Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Meditation and Buddhism

Interesting tree on the bank of the Seine
Paris, March 2016
I have now attended all four sessions of meditation and Buddhism - the meditation is difficult but I think it may be useful for those times when one's mind refuses to settle. It's one of those things that needs practice to determine whether it is actually worthwhile.

The main reason I signed up for the four-week course is because the good friend I wrote about a few weeks ago has been a Buddhist for more than 20 years. He hasn't had anything that resembles a traditional job (with hours of work and a wage) for quite a long time, and has spent a total of about two years on and off at a 'retreat' in Spain. I have struggled to come to terms with this lifestyle (not that its any of my business), and concluded that the answer must lie within Buddhism. So I want to know more about Buddhism, and the course takes place very conveniently about 2 miles from my home.

Each session starts with a short meditation focusing on the physical body, then a bit of chat about what we'll talk about later, then a longer (different) meditation, then a tea break. I like the tea break. Then there's a bit about Buddhism and its practice and another meditation session to end.

I don't mind meditation - sitting quiet and still is rather nice, but my mind dances off all the time and I have to put some effort into bringing it back. The leader describes this as 'flapping like a fish out of water', and this is indeed how it feels. The bit about Buddhism is sometimes done in small groups, which I prefer to discussions with the whole room, and has given me the chance to clarify a few things.

Obviously after just four sessions I'm only scratching the surface, but the main messages I've taken away are:

- Buddhism is not a theist religion. The Buddha is not a god or a prophet, but a man who came up with some good ideas that made him into a rather special person. By emulating his methods, a person should be able to reach their fullest potential. The word 'enlightenment' was used along with lots of other words that are difficult to pin down (I have to let most of the words go past otherwise I'd be challenging something every two minutes). You can be an atheist Buddhist, in fact if you commit yourself to Buddhism it would be difficult not to be atheist. I have no problem with this, I like a religion that doesn't believe in gods.

- The principles of Buddhism as I understand them so far (after a whole eight hours of learning, six hours of which were silent meditation) are about contributing the most possible to oneself, one's community and society, and I suppose the wider world as well. Although the group leader deliberately avoided labelling principles or actions as good' or 'bad', in lay terms it's about being a 'good' person both in isolation and in interactions with others. The group leader described being able to do anything that you want to do - there are no specific rules - but understanding that your deeds have consequences and you must take responsibility for them. I have no problem with this either, I have long been reflecting on my personality and actions, committing to change for the better, and trying to fulfil my potential.

What I've been trying to elicit, therefore, is what the role of Buddhism is exactly. I'm happy not to believe in God, prepared to believe that Buddha was a good sort with some useful ideas, and that not hurting yourself or others is a sensible course in life. Anyone can do meditation, and behave in the best way they can, and try to be a vegan, and live the best life possible for themselves and others without being a Buddhist. Why do we need Buddhism?

I think the answer is the same for Buddhism as I have decided it is for other religions - probably all religions, although I only have personal experience of a couple. Here's the answer in brief: it's much harder to be a good person on your own. If you can adopt a set of pre-prepared guidelines alongside others who are happy with the same guidelines, you get loads of help from a ready-made extended family when life is difficult, which it often is. You get some answers to difficult questions (why is there cruelty in the world? what is consciousness? what happens after we die?) and if it's a religion that's worth anything there will be someone prepared to look after you when you are ill, disabled or old if you don't happen to have taken precautions by having children and bringing them up properly.

Many people deal with the difficult questions by using words like 'spirituality', and many religions expect you to accept as truth their theories about unprovable concepts (gods, angels, miracles, what happens after death). I don't have a spiritual atom in any of the molecules that comprise my corporeal body. I am made of physics, which results in chemistry, which leads to biology. I know there are many things we do not yet know (what is consciousness?) and many things we cannot know (what happens after we die?) and I'm happy to agree that there is probably more to life than we can know or touch. What I'm not prepared to believe is that anyone else knows the answers, so unfortunately most religions won't work for me.

I know that many people take comfort in the notion that someone or something they believe in is looking out for them - I am lucky enough not to need this notion, given that I don't believe there is anything out there. Buddhism seems to take a more practical line, that the people looking out for you are those around you within your own community. So that's good.

The two types of meditation we learned were mindfulness of breathing, which involves trying to focus on your breathing and determinedly bringing your attention back when it inevitably wanders, and 'metta bhavana' which is about fostering a positive attitude towards yourself and others. I've been more or less successful at doing these within the sessions and a few times at home, and I like the approach. The leaders of the group declare that there is some sort of emotional or spiritual benefit that emerges from successful meditation, but I can't say I've experienced much, although perhaps I managed a little glimpse of something on one occasion before my mind sped off down the road and I had to catch it up and drag it back to the matter in hand.

