Monthly Archives: September 2012

One snowy night.

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It was a snowy December night in 1985.  My husband was teaching at that time and to celebrate the end of term he and his colleagues had all gone out drinking at a pub near their school in Erdington.  The teachers were hard drinkers and I generally dreaded the ends of terms because they would all get pissed as farts and behave like juveniles and get into trouble.  On this occasion my dearest still hadn`t come home by midnight, the kids were tucked up in bed and so I also went to bed and fell asleep.

At about two in the morning I was woken up by a loud hammering on the front door. I got out of my warm bed to look through the window and outside I saw a parked up taxi and my hubby standing in a snow storm with only a shirt on so God knows what had happened to his coat.  He was swaying unsteadily and looking up he called out to me in a slurred voice,  “I haven`t got any money to pay the driver and I haven`t got my keys….”   He turned his pockets inside out as if to prove it.  I was quite annoyed but weighing up the situation I also realised that I would have to go downstairs, sort out the taxi fare and let my wayward partner in.  Unfortunately while I was doing this, my husband decided that it was  a great idea to keep banging on the window by the front door, so he carried on hitting the window until he stressed the glass so much his hand went right through it slicing his finger on the way.  His actions had also left a sizeable hole in the glass through which the winter weather was now entering my house.

By the time I reached the front room it looked like I had my own personal blizzard in there, the snow was settling nicely on the settee, the temperature had plummeted to below freezing and there was already enough blood spattered on the broken window and my (beige) carpet to make the room resemble a still from a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Pulling my husband inside, I paid the taxi driver then closing the front door, I went back into the snowy sitting room  to examine his bloodied hand and see the extent of the damage, it wasn`t too bad.   At this point my brother`s daughter Claire woke up.  She was about ten at that time and often slept over at our house.  She suddenly appeared, sleepy eyed and wondering what on earth was going on.  Spotting the blood on the floor (which wasn`t hard to do,) she came over to look, “Ooooh uncle Tony!”  she exclaimed, “what have you done?”

Now my brother Martin, Claire`s dad, has an abhorrence of blood.  The sight of blood makes his legs go wobbly and then he faints.  On this snowy night it became obvious to me very rapidly that his daughter had inherited this emotion since on examining Tony`s sliced up hand she went as white as a sheet and then puked all over the floor.

I was ever so happy.

Sending Claire back to bed and instructing hubby to do the same, I cleaned up the sick, cleaned up the blood and placing a piece of cardboard over the broken window as a temporary measure, I went back to bed myself.

Looking back on those times I think, happy days, happy, happy days………..

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Beautiful Bolivia.

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I`ve been to lots of places around the world but I have to say one of the loveliest is Bolivia.  I don`t know what it is about the place but in spite of its chequered and often violent past, Bolivia now has an ambience which is so laid back it chills you out from the moment you arrive, I loved it.

The El Alto airport sits up above Bolivia`s capital city of La Paz. La Paz is the second highest city in the world and after you have landed, a coach takes you winding down the mountainside where the views of the buildings stretching up from it`s base are truly breathtaking, in fact the coach stops to allow everyone to take pictures, it`s absolutely stunning it`s like a gigantic pudding basin filled with all kinds of life.

One of the things that struck me while I was travelling across south America is that wherever you go, there are thousands of buildings that have unfinished stories or no roof and it gave me an odd feeling which I can only describe as like being on the set of a movie which hasn`t quite been completed.   I later discovered that the reason for this unfinished state is that when you put a roof on your building you have to pay taxes, so many people don`t bother.  Some towns look almost derelict as a result. La Paz ofcourse is a beautiful, vibrant, bustling and impressive city with some wonderful architecture and some pretty far out places to eat but you have to remember not to rush as the high altitude will make you giddy.

