26. Irregular conjugating with The Boss.

EP is on vacation this week, so this piece is being carved painstakingly onto an Android phone. I’m hoping that predictive text will take over at any moment and finish the last few paragraphs. If it works as usual the message will mutate dramatically and suddenly – for instance changing the word ‘many’ to ‘knuckle’ and ‘stifado’ to ‘Ericsson’. Most likely it will choose to finish off this piece with stock text such as Portia’s speech from The Merchant of Venice.

As a remedy for insomnia I watched a BBC World program about the dismantling of the German nuclear industry. Surprisingly, I found it completely fascinating. And it was then I realised that I am just about ready to start attending school.

Unfortunately, during the years I attended school, I was not ready for it. The problem seems to be this: education, work, sport and entertainment have been artificially separated and parcelled out unevenly to different age groups. So we have no entertainment at school, no work for young adults and no sport for older people.

For depressed people we recommend a mixed diet of behaviour, to include physical, mental and social stimulation. Such a mix is hard to achieve for large sections of society. Perhaps we should start by merging the goverment departments for Universities, Science, Employment, Culture and Sports to create a giant Ministry of Constructive Pastimes. Think David Willets, on a bobsleigh, playing flute.

In anticipation, universities are putting famous professors and lecturers on line, so that thousands of people can benefit, rather than just the few dozen students that can fit into a lecture theatre. The movement is called MOOC, or massive line open courses.

Educationalists have gone against the lecture as a means of communication, apparently because the average student retains only about 10% of the content. However, this figure can increase substantially in certain conditions, such as when exam questions are being ‘hinted’, when the lecturer is particularly charismatic, or by interweaving multimedia.

For instance, if Bruce Springsteen could be persuaded to lecture on irregular German verbs, strumming gently and occasionally singing a line or two, we would not be such dunces at language.

The trend toward mass market lecturing means a blurring of the traditional boundary between education and entertainment. For me, the importance of this is the prospect of a better deal for schoolchildren.

At present, children’s rights are subordinated to those of adults. For instance, chidren are compelled by law to attend school. They are forced to follow a national curriculum. Large group teaching is the norm, mainly because it is very cheap. Children endure a bargain basement approach to education that has increasingly sold out to child minding.

Adults no longer tolerate compulsory military service and cannot be compelled to work in mills. Many more are watching natural history or discovery channels and starting to enjoy finding out new information.

The coercive approach to schooling is relatively recent and followed the industrial revolution. In the UK children start school as young as age 4, so they are exposed to harshness, compulsion and judgementalism at just the wrong age. Here, for many, begin the roots of fear and helplessness that darken their perception of the world.

Children might prefer a mixture of activities, including a bit of paid employment, . It seems absurd that there are no teenagers in the house of lords and that there are no toddlers on the boards of large companies, even as non-execs.

As the managers would say, there are a lot of potential synergies in merging education and entertainment. The mind’s operating systems for music and speech seem to use different brain structures. People often remember the words of songs much more easily than prose or poetry. Some stammerers can get words out much more easily if they begin them as though singing.

We are used to opera and musical theatre, where drama can occur as a mixture of words and music. Far more people go to musicals like Les Miserables than ever read the book.

Movies like ET, Gladiator and Close Encounters attracted enough customers to support orchestral music by top composers.

So adding a musical dimension to a learning experience is likely to etch deeper and longer lasting memories.

The scale of MOOC seems to present an opportunity to incorporate a quality musical soundtrack into lectures. Whereas Horizon programs make do with incidental music, MOOC lectures could afford to have a house band at the very least, if not a full orchestra in the pit.

If it looks as though I am merely suggesting replacing school with television, something that seemed to suit me perfectly during my tonsillitis years, then my answer is this:

The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as gentle rain upon the Ericsson Stifado.

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25. Taking a creative powder.

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The golden age of pharmacology.

There is probably a link between bipolar disorder and heightened creativity, but this occurs mainly during the periods of elated mood. One of the first things to go when the mood dips is concentration. For creative types that’s a major hazard.