The group continues to meet on a Tuesday night and all are welcome; I don't know whether I'll be joining them or not. I like the meditation but I'm much less keen on the Buddhism, because despite being sympathetic to the concepts expounded so far I still find it a bit too much like organised religion. There are bits that have been hinted at but not discussed, including a brief reference to 'puja' which is a bit like worship although it might be more like paying your respects. I am being fairly vague about my intentions because I thought after I'd run 5km, and then 10km, that I'd stop running, but I'm still doing it and even enjoying it. So it might be the same with Buddhism. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The usual complaining about being busy

Badminton match
Barclaycard Arena, Birmingham, May 2016

Well, it's been a busy time. If it hadn't been for some blog posts I drafted a while ago there would have been a whole lot of nothing new in this space. So I thought I'd just make a quick list of the few things that I might write about that have taken up my time in the last fortnight. Within a minute I had this:

Work


Cover for colleague: group education  and clinic
Type 1 education in new location
DESMOND Type 2 education
Meeting about insulin pump service

Not work


Badminton AGM
Shoulder: nurse/physio
Sports: running, badminton, Fitbit™
Cymbeline
Buddhism/meditation
Water meter
Blood donation
Sunday lunch in the pub
Police and Crime Commissioner election
Clarinet choir
National Badminton League final
St Albans
Disc golf

I should just leave it there and lie down in a darkened room. But I suppose I could expand a little on some of them.

Work


I was asked nicely to cover for a colleague who is off sick, and so far I have said yes to each request, although it means I have not had any period in the last two weeks within which I can catch up e.g. read or respond to emails and telephone messages, write letters etc. It has been made worse by delivering our Type 1 education in a new venue where we don't have access to computers, internets etc. This whole situation is unsustainable. The coming week will be no better, but I am going to use the extra hours I have accrued to take a day off and help mum with some Philatelic Business, of which more may be revealed after it has happened.

The meeting about the insulin pump service was quite interesting. We have been precipitated into a minor crisis by one of our nurses being on long term sick leave. Having coped for rather a long time we are now reviewing what we do a bit more seriously than usual, and it has become clear that the service we provide to people who use insulin pumps is particularly stretched. It was set up in 2006 on the basis of anticipating four new patients a year, and now we support more than a hundred people on pumps with at least one new one every month, not to mention the children and young people that we inherit from the paediatric service. From one consultant clinic once a month we now have two consultant clinics twice a month with no additional funding for nurses or dietitians.

It looked for a while as though a business case was going to be formulated for more nurses but with no reference to dietitians, and my manager has now retired (with a new one recruited but not yet started). So I pitched up at the meeting with the nurses, doctors, managers and finance people, and carried out my self-appointed role which was to add the words "and dietitians" every time the word "nurses" was uttered in the context of needing to fund more of them. Clearly this was irritating enough for them to start nodding in my direction and saying "and dietitians" for themselves. So that worked rather well.

The outcome of the meeting is slightly unnerving because rather than just scope the increased requirement for the pump service, they have decided to scope the requirements of the whole diabetes service at the site where I work. It would have taken an incredibly long time to look at just the pump service, so now we'll have to wait until quite close to the end of time before we get any new money. Not that there is any new money; the finance person revealed that the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) who pay for health services is pretty much broke.

Not work


Badminton club #2 has an AGM and stops for the summer. Club #1 is more disorganised in terms of administration - we had AGMs when I was club secretary, but not before or since, and hardly anyone turned up - but at least we play on over the summer. Club #2's AGM is held with a fish and chip supper and then a game of skittles, and was great fun. I sometimes think I can do this socialising thing; I used to be good at it long ago.

My left shoulder is still painful and has hardly improved in the six weeks since my injury, so I finally made an appointment to see a Nurse Practitioner at the surgery, who gave me a form to allow me to self-refer to a physiotherapist. She also advised me to take paracetamol instead of ibuprofen. I look forward to the physio appointment not least for its blog potential. I am not optimistic that the shoulder situation will be improved by physio, but what do I know?

Running and badminton continue, and I have bought a Fitbit™ with my TV watching points (and what do points mean?) but am struggling to operate the software that makes it worth having, which I take to be another sign of the inevitable march towards senility. For those not aware of the latest in fitness technology, a Fitbit is a device, in my case a wristband, which monitors the wearer's activity. I let it count my steps. If you enter the food and drink you consume it will advise on calories in and out; it should monitor your sleep but I can't make that bit work. It has exposed the limitations of my mobile phone, but my contract is about to expire and I'll see if an upgrade will help the situation.

Culture news: I went to see Cymbeline at the RSC in Stratford. I haven't been there since they remodelled the theatre, which is a long time. We had seats in the gods, which in the new theatre entails raised seats a bit like stools with footrests. It was OK to start with, but as the play entered its fourth hour I definitely started to feel a bit fidgety. A little way into the second half one of the friends I came with very suddenly left the auditorium. It turned out that he remembered he'd left the oven on, and had quite a time of it trying to contact various people to check that his flat wasn't on fire. I'd given him a lift so he couldn't just nip back home.

I meant to look up the plot before going but didn't get round to it, but another of the friends I was with had looked on Wikipedia and gave us a quick outline. Unfortunately for us in this production they'd decided to change the sex of some of the key characters, so the Wikipedia description of the king made no sense until we worked out he was now a queen. Also, the white queen and her white consort had managed to produce a black son, which was also rather confusing. Which just demonstrates our ignorance of our literary inheritance. But the play was good, and I'm always surprised at being able to follow the plot despite understanding only about one line in four.

