Salad Days

RUSTICSalmon-3

There is a rather wonderful TV series called Boston Legal, in which an attorney called Alan Shore suffers from an intermittent inability to form comprehensible sentences. He opens his mouth, and a stream of complete gobbledegook issues forth. This both alarms and amuses, of course, and after investigation, it is put down to stress and labelled ‘word salad’.

Why am I telling you this? Because for a number of years now, OH has been suffering from a mild form of the same affliction. As in Boston Legal, this both alarms and amuses, and since it appeared to be getting worse, he gave in to my nagging gentle and sensitive persuasion, and went to talk to the doctor about it. And as with the fictitious Alan Shore, it was initially put down to stress, a diagnosis with which OH did not entirely agree1.

A couple of consultations later, however, with me in tow quoting from my ever-growing list of salad options, and he was scheduled for an appointment at the gently euphemistic “Memory Clinic”. I think the consult that did it was the one with our lovely lady GP whose lips twitched as I read out examples such as “Oh, fuck, I’ve put the Bishop into the tea trolley”, which meant “Oh, dear, I’ve put the used teabag receptacle in the dishwasher”. Well, of course it did 2.

Since then he has come out with such gems as “Quick – there’s a folded albatross!”, “Isn’t that a boating upside-down arch?”, and “We could get the cowgate back to the trickle”3. I’m getting quite adept at translating these things, by the way.

And so we went to the Memory Clinic, where OH was put through his paces and would have passed with flying colours had he not tried to be clever when the doctor asked him to list 30 animals in a minute. His downfall was trying to do it alphabetically, but when he got to ‘flamingo’, he was informed that a flamingo was not an animal, which threw him because of course it is, as any scientist will tell you. He ploughed bravely onward, only coming unstuck again with ‘parrot’, which meant that instead of a perfect 30, he scored only twenty-eight4.

As a result of this he was sent for an MRI of his brain, to see if his TIA episodes had resulted in any damage. The MRI, thankfully, was clear.

And so, on our return to the Memory Clinic, OH was asked if he suffered from sleep apnoea, because apparently, this too can result in forgetfulness and language problems5, and he was referred for a sleep study at Papworth. There he was given a monitor to wear overnight attached to a finger, which – although he approached it as one might approach a venomous snake – he dutifully put on and went to sleep, only to wake in the morning to find it coiled up neatly on the bedside cabinet, with absolutely no memory of having put it there. Apparently, this happens quite a lot. Anyway, they had enough data to see that he did indeed have sleep apnoea, and in spades. According to the print-out, he’d been having 50-odd episodes an hour.

This is classed as ‘severe’ sleep apnoea (Oh, really? You do surprise me!).

Now, the problem is that OH is a little claustrophobic. He hates being closed in anywhere (although he deals with lifts surprisingly well), and in particular, he freaks out when thing are attached to his body, like blood pressure monitors, slings, braces … and CPAP masks. He did take one home to try, but his stress levels shot up up just thinking about it. To see him merely holding the box in his hands, you’d think it contained three tropical centipedes, a handful of scorpions and a Brazilian Wandering Spider in a particularly foul mood.

To his credit, he did put it on and lay down, and he did this on three successive nights. I think he worked his way up to about twenty minutes before ripping it off with a small scream and throwing it away from himself. Papworth were philosophical, and said, well, he could try a mouth guard designed to keep his lower jaw pulled forward a tad?

I got the impression that OH agreed to this only because it meant they took away the CPAP box (goodbye, assorted life-threatening arthropods!), but I knew that a mouth guard was not going to stay in his mouth much longer than the time it takes a Mediterranean mosquito to decide that I look like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

And so it was.

So after multiple visits to our local GP, two to the Memory Clinic, and three to Papworth, we are not much further forward, although we do now have the reassurance that he doesn’t have dementia, major memory loss or anything much wrong with his brain. But the Salad Days continue. A nice, solid, non-NHS sling we’de ordered from the internet6 was due to arrive today, and he blithely told me that ‘Your new string will purport the transfer to the here today’.

I suppose now you want to know what ‘rustic salmon’ is all about, don’t you?

No guesses? Well, I must admit I was a bit stumped by that one myself.

Here’s what happened. We were walking back to our hotel in Rome a couple of weeks ago, when we turned into a small, deserted piazza in one corner of which stood a little booth like the ones you see at the entrances to car parks, only this one had an armed carabiniere officer stationed inside it. We wondered why, because there were no shops, no embassies, or anything else which looked remotely military. Then as we turned to look at the buildings behind us, OH exclaimed with sudden inspiration: “There you go – that explains it! It’s a rustic salmon!”

And I turned to see a large building with a small sign, which read:

‘Synagogue’.

1 – His immediate reaction was to get instantly annoyed, wave his arms about and say – in a voice of a noticeably higher pitch and speed – “STRESSED? I’M NOT STRESSED! I DON’T GET STRESSED!!”

2 – Yes, she did laugh, but only after we’d both given her permission. We said: “Oh, go on, you can laugh. We do!” And she did (but only a little).

3 – 1 – “Quick, there’s a pedestrian crossing!”
2 – “Is that the bridge (we are looking for)?
3 – “We could get the vaporetto back to the station” (a vaporetto being a Venetian water-bus, and yes, we were in Venice at the time).

4 – He is aggrieved about that to this day.

5 – ‘No,’ he said, confidently, ‘I just go to sleep, and then I wake up in the morning – unless I get up for a pee’. ‘Yes’, I said. ‘He does. Sometimes I think he’s dead’.

6 – See previous post.

Well, Poot!

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‘Poot’ being a polite way of saying what I screamed to the unfeeling skies late on Thursday afternoon when I tripped up a little step in the garden, fell awkwardly, and dislocated my shoulder.

