16 November 2015

When will normal life resume?

Once, when my mother was older than I am now, she told me that she’d been waiting all her life for life to become ‘normal’. She wasn't even sure what ‘normal’ life would look like, but it wasn't what she was living.

It’s easy to understand why she might have felt that way. She grew up in a rough and impoverished area. Her childhood was fractured by her father’s illness and blown apart by the second world war. In her teens, just as things began to settle, her father died. Her life had been punctuated by more illnesses, accidents, upheavals and deaths than most. She had no ‘normal’ by which to gauge things.

In the past twelve months I've often thought about her words. I've found myself waiting for ‘normal life’ to resume. A slow but steady series of dramas have interrupted my routine, some of them more-or-less expected, like my mother’s death, others quite sudden. I've kept telling myself that when things get back to normal, I’ll start writing regularly again.

It’s not that there haven’t been hours in the day and days in the week when I might have found time write. Rather, my ability to focus has been limited. Even when nothing was on my agenda, nothing grabbing my attention, I've had a sense of waiting. Waiting for the next phone call, the next email, the next emotional firework. A sense that whatever I start might be interrupted at any moment by disaster.

I've become a bit suspicious of those articles that tell you that you can do anything you like, be anything you want to be, you only have to try. They don’t seem to take into account the unexpectedness of life. If you’re healthy and your family is healthy and you don’t live in a war zone, perhaps you can do whatever you put your mind to.

But what happens when your parents become old and frail? Or you become older and frail? What happens when a bushfire or a flood sweeps away everything you've worked for? Or you fall off your bike, or you get mugged going home, or...fill in the gap with your own disaster. (Not that I've experienced most of these, I hasten to add.)

I probably sound very pessimistic, but it seems from recent experience that the one thing we can expect in life is the unexpected. And compared to many, my life is humdrum, uneventful.

So what is 'normal life'? Is it days and weeks and months and years of busying ourselves doing mostly the same routine activities, with some entertainment and holidays thrown in to keep it from becoming boring? Or are routines and timetables and plans just distractions we use to fill in the gaps between the ‘normal’ dramas of being born and dying, watching others being born and dying?

During the past year a wonderful and diverse group of friends have  listened to me, encouraged me, prayed with me and for me, and provided practical help. I've discovered what an amazing family I belong to. I've learned much about 'patient endurance', trust and hope. Perhaps that is part of what 'normal life' is about.

I've no doubt that, provided nothing unexpected happens in the next few months, I will return to seeing life as a more predictable affair. I'm aware that lots of people do all sorts of creative things while dealing with major life events. Some even use what is happening to feed their creativity. Where else do novelists get their material if not from life?

In the meantime, while there’s a lull, my aim is to start posting to this blog again.





20 April 2015

How to keep on singing

Nana Mouskouri as I remember her
Do you ever experience a jolt of surprise when you discover that someone famous, who you still think of as being 30 or maybe 40 years old, is now over 80? That happened to me recently when I saw a post on facebook about an upcoming concert by Nana Mouskouri. (Sorry if you were hoping to go, it was last weekend in Perth).

"She must be getting on a bit" I thought, "She'd be at least 60 by now." So I googled her name and found that she turned 80 last year. Eighty! Oh my! Sometimes I forget how old I am. She was 30 or 40 when I was watching her shows on Saturday nights as a teenager with my family, and that was long, long ago.

But my next thought was "How can she possibly still be singing in concerts at eighty?" So I had a look on youtube and found a clip of a concert from last year. And yes, she can still sing. And no, she doesn't have quite the voice she once had. I suspect most people who go to her concerts will do it out of nostalgia, or because of her charming personality. Or maybe just to see those glasses again. But she looks fantastic and sings well enough.

That got me thinking about why it was that I thought that she couldn't still be singing at eighty. Perhaps its the critical remarks I heard as a child about older women who "thought they could still sing but really shouldn't". Or maybe it's that I've accepted the idea that older women have weak and quavery voices. I've noticed over the past few years that my own voice is not the same as it used to be, and sometimes I can't hold a tune as well as I could.

It's apparently true that both men and women's voices change as they get older, due to stiffening of the larynx (the windpipe), stretching of the vocal cords, and changes to the nervous system that control voice production. Hormonal changes play a part. Men's voices tend to get higher in pitch, while women's voices get deeper.