There’s only one solution for writer’s block. And that’s to write about it.

I just checked with the local NHS and apparently there is no rapid response team for this problem, unlike, say, blocked drains or blocked arteries.

The mental health service is interested in ‘thought block’, but only in the context of schizophrenia.

What I’m envisaging is a group of experts, probably led by a retired army major, who would arrive in a pimped day van, set up their equipment and get to work straight away.

The first thing to do is to remove any loaded weapons and / or bottles of whisky from the writer’s desk.

Next comes a thorough examination of the writer’s body, particularly the orifices, just to check he has not begun ‘disappearing up himself’. If there are signs of this, a Dyson cleaner makes an ideal suction device.

That also includes checking his ego boundaries, to ensure he is still able to separate himself from his characters. Clues to this can include wearing a flying helmet or shoulder holster while he types.

Psychedelic drugs should be removed, keeping samples for the lab, except for science fiction or fantasy writers, when they should be cautiously continued and titrated with Bourbon if necessary.

There are no NICE guidelines for writer’s block, though the author is probably poised over his keyboard and has been for years. But there is some expert guidance on the subject.

Dan Brown for instance likes to hang upside down in gravity boots. This could explain some of his thinking, in terms of reduced cerebral blood flow. Lots of writers prefer to be horizontal when they write, and many others like to pace up and down. Some are quite obsessive about stationary and pens. Others like to chew their pencils. It’s important to ensure they put the right end in their mouths.

Having attended to posture, the team looks toward some kind of psychological jolt. Firing a gun is often helpful, and if there is space, the team like to set up a row of porcelain figurines to use as targets. Royal Doulton seems to work best.

Coercion, blackmail and torture don’t seem to work. This is probably because anxiety levels have gone just beyond the optimum level for concentration. Writer’s block is mainly a result of ‘performance anxiety’. It is when the automatic mind makes the mistake of calling in the reflective mind for advice. Whether it’s writing, sex, walking a tightrope or putting, self monitoring can be catastrophic. The interventions are mainly to create a distraction.

For instance, waving a wad of cash under the nose brings about a rapid reaction similar to smelling salts. Not only does money talk, it speaks most eloquently.

Claims are made for psycho-stimulants and antidepressants which some people think enhance performance. Thomas Hardy might have benefitted from a little light turbo-charging, for instance. I’d like to have seen more of an action thriller conclusion to Mayor of Casterbridge, possibly involving Farfrae and Henchard shooting at each other with blunderbusses, from hot air balloons.

More useful is a gentle workout for the parts of the brain that write. A trip to a gritty location such as a Ladbroke’s in Rotherham might bring just the change of emotional tone that’s needed, but obviously the danger is melancholic overload.

Sometimes a little ‘power pottering’ is necessary, such as re-organising the tea bags or melting a vinyl record to make a flower pot. An encounter with an overloaded kitchen sink has helped many angry young men keep it real.

The most difficult thing is finding an ending, if that’s where the block has happened. If all else fails, a revision test can serve as a makeshift conclusion, e.g

Which blockage is not a medical emergency?

Heart

Arteries

Thought

Writer’s

Intestines

Which endings are valid?

Reprising earlier parts of the piece

Suddenly dying of TB

A dream sequence with exploding figurines

Throwing a badge into San Francisco Bay

Reader, I married him.

24. Dangling from the last helicopter out.

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What a lowly position feels like.

Sometimes Depression is a sign that your predicament is poor. Surveys show large numbers of people think about quitting their job, but very few actually do so.

A life-time ago, I can remember spending Monday afternoons in an operating theatre, assisting my boss, who was a vascular surgeon. Every week, at about 4pm, there would be a commotion in the theatre next door, as the very temperamental colo-rectal surgeon working there went slightly berzerk. Sometimes he would hurl items of equipment at the wall. Usually he would announce his resignation and storm out. He was always back next week though.

