us feel insecure not to know. The tranquillity of recognising that we don’t know and that it’s okay not to know, is freeing – it’s a release, to do with, what we wish, either explore, if we feel so inclined, or step over, like leaping to the next but one in a line of stepping stones. As long as I can jump to the next but one stone, I’ll be happy to not know. If however, there is too much ‘not knowing’ and the leap stretches too far, old age cloaks itself in a miserable dementing pall. But to despair would be premature, there is soon to be an app which will retrain our brains. We’ll probably have to play it every day. We’ll hang around in the corners of our rest homes, crooked fingers poking at buttons, eyes squinting through thick lenses at flashing screens, as we obsess over yesterday’s score and worry silently that our friend Jack doesn’t seem to have noticed that his scores over the past two weeks have steadily deteriorated and wonder if we should tell someone. 
Far simpler, is the way that dogs age. 
They slow down. They spread. The hairs under their muzzles turn grey. All pretty similar to us, but as long as they can snuggle up somewhere warm and eat regularly they want for little.

We should take a leaf from their book and embrace our ageing, not moan about it. We should rejoice, create follies and enjoy long life and put up with being 'bent and bowed and cracked.' If we don’t, how can we face the millions world-wide who through poverty and lack of access to medicines do not have this privilege - this gift of growing old.