Tut-tut, CRUK!

CRUK stands for Cancer Research UK, and it’s a widely known charity with shops in many High Streets all over the land. I have mixed feelings about its negative attitude towards alternative therapies, but then, as a semi-official body, it obviously has to toe the conventional line of cancer medicine. And that’s a pity, because medicine is supposed to be a science, and the motive force of any kind of worthwhile science should be curiosity, the quality Einstein warned us never to lose, the kind of unbiased sharp curiosity that asks “What if…?” and doesn’t tire of looking for an answer. In view of the dismal global cancer statistics, any promising alternative approach should be researched and tested, instead of dismissed sight unseen. (Having myself recovered from Stage 4 metastasized malignant melanoma 35 years ago on a nutrition-based alternative therapy, I know what I am talking about. But that’s another story.)

However, right now what I object to is CRUK’s choice of slogans. To put it mildly, they are inept. “Against breast cancer” is one of them, combined with a pink ribbon to wear on your lapel. Against, sure —- is anybody for it? You might just as well be “Against climate change” or “Against knife crime” for all the good it’ll do. The other daft slogan invites us to “Beat cancer sooner”. Sooner than what? Is there a deadline for the ultimate victory? Based on what? Why don’t they tell us?  And that’s not all: the imagery used on some posters is also worrying. I remember with distaste a photo of a scientist in a white coat  intently gazing into a microscope in his laboratory, while next to him stands a woman in an overcoat, holding an armful of second-hand clothes presumably donated to the charity. Not exactly hygienic, to say the least, but at last  something real to be against.

However, what preoccupies me at the moment is what I heard recently in a radio news bulletin, namely that according to some researchers the growing incidence of male breast cancer might be linked to more men using deodorants and antiperspirants. Of course  women have been using the same products for a long time and yes, there is plenty of breast cancer among the female population, so that’s worth pondering.  After all, deodorants are applied to the underarm area which is full of lymph nodes, so that anything toxic is promptly absorbed, so near to the sensitive breast tissue. This was truly alarming.  I immediately moved to CRUK’s web page and found, among many things, the following: “2006-03-10-little-scientific-link-between-deodorant-and-cancer-says-cancer-research-uk”. The inveterate researcher in me wanted more details – how “little” is that scientific link, for instance? who funded the research? did the researchers have any connection to the cosmetics industry? – but when I found another link, promising information on “causes-of-cancer/cosmetics-and-toiletries#” and clicked on it, up came the reply:  “Sorry – the page you are looking for can’t be found.”  That seemed odd. I would have expected CRUK, recipient of huge donations and great public support, to be better organised. Or maybe somebody wasn’t looking very hard for the answer?

Undeterred, I went over to “http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/”, only to be fobbed off with “This page can’t be displayed.” Really? Well then, where on earth can a bona fide interested party get some reliable information about a topic that concerns us all?

Clearly, not from the obvious source. I have long felt that acquiring knowledge must be a grassroots effort, largely individual, but hopefully becoming a spontaneous group effort, so that the more of us ask the right questions, the greater the chance of getting the right answers.

Sorry, CRUK, the way things are at present,  I am not impressed. In return, don’t be surprised if I stonily ignore your innumerable demands for donations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Thanks, thumb!

I was chopping vegetables when the knife slipped and made a small but deep gash in the top of my right thumb. Quick action: disinfect, slap on sterile plaster, cover with waterproof finger stall, carry on cooking. Except that without my invalid thumb which responded with sharp pain to the slightest touch, things had become rather difficult. Didn’t know thumbs were so important, I thought, but then of course,  monkeys and apes apart, only we humans have thumbs we can bend across our palm, enabling us to hold things, write, paint, cook and carry out innumerable tasks from vegetable chopping to the finest art work. One might claim that without the human thumb civilization would still wait to be established, since  all  other members of the animal kingdom have to use their paws, claws, teeth, beaks and tentacles to cope with infinitely simpler tasks.

To spare my sick thumb I started using my left hand and was embarrassed by its clumsiness. But then it has never had a good press. The left-hand path is that of black magic. Less ominously, when I was a child and broke or dropped something, my mother invariably accused me of having two left hands. Now I just wanted a single competent one, even if I had to bring it up to – ouch – scratch. But how?