Remember the last scene in Dirty Harry, where Clint Eastwood’s character, Harry Callaghan, throws his police badge into a pond?

What symbol of your job would you throw into the water if you decided to quit in disgust, as the camera zooms out and the credits roll?

If you are a gynaecologist, perhaps an laparoscope would do, an old style – rigid model, thrown like a javelin. The butcher could throw his white trilby hat like a frisbee. But what about the Timpson’s shoe repair and key cutting man, who looks increasingly fed up? He’s big, but how far could anyone throw a lathe?

I have just the thing, which is a John Major era ‘Chartermark’ badge. The citizen’s charter was a policy intended to elevate the concerns of ordinary folk, like the increasing numbers of traffic cones. The problem was, there were no ordinary folk left. The baby boomers were all special.

The badge is made of bronze and about the size of a broad bean. I could skim it far out onto the river on a calm day. I’m sure though, if I went to the river there would be a queue of disgruntled workers hurling various emblematic work items.

What expression should one choose for the camera, just before the zoom-out? Sad inevitability? A mixture of guilt and relief? Or – it’s video remember – deadpan? As though all the life has gone out of you?

More and more people are fed up with work and a lot of them have suffered ‘burnout’. Neil Young said ‘its better to burn out than to fade away’, but in a sense the two things are the same, just different types of oxidation reaction.

The phrase burn-out, which was hyphenated in those days, apparently derives from Graham Greene’s book, The Burnt-Out Case, which features an exhausted celebrity architect who goes to work at a leper colony. The parallel is between architecture and leprosy in terms of their effects on people, which is to make them quite interesting and very thin.

The ‘Whitehall’ studies looked at sickness in various groups of workers within the civil service. They seemed to show that the more lowly paid the job, the more stressful it turned out to be, which is the exact opposite of the commonly-touted belief that high-flying jobs are the most vexing.

Nevertheless, even in medicine, which is quite rewarding in many ways, my impression is that an increasing number of people are walking away, sometimes after a dozen or more years of training and dedication.

I tried to research the number of doctors who are qualified but don’t work in medicine, but it is hard to get these statistics.  A sizable number are still registered and licensed by the GMC but will quit as they come up for revalidation (or to give it its proper name, The Cull.) Many more work part time or intermittently, via agencies.

Whatever the number in work, if you look around your locality, ask yourself: are there any more GPs than there were 20 years ago? And: how easy is it nowadays to sign on with a GP?

As far as I can see, the answers are, ‘No’ and ‘as easy as getting through Tintwistle’. I’m not sure where the GPs are going, but its probably the same place as the bumble bees. Studies have shown that GPs have the highest burnout rate of any professional group, up to 40%, at least in Holland.

Not been to Tintwistle? Let me explain:

The giant industrial cities, Manchester and Sheffield sit about 35 miles apart on either side of a small set of hills called the Peak District. Because they are in the north of England, there is no proper road joining them up. Things start well enough, as you leave Manchester on a fine new highway called the M67. After five miles, the M67 ends abruptly and you are frozen in traffic, as though liquid nitrogen had suddenly been sprayed over the road from a giant cartoon airship flown by Mister Freeze.

During my time at Tintwistle, which was longer than many prison sentences, I reflected on the notion of helplessness, and how it affects the nervous system. The most accurate description I can think of is that helplessness hits the human organism like a rubber hammer. There are no wounds, no broken bones, not even ruptured internal organs. Just a sense that something deep inside of you is broken.

I can remember similar effects from going on fairground rides with inappropriately high and sustained circular motion. What initially seem to be expressions of happiness on people’s faces turn out merely to be rictus grins caused by G force.

Getting stuck at Tintwistle has much in common with being in a low paid job in the civil service. You have little control over your destiny. And its too late to wonder what you were doing there in the first place.

The truth is, no-one gives much advice about the really important choices in life. Things like which partner to choose, what career to follow, or which team to support. These often start out like the M67, wide and promising, and then, suddenly, the road just runs out.

