March 25, 2010

The worried well

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 2:02 pm

While Americans are parsing their historic legislation on health care, I’ve been thinking, I really ought to see a doctor.

In May it will be six years since I last consulted a physician. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I can see my GP any time I want and it won’t cost me a penny.  No insurance forms to fill out, no co-pay, nothing.   But the sign in the waiting room that says an appointment lasts for 10 minutes, and is for one complaint, is putting me off.  If I have more than one complaint I am advised to inform the receptionist. 

It doesn’t tell me what to do if I don’t have any complaints at all. 

I know I should be glad, but instead I think, I’m 56 years old.  I should see a doctor!  I could be dying!  How would I know?

I am the worried well.

And maybe I should be worried: I have never had my cholesterol checked.  My blood pressure hasn’t been taken for years.  Colonoscopy?  You must be kidding.  (Apparently I should be grateful that you are kidding, because I hear they aren’t very pleasant.)

Government policy means women over 50 get a mammogram every three years, so I have not been entirely without medical attention.  I have had two of these examinations, carried out by specialist technicians in a trailer that visits my GP’s car park.  A card is sent through the post summoning me, and on the day and time prescribed I climb into the trailer and am immediately directed to undress to the waist behind a curtain.  The technician manipulates the steel plates, pushes buttons, retreats behind a screen, and we are done.  She hands me a pamphlet explaining that I will get a letter within a fortnight with results. The next woman is already waiting as I descend the trailer’s steps.  I look at my watch: five minutes max.  Not that I needed more – it was a model of efficiency.

Nevertheless, I have been thinking that six years is a long time at my age to be doctor-less.  It’s possible that my GP thinks I have already died, and I begin to consider what problem I might bring before her (one at a time, of course) so she knows I haven’t (but might!). 

The list of possibilities isn’t promising:  My right foot has itched for most of those six years, but I never thought it was worth bothering her about that.  My right ear itches too, but I already tried that one on her, without affect, 10 or 15 years ago.  I can’t turn my head far enough to ride my bike safely, but a mirror on the helmet gave me a non pharmaceutical solution to what I guess is degenerative arthritis.  I’ve got through menapause.  Everything else I can think of that’s wrong with me I know damn well would be a lot better if I drank less, slept more and weren’t a bloody hermit.

But yesterday the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Alistair Darling, since you ask) stood up in Parliament to deliver the annual Budget speech and solved my dilemma. 

The Budget is when the Chancellor declares his master plan for the economy.  How much the government will take in, how much it will spend, how it will spend it. 

In the Budget speech the Chancellor reveals the income tax we are going to be paying next year (a lot), but that’s only the start.  He gets to decide what’s spent on filling potholes in the road.  How many university places for 18 year olds will be on offer.   How fast the government will pay its bills.  How much more petrol, wine, beer and fags (or anything he likes) will cost from the moment he sits down (or any moment he chooses). I will never forget the year the then Chancellor decreed that from midnight Value Added Tax would be levied on all takeaway food heated above the ambient air temperature, as long as it was ordinarily expected that the food would be consumed before it cooled. At the stroke of twelve the price of fish and chips went up by 17.5%, but not bread from a bakery (because, though some like it hot, it only got that way en passant – if you see what the Chancellor meant).  

That’s how much power our Alistair has.

So yesterday, while I was listening to him wittering on about how he was going to fund apprenticeships to solve the problem of young persons not in education, employment or training (in the UK Neets are the new Yuppies), and how he was going to save money by making 15,000 civil servants move out of London to, say, Luton, my ears suddenly pricked up when I heard the Chancellor say that he intended to allocate sufficient funds so that everyone over 40 could have a health check every five years.

A check up for the middle-aged every five years!  That makes me one year overdue. 

It’s just what the doctor ordered.

March 22, 2010

Friends don’t let friends buy boats

Filed under: Back story,misc — Duchess @ 2:27 pm

My friend the Electrical Engineer from MIT dropped in recently, in between meetings in London and Paris, and as usual I put him to work.  His big job for the visit was installing my new batteries.  I felt just a little bit bad about making him do this – he’s in his mid sixties and had to lie on his side in the engine room to disconnect the old batteries before lifting them almost over his head and out of the boat.  Then he had to do that all over again to get the new ones in.  There are five batteries running the lights, fridge and sockets, and each one weighs more than 60 lbs. 

But I didn’t feel all that bad, because, frankly, I hold him partly responsible for the whole kit and kaboodle.   When you have a crazy idea most people just tell you you’re daft.  David says, Let me think about that…

I’ve known David since I was 15 and he was 25, a young MIT post doc.  The improbable beginning to this almost life-long friendship was that his wife was my high school Latin teacher.