Lake Titicaca runs alongside one of Bolivia`s borders and is a huge tourist attraction.  I visited the lake to meet the people of the floating Uros islands who have made a living out of their squelchy homes.  The islands are made of totora reeds which lie about three feet deep in the water and people originally began to live in this way to avoid paying any taxes, but also because they were a defense as the islands could be moved.  It is remarkable to walk about and discover families of ten or more living in reed houses on the islands, with domesticated animals, making a living from tourism.  The reed from which they are made also makes boats for fishing, provides food and tea and has lots of healing properties.  Unfortunately, the lake suffers from pollution and part of the problem is that up in the shanty towns there are no lavatories.  During the winter time families dispose of their waste as best they can and much of it freezes, only to thaw out in the spring and run down the mountainsides and into the lake. 

Evo Morales who is a marvellous person, a political activist and the first indigenous man to be elected president in 2005, made a pledge to the people that he would ensure every house would have an inside toilet with a flush and to his credit he is keeping his word.  No doubt it will eventually make a tremendous difference to the quality of the water in the lake and it is currently a work in progress.

We stayed at a lovely town called Copcabana which sits on the shores of the lake.  The town is renowned for being quaint and has an air of peace and love about it.  It was full of hippies practicing aromatherapy and other types of healing massage and it suited me down to the ground, if I had lots of money I would buy a house in Copacabana. A white house on a hill, overlooking the lake.  The Bolivian people are warm and friendly and often extremely beautiful and I honestly could have just stayed there forever.

One of the places we also visited has such a strange landscape, it felt like we had landed on another planet.  The place is called The Valley of the Moon I can`t really describe it here, it is exactly like visiting how you imagine the moon would be like and made all the more special for me because while I was clambering around the weird landscape I looked up to see and hear a man way up above me standing on a peak, playing panpipes, it was great.  We also took a boat to the beautiful  island of Isla de la Luna.  The boat drops its passengers at the base of the island and then you have to climb up hundreds of steps carved into the rock, to reach the town at the top where you can sit down in the pretty square and have a delicious Bolivian feast.

When you drive around the mountainsides of south America, you cannot fail to notice the many mansions which are scattered across the country, very high up so there is good all round surveillance, heavily guarded and with massive electronic gates to stall any of the more curious visitors.  It`s a pity that many of the poorest people in the world are exploited by drug barons but there`s no getting away from the fact that cocaine is a major industry in Bolivia, supplying around forty percent of the drug worldwide and putting food on the table for many families who would otherwise starve.   Unfortunately the recent huge increase in the production of the coca leaf is having a massive impact on the environment which is pretty bad news for this incredibly beautiful country but obviously the billions of pounds in profit avaialable from cocaine is corrupting governments worldwide so I don`t see an end to the production of the coca leaf any time soon.  In spite of this, Bolivia remains my favourite destination and I would go back there again in a heartbeat.

My mother and World War Two.

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My mother Bess was always a bit of a floozy.  She met my dad around 1921 when they were each ten years old and flirted with him even at that tender age.  They attended Acocks Green Junior School where after only a few days of knowing one another my dad wrote on a piece of orange peel in black ink, `I love you` and threw it over the school wall into the girls` playground where my mother picked it up.  With the exception of the war years, theirs was to be a life time`s commitment but it wasn`t always a happy union.

When they were young, they had a fabulous time together.  They were both sporty and enjoyed cycling, my dad loved to swim especially in the sea and they were both very good tennis players.  Dad did a little amateur boxing too and won a number of medals for his sport.  Sometimes they would get on their bikes and cycle all the way to Stratford and stop at what was then The Bird in Hand and have their lunch and a pint of cold beer.  My mum loved beer and would think nothing of drinking four or five pints to keep up with the lads.  Ma told me that in their day, the popular drug at the tennis club was opium although I don’t think either of them ever indulged, drugs were not their style but alcohol certainly was.

