Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Bad Education


My youngest son, who will be 17 in August, is disgusted with his peers. He vented forth at the weekend on his disappointment at his own generation. When he looks around at the vast majority of the kids his age he sees laziness, stupidity, lack of motivation, and a general bad attitude.

I reminded him that for many of them, the influence at home is largely responsible, bad parenting. I told him there's hope for them once they get out into the world and meet lots of different people, of all age groups and backgrounds, some of whom may be guiding lights for them.

But it shouldn't be this way at all. Look how much experience "we" (older people, who run the show) have of raising kids and educating them. Why are we getting it so wrong?

A friend who homeschools pointed this out to me:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Why-Are-Finlands-Schools-Successful.html

And added:

"If schools in Ontario were like this, I wouldn't have a reason at all to homeschool."

Whatever your views on homeschooling are, one thing's certain, it shouldn't be necessary. It shouldn't be an option taken simply because the school system is failing. But frequently that is the reason parents turn to it.

I experimented with homeschooling by accident. When James was in Grade 4 we lost water supply to the barn in mid-winter. That meant I had to schlep endless buckets of water through the snow to our sheep, from the house. At the same time he had been having some issues at school which I thought I could address. So for a few months he stayed home, helped me with the water carrying, and using the material supplied by his teacher, I kept him on track with school work.

No. That's NOT what happened. We got through the school work for the entire semester in about 3 weeks. Initially we did a little each day, but it was ridiculous. There was so little to do it took no time at all. So we just went through it until we ran out. I expanded on it, adding my own material. By the time he returned to school he was so far ahead they wanted him to skip a grade. We decided against that, but it was very telling.

Why does it take SO LONG to teach kids the amount of material they get through? Some of it is disruption, classes are chaotic. Students do not sit quietly and pay attention. Some of them need more attention by the teacher than others. A large class would work fine if all kids were ready, able, and willing to learn, but the reality is that many are not, and this slows things down for everyone.

Obviously I'm not a person who believes homeschooling is automatically better or I would have done it permanently. However, I'm certainly very supportive of anyone who does. Yes, there is bad homeschooling. Oh yes. There is DREADFUL homeschooling. It's done for all the wrong reasons, and by parents who really aren't capable. But when it's done well it can be very good indeed.

So let's look at what education involves. The idea behind it is to prepare a child for adult life. There are many skills modern humans need above and beyond basic literacy and numeracy, and we send children in groups to learn all of this by one person, skilled at teaching. It works some of the time. Some kids respond very well to this system, and come out at the end of it ready to go, as it were. Some fail horribly because they need a completely different approach, and this was never recognized or addressed. The majority sort of muddle through, not quite reaching full potential. UGH.

The system semi-works. That's not good enough. Kids are falling through the cracks and instead of saying "WOAH, time to re-group, fix this!" less funding is being put into education instead of more. Ontario teachers are at loggerheads with the government. Funding in British schools is at an all-time low, with more cuts to come. Meanwhile in the US....oh I won't even go there.

When a generation is properly educated we all benefit. Crime rates are lower. It is absolutely a win-win.

The benefits of the academic skills are obvious, but there's more to it than that. When kids are compromised  by bad homes, behavioural problems, learning problems, then schools can help with life skills. There is often the idea that this is not the responsibility of a school. That teachers "shouldn't" have to deal with all of that. Then who? If parents are not doing it, because they can't or won't, somebody has to. Yes, "we", the big we have to pay for this. Because if it isn't the school system doing it, then it'll end up being the social services or justice system. The rest of us end up paying anyway. Far cheaper and better if it begins early, in school.

This is not a question of whose responsibility it is, not really. We can argue until we are blue in the face that parents ought to do this or that. Well some of them DON'T. That's how it is. Shoot them if you like. Ultimately kids with problems become society's problem. The dumb, lazy ones are a burden. They create new problems, including distractions for the kids who can and want to do well. Apparently it costs too much to educate the problem kids separately/in smaller groups/properly/at all. But this is an investment in the future.

Does anyone care about the future?


Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Various and Sundry

I had this plan, y'see, to stay as busy as humanly possible in January and February to make winter fly by. It's working. I lift my head up from the to-do list after breakfast, and discover it's almost time to cook dinner. It's a self-created to-do list, and it includes fun things. However, family members have noticed evidence of a certain level of deleterious effects:)

For example, Tyler asked me to order some things for him on Amazon. He put them in the cart, then reminded me repeatedly that I actually had to order them. Eventually I reached that task on the to-do list and clicked the right buttons. Next day (ish) he asked me "Did you order my movies?" and my reply (to his horror) was "What movies?". I could tell by the look on his face that this was not the right answer, so I scanned the "REQUESTS FROM TYLER" section of my memory, and then realised he meant the things from Amazon. Ah yes. All ordered and on their way. He gave me another funny look, and asked "Are you SURE you ordered them?". "Well, I found 3 things in my cart and clicked stuff, and...oh...so it was movies was it.....?"

He relaxed after they arrived.

I'm not usually that scattered, you see. People don't expect it. I'm usually on top of everything, but I prioritize. Things not requiring massive amounts of attention don't get it. And as far as I was concerned, mission was accomplished, and whatever it is was, was ordered.

Sunday I decided to devote the day, mainly, to making boxer shorts for the gremlins, and managed to finish two pairs before my sewing machine started doing weird stuff, or weirder than usual stuff. I've noticed it hasn't been right for a while. Martin had a look at it a few months ago but there was nothing obviously wrong, so I think it needs a proper sewing machine mechanic, or possibly to be thrown from a high building. It is 9 years old, but they don't make them like they used to, and it's had a rough life. If repairing it will be expensive I may as well replace it. Hey ho.

So, anyway, not having quite enough to do I started another online course. Yes, you heard me. My husband rolled his eyes, but he just wants me to be happy so he says nothing. Tom started his first one and is really enjoying it. He's doing Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. It's a Humanities course, not a writer's course, but he thinks it will really help his writing.

Me, I decided to do Introduction to Philosophy. Believe it or not I've never actually studied philosophy at any level before - I've read works by philosophers, oh plenty of those, but never looked under the hood, as it were. I thought it was about time. It's a short simple course, so a third one wasn't a big deal.

I did better on my weekly Genetics and Evolution test, 70%. Still not as high as I'd like, but I'm not expecting  to do brilliantly because of the high number of mathematical questions. Basically I get the general concept questions correct and not so much the mathematical ones. As I "get" the concept (the important thing) this isn't a big deal, it's not like I'm ever going to be a geneticist.

The more I study it, the more obvious it all is, and the more stupid people who don't believe in evolution look. This could create social challenges, but I'll soldier on...............

In Global History this week I'm doing South American revolutions, and realising just how much I didn't know. OK, I'm not a historian. But as a person who has always loved and studied history, how did I miss so much? I have come to the conclusion that it's simply taught/presented very badly. Far too many people think it's not important, and nobody bothers. The only people paying any attention are those already interested, and there's no effort being made to get people interested. They don't see it as relevant, apparently. The word for this course is illuminating. Which is the whole point of looking at the story behind anything, and this is the story behind now. If that's not relevant, I don't know what is.

OK, I'll shut up. When the weather improves I'll be more interesting.


Thursday, 24 January 2013

Ding!

Blog about my studies today, skip if not interested. This is more notes to myself than anything else.

