Tuesday, 22 December 2020

What do you believe in?

 As this Christmastime like no other rolls around I find myself mulling on the nature of belief.

I believe in science. But my belief in science is no less built on faith than other people’s religious beliefs. I know very little about it, beyond a couple of GCSEs, some populist books and newspaper articles, and what Professor Brian Cox says whilst standing in picturesque locations.

Religious faith rests on believing in something that, by its very nature, can’t be proven one way or the other.

Science is all about trying to understand the world by coming up with theories and then trying to prove them. That’s great for scientists, but for those of us who don’t understand what they’re talking about, we just have to take their word for it.

Some things in the world you learn from experience. You learn that when you drop an apple it will fall to the floor and if someone drops an apple on your head, it hurts. You go to school to learn why it happens: it's not magic, it's gravity. 

What happens when apples fall (in case you weren't sure).
Photo by Grey World via Flickr Creative Commons. 

I know if I press the switch on the wall it will make an electricity connection from a cable that feeds into my house, and lo there will be light. I’m pretty hazy on how it is. I’ve learnt that it works, but as for my understanding of the science, well it might as well be magic.

Believing in the virus

And so to today. I believe that we’re in a pandemic. Not everyone does. My belief is based on the news articles that I compulsively consume from organisations I trust.

My first-hand evidence for being in a pandemic is slim: the presence of face masks, the non-availability of toilet roll and pasta for part of this year, and the restrictions on shops and other businesses, the closure of the theatre where I work. There’s a bunch of causes that could have led to this.

I also believe that there is a vaccine which will hopefully bring us out of the pandemic, although those who know say it won’t bring an end to the virus. I know what a vaccine does and how it’s supposed to work, but how you can actually do that – make something that you can inject into our arms that will magically stop us getting sick from a particular disease – seems miraculous.

The first vaccine was administered by Edward Jenner when he figured out that having cowpox would prevent you from getting the much more serious smallpox. He took the gunk out of a cowpox blister in someone’s arm and injected it into the arm of the person he wanted to vaccinate. Lovely. The process is quite a lot more technical these days. Still, I wouldn’t say no to that if the alternative was getting smallpox – a hideous disease for which the best case scenario is disfiguring facial scarring. This isn’t ancient history - the last person died of smallpox a few weeks before I was born, in Birmingham.

My extensive liberal arts education may not have given me the ability to understand electric lights, viruses, vaccination, but it has taught me to check my sources.

The web is an incredible invention allowing people to disseminate information and opinion across the globe at the touch of a button. It has allowed us to have contact with friends and family, and for many of us to continue doing our jobs whilst locked out of our offices. But it’s also full of shit. The freedom to distribute your opinions so widely means people claim authority and manage to get their unsubstantiated claims in front of an audience.

Edna’s opinion that electricity pylons give you influenza might once have been limited to her immediate family, neighbours and those she ran into at the bus stop, but today she can dress them up to look much more plausible and chuck them out on Facebook. If she’s a bit more adept she can make a meme, to help spread them far and wide, like the cheerful one I made above. 

Look before you believe

There are so many conspiracy theories around: there isn’t a pandemic - it’s a plot to take away our freedoms; it’s a plot devised by pharmaceutical companies; death rates are being inflated to manipulate us; Covid-19 doesn’t actually exist; that one about the 5G networks. And those who have poured their personal wealth into funding vaccine research aren’t really doing it for altruistic reasons.

Whatever Bill Gates’ corporate ethics were, he’s no longer in charge of Microsoft. His day to day job now is mostly curing malaria and climate change, so discrediting the vaccine on the grounds of his involvement is ridiculous. Given the direction of his philanthropic projects in the last few years it was extremely likely that he was going to support a vaccine. Dolly Parton has also put huge amounts of money into vaccine development – do we think there’s going to be a mysterious surge in country music downloads on Spotify once it’s rolled out?

Believe things will get better

If you’re going to have blind faith in something, let it be something that helps yourself or others. Maybe I'll make more of an effort to try and understand this science stuff, since I believe in it so much. 

Believe in stars and stables and barns and babies if you like; believe in doctors and nurses who are working themselves into the ground to help people recover from Covid. Believe in facemasks, vitamin D and extreme handwashing. Believe in the genius of scientists who in just 12 months can go from discovering a new virus to making a vaccine for it. Believe that one day we won't be afraid to step outside our own front doors - that things will get better than they are now.

Anyway, I have another kind of mulling to do now, and Dolly Parton has a new Christmas album out. Joy to the world. 

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Ay Corona

Hey there. Did you hear the one about the pandemic? 

Remember a year ago? When Corona was still a type of beer, ‘social’ and ‘distancing’ weren’t words that belonged together and facemasks were something that women wore in the bath. 'Furlough' wasn’t a word I could define, and isolating wasn’t something that everyone did. 

If you’d said then children wouldn’t be able to school, that theatres would shut down, that I wouldn’t be able to step inside my parents house or hug my brother, or that we wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without hand sanitiser, who’d have believed you? 

