Thursday, August 27, 2009

Unfinished symphonies

Yesterday, Dominick Dunne died aged 83. He overcame a drinking and drug problem to start writing at the age of 50... and went on to become a best-selling author.

He didn't consider himself 'too old' to start something new.

Stories of octogenarians going back to university abound. There are even stories in Africa of these old folks going back to school. Why not?

Have a look at the wikipedia entry for unfinished symphony. Many, many composers started pieces they did not live to finish.

But they started them.

Some years ago, my mother in law needed a new pair of shoes. I took her shopping. She took a shine to a certain pair of good quality shoes. Of course, the quality came at a price. Her view was that at her age, she didn't need to invest in a pair of shoes that would last and last, because she wouldn't be around very much longer herself. She chose something cheaper and altogether more ill-fitting. That was eight years ago. She is still hale and hearty and walking without the aid of a stick, with better eyesight than mine. Eight years of wearing a cheap pair of shoes (if they even lasted that long) when she could have treated her tired old feet to the sort of comfort and good craftsmanship they have earned after a lifetime of faithful service.

Have you noticed that people no longer talk about 'dying of cancer'? Nowadays, we talk about 'living with terminal cancer'. Because dammit, until you actually die, you're alive!

So why not start that thing? Enrol for that study programme. Sign up for those lifedrawing classes. Start knitting that Kaffe Fassett pattern with the 23 different yarns.

So what if you don't get to finish it?

There's a choice: you either give up on life and sit back waiting for death, or you take the chance that you might not achieve your goal in your lifetime... so you bow out still reaching, still stretching, still striving.

I know which I'd rather do! When I talk about my lifelong learning journey, I fully intend for it to last as long as I do.

Friday, August 21, 2009

On being shallow

I learnt something about myself this week. I am more shallow than I would like.

On two occasions this week, I attended meetings at sexual health clinics. When I reported to the front desk, I felt the need to make it clear that I was there in a professional capacity and not as a patient.

I was disappointed in myself. Several people have responded with variations on the theme of "Eew!" when I have mentioned my current project. I have no such reaction. I consider sexual health to be a subject of critical importance. Since the material I am working on is of a clinical nature aimed at specialising clinicians, I realise that I am going to see and include in the learning materials some rather gruesome images. I have no qualms about that. Our doctors need to know as much as possible about these matters and they will see far worse things in the course of their careers. Somebody needs to put the learning materials together. It might as well be me.

I was reminded of a group of people I once encountered. All wore matching T-shirts and name badges. They were obviously on some sort of outing. Some of them gave outward signs of some form of mental disorder, others were indentifiable as having Down Syndrome. Among the group, there were also some with no discernable impairment/special need. But of course, not all mental disorders manifest by means of any outward signs, so it was likely that some of those who seemed unimpaired had special needs, too. Some, however, had to be staff.

Such is the graciousness of these people that they felt no need to distance themselves from their charges in any outward way. They felt no need to wear anything that identified them as carers rather than patients. I was deeply impressed by this at the time.

My experience this week tells me I am far more superficial than they.

Mea culpa.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Good doll, bad doll

Linda Hartley shared this link via Twitter today. It broke my heart. No child should ever be given the impression that they are bad or ugly. Just look at these precious little faces as they effectively write themselves off as both of these things! These kids need a dose of Maya Angelou!

What are we teaching our children?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Maya Angelou: And still I rise

If you know me personally, or if you have been reading this blog for some time, you will know that I have a love for stories of triumph. I am prone to standing up and whooping (at the very least metaphorically) for sheer joy at all that is unquenchable, indomitable and indefatigable. Like you, I have been crushed, battered, bruised and broken at some points along life's journey. Like you, I have had to overcome these setbacks.

Does Angelou not capture it perfectly with her words? And does she not perform her words with consummate skill?

I like to carry with me into every project a sense of the people who will use my resources, of their own falling and rising. I like to to strive with every resource I create to make a small contribution to that rising.

How 'bout you?

