Friday 30 January 2015

On a pedestal

I've been musing over the deep need to idealise people. Not just celebrities but politicians, lovers, teachers, authors, all sorts of people. They're put on a pedestal and seen as perfect, their human weaknesses stubbornly overlooked or denied.

Of course there are also those who refuse to idealise or venerate anybody, or even systematically tear everyone to bits with icy contempt.

But it's the urge to idealise that fascinates me. I was especially curious about the massive eulogising of Barack Obama when he was still the presidential candidate. It was hard to find anyone willing to criticise him.

Yet right from the start I assumed he was unlikely to be the brilliant president people were predicting. Surely everyone was aware of all the presidents (and prime ministers) who turned out to be bitterly disappointing? But no, people wanted to believe Obama would be a dazzling success, and they refused to think otherwise. Surprise surprise, many of the same people are now sadly disillusioned.

So many people are painted as saintly figures who can do no wrong, even when the grubby reality is plain to see. We seem to need someone to look up to, however much varnishing and laundering it requires. Seeing everyone as they really are is too depressing, too sobering.

I like to think I'm immune from such stupidity, but of course I'm not. I always remember how besotted I once was with Elena, in blissful denial of the humdrum reality. I worshipped her calmness, her wisdom, her sophistication, her gracefulness, unwilling to believe that inside she was probably harbouring the same neuroses, anxieties and prejudices as all the rest of us. I refused to look past the no doubt carefully crafted exterior.

We all have our rose-tinted spectacles to hand, ready to enhance some unlikely person.

Tuesday 27 January 2015

Name change

It's very strange that French courts can order parents to change their child's name if they think it could cause social embarr-assment - or as the law puts it "mockery or disobliging remarks".

Surely it's up to parents (or the child) to decide if a name might be a liability and drop it in favour of something less open to teasing. Why do the courts need to be involved in what's really just a matter of common sense?

French courts recently rejected the name Nutella, foreseeing silly references to the chocolate spread of the same name. They also rejected the name Fraise (Strawberry) as there are rude expressions that use the word - like "ramène ta fraise", meaning "get over here" or "butt in".

It seems that although the courts are able to ban a name, they only get involved if someone asks them to. Apparently the registrar who recorded Nutella's birth alerted the local prosecutor who called in a family court judge.

If the courts made a habit of judging people's names, they'd be at it all day every day. I'm not familiar with dodgy French names, but I can think of plenty of English names that could in theory be problems (though oddly enough in reality they may be no problem at all). And last names can be just as awkward as first names.

But names aren't set in stone. If a child gets ribbed over an unfortunate name, then all they need do is change it. If their parents won't let them, they can at least change it when they're older. My father's first name was Edward, but he hated it and always used his second name, Colin.

Who are the courts to decide what name is acceptable and what isn't? You and I might think that the names given to Bob Geldof's kids - Peaches, Pixie and Fifi Trixibelle - would invite endless ridicule, but as far I know they never tried to change them.

Likewise all the Smellies and Ramsbottoms of the world who don't feel the need to be something more prosaic but soldier on regardless.

I'm sure those judges have better things to do than to ban names that reflect popular sandwich fillings. Like dealing with criminals.

Thursday 22 January 2015

A faltering finale

A survey of people's biggest worries found that after number one (being overweight), the next two were getting old and their financial future.

I'm not surprised by those two. They're two of my worries as well, for the simple reason that I have no idea how long I'm going to live, no idea how much it'll cost me, and no idea if I'll run out of money. The future is largely unknowable and all sorts of unforeseen events could put a spanner in the works.

My worries also stem from the fact that we live in a very ageist society where vulnerable old people are often ignored or mistreated, and not given the help, support and respect they deserve after a lifetime of work, often in vital services like the NHS. I can't be confident that if I fall on hard times other people will come to my rescue and make sure I'm okay.

And I'm one of the more fortunate ones. I've benefited from a lifetime of rising property prices, I haven't had any children to pay for, I'm still fit enough to work, and I have no money-draining addictions.

Today's young people are in a much worse position when they contemplate the future. The state pension is being steadily eroded, but they have little money to put into a private pension. They have tuition fees to repay, they're stung for massive rents and mortgages, bringing up children is more and more costly (£230,000 a child at the last count), and wages are being ruthlessly slashed through zero-hour contracts, part-time work and a skinflint minimum wage.

Many young people can barely get through the week, let alone save anything. No wonder they often look totally blank when asked about pension plans.

Old age should be a a time of carefree enjoyment, not gnawing financial worries. Old age should be a joyous finale to a strenuous life.

Pic: Beatrix Ost, New York artist and writer

Thursday 15 January 2015

Po-faced fanatics

The Charlie Hebdo massacre has prompted a lot of soul-searching and fierce debate about whether the magazine is right or wrong to poke fun at religion. Some people defend the magazine unconditionally while others say they are being deliberately provocative for no good reason.

It seems to me that Suzanne Moore in The Guardian makes the best point about the whole thing. "Why must I have respect for religions that have little respect for me?" she asks.

In her case she's talking about the widespread religious view that women are second-class citizens and should be treated as such. But of course many religions are equally intolerant of gays, transgender people, atheists, people with "inappropriate" clothing and appearance and so on.

