Back to (Ab)Normal

So we’ve had International Women’s Day and other celebrations of the normally uncelebrated major part of humankind, the brouhaha is over, it’s non-alcoholic hangover time, and I find myself haunted by the unlovely word “misogyny”, meaning hatred of women. That sounds too harsh; to me it can mean a wide range of milder negative feelings and possible put-downs, for instance appreciating a new achievement but minimizing the role of the woman behind it.

A perfect example of this comes from the obituary of a Russian-American woman, Evelyn Berezin, who died recently at the age of 93. The obituary credits her with having changed office life forever by inventing and launching the first word processor in 1971, freeing millions of secretaries and copy typists from retyping whole documents because of a few small errors. Eventually it also swept away most of their jobs, as an unexpected side effect that Berezin deeply regretted.

Her photograph shows a plain, slightly overweight smiling woman at her keyboard, friendly but forgettable. Her achievements are all the more memorable: in the 1950s she became the only woman in the team of engineers working for the US Defence Department, and later produced a series of new sophisticated computerised systems. In 1960 she began work on the word processor and created a machine that she called the Data Secretary. From there on her career moved from one dazzling result to the next, and her company grew from having nine employees to 500. No need to spell out her other achievements –

Or is there? Not that it would do much for her. The obituary ends with these words:

While her role in the digital revolution has not been much recognised, her machine, the Data Secretary is on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.,”

It’s idle to wonder whether her role in the digital revolution would have been more recognised if she had been a man;  at least, unlike her memory, her machine has a safe future in a museum.

“It’s difficult not to write a satire”, wrote Horace  in Rome in the first century BCE.

Quite so.

“When will they ever learn?”

That question, the last line of that  lovely old song, “Where have all the flowers gone?” came to my mind the other day, on reading a news item in the paper, under the title of  “Dramatic fall in sperm count”. Now before you try to work out the connection between disappearing flowers and falling sperm count, I’d better admit that there isn’t one, except that the news caused me a great sense of deja vu, of having been here before, and of no lessons having been learnt.

“Sperm counts in the Western world have fallen by almost 60% in the past 40 years,” I read. Although this study didn’t look into reasons for the fall, (why ever not?) previous  research had linked the problem to everything from stress, obesity and – wait for it – exposure to pesticides. Yes, I remember that previous report of some years back; it concentrated on the damage caused by pesticides and stated that the highest sperm count in Europe belonged to Danish organic farmers who didn’t use anything ending in -cides. This led to some frivolous comments about the likely boost to the Danish tourist industry caused by this disclosure, but that was all that happened. Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides have continued to be used lavishly, leading my local greengrocer to liken his lettuces to Rolls Royce cars, as, he explained, both were sprayed seventeen times.

Since then, according to this new report , things have got worse. “I think health authorities should be concerned,” said the lead researcher, noting with surprise that sperm counts were not falling nearly as fast in the developing world. As a non-scientist citizen, using ordinary common sense, I don’t find this surprising: farmers in the developing world simply can’t afford agro-chemicals, hence they remain healthier. Clearly, powerful substances used to kill pests remain on the non-organic  fruits and vegetables that we eat, and equally clearly they continue to do a bit of killing inside the body, hitting sperm hard in men, and who knows what in women.

“We have a huge public health problem that was until now under the radar,” the lead researcher added. I fear it’ll remain there. Scientists keep issuing well founded warnings about hazards to public health, decision makers keep  ignoring them. They also ignore the importance of diet in in the same area and the damage caused by chemical-rich but nutrient-poor junk food,  but  complain about the horrific cost of looking after an increasingly sick, largely overweight population. According to psychology textbooks, after the age of seven children understand the link between cause and effect; can it be that our politicians, policy makers and, above all, our medical Establishment have all somehow missed that connection?

Here are just two examples of how little food is considered in the health-disease equation, although it’s the only substance besides air that we consume from our first to our last breath. The first example comes from a booklet issued by Age UK, advising older people how to enjoy life while ageing. It’s all good stuff about exercise, satisfactory social connections, sound sleep and so on, and somewhere a mere six lines mention the importance of a good diet, adding that “beans are a good source of zinc”. That’s it.  Put it in your pipe and smoke it, of course metaphorically, because smoking is bad for you, too.

The second example comes from my recent thorough examination, a kind of human MoT, at my GP’s surgery. The nice nurse asked innumerable questions, examining my various functions and abilities, and ended the session – without asking anything about my daily food intake. When I asked whether that major subject didn’t figure in her list, she looked surprised and shook her head. (I described that meeting in detail in a recent blog.) No, diet wasn’t included, she said, and wished me well. This omission at the very heart of my health care was depressing and made me ask once more, somewhat despairingly, “When will they ever learn?”

Not that I’ll wait for that. Excuse me while I go and prepare my large, fresh, crisp, beautiful and totally organic dinner. Bon appetit!









Small Pleasures

Can’t bear January. It feels twice as long as any other month, while the days don’t seem to get longer, the dark clouds sit on the rooftops, in the enormously boring  sales prices keep plummeting until in the end the shops may pay us to take away some unwanted stuff – it’s a universal UGH of heroic proportions.

But then some small pleasures hop in and the mood lightens.

Today, for instance, I bought a bag of kiwi fruit in my local shop, and when I looked at the label, I saw, “Grown by Zeus, Greece.” I almost dropped the bag. Can it be that my six kiwis had been grown by the chief God of ancient Greece, the King of Olympus, the invincible Thunderer and victor of every battle? Dare I eat them? Does their possession promote me in some small way? Will they taste…divine?

Well, it certainly gave me several minutes of glee, wondering whether Zeus’s need to grow fruit and veg for an English supermarket, instead of chasing goddesses and nymphs, was somehow connected with the current parlous state of the Greek economy. And that brought on images of the Greek sea, the scintillating light, the essence of my best-ever summers in that country …a more than small joy.

Then, still resenting January, its very name made me think again. January, of course: it’s the month of Janus, the mysterious two-faced Roman god who looks both ways, towards past and future, with equal dignity. Most of all he is the god of beginnings. The first hour of the day, the first day of the month and the first month of the year belong to him; so do doors and gateways (and, presumably, janitors, who guard the entrances of apartment blocks in America.) Beginnings. Nice idea. Qualifies as a small pleasure. Perhaps things will begin to get better. Perhaps there IS life after birth, courtesy of Janus.

If by now you wonder whether I am an addict of ancient myths, the answer is yes. My mother used to read them to me when I was a child and I’ve never recovered from those riveting stories. (Naturally they were bowdlerised tales; I didn’t find out about Zeus’s sex life and other interesting extras until much later.) And, on a deeper level, myths are also about us, without the magical bits; the tussles, jealousies, intrigues and passions of the inhabitants of Olympus are played out every day among us on a smaller scale here and now. Personally I find that quite amusing.

But back to small pleasures. My third one occurred today when I dropped in on some friends for a brief chat. There were five of us sitting together, when the house cat, a magnificent Siamese, sauntered into the room, surveyed us and then landed on my lap and made itself comfortable, showing signs of contentment. Anyone familiar with feline psychology will recognize this as a sign of approval, especially from a member of that majestic breed, and I felt accordingly accepted and promoted. Perhaps January isn’t all that dreadful.

Well, that’s all for today, and these were my small pleasures.

What would yours be?