What is the sound of shit happening?

poo emojiAs the often quoted Zen Buddhist koan echoes, ‘If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there to witness it, does it make a sound?’ This prompted me to ponder the same but with a different subject, and in a different part of the forest – the one thing that seems somehow indivisible from the human condition; shit.

You might be thinking about bears in the forest at this point taking a shit but let’s not go down to the woods today; you could be in for a big surprise  – on the bottom of your shoe or in the alimentary canal of a silly old bear.

But back to the question of today’s blog and some reflections upon it. First, shit: short, blunt, onomatopoeic, synonymous with stuff, production and consumption, waste, long term possessions and daily dispossessions. Trouble every day and everyday problems. Tough shit that you wish would pass but can’t because you are mentally and spiritually constipated, stuck.

And then of course, the good shit – the kind that everyone wants a piece of; good times sold by the gram or the pound, cakewalks in the park and salad days of a happy youth.

But let’s deal with the interesting stuff first – the bad shit. It’s the sound of cancer cells multiplying and diligently spreading in your body while you are busy making plans. It’s a much awaited spring but one without bird song or colour. It’s the sound of a dripping tap in a sink filled with unwashed dishes. It’s a flyshit-speckled neon striplight blinking above a chipped enamel hospital bed. It’s an apple with a maggot in it, or worse, one with half a maggot in it.

But more than anything, it is silence – the worst shit doesn’t make a sound. It’s the sound of quiet desperation, waiting for something to happen that never does. It’s silent consent to evil deeds in full cognizance of the facts. It’s putting the TV news on mute while you eat an evening snack and it’s the silent progression of time but not of thought.

As for the good shit, well in the light of everything above, it’s an increasingly scarce resource to come by, the kind of shit upon which our present day economics of scarcity model is based. Hope for the good shit but be prepared to pay for it because silence is golden.

poo emoji

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Farewell Facebook

Image result for satirical cartoons on facebook

 

When I was young, I wanted to be a parasitologist. The animal kingdom and in particular, the insect world fascinated me and I came across numerous stories of hosts and their parasites. Take for example, toxoplasma gondii which apparently infects 30 to 50% of the global human population. What a success story for a parasite that lives among us and within us, (fortunately with no symptoms unless your immune function is somehow compromised).

It is such a cunning organism that even without a brain or nervous system it manipulates its host’s behavior to ensure it continues to live. In cats for example, it completes its lifecycle by first infecting a rodent and makes that creature lose its fear of its closest predator, thus closing the circle when it is eaten. If you own a cat, it also exposes you to potential infection thus expanding its empire.

Now, what do you think could be the connection between a highly successful parasite and a social media platform? Well if you like me, have been infected by Facebook, you will know how efficiently it occupies the host and memetically spreads itself among non-infected members of the population. It is spread via social contact, albeit virtually and once attached it slowly siphons off your personality, all your pictures, activities, likes and dislikes etc. and hands the information over to marketers to target you better online.

And if you believe in the tinfoil hat community’s warnings, it was actually concocted by and for the security apparatus to track your every move by turning your smartphone into a surveillance device.

Potentially, it could remain with you for the rest of your life, or even after your death. As evil as it sounds, Facebook does have its benefits: it also allows you to stay in touch with people you love or like (and some you don’t). Indeed, its greatest success is our need for connection in a lonely often disconnected world. Nevertheless, studies have shown that Facebook also corroborates with low self-esteem and narcissism.

I’m not sure if the platform brings out pre-existing conditions like these or whether it actually creates them. Either way, lately I have weighed the good and bad and found the whole premise wanting.  There are a number of factors too many to list, but I’ll relate the ones that bug me the most:

Pictures of meals – I can’t touch or taste the food you just ate. I certainly don’t want to smell your farts afterwards so why share a picture?

Donald Trump – my news feed has a secondary infection called the Donald. More than a year before he was fraudulently elected his digital team ensured that he would be visible daily in all news feeds. This continues. Even satirical posts mocking him have started to lose their appeal. I’m sick of looking at that boiled ham of a face.

Pictures of your holidays and hobbies – there is a boastful aspect to them – admit it. I’m happy you’re happy but don’t rub it in.

Your selfies – just stop it. Now.

Aspirational quotes – guilty as others on re-posting occasionally but if I have to see another picture of some ancient American Indian chief, Buddha or wise statesman, attached to a profound statement, even post ironically, I’m done.

