Archive for May 2011

A life slowly drawing to a close

May 31, 2011

My father, Thomas, is slowly slipping away from this life. At the age of 81 he has succumbed to the wicked onslaught of Alzheimer’s syndrome and has lost the battle for his memories and his cognitive powers. Tragically, cruelly and horribly, he has been systematically stripped of his ability to communicate and function in the everyday world. My dear dad has become what amounts to a mere husk of the man I knew, and it is too late for me to ever know him better than I do now.

He has always been a quiet man who greatly valued his privacy and who used his words sparingly unless his passion for an issue was aroused. Now he is a quiet man for an entirely different reason, one over which he has no control.

I don’t – and didn’t – know my dad very well other than as a ‘dad’. He was the kind of man who always did his duty and always did the right thing. He was brought up in a tough place and time, in a household seemingly very short on overt care or love, and as a result he found it hard to be effusive with his own children. He would usually give a wry sideways smile when a laugh was appropriate, speak softly when others would shout. Not a man for being demonstrative, my dad, but I loved him nonetheless because he was my dad and I knew he loved me.

I have never got to know him as I would wish. I would love to know about the young ‘Tommy’, as he is known outside of our family. I would dearly like to hear about the scallywag he seems to be in any photographs of his younger years that I have ever seen. The little snapshots I have had of him in those days tell me that he would have been a pleasure to have as a friend. I know, for example, that when stationed in Ceylon (as it then was) during his Royal Navy days, each week he put his hand in his pocket quite literally to help a local workmate support his family after hearing of the pitiful wage he was paid. My dad wasn’t making nearly enough money to give any away, but he did so regardless. What a man to look up to.

Despite many questions, he has never spoken freely about his life and has always – rather frustratingly I must say – seemed reluctant to share his memories. In doing so he has taught me a valuable lesson about being a father and I am very aware that my own kids must not know only the man they know as their dad – there is so much more to who I am and they deserve to know about all of that. There is no way for me to know my father any more than I do today, and I am resolved not to pass on a similar unfortunate legacy. My kids must know who I am  and who I was.

In later life Thomas has been an utterly devoted grandfather to my nephews and nieces as well as my own children. Indeed in the presence of his grandchildren he would positively light up and his true self would come to the fore. He would delight the youngsters with songs, sounds, funny faces and games. In his seventies he would still painfully ease himself onto the floor and become a silly, loving and deeply loved ‘grandad’, the man whom so many younger members of our family remember now as a kind, thoughtful, loving and playful old man.

Those are among my own favourite memories of him, together with being under the bonnet of the car on many occasions while he skinned his knuckles (my dad could accidentally break his skin performing almost any task!) and swore softly, digging up the hundreds of pounds of potatoes he was so proud of more than thirty years ago, watching him light a garden rubbish fire, or being taught to drive with barely suppressed nervousness. He was widely read despite claiming repeatedly to be ‘thick’, and in the confines of his own home was never shy to voice his opinion about topical events. A devout catholic all his life, he would exercise his wonderful tenor singing voice in church, but never considered himself worthy to join a choir.

His life changed when the angina he had been concealing from everyone for years finally caught up with him and one day brought him almost literally to his knees. The brutality of the medical intervention which followed directly affected his memory and to some extent his personality, and he was never the same person again. In his latter years this once immensely physically strong man has become both mentally and physically frail and vulnerable, and increasingly dependent upon my mother. Over the last two or three years my family has watched Thomas the man slip further and further away as Alzheimers has ravaged his personality and faculties. Living thousands of miles away I have been shielded from much of this slow decline, however seeing him only infrequently has meant that each time I visit, his inevitable deterioration has come as a shock.

Seven months ago I paid my most recent visit, after my dad had been admitted into full time care, my exhausted mother finally having no choice but to ask for the help she so desperately needed. Dad had rapidly declined in the prior six months and had experienced at least two strokes – maybe more. I found a man seemingly near the end, physically frail and unable to comprehend conversation, unable to form sentences. At least he recognized me and my children, the look on his face as he saw us approach being something I will treasure in  my memory always.