I have a whole blog post about the Buddhism and meditation thing waiting in the wings, so I'll say no more about that. I also had a water meter installed which took no more than fifteen minutes and has reduced my (albeit estimated) water bill to a shadow of its former self. Blood donation went without incident, Sunday pub lunch was enormous and delicious, and the PCC election was pointless. I looked up the candidates the day before but I haven't bothered to find out who won. I take part in elections because I believe everyone must, but I have to admit finding it more difficult to justify this stance with each successive bunch of useless self-serving politicians.

The clarinet choir is good fun, although this time our leader has chosen pieces that stray much too far into the upper registers, to the extent that a much more enthusiastic and committed first clarinettist has invested the thousands of pounds required to buy an E flat clarinet, and I am envious. I am having to look up fingerings for top F's and G's that I haven't used since I was at school.

More badminton: the NBL competition was invented very recently to fill the gap between National teams and ordinary club leagues (the two league teams I play with were both relegated, so I am delighted that we may avoid being beaten into the ground every time I step onto the court next year). Four of these NBL teams battled it out for the top spot on the warmest sunniest day of the year so far, meaning that I spent the majority of the day indoors. It wasn't as good as the International competition in the same venue, but a nice day out. Birmingham Lions beat Loughborough University in the final.

The day in St Albans came about at short notice when Lola II phoned to say she was going there with some overseas visitors on a Tuesday when I wasn't working, so I avoided many of the jobs I was supposed to be doing by joining her there. We went around the Verulamium museum, a Roman theatre and the cathedral with interludes of tea, lunch, more tea and cake.

On Sunday I organised a badminton (club #1) social event to play disc golf, which uses baskets instead of holes and small frisbees in place of golf balls. After a full round of 18 baskets in sunny weather with only one frisbee lost in the river, I was tired out. Not that we're at all competitive (except we really are), I came second last.

And to bring us bang up to date, I have Ilf working in Lola Towers today and within the first hour he changed two door handles, cut another door to allow it to close, finished the unfinished laminate flooring and is now working on the external lights and the kitchen electrics that he condemned last time he was here. I've chased Olf the garage man for the last two jobs, but still haven't looked for an architect to advise on remodelling the ground floor. Mowing the lawn yesterday I was even considering more ambitious plans for the garden!

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

My home situation improves further

Close up of pink flower
Harlow Carr, July 2015
Lola Towers Restoration Project update - it's been wonderful. Really satisfying. Bits of Lola Towers are looking almost respectable, and it doesn't half improve my mood, although it makes me a little less sociable because I'm so much happier at home.

Ilf the Handyman continues to be a godsend and a good chap - he brought me more wood offcuts for the fire, and I gave him the deep fat fryer that nobody wanted on Streetlife (a site a bit like a local Freegle but better). I begged him to prioritise the shower ceiling because going without showers at home for two weeks to dry the room out properly was dreadful - I used sports centres after badminton, and had baths, but it's not the same. Not only was the shower ceiling done when I got back but he'd also put up my new living room light as well as starting on the door handles. I've now got a new wall light in the living room and a new lock on the front door too.

We had a conversation about the loft ladder and he took on board my suggestions and seems to have fixed it (I must go and have a look), but there is a bit of difficulty with the upstairs lighting and I'm going to have to empty the loft sooner than anticipated. He has expressed proper horror at some of the things he found behind the light switches in the kitchen, in his words: "This switch will be replaced the next time I come round, even if I have to pay for the switch!"

I'm still enjoying opening and closing the door that now closes properly, and my additional activity now includes switching the lovely new living room lights on and off. And having showers.

Olf and his team have worked wonders on the garage too. It is pointed, and has new UPVC windows and a side door that locks properly, and the big front door has been tweaked so it closes properly and has a new hardwood frame. The gutter has been replaced, the lights have a proper fuse box and switch and there are four properly wired sockets too. All those involved continue to be puzzled at my idea of putting the car inside - one chap's opinion was that with a bit of insulation and a lick of paint I could rent it out for a student to live in. All that is left to do is to sort out one corner of the roof (a bit complicated because of asbestos) and fit a new lock to the main door.

The other benefit of Olf and the gang working on the garage was that I felt obliged to hang around on my Tuesday off, making them tea and answering questions about where electrical supplies were routed and where I wanted sockets etc. I decided to use the time to address the ivy situation in the garden, and took two carloads to the tip. This has stiffened my resolve to get rid of the bloody ivy once and for all - a half-hearted attempt with weedkiller was not enough, and the wall is crumbling beneath its onslaught.

I am happy with my project management so far, the costs have not been excessive and I am immensely pleased with the results. I am now in two minds about how ambitious to be as I go forwards with the LTRP. Should I limit myself to replacing and possibly extending the kitchen, or should I consult some sort of architect to address the ground floor layout on a rather grander scale, including doing something about the staircase? There's lots more to do in the spare room and in the garden, and the whole house (with the possible exception of the bedroom) badly needs redecorating. What next, readers?