It’s easy to see people who have chosen completely the wrong jobs. There’s the lollipop man who attacked someone with his lollipop. There’s the science teacher who battered a pupil with a 3kg dumbbell, shouting ‘die, die, die’. There’s Tony Blair as peace envoy to the middle east. And there’s the man at Tesco who prints the yellow price stickers, who should be a master villain in a Bond movie.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize – winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman reveals that he and his team of experts were quite unable to predict who would succeed as army officers, despite all kinds of aptitude tests. So it seems unlikely that the school careers teacher will succeed in putting everyone on the right path.

Perhaps people are more likely to change job nowadays in mid life, giving a chance of redemption.

Otherwise I think I have a solution, based a bit on Prime Ministers’ cabinet re-shuffles. My idea is to put someone like the town mayor or an official psychologist in charge of employment. He would be able to shuffle people from one job to another if they are looking burned out.

So the Timpson man becomes the science teacher. The butcher becomes the gynaecologist. The science teacher gets to cut keys. And the gynaecologist gets to kill serial killers in San Francisco.

The civil service can be moved to Tintwistle, so that everyone is always late and the activities of the government will be frozen, like in Italy.

There was no scene showing Harry Callaghan with a snorkel and flippers, retrieving his badge for the sequels, but he returned several times. Even worse, none of the sequels allowed him to move to a less bureaucratically-frustrated role, such as running the police pottery workshop, and the body count continued to rise.

Perhaps the GPs will return for a sequel one day, or even turn up at the end of the movie, like the old naval warriors in Battleship.

Or, just as all hope is abandoned, the bumble bees will swarm back over the horizon in giant black clouds. They have made enough honey not only to feed us but to run our cars too.

23. A little less conversation and a little more action. Please.

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I look good, don’t I? Unfortunately, it’s all I do.

There are more pictures about than ever before. The digital revolution means that an almost infinite number of images can be created, stored and accessed within seconds. Its easy to see that the introduction of video recording has proved to be a hazard for narcissists, being massively more versatile than mirrors or pond surfaces. People can video themselves all day long and send the videos to the friends they inevitably don’t have. Yet it is only 150 years or so since artists relied on watercolour and charcoal for a flattering self portrait. People who like to look at themselves have plenty more opportunity nowadays, plus Photoshop.

Narcissus himself fell in love with his own reflection and somehow died. There was no coroner’s inquest in those days, but legend has it that he was tricked into this by a vengeful goddess, after he spurned the advances of a local nymph.

Since then everyone knows ponds – and nymphs – can be dangerous. Shop windows and plate glass are also hazardous for those who like to gaze at themselves. Budgies know about this, locked as they are in an eternal battle with their mirrors, never seeming to realise they are just attacking themselves. Luckily they have millet and cuttlefish to distract them from their eternal struggle with their hated double.

More recently, narcissists have attracted a range of unflattering self-reflexive terms, such as being ‘up themself’ or ‘disappearing up their own arse’. The message seems to be that Narcissism is something to guard against and brings with it anatomically impossible challenges.

Some species, such as whiptail lizards, have succeeded in having sex with themselves, creating an all female population. Whiptails have been called – unkindly, it seems to me – ‘pseudocopulators’. There is very little political correctness in the lizard world.

If you are feeling a bit useless or redundant, imagine how a male whiptail must feel, particularly if it is made to attend diversity workshops.

In the DSM classification system, Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is included in the notorious Cluster B, whose other members include Sociopathic and Borderline personality disorders. Cluster B are known as the ‘dramatic, emotional and erratic’ characters, the ones who populate all TV soaps, most prisons and half the queue at A and E.

There is more to Narcissistic Personality Disorder than just liking the look of yourself reflected in Gap’s window among the Jeggings collection. There is more to it even than the ordinary vice of vanity. People with NPD are said to be arrogant, lacking in empathy, manipulative and constantly seeking attention and admiration. They could really use a new PR campaign. How about, ‘narcissists are lovely people, even if they do say so themselves’?