Later, when I was in college a few subway stops away from MIT, we met for lunch occasionally.  In my senior year I fretted about producing my thesis.  I always composed at the typewriter, and then edited by hand.  I mentioned my obsessive need to retype a whole page whenever I wanted to change a single word.  Then, as soon as I saw the next clean version, another word would demand to be changed and I would have to type the page all over again.

Why hadn’t someone invented a machine that would retype the page for me so I could always edit from a perfectly clean copy?

It was 1978 and we were in a coffee shop in Harvard Square.  David said, Let me think about that…

What I needed, he explained, was access to a computer. 

On a computer you could write something, and then, if you knew the commands, you could change a single word and it would save that change and it would retype your page.   It was called a “text editor” (word processing was an idea yet to come).  The text editor interpreted your instructions line by line, and each time you pressed the carriage return (enter) your page would be retyped.

In the 70s computers took up whole rooms, and most people never got near one.  At MIT, students, faculty and staff logged into the computer using terminals. Recently, David said, people were beginning to scorn ordinary, paper loaded, computer terminals.  Instead everyone wanted the latest thing, called a VDU (visual display unit).  It looked just like a television and everything you wrote was on the screen instead of on paper.

David said he could sneak out a terminal for me if I were willing to have the old-fashioned paper version. 

I said I was very fond of paper and didn’t know anything about computers.

David was sure I would work it out.  It was quite a cool idea.

Of course, my terminal needed a way to communicate with the MIT mainframe, so David also smuggled out a modem, a device with two rubber rings, designed for the receiver of an ordinary telephone, one rubber ring for the earpiece and one for the mouthpiece.   There’s a picture on a Columbia University website, improbably dedicated to the history of acoustic couplers, that looks at little like what David delivered to my Cambridge appartment.

With the circular dial on the phone, first I telephoned MIT, and then I dialled David’s password (which was, of course, very wrong of both of us).  When the computer began to emit a series of whines, squeaks and whistles, I shoved the receiver into the rubber holes on the modem, and then I was connected to an MIT mainframe, one of the most powerful computers in the world.

I dialled and shoved and typed furiously all evening, every evening for months.  My flatmate was very understanding.  She was (is) a poet and part of the house agreement was that if either of us were writing the phone was off the hook anyway.

I was startled every time I hit the return button and the terminal typed out revised lines of text, and I slept uneasily as long as the thing was in my bedroom. 

Nevertheless, I tweaked my paragraphs word by word, and my masterpiece was stored on the remote computer, which eventually produced a series of little holes in a long string of tickertape.  The night before my thesis was due David and I fed the tickertape into a printer.  The thesis was about 100 pages long and it took almost all night to print it out.

I am pretty sure I was the first undergraduate at Harvard to submit a thesis entirely produced by computer.   The authorities were completely confused when I explained that I couldn’t submit an original and three copies, because my “original” was just a bunch of holes.

A quarter of a century later I picked David up at Heathrow.  He’d moved on from stealing terminals for undergraduates to being part of the team that invented the internet, and later, when everyone wanted to join in, helping to design international protocols for the guts that run it, like IP addresses.  He travels all over the world being important, but when he is in the UK I always have some homely project for him.  Electrical engineers make useful friends. 

As I pulled out of the car park and headed for the motorway back to my little Oxfordshire village I told David that the plan for the weekend was to go look at boats for sale.

Three months earlier I had put my home of 25 years on the market.

I have decided, I declared, that the only possible consolation would be to buy a narrowboat and live on it.

I admitted that I knew nothing about boats.

Let me think about that… said David.   And then, after awhile, he added that he was sure I would work it out. In fact, it was quite a cool idea.

March 15, 2010

Gorilla warfare

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 12:24 pm

My daughter’s partner works with a non profit organisation that helps asylum seekers. Recently they were forwarded a copy of a letter in which a claim was denied by the UK Border Agency.

I am assured that this is a real extract from the letter sent to a Côte d’Ivoire asylum seeker when his application was turned down.

You claim that you could not relocate to the area where your parents are living as you fear attacks from guerrillas. However, information from the World Wide Fund for Nature confirms that guerrillas are not native to that part of the country and in any event there are few recorded incidents of primates attacking humans unless their natural habitat is disturbed or their young threatened.

The UK Border Agency is staffed by college graduates (many from the most elite universities in this country) who take a competitive exam for entrance into the Civil Service. They are highly paid, starting at salaries not far off the most I have ever earned.

These young people are making decisions that might mean life or death for the people who come before them. They have absolute authority, tempered only by the efforts of organisations like the one my daughter’s partner works for.