I did REALLY badly on my first Genetics and Evolution test - 40%. I actually thought I had done better, but I struggled through it, knowing I wasn't really clear on some of the calculations. So there was a lesson there. I should have spent more time practising examples until I felt comfortable with them. Do you remember when  you were a child and were given a page of repetitive arithmetic to do? By the time you got to the end you were ready to scream, but you had GOT IT. Well, I need to get to that point.

On the other hand I got 92% on my second history test. I am rather proud of this because almost half of it was on the American Revolution, which I knew virtually nothing about before this course, so I really packed a lot in. But you see, history comes easily to me, and math doesn't, so I expected to find this course much plainer sailing than the other one. Really, the history course is a breeze. I am well-suited to it, it is my type of learning. I am just enjoying the ride.

HOWEVER - I am actually getting more satisfaction from the harder course. I keep having lightbulb moments as a concept not only sinks in, but suddenly and spectacularly. When you consider that this sort of thing is being taught:


Lecture 5: Mapping “simple” genetic traits in crosses/ pedigrees

Video 1: Introduction to genetic mapping of traits

  • Even with human genome sequenced, don’t immediately know which genes cause disease-- they don’t come labeled!
  • Using SNPs as genetic markers: analogous to “A” and “a”
  • Resources available
    • Assembled human genome sequence
    • Computer predictions of “genes”
    • “HapMap” showing which nucleotide sites are variable
  • Look for association of genotype at marker and phenotype-- those markers associated with phenotype are “close” to gene affecting trait/ disease

Video 2: Mapping a simple genetic trait relative to genetic markers in a cross

  • Using SNPs as markers, and third “marker” being the unknown disease gene
    • Can do this to localize disease gene relative to other markers
    • Application with sickle cell anemia fictional example
  • Recap: association of genotype at markers to phenotype is essence of mapping




Well, perhaps you see why I'm so pleased with myself when I "get it". It's a real workout for the ol' grey matter.

I've had a couple of people ask me why I'm doing this. Especially when they see what a challenge certain aspects of this course are. Well, there are all sorts of reasons, but mostly it's just for the simple pleasure of learning.

I love learning. No, wait...I thrive on it. I love UNDERSTANDING. That's the key. So just being taught isn't enough. It has to go to the next step where I can explain it to somebody else. That, to me, is a sure sign that I understand it.

Some years ago, I got a note home from school that my son James was having difficulty with phonemic awareness. I think he was about 10. There were some examples shown, and basically he wasn't "getting" the concept of rhyming words. I didn't know what phonemic awareness was. To be frank, I didn't even know what a phoneme was, and when I looked it up, the information from the definition just didn't sink in.

So I searched online for more information, and over the course of a week or so I think I read the equivalent of a textbook, from articles here are there, mostly at the linguistic departments of several universities. It was certainly not like taking a linguistics course, but it was a lot of information, and it was only really after I'd investigated it at that level, that I could go back and "get" what a phoneme was.

No wonder my kid was struggling.

I then talked to the teacher about all of this. She gasped. "I could have explained very quickly and easily for you, what a phoneme is!" So I asked her if she had offered that to James. No, she said, it was too complex, it was a term used in reference to what they were learning, but not one taught to the students.

I was angry about this whole situation, about the way it was approached. I was able to explain it to James in a matter of minutes, and so she could have, if she'd made the effort. If she could explain it to me, she could explain it to him. But no, they taught the concept without any definitions.

I have wondered about that ever since. Double-talk in education. Assumptions. Assuming kids wouldn't understand something. Assuming parents already do. Communication seems to be the issue here.

People learn differently. People have different levels of intellect. People have different interests. People have different natural aptitudes. People have different attention spans. Teachers have different approaches. Teachers have different abilities. And so on. But in all cases better communication leads to better results. And communication involves the speaker and the listener.

So I'm wondering why, when something is explained and not understood, we don't just all immediately recognize that the problem is communication straight away. Sometimes all that's necessary is repetition - practice. Sometimes it needs a new angle - "let me put it another way". When I watch a new video in my course, sometimes I feel really challenged, it makes no sense. But after I go through it carefully, look a few things up, try a few exercises out, gradually it comes together, and then DING!

It all involves thinking though. Can't do any of it without thinking.

Guess which course I start on Monday. Go on, guess.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Snowed Under

I love a pun, I do. So this really is about being snowed under in the nicest possible way. But there's plenty of real snow too. Which I don't have to go out in, so I can watch it out the window and not care.

I love symbolism too. Dreams of snow are portends of plenty. When you dream of snow in early September for example, you mustn't be scared that it's predicting bad weather, it's actually all about a bountiful harvest.

So I woke this morning to a raging blizzard. What I didn't see was the thunder and lightning during the night, which woke Martin, and was quite spectacular by all accounts. I was out cold and missed that completely. Reason I was in such a deep sleep, I think, was going to bed late after a busy day.

Early yesterday that clumsy great oaf of a dog, Bowser, had unplugged my computer by tripping on the cable for the umpteenth time, and I'd had enough. I did a Melanie (i.e. I'm known for spontaneity) and decided that RIGHT NOW the entire office was being completely reorganized. Everything out. So we emptied the room, then put it all back, tidy, and with cables out of dog reach, all before 11am. It was a whirlwind of activity, and allowed me to get on with......

Last Monday, without prior warning, as it their wont, eBay suddenly told me that all auction listings were free this week. That is too good an opportunity to miss, so I sent virtually every store item to auction. More than once. By the end of the offer last night I'd actually had 1500 auctions. About 20% of that sold, which is my usual percentage, but of course that's still a lot of orders. So I am happily very, very busy indeed.

Keeps me out of mischief anyway.

It occurred to me while, or maybe just after we did the office, that you might like to see how it looks, in case you wondered.



Compact, huh? In fact it could fit into a vehicle. Occasionally I have dreams of putting it all into a vardo. But not in this weather.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Breaking A Taboo

Now then. I have been trying to avoid the topic of religion on this blog. Not that it's not one of my favourite topics, but I have other places where I discuss it, and this blog is more general. Just as in general conversation religion is one of the taboo subjects, I've imposed that restriction on myself here. I'm breaking this today for a good cause. Yesterday I posted this video on Facebook. For those of you who missed that, here it is:



Now, it is often assumed by those who don't know me, that I'm an atheist. This is quite funny, because for many years, back in the day, it was just assumed I was a Christian. Both of those misunderstandings are easy to explain, but not right now. Anyway, the point is I'm not an atheist. My beliefs are Pagan, pantheistic, and in some ways very simple, in others very complex. But there's no man with a beard and a long robe involved. That stuff is just silly.

Early on in this Genetics and Evolution course the professor (whose name is Mohamed, I might add) raised the issue of religious objection to evolution. He pointed out that in fact there really is no problem from a religious perspective. Evolution does not deny God. It does not even deny God creating life. It simply does not deal with creation at all. It is the study of what happened after life began.

I have been saying this for years. The only problem really are those who take the Book of Genesis literally. These people are a minority, yes, even in the United States. Most followers of Abrahamic religions understand these sacred creation myths as exactly that. Stories written by men who were not scientists, but priests, responsible for answering the difficult questions, and they did the best they could. Much of Genesis, in fact, is influenced by earlier creation myths, such as those of Sumeria. Very old, really quite lovely, in their own way, but not history, and definitely not accurate. Symbolic. Allegory. Nothing wrong with it until a bunch of ignorant people in the 21st century try to teach it in a public school as if it were fact. You wouldn't allow the Greek creation myths taught as fact, and this is no different.