There was the inevitable moment of flight, the sudden intervention of gravity, and then I was aware that my outstretched hand had somehow hit the ground wrong and it was taking my rigid left arm forward at an angle which boded No Good At All1. I am no svelte young thing, so when my torso weighed in at the moment of impact, there was an ominous crunching and tearing sound which reminded me of 500 giant cows all ripping up a section of lush meadow grass at the same time. I knew then that Something Bad had happened.

Instinctively, I rolled onto my back, and was informed by my entire nervous system that the Something Bad was extraordinarily painful, and, having managed to completely immobilise my arm, was settling in for the long haul. There was no way I could bring my arm close enough to my body to attempt to get up. I tried grabbing it with my right hand and gently easing it over (Oh fuuuuuuuu …. cckkkk, that hurts!), and I tried inching my body around to meet it (“GAAAAAHHHH! No-no-no, that’s worse!) and in this I was hampered by the presence of a narrow flowerbed bordering my garage wall. I was on my back with my arm stretched out sideways at 90 degrees and I could not move. It was a dead weight – albeit a painful one.

I don’t know if any of you have ever dislocated a shoulder. I am told that it’s one of the most painful of dislocations because an awful lot of very large muscles keep your shoulder in place and when it is out of place, they go into spasm to let you know that Something is Wrong and needs fixing, and it needs fixing now. But they don’t do it all at once – oh no. Over time, they gradually increase their grip and so, just as you are getting to grips with one level of pain, they ramp it up and make you cry again2. I don’t like opiates, but after two hours lying there waiting for an ambulance and in screaming agony, I was thinking extremely friendly thoughts indeed about them.

By the time the paramedic got to me, I’d been laying on rapidly chilling concrete for two and a half hours. My pain level had passed my previous worst a long time ago, and seemed to me to be hovering around a 12 on the 1-10 Chart of Degrees of Pain. This may, to be fair, have something to do with the fact that I have fibromyalgia, which helpfully amplifies any pain signals going around and adds a few extras of its own, but as I said, shoulder dislocations have quite the reputation.

Obviously, people at risk of dying from cardiac arrest, bleeding, poisoning, burns, or any other critical condition are going to take precedence, also small children and the frail elderly – and damn right, so they should. After all, I was only suffering extreme pain and some non-life-threatening damage. But I wonder if those idiots think – really think – about the consequences of calling 999 for a non-urgent problem? You see, what happens is that when a true emergency call comes in, there literally may not be an ambulance at the station to send out to it. They have to wait for one to come back in, complete any paperwork (I assume? There’s always paperwork …) and then send it out to the next on the list.

Should I complain about the delay. I am undecided. I fell at around 4.30pm, the first paramedic came at about 7pm, was brilliant and very quickly gave me that blessed morphine. He had then to wait for the grown-up ambulance and a second guy to actually get me off the ground after air-splinting my arm, which they did so gently and efficiently and with the help of Entonox (wonderful stuff), and I was transorted to A&E where I had another wait for x-rays before the dislocation was finally reduced at somwhere around 11pm. That’s seven hours3.

But.

There was apparently ‘high demand’ for the ambulance service that evening. There were a lot of other people in A&E that night, all needing treatment, some of them critical, some of them in worse case than me, and all hoping that they would be next in for treatment. The nurses were brilliant, the radiographer and the doctor efficient and kind, everyone endlessly patient. They were all doing their best. On the one hand, I am extremely grateful that we have a freely available and free-to-use NHS. I won’t be getting any bills, there won’t be an insurance claim (unless I bent my sunglasses) and I certainly won’t have to remortgage the house. On the other hand, it is a hell of a long time for an over-60-year-old to lie on the ground in pain, getting freezing cold and both busting for a pee and desperate for a drink. And the sling they gave me to keep my shoulder still is complete crap and flat out does not work.

But hopefully, those on the critical list who also rode to hospital in an ambulance on Thursday will have been treated much more promptly, and with a bit of luck and the skill of those wonderful healthcare professionals are now doing OK.

1 – Yes, I know I’m supposed to fold and roll, but I failed, OK?

2 – And scream and swear and roundly curse all of those stupid, selfish people who have ever called an ambulance for a bruised knee, because they’ve been sick for a week and now the doctor’s is shut, because they think they might have been bitten by a spider, or simple to save the taxi fare or to make a point.

3 – What was the first thing I was taught about dislocations when I did my veterinary nurse’s training? The sooner a joint is put back into place, the more likely it is to be successful. Ah, well.

The Interesting Fact of the Day

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For some time now, my Other Half and I have had the habit of taking a few minutes at the end of the day to sit down with a drink1 and have a little chat. It’s a good thing to do, because it helps you wind down after whatever you’ve been doing all evening, and it’s especially good if – like us – you spend a lot of time at the computer, because even with F.lux2 it’s pretty bad for you to do that just before sleeping.

Anyway, these little chats have developed into somewhat of a competition, and it began like this; OH would kick off by saying ‘did you know … ?’ or ‘have you heard …?’ and I’d say ‘no, what?’ and he would impart some fragment of knowledge he’d picked up during the day. It could be political (Psychiatrists are saying that Trump really is nuts3) or statistical (one in ten UK households do not contain a single book4) or iconoclastic (the figures for how many units of alcohol you should drink per day was simply plucked out of thin air and has no basis in fact5) or something more obscure. I like the obscure ones best.

One of the most peculiar was the one I found about the little Pom-Pom crab who sticks sea anenomes to his claws. It’s not a useful fact. I can’t imagine ever being able to explain some great conundrum with it, or use it to stay safe while swimming in the Indian Ocean or anything, but it’s fun, isn’t it? You can read more about them – including why they do it – if you like6.