Seven months ago during that visit I held my dad for what was probably the last time. It was planned to be so – we all feared that his end was near and that this was our (mine and my children’s) last chance to see him before he passed away. Not knowing if he fully understood what I was doing, in the confines of a small quiet room I held my dad, told him how much I love him, and said goodbye for what I believed was the last time. I do think he understood a little of what was happening, and that is harder to bear than if he had not known.

My dad is still with us today, another stroke seemingly weakening him further last week. He is less and less responsive as time passes, but the agony (of watching him slip further away little by little) which my mum and brothers and sisters endure is not shared by me in all of its intensity. Of all the ways there are to ‘go’, being taken slowly by Alzheimers, drifting away with a decreasing awareness of reality seems like a peculiarly sedate way to do it. My dad, my brave, strong dad, has always been afraid of dying and through the progression of this disease he has been spared the terror of an approaching end, something I am very grateful for.

He has no pain to battle with, no terror to plague his dreams. Life seems to be a dream for him right now, and I am comforted that his terror has been taken away from him, even at such an expense.  He may continue to hang on to life for months or even years – we cannot guess accurately. I know he is slowly dying and I neither wish for a quick end or more time for him – I don’t know which is best. Time seems to not mean anything to him any more, and I feel that he is not experiencing a drawn-out final time of his life, in fact I doubt that he is even aware of the approach of what is inevitable. What will be, will be.

Thomas Anthony Simmons is a good man, a quietly great and lovely man to whom I look up. He is not perfect and neither am I (who can make that claim anyway?), but I dare to hope that my own loved ones will remember me as I know I will remember him – with love and a smile. One day I may try to properly put into words who I experienced him to be, but for now I will continue to wait for him to find a peace I know he fully deserves.

Thank you dad, for always trying and for doing your best. I will always remain proud to be your son.


Am I bothering someone’s god?

May 30, 2011

Yesterday my wife and I were walking through a popular local park with our two rather large and very dopey/friendly dogs, enjoying the sunshine and trying to teach the dogs a little about self-control when they encounter other dogs. There was some kind of large group of families in the park area and rather pleasingly, at different times we had groups of kids run up to us and ask to pet the dogs. We love kids and we are proud of our dogs so of course it was fine for them to say hi and we enjoyed the youngsters enjoying the goofy friendly mutts.

Both of us were, therefore, slightly surprised to be handed individual copies of the new testament by the children – and apropos of nothing whatsoever (it seems the large group was a church outing). Of course the kids were just doing what they had been told or programmed to do, and so we had no problem with them doing so, however on principle I find this kind of thing rather annoying.

I am very happy to share our public spaces with people of whatever belief or non-belief, but the handing out of religious material is taking ‘sharing’ too far. I neither ask for, nor implicitly welcome anybody patronisingly giving me their religious propaganda. In this case the kids are possibly required to do so by the adults, or taught to do so as a merit-gaining exercise in the eyes of their deity. No doubt the adults know that it’s hard to tell a kid that their gift is not welcome. Sadly it was a waste of resources and the bundle of paper was tossed into the recycling at the first opportunity.

I wonder what would happen to me if I had approached the children or adults with a leaflet extolling the virtues of agnosticism or atheism? It won’t happen beacuse I don’t believe I have the right to make the kinds of assumptions about other people’s beliefs which entitle me to press my message into their hands. I don’t bother them or their god(s), so why should I allow them to bother me with their stuff? There is, in my mind, no difference between being harrassed this way or being harrassed by a group of noisy protesters – both are intrusive and unwelcome.

