Balloons – not so much fun after all

There is a disturbing new trend afoot: people are now using helium-filled balloon releases to celebrate or commemorate lost loved ones.

Did you watch Blue Planet 2? It was marvellous, wasn’t it? David Attenborough took us on a tour of the world’s oceans and introduced us to the multitude of life to be found there. He also introduced us to the problems that so many forms of sea life are having with pollution – pollution caused by mankind. And womankind. In other words, us.

This pollution takes many forms, from raw sewage discharged from various countries directly into the sea, factory & processing plant effluent, microbeads from cosmetics and the plastics industry, to rafts of floating plastic garbage – including many balloons.

Plastic, and other artificial materials like ribbon, are directly responsible for the torment and agonising deaths of thousands upon thousands, of sea creatures1. Whales, dolphins, and sharks have been found dead from starvation, their stomachs filled with indigestible plastic bags. Seems that a floating plastic bag looks remarkably like a jellyfish to a marine mammal or large predatory fish, and they eat them, dozens of them.  What is a balloon when it’s deflated? That’s right; a plastic – or latex – bag. These bags can’t pass along out from the stomach, and when the stomach is full of plastic, the animal can’t eat. Birds are routinely found strangled with twine or ribbon, and others are found with their legs shackled by plastic, or with their beaks stuck in it, or they drown, having got their wings entangled while diving for fish. Same goes for turtles and terrapins. Do a search on YouTube and you’ll find many examples, if you’ve the stomach for it. And what do released balloons have attached to them? Yep, a long string.

Plastic pollution is just about everywhere in our oceans. To illustrate just how far floating plastic can travel, in 1992 a container load of 28,000 plastic ducks was lost in the Pacific. They are still washing up on shores around the world today – from Alaska to Newfoundland, to the UK, Africa, South America, Australia, and they’ve even been found in the Antarctic ice. Now, not only do balloon releasers expect their balloons to travel a long way, they actually hope they will 2!

We are all becoming very conscious of the need to be more aware about our use and disposal of single-use plastics, are we not? I’m pretty sure you’d all agree with that. But now we come back to that disturbing new trend, because for some reason, these same people have a blind spot when it comes to balloons. Is it because they are pretty, or because they are fun? Probably. People really don’t like their fun curtailed, do they?

So, PLEASE do not add to the general plastic waste problem by releasing balloons into the air. Not to celebrate an important day, not as a memorial to someone, nor anything else. Please. For the love of the deity of your choice, Stop and think. Do you really want to mark your special day, or commemorate a loved one by bringing suffering and death to innocent creatures? I know I don’t. And yet that’s exactly what balloons do, especially the most common, plastic type. Especially those pretty, shiny helium-filled Mylar balloons you can buy for birthday and wedding celebrations, and so many of those end up on the world’s beaches and in the world’s oceans. Even latex balloons with cotton strings have their problems, despite being made of natural, biodegradable materials. The balloons still have strings which are capable of garotting a bird or seal pup, and they still take a long time to degrade. Meanwhile, a half-deflated balloon of any description eaten by a hungry sea creature can asphyxiate that poor creature, or starve it to death. If you want to hear it from a park ranger, go here.

And, by the way, it seems the earth’s helium is a finite resource too, and we’re running low3. This is a problem because it is essential for medical scanners like MRI machines, and for many other scientific applications.

Are you re-thinking that birthday balloon? Yep, me too.

Top image from Pixabay, the rest by kind permission of Balloons Blow.

1 – Nobody keeps track of the numbers, but considering that the largest balloon release on record was 1.4 million balloons in one go, and that 1,359 balloons were collected from British beaches in 2011 by the Marine Conservation Society, I think a guess of ‘many thousands’ is not unrealistic. The number of balloons collected had risen threefold since the previous count, by the way, so it’s also safe to assume it’s still rising.

2 – And then, no doubt, go on holiday to a far-flung, exotic location and expect to find it pristine and litter-free.

3 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/why-the-world-is-running-out-of-helium-2059357.html

Four women

In my lifetime, there have been three older women who have been very important to me. One was my mother, of course. The second was a family friend, Billie, who was almost exactly the same age as my mother, and the third was a neighbour, Maureen, who was younger than Mum, but still much older than me.