Monday, August 17, 2009

This wondrous world we live in

Apparently, a competition is underway to name seven new wonders of the world. This site would like to suggest a few lesser known alternatives. Just looking at the photos gives me such a lift. Is this little planet of ours not rich in natural wonders fit to blow the mind?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Interactive crime map

The BBC has published an interactive map of crime patterns in Oxford. Apparently, Oxford was selected because it is the closest thing to a typical British city in respect of its demographics and crime statistics.

It's a very useful map, but some people are expressing concerns. Think of it like this:

  1. You see how the crime rate is increasing in your city
  2. You become afraid
  3. You want something to be done about it
  4. You are told that the only 'something' that can be done involves curtailing civil liberties
  5. You trade your liberties for increased security
Hmmm. Not easy. Presumably we don't want to choose ignorance, but we also need to steer clear of fearmongering.

Learning to touch type

Jane Hart has listed five sites where you can learn to touch type online, free of charge. As the ratio of keyboarding to writing changes, it becomes increasingly useful to have good keyboarding skills.

When I was at school, typing was only available to girls and only those in their final three years of high school. The choice was that or maths. So choosing typing was like opting for a female stereotype many of us were trying hard to escape. I took maths.

But keyboarding is now a part of pretty much everyone's daily life, and it stands to reason that our kids need keyboarding skills now as much as our grandparents needed penmanship skills. As far as I know, this is still not an integral part of the primary school curriculum.

More's the pity.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Playing the hand you've been dealt

Today, the English printed press is almost universal in its choice of lead story. The details have been released of the three perpertrators in the death of 'Baby P' - as he was known to the British public for long after his real name (Peter) was made known elsewhere in the world. Not only have their names been published, but much background information as well.

What emerges in respect of the mother is a picture of a girl with a tragic past and a history of self-absorbed poor choices. In respect of the two men, the picture is of a history of brutality and sadistic tendencies.

The debate rages today as to whether it was wise to have revealed this information. There are fears that this will result in the release of a torrent of anger and hatred from the British public. On one radio show, mention was made of the possible change of identity for the three on their release and of relocation to Canada. I can't imagine that this would be a popular option with Canadians!

As I read the reports, trying to avoid the purple prose of some of the tabloids, I realise that all three of these people were probably subjected to some pretty awful things in their early lives. Things which were bound to have had a negative effect. But I'm here today to say that you don't have to follow the path to its logical conclusion.

My own early life was not a pretty picture and, by the age of 20, I was on track to be a lost cause. I think I can bank on those who know me to back me up when I say that I am not.

I am not trying to big myself up here, by any manner of means. I am just hoping that perhaps even one person whose life looks set on an inexorably negative path will read this and know that it doesn't have to be that way.

You have a choice.

I urge you to summon up the strength for one moment to stop expending all your energy on blaming your parents, your teachers and the system, and take a good, long look at yourself in the mirror. This is where you are now. This is the reality of your life. These are the cards you hold. What happens next is up to you. Take control of it yourself. Choose not to be the victim of your circumstances. Choose to overcome them. Choose to be the very best you that you can be in spite of it all. There are very probably hands reached out to you. Stop being such a stiff-neck and grab hold of them. Go back to school if you want to. Call a helpline if you can. Book yourself in on that rehab programme if you need to. Tell someone what you've decided to do. Take a deep breath. Straighten your shoulders. Lift your chin. Put your hand to the plough. Do not look back.

You can do this.

You can.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Revisiting the subject of bullying

You might not have heard the name Tom Daley before. Especially if you are neither British nor interested in the sport of diving. So, a little background.

Tom was selected for the British olympic squad and competed in Beijing. Team GB did not fare very well, but Daley was quite philosophical about it, in spite of the hail of criticism that inevitably followed.

Something he was less able to overcome was bullying at school. Daley spoke out about his situation and the whole country was aware of the seriousness of it. Eventually things got so bad that he felt forced to change schools. Sadly, this is something we see more and more of - that the victim winds up having to change schools because 'the system' is powerless to take effective action against the perpetrators.

Daley recently won gold in the individual event in Fort Lauderdale. Hopefully that will silence some of his critics.