Not that we spend all day looking things up – that would be cheating – and we don’t fret if we don’t have an Interesting Fact to impart, but we have both begun to save these little titbits of information, and there’s one problem with that. You see, since we are both now on the wrong side of sixty, the old memory doesn’t work quite so well as it did and often, by the end of the day, we’ve forgotten what we were going to say – which can be quite amusing!

We’ve often pondered on those people we see who walk along with someone – maybe a husband, wife, partner, or friend – and they are silent. Not talking, not smiling, not even bickering, but totally silent. They usually look morose, and often pass a smiling stranger without a flicker, and we’ve always said we don’t want to get like that. Do you want to get like that? Have you?

If you have, you could do worse than to start the ball rolling with an Interesting Fact of the Day!

1 – Usually a hot drink for me and a glass of rum or whiskey for OH. No – the wine is for dinner!

2F.lux

3“Shrinks Breaks Silence” – New York Times

4No books in 1 in 10 households

5“The Great Alcohol Myth” – The Guardian

6Boxer Crabs and sea anenomes

TEN a day?

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Remember when we were being urged to eat five portions of fruit & veg a day?

Some of us decided that it was worth a shot, so we began watching our fruit and veg intake, bearing in mind that potatoes couldn’t be included, and fruit juice could only count once.

Then, not so long ago, someone decided that five wouldn’t cut the mustard and we needed to eat seven portions a day. Again, potatoes didn’t count, and the rule was still ‘more veg than fruit’, with an additional warning that fruit could only count as two of your five portions.

And now what do we hear? Five isn’t enough. Seven isn’t even enough. Now we are supposed to eat ten portions of fruit and veg a day – well, actually, make that ‘at least ten’ and again, the emphasis is on the veg … except potatoes. And sweet potatoes. And cassava. And it’s no good hypothesising that the wheat ‘berry’ is the fruit of the plant so why not include bread and pasta, because the answer is still no.

Hands up all those who eat five-a-day. Seven? Alright. How about ten? Yep, I thought so – a deafening silence … except you at the back there, and you can sit down because we don’t believe you1.

But wait! There is a burning question still to be answered, isn’t there? And I bet you don’t know the answer. What constitutes a portion?

Is it, for instance, one tomato? Fine, which size? Are we talking cherry tomatoes, or those smacking great beefy slicing tomatoes? What size pear? How many green beans – and what type? How many peas? How many stalks of celery – and is that large or small stalks, the big ones from the outside, or the little skinny sweet ones from the heart? Cooked or raw? And does that apply to everything, or just some types of foods?

Well, as it happens, I have done that bit of research and I can now answer this for you. It’s 400g in total if you’re on five-a-day, and 800g for ten, with raw veg coming out slightly ahead of cooked. Interestingly, there is no difference in recommended quantity between raw and cooked, despite the fact that we cannot digest all that uncooked cellulose, so a lot of that raw carrot is actually nutritionally unavailable to us. Does it matter? Do we need to absorb it, or is the fibre the important component? And if fibre is the most important factor, why don’t wholemeal breads and cereals count?

Nobody knows.

You will notice, dear reader, that 800g is getting on for a kilo of fruit & veg. Greengrocers up and down the country must be rubbing their hands with glee!

But wait … How can we eat nearly a kilo of fruit & veg each day without unbalancing our diets and/or missing out on important vitamins, minerals and trace elements? And how can we do it without increasing our food intake and putting on weight?

We’ve been told that whole grains are essential to our health, being particularly good for our hearts (and to help prevent Type 2 diabetes) and we need to eat ‘at least three portions a day’ The American Heart Association goes further and says ‘six to eight’.

We’ve been advised to eat more fish – especially oily fish – because of the beneficial effect on our blood pressure & cholesterol levels. We’ve been told it’s good for the skin, brain and nervous system because of the vitamins and good fats that it contains.

How about dairy? Here we come to one of the most argued topics, with government advice on the subject being described as ‘baffling’ and ‘contradictory’. On the one hand we are told that a Parliamentary report issued last spring recommended that we should up our intake to three portions a day to improve the nation’s health, and on the other hand, Public Health England says we should severely curtail it to no more than 200 calories a day from dairy for men and 160 calories for women (which, according to the Telegraph, would be gone in a single latte) However, pregnant, lactating and menopausal women have a high requirement for calcium and need 1,200mg daily.

Then there are all the studies which come out and say we should eat a handful of blueberries a day for this reason, a handful of almonds a day for that, or a handful of walnuts, or seeds, or a tablespoon of coconut oi, or linseed. Or so many cups of green tea. Apples and cider vinegar for our acid reflux, etc, etc.

Once upon a time I went to a nutritionist and I asked the question ‘how can I lose weight without missing out on essential vitamins, minerals and trace elements?’ I wanted her to help me to plan a diet, taking these factors into account, and you know what? She couldn’t do it. It seems you can either get your recommended daily intakes of the major food groups and those pesky little vitamins, minerals and trace elements, OR you can lose weight, but you can’t do both. I am now questioning whether it is possible to eat 800g of fruit and veg while maintaining the recommended intakes of everything else.

Lastly, I have found a paper written by a British cancer researcher and published in the BMJ journal ‘Gut’ which states that too much fibre may be implicated in bowel cancer development.

See, in the past we’ve been advised to ‘Go to Work on an Egg’, switch to margarine rather than butter, and use artificial sweeteners to help cut down on sugar, and each one of those recommendations has been reversed. Now, palm oil is all the rage because it’s supposed to be healthier. I’m willing to bet that time will prove that it isn’t healthy at all, but quite the reverse – and in the meantime, its cultivation is devastating whole ecological systems in the countries where it is grown.