Of course it's far easier for me, as a person who has accepted evolution right from early childhood, to deal with the issue as I study it in depth. But I suddenly do understand why the religious literalists don't want it taught. Because once you've actually seen how it works, it's almost impossible to deny. You'd have to have your head shoved twenty feet up your arse. In other words, ignorance is what keeps the creationists creationists. They simply don't understand the science. And this is why their arguments against it are always ridiculous.

I realise that I'm preaching to the choir, for the most part, and indeed this is not a good venue for arguing the matter anyway, and I will simply refuse to do so. If anyone reads this and wants to argue about it, they can do it with somebody else. I do know one or two literalists, but they've never commented on my blogs up until now, so if they suddenly did so for this, I'd know they were just stirring it up. No, seriously. That would be an obvious sign of intent to argue. Those who know me well, know that I love to discuss or even debate, but I won't argue. It's pointless.

The only way to solve this problem is to stand up to the religious bullies. To have the courage to call them on what they are doing. If they want to teach their kids creationism, fine. They can do it at home, or in church. We can't stop them, and we shouldn't, because that's none of our business. Freedom of religion, yes. BUT. Freedom of religion also means freedom FROM religion, and forcing religious beliefs onto kids who may not share them is wrong. It's sneaky. It's offensive. Parents who want their kids to remain ignorant of science should do so on their own dollar, not in a school supported by tax payers, not in a school open to all. They should build and fund their own schools.

28%? Come on, this is fucking ridicuous. Please don't ignore it.

EDIT: Here's a perfect example of the ignorance:


"A creationist Senator in Louisiana wants to know how E. Coli. turn into humans during a debate over whether to repeal Louisiana's creationism law."

Simply doesn't understand how it works:




Americans, be embarrassed. Please. Be really embarrassed. A SENATOR.

A Brief Girly Moment

I am about as not girly as it gets. Many modern men are more girly than I am. In fact it is a surprise quite often to many, that I am both exclusively heterosexual and fertile. Tis a puzzlement.

But I am a girl. I may not do anything with my hair apart from dying it, but I do wash it. And the rest of me.

For the last 25+ years I've been on a quest for a good, matching shampoo & conditioner and shower gel.

I used to have it. When I was a teen I used V05 apple shampoo, anyone remember that? Then, in Germany I found a shower gel that matched it perfectly. In England the only place I could get it was Harrods, how posh is that. But I would go in there just for that, and occasionally some bits from the art department. I was quite potty about Winsor & Newton inks.

Anyway, they stopped making the apple V05, and ever since, I've been trying to find a replacement "set".

Found it.

Sorry Americans, you can't buy it.

Well, you can probably buy the shower gel, it's the rose one from Olay. I should imagine that's available for you down there.

But you can't get President's Choice products. They belong to Canadian supermarket chain Loblaw's Inc.

They do a shampoo and conditioner with no other name, just PC, and I bought the hydrating variety. Not only does the smell compliment the rose shower gel, it does a fantastic job on my slighly dry and wavy hair.

Right. So I've passed that on. It'll probably be the only girly thing from me in months.

Friday, 18 January 2013

A Very Bad Book And a Very Good Book

Same book.

This is not so much a book review as a lesson, as the book is quite old, and you are very unlikely to read it.

It's The Queen and I by Sue Townsend. I was familiar with Sue's work, as she had written the Adrian Mole books, which were a runaway success in Britain in the 1980s, later becoming radio and stage plays, then a fantastic TV series, and there was even talk of a film at one point.

So, I saw this book at my favourite online used bookstore, and read the blurb, which described it as hilarious.

Three chapters in I was still waiting to be even mildly amused. Halfway through the book I very nearly gave up on it altogether.

The premise is that in 1992, instead of John Major winning the general election, and continuing as PM, an extreme left-wing government is voted into power, and turns Britain into a republic. The royal family are ousted and sent to live on a rough council estate. The book explores how they cope in this unlikely scenario, and especially their relationships with their neighbours.

It's not deep sociological literature. But suddenly, when you least expect it, the story, which stretches the imagination to a point I normally have no patience with, becomes very,very thought-provoking indeed. It sort of creeps up on you. If you found it funny, then this is the twist. If it just left you wondering why you bought it, as I was, this was the payoff.

If anyone is interested, being old and not as famous as her other work, it's easy to pick up for very little. I paid $2. I think it's worth that of anyone's money, but I'm fairly sure it's not a mainstream taste, even with the promise of the payoff.

What it told me, loud and clear, is that I must not judge too quickly. I started out hating it and ended up loving it. How many more books have I missed out on because the beginning was dull? Maybe I should give Mazo de la Roche another chance.

I think Sue got away with it because of her track record, and the premise being delicious. There was a lot of dissatisfaction among the people at the time of publication, and a republic might have looked appealing. Probably still does. I'm still curious as to the hilarity aspect. Matter of taste, of course.


Woah Nelly

There's a video doing the rounds on Facebook telling Canadians to eat locally grown foods. A noble sentiment. It touches briefly on one aspect of the problem: less farming going on. This is actually only a part of the problem, and not the major part. The video fails to educate effectively or accurately. Not surprisingly. Most people do not understand the food supply. Why should a mayonnaise manufacturer know any better?

Yes, farming in Canada is decreasing. Farming in most western nations is decreasing overall. What is increasing is bad farming: GM and monoculture. Older style family farms are disappearing because the kids don't want to take over. They saw Dad working hard and struggling to make a profit. He encourages them to do something else with their lives. Let's face it, farming isn't seen as cool. If you want it to continue in Canada, it's not just a problem with money, it's a question of attitude.

But that isn't the main problem either. The main problem was not mentioned. Maybe because the funding for the video, coming from Hellmans, meant that the message was not sincere. Hellman's don't really want us to stop importing food.

The reason Canadians import so much food is that we have become accustomed to having salad in January. There was a time when northerners, especially the poor, lived on a very dull diet in winter, consisting only of food that could be stored. There is a reason why Cabbagetown is so-named. There is a reason why hunting is traditionally so popular. There is a reason why so many staples of the diet of the masses is grain or potato-based. 50 years ago, ordinary working-class Canadians did not have the luxury of being able to easily pick up affordable imported FRESH food.

Today, you can buy almost anything at almost any time. The type of grape available varies, but you can buy grapes year-round. Despite the fact that they are harvested locally for just a few weeks at the end of summer, and in quantities too small to supply the domestic market at that time. If you want strawberries at Christmas, no problem. If you want apples in May, there's plenty to choose from.

We CAN'T grow fresh produce year round. Even in BC the season is too short. Most fruits and vegetables are harvested between June and September. That's just three months. Greenhouses extend that for certain items, mostly salad crops, but the cost of raising "hothouse" tomatoes is such that the price of imported ones is often half. Which is the shopper going to choose?

It's no good saying "I am willing to pay more....". You might, but the masses won't. People are cheap, and mainly because they have no bloody choice. When you have a limited income you look for bargains, that's how it is. People have to make choices. Sometimes that choice is to not buy fresh produce at all, but when they do it won't be expensive local hothouse tomatoes, it'll be cheap imports.