Mum and dad were engaged for twelve years until my mother reached her mid-thirties.  Then she must have put her foot down and stated, `Jack it`s now or never.`  So they were married, I believe at St. Mary`s church in Acocks Green, I shall have to ask my dad`s sister Val.  It has just struck me, I don`t actually recall ever being told about the wedding, I certainly don`t have any photographs.  I do recall my mother telling me that my dad`s best mate Charlie came to join them for some of their honeymoon, sparking speculation that my dad was a closet homosexual.  He may well have been for I do know that intimacy between my parents became sparser and sparser until by their late forties, they were pretty much in a celibate relationship.  So I`m lucky to be here!

Because of the late start, my mother didn`t have her first child, my sister Susan until 1947 after my father had returned from the war.  So she didn`t have me until she was forty two, very nearly forty three and consequently when she died aged eighty one I felt bereft, it was far too soon, I felt orphaned so it`s a good job my sister took over where mum left off.

When dad went away to the war he was in his late twenties and was stationed initially in North Africa, most noteably Cairo and later in Famagusta in Cyprus.  Brought up in England, he was placed with the Scottish Regiment and when he left our shores was an incredibly handsome man, tall, slim, with a shock of wavy dark brown hair and flashing white teeth he was really striking. It must have been devastating for everyone to lose their loved ones to they knew not what fate.

During the six years my father was away, he wrote many loving letters to his large family of four sisters and two brothers and of course to my mum who he affectionately called Bodie. It was obvious he missed her greatly and thought of her often.

My mother on the other hand was a different kettle of fish and having been with one man since she was ten, while my father was away she decided to have herself a ball.  She had a number of men friends right through the war, trading kisses for extra rations from the local butcher she never went without meat and butter which she would save until she had enough to slather generously onto hot toast.  My mum told me that during the war she had affairs with both father and son of an army family called Major. Major Major was aware of her relationship with his son who was a sergeant and he would discreetly slip out of the back door when his son visited while sergeant Major, completely unaware would enter via the front.  This may all be urban myth of course for my mother was a great story teller.  One thing I do know to be true though is that of her love affair with a well- known local funeral director.  He would often call and pick up my mother for a day out.  Arriving at her house in his hearse, he would have a picnic basket in the back filled with good things to eat, a fur rug for them to (ahem) sit on, a couple of bottles of wine and a wind up gramophone.  They would drive out to somewhere in the country and have a lovely time.  He was married too but I believe my mum fell in love with him and it was all the more poignant that upon her death many years later, it was his grandson who made the arrangements for my mother`s funeral.

I don`t think dad was ever aware of it, it would have gutted him, although I find it hard to conceive that my father spent six years away and never slept with another woman or in my dad`s case possibly another man. I shall never know!

When dad returned from the war he spoke with a broad Scottish accent.  He had lost all of his teeth through being kicked in the mouth in a match of rugby.  He weighed about eighteen stone and was almost completely bald my mum said it was like a stranger had walked into the house and got into bed with her.  Her affairs with Major Major and his son if indeed they really happened must have long since ceased but it was ending the relationship with the funeral director that must have hit her the hardest.

As we grew older and she recollected these stories we all of us used to say,  `Mum why didn`t you leave the marriage?`  We loved them both but neither of them were ever properly happy together especially towards the end of their lives.  My mother always replied, `Because you didn`t do that in those days, you didn`t do a `Dear John` on the men who were fighting so bravely for us all.`  I can`t help wondering from time to time how things might have been had she taken a different path.  Well I wouldn`t be here for one thing! Hah!

My mum celebrated the end of the war along with millions of others across Europe by drinking solidly for three days and then sleeping it off for a further two.  There were changes ahead and it would take her a long time to acclimatise herself to them.

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Autism and Aspergers

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I wrote this article for people who I work with.  I hoped it might help families understand a bit more about autism and especially Aspergers Syndrome.  Many of the individuals we advocate for here at SAtA, have austism as well as a learning disability.

Autism is sometimes known as the hidden disability because it doesn`t show on the outside.  It is a very complicated developmental disability that causes problems with social interactions and communication and the clues can start when a child is very small, even before they are two or three years old. Autism can cause delays in learning and can also bring about many kinds of behavioural problems from infancy, right through to adulthood.