Otherwise, I would have found the above quite funny, especially as I have, for 30 years, lived among arrogant idiots who think it is clever to remark, But you Americans barely speak English!

Meanwhile, I am puzzling over the obvious question, since I know the author of this letter must have been Highly Educated, what exactly we are teaching our children.

Nevertheless, as there are still a few people in this country who do speak English, I expect the claimant in this case will do well on appeal.

March 14, 2010

Mothering Sunday

Filed under: misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 2:51 pm

A long time ago, when I was young and foolish, I made the mistake of declaring that I believed Mothers’ Day was sentimental nonsense invented by Hallmark in order to make money.  It turns out that’s not even true, but even if it were, what kind of stupid woman would scorn the opportunity to be given flowers, gifts, cards and breakfast in bed?

That stupid woman would be me. 

As usual, all week there were signs in every shop shouting, Don’t forget Mum!  For days I have stood in supermarket queues behind people buying DVDs, booze and potted plants for their mothers.  Late yesterday afternoon there was a frenzy of flower shopping.  You couldn’t walk down the damn street without seeing dozens of people clutching bouquets.

For years I have been trying to recover from my grave Mothers’ Day Denial Error, and my children are, one by one, catching on.

My elder son lives in the US and I know from experience that he will call me on American Mothers’ Day; he will have no idea that today is the British version, though if he were more religious he would:  British Mothers’ Day (or, as it is more properly called, Mothering Sunday) always falls on the mid Sunday in Lent.  Its origins are about the Mother Church and nothing to do with mortal mothers at all.  Never mind!  This Sunday Mum collects the flowers and puts her feet up.

Last year my younger son was stung by being scolded for neglecting me: Oh, sharper than a serpent’s tooth, said I. 

But you don’t believe in Mothers’ Day, he pleaded.

My elder daughter said the same thing this afternoon when I asked where my flowers were.  But you don’t believe in Mothers’ Day.

By the time my youngest was born I was a lot older and a little wiser and I never once mentioned Hallmark with disrespect.  Every year The Baby prompted her father to make sure I had cards, gifts and flowers and her wide smile anticipated my pleasure.  If I had not already seen the error of my ways, I would have needed nothing more.

So this Friday I took the precaution of reminding The Baby that Sunday was Mothers’ Day.  You always remembered when you were a little girl, I said. 

She shrugged.  I guess I grew up.  (She’s 18 years and 10 days old.)

My Mothers’ Day went like this. 

The Sunday radio was filled with cloying reminders and when I had had all I could take I locked up the boat and drove into Oxford.  It was a beautiful day and my ex husband has hired me to be the gardener in his new house.  (very George Eliot, remarked a friend, but I know better: much more Thomas Hardy).

Anyway, the Ex is away (meeting the new grandson), and I also promised to check on the girls, who both live at his house, and to make sure the fish were fed, the door locked, and the rubbish taken out.

While I was chopping brambles in the garden the younger son telephoned to wish me a happy day.  He learned his lesson last year.

Later I attached a new basket to the second hand bike I bought my elder daughter yesterday.  While I was fumbling with bolts and allen keys she sat at the kitchen table sending text messages. 

I said, I don’t know why I am the one doing this. You could do it just as well.

She said, Don’t be silly.

Then she reminded me of the time when she was a little girl and I was making a Halloween costume for her and I invited her to help me do it so that she could learn to sew, and she looked at me as if I were crazy.

Don’t you want to learn to sew? I had asked.

She shook her head.

But what will you do when you grow up and you have a little girl and she needs a Halloween costume?

Oh, I’ll just get you to make it, she answered cheerfully.

This afternoon, as I was finishing up mounting the basket, The Baby appeared with a drawing she had done of me and my little grandson, a present for Mothers’ Day.  It isn’t finished, she said, but because you were whining so much I thought I had better give it to you now.

Admiring the drawing and glaring at my elder daughter, I noted that I had only one Bad Child after all.

You don’t believe in Mothers’ Day, she repeated emphatically.  But thanks for the bike, Mum. It’s the best bike ever.

March 3, 2010

Of no fixed address

Filed under: Back story,BBC radio addiction,Canal,misc — Duchess @ 4:11 pm

My electrics have, to use slang my New Zealand grandmother favoured, been giving me gyp lately.  I replaced an alternator, disconnected the adverc, and ripped out the split diode thingy (and I barely know what any of this stuff is).  Nevertheless the batteries complain.  They reward my careful evening attention with nothing more grateful than red warning lights each morning.

The Grumpy Mechanic has had it up to here with my batteries.  He says his back has never been the same since he hauled mine out to test them last year and he isn’t doing it again.  I’m not complaining, he says, though he is.  Replace the lot, Girl, is his advice.