Because we're spoiled. We have got so used to being able to buy cheap imports, and to obtain anything at any time we consider it normal, and we expect it. If Canadians were suddenly required to go back to only eating food in season, or that could withstand long-term storage, there'd be riots in the streets.

As for beef imports, where climate is not such a big issue, the answer is price, plain and simple. American beef is frequently raised on concrete. You don't need me to tell you the disgusting conditions in, and terrible product from the "feed lots". South American beef is raised on effectively "free" land. You know all about that too. Canadian beef is better quality, and a better system all round, but it costs more to produce, and people are cheap. The main reason Canadian beef farmers aren't making any money is that no matter how little they take for their meat, they still can't compete with the imports.

The only way to change it all is to change the demand. The entire industry is demand-based. The people get what the people want. The people want cheap food, at a time that suits them. If you want to educate people, teach them to eat as much food in season as possible. Teach them that frozen Canadian produce is only marginally less nutritious than fresh foreign imports, and they can make up the difference by eating more of it. Teach your kids not to make fun of "hicks" too. Teach them than farmers are seriously cool and, actually, heroes. Worth a try.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Information Junkie

Who says Facebook isn't serious and educational. HUH? I went on there this morning and a friend posted about this:

https://www.coursera.org/

Online courses offered free by various universities around the world. Irresistible. 4 to 6 hours a week? Easy. A far better use of spare time than playing games, that's for sure.

Straight away I signed up for Social Psychology. Then I noticed that Genetics and Evolution had already started, but only just over a week ago - I can catch up. I have so far resisted the temptation to join anything else,

EDIT: I caved and signed up for The Modern World: Global History since 1760 and very glad that I did, as it is absolutely awesome, but I am looking at others:

SECOND EDIT: This history course is perfect. It really is. If you have any interest in history, or why things are the way they are, I promise you'll love it. It costs nothing, and the material is so easy to follow. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


Galaxies and Cosmology




Thursday, 10 January 2013

Yep


Let Them Eat Cake

Here's a re-run of a blog I wrote last summer. I stumbled across it this morning whilst looking for something else, and decided it was worth repeating. 


Is it a sign of hard times, or that we've had it too easy for too long?

A friend posted recently about a new phenomenon she has noticed, that of the objection to charity. It cropped up briefly on a post of mine last week, and then it cropped up on Facebook too. When it cropped up in real life, I just knew I had to write.....

I was raised to believe that sharing was the right thing to do. It was not an easy lesson for me, as I had no siblings. So in actual fact, I didn't have to share much, if at all, at home. I didn't have to share things or attention. Whatever there was, was mine. And yet, because it was explained to me very well, I understood that sharing was right and I had the desire to do it.

As a teenager, I started to learn about the realities of the world, as one does, and a very left-leaning sociology teacher impressed upon us the "greater" aspect of sharing. I'd always known, of course, that there were people in the world who had very little, as I'd been admonished for wasting my dinner when there were starving children in Africa.

But he explained to us that quite often, the suffering of the poor, at home and abroad, was often caused wholly or in part, by the greed, corruption, and manipulation of the rich and powerful. He had my complete attention. For the first time in my life I really understood "wrong". It was tangible.

Off I went to the library. I devoured everything I could find on politics and economics. Guess who got incredibly high marks in sociology. Yes, yes, it was all to do with the teacher's bias, but the learning curve was awesome.

I read Karl Marx. I LIKED Karl Marx. If you'd met me back then you'd have wondered where my beret was.

Working subsequently at the Ministry of Defence, and agonizing about being part of the war machine didn't change my opinion much. High ranking officers were the most disgusting, arrogant people I had ever met.

But then a couple of events made me rethink some of my opinions.

First, I got married. Became the proud owner of a mortgage. Did all the new homeowner stuff. Consumerism stuff. "It's mine!" stuff.

Then I got promoted. Moved to the Unemployment Benefit Office. Fraud department.

It made my head spin. I saw hardship like I had never seen, and I also saw the crassest dishonesty. I saw family men in tears because they could not provide. I saw other men quite happy to steal from the community pot, as it were.

It all stayed with me as I made my way in the world, through fat and lean times. How some suffer, and some lie, cheat, and steal. I met plenty more examples of both, and I know I always will.

And now, the world is back where it was at the end of the seventies. Except I don't remember this, then. I don't remember this attitude of "I've got mine".

Of course, in between we had all that "trickle down" nonsense. Did it work? Some think so. After all, after that all began, things did improve, generally. In theory it should work. The problem with economic theories is that they never take into account the human element. Greed, corruption, and manipulation.

So recession came round again, and what was different about it this time? Two things. The gap between rich and poor is much, much wider. And, the poor are being blamed for it.

But it's not true.

In Britain they even started going after the disabled. In an effort to reduce the amount of benefits paid out, they have done some outrageous things to test the ability to work. There have been suicides as a direct result of the drive to weed out the moochers. The public and the media went along with the idea that it was definitely scroungers that were costing the country.

Recently some figures were done. Money lost from benefit fraud (and by fraud they have now extended this concept to disabled people they deem fit for work) was calculated. Money lost from tax avoidance (legal and illegal) was calculated. The money lost from the latter is 120 times greater than the money lost from the former. Who is costing the country?

Now, it has been pointed out to me that a moocher is a moocher. You can argue about levels of mooching, causes for mooching, definition of mooching, and effects of mooching. The fact remains that there is mooching going on.

And when it comes to government benefits, be they welfare payments, or bail-outs of large corporations, everyone has their own BIASED view of which ones are OK, and which are not.

Let's get back to basics. I mentioned the community pot. In some societies, historically, this was a real thing. All food gathered would be put in it, and it would be shared out equally. As society became more complex the pot contains money rather than nuts and berries, but the principle is the same. Those who would steal extra nuts and berries for themselves, are reprehensible. Those who take more money than their fair share are too. It is WRONG.

Taxes are collected in the modern world, and become the community pot. Anything "handed out" is sharing from that. Taxes are spent on something. If anyone believes they do not get a hand out from that pot, they are deluded. Roads, schools, police service, environmental protection, you name it, everyone benefits. That is the entire basis of society. You may not always approve of exactly how that pot is shared out, but if you disapprove of the system, perhaps you should live on your own private island. Get a fishing rod.

But of course sometimes we are told there isn't enough in the pot. This may or may not be true. Some pots may simply not be full enough for the needs of the particular community it is in. All too often though, whoever manages the pot may be sharing it out badly, or wasting it.

This is why people frequently don't trust governments. There are endless examples of them collecting the money, and then not distributing it very well. The people in power may even keep it for themselves.

All of which is bad enough, but they then have the audacity to blame the poor for the shortfall. This is not new. This has been happening for thousands of years, and I assure you it will continue to happen. It will happen no matter how far to the left or right a government is, and it will happen just as surely smack in the middle. It will happen in democracies just as surely as in dictatorships, because power corrupts. Because the more money you have, the more you want. Because of ivory towers. Because of stupidity, laziness, and vanity.

It doesn't have to happen, but it will. You can have a revolution, or several, and it will happen again after that.

Thankfully, we have a back-up plan. We look out for one another. When the bastards in charge hoard their gold and don't let us poor plebs have any, despite the whole idea of taxation, we simply start a new system of sharing. This too, has always existed. The dirt poor have always shared what little they have with one another, in an act of solidarity.