Mum, pictured at the top on her ninety-first birthday, was always there for us. She smothered me a bit at times, since I was the youngest and the only girl, and there were an awful lot of things I wasn’t allowed to do, and many restrictions placed on me that were not placed on my brothers. As I grew older, and jeans, rock music and boys came into my life, we clashed quite often, but she was a good mother and she was always there, baking, sewing, and knitting for us, patching us up when we were hurt and caring for us when we were ill. She had the kindest heart imaginable, even if she wasn’t always able to empathise with me terribly well. I never fell out with her – she was hard to fall out with – but equally, I never actually told her how much she meant to me,.

Billie was a very dear person with a cracking sense of humour, an infectious giggle and a very individual outlook on life – that’s her with my mother on the beach at Hove, laughing at the camera and wearing very short shorts. We didn’t see her all that often because we lived in London and she lived on the south coast, but when she did visit she would light up the room with her huge personality. She would do anything for those she loved, and I can remember my brother and I staying with her for a seaside holiday when we were very young. When her husband Ambrose developed dementia 1, she cared for him devotedly and nearly went out of her mind doing so, because he wouldn’t let her out of his sight, let alone out of the house. When he died, she coped magnificently right up until the time his cat died, upon which she fell to pieces.

This is Maureen, the slender lady on the left in the lilac jacket.

When I was about twelve years old, we moved into a rural bungalow and acquired new neighbours; Maureen, her husband, their toddler, and a lovely cream coloured labrador called Cleo. I loved dogs and had never had one of my own, so very soon I was chatting over the fence and offering to take Cleo for walks. She was a very easy dog, because she had been trained to walk at heel without collar or lead and if she was told to wait, wait she jolly well would until she was released 2. I was just thirteen years old when I got to know Maureen, and she really was a second mother to me through my difficult teenage years. I would go and sit with her when I felt misunderstood, lonely, bad tempered, stifled, emotional, or at a loose end, and she would get on with her chores and chat and listen, and make me cups of coffee, and I always felt better when I left. I’d play with her young daughter, too, making paper dolls, drawing, colouring and so on. Sometimes I’d take both daughter and dog for walks, and sometimes I’d babysit. And then I grew up, got married, moved away, and saw them only briefly when visiting my parents, and gradually we lost that closeness and saw each other only occasionally.

I write in the past tense because all of those wonderful ladies are now gone. In fact, for the past couple of years, friends, contemporaries and relatives have been dropping like flies in a room full of DEET, and this kind of thing makes you think 3.

I was thinking a lot this morning, as one of our elderly neighbours lies in bed in a care home having suffered a stroke. This gentleman has been suffering from dementia for a number of years, during which time I’ve become quite close to his wife, the lovely G. We started by offering to take G into town with us when we were going to have time to wander around because we know she loves to window shop, and because anyone who cares for a family member with dementia is going to need some time out now and again. I’ve also spent time with them in their home, just chatting and laughing together, and G and I have become quite close which is really rather wonderful. She is, perhaps, a tiny little bit of a mother figure for me, since I have lost my own, but more than that, I value her as a friend. G keeps thanking me, and telling me how grateful she is to me for visiting and for taking her out, and another thing I was thinking this morning is that perhaps I should be thanking her.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because now G is the fourth woman in my life who has become quite important to me. Recently, she thought I’d fallen over on my way home from her house 4 and she came hurrying out, quite pale with fear. She hugged me tightly and told me that she thought she was going to lose me. And so this thought stayed with me and fermented and became today’s post for International Women’s Day.

You see, I now know that I am important to my new friend, but how often to we actually tell people that they are important to us? Did I tell my mother? I don’t remember ever doing so, and now it’s too late. Oh, I knew my mother well enough to know that she would just say ‘Oh, don’t be silly – you’re my daughter! I know without you having to tell me!’ I remember hinting at it in a letter to Billie, which I sent her after Ambrose’s cat died, and she responded by telling me I was a dear girl, and we never spoke of it again. I do remember telling Maureen. On one of our rare visits, we sat and drank tea, and I apologised for all the times I’d gone round as a teenager and left her with the mess to clear up after playing with her daughter (and later, her son). She laughed and said yes, I’d done that quite often, but that she’d enjoyed having me occupy the children for her while she got on with things. It was then that I told her that she’d been my second mother and I think it pleased her. I’m particularly glad that I did so, because it wasn’t long after that that I heard that she’d died.