Personally, I think most people should eat more fruit and vegetables, less fat, more wholegrains and less sugar2. I love vegetables. I’m that woman in the restaurant who orders a side of veg in addition to the ones that come on the plate and eats her husband’s broccoli into the bargain, but I still find it nigh-on impossible to eat 800g of the stuff, and I just think that before people start recommending ‘eat more of this’ and ‘eat less of that’ they should make sure they have all the facts, and they have them right.

The study that sparked this recent recommendation appears to be flawed. Some of the factors were not followed through, some data was missing, they didn’t ask about other aspects of the diet, and it was self-reported, for heaven’s sake. They simply asked a whole bunch of people what they ate yesterday and how much exercise they took, measured them at set intervals, and followed their mortality over the years. Perhaps more tellingly, it says ‘This study has found a strong association, but not necessarily a causal relationship’. And on the basis of this, a whole nation has been advised to change their diets.

1 – Just kidding!
2 – Personally, I think sugar is our biggest problem, but maybe that’s just me.

A quick internet search will throw up a lot of date (much of it contradictory), but some of the references I’ve used are listed below:

The study

It’s still worth getting your five a day

Five a day should be upped to seven a day

Whole Grains – eat three portions a day to reduce risk of total mortality, in particular cardiovascular disease (NICE evidence search: an analysis of fourteen studies from reliable sources)

Advice on dairy foods ‘baffling’

Dairy nutrition

Friendly Gardening

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I had an email this morning from Buglife, reminding me that I should be planning my garden for the coming spring and summer with due regard for our bees and other insects.

As my readers will surely know by now, I love insects and other invertebrates, and in particular I love hoverflies. I even have a soft spot for spiders, which my Other Half regards as a bit of a double edged sword, because though I will remove spiders from his vicinity and relocate them outdoors, I am also tolerant of their presence and seldom actually do so unless he asks me. Don’t tell him, but there’s an interesting little guy living in a pot in our conservatory, and I’m waiting at least until I can photograph and identify him before I want to even consider removing him. Besides, he eats the weevils that we managed to import with some bird food and which now appear to have colonised the conservatory1.

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Rice Weevil, Sitophilus oryzae

So I took a look at the Buglife page about wild-life gardening and took a screenshot to post on the Sparking Synapse Facebook page with a link to their site. It has some useful tips, and it’s well worth considering. A manicured garden is all very lovely – and fair enough, many people just want the pretty flowers and the smooth lawn – but it does little for wildlife, and since most farmers these days are also doing very little for wildlife2, those of us with gardens really need to think about taking up the slack.

What’s in it for you? Well, I’m willing to bet that you don’t much care for aphids, am I right? Inviting hoverflies into your garden will take care of that for you, because there are dozens of the little darlings whose larvae eat quite prodigious amounts of the blighters. My roses had a grand total of no aphids at all last year, not after the hoverflies found them. Providing a safe place for hedgehogs to hibernate, and water for them to drink, will help to rid your garden of snails and slugs. Allowing Leopard slugs to live peacefully on your property will also help to control these pests, because Leopard slugs will not destroy your plants, but do clean up decaying matter, and also eat other slugs.

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Hoverfly larva eating an aphid

So, how do you start? Well, if you grow vegetables, consider allowing a few of each to flower; many (eg carrots, fennel, and brassicas) are very attractive to insects, and if you have space for it, a single plant of angelica will feed huge numbers of bees and hoverflies. Perhaps you have ivy in your garden? It might be a pain when it gets out of control, but if you let it climb up a fence and retain some older strands when you clip it (twine them in or peg them back), the pollinators will love you for it in the autumn when little else is in flower. Also, a dense, intertwined layer of evergreen foliage like this is invaluable as a place to hibernate for insects like ladybirds – which also have larvae that are very keen on aphids for lunch – not to mention breakfast, dinner and supper. Wasps will also feed on ivy, but before you say anything, remember that wasps are valuable pollinators, too, and actually kill large numbers of insect pests, carrying them back to their nests to feed their young.

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An Eristalis sp hoverfly feeding on ivy

A source of water is useful for many creatures. Keep it clean for birds, but if you have an out-of-the-way corner, you can create a hoverfly lagoon with a small container of stagnant water full of decaying grass and leaves3.

You’d be surprised at what resources some beneficial insects need. There are hoverflies which love to feed on grass pollen and others which lay their eggs in rot holes in trees. There are bees which nest in bare earth and others which like to use old bird boxes. Some of our rare beetles need decaying wood lying around on the ground. And there are many tiny creatures which over-winter in drifts or piles of dead leaves – so it won’t surprise you to learn that having filled my garden incinerator with leaves and other combustible debris, I can’t bring myself to set light to it in case there are spiders, beetles, bees and so on living inside it.

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A small caterpillar found in leaf litter in January

There is also a hoverfly which lays its eggs in active wasps nests, but I’m not suggesting you keep one of those handy in your garden shed with the door left considerately open. All you need to remember is that a wild patch in your garden, dandelions left unmolested in your lawn and a little dead wood and garden litter left here and there, will help some of our most neglected wildlife survive and complete their life-cycles. If you can also dedicate some of your space to pollen-rich flowers, so much the better because many of the showier hybrid versions of old-fashioned flowers have virtually no nectar to give. Choose original versions or proven pollinator-friendly flowers and shrubs if you can, single flowers rather than double, etc. Chocolate-coloured primroses, PomPom dahlias or big, showy Spanish bluebells may look wonderful to you, but won’t be much visited by insects.

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A small solitary bee feeding on dandelion, Lassioglossum sp

1 I won’t use poisons if I can possibly help it. As far as I’m concerned, they are an unnecessary danger to other, more welcome, life-forms including my grandchildren and my dogs.