Environmental destruction and animal cruelty – see under Donald Trump

Apocalyptic events – one more warning about a fast approaching Near Earth Object or next Fukushima/Chernobyl meltdown makes me want it to happen sooner

Mark Zuckerberg – smug just doesn’t cut it. Take your manifesto and blot out the sun with it

Cats and other fluffy animals – cats rule the Internet and by default, us. Evidently toxoplasmosis also exists in digital form

There it is. I’m pulling the plug today.  More than anything else, I’m pulling the plug because Facebook, like its soul mate procrastination is the thief of time. I don’t buy into the time efficiency bullshit that corporations like to sell us but I am alarmed at the amount of time I have come to devote to this social media platform and its constant interruptions. I lived happily without it before its existence – I may yet do so afterwards. I’m going to use part of the time I will save to daydream, which is not pathological and may even lead to greater happiness.

Of course, Zuckerberg has cut me off at the pass by separating Messenger off into its own platform. You can still reach me there but you will have to have a reason to do so. And then there is good old fashioned gmail (mark.inkwell@gmail.com), Linkedin and when the spirit moves me, this blog  – the same rules apply.

Adios muchachos!

Travel light

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photo courtesy of Annie Spratt

I’m a great believer in travelling light. Without being over prescriptive, I think it’s a universal panacea, if only people could understand the great benefits that this simple philosophy brings. I’ve reached this decision over five decades and, while I don’t intend to live in a yurt somewhere in the Finnish wilderness  existing on a diet of lichens and berries, I do intend to shed as much excess as possible.

I started to ponder this issue after a brief but entertaining encounter this weekend with a young couple (millennials)  hoping to buy an IKEA bed which is currently (still) languishing in our garage. My wife placed an advert on line offering it for a knock down price of 50 euros including all the necessary extras to fit a full sized mattress (in this case a futon, as we were told over numerous phone calls from said couple).

Now we don’t view the selling of an eight-year-old bed for 50 euros as an act of charity. We do, however, feel it is well aligned with travelling light and we are both happy if goods that have outlived their time in our home can find use in another.

The couple arrived (first announcing that they didn’t have the 50 euros to hand) and were directed to the garage where after a very long and drawn out inquiry about endless details (which resulted in my wife and I exchanging a brief but exasperated look), the couple feeling ‘the pressure of the sale’, asked us to give them time to consider their purchase. Unfortunately, the moment had passed and shortly afterwards they drove off into the night without the bed.

In real terms we were told during that tense negotiation that they weren’t sure they needed the bed in the first place. If they had followed the simple motto I raise in this blog, they could have saved the petrol and time, and let’s not forget, our patience too.

So, after this brief but illustrative tale of excess desire and futility , I offer you a crib sheet of prescriptions for daily living:

Don’t buy shit you don’t need (after a while your possessions own you)

You only need five good friends in life (if you can’t find a fifth, create an imaginary one).

Enjoy half a loaf ( but make sure it’s organic and sourced locally from a farmer’s market)

Don’t be afraid to enjoy time during the day doing absolutely nothing

Avoid anal retention

There it is. If you follow my advice you will start to create a well aired space into which good things flow in and flow out. And now, without the slightest hint of irony, I’m off to IKEA.

 

 

Cut, burn, poison

My mother in law died yesterday. She was three days short of a new year and three months short of her 81st birthday. Nothing remarkable about that one might say – death is as natural as birth, and as commonplace. But all this unfolded in the space of 28 days and all under the shadow of cancer that reduced a healthy, vibrant senior person living an independent life in Spain to a bed-bound invalid.

The news of her illness came as a shock. She was supposed to come to Finland on her own steam in 11 days time to spend time with her family, to make Christmas, to help with the children’s care over the long holiday. Then a dispatch came from a translator announcing her illness, a suspected stomach cancer. Further tests were needed. She had been in the town’s university hospital already for days largely alone, visited occasionally by friends, treated by indifferent nurses and absent doctors, none of whom spoke English well. It must have been a desperate, lonely time.

My wife with her typical energy booked a flight for herself and her brother the same evening and left the next day. The sight that greeted them did little to give confidence for the future. She lay in a narrow bed, her hands tied by bandages to the side bars. Apparently, she had been ‘restless’. Her arms and hands were bruised from clumsy, unpracticed needle insertions. A young trainee doctor explained the situation – advanced cancer. They were not going to treat her. Even the simplest thing like going to take a shower required the permission of a doctor. My wife took her there.

There was little else to do but bring her back to Finland but even this proved to be a bureaucratic maze lasting over a week. She had residencia in Spain and despite the fact that she continued to pay taxes to Finland from her pension as a former teacher every month, she would have to reapply for a national insurance card and change her address to our own. As with everything in this life, protocols must be observed. Christmas was turning into its own kind of nightmare.