As we get older and we start to lose people – family, friends and neighbours – we often end up with regrets. We may feel that we neglected someone, that we had unfinished business with another, that there was perhaps a rift with someone which we wished we’d healed … or simply that we never told a person dear to us how special they were to us. I ask you now to think about those in your own lives, and consider whether there is anything you’d like to say to anyone, now, before they are beyond your reach. It’s easy to say ‘Oh, maybe I’ll go and see Great-Aunt Sally next month. I’m too busy right now’, and you think you have time … and then one day, you just don’t.

1 He was a true gentleman, and did so in a very gentlemanly way. I can remember him wandering into the kitchen where B and I were talking, and he’d say ‘B, have I had my tea yet?’, and she’d say ‘Yes, go and sit down and read your paper’, and he’d say ‘Oh, have I? Alright … ‘ and wander gently away. She would then say to me ‘I’ll get it for him in a minute’ and finish her cigarette before doing so.

2 I had first-hand evidence of this when I took her out one day, told her to sit and stay while I went into the butcher’s shop … then forgot she was with me and walked nearly all the way home without her. When I realised what I’d done, I ran all the way back to the butcher and there she was, still sitting outside the shop, having watched me walk away without her and disappear.

3 And the first thing it makes me think is that I don’t want DEET anywhere near me, thank you very much.

4 They have an alarm system in their very long driveway which alerts them to approaching – and leaving – visitors. I’d left her, walked home, met OH with a fence guy who wanted to inspect some fence damage we had, and all three of us walked down G’s driveway, but only part of the way. Enough to trigger the alarm though, and make them think that a small army was on it’s way … or that I’d fallen over and was being helped up, possibly by a team of paramedics.

Talking Turkey

Today, OH and I were carving the last of the ‘sandwich’ meat from the turkey and I was putting the scraps into a bowl for the birds. It was a good bit of turkey this year. We just bought a crown, since there nobody was coming for dinner, but it was a free range, Bronze Feather crown, and you really can taste the difference.

Suddenly, OH had a thought.

OH: Do they really eat this?

Me: Yes, they do, some of them.

OH: Isn’t that a bit odd?

Me: Why?

OH: Well, it’s a bit cannibalistic, isn’t it? I mean, eating meat from the same species…

Me: We don’t get many turkeys around here.

O tempora, o mores!

As Christmas and the end of 2017 approach, I look back on the past year and wonder.

These times we live in. Are they good times, or are they bad? Will people look back and say “Wow, those guys of the Second Elizabethan Period had it cushy, did they not?” or will they be shaking their heads and muttering “Those poor things – how did they survive?”

Now, I spend quite a bit of time on Facebook, and Facebook is not, of course, a very good mirror to be holding up to society 1 because everything tends to be both exaggerated and rather black & white, especially when it concerns the headline news stories and the info-GIFS and the shared posts that go around (and around, and around), but it does throw into sharp relief some of the issues we face. I see posts about every aspect of the human condition, from the highest acts of humble selflessness and heroism, through the beauty and awesomeness of life on our planet, and the virtues and rewards of living with simplicity, right down into the sewer of our utter arrogance, evil-doing and greed.

A future reader might deduce that the things are amazingly chaotic for us – everywhere, all the time. Conflicting points of view, opinions, suggestions, and versions of the truth are posted alongside scientific proofs, government decisions, and interpretations of current facts which all clash and disagree with each other. People are sweet, polite, and helpful, and rude, angry, and profane, which can result in them either offering assistance and comfort or swearing at each other in fifty-seven different languages and a thousand assorted accents. We petition to save obscure and almost invisible spiders from extinction, and we laugh collectively about a pregnant woman and her children being pelted with hard-boiled eggs from a moving car.

What kind of people are we, the Second Elizabethans, and what has made us this way?

I think we have been changed more than we like to admit by technology. If you had told me, when I was fourteen years old, that one day I’d consider it quite normal to carry a pocket-sized device with me every day, on which I’d be able to make a phone call to the other side of the world from the middle of a field, I’d have been surprised. If you had then told me that this same device would take instant photos without the need for film, play my entire music library directly into my ears, tell me the weather at home and abroad, answer pretty much any question I cared to put to it2, allow me write and receive messages, access TV and radio, teach me a foreign language, play card games with me, and read me to sleep at night, I’d have laughed in your face. But we do have our phones, and our laptops, and an awful lot of us love them to bits. And we conduct far too many of our social interactions via texts and video messages and social media on these things.