But do our voices have to become weak and quavery with age? What is the secret behind Nana Mouskouri's strong voice? The first thing to note is that Nana Mouskouri was trained as a classical singer before she began singing jazz and popular music.

So she knows a lot about voice production and how to care for her voice. She has never strained her vocal cords. No doubt she ensures that she doesn't let her throat become dehydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, and she avoids those things that are known to damage the vocal cords such as cigarette smoking and excessive alcohol.

I don't know what Nana Mouskouri's exercise programme is, but I'm sure she also keeps her whole body fit. She couldn't look so amazing, or travel the world the way she does, if she wasn't in good physical condition. One of the benefits of being fit, well known to professional singers and actors, is that it improves the ability to support the voice with adequate breath. Lung capacity reduces steadily as we age, but the reduction can be slowed by exercise.

Nana Mouskouri in 2012
(photo courtesy of Spree Tom)
Second, she uses her voice all the time. Many of us, as we get older, have less need, or less opportunity, for speaking and singing. Perhaps we've retired from work where we had to use our voice most of the day and now we spend a lot more time at home, in silence or only in occasional conversation. Maybe we spend less time talking to (or yelling at!) our children now that they've left home.

Apart from the many other benefits of face-to-face social contact, it's worth adding that it allows us to use our voices regularly. Like any other muscle, the muscles that control voice production work better if exercised. Some people recommend reading aloud for ten minutes or so every day, or singing scales to keep our voices in trim. Joining a choir, or even just singing in church, are other ways of using the voice regularly and give the added benefit of social contact.

The third thing we could note is that Nana Mouskouri, while certainly not obese, is pleasantly rounded compared to her younger self. For older people, being healthy doesn't mean being stick-thin. One article I read suggested that a little body fat helps to produce estrogen that helps to keep the vocal cords more flexible.

Finally, perhaps her attitude to life has a lot to do with it. Apart from singing she has been active in humanitarian work, and even had a stint as a member of the European parliament for a while. But singing is her main love. "Everything I do is for love and with love. I love music and that's why I sing,"*


*Quoted by Kathy Evans of the Sydney Morning Herald.





9 April 2015

Travelling light - the pros and cons

My trusty carry-on bag,
weighing in at 1.6 kg empty.
The colour has grown on me.
Having a daughter who lives overseas and a husband who would like to do the same means I've done quite a bit of travelling in the last few years. By a process of trial and error, I've learned the benefits of travelling with a single carry-on suitcase and a small handbag, no matter where I'm going or for how long. Heck, I'm famous for it!

On my recent unplanned trip to Turin I was thankful for this experience. I was able to pack my bag and go with hardly a thought, and knew I'd have what I needed, even though I wasn't sure how long I'd be staying. Getting through airports was the least of my anxieties.

Lots of websites have lists of things to pack for one-bag travellers, along with hints and advice, so I won't give you my full packing list. Instead I thought I'd give some insights from my own experience of the pros and cons of travelling with only a carry-on bag:

Pros
  • You have full control of your belongings - no lost bags, or bags that go to a different airport to you, or suitcases with broken wheels after they've been tossed around by savage baggage handlers.
  • Not only can you use what's in the suitcase, but you can use the suitcase itself as a footrest while you're sitting in airports.
  • You can change clothes as you're travelling - if the plane is too cold, if the airport is too hot, or if you spill gravy down your front, no worries.
  • No tedious waiting at the baggage carousels - you can walk straight from the plane to the customs desk and out, while looking smuggly at everyone else.
  • You have less luggage to handle outside the airport. If need be, you can walk quite a way with a small wheeled suitcase. You can easily take it on buses or trains. Taxi drivers won't scowl at you.
  • It can act as a damper on the urge to buy lots of souvenirs and gifts, if you need some restraint.
  • Some airlines that advertise "cheap flights" don't have a free checked-in bag allowance. You can avoid their not-so-cheap checked-in luggage fees if you only have carry-on luggage. 
Cons
Not the ideal dress
for travelling light
  • If you have an airport stopover, you'll have to drag your small suitcase around the airport with you. It's no big deal.
  • Unless your trip is very short, or you're staying with someone who has a washing machine, you're committed to hand washing clothes and drying them overnight, or using commercial laundry services. I've never found handwashing a problem - I take a traveller's clothes line with me, (one with hooks at each end rather than suction cups) and choose clothes that will dry easily.
  • Every airline has different limitations on the dimensions and weight of carry-on luggage. If you're using more than one airline, you're stuck with the allowance of the least generous. It pays to check carefully.
  • If a flight is full, airlines are more likely to weigh and check the dimensions of your carry-on bag. "Cheap flight" airlines make a sport of checking. Don't assume they won't notice an extra kilo or two.
  • You're unlikely to have room for carrying many souvenirs and presents (see above). Small, light items like jewellry or scarves are about the limit. But if you really need to, you can use your checked-in luggage allowance on the return trip. Some people advise taking older clothes and ditch them, if need be, to make room for take-home goodies.
  • Travelling light may not be practical if you're a large person, have small children, or you're going to be attending a formal occasion such as a wedding. 
  • It's also more difficult if you're travelling from the middle of an Australian summer to somewhere with a very cold climate - wearing a thick coat and your heaviest clothes and shoes on the outward trip could get very uncomfortable (as well as looking rather silly!).

30 March 2015

On hobbits and the absence of older women on screen.


In 1985 cartoonist Alison Bechdel came up with the idea of a test for gender bias in films, based on the way they portrayed women. The so-called Bechdel test (as proposed by one of Bechdel's comic strip characters) asks three questions:
  1. does the film have a scene with at least two women in it? (Some would add "who have names".)
  2. do they talk to each other? 
  3. do they talk about something besides a man?
Very few films score three out of three on this test. In fact in 2014 only 55.4% of movies scored full marks, down from 67.5% the year before.

I was thinking about this over the weekend as I read "The Hobbit" for the first time. It seems strange that I've never read it before, having read Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy several times. But anyway, I decided it was time to read it. What a disappointment!

I know it's a children's story, written long ago, but I hadn't expected it to be quite so "Boys Own" in style. Not a woman in the whole book (unless you count references to Belladonna Took), stereotypical cockney accents for stupid trolls, and the liberal use of magic to get out of tight corners in the plot.

Perhaps I'm too old to find a quest for a literal treasure hoard exciting. Most of the dwarves seemed to be little more than excess baggage on the excursion, without any active role in the story and little to distinguish them in terms of personality. Only towards the end (spoiler alert), when the good guys started falling out over the treasure hoard, did the story start to have some depth. (Sorry if I'm panning your favourite book.)

I wasn't surprised to read that even with a lot of extra Tolkein material added (including some named women) the Hobbit  movies scored poorly on the Bechdel test. So did the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Despite having some strong female roles, there are no conversations between them.

In fact many movies with active roles for women lose points because the women don't interact with each other except to discuss men. The bar is not very high. A conversation about shopping for shoes would be enough to score a point.

Is it time to update the Bechdel test?

So what? No-one is suggesting that every movie should pass the Bechdel test. It's more useful as a guage of how women are portrayed in movies generally. Except for last year's blip, the proportion of new movies that pass all three of the Bechdel questions has been increasing over time.

In any case, the Bechdel test is fairly crude. It has nothing to say about what type of roles are given to women in film. Two teenage cat-walk models in conversation about the latest fad diet will meet its requirements.

Despite what Russell Crowe had to say earlier this year, older women in particular are not well represented in film, and older women actors in major roles are few and far between. Everyone immediately thinks of Meryl Streep, Helen Mirrin and Judy Dench when talking about older female actors. But they stand out because they're part of a rare cohort. Many female actors find they can't get roles once they turn forty.

A study of the top 100 grossing films of 2014, by Dr Martha M. Lauzen of the San Diego Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, found that:

  • Only 29% of main characters were female, and only 12% of protagonists (ie the person from whose perspective the story was told). Of these, 75% were white.
  • Of those characters who were portrayed in leadership roles, 16% were male compared to 5% who were female.
  • Female characters were generally younger than the male characters, with most in their 20's and 30's. 
  • Only 30% of female characters were over the age of 40, compared to 53% of males.
  • While 18% of male characters were in their 50's, only 9% of female characters were in this age group. 
It's thirty years since Alison Bechdel's comic strip introduced the idea that women needed to be better represented in film. The real world has changed, even if the movie world hasn't. Perhaps it's time to add some new questions.