I am pleased that Daley's profile, coupled with his willingness to speak out, has shone a spotlight on this problem. My sons' head teacher is of the view that bullying is a universal problem, that there isn't a school in the world which is free of it. This is not to say that she condones it. Quite the contrary. But she recognises how common it is.

And of course, most kids aren't like Tom Daley. They don't have his profile. The country's press doesn't howl in outrage when they are bullied. So they may feel as if there is no-one to whom they can turn.

My own sons both begged me not to take up the matter with the school authorities, believing that this would only make matters worse. I overrode one of them... and proved him right. Things did get worse. Then my husband stepped in and pushed a little harder. We hope that we might have begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel of torment.

Yes, bullying probably is in every school. It is certainly in many workplaces. And it takes a variety of forms. But that doesn't make it right. We shouldn't put up with it.

Friday, August 07, 2009


Have you ever played the game called associations? Two people face up to each other. One starts by saying a single word. The other responds with an associated word. The idea is not to hesitate or repeat any words. The idea is also... and this is the tricky bit... not to call out a word that is associated with your own last word, but with that of your opponent/partner.

There are certain things that just belong together in our minds. Certain words and phrases that evoke specific mental images.

For example, I'll bet if I said "skinned knee," most people would picture a school boy in short trousers. Skinned knees are things that happen on playgrounds, or out in the neighbourhood aren't they?

Well I skinned my knee yesterday. As I got out of my car, the door decided to swing shut again and smashed into my knee. The movement of my trouser leg against my skin under the weight and force of the door took the skin off my knee cap. Then, of course, my trouser leg stuck to the (ahem) wound, so that the next time I stood up, it ripped away painfully.

I had forgotten how painful a skinned knee can be. Even when it hardly bleeds.

In my days in the high school netball team, I skinned my knees many times on the tarmac surface of the court with my aggressive style of play (all determination and little skill). It was no big deal then. It was part of the scenery, and therefore unremarkable.

But take a thing out of context. Put it somewhere unexpected and it attracts a lot of attention. People ask me about my knee. A middle aged woman with a skinned knee is an unexpected sight.

Itiel Dror talks about this a lot in his work. One of the tests he does to demonstrate this is to read off a list of words to test subjects, then to give them a certain amount of time to recall as many of them as possible. Usually, many people recall the first few and the last few, with very few or none at all remembering those in the middle, resulting in a parabolic chart.

Then he repeats the experiment. This time, somewhere near the middle of the list, the word 'penis' is mentioned. Almost without fail, absolutely everyone remembers that word. The resulting chart is appropriately phallic (an effect that would no doubt be spoiled if you put the stand out word nearer to the start or end of the list - Itiel is something of a showman, too).

Even among intelligent, scholarly adults, the word is unexpected enough to draw attention. To be memorable.

It's a good learning design tip. Surprise them. Throw in a curved ball. Why not?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Goodnight Harry

Today was the funeral of Harry Patch who died last month aged 111. His death follows shortly after that of Henry Allingham, another WWI veteran who had been the world's oldest man at the time of his death. The officiating clergyman called it "the end of an era". That phrase gets used a lot and is seldom warranted. Today I believe it was justified. With Harry's death the last first hand voice from the trench warfare of the First World War has been lost. From now on, it all becomes hearsay and second hand accounts.

Harry kept silent about his war experiences for decades after the war. When he did speak, it was to condemn war in the strongest terms. He said no conflict was worth the loss of a single life. I tend to agree with him. Having heard since his death of some of the atrocities that he witnessed, I find it remarkable that anyone returned from the trenches to lead a normal life.

At Harry's request, his funeral was attended by a German Charg' Affaires, whose reflection can be heard here. His whole life was about peace and reconciliation, which was further reflected by the choice of song performed for the occasion by a chorister, and performed here by the inimitable Joan Baez.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Exploring mentalities and mindsets

I find it fascinating to explore what motivates people to behave the way they do. The more I understand about what motivates people, the more likely I am to create engaging resources.