Many of our technological advances are clearly beneficial. The advances made in medicine, technology, transport, and food production3, new ways to save mankind, new games and entertainments, new labour-saving devices, etc. Trouble is, all these things come at a price, so we have an ageing demographic who need to be supported4, and we have the rape and pillage of vast areas of the earth’s resources and habitats … and we have pollution. Pollution with a capital ‘P’. Look up ‘Jakarta is sinking’ on Google. Go on, I’ll wait for you here.

Another huge problem we have to deal with is instant news media, which brings atrocities from all over the world into our living space twenty-four hours a day in inglorious colour and sound and movement, and serves only to stress and depress us. Oh, and to give fresh ideas to psychopaths and criminals about how next to hurt or kill people and gain notoriety, so we get a lot of copycat crimes and crazy people claiming resposibility for things they didn’t do.

And so I imagine that, one day in that dim and distant future, someone might stand up and say:

“Here, hang on a minute … they did what? But how could they not know how stupid/damaging/counterproductive that was?”

Take a second or two to wonder about that, and how many things it could apply to. Now. Which of those things would stand out as the single factor which defined, and maybe condemned, our era? And while we’re on the subject, what would win the gold medal for the best of our times?

As a species, we are the most destructive on the planet, but we are also the most inquisitive, and the most creative. This is just as well, because the havoc we are wreaking on our planet is beginning to catch up with us. We will need all of that creativity just to survive to the end of this millennium. However, I do have faith that we will pull ourselves back from the brink and survive, if only we can persuade our governments to think beyond the next election. That, I think, is the new trick we must learn.

1 At least, I hope not!
2 With varying degrees of truthfulness and accuracy, it has to be said
3 But only, of course, for the rich part of the world. For the rest, while these new methods of food production enables many to earn a living, it usually pays them a pittance, relatively speaking, and by destroying their ecosystems and altering their whole economies, ensures that they will continue to provide their raw materials while they can, because there’s nothing else left to them by now.
4 This is also a problem in its own right – illustrated by the current dissent about pensions, but that’s another story

Don’t Feed the Magic Reindeer!

You’ve all seen it. It’s on sale at all the craft fairs, it’s available on Amazon, and on eBay to name but three sources. Playgroups and reception classes make it for their children to take home. Someone may even have given some to your children already. I hope that someone wasn’t you, because I have some bad news.

This stuff kills wildlife.

Magic Reindeer Food is sold in little cellophone packets, tied with a festive ribbon and with a cute festive poem on the attached label. If it looks like porridge oats mixed with craft glitter with maybe a few seeds and sequins mixed in, it’s because that’s exactly what it is1. And you know what? Not only is the glitter inedible, it can also contain toxins which are absorbed from that cute little Christmas robin’s gut when he comes bob-bob-bobbing along very early in the morning and eats it before you are even awake2. As if that’s not enough, the sharp edges of the glitter can damage the lining of that gut leaving Mr Robin open to all kinds of diseases.

Of course, robins will not be the only ones to take advantage of the feast. Mice, rats and squirrels will eat it, and so will hedgehogs if they are awake, and hungry enough. Then there are the invertebrates, the slugs, snails, worms, etc.

You might not care too much about the rats, the slugs and the snails, but they will all suffer, because Magic Reindeer Food is pretty indiscriminate. And think about the wider issues; do you imagine that this stuff magically disappears after Christmas? No. It will get washed down into the soil, where it will not only utterly fail to decompose, but may pick up toxins from weedkillers and pesticides, and eventually some will find its way into streams, dykes and rivers where it stands a good chance of ending up inside a fish, or a bivalve like a mussel or a clam.

All this might not sound very important to you, but in fact microplastic is becoming a big problem in the environment – as anyone who has watched nature documentaries lately must be beginning to realise. We are now being told that since the ingestion of microplastics begins with the very lowest forms of life, which are then eaten by progressively larger animals, the amount of microplastics is being concentrated (along with those toxins) into fish destined for our own tables, and into animals which eat fish, like otters and seals. Some of these toxins affect health, including fertility. There are now whole, doomed, dolphin and orca pods which cannot breed because of the pollution in the seas.

If you are now thinking, ‘Yeah, but the small amount of glitter in my little packet of Magic Reindeer Food won’t make a lot of difference – it’ll be fine!” Well, join the club. Thousands – if not millions – of people across the UK and the US are thinking the same thing.

How much glitter does that add up to? How much wildlife will it kill, do you think? Will the 2016 batch of glitter be in your next tin of sardines?