2 Wildflowers are disappearing from our countryside at an alarming rate as farmers feel the need to plough right up to the edges of their fields to maximise their crop yields. Not all farmers. Some are enlightened and considerate, and even if they do use pesticides (which are incredibly destructive to invertebrates – after all, that is their job) will leave an area wild to make up for it. Kudos to those people!

3 The Buzz Club’s Hoverfly Lagoon Project gives details on how to make one of these and if you are also willing to record the activity, that would be great! But they can smell a bit so you’ll need a site somewhere away from the house.

Hoverflies

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I’ve always been interested in tiny creatures.  Well, perhaps ‘interested’ isn’t the right word.  Perhaps I should say ‘fascinated’.  I blame my father1.

For most of my life, it’s all been a bit random, so I’d see something with more legs than I have and quite a lot smaller than me, and I’d want to get a closer look and watch it for a while.  Thanks to Dad, I grew up knowing roughly what most of the common ones were and I could name them by their common family names at least: that’s a woodlouse, this is a centipede, there’s a beetle, etc.  As I grew older, I found that I knew a little bit more than most people.  I found myself saying things like ‘that’s not a beetle, it’s a bug’, or ‘no, it’s not a centipede, it’s a millipede’ and getting mildly annoyed when people didn’t care and still got it wrong.  And as time went on, the little creatures I could identify accurately increased, so that instead of saying ‘I found a beetle!’ I could say ‘here’s a Cockchafer’, or whatever.  I was fairly indiscriminate, but during the last few years my fascination has focussed sharply on hoverflies.

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Hoverflies are fascinating little creatures.  You know those little stripey flying things that hover silently over flowers in the summer?  A lot of people think they’re bees or wasps because they’re stripey, but they’re not, they are flies. They have no sting and they don’t bite.  And – here’s the important bit – they are not all stripey.  There are nearly three hundred different species of hoverfly in the UK, and they range from tiny black things to large furry bumblebee mimics that can sometimes even fool entomologists for a moment or two2.  There are wasp and hornet mimics, as well.

Everyone knows that bees are important to us because they are pollinators3, but not everyone knows that hoverflies are, too.  They visit flowers, they pick up pollen, they visit other flowers and drop some.   And there are a lot of them.   You might be used to seeing them only in high summer, but that’s because you’re not looking for them.  This cool, windy, wet spring has meant that there are fewer hoverflies here than usual, but I’m still seeing them on all but the worst days.  By the time Joe Public notices them, they are out in their thousands – and Mr Public will notice only a handful of species4.

So after a year or so of teaching myself to photograph them – which is surprisingly difficult, since like all flies they have excellent, wide-ranging, motion-detecting eyes, and can move like greased lightning if they feel threatened – I decided to join the Facebook group UK Hoverflies and began to submit records for my area.  It’s run by entomologists who are experts in hoverflies and they are all lovely people who are endlessly patient with amateurs like me who just want to know.  And so my interest was encouraged, and grew, and when I saw that a hoverfly identification workshop was being held in Shrewsbury in May I signed up for it5.

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It was great!  I learned so much more about hoverflies, and picked up some skills which will help me to identify them more effectively.  Of course, to do it properlyI’d need to kill them, and look at them under a binocular microscope with a camera and screen6, which would set me back several thousand pounds, but at least I now know which features to look at and the best camera angles to try for and will be better able to identify the easier ones7.

I’m not into killing them.  I can see why it’s necessary for it to be done by bona fide entomologists who are making what they call a ‘voucher collection’ and by bona fide entomological students who are seeking to become the next generation of experts, but it’s not for me.  So there will always be some hoverflies I cannot identify properly8, and that’s OK.

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We should all be concerned about helping pollinator numbers stay strong.  Not everyone will be willing to go as far as me and have silage lagoons in the garden for hoverfly breeding, but we can all plant the right sort of flowers, can’t we?  And – more importantly – stop using all those damned chemicals.

 

1 My father was an well-known entomologist, who studied beetles and took us kids on field trips.  Unfortunately, he didn’t think it a subject fit for girls so although he told me the names of things when I asked, he didn’t encourage my interest.

2 Without pollinators, a lot of our food crops would not be possible.

3 If they catch them out of the corner of their eye while they are feeding on a flower in company with bees.  Me, I’m not an expert, but I have to tell you that when I saw my first Volucella zonaria I honestly thought it was a hornet until I got the photos home and onto the computer screen where I saw that it was a hoverfly.

4 The stripey ones.

5 Rather rashly, as it happens.  I hate driving long distances, and while I’m aware that a journey of two and a half hours is peanuts to some people, to me it is a Long Trip and I nearly chickened out.  And because various things happened on the day I was due to leave, it was a nightmare journey which took nearly twice as long.  But I got there!  I was also terrified that looking down microscopes all day would give me a migraine (which incapacitates me and would have meant getting someone to take me back to my hotel, which would have been a tad difficult, since the type of migraine I get means I’d have trouble remembering the name of the hotel, let alone my room number), but thankfully that didn’t happen.

6 The camera and screen would avoid all neck strain and allow me to get on with the job without risking a migraine.  I coveted it, but for an amateur like me, it’s an unjustifiable expense, which would be equivalent to a couple of weeks in Italy at a really nice hotel.  I do have a hand-held digital microscope to which I could add lighting, a stand, screen, etc to at a relatively low cost (we’re talking hundreds rather than thousands), but as it is, it gives me a migraine.

7 Some need to be dead.  You need to be able to move heads and wings and legs to see the hidden bits and sometimes you need to dissect them.  I could get interested in that, but I don’t want to kill them, so I’d have to simply find them lying around with their legs in the air.