More vital than anything else, there would need to be proper transportation back to Finland. Commercial flights were no longer an option and by turning 80 – a happy celebration earlier this year, no insurance would cover the ambulance flight.

My wife and brother pushed through, made the arrangements and accompanied her on the flight. Thanks go to them and the professionals who made this happen. The alternative would have been a lonely isolated death in a foreign hospital.

She was transferred by a waiting ambulance directly to the hospital in Vantaa. We all had hope. It was her greatest wish to spend Christmas at home with us. There was still hope or denial of the truth that chemo could begin when she had been stabilized. Ironic that still today, the options for cancer are to cut, burn or poison the patient back to health. You must be strong enough to endure the cure. This was never an option.

Nobody informed us of the true gravity of the disease. Understandably nobody could give an end date but then again the hierarchy of the Finnish medical system leaves much to be desired when communicating to near relatives. Nurses did an orderly job attending to her. Only through them did we hear that she was not to be resuscitated owing to the nature and extent of her cancer.Had this been communicated to the patient? We weren’t sure.

One phone call from the ward doctor outlined the facts: a stomach cancer with metastasis to the liver and possibly to the pancreas. A liver biopsy could not be performed owing to her weak condition and the possibility of an irreparable bleed. All we could do was wait.

As weak as she was, Terttu was still able to talk. We shared a quiet few hours on Christmas eve watching the declaration of Christmas peace from the town where she was born and raised. Her daughter and granddaughters painted her nails. Our special needs daughter Cara ate the Christmas dinner she could not, laughing happily to herself. Outside a gale was blowing rain against the window. The next day we brought gifts.

Visits from other family members came and passed. She grew tired easily and her words became less and less clear. On Boxing day, her condition collapsed. She could not be roused from her sleep. Her breath became laboured. Pain meds were prescribed and administered. For the first time, at our request, a doctor appeared in her room. This was to be expected, he explained. No, there was no possibility of further medical intervention. At some stage, the condition of patients at this stage of cancer collapses… My wife, defending her mother to the last, challenged his authority and his indifference. To my left, the nurse smirked.

The next day we came early. Doctors were on their rounds and by request to the nurse we were granted a meeting with the head physician who took us to her room. For the first time we were told, despite the initial appraisal that this was pancreatic cancer. It had metastasized to the liver and possibly elsewhere. It was the kind of cancer that is difficult to diagnose, has often spread by the time it is diagnosed (quickly and asymptomatically) and notoriously difficult to treat.

A biopsy would serve no function, other than an academic one, we were told. Her liver function under the stress of the secondary cancer was shutting down. Yes, we could increase the morphine for the pain, yes, a transfer to a hospice was possible.  It was a question now of days, possibly a week.

This was the day before she died.

December 28th was a bright, clear day – the kind where the sun hanging low on the horizon burns into your retinas. One last ignominy awaited us. A letter from Kela had arrived requiring the signing of a consent form from the patient to enable matters to be handled on her behalf. There was no negotiating in spite of the facts. Protocols must be observed.

We went to the hospital room. We elevated her bed and guided a pen to her hand. Gasping for air, her eyes opened with a look of recognition, bewilderment, and despair. She was fading out of view before our eyes. Further morphine was administered. Her breathing calmed. Matters had to be attended to. We would return later in the afternoon. In our absence, she died.

My wife and I returned and spent an hour by her side. At times, in her stillness, it seemed as if she could still be breathing. Did I imagine that with our last look towards her, her face had become calmer, more peaceful?

What can be learned from this? The first is if you live abroad in Spain, expect no special treatment when you are up against it. Second, make sure your paperwork is in order. Bureaucracy is indifferent to suffering. Third, expect solid care from the medical profession in Finland but poor communication. I’m sure there are many notable exceptions to the rule but it was our impression that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. As a result, we lost valuable time for further care options.

Regrettably, doctors here are much like generals far behind the front line, directing strategy and treating the disease but not the person. There is a remarkable sense of detachment.

My wife and I  have been seared by the experience we have gone through – the sense of loss is palpable. It was all over so quickly. I don’t seek to blame anyone and I certainly won’t hang this one on 2016. Nevertheless, we look to 2017 with the knowledge that somebody very important has gone from our lives. Of course, we are no different from other people at this age with old parents but it doesn’t make the pain of separation any easier.