There is, however, an alternative. Online, you can find many wildlife-friendly recipes for Magic Reindeer Food which contain the oats, but also quality bird seed, dried fruit, nibbed nuts, etc. There are even recipes for harmless, gelatine-based ‘glitter’ to which you can add natural colours like beetroot or spirulina powder. A little chilli powder in the mix will deter rodents – they don’t like chilli whereas birds don’t care, and the important thing is, it won’t harm them.

1 To be fair, there are Magic Reindeer Foods out there which do not contain glitter. I can’t say whether these are safe or not, because it depends what’s in them, but clearly they are going to be better than glitter.

2 From Wikipedia:

“Furthermore, plastic particles may highly concentrate and transport synthetic organic compounds (e.g. persistent organic pollutants, POPs), commonly present in the environment and ambient sea water, on their surface through adsorption. It still remains unknown if microplastics can act as agents for the transfer of POPs from the environment to organisms in this way, but evidence suggest this to be a potential portal for entering food webs. Of further concern, additives added to plastics during manufacture may leach out upon ingestion, potentially causing serious harm to the organism. Endocrine disruption by plastic additives may affect the reproductive health of humans and wildlife alike.”

We’re on a roll …

My dear OH does like an orderly life, bless him. Pity he is stuck with me, because I am not orderly. However, I do replace the toilet rolls if they are empty – or even nearly empty – so hold that thought for a moment.

A few days ago, I went up to the bathroom to perform my ablutions, and noticed that there was a piece of text stuck to the backboard of the shelf where we keep the toilet paper. I peered closer, and this is what I read:

Well, as I thought about this, I noted that this shelf is to the left of our most convenient piece of porcelain, and I glanced thoughtfully at the immobilising sling which confines my left arm.

And what I thought was “Hmm”. Bearing in mind that I do replace the rolls when necessary and I can’t use my left arm at the moment, was this little ditty not lacking just a tad in empathy? Not to mention that it had a distinctly admonitory edge to it.

I took a deep breath and wrote a poem of my own. And that’s why there are now two pieces of paper taped to the backboard of the shelf.

Nobody can say that life is dull in our house!

OH learns to cook (salad included)

Since I’ve been incapacitated with the shoulder surgery, I’ve really been unable to do any cooking1. Even opening a tin is a two-handed operation, so OH has Taken Over The Kitchen. You see, he’s lived through two long periods with me being unable to cook, and this time he decided that he should learn to cook, so that we could both eat better. As this is something I have frequently told him that he ought to do, I was pretty happy to hear it.

At first, he needed me there right by his elbow2 to guide him through every step, but he’s learned pretty quickly. Now I can sit in the lounge for most of the time, and he’ll call through to ask specific questions, whereupon I can get up and help in a more involved way where necessary. He’s cooked shepherd’s pie, making a nice soffrito as a base, cooking the meat in proper beef stock – no stock cubes – and serving it with gravy and fresh brussels’ sprouts. OK, so he used instant mash with a little grated cheese for extra flavour. You can’t have everything. It tasted great!

OH has made me some great salads. He’s oven-baked chicken breasts, made pasta sauces, which he served with fresh pasta and nary a jar in sight, and he’s made pies with a option of oven chips or new potatoes – plus gravy for me, because I love gravy.

He’s made beef stew completely from scratch in the pressure cooker, and served it with rice3.

He has roasted vegetables, taking fresh onions, peppers, courgettes, potatoes, baby tomatoes, baby parsnips, mushrooms, butternut squash, and rosemary, and learning to clean, peel and chop them appropriately and getting the oil hot and all, despite his extreme respect for the oven and spitting fat.

He made a very good goat cheese and asparagus risotto the other day. All fresh ingredients, with nothing tinned, or instant (unless you are pernickety enough to call a basic but purchased chicken stock (Waitrose) or dried herbs ‘instant’).

Yesterday, he made meat pasties, which we had hot yesterday with roasted vegetables, and cold today with oven chips and brussels. So sue me – I love sprouts so much that I’ll eat them in the oddest combinations! Anyway, after we’d finished, the following conversation ensued:

OH: “Was that OK?”

Me: “Yes, thank you, it was lovely!”

OH: “I gave you the one with the thinner pastry, because I thought it would be easier for you to manage one-handed. This one was a bit harder to cut.”

Me: “I picked mine up and ate it with my fingers.”