Since I usually do what I am told, I have.  That is, I ordered new ones, to be delivered to the pub today, because that’s our boaty poste restante.   Just after eleven o’clock opening time I trundled up the towpath with my computer and my dongle, ordered a latte, and set up camp.

On Twitter I read that Michael Foot, Labour Party leader 1980 – 1983 died this morning, aged 96.  I tweeted that I bet every obituary mentioned his donkey jacket and the longest suicide note in history.

In January 1979 I had just won a scholarship to Oxford, starting the following fall.  The US news was full of the Iranian revolution and what British journalists (an educated lot, on the whole) had dubbed their Winter of Discontent.  The UK Labour government was at war with the unions who had been their backers.  Despite beer and sandwiches at Downing Street, everything was going badly wrong.  

My friends said, You know that country you are going to?  It’s falling apart.

It sure looked like it from the television news.  Rubbish collectors, gravediggers, ambulance drivers and other public sector workers all were out on strike.  I watched films of mounds of garbage on the streets and heard dark reports of dead bodies piled up in morgues.   Inflation was only just down from a peak of 26.9%.

For the first time I took an interest in a UK election, called that spring.  Margaret Thatcher, Conservative, was elected, the first and only woman Prime Minister. 

The following year, 1980, the Labour Party lurched to the left and Michael Foot, a kindly maverick (really a maverick – he lost the party whip for two years because he was an inveterate peacenik) was their candidate for Prime Minister.  I am reluctant to say he was already elderly when he became party leader at 67, but it certainly seemed so to my much younger self.  An intellectual and wholly unworldly Socialist, he reminded me of my grandfather.  Of course, he was also wholly unfit to lead a political party.

He was ridiculed for his scruffy clothes, and particularly for the coat he wore on Remembrance Sunday (Veterans’ Day).  The press called it a “donkey jacket” and were outraged by what they claimed was disrespect to our Glorious Dead.  It was quite in vain that Foot repeatedly pleaded that the Queen Mother herself had admired his jacket as they both waited to lay their wreaths at the Cenotaph.

1983 was my first general election in the UK and I was a little puzzled at first to find that here politicians published election “manifestos”.  My high school history lessons had led me to believe that manifestos were strictly for commies.  I bought the full versions for all three main parties and read them closely.

Michael Foot’s party manifesto went into extraordinary detail.  I laughed out loud when I came to the bit that said “The Labour Party supports the wishes of women in childbirth.”  I was then expecting my second baby.  I adore my children once they exit the birth canal, but my wishes in childbirth generally involved mass murder.

That year the Labour Party suffered the worst general election defeat in 50 years, and the manifesto came to be known as “the longest suicide note in history.”

Meanwhile, back at the pub, I was the only customer, still nursing my latte two hours on.  Stematos, the Greek landlord, and I both had our laptops open on opposite sides of the bar.  I thought of telling Stematos that Michael Foot had died, but I wasn’t sure he would know who I was talking about.  Stematos was googling plant stands. 

There was no sign of the battery delivery, and after a while the punters began to arrive for lunch: the chatter was about pension fund bailouts, bowel cancer, birthdays, and how the Grumpy Mechanic might be getting on in his new flat.  No one mentioned Michael Foot.  I made Stematos happy by ordering feta cheese, olives, bread and a small glass of wine.  He thought I was going to sit there all day on the latte. 

Just as I was about to give up, five spanking new batteries were delivered to the pub porch.  I hauled them in two loads to the boat, a little less than half a mile from the pub, three batteries on the first journey (when I was fresh) and two on the next, when I was tired.  I needed to rest a lot on both trips.  Lifting them inside was pretty hard, and I was afraid I might drop one into the canal, since I was already exhausted from getting them there.

They cost £100 each, and I really did not want to lose any in the water.

3 batteries - the 1st load

Three batteries - the first load

When I got them onboard I put them on my scale, just out of curiosity.  Each battery weighed 62.8 pounds, meaning the load of two was almost exactly as heavy as I am (on a good day), and the load of three was a whole lot heavier.  I felt like one tough Duchess.

Batteries waiting to be installed.

All five batteries safely in the engine room, waiting to be installed.

By the time I had pushed the empty cart back up the tow path it was 5 pm and I thought I deserved a big glass of wine.

I turned on the radio.  It was all about Michael Foot.  I wasn’t wrong.  Every report mentioned the donkey jacket and the suicide note.  You can read the BBC obituary here.

I haven’t quite forgotten that once I get the new batteries installed, I’ll have five old ones to haul up the tow path, but sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof. Or so I am told.

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