Terttu lived as she died, with little fuss or calls for sympathy. She loved her life in Spain and made the most of her retirement years, pushing it to the outer limit of her ability to remain there. We must celebrate her choices, mourn her loss and now learn to live without her.

cognitive dissonance

Mark Twain famously once said that if you don’t read newspapers, you are uninformed and if you read them, you are misinformed. He might well have been pondering an earlier observation by his fellow American, the old ravenmaster Edgar Allan Poe who filled in a few other sensory markers, which still hold true today:

“Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear.”

Old media, new media – has anything changed in the quality of its content? These were observations made before the era of mass media, and during its evolution starting from the printed word. And where are we today? Somewhere caught btw in a world built on mass media evolving into another huge social experiment, social media. Images aside, words must bend and break, be fragmented, bastardized and blended to fit into that new paradigm. But that’s the point – written language and without a trace of arrogance, my own one, English has shown an incredible flexibility and utility in its ability to fit.

But once we’ve solved the means and the conveyance of ideas to large numbers of people, given everyone a potential voice and set very few real restrictions thus far (from above in the form of regulation and below by haters (free speech invariably interests trolls and populists) the question I’m really wondering is ‘where do we go from here?’

Like others, I am bewildered by a smorgasbord of information these days, through my phone, through this computer, my tablet through any number of social media platforms I choose to subscribe to. Somehow or other they all vie for my eyeballs and an increasingly large portion of my day is sacrificed for this information – of course I have followed my inclinations and followed things that interest me while consciously screening out things that don’t (like sport and the cult of celebrity). In that sense I’m reinforcing my sense of self and my beliefs (and disbeliefs). But any way forward, there really is just too much information on offer for this old pre frontal cortex to take. I’m radiating a sense of unease and I’m doing it on social media (hey!)

And here’s the thing, at what point do we get when we believe those things we choose to see (ie your self reinforcing preferences) without questioning the probable fact according to Poe’s observation at least, that half will be a lie, a false flag, a pleasant fiction?

As for the complete disbelief of hearing, taking aside radio show hosts and DJs, the game of Chinese whispers and the promises of politicians, I generally do trust what I hear. When my neighbour says it’s a fine autumn day, I look up to a sunny sky and concur. When my youngest daughter tells me I’m a bad parent, I know she isn’t blowing smoke up my ass, even if she is a heavily biased critic.

In the rich content media world of the internet though, I can be bamboozled by manipulated images, confounded by recorded messages and misinformed by written words. Call me paranoid if you like. I really want to believe the truth is out there,if not in the content, then in our sense of connection, if nothing else. Call me a realist though when I see the truth getting increasingly obscured by too much information.

If you are willing to give up this much time to social media, it’s already overtaken religion, or should I say, it’s become another religion with all the trappings attached to it. My rational mind tells me that there is wisdom in crowds but in this new media overflow, you must sift a ton of dirt to get a gram of gold. It seems then that uncertain times is the new normal and to answer my own question, increasing cognitive dissonance is where we are going from here.

swarm

antAnts are a commonly related to when we talk about teeming humanity and the parallels are interesting. They occupy about the same terrestrial biomass on earth as humans, have been here for more than 100 million years evolving at the same time as flowering plants (we’ve only been around in our present form for about 200,000 years) and they are found on practically every landmass on earth.

Unlike our singular species, the recognizable construction of head, thorax, body and six legs is replicated across something like 22 000 species but they all are connected by their remarkable division of labour, communication, and ability to tackle complex problems – things like working with other species for mutual benefit, surviving floods or subduing animals far bigger than they are, for food or defence.

Unlike humans, these highly successful creatures don’t do politics or religion. They are not governed by anger, greed, ignorance or fear, have no compulsion to build empires (although they do have queens, or at least the term given by humans to that stratum of ant hierarchy) or build nation states. They make no claims to being above nature and while certain species are avowedly destructive, it’s no doubt closer to the fact that they hitched a ride to a place on earth where they would never otherwise have been without the help of another destructive species, us.

At this moment in history, large numbers of our own species are on the move. Despite our apparent complexity over ants, we too are governed by atavistic instincts – things like flight or fight for basic survival and indeed, disgust – a hard wired response to disease and things we find offensive. These instincts are difficult to override but fear and disgust must not get in the way of a common sense of humanity and its highest expression, compassion.

Unlike ants we are one species. Viewed from a great height, crowds of people act and behave like swarms but a view from the ground shows that we are one and the same, individual and human. For some reason, humans like to elect leaders who take the view from 30 000 feet but unlike ants, our compassion en masse will be a strong deciding factor in our future survival on the ground. Ants will be just fine, us humans? I’m not so sure.