OH: “Oh … I didn’t think of that. Well, you could have had this one then. I didn’t know you were going to pick it up with your feet and thong it into oblivion!”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Word Salad continues. No worries – we’re off to the Papworth sleep clinic again on Tuesday! Maybe they’ll come up with a plan …

1 – Even opening a tin is a two-handed operation, and I have zero strength in my left arm, and strict admonitions as to what I’m allowed to attempt.

2 – “Move back a bit, you’re in my light”. “Where did you go? I need you!” Etc.

3 – The rice was microwaved from a packet, but come on – he’s only been learning to cook for a few weeks, and he’s done some pretty impressive stuff without recourse to very much in the way of pre-prepared foods. More than most people, I reckon!

Armistice Day

“What does the word ‘armistice’ actually mean?”

That’s what OH asked me today, and it’s a good question. We all know what it means in terms of Armistice Day – it’s the day WWI ended, isn’t it? But in terms of the dictionary definition? It simply means “a cessation of hostilities in times of open warfare”, and the cessation can be either temporary, while an attempt is made to negotiate a treaty, or permanent, when it then becomes the end of the conflict. Thankfully, that was the case in November, 1918. The Armistice was signed at eleven minutes past 11am, which is why this is the time we honour the fallen with a two minutes’ silence on November 18th each year.

So I’ve been thinking of the fallen today, and in particularly those who were shot for ‘cowardice’ having refused to return to the fighting while suffering from overwhelming fear and terror – and what we today would call PTSD. Some of these men had been treated several times for ‘nerves’, and this was recorded in their service records, but ‘shell shock’ was not considered an excuse. These men and boys (some barely sixteen years old) gave as much as they were able, poor gentle souls, and when they could give no more and their minds were broken, they were executed. Any military pensions were voided, and in some cases their families were evicted from their homes. Thank heavens that all three hundred-odd of them have now been pardoned, but their senseless and inhumane deaths cannot be reversed, nor can the years of shame, anger and suffering be wiped clean from the lives of their loved ones.

I’m thinking also of the men who were forced to shoot their comrades. Some of the men making up the firing squads were the wounded, commandeered from field hospitals, just as long as they were capable of holding and firing their rifles, and some of them were barely sixteen years old, too. Imagine one of your sons being required to do this. Imagine your son being one of those executed.

We must not forget the men who died fighting in the Great War – The “war to end all wars” – nor must we forget those executed for being unable to bear the horrors of it.

No, we must not forget them.

Photo from Pixabay, the site that offers completely free downloads of royalty-free photos, some of startling quality, as you can see. I would encourage anyone who makes use of the site to do as suggested and make the occasional small donation – either to the site or to the individual photographer. 🙂

And the Physiotherapist said …

Today I woke early, after a little bit of a restless night. As soon as my eyes were unglued and my neck was unkinked, and my brain was firing on at least three cylinders, I was aware of a tiny tadlet of apprehension.

You see, today was the day for the first physiotherapist appointment following my rotator cuff repair.

For those of you who have never gone through rehab following surgery, I can tell you that it bloody hurts. To illustrate this, here’s an excerpt from a post I did three months after my last rotator cuff repair:

“So far, the exercises have been aimed at gently mobilising the shoulder joint and easing the stiffened muscles and tendons.  I had gentle circles to make, pointing towards the floor.  I had passive lifts (which did indeed hurt OH almost as much as they hurt me), and I had tentative self-powered lifts – raising my arm up to the front and the side, shoulder hitches, elbow rotations – and yes, they were painful too, but at least the instruction was to stop as soon as it hurt and not push it.

Now this sadist health professional has me sliding pieces of paper up the wall which is not only agony on the shoulder, but the elbow too, for some reason.  He showed me how to do it, then watched solemnly as I had a go.

‘Is that as far as you can reach?’ he said, with the vaguest hint of disappointment. ‘No, no, that’s fine.  Really.  You’re doing well!’

Sure.  Sure it is.

Sure I am.

‘Oh well,’ I thought. ‘If that’s the worst, I guess I can manage that.’

But then he led me into the gym.  He hooked me up to a pulley, so that I could use my left hand to pull my right hand upwards.  A sort of self-assisted passive lift, if there is such a thing.

‘Aaaaaaaaaaagghhh!’  I said, with great restraint.

‘Good!’ he said, beaming.”

And that’s what they’re like – they cheerfully ask you to do things which are extremely painful, and then they grin at you when you yell1.