Individuals with autism can have very different ways of being so generally, autism is thought of as a “spectrum disorder,” or a group of disorders with similar features.  Some individuals may have mild signs or symptoms while others may have very serious issues, but they all have an autism spectrum disorder.

Aspergers syndrome sits on the autistic spectrum.  Interestingly the diagnosis of Aspergers is now being used less commonly and has been replaced with the new term Autistic Spectrum Disorder, which covers just about everything.  There is widespread concern about this which was recently highlighted and discussed in the Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/dec/02/aspergers-syndrome-dropped-psychiatric-dsm

People with Aspergers can be similarly mildly to significantly affected.  Many individuals who are mildy affected may be able to function well in their community and live a more or less ordinary life.  Others less fortunate may be so severely affected that the symptoms are completely debilitating and they are unable to function in an ordinary sense at all.

Simon Baron Cohen is a professor of Developmental Psychopathology (and also cousin to the actor Sacha Baron Cohen of Ali G fame).  He has researched and specialised in Autistic Spectrum Disorder and has had several books and eminent articles published on the subject.  He has devised a questionnaire which can be taken by anyone and which pinpoints whether or not you are showing any autistic traits.  Although this is definitely not a diagnosis, I found it enlightening.  Having gone through the test with several friends, family and colleagues, I would imagine that around 75% of the general population sit somewhere on the autistic spectrum.  The link is below if you want to have a go.

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/9.12/aqtest.html

Thousands of people worldwide go through their lives living with the uncomfortable effects of autism or Aspergers and haven`t got a clue that this is what has been troubling them, their families and friends for all of their lives.  In other words they remain undiagnosed which is a shame because many people who have had a diagnosis report how relieved they are to have an explanation for their varied symptoms.  It can make sense of chaos and a diagnosis can offer people options to bring about change.

Here are some of the challenges a person with aspergers can bring into a relationship:

They often find social situations extremely uncomfortable, people with aspergers find making friends easier said than done and often don`t have any friends to speak of.  Eye contact is difficult or impossible to maintain and they cannot read facial expressions so they can often speak at inappropriate moments, or say something offensive, not understanding they have done so.  When speaking they may go on without a break.  They cannot recognise when it`s the other person`s turn to speak or even if the other person doesn`t find the topic interesting.  It`s possible to turn away from someone with aspergers when they are talking and they may continue with or without your attention.  They may exhibit odd expressions of movement as in Tourettes syndrome or they might adopt  a vacant expression while they talk, sometimes for a long time.

People with autism are often above average intelligence, they can also be funny and charming and so they are very attractive to people who are looking for someone to nurture.  Unfortunately for the person in a relationship with an individual who has autism, they may find that their own emotional needs remain largely unmet because the person with autism simply cannot relate to someone else`s needs.  They are unable to empathise or give back some of that nurture to their non-autistic partner who probably has to seek that kind of emotional sustenance elsewhere.

Someone with aspergers may find it very difficult to recognise when they are becoming wound up.  Most neuro typicals (people who do not have autistic traits) know the signs when they are becoming angry, for example, shortness of breath, a redness of neck, a raising of blood pressure.  The person with aspergers on the other hand, can get more and more wound up and unable to distinguish these feelings from any other, suddenly break out in an explosive display which may include verbal abuse and damaging property.  In other words, put the ornaments away!

I remember last year, speaking to a woman who was married to a man with aspergers.  He worked in the army and had a very successful career, largely because people with aspergers seek repetition so the every day order and routine of the army suited this man perfectly.  He knew what to expect and his work was nothing to be scared of or become stressed about.  The flip side of this tale though is that his appalling behaviour at social functions especially at family parties, resulted in him being banned from all future visits.  So, living with someone with aspergers is definitely not easy but if you enjoy a challenge…..

There is no cure for autism.  Some behaviours can be changed through CBT  (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) or NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming.)  The cause is not yet understood but researchers are leaning more and more towards autism having a genetic cause so the autistic traits may run in families.