There are plenty of narcissists in politics or running large organisations, but there are also quite a few in prison. If they are lucky they will work as a presenter on a high number digital channel where all the programs are about dating.

Narcissists present a challenge to a therapist. On the plus side, they love talking about themselves; on the downside, this is liable to make them worse.

The danger is sending people even further up their own nether parts than they were before.

Therapists of various kinds are reluctant to accept that therapy carries the risk of negative change, something which is taken for granted with drug treatment, i.e. side effects.

In full sceptical mode, (something I should leave to the ‘neurobollocks’ website as I don’t like to appear negative) I read The Times this morning (8/7/13) and find an article called ‘How to become an optimist’.

To describe a ‘mindfulness’ technique the author, Michael Mosley, writes, ‘I sit in a quiet place and focus on physical sensations such as the weight of my body’.

And in describing what is called ‘Cognitive Bias Modification’ he looks at successive video screens containing blank, angry or smiley faces, ‘the idea is to train the brain to look for positive images’.

Probably best not to read the rest of the newspaper then. In particular don’t turn to page 27 and look under the headline: ‘referee who stabbed player is beheaded by fans’.

While keeping an open mind about the value of mindfulness etc I hear a shrill voice in the wilderness, shouting ‘get a life mate’.

The Horizon program version of the article will, no doubt, show people looking in wonderment at their own brain activity shown on scanners and scientists will say things like the left side of the brain likes Snickers and the right side likes a Mars Bar.

Contrast this introspective approach with the movement called ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ (RAK). It’s hard to know quite how it started. Probably it was born in California, in the mid-eighties. Interestingly the same kind of location and era as CBT. Although I’m pretty sure as far back as 1968 the Bonzo Dog Band were advising people to do things like leave a packet of fruit gums on London Bridge.

Now we have a ‘one million random acts of kindness campaign’: http://www.4000saturdays.com/rak/

This is a strategy designed to improve society by introducing new positive behaviours within the framework of a social movement. There is still a cognitive aspect to it though, which is deciding what constitutes Kindness.

Is it really being kind, for instance, to give a policeman a helium balloon, or might it just possibly encumber him from drawing his weapon, should the need arise?

Is it really a kindness to feed an expired parking meter, or are you depriving the council of useful revenue, and possibly another driver who is looking for a space?

People who paid toll charges for those behind them in a queue of cars apparently caused even greater tailbacks because of the ensuing surprise and confusion.

It usually feels good to let someone in from a side road, and the traffic system relies on this to function properly. On the other hand, people who scream down the right hand lane expecting to muscle in at the end of the queue should, like murderous Brazilian football referees, expect no mercy, let alone kindness.

Religions – they have all tried –   had quite a few problems sorting out the ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’ issue, especially if sadomasochism is thrown into the mix.

Could so called ‘tough love’ for instance be seen as a RAK?  Is it OK to chase cats away from birds, or is that kind of intervention in nature rather colonial? Some of these world policeman roles have got confusing post-Iraq.

Should overweight people be sent away from KFC? Should you give elephants cream buns while the zoo staff aren’t looking?

Should the queue of people about to buy lottery tickets be dispersed by water cannon? When is it kind to be cruel?

To answer all these questions you really need your own ethical committee.

Also, the question arises: could RAK have an opposition movement, Random Acts of Unkindness? If so, it’s important these people never infiltrate dentistry.

So which is better, CBT or RAK? Should we sort out our own thoughts and feelings or go and help an old lady across the road before the Stealth Renault gets her?

Or is RAK just another kind of CBT, more biased towards behaviour?

RAK tends to take place on Fridays, so there is time to do both. For starters, go to your local pond and put up a ‘Danger: Nymphs’ sign.

Put another one up in the park: ‘No Pseudocopulating’.

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22. Comprehensive dental planning for the gift horse.

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Got away with a scale and polish!

Some people felt the recent ‘horsegate’ revelations amounted to an attempt – by ‘Big Food’ – to soften up the consumer towards more overt horse consumption.