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover

The Magus
by John Fowles

narrated by Nicholas Boulton
"Nicholas Urfe goes to a Greek island to teach at a private school and becomes enmeshed in curious happenings at the home of a mysterious Greek recluse, Maurice Conchis."
This is a weird book. I have been picking 'classic' audiobooks at random, then reading the blurb about the book followed by some of the things that people have said about it, usually on Audible and Amazon and Goodreads websites. If it looks as though it's worth it, I'll download and listen. Many people cited this one as their favourite book ever, lifechanging, that sort of thing. It's a long, long book (more than 26 hours in its audio version) and now I've finished it I still don't see the point. The main character is tormented in a 1950's version of The Truman Show where nothing is real, all is staged, and despite being perfectly at liberty to walk away he keeps coming back for more. I can believe that falling in love keeps him involved for a certain amount of time, but when that particularly folly ends he still doesn't leave them to it and get on with is own life. The story isn't even concluded particularly well either, and that really made the whole ordeal even more annoying. I must get back to the Galsworthy and I'll be much happier.

[Later - I've been thinking about what I wrote above, and I've changed my mind. Nowadays I like books when there's a rattling good story that has a beginning, a middle and an end that satisfies all my questions. I also like books when they are a bit challenging and make me think, but the story seems to be the most important factor for me at the moment. It wasn't always this way, and this book exemplifies the sort of thing I might have been looking for twenty or thirty years ago, because it isn't trying too hard with the story, there's much more to it about the world and our beliefs and our place and who we think we are and how we see everything that isn't our self. What if we couldn't trust anything we saw or were told? If we were just seeing shadows on the cave wall and thinking this was reality? I can see how this book would feed that thought experiment, and could have made an impression on the twenty-year-old me. I just don't want to bother with that sort of effort any more.]


Image of the book cover

And The Mountains Echoed
by Khaled Hosseini
"It's a funny thing... but people mostly have it backward. They think they live by what they want. But really, what guides them is what they're afraid of. What they don't want."
I liked this book a lot, so much in fact that I'd like to read it again, mostly so that I appreciate the links between different sections of the story. There is a thread running through all sections and they are sometimes connected in ways that are not obvious. The heart of all the stories is Afghanistan, and we are taken from 1959 to the present day, but not sequentially. I never stopped wanting to know what happens next, where will these people end up, will they be happy?


Image of the book cover

Paul Temple Intervenes
by Francis Durbridge
"In a small country lane, the well-known American, Myron Harwood, is found dead. The murder heralds the start of a spate of celebrity deaths – and each time the victim is found with a small white piece of cardboard, bearing the inscription ‘The Marquis’."
The second of three I picked up from a book swap box, and just as bad as the first. I used to think they were quite good on the radio, but I've been listening to the radio version as well recently and the problem is too many characters and such convoluted plots that the outcome is not only implausible but disappointing. I'm sure I'll still read the third anyway because it's so easy, and sometimes easy reading is what's needed.


Image of the book cover

The King of Torts
by John Grisham
"As he digs into the background of his client, Clay stumbles on a conspiracy too horrible to believe. He suddenly finds himself in the middle of a complex case against one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world and looking at the kind of enormous settlement that would totally change his life."
This book is terrible. I've read John Grisham before and I seem to remember it was OK, but this one was just boring. The lawyer makes a fortune and loses a fortune and that's the end of the book. People on the whole are mean and greedy (with a few exceptions) and anyway the world of US class actions isn't one that I particularly want to know about. I should have been able to tell from the title.


Image of the book cover

The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame

narrated by B. J. Harrison
"When Mole goes boating with the Water Rat instead of spring-cleaning, he discovers a new world. As well as the river and the Wild Wood, there is Toad's craze for fast travel which leads him and his friends on a whirl of trains, barges, gipsy caravans and motor cars, and even into battle."
It occurs to me that I've been listening to 'The Classic Tales' podcast for some time now, and the guy's narration has improved no end. He still makes the odd mistake but nowhere near as often, and he made a good job of this book. Obviously I've read it before but there are bits I'd forgotten, although most of the forgotten bits are somewhat odd. For example, the chapter called 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn' (when Rat and Mole find Otter's son Portly at the feet of the god Pan) is beautifully lyrical and evocative and has supplied the name of quite a good Pink Floyd album, but in terms of story and plot the chapter is wholly unnecessary.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Leicester

Tree-lined pedestrian pathway

This was a Lola II birthday weekend, postponed from when her birthday actually took place because we have both been a bit busy most weekends. By all rights it should therefore have been warmer than late February, but it wasn't really. Apart from the chilly days it was a brilliant weekend.

We started with the accommodation on Friday, which was not our usual guesthouse or B&B, but a private residence booked through AirBnB, belonging to Muriel. Muriel was Not Very Well so our contact with her was quite limited, but we were out most of the time so it didn't matter. She has some very interesting wallpaper but the room was comfortable and there was Redbush tea.

We decided that Leicester is quite good. Many of its inhabitants have got over the discovery of the skeleton of King Richard III in favour of their football team (although the city still displays an RIII logo on lamp posts, posters and anything else it can think of). Leicester City Football Club has unexpectedly emerged from obscurity and is almost in a position to win the League, and everyone seems to be rather excited and nervous about it.

On Friday we ate at a rather meat-focused restaurant, but on the way home we passed a small Japanese restaurant that looked very promising, so that was Saturday's dinner venue sorted.