Until now.

Something has gone horribly wrong. Ordinary people, downtrodden, working-class people, have bought into the rich man's idea of "I've got mine, you can't have it. I earned it. Go away". Neighbours are refusing to help neighbours. They are BUYING the story from the rich that poor people are the cause of all our problems. While suffering hardship themselves, they willingly take this propaganda, and then take on the culture of greed that goes right along with it.

Some will say they give to "deserving" causes. The causes they choose are frequently not those which address need, but which provide more propaganda. Yes, they'll refuse to give to the food bank, but donate to a political group.

Even churches, which are given a tax-exempt status, and all manner of special treatment and respect, because of the "good" that they do, are becoming conditional in the aid they will offer. And it's all political.

Having read all of this, if you think I'm a soft touch, think again. I was called out last week for objecting to aid given to those individuals who waste it and abuse the system. I stand by what I said. I have no time for those who lie, cheat, and steal. I believe in the community pot, and I believe in sharing. I object to those who don't play fair, no matter where they are in the system. I don't believe we should overlook that.

I should also point out that I have nothing against the rich, and would very much like to be one of them.

But I do believe in these pots, no matter who runs them, I do believe they are what separates civilized people from barbarians, and I do believe in compassion for those in need, even if it's their own fault. Because I am not perfect, I have made mistakes, and anyone can fall flat on their face. It is the lack of compassion that troubles me. It's a "Let them starve" attitude. I just don't get it.



That's That Then

Apparently it comes as a surprise to some people that a woman of my age could be a serious fan of an alternative/hard/metal rock band like Three Days Grace. Certainly when I saw them in concert I was easily one of the oldest people there, by quite a bit. Doesn't bother me a bit. I just like what I like. I like all sorts of music, but this band really caught my attention, and not least because of the lead singer's voice, which a friend just described as that of "a shot down angel". Perfect.

So, when I heard yesterday that he has resigned from the band, as far as I'm concerned, that's the end of the band. I have a feeling I'm not alone in that thought. Some bands can indeed bring in a new singer and continue, AC/DC being a notable example. However, it's very unusual.

I have surprised myself in just how upset I am about this. But there it is.


Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Teach Your Children Well

Do you like my new map thingy? Down there on the right. It shows little soundwaves coming out from where I am, and then other red dots where you are. Love it. If you click on it you can see details and graphs and all that stuff.

Leading on from my thoughts yesterday, I left this little tangent out, but we'll do it today.

As a child I wasn't comforted by the quirks of relatives, I was put off by them. That probably connects to the whole association thing, or in my case lack of it. The interesting aspect (well, it is to me) is why.

I think I realised very young, probably too young, that adults were fallible. I wasn't in awe of them no matter how much taller, louder, or "more important" they were, compared to me. I wasn't a cheeky child, I didn't "talk back", not in a rude way, and I want to make that very clear. I was polite and respectful. But I wasn't scared. So when I found a way to assert myself respectfully, I always took it. I stood my ground.

I had zero hero worship. I loved my family very much but I saw all their flaws. I don't ever remember not seeing their flaws. They weren't major flaws, you understand, very decent people really. Everybody was always kind to me, supportive, encouraging, I was very fortunate. But I wasn't fooled. Somehow I knew, right from the get go, that they were just....... older, and that was the only reason they were already privy to information I was still collecting. I was also aware that quite often, I was privy to more information than they were, because I read a lot.

So when I had a tooth extracted, and vomited all over the dentist, and he told me it was because I sat up too quickly, I knew he was full of shit, because I had read that anaesthesia can cause nausea. Nobody bothered to warn me of that, because I was only a child, but it came as no surprise to me.

I asked a lot of questions, and I often wasn't satisfied with the answers. I think on the whole people are more honest with children these days, but my own experiences certainly led to me being the type of parent and grandparent that I am. When a child asks me a question, he gets an honest and complete answer.

There is the idea that children are innocent, which is lovely, but they are not ignorant. They are little intellectual sponges ready to soak up all the data they can get. They rely on the people around them to provide this, and will seek any source available. Therefore if TV is used as a surrogate parent, that will be their source.

What they need, to achieve their full potential, is good teachers. This includes, but is not limited to, the professionals in schools. We all have the potential to be teachers in the broad sense; I wasn't the only child who saw the man behind the curtain, so we have to be aware of this.


Tuesday, 8 January 2013

I Miss Great-Aunt Edwena So Much I Sniffed A Skunk



Some of the funniest things about people's food preferences is how they relate to childhood experiences. When somebody tells me how they really can't stand a certain food, it is frequently followed by one of these two:

1. I just never had it growing up, never acquired a taste for it, and I think you need to grow up eating that sort of thing, don't you?

OR

2. No, I had that forced on me as a kid, had enough of it then, I'm done. No more of that for me.

Hmm.

Is there a happy medium, I wonder, or is it all just excuses? I have a slew of things I didn't experience until my 30s, that I love, and am really glad I discovered. I will admit that the ubiquitous peanuts added to English school dinners is not something I ever did for myself since, but I still enjoy both peanuts and salad, albeit separately. If there is a deep truth to either of these statements, I am forced to ask, does this go beyond food?

That's when I start to see patterns.

I'm constantly told by people that although a given food/smell/song/activity is not really to their tastes, they love it for its nostalgic value.

"Yes, my grandmother always stank of cat piss, so I love it because it reminds me of her!"

"Actually the only reason I wear this hideously ugly hat is that it belonged to my late uncle."

I just don't get it. I really don't.

I've expressed my own lack of interest in these sort of choices a few times over the years, and have shocked people. I've been called names, actually. Instead of this making me shut up it makes me curious. Why some people wish to indulge in something they would otherwise find undesirable, because of pleasant associations and happy memories, and why am I different?

After giving it considerable thought, I don't think I created the association in the first place. I am able to keep two thoughts in my head at once. That I loved a person and have happy memories of them, AND that I have absolutely no desire to repeat things they did/wore/liked/whatever.

It's not that I don't associate things. It is well-known that smells are a powerful thing. My mind can be flooded with happy memories at the smell of seaweed or an odd combination of mustiness and soap powder. But I LIKE these smells.

On the other hand I dislike the smell of a certain soap intensely, despite the fact it first came into my life at a very happy time, and I can easily associate it with happy memories. But I hated it then, and I still do. I would much prefer it if I never smell it again.

Of course it can work both ways. If you had a bad experience, associated things may bring back traumatic memories, and this can be a real problem. The desire to avoid those things makes perfect sense. So would I.

But when we're talking about happy memories, I admit to being baffled as to why you choose to drag nasty things into the equation. Surely it's possible to pull out those memories in a better way? When you want to remember Auntie Glenda, can it not be done with a photo, or the scent of her favourite flowers, rather than listening to Liberace, who you openly admit you don't like?

It's probably me. I'm probably missing something. I usually do.


Monday, 7 January 2013

Peeves

A friend posted this on FB today.


Do I care? No I don't. I am not even aware of which way round it is, or which way round I put it. So long as I HAVE toilet roll, I am happy. If anyone got uptight about this, I'd shrug it off. On a range of things I don't care about, with zero being not at all, this is in the minuses.

But that's not true for everyone, oh no. I have seen an elderly married couple have a shouting match over it, that almost came to blows, and ended up with them not speaking for hours. The resentment went on long after, possibly permanently for all I know. I've heard of many families where this really is A Big Issue

So we could ask why, but first let's look at a dead horse I've been flogging for years, with which you will be very familiar.