8 Yes. Quite often the stripey ones.

Predictive Text

IlRagazzini

You may recall – those of you who have been reading my blogs for a while – that I am learning Italian. I started about six years ago, but it’s an ongoing process and will continue to be so.  However, I can now hold a conversation in passable Italian on quite a wide range of subjects1, and I often talk to my Italian friends on Skype, or exchange a few words with any Italians I can lay my hands on while out and about in England, because the thing about a second language is that if you don’t use it, you really do lose it.

Anyway.

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Those of you who were paying attention may further recall that my dearly beloved OH promised me faithfully, about two years ago, that he would also learn Italian. We were in Italy at the time and I think he got fed up with being left out of conversations which he couldn’t understand. After all, how did he know what I was saying to the handsome young waiter to make him smile so?2

And lo! We got home, and he did not learn Italian. He completely and utterly failed to learn more than odd word. And, I admit it, I have been teasing him about that and kind of (sort of) nagging him (just a little!) about fulfilling that promise and bloody well learning it. And a few months ago he decided that … well, alright then, he would. And he booked a week in Florence at a language school specialising in teaching Italian to foreigners and chose a class for beginners over fifty, and that’s where he’s been this week.

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He found it quite hard going, because neither of us realised that this language school’s approach to teaching Italian to foreign students consisted of speaking purely in Italian with a lot of gestures. This might work for the clear-eyed and clean-limbed youth, but for the over-fifties? Uh .. perhaps not. And what’s more, there were only two people actually over fifty years old in the class, which was mostly composed of much younger people, and they hadn’t thought fit to inform him of this.  However, when OH and a few others startlingly failed to miraculously grasp the meaning of the lesson which was being taught in a language they had actually come to learn and of which they had no understanding, they were given some extra, one-to-one teaching and he did in fact come home knowing a little bit more than when he left.  But I still think it was a swizz.

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The dictionary up there? I asked him to get me the Oxford-Paravia Italian-English dictionary while he was in Italy because it costs over £200 here, and it turns out that the reason for that is that it’s out of print. This dictionary (Il Ragazzini) was recommended to him in a bookshop, and my friend Paola endorsed this recommendation, so he risked a hernia to bring it home for me3.

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Predictive text? Well, when his connection has been up to it, we’ve been Skyping to keep in touch. The screenshots in this blog are from one of those conversations. Enjoy!

 

1 Yes, I really can! I can, for instance, discuss the state of the world, how to cook culurgiones, the fact that English people consider a certain Italian ex-politician to be a buffoon, and why twin grand-daughters can be dangerous. I can also relate the story of the Pirate’s vegetable garden.   I might not always do it in very good Italian, but people can usually understand me.  That in itself is a minor miracle, considering the topics listed above.

2 Usually it’s something along the lines of ‘Is the pannacotta made with fish gelatine?’ or ‘do you have any egg-free pasta?’, but I admit, it can stray quite a long way from there, given time and encouragement.

3 It is a hardback, it measures 18cm x 25.5cm x 8cm, it weighs a ton, and comes in its own slipcase.

A question for International Women’s Day

Women

Today is March 8th, which is International Women’s Day, and I have a question for you: are you a feminist?

To answer that you first have to define feminism, but it’s actually much harder than you’d think. The official definition something along the lines of:

“Feminism is a range of political movements, ideologies and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. Feminists typically advocate or support the rights and equality of women1.”

That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But the people shouting with the loudest voices over this issue tend to be hard-liners. That is to say, they have their own definition above and beyond what is written there, and are not shy about expressing it, or loudly denigrating those who disagree with their interpretation, and that I do take issue with.

You see, what I believe is that yes, women should have the vote, and the basic rights accorded to men, and be treated equally in the workplace, etc. But I also strongly believe in the difference between the sexes, which is based in our biology and is irrefutable. And I believe in the right of any individual, male or female or trans, to behave exactly as he or she wishes to behave, provided that they do so within the law and without hurting anyone else.

This means that if I want to dress up to the nines for an evening out with my husband (whose name I have taken, because I wanted to), and go out in full make-up, perfume, high heels and sparkly/gauzy/frilly dress, it is absolutely my right to do so and expect to be treated respectfully2. However, if I put on a skirt which barely covers my naughty bits and a top cut right down to my navel, and go out alone to a late-night club, it is absolutely my right to accept that I do so at my own risk, in the full knowledge that it is going to excite some men3 and that I am putting out a subliminal ‘Hey guys! I’m available and I’m up for it’ signal. Because that’s the way hormones and social signals work.

BornToBeSexy

We all use a non-verbal language which I’m going to call ‘Human’, and we use it all the time4. It’s partly about facial expressions and gestures, the ones we all know about; the nods and smiles and waves, the hands on hips and the stabbing finger, and we know full well what we’re saying, don’t we? But the rest of Human is the really interesting bit, and the bit most of us know little about. Pheromones play a large part in Human communication, but so do body position, head tilting, small contractions in the muscles around our eyes and mouth, tensions in the hands and fingers, weight shifting, respiration depth, pupil size, rate & pitch of speech, and so on. Whether we like it or not, we are all sending out these social signals, all the time. And sometimes these contradict what we are telling people in words.

So. There are feminists who see the softer side of their gender-driven natures as something which will betray them and which must be suppressed, and it’s absolutely their right to do so if they wish, but it can happen that a women believes she is behaving like a strong feminist, whereas she is actually saying something entirely different in basic Human.

This is a problem because it appears that many quite ordinary, decent men can get confused, because they have no clue what women want – in particular, the individual women they meet and deal with on a day-to-day basis. For instance, many young women wear tee shirts with slogans across their breasts, and yet if a man dares to allow his eye to be caught by the writing, he is glared at and made to feel as if he’s assaulted them. Isn’t this a little unfair? Unless, of course, you yourself never, ever, read a guy’s tee shirt?