Lola I in pretend shop with trolley and list
On Saturday we decided to head for the Tourist Information Office, but were waylaid by some loitering market researchers. I persuaded Lola II that it might be interesting, and so it was - rather than answering a few questions off a clipboard in the street we were taken into an office and answered rather a lot of questions about shampoo, toothpaste and cereal. Then we had to pretend to shop for shampoo in a pretend shop with a real trolley while being filmed, and lastly answer a trillion questions about three types of shampoo, many of which were stupid. Did the pictures of shampoo make me think that it was 'efficient'? or 'natural'? or 'smell good'? Stupidest of all given that there was no information about price, did it look like 'value for money'? Good luck to them analysing my answers. They gave us each a £5 Boots voucher so I suppose it wasn't three quarters of an hour completely wasted (they'd said it would be 15 minutes).

Lola I trying to eat an eclair

Leicester Market is good and there was a 'Continental' market going on too with some wonderful-looking cheeses. We found a deli for lunch and I had an eclair from the Boulangerie stall which showered me with icing sugar and anointed me with cream. Then we made our way to the Jewry Wall Museum and a guided tour of the Roman baths. This was less interesting than I'd hoped because once you've seen a few Roman baths what more is there to say? And there wasn't actually much to see except the foundations, not even a trace of hypocaust, but there was a very large Roman wall. It was pretty cold and the guide clearly knew a lot but spent many words conveying minimal information. Kathleen Kenyon was the original archaeologist who worked on the site in one of her very earliest jobs, so that was a bit interesting. Being told how the original residents would have welcomed the warmth of a Roman bath house made us reflect that we would too.

Tomb of Richard III with Lola II
After that we sat in a cafe drinking tea until we'd warmed up, then had a look around the cathedral, where Richard III was re-interred about a year ago. His tomb is rather impressive and there was a guide hanging around whom we quizzed for some time. She doesn't think the king was all that bad, and her view is that he was slandered by poets and playwrights; times were different and politics was pretty ruthless back then. She had attended the re-interment and was responsible for the bit of the church where Benedict Cumberbatch, Julian Fellowes and Robert Lindsay were seated.

Leaving the cathedral we made our way to where we remembered the Japanese restaurant was, but there it wasn't. Eventually with the help of Google we found it elsewhere in quite a different spot from where we remembered. It was also a little disappointing, as the rice was formed into nigiri by a machine and rather small pieces of pre-sliced fish out of the fridge simply placed on top. Several of the dishes were better than the sushi, but there was quite a lot of confusion with the order and Lola II's chicken was undercooked (they took that off the bill).

Sushi, agedashi tofu, edamame, gyoza
The evening's entertainment was provided by a performance of 'Legally Blonde' the musical, which went very well. There was a small incident with a bar of chocolate - when I went to get some water I though how hilarious Lola II would find it to hide some chocolate that was in my bag, so I moved it to a less obvious place and then completely forgot that I'd done it. When I came back and looked for the chocolate I was halfway through accusing Lola II of hilariously hiding it when I remembered what I'd done. We both thought that was very funny indeed.

Last notable event of Saturday - we ordered a minicab by phone to take us back after the performance, and the driver phoned to say he was waiting in a silver Zafira car. What are the chance of two identical silver Zafira cars waiting in front of the theatre? The man waiting for his wife was very nice about it, and we didn't actually get into his car...

Half timbered house
Sunday started with another visit to the market Boulangerie (chocolate twist and pain au raisin this time). We had a bit of time to spare before our next booked event, so we walked along a pretty road converted for pedestrian use and found the Art Gallery, but it wasn't yet open. The tours we'd booked were of the Magazine Gateway (gateway to a monastical complex not the city, and which in more recent times housed arms) and Wygston's House (15th century half-timbered with Georgian and Victorian extensions about to be sold off and converted into a restaurant due to lack of public funds for restoration). The guide for these two tours was much better, even though it was still very cold to be standing around in unheated buildings.

Several curries, rice, naan, chapattiLeicester is famed for its Golden Mile - a bit like Rusholme in Manchester, it holds a concentration of Indian restaurants, and we chose one that was busy on the basis that it was likely to be good. It was delicious and very good value. There was just enough time for a quick look in one of the rooms of the Art Gallery that was now open before Lola II had to catch her train.

Leicester - I'd go back for the curries, but not for the sushi. And good luck with the football.

Lola II and the chaat

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Lola Towers Renovation Project

Two runners rounding the bend from the road into the park
Lead runners entering Victoria Park, April 2016
It's all going quite well. Handyman Ilf has turned out to be quite a find. I have been told rather a lot about his misspent youth and past history along with some details of his current situation while he has run his hand disapprovingly over my damp walls, tutted at my leaking tap and dodgy door hinges, and frowned at the situation with the loft ladder. We have discussed where I might acquire door handles and light fittings and he has expressed the surprise I am accustomed to hearing at the idea of a woman who has trouble with shopping.

I came home from work to find that the door which has been falling off its hinges now opens and closes as if by magic. I even opened and closed it several times, like an imbecile, just for the joy of being able to do it. I could not have anticipated the pleasure of shutting a door that previously would not shut. I feel I have already said too much on this subject, but I am going to get up, go to the door and open and close it again. Now I will stop talking about the door, but in terms of the pleasure to cost ratio, this is looking like a pretty high number.