The question is not why this one drives me crazy, but why this does and the other doesn't. Why are our peeves selective? 

It's a valid question. Even people who appear to nitpick everything, actually have plenty they simply don't care about. While the most laid back, lazy, or apathetic person can be irritated by something

Well, what do you think? How do we (probably subconsciously) select our peeves?


Men in Black 3


Or if you prefer, MIB3 or Men in Black III, it's still the third in the series with no other title.

Not a bad movie, quite fun, worth your money as a DVD, but the whole point of talking about it is to pick holes, so I shall. I can't help feeling they didn't go to quite so much trouble with this one. It wasn't as cleverly written, and there were no scenes that I want to watch over and over, as there were with the other two. So either make the 4th movie better, or quit guys. No, I know. They won't. This one made the most money of the 3.........

The story goes that Agent J has to travel back in time to save Agent K, and help kill an alien named Boris. The casting and acting is mostly first-rate, as usual, Boris is fantastic, and Josh Brolin does a very accurate impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones, as a young Agent K, although I did squirm when he said he was 29 (he's actually 44). 

My first problem was as J arrived in 1969. I yelled out "WHAT? I remember 1969, it didn't look like THAT!". Tom pointed out that it was New York in 1969, which would explain some of the cars, obviously, but even so, was fashion REALLY that different across the Atlantic? I can't help feeling this was a fantasy Hollywood 1969, but I will await comments by my American friends. 

In a sci-fi comedy movie that is intended purely to entertain you can't expect anything even resembling realism, so I overlooked an awful lot,  but I ran out of patience towards the end. I won't spoil it for you except to say that military bases/staff simply aren't that trusting/lax/insecure. There is no way in hell that one colonel and 3 strangers could have got access. But, whatever.

My main objection was how rushed certain aspects of the final action scene were. Perhaps the editor is at fault here. A couple of time I had the urge to shout "CUT!" and ask the actors to deliver their lines more slowly, although in a couple of cases the problem was the line itself. Yes, that scene I really could pick apart. My guess is that they assume the audience is so caught up in the plot that this sort of thing goes unnoticed. Well, no, it doesn't. 

Fabulous character played by Michael Stuhlbarg, and I think we'll be seeing more of him in future. Bit of a Mork thing going on there, I really enjoyed him.

I was left at the very end with questions. But that's not unusual. Time-travel stories always do that to me. 

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Hello!

This is my blog introduction. I think you're supposed to do this FIRST, but I have never followed rules.


This is me and the old man. We've been together since 1979, so I think we're in it for the long haul. 

A couple of days ago a friend posted an intriguing thought about how when we introduce ourselves we tend to offer our profession as our identity, and how in other cultures they offer their passions and pastimes instead. I am one of those jammy people for whom there is no real distinction between profession, passion, and pastimes. The things I do are all of the above, and then some. 

In my blog I write about anything that comes into my head. It's not planned, and tends to be written all in one go, without any editing (if you read it quickly after publication you even get to see the typos, as I fix those afterwards), in fact it's delivered as if I was sitting talking to you. Or possibly at you. Hence the title.

I have a brain that works constantly and frequently tangenitally* (why does that word suddenly look dirty? Sunburned.....never mind), and which has also been collecting observations and stories for a long time, so I tend to flit from new ideas to memories as frequently as I veer from serious to extremely silly. This is the unexpurgated Melanie, with the one proviso that (for the first time) as I am on a wholly public blog, open to search engines and every Tom, Dick, and Harry, I will not name names or insult anyone without their prior permission. I'm also on hiatus from religion and politics for much the same reason. Family stuff will remain on Facebook where I have control over who reads it. 

I welcome new readers, and have no problem with being "shared", I welcome all comments, even disagreement. I don't tolerate uncivil behaviour, however, and anything deemed inappropriate in comments will be removed. My blog, my rules, my decisions. But having left the trolls of Blogster behind, I don't foresee any of that malarkey here.

*I figured out why. There's no such word. How very Freudian

All Together Now


That's an earworm you won't thank me for, but if I can suffer, so can you.

It's been a few weeks at Blogger and I think I like it, more or less. I'm not sure about the notifications - conversations in comments aren't very long, and no third parties are joining in, but maybe people are still shy. For me the whole point of a blog is to get discussion going, so that problem remains. 

I have disabled that annoying Captcha thing, so when you comment you don't have to go through that nonsense. I hate those things with a passion. So, my #1 tip for others is "If you turn that off you'll get more comments". To turn yours off, you need to go to Settings > Posts and Comments, and then change "Word Verification" to "No". 

All this "Stats" data is fun, I think it's there for people with more obvious reasons for needing high audiences and details thereof etc, but it has already shown one clear thing: as always, sex and food win. Yes, the blogs entitled "Nipples" and "Shepherd's Pie" have the highest viewing figures despite being so recent. I shall keep an eye on that phenomenon to see if it continues. But I guess I'm not really surprised. 

Not everyone I met at Blogster has taken me up on my invite to stay in touch via Facebook or e-mail. There are a few that I shall miss, and I'm half-tempted to go back there and post a link to this blog. But then again, invitations to continue a relatively new friendship should not need repeating or pushing, there's some sort of social deadline or limit I think. 

Time passes. I am absolutely rotten at the old-fashioned ways of staying in touch with people offline, and I truly value the online methods. Thinking about all of this reminds me that there are people I used to talk to at Multiply that I've lost, and it seems a shame. 

There were "real life" friends in other places, back in England, and back in the city. There were many  people I knew before I moved here, that I intended to stay in touch with, and didn't. I can't help thinking if there had been Facebook back then it would all have been different. It's the lazy person's back-up connection, isn't it? But nothing wrong with that. All those people I've "found" on Facebook, that I "lost" years ago have forgiven me for not staying touch. They had to, because it works both ways. 

Mind you, I will never forget a rebuff I got some years ago. When we first came to Canada we were introduced by our landlady to another new immigrant family she'd helped get started, and for a while there they were our closest friends. They had also made some friends close to where they lived, who we saw regularly at their home and who seemed a lot of fun. After a couple of years, our friends called it quits on Canada, and threw a goodbye party. Maybe I was only being polite, I'm not sure, but I suggested to their Canadian friend that we should keep in touch, and she said "I don't really see the point". Yeah. OK. 

Poor social skills or just brutally honest? You choose, but obviously, that was a lucky escape. Nobody needs social contacts like that. 

Anyway, as I was saying, I do value Facebook and Google+. Even if I just don't "get" Google+.

I am trying to use it. There's something I'm missing. The lack of activity isn't just that we all don't get it. There's something I haven't switched on or my friends haven't switched on, because we're just not getting it. We'll figure it out, I guess, but if you have Google+ even if you have friended me and I have friended you back, we're not doing something. We need to do that, whatever it is. Gawd.



Friday, 4 January 2013

Pedantry

So, with the pronunciation of Worcester Sauce in mind, I am aware, oh yes, that sometimes my pedantry annoys people. This is OK because it's fair exchange for the deep, physical pain I feel when you lot make mistakes.

What?

OK, it goes like this. There are some things that are either correct, or they're not. There are other things with options, let's call it wiggle room, because I like the term wiggle room (and if you don't, tough titty. I like that one too). There are other things which are free, FREE! Do as you please.