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I have always been a bit uncomfortable with the feminist movement, while at the same time approving of many of its aims: equality in pay and opportunity in the workplace, the right to vote, to take public office, to be taken seriously as a person first and a woman second.

However, I strongly disapprove of anyone dictating to me what I should and shouldn’t do, whatever sex they are, and I reserve the right to wear make-up and/or a bra (or even a corset if I should so wish) dye my hair, and to remain unoffended by wolf-whistles, compliments, or the odd wink from a tradesman. Quite frankly, I’m tired of all the nonsense. Of course women should be able to feel safe on the streets and in the workplace, but is it really necessary that all men should be regarded as potential rapists in order for this to happen?

Do we really want to put the whole masculine gender into a such an invidious position?

CinnamonRolls

This is a far from scholarly blog, but it seems to me that the worrying increase in levels of depression and suicide in men – particularly young men – in our society today may possibly be linked to a communication problem. They are reading the subliminal messages of the women they meet, who appear to be giving the right signals, but then they are slapped down when they make an approach. Result? Confusion, leading to anger and frustration, and – because society now requires more self-restraint than ever before – this can be transmuted into depression, which actually seems to be a fairly predictable response. Remember, too, that ‘Care in the Community’ means that we have people living among us who may not actually be very good at ‘Human’, or indeed at impulse control – and this includes vulnerable men as well as vulnerable women5.

Chrissie Hynde may have been indulging in ‘victim blaming’ herself, as spokeswomen from the feminist movement have said, but there is a teeny tiny little grain of truth in what she says, because, like it or not, there are always consequences.

Perhaps what we all need to remember is that in this life you can pretty much do what you want … if you can take the consequences. This does not, however, in any way mean that I excuse those who choose to perpetrate violent crimes against women.

1 From Wikipedia

2 Of course, people might laugh .. especially since I’m likely to fall flat on my face if I attempt to walk in high heels.

3 Ha. Well, stranger things have happened! I might be the wrong side of sixty and weigh enough to be worth two whole smaller people, but you know what they say. There’s no accounting for taste.

4 Some of us are considerably better at it than others. Some of us have a really feeble grasp of it – at least at the conscious level.

5 Who may not have great judgement skills but also need to be protected.

On disappointment and optimism

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Spring, it appears, is springing rather early this year. I’ve had daffodils and bowls of hyacinths in the house for a couple of weeks, and violets from the garden joined them a week ago1. But I’m a tad disappointed because people on the insect groups have been reporting bee sightings for a couple of weeks, too, and I have seen not one.

True, there was a bee-fly last week, which nearly flew into me (daft thing was not properly awake, I fear) but I couldn’t photograph it to ID it properly because a) I had no camera with me and b) I had a grand-twin by the hand and we were about to cross a road.   So that was a tiny bit disappointing, though it was lovely to see.

However, a couple of days ago, OH and I decided to take Sid to a local nature reserve called Cuckoo’s Hollow, which is small, quite ‘managed’2 and has paved paths for mobility challenged dogs, people in wheelchairs, cyclists, and spouses who do not wish to get their feet muddy.

This was a Bad Decision, because Cuckoo’s Hollow is in the process of being … um … managed.

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Not exactly a beauty spot, is it?

There is a project underway to dredge silt from the lake, which has apparently become more and more silted up over the years, with reeds encroaching into the open water.  It has to be done because the nature reserve is part of the plan to reduce flood risk for the housing area which surrounds it, and I can’t argue with that.  However, they are also digging some of the reed beds out by the roots and they are removing tons of silt which they are dumping here, on the bank.

Now, the reed beds are home to swans, moorhens, coots and ducks and possibly the endangered and protected water vole3.   And I am concerned about the fact that they are removing the reeds from their favourite side of the lake, and they are doing it now, when the birds are beginning to court and think about raising their families.  It was supposed to be done ‘during the month of February’ to avoid disturbing nesting birds, but the work doesn’t look to be half-way finished to me, and as I said, spring is coming early.

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But do you know what the daftest thing is?  This reserve is basically a lake, fed by a brook, with a lot of plain old ordinary grass and some belts of trees.  There was one relatively small area bordering the lake where a good mix of wildflowers grew: geraniums (blue) and cranesbills (pink), big ox-eye daisies, hawkweeds, foamy white cow’s parsley and other umbellifers, ground ivy, speedwell, thistles and knapweeds, etc.  Bees, butterflies, hoverflies and beetles loved them, and so did I.  And yes, I said ‘grew’, because that sea of mud up there is exactly where they used to be.

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They will have seeded, of course, and some will have very stubborn roots, capable of regeneration, but …

This area is also where they plan to dump the silt they’ve dredged out of the lake to leave it to dry, when it will be harrowed and planted with grass.  The silt – I am reliably informed – will be too rich in nutrients for many wildflowers and it could be that grass is the only thing which will grow there.  And not only that, the silt is where many hoverfly, dragonfly and damselfly larvae are overwintering, ready to emerge4 in the mid-to-late spring and early summer.

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The above pictures of insects in this blog were taken on this little wildflower patch last year.  I doubt there’ll be any new ones this coming summer.  The first is of Oedemera nobilis, a flower beetle.  The second, Bombus vestalis and an Apis mellifera (honeybee) foraging for nectar in  the thistles. The third is Osmia caerulescens, a solitary bee, approaching a white clover flower.

This all sounds more disappointing than optimistic, doesn’t it? But nature can surprise us with unexpected regenerative powers, so I’m hopeful that all is not lost.  Maybe not this year, but perhaps the year after we will see some beautiful wildflowers and insect activity at Cuckoo’s Hollow?  And I found my first hoverfly of the year today!  I present to you, Eristalis tenax, feeding on dandelion.