Minimal research yielded plenty of advice. I was to draw simple shapes – circles, triangles, squares – with my left hand, then write down the alphabet with both small and capital letters. Wear my watch on my right wrist for two weeks. Throw and catch a table tennis ball with my left hand, and finally  use a tin opener and a corkscrew with same. To master these skills was to yield the additional bonus of simulating my imagination and creativity, since hands and brain hemispheres are diagonally connected, and the dictatorship of right-hand-left-brain needs to come to an end.

Oh dear. What I wrote with my left hand might have been the work of a young monkey with learning difficulties. To cheer myself up, I moved my watch to my right wrist –  but invariably looked at the left one every time I wanted to check the time. As for using a tin opener with my left hand, I didn’t even try after attempting to peel an apple with same: the apple won with ease – or should I say hands down…

Back to theory, the last refuge of the impractical. I discovered that nearly 80% of humanity is right-handed, the rest left-handed, except for a tiny minority that is ambidextrous. And this isn’t exactly new: on the skeletons of our remotest ancestors the right shoulder and arm are always stronger than the left, suggesting that the cavemen threw their lance or boulder from that side. Even language confirms this distinction: “right” is positive in its several meanings, while left is negative. This is especially true in Arab countries where the left hand deals with physical functions and therefore is regarded as unclean.

I was beginning to feel sorry for my left hand. As if it weren’t enough that it can’t write properly or catch a ball, it’s also supposed to be inferior. But then, by way of instant consolation I found a new report claiming that the number of left-handed people is growing rapidly and many of them are outstandingly gifted, successful people. Perhaps, as usual, Nature will have the last word, and if the proportion of enviable left-handers increases sufficiently, their reputation will also improve.

What a wide horizon has opened up over and beyond my chopping board!  The temporary uselessness of my sore thumb notwithstanding,  sometimes it’s quite rewarding for the kitchen knife to slip.

 

 

DIY – or rather not?

I have a soft spot for Google. The very name is endearing – to me at least it smacks of the nursery, belonging to a slightly battered  favourite toy. More importantly, the programme itself is the greatest ever time-saver and tracker of references, providing information for which in pre-Google days (feels like the last Ice Age) one had to traipse to the reference section of the nearest Public Library and painstakingly dig out the needed data. So I follow all news concerning Google with interest, which is how I came across the following information (quoting from memory):

Google’s voice-activated Assistant Duplex can carry out entire phone conversations by itself. This technology has been worked on for many years and is still being developed, to help consumers do daily tasks, such as booking hair appointments or making restaurant reservations.

Eh? But surely consumers have been coping with those tasks ever since hairdressers and restaurants have existed, or more precisely since we’ve had telephones. What difference will it make whether I or Duplex books my much-needed hairdo? Actually Duplex could make a total mess of this simple task, as – unlike I – it can’t check other entries in my diary. The whole idea is a no-brainer, and to hear that many years of hard work have been invested in its development sounds depressing. “Mountains are in labour, a ridiculous small mouse will be born,” Horace wrote over 2000 years ago, and a better metaphor could hardly be found. Are there no other tasks for our awesome technological skills to carry out?

But perhaps I should scrutinize the true motivation behind the invention of Duplex. And the first thing that springs to mind is that according to C.G.Jung, the human being’s greatest passion is idleness. Now it’s safe to assume that Jung knew what he was talking about, but even so his view is confirmed by a somewhat downbeat text I once saw in a collection of international folk wisdom:

“It’s better to sit than to stand, better to lie down than to sit, better to sleep than just lie down, better to be dead than just asleep.” Well, that seems a trifle drastic and we can safely ignore it. What remains is the lasting love of idleness – workaholics, please stop reading – and its immediate result: the need to find someone or something that’ll do the necessary work instead of us. To achieve that should be enough for the average idler, but there’s the added pleasure of superiority, of having Duplex – or Alexa or the increasing army of electronic slaves – to do our bidding.
The more I ponder this, the less attractive we people sound, even if having electronic slaves instead of human ones sounds a great improvement. Also, the principle of “use it or lose it” chimes in a warning. Just imagine, if we gradually transferred all useful activities to Duplex-style electronic assistants , becoming unskilled in the process, and one day the global supply of electricity would run out (as we are told it will ), we would quickly perish from sheer helplessness. Which might be a chance for the Duplex lot, boosted by Artificial Intelligence, to take charge of the world.
But hang on! All that passivity and idleness is only half the story.  Put against it the lasting popularity of DIY in home and garden, the innumerable brave and often calamitous attempts to make one’s personal world a better place, and the gloom begins to rise. Personally I’m immune to any such ambition but still  remember my amazement when a highly erudite friend boasted to me of his greatest ever achievement – replacing some cracked tiles in his bathroom. The way he sounded, he might have won the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps it’s time for me to revise my set of values.
So here we are, passionately idle and passive on the one hand and hyperactive and creative on the other. No advanced version of Duplex will ever combine those two opposites. We are a crazy mixed-up lot, and I just love it.