Ilf has also been working on the loft ladder, polyfilla'd a few holes, done a couple of small electrical jobs and fixed the outside tap. He has advised me against using the shower for a while so as to allow the room to dry out thoroughly, at which point we may be more successful at getting paint to stick on the ceiling. I await his invoice but unless he wants to be paid in unicorn tears there's very little that will stop me from insisting that he continues to minister to my every whim, at least in terms of DIY.

The shopping didn't go too badly either and I only had to go back two or three times to decide what I really wanted and just once to replace a thing. I have bought light fittings and door handles and made decisions on other aspects of the Project, and Ilf is planning to return next week for more. Meanwhile, Olf and his assistant have arrived to start on the garage.

At the weekend I managed to make the final push towards emptying the garage, right down to taking the oil-soaked pieces of carpet to the tip, along with four bin bags of assorted small rubbish and some bigger pieces. It is a surprisingly large space and I am faced with the real prospect of actually being able to put my car inside. Not yet, because the door is still not independently lockable - it relies on a couple of lockable shackles set into the concrete in front of the door. But soon.

While I was outside working on the garage clearance I had time to have some lovely conversations with neighbours, and I even went and watched the Regency Run, a local 10k race that goes pretty much past my front door. The weather was fine, as it is today for Olf and his assistant. Further henchmen have visited to measure up the garage windows and assess the state of the electrics. It will not be finished this week, but I am confident. Now I'm going to open and close that door again. Oooh, lovely.

Many runners in the park
Regency Run 2016, in Victoria Park

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Ski France and Home News

Covered wooden bridge and church with mountain slope behind
Moûtiers, April 2016
It's been a busy fortnight for me, so nothing unusual there. There was my second ski holiday of 2016, followed by a week containing (as well as work) one badminton club night, two badminton matches (we lost both) and an introduction to Buddhism and meditation. I'm behind with everything, not just this blog.

Before Easter I managed to finish the dress I've been making for sister D, and posted it off to her. That dress pattern has been very good value - three dresses made and possibly one more to come! I also managed to negotiate a 9% discount on a new ski jacket and trousers, which were still jolly expensive but fit perfectly, unlike my previous ski clothing which was low price/low quality and bought for a larger version of me.

The ski holiday was with friends who had arranged all transport and accommodation independently in order to maximise the time available for skiing. On a normal package you fly out and arrive in the resort on day 1, head back on day 8 and have six days skiing in between.  What we did was travel by train overnight to arrive in the resort and ski on day 1, and head back on day 8 after a morning's skiing. So eight days skiing in total.

The travelling wasn't bad - Eurostar to Paris, then local sleeper train to Moûtiers, then local bus to Méribel, and the same in reverse for the way back. We had some time to kill in Paris on the way out and in Moûtiers on the way back, so there was a tiny bit of French sightseeing as well. Ski conditions were variable - one gloriously sunny day, one day when everything shut down at lunchtime because of wind, one day when clouds were a bit low and visibility came and went quite suddenly, the other days a combination of sun, cloud, wind and rain. But we skied every day and it was fine.

I only fell over properly once, but unfortunately I did something nasty to my left shoulder which is still rather painful. If it had been my right shoulder I could have avoided playing in those two lost badminton matches - thankfully we are being demoted next season so maybe we'll manage to win a match or two next year.

The introduction to Buddhism and meditation was very interesting, and the first of four weekly sessions. Nothing revelatory to announce here yet, but I'll keep you posted because I think I'll have something to say by the end. At the weekend I journeyed south to help mum clear out some of the accumulated detritus of a lifetime, which is ultimately necessary but rather dispiriting, and which I am starting to regret slightly. Anyway, it's in a box not in the bin so there is time to retrieve the situation. Maybe my gay abandon has resulted from the clearing out of 15 years worth of accumulated detritus from the garage at Lola Towers in preparation for remedial work. Still not finished and more trips required to the tip.

The Lola Towers Renovation Project (LTRP) continues apace with yet another workman coming round to look at some small jobs - very small in comparison with the garage, but if completed then they will add materially to my personal happiness (at least as much as learning to meditate, if not more). The only down side is that about half of the small jobs need input from me in terms of locating and buying things. It's not enough to tell the workman that I want this or that light fitting replaced, I've actually got to choose what I want it replaced with. Not easy for a non-shopper like me.

The workman - let's follow a theme to its fullest extent and call him Ilf - seems like a nice chap, enthusiastic and very talkative, and he certainly describes himself as the kind of workman I want. He's actually coming back to get started tomorrow, so either he's very keen and sees the potential goldmine that the LTRP represents, or he's not very good and hasn't got any other work at the moment. We'll soon find out, and you will be among the first to know about it.

I have also reached the point where my expanding waistline can no longer be ignored, and I have designed and instituted a set of Diet Rules for the next 5 weeks. These are designed to disrupt the bad habits I have acquired and embed a new set of habits that I hope will become the new normal. You may imagine the type of situation I am trying to prevent if I let on that one of the rules is 'No more than 100g of dark chocolate a week'. I'm not prepared to reveal the level of weekly chocolate that previously prevailed.