Five month Camping vacation

May 24, 2011

So the prophet Mr. Camping has amended his forecast for the coming apocalypse. The phrase ‘No Shit’ springs unbidden to my mind. As do peals of laughter over the seemingly unconscious irony within his statement that ‘a loving and merciful god’ would (upon reflection over the monumental cock up) obviously not subject the human race to five months of suffering before the actual FINAL final, no-I-really-mean-it-this-time, date of October 21st. Mr. C proved that he is the total package when he refused to comment upon all the people who had listened to his prediction, believed it, and made themselves paupers either through donations to his organisations or other acts of penance/generosity as the end times arrived. He explained by saying that he was not offering financial advice, just spiritual guidance. I suspect that if he was not an 89 years old minister, someone would make it their business to punch him in the throat…all in all a ridiculous and sad episode.

Trolling or Trawling?

May 22, 2011

Everywhere I go online I seem to come across the same phenomenon. It pervades almost without exception each and every stream of reader comments or forum. I opened this blog asking a question about it, and I’ve only recently become aware of the name for it (it’s so pervasive it has its own name) – Trolling. Until I was educated recently, I always considered trolling to be a term which describes a fishing technique, whereby a person in a boat tows a line and lure behind them, in the hopes of attracting a hungry fish. On the internet it refers (as you no doubt are aware) to deeply anticsocial, often borderline illiterate, insulting and generally deeply negative comments.

I am given to understand that in the internet version we are dealing with ‘Trolls’ as in the fabled goblin-esque creatures of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and more lately Harry Potter. Trolls are horrible things, universally despised (except, one assumes, by their Troll mothers)  and this is why the internet term developed, or so I believe.

Or maybe not? maybe ‘trolling’ is being used in the fishing sense? Maybe, after all, the trolls are trying to hook a fish of some kind? Perhaps people who surf the internet making negative, disparaging, insulting, bullying and ultimately harmful comments are in fact lonely people looking for other people like themselves, and doing so using the same inadequate methods that have failed to avail them of meaningful connections in the real world (where being an obnoxious ***** usually has real consequences). It’s just speculation but I hope I’m right and the world isn’t populated by quite so many people who are just deeply unpleasant in nature and therefore enjoy ruining someone else’s day.

Perhaps being brave and harsh and unpleasant in a consequence – free medium is the best communication such people can hope for, in which case I have to say that they are mistaken. There is an infinite number of positive possibilities out there (here),  a mind – boggling number of chances to be posotive, opportunities that have never existed before this age of hyper communication.

Overall though, I find the amount of antisocial and insulting  comments depressing and rather sad and those who practice it are missing the point of life as I see it. I hope (for their sake as much as ours) that the ‘trolls’ eventually tire of being obnoxious, become bored and just stop. If so they have a chance to find a different way to be, and we have a better chance of not reading their bullying crap. Despite their habits being at odds with my values, I wish them (whomever they may be) happy lives. And a broken internet connection – for a while.

Is this heaven?

May 21, 2011

Well, either I’ve been ignored by the big man in the sky or this is heaven – one of the two. In the minds of a small minority of people around the world, these are the only two possibilities.

I don’t have a problem with anyone having a particular belief (unless of course their religious fervour tells them that I must be harmed or done away with, in which case I may raise an eyebrow or two) or indeed sharing it with the world – after all it’s the same principle that allows me to write what I think and broadcast it to my lonely reader (you ARE there aren’t you?).

However to authoritively tell the world in general that god’s end game is about to begin is in my view irresponsible. Who knows how many very vulnerable people – whether through mental health problems or lifestyle – have been negatively affected by the current ‘rapture’ scare? I wonder how many of such people have been really quite worried (if not terrified) of the dire warnings issuing forth from an aged man in the good ol’ US of A? My guess is that as a percentage of the world’s population the number is quite small, but in bare numerical terms, probably exceeds six figures. And that’s a lot of scared and possibly unbalanced people. Who knows what has happened because of this prophecy? How many inappropriate acts have taken place through anxiety or panic?

There really is no accurate way to quantify the effects of this kind of proclamation by a man who apparently made the same prediction 17 years ago (I wonder how that one worked out?), but common sense would suggest that some unwitting – and as I say, vulnerable – people will have had their lives adversely affected by this. Still, it’s a religious belief being shouted from the rooftops so to speak, and so doubtless beyond any public comment by anyone with real influence.  The politicians don’t dare to make a public statement suggesting people feel reassured and calm down, more’s the pity.