My husband has a few phrases that make him cringe. If he's already grumpy these will really set him off. They include "My bad" and "Earth to [name]" (when someone is not paying attention). Considering he is often the first person to accuse me of pedantry, it's rather funny, but you see, it just goes to show that absolutely everyone has these. Without exception, everyone who has ever groaned at my pedantry, or actually got cross with me for it, has some pet peeve saying or error that irritates them. That's my first defence, it's not just me!

The second defence is that it has to stop somewhere. If we allow words to be spelt any way you please, pronounced any way you please, and to mean anything you please, then there's a slippery slope towards the word banana being spelt bennuno, being pronounced "goldfish" and meaning any old fruit, or possibly a telephone.

In order to communicate effectively we have to have some sort of agreement. The words we use must be defined in some way, by rules. The rules can change, but if they do, everyone must agree to the change. You can't just change the word order, for example, as can often be found in other languages, because in English it can change the meaning. A horse race and a racehorse are two different things.

Language evolves, and people like to play with it anyway, so I have nothing against slang, or even neologisms. But I do get cross with lazy speech, especially when it's just copied for no good reason. Of course, people like to feel "in" by using jargon, or even argot, which is fine among their own group, but a standard form of language makes general communication easier, and more effective.

Since the internet, English speakers are much more aware than ever before of the different forms of English from place to place. Allowances must therefore be made for regional accents, and even usage. This is where the wiggle room comes in. Where does a word or phrase cease to be a regional difference, and become wrong?

I think the best example is the use of "I seen it" instead of "I saw it" or I have seen it". This is widely considered to be a "local variation" in several unrelated places. I've heard it in Norfolk and in Bristol, in England (where seen is pronounced "sin"), and I've heard it used by speakers from Nova Scotia, here in Canada. I am told it's also common in West Virginia. I'm sure there are other examples. Perhaps you've heard them.

What we have to decide, is whether it is simply a non-standard form that has become standard dialect in those places, or whether the users are simply uneducated hicks. No, really. Because it makes a difference. In any case, if it's used by an English student in New York or Toronto, his teacher would get my full support if she threw a chair at him. My point is, there is still such a thing as correct or incorrect within regional dialects. It is therefore perfectly correct for even an educated person in the southern US to use "y'all" in informal speech, but in Toronto...pass me that chair.

So, while there is more than one way to use most words, there is still a right and wrong way, no matter where you are. While I might say "tomahto" and you might say "tomayto", neither of us should be saying "tomma-toe". That's not right ANYWHERE. That's the difference between regional difference and JUST PLAIN WRONG.

Unfortunately there are those who think regional differences are wrong. We can't help them. They need to get their heads out of their arses. They are not pedants, they are language bigots. There's a difference.

The pedant just says "Come now, we made these agreements, now let's stick to them, hmm?"

AND STOP USING APOSTROPHES TO MAKE PLURALS OR I WILL HURT YOU.




Shepherd's Pie


This blog has been moved to my food blog at:

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Open With Care


It will probably come as no surprise to those who know me, that I have always been what used to be known as a tomboy. That is to say, a girl who does things that are more often associated with boys. We had separate playgrounds at school, separated by a brick wall. The girls played hopscotch and skipping games on one side, and the boys played football (soccer) on the other. Guess who regularly climbed over the wall to play football. 

As a child I didn't wear dresses. I didn't play with dolls. I climbed trees and played war games. I fought and got dirty. I never understood girls' games at all. My mother didn't mind, she'd always been a tomboy too. She didn't really know how to raise a girly girl, so she was probably actually quite relieved. They don't call us tomboys anymore. It's OK to thumb your nose at gender roles these days. 

It's no secret that I have always liked spiders and snakes. Never understood the problem. And it didn't bother me in the least when my husband presented me with a dead rat as I was preparing chicken parmesan last night. Pythons need to eat too. 

So, I found myself amused by this bag. Maybe I'm simply insensitive but then I never knew the rat. It wasn't a pet, it was a stranger. I never saw it alive and happy. We met when it was already humanely killed, frozen, bagged, and designated as dinner. That is the food chain my dears. It's better to be closer to the top. 

There is a connection, for sure, between "male" pursuits and the lack of sensitivity. How many times are men chastised for being insensitive, or ridiculed if they show their feelings? It varies from culture to culture, but certainly western men are expected to be stalwart, so you get both aspects of it, good and bad. They are calm in a crisis, which we like, and then say things that hurt our feelings, which we don't. We want it both ways, but it's asking rather a lot. Turn off your sangfroid on demand, sorta thing.

Now that we have a society that is at least pretending gender equality, and expects everyone to behave the same, we end up with a bit more sensitivity from men, but sadly, a bit less from women. Unfortunately, some ambitious women think they have to be cold-hearted bitches to succeed, and even more unfortunately, quite often they're right.

The question then, surely, is how much of sensitivity is nurture and how much is nature? It's definitely a bit of both, and I look to people I know well to see how it varies. What's really interesting is that those who are the quickest to say tactless or even cruel things are often the ones who are hurt mostly deeply by the words of others. To put it another way, people who live in glass houses seem to throw the biggest stones.

Makes no sense, does it? You'd think people would clue in, but they don't. Look at history, the most highly persecuted people almost always become persecutors at the first available opportunity. The lesson is totally missed, the golden rule totally forgotten. So, is it a warped sort of revenge, or what? Or is that what insensitivity is? An inability to judge, not just the feelings of others, but also the intent of others. An interesting phenomenon.

Maybe it can work the other way, by neither causing nor taking offence. So which comes first? Where do you start? I have read that if you take nothing personally it's an instant cure for almost all unhappiness. I'm just not so sure it's that easy to do. But like everything else it's always worth a try. We have all sorts of choices when we hear harsh words, we can decide that the speaker is expressing his own pain, or that he's just an idiot ("consider the source"). We can assume a misunderstanding, maybe on our own part. This is especially true in the written medium.

I think it's impossible to always avoid offending others. Some people have hot button issues. Some people seek offence. There's nothing we can do about these folk, they have to work on themselves. We can apologize though, even if we weren't at fault. Costs nothing. Yeah, a price for everything but humility is free!

How the Dickens do you balance speaking your mind without upsetting the more...precious...amongst us? 

That's the real question, isn't it? Plain-speaking can and often does cross that line, and in fact plenty of people defend themselves by saying they were only speaking plainly, when we all know they were being very naughty indeed. Deliberately provocative.

For now I have decided that it is one of those things that is supposed to be difficult. Finding the balance takes effort and care, and it should.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Nipples

One of my favourite jokes is to tell people that the reason I live in Canada is that I was deported from England for not drinking tea. Occasionally, credulous individuals fail to notice the joke for a few moments. 

England is not the same place it was when I was a child. It has changed - grown even - at a rapid pace, and so many of the things that are stereotypical about the place are now only that. Which is to say they are based in fact, but declining. 

I do remember getting shocked, horrified looks from older people when I refused tea. It was a social fail. One was supposed to say "yes, please" because otherwise the person offering it was sent into a tailspin. Sometimes (and not always) they would offer coffee instead, and when that was also declined, they were completely lost. If I was thirsty I would ask for water, and they would try to talk me out of it, suggesting milk, or maybe another drink if they had it. Anyone would think that the water was unfit to drink. Admittedly it was frequently chlorinated, and therefore unpleasant, but it was potable. 