Five skiers lined up (almost) ready to go

Sunday, 3 April 2016

New(ish) Type 2 guidelines

Long grass, thistles and fir trees
Harlow Carr, July 2015
On one of my recent days off I visited an old friend, which was so tremendously rejuvenating that I definitely didn't mind spending four hours in the car getting there and back. I can't explain how satisfying it feels to have in depth interesting conversations about anything and everything with someone who has known me for more than thirty years and is entirely on the same wavelength.

I use this blog partly for therapy, to sort out my thoughts and opinions by writing them down. I don't know why it's better than a private diary, but somehow it is. However, there are many issues that are unsuitable for public scrutiny, and simply cannot be included no matter how much I would like to wrestle them onto the screen. On that day I talked privately about many of these issues, and feel all the better for it. My friend is wise, and sensible, and I feel lucky to be able to tap into that wisdom and sense.

At the end of that day I attended another Diabetes Education Club evening - I can report that this time the buffet was loads better than the standard sandwiches and cold sausages. In terms of the meeting content, it was all about the finished NICE guideline about the treatment of Type 2 Diabetes. This took about a year to finalise because there was uproar when the first draft was published. I've had a look back through the blog and it doesn't look like I wrote about it at the time.

In primary care, most GPs are not diabetes specialists, so the guidelines published by NICE are intended to help these non-specialists choose the right way forward for the patient in front of them. These same guidelines are also supposed to inform patients of how their treatment should be managed, help organisations assess whether the care they provide to patients is of good quality, and also allow Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) to ensure they are getting value for money in the services they are responsible for. A tall order.

The problem was a difficult one. People with Type 2 Diabetes come in all shapes and sizes, the treatment options are very varied and the range is growing all the time. The guidelines are drawn up with strict parameters - they must be based on evidence, so if nobody has bothered to do a formal trial then no evidence exists. [There is a fairly famous paper highlighting this issue which describes the design of a formal trial to compare mortality when jumping from a plane with and without a parachute.] The guidelines must also take cost into account, so an expensive treatment would have to show significant benefit beyond that of a cheaper treatment.

The uproar at the draft was because a strong recommendation was made for a medication that had pretty much been sidelined by most medical practitioners. I can't comment on why this obsolete treatment was brought out of obscurity, but I imagine it was because sufficient evidence existed of its benefit, and it must be very cheap. To their credit NICE took account of the feedback, amended the draft, repeated the consultation process, and eventually published an amended version which seems to have better reflected consensus within the diabetes community.

The most amusing moment of the evening for me was when it was pointed out that the previous guideline had recommended low dose aspirin for lowering of cardiovascular risk in people with Type 2 Diabetes, but this recommendation had been reversed in the latest version. "What are we supposed to do," asked one doctor plaintively, "when patients ask why we told them to do one thing then and something different now?" "You should try being a Dietitian," I pointed out. "We have to do that all the time."

This led into a conversation about the latest dietary options. I have many of these conversations with Dietitians, so it was interesting to hear what  these GPs thought. One was very much in favour of Very Low Carbohydrate diets, while another favoured the Very Low Calorie option. Both of these are perfectly valid choices, but the Dietitian's skills lie in helping the individual to decide what is right for them. The relevant guidelines follow this kind of pathway:
1. The most effective lifestyle therapy in Type 2 Diabetes is weight loss
2. There is no evidence about the best way to lose weight and keep it off
3. So the best diet for a particular individual is the diet a) that works and b) is sustainable, whatever it consists of.

I was going to put in provisos about 'nutritionally complete' but for most people if the diet consists of nothing but cabbage soup or 100% marshmallows it will probably fail the 'sustainable' criterion. So yes, I will stand by 'whatever it is'.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Small goals

Vista of forest and hills beyond the ski slope
Borovets, February 2016
It is positively ages since I came back from skiing, and it feels as though I have been tired the whole time. Obviously I have been ill which often results in tiredness, but even though I do have days off I seem to have filled them full of things that need to be done and I could do with having a day when I actually have a rest. I tried last Sunday, but still felt I had to catch up with all the email that I had neglected for the whole week.

In terms of productivity I have achieved many very small goals. Some goals are very, very small, like buying a new iron, which for most people may take an hour or so, but because I have to make things complicated I first have to research online to see how much irons cost before applying for the right value of vouchers using the points amassed but not yet redeemed from my TV-watching days (and what do points mean?) Then I wait for the vouchers to arrive through the post, wait for the day when I can go to the shop, and loiter indecisively for far too long cursing the small domestic items market for having far too much choice. I eventually choose. I am amazed by how little such small domestic items cost. I have underspent my vouchers by £10.01 and am left with a spare £10 voucher and a gift card containing the grand sum of 1p. They couldn't even donate it to charity.

The gadget I ordered to allow me to transfer photos from my camera to my laptop arrived, so you get bonus skiing pictures in this post which is entirely unrelated to skiing. I am also having an argument with Amazon over an esoteric aspect of their business that is too tedious to relate here but means I cannot cancel an order that hasn't been delivered and cannot replace the undelivered item without incurring a cost greater than the value of the item.