School’s out - again

I never realised how much my child’s right to go to school mattered, until it was taken away. I felt so sad as I took her in on her last day before lockdown. School symbolises so much - the opportunity to learn, to discover talents and interests, to build relationships, to have independent experiences, away from your family. 

Photo by Educators.co.uk via Flickr Creative Commons

Education is a hard-won right. Laws were made banning children from working in factories so they could get an education. It’s hugely important for their life chances - children from the most deprived backgrounds may be disadvantaged, but school gives them a chance at a better life. Without school there would be no social mobility and women would find it much harder to work. 

And without teachers there would be no school. Teachers work incredibly hard and this year they’ve worked harder than ever, as well as putting themselves in danger so that children could still get an education and people with essential jobs could go to work. 

Last weekend I had an email from my daughter’s school to say it was closed. Staff had tested positive for Covid and others had to isolate so there weren’t enough adults to run the tiny village school. Since then three out of the four classes have to isolate as they had been exposed to someone who tested positive. So we’re back to home educating. And I feel totally desolate, that she can’t have this so basic thing, of getting up and going to school every day. 

So what did you do during lockdown?

When this all started, I tried to approach it positively. I would likely have more time on my hands. I could do more writing, learn some new violin pieces, improve my tech skills.

Photo by Chi Wai Un via Flickr Creative Commons

Next time I hear someone say they used the time to learn Italian or write a novel, I may punch them, except that’s almost certainly in breach of social distancing. 

Louis Theroux, in his Grounded podcast, said that the pandemic had divided people into roughly two camps: those who had too much to do  - working, families and those who didn’t have enough - people living alone or furloughed not working. Neither is a whole lot of fun. 

The worst thing for me about combining work and childcare is the feeling of inadequacy. Whatever I do, I can’t give my work or my child 100% attention. I think I overcompensate, working more than I should. And my daughter is happy and healthy and hasn’t forgotten how to read. She’s also very adept at giving technical support to her grandparents over Skype. But I’m followed around by the feeling that I’m failing at everything

What did you do during lockdown? I tried to survive. I’m still trying. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m healthy, I don’t live alone, and currently I still have a job. I’d take that over the alternatives, any day. But I’m seriously stressed. I’m actually so stressed that at night and during work I clench my jaw to the point that it’s so damaged I can barely open my mouth. I stopped taking my inhaler because it hurt too much - not a good idea in a pandemic for a virus that affects your lungs. 

When it’s over

I miss my parents. I miss my friends. I miss my colleagues. I want to sit in a crowded bar with sticky tables and stinky people. I want to dance and sweat and not care that I can smell the person next to me. I want to stop telling my daughter to wash her hands and keep her distance from people. I want a desk that isn’t the kitchen table. I’d also like to eat a sandwich without it being excruciatingly painful.

We lost all this stuff in an instant - the instant we left offices and locked down into our homes. It will come back, not all at once, but there will come a time when life starts to settle down again. One day I will wake up with a thumping headache after drinking and dancing too much, full of regret until I realise what I just did.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Panic buying

There's been a lot of talk about people panic buying the things they might need to get through the next few weeks, particularly if the supermarket shelves start to empty. 

This worry made lots of people rush out and buy a load of stuff to make the supermarket shelves empty, thereby inducing panic at their emptiness. Surely we will reach a point when people realise they have enough taglietelle and toilet roll?

I'm afraid to say, I did my own version of panic buying. This was my shopping list
  • Jeeves and Wooster books (because when the going gets tough the not-so-tough stay home and read books about posh people in massive houses)
  • Boxing pads and child's boxing gloves (because when the going gets tough we need to get tougher)
  • Yoga mat (you never know when you may need to adopt the lizard position)
My corona shopping list is slightly weird, but there are two main themes which bring it together - trying to stop myself from panicking and keep myself fit.

The self-isolating warrior
Photo by cmwruby via Flickr Creative Commons

I have mild asthma, which probably put me at slightly higher risk than others my age, but the 'mild' makes a big difference, and for once in my life I'm taking all my meds. The thing that has most kept my asthma in check is being really fit. This approach definitely won't work for everyone (see 'mild'), but it has worked for me. I work really hard to keep up my fitness, going to the gym twice a week and doing a weekly yoga class. I can't do these things now, and will miss them. But more importantly, I need to find way of keeping up my aerobic fitness to make sure my asthma stays at bay. If I catch this scary virus, this is what will give me the best chance against it. I can't just go for a run - I have dodgy knees. So I'm going to be relying on exercise videos and turning my tiny living room into a gym for an hour occasionally

I'm not a keyworker (it turns out that theatre web editors aren't considered critical to the running of the country), so the only way I can do my bit is staying in my house, out of everyone's way. So here I am, saving the world once yoga pose (and a few punches) at a time.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

The show must go on

I work at a theatre and last Monday evening, as a result of out Prime Minister's announcement, we found out that the show would not go on, for a long time. 

I said goodbye to my friend that night - maybe we would see each other the next day in the office, or maybe it would be weeks and weeks.

The whole world is in the grip of a terrible thing. All we can do, is take the advice our government and medics give us, and try to adapt our lives to this new world of encroaching fear.