Suzanne Moore goes on to say "Tolerance has to be reciprocal or it is not tolerance at all." Precisely. Tolerance can't be one-sided. If a religion wants to suppress what I do or believe, then why should I respect what they do or believe?

Of course there's a difference between not respecting repressive religions, but keeping that disrespect to yourself, and on the other hand publicly mocking and criticising those religions. Is public mockery acceptable or does it merely fan the flames of religious intolerance and make the situation worse?

I think people have to make up their own mind about that but personally I'm reluctant to mock another person's deeply held beliefs merely for the sake of it or merely to exercise my freedom of expression. I'm content for people to follow whatever beliefs they wish to, without comment, just as long as they're not attacking my own beliefs. In that case, they're fair game and I have every right to attack them back.

You could argue that Charlie Hebdo magazine went too far in deliberately lampooning a major religion. But then you could also argue that those who object, and those who think such disrespect deserves a bullet in the head, are simply self-righteous, po-faced fanatics with no sense of humour or perspective.

Saturday 10 January 2015

Come flirt with me

I was never very good at flirting, and never very good at sussing that I was being flirted with. Someone would have to flirt really blatantly for me to notice it.

Mind you, at my advanced age it's not often that anyone flirts with me, and I can't even remember the last time anyone did. Probably around the time the Spice Girls were in nappies.

Of course there may have been secret admirers who were too shy to flirt with me. They may have been nursing an unrequited crush they couldn't bring themselves to divulge. Sure, and there goes a flying pig.

It was a different story in my twenties. Quite a few women flirted with me so boldly I could hardly miss it. If I didn't fancy them, it was sometimes hard to fend them off.

Personally I think flirting is good clean fun, as long as it's just that and not a serious attempt to steal someone's mate. And as long as the flirtee is enjoying it and isn't feeling uncomfortable and invaded. But some people totally refuse to flirt on the grounds that it's immoral and dangerous.

It's embarrassing though to watch seedy, unattractive middle-aged men compulsively flirting with women who probably find them repulsive. Have they any idea how ridiculous they look? Presumably not or they wouldn't be doing it.

It's also embarrassing to watch people flirting simply to prove their physical attractiveness and desirability, which they're permanently unsure of. The desperate need for reassurance is sad.

But life would be dull without flirting. It adds a bit of spice to the everyday routine. So what the hell, come flirt with me....

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Jumping the gun

What struck me about the Lincolnshire couple whose baby was born 11 weeks early in New York was the amazing generosity shown to them by so many people.

Instead of a chorus of "Why on earth fly when you're heavily pregnant?", people were falling over themselves to help the unfortunate couple - Katie Amos and Lee Johnston - who were facing a £130,000 medical bill.

The hospital said the couple's travel insurance would cover the bill. A housing charity gave them somewhere to live. A nurse at the hospital gave Katie a pile of clothes. And thousands of pounds have been donated to help them with their living expenses - as their son Dax won't be fit enough to fly back until March.

Actually quite a few things struck me about this story:

1) The potentially ruinous cost of health care in the States. People are frequently bankrupted by astronomical bills.
2) Such a basic event as having a baby doesn't qualify for free assistance but is fully chargeable.
3) In the light of (1) and (2), they were wise not to skimp on travel insurance.
4) They'll have time to get to know New York very well on their enforced 10-week stay.
5) Is their son now entitled to American citizenship, having been born in the USA?
6) They'll probably be too embarrassed to set foot in the USA ever again.
7) Alternatively they'll make lots of new friends over there and be keen to keep in touch.
8) Dax's first words are likely to be "Give me some candy, dude".

Or in the light of his expensive birth, they might even be "Buddy, can you spare a dime?"

Pic: Lee Johnston and Katie Amos

Friday 2 January 2015

Broken heart

Parents who refuse to accept their children for what they are, who want their children to have certain beliefs or interests, or worse still want them to be a carbon copy of themselves, are a menace. It's a shame they can't be prevented from having children in the first place, such is the distress and misery they cause.

Seventeen year old Leelah Alcorn of Kings Mill, Ohio, was a tragic victim of such parental dogmatism. Born a boy but having told her devoutly Christian parents she wanted to be a girl, they forced her to undergo conversion therapy to cure her transgender feelings.

Last Sunday she walked in front of a truck on Highway I-71 and was crushed to death. She left a suicide note saying her parents had broken her heart and made her hate herself.

This is hardly a unique case. So many parents won't accept their children's personal identity and try to push them in some direction they're not comfortable with, which simply screws them up. They find their children's independence deeply alarming and hard to adapt to.

Fathers want their sons to join the family business. They want them to be tough, unemotional high-fliers. Or they want them to be sporty outdoor types. Mothers want their daughters to go into traditional female jobs, or to be pretty and submissive, or to have lots of children. Religious parents want their children to share their beliefs. Socialist parents are terrified their children will become gung-ho capitalists.

There are children who are pushed to become champion swimmers or concert pianists or mathematical geniuses, but who eventually crack up under the strain and give it all up to become civil servants or baristas.

My own parents sent me to a school completely unsuited to my personality - emphasising sport and religion and regarding anything artistic or cultural as unimportant. Clearly I was unhappy but I wasn't allowed to switch to a more suitable school. The emotional fall-out still lingers.

Children need to be nurtured, not moulded.

Pic: Leelah Alcorn