Other small goals - I have indulged in the luxury of a professional cleaner for a one-off blitz of the dirtiest areas of Lola Towers, which I have to admit were as filthy as anything I have ever seen. I felt much more like a normal person when, for the first time in 15 years, I brushed my teeth in the bathroom upstairs rather than the shower room downstairs. A very small goal achieved. Life is sometimes peculiar and complicated and a bit sad.

My friend J posing with fog-shrouded ski slopes behind her
A less than sunny day in Borovets
Work news. As Dietitians working in Diabetes my team and I are often called upon to advise on weight management (which usually, but not always, means weight reduction). The quirks of NHS commissioning mean that in the setting where I work the eligible population is small and relatively unchanging, so I don't have enough people to maintain a group, and I had to disband my Very Low Carb Lifestyle group when I was getting no more than 2 people to turn up for a session. The population in the neighbouring city is larger and they have access to many more potential customers. A formal education programme is available to people diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes within a year of their diagnosis, but after that they only used to get one-to-one half-hour appointments with a Nurse or Dietitian.

I have been working with my colleagues to develop a course delivered for two hours a month for three or four months that can help fill this gap. It has been a difficult and frustrating experience, because none of us has much time outside of clinic commitments, and dates were set and patients invited to attend the course before a programme was developed. My colleagues are caring, intelligent and committed practitioners, but there was no way this was going to be a success, and unfortunately I had to sit in and watch the sessions unfold, and it was messy. So despite my best efforts to stay out of it, I ended up with the job of coming up with a sensible way forward.

The first thing I did was to try and establish what the overall aim or purpose of the course was - a simple statement in one or two sentences was what I was after. I discovered that there was a divergence of views even on this fundamental matter. After we'd settled this initial issue, I spent some hours working on the nitty gritty of learning outcomes, key messages and timings of sessions as well as the proposed content. I've squeezed everything into three sessions, but then I got roped in to help out and discovered that my timings are probably hopelessly unachievable. Meanwhile everyone who needs to discuss what I've proposed and come up with some sort of consensus has been on holiday. Including me.

It has certainly been a heartsink kind of project, and I'm no longer even sure that my own ideas are feasible. We're going to talk about it some more in a meeting coming up shortly, so my faith may be restored then.

Me on the ski slopes


Sunday, 13 March 2016

What I've been reading

Image of the book cover

The Bees
by Laline Paull

narrated by Orlagh Cassidy
"Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen."
One review I read called this "Watership Down with bees" and I have to agree. Despite rampant anthropomorphism, I hope that there is a grain of truth in some of the behaviours described - I should ask Bee Lady to have a read and let me know. I liked Watership Down and I like this, and another thing that raised it above the average was excellent narration.


Image of the book cover

In Xanadu: A Quest
by William Dalrymple
"While waiting for the results of his college exams, William Dalrymple decides to fill in his summer break with a trip. But the vacation he plans is no light-hearted student jaunt - he decides to retrace the epic journey of Marco Polo from Jerusalem to Xanadu, the ruined palace of Kubla Kahn, north of Peking."
I bought this in 1991, so the flyleaf tells me, partly because the author and I were at the same university at the same time and I'd seen his tagline on various university news publications. He did the journey before he'd graduated, and took a few years to write the book, and it doesn't do to draw comparisons between his skills and maturity as a twenty-something graduate and my own. I don't remember reading this the first time round, but it is quite a wonderful first book. Certainly makes me feel like an underachiever, anyway.


Image of the book cover

Here on Earth
by Alice Hoffman
"March returns to her childhood home with her teenage daughter, Gwen, to attend the funeral of the housekeeper who brought her up. Unexpectedly, though, the visit rekindles in March a passion for an earlier unrequited love."
The story is loosely modelled on Wuthering Heights, and is similarly annoying and frustrating in that the lead characters are rather unlikeable. Catherine and Heathcliff may have been romantic soulmates, but they were pretty unattractive people, and so are the couple here. At least this one ends satisfactorily, if a bit suddenly.


Image of the book cover

The Five People You Meet In Heaven
by Mitch Albom
"On his eighty-third birthday, Eddie, a lonely war veteran, dies in a tragic accident trying to save a little girl from a falling cart. He awakens in the afterlife, where he learns that heaven is not a lush Garden of Eden but a place where earthly life is explained to you by five people who were in it."
I read the whole of this on the aeroplane journey back from Bulgaria in between bouts of coughing and about an hour's sleep, and there was only one embarrassingly tearful moment. It's a bit moralistic but nicely written, although nowhere near the miraculous work of fiction that the hype declared, and which was what prompted me to read it.


Image of the book cover

Send for Paul Temple
by Francis Durbridge
"In the dead of night, a watchman is brutally attacked and with his dying breath cries out, “The Green Finger!” It is the latest in a series of robberies to take place that have left Scotland Yard mystified, and with no other choice but to call upon the expertise of Detective Paul Temple."
A very easy read which provided a little frisson of pleasure when Leamington Spa was featured (as the setting for a jewellery heist). My home town is described as 'a comparatively innocuous watering place' which 'still thinks of the day when Queen Victoria paid it a visit and it suddenly became 'Royal'.' Other than this unexpected bonus content, it's a straightforward whodunnit with a completely unbelievable plot that is far too complicated. Suspension of disbelief is definitely required.

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