So you’ll no doubt be relieved to hear that today’s physio session went really rather well! I was fetched from the waiting area by a diminutive young lady with dimples whose name was “M”. She looked about seventeen, and told us that while her origins were Italian, she herself was Portugese2. She took me to her little room, dimpled at me, and filled in her questionnaire. She had a look at my healing wounds and pronounced that they looked very nice3, and asked me to take my arm out of its sling.

Then she picked up a metal crutch and advanced upon me, whereupon the torture scenes from various movies flashed before my startled eyes.

In fact, all she wanted to do was to get me to hold it horizontally in front of me using both hands, to test my range of motion. To say I was apprehensive was an understatement, because for the entire fortnight since the op I’d been forbidden to remove the sling night or day except for washing, dressing, etc, and I’ve been firmly admonished to make sure it was supported either by the sling or by my other hand at all times. It felt very odd to allow my arm to hang loose from the shoulder for the first time.

But here’s the exciting thing: using my right hand to actually move the crutch (my left arm being a mere passenger at the other end) I was able to raise my arm up in front of me, out to the side, and even behind me to about a thirty degree angle – and it wasn’t agonising! This was quite startling, because I distinctly remember, back in 2009, turning the air blue when A was assisting me with some very gentle exercises in the early days of my recovery, and tears leaking from my eyes with the pain.

The difference – apart from the nine intervening years4 – is perhaps that the repair on my other arm was open (resulting in a two and a half inch scar across the top of my shoulder) and this one was done arthroscopically. Last time, my upper arm was black and blue (and green and yellow), and this time, it was not.

And this time, I’d already done six months of physiotherapy before I had the surgery, working on strenghtening my deltoids.

Whatever the reason, it came as a big relief to learn that I’m already in a better place after only two weeks than I could ever have imagined.

Still a long way to go, of course, but I’m going in the right direction, and this time, I seem to have picked up a faster ride!

1 They really like it when you yell. I can only assume they think it means that you’re really trying.

2 For some reason, many of the physiotherapists here are very large and gung-ho Australians, so she came as a little bit of a relief. Although it somehow didn’t feel right to be at the mercy of a dainty young thing like M from Portugal.

3 A matter of opinion.

4 The surgery was at the end of 2008 so it’s nine years, and of course, surgical techniques may well have improved during that time.

Sugar & spice, and all things … salty!

I am old, clearly. I have arrived at the age when we all start to say ‘when I was young … ‘, and this is exactly what I’ve been thinking lately. Suddenly, there are an awful lot of sentences that begin this way, and a lot of them are to do with food.

It all started some time ago now, when I was diagnosed as hypertensive, and cut down drastically on my salt intake. Then some time in the early 2000s, I had a short but successful tussle with oral cancer, which resulted in the advice to stay away from spicy foods and spirits2, and when I was later diagnosed with GORD, I had another important reason to do so.

A decade or so after that, one by one, a whole bunch of my friends and family found that that were pre-diabetic, and then a few years after that, some had slipped over that invisible line into full-blown Type 2 diabetes. This tends to make an ageing person think, and as a result, I realised that my body no longer handled massive sugar hits as easily as it used to. In fact, it was positively pissed with me if I added a smacking great sugary dessert on top of a carbohydrate-rich restaurant meal laced with alcohol. This didn’t show up in blood sugar tests, but my pancreas was hinting that it could only be a matter of time until it did, so I made the decision to stop eating sugar, and in February 2016, I went cold turkey on added sugar. Not, I hasten to add, simply the sugar I used to put in tea, or on cereals or fruit – no, I stopped cooking with sugar, and I stopped eating desserts and cakes, and biscuits. Now, this year, I find that my cholesterol is working its way slowly towards the Dark Side.

So, here I am, a woman who doesn’t eat sugar or hot spices, and needs low-salt and lower-fat options. Did I mention that I also have a bit of a problem with yeast3? I don’t know if you’ve ever tried shopping for anything other than basic ingredients with those points in mind, but I can tell you that it ain’t easy – especially for someone who really doesn’t like to cook, and has other dietary restrictions (my allergies and intolerances).

But for the purposes of this blog post, my allergies and intolerances are beside the point.