 

Beware of the Glass Floor

“Upskirting” is the latest addition to the English language, proving its ability to  condense a complicated process into one snappy word. It means nothing less than “taking a photo of underneath a person’s skirt without their consent, often in public places”. The official definition gains extra gravitas from the added warning, “This can cause emotional distress for a long time after it has happened”. Well, there is an alternative to distress. Surely if an ill-advised male came sufficiently close to me to commit this idiotic act, he would also be close enough for me to kick him into flight. No, I’m not a brutal amazon, just an ordinary female getting tired of  women complaining when they could take positive action.

I know what I am talking about. Many years ago one fine summer evening around 8 p.m. I was walking home in a respectable part of  West London when a man leapt out from behind a tall garden wall and dragged me into the garden. He was Scottish, he was very drunk, and he kept muttering about the so-and-so who’d done him wrong, all of which made my prospects dim. So I talked to him and maintained eye contact, as instructed by self-help manuals, until he began to cry and asked me to take him to the police station. This, I felt, was not my job and ran home fast.

The next day I enrolled at a self-defence class for women. There were ten of us of all ages and sizes and the instructor was a very capable girl. I was paired with a six-foot-tall Frenchwoman who lifted and swung me over her shoulder as if I had been a shawl. We went on for a few weeks, but then the group shrank until it was no longer viable and the few remaining members were offered to train with a men’s group. Three of us volunteered. The men treated us with the utmost tenderness; for the only time in my life I felt like a piece of priceless china; this also meant that we didn’t learn any self-defence skills, and that was the end of that. Nowadays I carry a little alarm gadget that utters a sound as shrill as a police siren. I fear its effects on my hearing, never mind that of my attacker.

Upskirting is an illegal offence in Scotland, not in England or Wales, but likely to become so under the heading of voyeurism or indecency. And so it should be. There are enough camera phones around to justify a little censorship. Anyway, this seems to be a camera-mad time, with selfies spreading like an epidemic and highly resistible family photos trailing every other e-mail. However, I’ve just come across a story from the 10th century BCE which cheered me up enormously, because it shows that a version of  upskirting was practised already then, moreover by the wisest and most powerful of men, namely King Solomon himself.

When a visit from the Queen of Sheba was due, Solomon had a glass floor laid from the entrance to his throne. The Queen mistook the glass for water and lifted the hem of her dress, uncovering her legs which, to Solomon’s consternation, were as hairy as that of a goat; worse still, the Queen had one normal foot and one goat’s hoof. Solomon actually reprimanded his visitor for this anomaly; this, to my mind, was not only unwise but very rude and unfeeling as well. All right, Solomon had up to 20 main wives and 80 to 100 secondary wives, numbers which obviously lowered the value of women, but surely a visiting Queen should have received special treatment.

However, I shouldn’t have worried, because despite all the above in due course the Queen of Sheba gave birth to Solomon’s son, called Menelik, which means “son of the Wise”. So this 3000-year-old ancient scandal of the upskirting glass floor ultimately led to a happy outcome.

Of course these days women have to worry about the glass ceiling, not the glass floor.  But that’s another story.

 

 

 

 

Naming Names

I’ve just been invited to the name-giving party of my friends’ new baby daughter and I’ll be delighted to attend. My only quibble is with the name chosen for that innocent infant. It’s Delilah. Granted, it’s a pretty name with a pleasant lilt, easily abbreviated to Lilah (not to Deli, though – that’s a specialist food shop selling ripe Camembert and Slovene salami), but the story attached to it should make it a non-starter.