Whether weather

Summer never came and then it did, but now it’s the start of autumn. Schools started, businesses turned faster, plans came to fruition and, as July switched to August the sun shone in an uninterrupted block of days. This summer, everything moved forward in time and in nature except, the weather – that is until now.

But pretty soon the cold nights will consume these uncommon warm days and an increasingly distant sun will retire behind a pall of indifferent grey clouds. In truth we should take pleasure in every day but it’s hard to accept the inevitable death of the light and the withering of the earth in its absence.

Autumn is a time of abundance but it is also the visible slowdown and halt to nature’s engine for another year. Personally, I love autumn though, the crispness of the air, the sweet scent of the falling leaves, the mysterious emergence of fungi from the earth in all their amazing forms. Even the sun as its fire is bleached of its power casts bright long shadows with stark graphic edges which I find very appealing to my eye.

It’s a curious time of the year – an elegiac celebration, a slow beautiful suicide made even more poignant by the compressed intensity of the light we now experience after a damp squib of a summer. I’ll do my best to celebrate each day, and on the darkest winter day ahead, look back upon this time with warmth and affection. Why rage at the dying of the light when you can bask in the warmth of its memory?

Tread the path carefully

Today was a funny one all told – I drove my wife and youngest child to the airport for a nine day trip to Spain and having risen too early and slept poorly I spent the rest of the day in a slight fog of tiredness. The summer this year has started uncertainly after a cold and sullen spring. The day was cool and breezy, a patchwork quilt of sun interspersed with blotchy showers. A friend came by who I hadn’t seen in a long year and we talked about the uncertain nature of work and the pets we have loved and lost – sometimes too soon – always too soon against the measure of our own lives it always seems.

Before he arrived I stopped out for a smoke on my patio with the thought in my mind to pick up the small pink corpse of a fledgling bird that had fallen the day before from its nest above my bedroom window where I now sit writing. I’ve watched the mother swoop back and forth tending to her brood not giving it greater thought but her efforts came into closer focus when I saw not one but now two small bodies, their delicate, wispy feathers clinging to impossibly fragile bodies, their eyes not yet open to the world, now never to open. And then I came upon a third but as I picked it up, the warmth of my hand revived it and it struggled weakly in my hand.

I couldn’t bring myself to snuff its life out. I wanted it to live so I brought it inside, placed it a tub on a heated pillow and watched it slowly come back to life. After my friend had left, I packed it up in the car and drove it all the way across town to Korkeasaari where I knew it could be nurtured, walked it the long path to the entrance of the zoo, left the bird and my contact details and drove home. A message came some hours later – it didn’t make it – a leg broken in the fall I could not detect forced their hand and it was put down.

As I write, the mother still swoops to the nest. How many fledglings are left, I wonder? Does she feel the loss of her brood or is she as I suspect, simply the workings of a small, delicate cog in a much larger engine made temporarily manifest to me? We try to fix the things we can – all our actions have import – even the tiniest ones but ultimately the bigger cogs turn.

On his deathbed, the Buddha said: “Everything is subject to decay, tread the path carefully.”  How many of us, I wonder walk the path blind to the path we tread never once giving full consideration to the next step?

Who can you trust?

This is not a parable devoted to paranoia but lately I’ve been considering the matter of trust with some degree of reflection. In the external world it’s an election year here in Finland and in the UK and as a result we are all subjected to the worst form of showbiz for ugly people – political advertising.

Not having Finnish citizenship means that I am totally disenfranchised politically here, with the exception of local elections, which is fine because I’ve never really been convinced about national politics anyway (the last time I voted at that level was in England back in 1987 though I can’t be totally sure). The elected government at that time introduced the poll tax which was a good example of the government serving the people.

Here in Finland, roadsides and lamp posts are presently festooned with billboards advertising the various candidates and, people, let me tell you, it ain’t pretty. As an outside observer, I find it very hard to understand how a close up portrait with a lame, badly thought out slogan would convince anyone to elect someone to public office. The trend in recent years to elect sportsmen and women, b class celebrities and entertainers also tends to demean the institution of politics.

Of course, I shouldn’t complain – it’s still a free country and you can vote for who the hell you like unlike our neighbouring state where the ‘democratically elected president’ seems to make up laws to keep him in power for longer and opponents tend to meet quickly solved but bloody ends.

Personally, and cynically, I doubt very much will change for the better, whoever gets into power. The illusion of democracy will be served to the masses once more and a new rogue’s gallery will be assembled. Later, behind closed doors, the most idealistic candidates will lose their impetus, professional politicians will continue to serve their parties and themselves and the caravan will move on.

That’s one thing you can certainly trust, if nothing else…