EristalisTenax-3March2016

1 I planted a TON of spring bulbs last autumn.  I have a lot of crocuses, snowdrops and little daffodils!  Yay me!  However, the 150 snakeshead fritillaries which I planted have not deigned to show their pretty little heads so far, and of the 50 or so hyacinths I put in, only those I planted in pots have surfaced.  I think the mice eat them.

2 ‘Managed’ means that the grass is mown, the trees are coppiced and things like dredging the lake are done.  I know, reserves have to be managed.  Some are more managed than others.

3  They did not wait for the survey to be done before they began work on the grounds that there are wooden supports for the bank under water and they ‘did not think the voles would be able to nest there’.  Seeing as the biggest population of water voles in the UK is at the moment living happily on a deprived housing estate in Glasgow, two miles from the nearest water and under decomposing mattresses, I’d respectfully suggest that they are more adaptable than our local environment chappies think!

4 Or not, as the case may be.

So it’s 2016, is it?

JanBlog2016-5a

What do you mean, it’s been 2016 for several weeks?  But I’m sure it was Christmas only a couple of days ago!!

Don’t worry. I haven’t really lost my marbles.  The Christmas decorations have been packed away in their boxes and returned to the loft, but it seems that it’s only in the last week that I’ve had a kind of breathing space from being really busy and/or unwell.  You see, it was in the run-up to Christmas that my stupid old neck1 started giving me trouble again and though I did go to the chiropractor, I ended up with visual problems which took me to the hospital A&E because I feared it was a detached retina, and then on to an opthalmologist who said it wasn’t, and to my doctor who said it was a migraine-type disturbance almost certainly due to my neck problems and I should ‘learn to know my limits’.  It lasted a week or so before slowly settling down and then I caught flu.

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Yep, I know, most people who say they have flu only really have a bad cold, but this laid me up for two or three weeks and I was still coughing badly for another week.  Well, that was before Christmas and I still cough now and then.  It seems to have triggered a kind of vicious circle with my asthma, but it is improving, I’m happy to say.

Anyway, this is not going to be a post all about my boring health2.

I’ve decided that I’d like to get back to blogging again and so I’m setting myself the task of writing more consistently with a view to getting a blog book done at the end of the year. It’ll be a bit more like a diary of my life, though still written in the same style as I’ve always done: some factual stuff, some righteous anger, some gentle wit perhaps, and a lot of guff3.   What triggered this decision?  Because after a longish break, I’m back doing the family genealogy again and one of the things which has kept me so busy was a book which I’ve just made using Photobox.  You don’t see the connection, do you?  But if you stick with this, you will.

In case you don’t know, Photobox is a website which helps you to make all kinds of stuff using your own photographs.  I’m really only interested in the photo books, because they’re really versatile and well-suited to making really quite neat and tidy records of all those bits of family history that I have knocking around.  I’ve now made several books: I did one of the family photo albums which my father made when I was a child, I made one each of my two sons’ childhood drawings, and now I’ve made a ‘scrapbook’ of my mother’s life.

ERCBook-Hospital

When Mum died in 2011, my brother and I cleared her bungalow, which was packed to the gills with all kinds of stuff she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) throw out. There were bags and bags full of old magazines, catalogues, pamphlets, scraps of paper, greetings cards, letters, bills – you name it – all mixed up together.  There was a whole ottoman full of knitting wool and there were scores of knitting and sewing patterns. There were example of some in those being worn in the old family albums, dating back to the 1960s, that’s how old they were.  Ornaments, clothes, trinkets, gadgets, umpteen pairs of scissors and trays of ancient cutlery, hundreds of (by then) dead houseplants and empty pots and vases.  Single gloves waiting in vain for their partners.  Half empty bottles of alcohol dating back to the year dot.  I can’t tell you how much stuff we found.  It was bloody hard deciding what to bring home4, and it has taken an absolute age to sort through it, but I’ve done it.

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One reason that making the book was so difficult was that, before the migraine and then the flu hit me, I’d bought a 100-page photobook credit with Photobox5 and I had to use it before the end of December.  Since I was only just fit enough to stand in the kitchen and cook the Christmas dinner when it came to it, it was a close-run thing, I can tell you!  I had hundreds of photos and papers to scan and resize and upload, and I also spent some time searching through dust-laden boxes for bits and pieces which I knew I had somewhere, and wanted for the book.  Did I tell you I was still coughing?  Maybe all that dust didn’t  help.

I’ve decided to do another book for my Dad’s life, and I’m also collecting stuff for an eventual book for my own.  I have no idea when I’m going to fit our own family photo albums in!

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Ah, well. It’s all good fun, isn’t it?  One must have one’s hobbies, or one really would go nuts.

1 And I do mean ‘old’.  I got my first senior discount yesterday.  It was a peculiar mixture of a ‘Wow, excellent!’ moment and mild depression.  But anyway, the neck was damaged decades ago carrying No. 1 son on my shoulders, and doesn’t get any better with age.

2 There are quite a few, from myxoedema to fibromyalgia and including things like torn rotator cuffs, sprained ankles, asthma, TMJ, allergies, the neck, and … well, it’s all just boring.

3 Guff = nonsense, rubbish, drivel, waffle or empty talk.  In Norfolk dialect, it would be called ‘squit’, apparently!

4 Not the alcohol, no.  That was an easy decision; we poured it down the loo.

5 The way Photobox works is that you choose what you want to make and buy a credit for it.  You then have a certain amount of time in which to complete your project or you lose your money – which is a bit crap, but that’s the way it goes.  I only buy credits when there’s a special offer, and I pay a little bit extra to get three months to create it instead of the usual one, but when you have a 100-page book to do and no scans done, it’s still a bit tight.