So far I see no signs of horse restaurants opening up, so I’m wondering if its really worth registering the trade mark  ‘Horses for Courses’.

The main effect of the horse scandal was to cause a tsunami of horse-related jokes and puns, like the above example, and a welcome reprise of horsey sayings and proverbs.

We are, as humans, portrayed as horses sometimes.

A person might be described as a ‘workhorse’ for instance.

They may be compared to a mule, if stubborn; or a donkey, if they suffer with ‘bradythinkia’. People who throw eggs at talent show judges are exhibiting ‘horseplay’, though this is one activity that horses have never even attempted.

You could take someone to water, but not make them drink, and this is a major problem in pubs and cafes nowadays, especially where there is free wifi. We know from Prince’s commentary on the modern world that his cousin was ‘doing horse’ only nine months after trying a reefer ‘4 the very first time’.

Is a gift horse a person who gives gifts, or is the horse the gift?

Either way, don’t look him in the mouth, even if you are a veterinary dentist, not without a mask and safety glasses anyway.

My knowledge of horses is really very limited. I go past them very slowly on the roads, and the person riding usually acknowledges this with a friendly gesture. I know they cost a lot to run, in terms of vet’s bills and sugar lumps. I feel sorry for the ones I see confined to a box trailer, stuck on the A1(M) for hours on end. I have never known a real horse to be called Dobbin. If I had a racehorse, I would name it ‘nine to two favourite’, just to confuse the bookies.

They seem surprisingly fragile. Quite minor ailments seem to upset them, such as sleeping in the wrong posture or falling over a rabbit hole.They are sensitive to even the mildest ironic remark.

All the care pathways for horses seem to end with the box ‘shoot’.

Do horses like being whipped and raced over a series of fences? Probably the answer is the same proportion of horses as humans who like sadomasochism or hurdling.

Do they even like having people ride on them? For most of their evolutionary history presumably they just ran about when they felt like it. Western movies always depict the wild horse as reluctant to get involved in the transport industry. Horsey people will shake their heads and tell me I just don’t get it.

Horses and people, they tell me, have a unique symbiotic relationship, where horse and master blend into a sublime transport unit. Its a bit like the way obese bikers’ tummies meld seamlessly into the saddle of a Gold Wing or Harley.

This brings us back to the idea of harmonious relationships and fundamentally, the kind of environment that suits the human system.

Today there are further useful news items from the Mappiness project, which aims to survey people’s real time levels of happiness using a smartphone app and random sampling.

These findings are dangerously revealing and potentially subversive. It is revealed that work can be toxic for instance, and that its better to live in a green rural – type environment than in a tiny box high over an industrial northern city.

Also, 22 years after the LaTour single, the last reliable report on this, it is revealed that people are still having sex.

Most of human evolutionary history people have not worked, at least not in the way that has become the norm since the industrial revolution. People were hunters and gatherers for thousands of years. Accordingly, the natural state for human happiness seems to be ‘pottering about’.

Of course many people have known this for years. But oddly, the millions of ‘shed people’ have been portrayed as either lazy or autistic, not to mention shabby. Shopping is perhaps the one surviving pottering activity that remains fashionable, but all too often shopping behaviour is spoiled by buying stuff.

A clue to all this should have been the way ‘browsers’ like Netscape took off in the nineties. Browsing the web suits people better than watching television, even when ‘channel-hopping ‘is allowed.

Pottering about is the default position for human behaviour before ‘musts, haves and shoulds’ are loaded on people.

My impression is that horses are pottering animals too. Mainly they eat. But they are a bit curious to meet people. Sometimes they will get up and run for no apparent reason, to a similar bit of field.

Horses and humans have been the victims of a massive confidence trick. Basically this is that they benefit from carrying a burden.

Sadly for horses, they cannot operate smartphones, so their unhappiness cannot yet be measured.

Look, they are shaking their heads and saying ‘nay’. I think they have made their position clear enough.