Here’s the point. You try going into any supermarket and find even so much as a packet of cold meat which doesn’t contain sugar in some form: sucrose (usually just listed as ‘sugar’), dextrose, glucose, fructose, corn syrup, honey, molasses, and/or the insidious ‘fools-you-into-eating-far-too-much’ glucose-fructose syrup. Those are by no means the only names you’ll find for sugars in your food, by the way, but you will find one or more sugars in almost any prepared foods, from bread to pasta sauce, savoury biscuits & crisps to frozen chips – I once found a tub of pasta sauce which contained sugar in no less than five different forms. This bottle of BBQ sauce contains four.

Go ahead: try finding unsalted crisps or roasted nuts. Or soups, stocks, crackers, or pretty much anything savoury with a low salt-content. Then try finding soups, prepared meals, sauces, stocks, gravy mixes, etc with low salt content, and no yeast or hot spices.

Fats? Fats are a special kind of crazy. There are ‘good fats’ and ‘bad fats’, and the perception of which are good and which are bad changes regularly. At the moment there is a belief that palm oil is good, which has led to palm oil being almost ubiquitous in processed foods of any kind. There is nothing magical about palm oil except that it is naturally high in unsaturated fats, and it can be produced cheaply, and in large quantities. There is – naturally – a very heavy price to pay for this in terms of the world’s resources4, and what’s more, palm oil does a number on my acid reflux, so I try really hard to avoid it. But I challenge you: go into any supermarket, and do your usual weekly shop without buying anything with palm oil in it. The chances are that you’ll find yourself having to make substitutions before you’ve got halfway down the first aisle of shelved goods. And remember, palm oil masquerades under various names too, but you’ll have to look those up for yourself because there are too many to list. You’ll also find it in cleaning products and personal hygiene stuff like toothpaste, shower gel, and shampoo. We are literally destroying the earth for this crap. The fashion for palm oil will pass, but it might be too late for fragile ecosystems and magical places like Indonesia, Malaysia, and even Madagascar. Wildlife is being destroyed right now to make way for the increasing demand for it.

But the crazy doesn’t stop with palm oil.

In the search for low fat products with ‘good flavour and mouth feel’, manufacturers have reduced the fats, but upped the sugar and salt content, and added all kinds of emulsifiers and fillers. What’s more, they seem to be ignoring the use of more traditional ‘good fats’ like olive oil. You see, your body does need oils and fats. Your brain has a particularly high need for them, and the rest of you needs the vitamins which are fat-soluble – and it is being increasingly recognised that simply popping a vitamin pill doesn’t actually work as well as getting them via your diet. Oh, what a surprise.

And here’s where it’s really insane. Our Beloved Leaders have issued guidelines on nutrition, some of which are admittedly just plucked out of thin air, but some we know make sense. We know that too much salt and sugar can wreck your health, and yet manufacturers are allowed to carry on adding them in large quantities to our foods, because ‘it’s what the public want’. True enough, people like the taste – people are addicted these days to highly salted, highly sweetened, intensely-flavoured foods, but I can tell you, from personal experience as a reformed junk food lover, that it takes relatively little effort to kick all that and get used to the real flavour of the food itself. Trust me, it tastes more than acceptable. I still love my food, but now I don’t enjoy the artificially heightened and intense flavours at all.

This is not about persuading you to join in and kick the habit. This is about choice: your choice to keep on eating what you enjoy, and mine to find the healthier alternatives. Healthy alternatives do sometimes exist (Waitrose do a great line in sugar-free, additive-free, yeast-free, low-spice and salt-free stocks) but often they do not.

Products with good, sustainable fats also exist, with or without sugar or salt. But you could pack all these into a single, short aisle in most supermarkets, and it would be rather nice if they did!

At the moment, for people like me it’s back to basic ingredients, and I seriously dislike cooking. But for now – and this is great – since I’m forbidden to anything with my left arm, OH is doing the cooking (under close instruction). And this is his very first Shepherd’s Pie, made from basic ingredients. Give the man a big hand – it was tasty, too!

1 No, not the sort which go bump in the night

2 Which means that Chorleywood bread does me no good at all. If you don’t know what Chorleywood bread is, or why it can be bad for us, look it up. It’s interesting reading.

3 Slashing and burning to clear huge swathes of virgin rainforest is all-too-common. Sometimes this is done illegally, because they know that once the land is cleared, the profit from their lucrative new crop will be more than enough to make up for any fines they have to pay. Whether the clearing of forest is legal or illegal, all of the forest-dwelling wildlife is left homeless – including Orang-Utans, who are sometimes left with horrific burns and/or their babies orphaned. The wildlife on the periphery of these vast plantations is then further threatened by pesticides, or shot if they raid the fruit.