'The show must go on' has taken on a new meaning. We must go on, living our lives as well as we can, caring for our children, doing what work is available and trying as much as possible to do the things we used to do, without going outside our front doors.

Photo by Dillyboase via Wikimedia Creative Commons

Staying home

Working at home used to be a once a week luxury - I'd fire up the coffee machine, listen to Popmaster and blitz through the most difficult tasks in my working week without any distractions. But I'm a social animal, and I need to get out and about. It's going to be hard to adjust to not going out every day.

When the announcement came that the schools were closing, it felt like the bottom had fallen out of my world (again). Education is my daughter's right, and I value it. She complains about going in every single day, but she comes out bright, happy and having learned something wonderful. Watching her learn to read and write under the guidance of her lovely teacher at the tiny village school has been an amazing privilege. And now we don't have that.

Plenty of people choose to home educate their kids and there are lots of advantages, and many children blossom with the individual attention and flexible learning approaches that parents can provide where teachers can't. But what they don't generally do is home educate their kids whilst completing near full-time hours of work.

The next few weeks

When this started to happen I imagined I would have a lot of time on my hands. But at this point it looks like the opposite - work is busier than usual as the theatres fight back to show that the arts are still here, that we can entertain, educate, distract, and make sure we are still here for the future.

This next few weeks our society will divide into people who don't have enough to do, who are isolated and lonely; and those who have too much to do, whether because they are combining childcare and work, or because they're on the front line, doing the essential tasks that will keep our society running.

A lot of people are going to be very stressed. And while I know I'm lucky to be in the best camp for me (busy), and I'm grateful for that, it makes me unbelievably sad that as an only child my lovely little girl may not see another child for weeks and weeks.

Come back tomorrow and I'll tell you all about my panic buying...

Saturday, 15 February 2020

How did we get so grown up?

"They grow up so fast" - you hear it from the mums around the playground regularly. But if there's one thing more puzzling to me than my daughter's gathering maturity, it's my own.

It really does seem that yesterday I was worrying about leaving school and heading off for university. Would I be able to work the washing machine? Would I remember where I lived? What happened if I lost my keys? How would I eat?

And somehow, here I am, 41 years old. And I'm not worrying about exams and how to find my first job. Looking back, those things were fun things to worry about, although they didn't seem it at the time. The things my friends and I worry about today are divorce, redundancy, miscarriage, cancer, addiction, caring for children with disabilities, caring for sick parents. Horrible big dark things that change your life and not in the way you want.

These things have been building, but when I hit 40 they seemed to multiply. Everyone I know has faced or is facing something terribly, terribly difficult. If I think about it too much, it takes my breath away and I wonder how I will get through the day.

2020 has so far been a pretty shocking year. Those moments when it feels like someone has just pulled the rug from under you have come thick and fast - moments that used to be few and far between.

Now that I am 41 I know that in what seems like a matter of minutes I will be in my 50s and my tiny dependent baby girl will be spreading her wings and flying away to experience life outside my protection.

Women's responsibilities

There's a quote or proverb, which is pretty unpleasant:

"A son's a son 'til he takes a wife, a daughter's a daughter all of her life."

It suggests that often women will stay closer to their parents in adulthood. Men do of course take on caring responsibilities, and can be just as fantastic about it. My Dad is an only child and when his parents needed help he made sure they got it, with little help from anyone else. But often when there is a brother and sister, she is the one who takes on most of the caring load.

I play the violin in a small community orchestra populated by nearly all women, mostly of my age and upwards. Attendance is very erratic. One of the few men commented on it. He wasn't complaining - he noted that this group of women have so many responsibilities to other people, that they rarely find time to do this single thing for themselves. It's a situation that you don't generally see replicated in groups of men. They too have caring responsibilities, but when the chips are down it's far more likely to be the mothers, daughters and wives than fathers, sons and husbands.

If the orchestra was made up of men, I'd bet it wouldn't have the same attendance issues as we do. Men are, by and large, better at putting themselves first, and there are undoubtedly times when we'd all benefit from following their example. Women's way isn't always the right way (naughty feminist).

I haven't written this blog for a long time. Largely because the weight of all this pain is wearing me down. And I'm sure there are many people in my age group who feel the same.

I think, maybe, these things were all there but they were masked by to very important things: 
  1. The selfishness of youth - in my 20s, I was just so busy having a nice time. I barely spared a thought for anyone else. Is this the right job for me? Do I want to live here? Shall I go travelling? 
  2. Our parents protecting us: My parents never burdened me with the problems of my ageing grandparents and they largely shielded me from horrible things happening to people they knew. When they did tell me of tragic illness and sudden deaths these people seemed so remote from me and my life. I couldn't really comprehend it.  
I could breeze into my grandparents' lives for cups of tea and meals out, have a bit of a chat and breeze out again, safe in the knowledge I'd done my granddaughterly duty. Few of my friends now have any grandparents left, so it's our turn to help our parents if they need us to. 

We're all grown up. And I still don't know how it happened.