But they were used to routine, almost ritual. Get in the house? Put the kettle on. Finished a job? Put the kettle on. Visitors? Put the kettle on. Somebody is upset? Put the kettle on. It was a panacea. Lost your job? Have a nice cup of tea. Husband left you? Have a nice cup of tea. Just been diagnosed with a terminal illness? Have a nice cup of tea. Alien spaceships gathering overhead? Have a nice cup of tea. 

They used to give tea to babies. I'd see them with it in their bottles. It was probably because they'd met people like me and were taking no chances. The younger you got them addicted, the less chance of rebellion. Didn't want to risk having a social pariah in the family. Good grief, what would the neighbours think. 

My absolute favourite memory (sorry if some of you have heard this before) was of visiting my friend's ancient great-grandmother in Newcastle, when I was in my early teens. She offered me tea, and I declined as politely as possible. "You don't take tea? You don't take tea?" Her face was a picture of horror and confusion. And not a little annoyance. How dare this child enter my home and refuse my hospitality. But she pulled herself together and probably put it down to my being a southerner. 

Then she arrived back with a large, open-topped flan...thing, which looked like it contained sausage meat, except that it appeared to be decorated with pieces of orange. She thrust this under my face defiantly and I again politely declined. This was probably very rude, but sausage and oranges have never been a favourite of mine. Oddly. Must be a Geordie thing. She sighed and simply said "So you don't take pie either?"

Which brings me to English food. It is infamous for being bad. That's not strictly true, because there are several dishes that are world class, such as fish & chips, steak & kidney pie, scotch eggs, gala pie, Cornish pasties, curry, and so on. Unfortunately the British response to post-war shortages was to eat very plain and overcooked food, so for a while there (i.e. when I was growing up) most of it was pretty awful. Plus my mother couldn't cook, bless her. So I ate "foreign" food. Consequently when people talk of comfort foods from childhood, I tend to think of Chinese take-aways, paella, kebabs, and chicken vindaloo. 

We really weren't well-educated on food. In school we were taught classic French cooking, but it was basics, it was not an introduction to gastronomy. So while I could make a good b├ęchamel at the age of 11, I really had no idea what it was for, other than cheese sauce. 

Shortly after I got married, Pizza Hut arrived in the town where we lived. We thought the idea of having food delivered very exciting, and our pizza arrived with a tub of cole slaw. We had no idea why, but I assume it's related to how fish & chips, when served here in Canada, is usually served with the same. Nobody seems to know why. Anyway, not knowing what to do with it, we spread it on the top of the pizza. Tasted fine.

I've made a few food oopsies like that over the years, because I didn't know any better, but travel broadens the mind, as well as the taste buds, and I learned. What I wasn't ready for was when McDonald's arrived in London. Great celebration. Huge crowds. Nowhere to sit. So I ordered my burger and took it outside. One bite and ..................ye Gods. I spat it out. Nobody warned me about dill pickles. The taste was NOT what I was expecting. It wasn't that it was bad, it was just so very different. People should be warned about things like that. All around me, in Piccadilly Circus, were grown men going "YEUK!" and "What the @#%?" and "There's a bloody gherkin in there!" etc. So at least I wasn't alone in my reaction.

Once I got used to the idea, I found I liked dill pickles, but for someone who was used to burgers being served with fried onions, and little else, it was quite a surprise. 

But, and I want to make this quite clear, it was good to try something new. Not to get bogged down in the idea that only familiar foods were acceptable. Not to consider new or foreign foods "wrong" in some way. Unfortunately there was a very insular mindset in England back then. My rather more open mind did not fit with that. I had the audacity to like and dislike things based on taste rather than familiarity. It seems funny now, times have changed, attitudes have changed, and trying new things and enjoying the benefits of a multi-cultural society is normal, desirable, and expected. Actually. But a few decades ago, preferring Italian food was an act of rebellion. 

I have developed a cooking style which is best described as "International Melanie". Dishes from all continents,  partially authentic, but leaving out the bits I don't like. Because I know what I don't like. I am not afraid to admit there are tastes I really don't like, and I never was. For the longest time, because I drew from such a wide range, foods from all around the world, and deliberately didn't stick to the diet dictated by my location, I declared that I wasn't a picky eater. I had decided that those who only ate the food they'd been brought up on, were being difficult. Unadventurous. Childish even. Unable to think outside the box. Tsk. But I am picky. It looks worse than it is, because the things I dislike tend to be popular. That changes nothing really. I'm picky about quality too. In some ways I'm a food snob. Then, just to confuse people, I have favourites among very ordinary food items that true food snobs would eschew...out of snobbery. I am not afraid to like what I like, and hate what I hate. It's my taste buds, not yours. 

I can't stand it when somebody insists that food X is good and food Y is bad. No, no, no. That's YOUR opinion. That's YOUR taste buds. Not mine. Get a grip. Food bigotry, as bad as any other. Tsk. Gah. Ugh.

The funny thing is, this goes beyond food. It extends to culture in all forms. Gradually it is more and more common, and consequently more acceptable, to enjoy music, decoration, clothing, habits, and ideas, from all over the world, and simply from one's own imagination. I just acquired this tendency a bit earlier than the trend. 

An example of this is my home. I'm a bit of a minimalist, not one to decorate much, and I really, really, dislike clutter. Our rooms are on the small side and we don't have space for a lot of extras, so I keep it simple. This is the practical aspect of it. It is often noticed, and occasionally pointed out that I have no family photos on display. That is a very normal and natural thing to do in many cultures, and because I don't do it, it's noticed. I suppose I could try to explain why I don't do it, but I don't bother, for the simple reason that I don't feel the need. It's my home, and I'll arrange it as I please. On the one occasion a rather pushy visitor asked me why I had no photographs on display, I asked her why she had so many. She had no answer, and that was the end of that. "Why" is not an appropriate question when it comes to personal taste. 

I tend not to wear bras. I don't like them. They never stay put. Straps fall down, sports bras ride up. I spend all my time reorganizing the bloody things. I can't bear clothing that requires constant adjustment. It is generally expected for women to wear bras because if you don't, two things happen. One, at my age your boobs droop. And I say SO WHAT? Does it offend you? Why are you looking at my chest anyway? I have never quite been so rude as to misquote Churchill, but have always had it in my mind, that if anyone actually had the audacity to point out that I had saggy boobs, I would love to say "Yes, but if I did wear a bra tomorrow, they wouldn't be, but you'd still be a bitch". Yeah, I might. But the other issue, apparently is that without a bra, especially if it's cold and/or my top is thin, people might see my nipples. OH MY GOD, wouldn't that be awful? To discover that I had nipples? You know, because nobody else does. Why don't we just strap our boobs down like Yentl and pretend we don't have them at all. Nipples, nipples, nipples. Say it with me now. Shocking, eh. The modern equivalent of Victorians pretending that women didn't have legs.

You know.....There is always the risk that if anyone did actually take me to task over this, I might just take my shirt off. 

Discussing what we like (or don't) is fun. And it should be fun. It should never be something we're ashamed of, something we feel pressured by, or something we push. Keep it fun, and keep the nonsense out. Drink what you enjoy, not what you're expected to. Break with tradition if you want to. Be yourself. Speak your mind. Show yer nipples.