It’s a good example – with apologies to my friends – of the careless way parents choose certain historical names for their children without checking out the history first.  So here goes: Delilah was the last great love of Samson, the hero of super-human strength. Described by one source as being voluptuous and treacherous, Delilah accepted a bribe to discover Samson’s secret, namely that his strength was derived from his hair, and passed it on to his opponents. Then she lulled him to sleep, ordered her servant to cut his hair, and turned him over to his enemies. What a ghastly, nasty creature, betraying a man’s loving trust for money – if it were up to me, I’d ban her name for ever instead of giving it a new lease of life. But all the same I’ll go to the name-giving party and keep my misgivings to myself.

I’m good at that: had plenty of practice years ago when Jason suddenly became the most fashionable name for boys, including at least three children of people I know. Ouch. Would I name a child of mine after a classical fall guy who came to a sad end? I would not, once I’d discovered the tragic story behind the name. The original Jason was an ancient Greek hero, leader of the Argonauts who sailed the seas in the great ship Argo  in quest of the Golden Fleece; he was brave, splendid and successful and married the powerful sorceress Medea who used  her ruthless magic to help him achieve his victories. What Jason lacked was common sense. He didn’t know that Hell had no fury  like a woman scorned, so when he had reigned for years as king of a Greek state, having produced several children with Medea, he coveted another crown and married the daughter of a fellow king. That folly sealed his fate. Medea promptly murdered his new bride, together with her and Jason’s children, and departed in a chariot drawn by flying dragons. (Other considerations apart, the woman had style.)  Jason declined into lonely old age, frequently sitting in the shade of the rotting hulk of the great ship Argo, until the top deck fell on him and crushed him to death. Perhaps it’s best if the Jasons of today don’t read this account.

“Nomen est omen”, claims the Latin adage, an omen being an event regarded as a portent of good or evil. I hope it’s not true, so that a name in itself doesn’t decide what kind of experiences, good or bad, its owner should expect.  This, of course, refers full of hope to all the Delilahs and Jasons of today’s world. But in this instance I’m thinking of the many males of all ages called Jeremy. Their name comes from that of the 7th century CE prophet Jeremiah, AKA the weeping prophet, who spent much of his time on dramatic lamentation. He kept telling off his people, likening them to unfaithful wives and rebellious children; according to the dry remark of a modern commentator, he had “little good news for his audience.” If this reminds you of some public figure, say a politician of today, you may be spot on.

There are plenty of odd names in other countries, regarded there as normal but surprising elsewhere. My favourite is “Attila”, the name of the 5th C ruler of the Hun empire, known and dreaded as “the scourge of God”, destroyer and temporary conqueror of much of Europe, a ruthless barbarian by all accounts. The only good thing he ever achieved, although unwittingly, was the foundation of Venice. The Huns, who practically lived on horseback, were only stopped by water, which is why the people of Veneto, when threatened by Attila’s warriors, quickly established a new settlement in the sea. Great – but it doesn’t change the fact that Attila was an unmitigated disaster for Christian Europe. And yet in Hungary, a Christian country,  Attila is a popular name for men. Even streets and boulevards in Budapest are named after him. For some reason in that country he is seen as a positive figure, a bit of a no-good-boyo, but on the whole acceptable. Just shows you how adaptable names can be.

My own first name, Beata (pronounced as Bay-ah-tah, not Beta), is Latin and means happy or blessed. My mother meant well when she chose it, but it’s almost impossible to live up to it even half the time. Moreover, it’s linked to beatification, the first step in the Catholic Church ( once you’re dead)  towards becoming a saint, and nothing could be further from my career so far. So I just have to smile (no, not grin) and bear it.

Anyhow, this name of mine is only for this lifetime. If there is a next incarnation lurking round the corner, I may end up with something even trickier. But I can wait.

 

 

 

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A Quick Tour of the Place Below

Did he or did he not deny the existence of Hell? The controversy about the official opinion of Pope Francis may still be going on – I’ve lost track of its progress – but it reminded me of the time, some years ago, when I was vividly interested in the subject, although not for religious reasons. History of Art was one of my subjects at university, and when it came to selecting a subject for my dissertation, I chose the various depictions, both verbal and pictorial, of the underworld and particularly its infernal region. This was partly a reaction to too many sugary Madonnas and Babies, preferred by my professor, but mainly a rebellious wish to explore a fairly unpopular subject.