So I propose we ask:

1. Are there any women over 40?
2. Are those women given any role other than wicked witch, over-protective mother  or demented grandmother?
3. Are they ever asked for their opinion by a man?

What do you think? Can you name examples of films that meet these requirements? Do you have some better questions? 

22 March 2015

Not the flying doctor

Spring in Torino - not the reason I was there
Waking up to a text message that begins "Hi Mum, I'm fine, but I'm in hospital after being knocked down by a car" is guaranteed to get maternal anxiety going big time. Especially when the daughter who sent it is in a hospital over 13,000 kilometers away in Italy. 

We managed to talk by phone. She said that she'd been taken to the hospital by ambulance because she'd had a bump on the head. She sounded groggy, but it was, after all, the middle of the night there. She said her friends were looking after her well. "It's not that serious" she reassured us.

The time difference between Italy and Perth meant that we had to wait another 7 hours before we could speak to her again without disturbing her sleep. In the meantime I'd managed to contact one of her friends who told me that Zoe had a skull fracture and had been vomiting "but don't worry, she's doing fine". 

Not worrying is not easy if your medical training tells you all the possible disastrous complications of a head injury, and your imagination has nothing to stifle it except brief text messages and phone calls. I needed to SEE that she was fine. "Do you think I should go over there?" I asked my husband. "What's stopping you?" he said, without hesitating.

So about the time that I'd expected to be sharing morning tea with my bible study group in Perth, I found myself sitting in Dubai airport, waiting for my connection to Milan. The whole thing felt surreal. Usually I plan overseas trips months in advance. This time I'd bought the tickets and packed my bag just hours before I boarded the plane. How thankful I was that I had the resources and the freedom to just up and go like that, and thankful too that I knew where I was going and how to get there.

On the plane I worried that I might burst into tears when I saw Zoe. I was feeling pretty strung out emotionally. When I arrived she was sitting on a trolley in the emergency department, looking pale, with two black eyes, her hair unbrushed and standing on end. She looked like a Goth after a hard night of partying, but she was smiling with that typical broad smile of hers. No tears were needed.

To cut a long story short, after staying in hospital for a week, Zoe went home with no complications. I stayed with her for a few more days, happy when I left that she was functioning quite normally, except for tiring easily. Her friends did a fantastic job of looking after her, and me, and would continue to be there for her after I left. (You can read Zoe's account of her experiences in her blog.)

Now that I'm home, still trying to pick up my normal routine where I left off so unexpectedly, I find myself wondering, what was that all about? What did I hope to achieve, what urge did I satisfy, by travelling half way across the world at short notice? I'm sure Zoe appreciated me being there, but as an adult, did she really need my presence? Or was it me who needed her? What is it that ties a mother to her child even when that child is a fully independent adult?

All sorts of "what ifs" come to mind. Would I have travelled across the world to see her if she'd had a broken leg rather than a cracked skull? What if she was married and had a spouse by her side? What if I'd been working full  time, or couldn't afford the price of the ticket? Questions like these have no answers.

I remembered while I was travelling to and from the hospital how my own mother visited me every day when I was in hospital as a child with appendicitis. It took her two bus rides each way through the snow to get there. At the time I didn't understand or appreciate how much effort she put in to being there, or why she did it. I do now.

Yet I also recall mothers I've met who seemed detached from their children, or even hostile, too overwhelmed by their own problems to be interested in their welfare. This thing called mother love isn't simply a matter of instinct.

"No matter how old you are, to me you'll always be my baby" says the Facebook sentiment, complete with picture of baby bear or bunny or pup. Well, I don't think of my adult daughters as "my babies" any more. For a start, they wouldn't appreciate it if I did. And I really like the women they've become, and wouldn't have them any other way. But when they hurt, I still hurt. I want to be there, even if there's nothing I can do to make things better. I probably always will.


About Me

My photo

I'm a writer, medical graduate, wife, mother, and follower of Christ, with an interest in a wide range of topics and ideas. I live in Western Australia.