How does this man’s belief differ from the other beliefs of christians? I would suggest it differs only slightly in content and not at all in nature. His beliefs are bolstered by a common faith in an invisible god – a merciful god – whom is all powerful, whom among other things saves people from disasters yet kills others arbitrarily and who has allegedly removed almost all life from the earth before and is prepared to wipe the slate clean again. This aged person who has grabbed the media’s attention simply believes on top of all this that he knows when the apocalypse is about to happen ( starting today) but other than that he is pretty much in line with almost every evangelical preacher on cable TV these days, every one of whom warns of the coming and imminent ‘end times’, often just before they ask for monetary donations to their cause.

So why, in the eyes of the watching masses, is he a fool – and the other purveyors of religious doctrine not, I wonder?

How Now Brown Cow?

May 15, 2011

Today we travelled a short distance from home in  our trusty little pickup (we decided not to go for an example of the ubiquitous 5+ litre monster pickups to avoid remortgages in order to put fuel into such a beast) and went to collect a quarter of a cow. Fortunately the hapless animal had already been despatched, butchered and packaged for our convenience, but we still picked it up from the farm at which it had lived its entire life. Why? For a few reasons really; it’s nice to know about the life of the animal we plan to chow down upon; it’s nice to NOT be eating meat which has been quite literally living in a massive field of sh*t somewhere in North America; it’s a lot cheaper than buying the meat from the supermarket; it brings us into personal contact with local suppliers and finally among the top reasons is that we now have a chest freezer almost entirely filled with meat (pork as well) – we had to take some stuff out just to close the lid! This is the second time we’ve done this and I tell you that for the cost of two weekly shopping trips it feels surprisingly good to know that we have our protein needs looked after. Add to this that we are growing (mostly with my lovely wife’s enthusiastic efforts) a garden full of vegetables to help keep us going through the summer, autumn and winter, we hope to reduce our monthly food bills significantly. It fits with our aim to simplify our lives so that we don’t feel the pressure of the rat race beckoning us back.

What a bunch of plankers

May 15, 2011

So, according to this news item, an Australian planker has died after (and I think the health and safety exec. would consider this a foreseeable risk) falling off his stomach and seven storeys from the balcony rail upon which he was planking…

It seems that the practice of planking in public places has become very popular but I’m happy to say that I haven’t yet found anyone committing the act in a public place – well not since my policing days anyway.

Apparently people get their kicks planking in unusual and public places and taking photographs of themselves doing it. The photographs are then posted online in social networks so that all their curious friends can see how they look when they are having a really good plank.

Many incidents involve multiple-person planking which must look very strange to any non-planking passers-by, but maybe it makes them want to go home and have a quick plank themselves. I understand that it’s not unusual for men and women to plank together or at least in the same location and I’m sure that gives each plank a little extra zest. It’s also good to see that this isn’t gender specific and both men and women can get the same thrill out of having a plank.

I’m sure that planking per se is not a new phenomenon (indeed in the past I may have planked once or twice myself) but the spreading of images online of people planking in public is a new twist. I’m not sure if facial expression is part of the fun but I imagine people planking with their tongue between their teeth would be a common one, as well as planking with eyes screwed tight shut, eyes crossed or mouth wide open – what fun.

In a way it’s a shame people are limiting themselves to planking in public places because I’m sure there are lots of places for people to plank inside the home. Nevertheless I have heard of people successfully planking in some very risky outdoor spots, such as on top of fences, train seats, the top deck of buses, at the side of a swimming pool, in a bar – apparently the options are endless.

Anyway all this talk has given me an idea and I’m off to have a very quick plank (I’m not yet sure how long one is supposed to plank before it is considered a complete plank) on the back of the settee, or maybe on the dining table or if I’m feeling very daring, plank on the kitchen counter. In the meantime, to all those plankers out there – happy and safe planking!