Lots of people who have autism or aspergers or any other diagnosis on the spectrum are often labelled as someone with a disability.   Having worked with many people who have aspergers or autism, I prefer to think of people with autism as someone who is marvellous and unique.   🙂

Cuzco and Macchu Picchu

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We left Lima and flew to Cuzco on the first leg of our journey.

Cuzco was quite a culture shock to me.  When we left the airport we were driven by taxi and arrived at the most lovely and clean town featuring a beautiful square with steps leading to a magnificent church at one end and flowers all around in tubs.  It really reminded me of somewhere in England, Stratford Upon Avon or Worcester, it is very pretty with lots of expansive and rather majestic white architecture.  When we first arrived, we noticed that many people were moving around quite slowly but it didn`t register with us initially, why this was.  After just a day though the high altitude really hits home and I began to feel extremely unwell.  This is why it is sensible to move slowly in Cuzco, it helps to conserve energy.

Coca tea is a mild stimulant and is from the same plant that we obtain cocaine from.  It`s given to visitors to Cuzco and some other parts of south America, to help to stem altitude sickness.  It didn`t do a thing for me and it tastes bitter, like green tea but my companion drank it in huge amounts until he was absolutely wired.   By day two, I was so pukey I took myself to the chemist who suggested I take anti-allergy medicine and that did work, thank goodness.   Altitude sickness is horrible and relentless and sadly coca tea is being discouraged now, because of it`s potentially harmful effects.  I think it`s a shame because it is an ancient tradition and it isn`t as if we are all going to come home and become cocaine addicts!

Around the square in Cuzco you will find lots of shoe-shine boys.  Many of them wear balaclavas to hide their identity as it is considered shameful to be in such a lowly position.  Most of them are street children who are simply earning money to stay alive but as in Lima, the police often raid them and take away their shoe shine boxes and their means of earning enough to eat.  It`s a cruel world for so many children.

We took the train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes which is the small town that sits at the foot of the mountain where Maccu Picchu is situated.  I have to say, the train journey was spectacular running alongside the jungle and the fast flowing, white water Vilcanota river, also known as the Urubamba river if you happen to be Spanish.   It`s a thrilling journey with many twists and turns and you can lean out of the window and see the whole length of the train ahead of you on the wide curves of train track.   Machu Picchu lay hidden from the world for a long time because its location is so remote and hard to get to. It was discovered by an American explorer, Hiram Bingham in 1911.  It`s located high up on a mountainside and Aguas Calientes is down in the valley beside the river.  It takes a bus about 20 minutes to climb the narrow, steep zig-zagging dirt track that connects the two.  I found the journey absolutely terrifying.  By the time we got to where Maccu Picchu sits, the river looked like a thread of cotton hundreds of feet below us but the back drop of the jungle clambering up the mountains which were all around us was well worth the trip, I was staggered at the beauty of it, it is totally awe inspiring and breath taking and I will never forget that journey.

Maccu Picchu is an ancient Inca site built in the fourteen hundreds and is probably a sacred and religious site although this has not been proven.  It`s thought that several hundred people lived there and it is visited by so many tourists now, there are serious concerns about preserving the site so I am glad I was lucky enough to go when I did.  I was stunned to find scrillions of mossies so high up the mountain and got loads of bites there.  I wondered how the Inca`s coped and was amazed to witness how developed a people they were, with clever channels built all around the site providing fresh running water.  It reminded me a bit of Pompei in how advanced the culture was all those centuries ago.

When we went back down to Aguas Calientes, we visited the famous hot springs there for a dip but there were a lot of people already in the water and it looked so murky and uninviting, we decided to skip that idea!   We went for something to eat, more fish stew but very nice and stayed for a day before returning by train to Cuzco, ready to move on to Bolivia.

It was dark as we travelled back.  At one point I looked up and saw a huge forest fire burning all across the mountainside…..