The first thing I discovered was that climate determined the prevalent temperature of Hell. In hot countries it was unbearably scorching, but up in the far North Pohjola was a dark, terrible and forever frozen place of icy despair. Ancient Greece chose a moderate climate for an underworld that wasn’t particularly hellish; indeed, its worst feature was the three-headed dog Cerberus guarding the entrance to Hades, its best (in my view) Lethe, the river of oblivion, washing away all memories and, by doing that, healing all wounds.

Continuing my search in Southern Europe, Dante’s Inferno with its nine concentric circles of torment almost made me abandon my project: it was so perfect, so superbly organised and all-embracing that it seemed futile to move beyond it. It offered a rich menu of sins – lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, heresy, violence, fraud and treachery, which, except for heresy, are still practised today, and each variety was illustrated with poignant real-life stories of the sinners who were stuck there for all eternity. But then I realized that it was enough to read the morning paper with a special focus to find gorgeous current examples of those sins. Clearly, lust was behind the inappropriate behaviour of more or less eminent men reported almost daily (sorry, chaps, women can’t catch up with you here, and this gender gap has to be treasured), gluttony cum greed was behind the wave of obesity hitting us, wrath and violence were the parents of conflict, fraud fed the financial pages of the press, and treachery wasn’t hard to find, for instance in politics. But since we live in a secular society, the “sin” bits don’t come into the story; neither does the fear of ending up in Hell.  There are other fears – ending up in prison, going bankrupt, becoming a social pariah, losing foolishly one’s  celebrity status and so forth, but somehow these lack the dark glamour of one’s individual version of the infernal region.

My project suddenly grew wings with the discovery of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, the 16th century Dutch painter of superhuman imagination. His depictions of Hell can be studied endlessly without solving the multiple puzzles of his symbols. Little wonder: it seems clear that Bosch was playing a double game, painting images that were outwardly acceptable to the Church authorities and his wealthy patrons, but hiding  behind them was the message of the medieval Cathar heresy. Once I entered the world of Bosch, there was no need for much else…years later I still haven’t solved his intricate, beautiful puzzles and go back to them every time the current world becomes dreadfully colourless.

Yes, Hell is a subject of endless fascination. Still plenty to explore in its depths. And it comes as a let-down to remember the much-quoted dictum of Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the peak intellects of the 20th century. He simply said, “Hell is other people.”

 

 

The Joys of Junk Mail

I hesitate to admit it, but sometimes junk mail, spam and otherwise, has a weird charm which the proper official kind lacks. It’s the sheer outrageousness or touching stupidity of some “cold call” e-mails that I find refreshing, especially because they tend to come in waves, bearing similar contents. Perhaps there is a secret hub somewhere in cyberspace that sends these waves; at any rate they come and go fast enough to remain entertaining. Some time ago it was the onslaught of the Nigerian Widows, all of them passionately religious and oh, so generous, offering me half of the fortune left in a British bank by their careless late husbands, if only…. Resisting them was fun but disappointingly easy.

Next came – repeatedly – an apparent, genuine-looking appeal from a close friend’s real-life friend, stuck abroad penniless after a mugging, begging for an instant loan to get her home with her small child. This might have been a successful identity theft, had I not known that the real person was about 20 years too old to have a small child.  Impostors should be good at research.

But recently the tide has turned. Instead of asking me to get someone out of trouble, I’m being inundated with generous offers. Several heads of recruitment are so impressed with my background (my what?) that they offer me impossibly tempting jobs – working from home, getting huge salaries, ample time off, and so forth. The fact that they know precisely nothing about me doesn’t make them less keen; reading their comments on my non-existent qualifications makes me wonder whether I’ve been underestimating myself all my life. What a pity that the last thing on earth I want is a job.

And now it’s a deluge of Gift Cards that’s hitting me, from well-known firms that apologize for having overcharged me or just want to thank me for my custom over the years, notwithstanding that I’ve never-ever visited their shops. “We’re giving you this awesome surprise”, one e-mail from a well-known chemist’s chain declares, although the prospect of two free pieces of soap does not fill me with awe. ( “Awesome” seems to be the latest linguistic import from the USA, used with abandon – and a total lack of judgement.)

My Gift Cards remain unclaimed. I’m trying to give away stuff instead of acquiring more. But oh, what joy to receive these bits of harmless nonsense, interrupting my real everyday work.

If nothing else, they remind me not to take that real work, or myself, too seriously.