Yesterday, as I drove along the winding country road to fetch my son from work, no fewer than four times did I come around a bend to be faced by a car taking the bend hell for leather from the other side, encroaching onto my side of the road. In one instance car was plumb in the centre of the road (which a friend of mine refers to as 'taking your half out of the middle'). On that occasion, we narrowly avoided a collision, because there was nowhere for me to go: an embankment came all the way up to the edge of the tarmac on my side. On the other three occasions, I had to mount the grass verge to avoid a partial head-on.

I know that I am a particularly defensive driver. These other folks, I would hazard to say, are plainly not. Why not? Why do I drive differently from them? Have two near-fatal collisions in my life have given me a glimpse of my own mortality and fragility? Is it because I'm a Mom and have become accustomed to protective parent mode? Do I care more about my car than they do theirs? Am I over-cautious? Are they thoughtless? Do they have that same sense of 'it won't happen to me' that sees people having unprotected sex or experimenting with addictive drugs? Do they rely on the other person giving way (a kind of 'chicken')? Are they playing the odds that no-one will come from the other side in the few seconds it takes them to get through the bend?

If you're someone who drives like my four close encounters yesterday, I'm really curious to know. What goes through your mind as you cross over the white line on that bend?

Monday, August 03, 2009


Alex Dawson has put out a request: Where do you find sanctuary? He invites replies in whatever medium you like: words, images, video, etc.

So here's mine. There are a few places.

The first is in prayer. When I pray I feel as if I am surrounded by an inviolate bubble. As if I have taken refuge in the biggest, safest lap in the universe.

The second, more corporeal place is right here. In these eyes:
Twenty one years later, after two children, innumerable wrinkles, several grey hairs (in spite of my best attempts with hair colour), and a significant increase in weight, he still looks at me with love, affection, fondness and - blow me down - desire.

The third is here. Our family room at home. People boggle at the colour scheme of neon colours but we absolutely love it. It is our family bolt hole, and we spend a lot of time here together.

Counting my blessings

As longer term readers will know, I had a bit of a bumpy ride on the journey to adulthood. Divorced parents in an age when this was uncommon. A permanent shortage of money which meant that I went without a lot of things my peers took for granted. Add to that some bad choices both on my mother's part and mine, and you have a recipe for disaster. The fact that my life is far from disastrous today, is something for which I am permanently grateful.

On a recent trip home, my Mom told me "You did a good job of raising yourself," which I took as an apology for the choices she made in respect of me. And it is true that, by and large, I did raise myself. My childhood was neither easy nor happy, but over the course of the last 24 hours, I have come across two different stories that put things into perspective.

This story in Cape Town's Cape Argus newspaper tells the story of a boy of 15 called Tapiwe who left Zimbabwe after the death of both his parents in search of a better life in South Africa, only to find that the streets were not paved with gold, after all. He became one of Cape Town's many homeless people, sleeping under a bridge. He worries about his little sister, whom he left in the care of neighbours back in Kwekwe. He hopes to be able to find a way to support her, but is unable to get work in South Africa because he is under age. The Adonis Musati Project is trying to help him complete his education and improve his chances of securing a decent job.

Last night, our church heard from a young man called Minjun from North Korea whose father died in prison when he was only 9 years old, after the authorities learned that he was making trips into China to earn money to feed his family. Because of his father's criminal record, he was unable to get into a decent school. At 17, without daring to tell his mother, he left North Korea for China and from there made his way to South Korea to start a new life. He struggles with guilt for having left without telling his mother and he worries about the treatment she will receive because of his 'betrayal'. He told us of the many people in N. Korea who are dying of starvation and of the poor medical care provision which saw his little brother die in early childhood of TB - an eminently treatable disease (my own father had it and was successfully treated).

What hammered these two stories home to me is that my elder son is the age that Minjun was when he fled from North Korea, while my younger son is the same age as Tapiwe. I am so glad that neither of them needs to have to face a journey like this, all alone.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Dead Aid

For anyone who has not yet cottoned on to why our current, conscience appeasing way of delivering humanitarian aid to Africa isn't working, please read this book. It wasn't written by a rock star or a Hollywood celeb. It was written by a Zambian economist called Dambiso Moyo.

This is one girl who has her head screwed on right. What a pity the big wigs aren't listening to her... yet!