Only One Thing to Say

It’s been a while – apologies for that. What better time to post than post-election. In the end, I don’t have that much to say about it. The only thing that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth is that ACT gets five seats in parliament with only 3.72% of votes.  To point out the inequity, NZ First got 4.21% of votes but gets no seats in parliament. Surely a good system is based on fairness. This doesn’t seem fair to me – that a party like ACT gets so much power for so little popular support.

Recently I was briefed by a colleague in the USA about their upcoming election. After giving a run-down on the potential benefits and disadvantages for sexual and reproductive rights of a McCain or Obama Presidency, she summarised thus:

Remember: your friends can disappoint you, and your enemies may not be as bad as you expect.

I’m finding these pragmatic words somewhat comforting at present.

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The Wonderful World of Words

I’m in the middle of reading a lovely little book called Ex Libris, a book about books by a booklover (Anne Fadiman). Now this woman is well-read, and like most people who read broadly, her vocabularly is impressive. Most of the new words I come across in her writing I can make out to some degree and keep reading without heading for the dictionary. In one chapter she actually takes on the issue of vocabularly when she pulls out new words that excited and daunted her in a book called The Tiger in the House by Carl Van Vechten. Words that sent Fadiman to the dictionary included: kakodemon, opopanax, retromingent, paludal and calineries. Words I can hardly pronounce, let alone figure out what they mean. Fadiman’s chapter was entitled ‘The Joy of Sesquipedalians’. (Sesquipedalian can either be used as a noun, to mean a long word, or the act or practice of using long words, or it can be used as an adjective to describe a word or a person who uses long words.)

Personally, I certainly wouldn’t use the word ‘joy’ to describe how I feel when I am reading and come across long or difficult words. Maybe I am just lazy. I guess if I am honest it can be fun to head for the dictionary and find out what a new word means. But I always struggle to remember it and that frustrates me. This is particularly so when there are several words in one peice of writing. It makes me falter in my reading and means I can’t sink into the words and let them effortlessly dissolve into meaning as my eyes run over the type.

This is what happened to me when I began to read Jonathan Raban’s recent article in the London Review of Books – Cut, Kill, Dig, Drill – a peice on Sarah Palin. (The title is what the Alaskan Wildlife Alliance’s director says is Palin’s motto.) I stumbled in the first sentence with the word ‘Poujadism’. I could ascertain that it must have been some political leader or figurehead in France, but that was about all and I needed to know to really understand what Raban was saying. Trip one to the dictionary. The word was not there. OK – wikipedia. Poujad was a populist politician in France in the mid 20th Century. Continue reading. Second sentence, flounder on ‘paysan’. Dictionary – not there again! This time Wiktionary assists. ‘Paysan’ is a noun meaning a peasant or somebody who lives in the country. (French again – maybe Raban had just been reading about the French peasantry in the 1940s or something.). I make it through to the second paragraph and hit the word ‘ukases’, which to my relief is in the dictionary and is the plural for arbitrary command (or an edict of Tssarist Russian government). 

So far I am feeling annoyed that Raban had to subject me to his far superior vocabularly, or that he was writing with one hand on the pen and the other thumbing through the theasaurus. And I usually enjoy his articles so much. I know, I only have myself to blame. If my own vocab was better I wouldn’t have had any problems getting started. But anyway, to my great delight, things then improve markedly.

The article about Palin is well-researched, interesting, and once past the first two paragraphs, a smooth read. And Raban is certainly no fan of the Republican’s vice-presidential candidate. Unfortunately I can’t put the link to the article up here as you have to pay. But I can give you my favourite lines, which also highlight how wonderful Raban’s writing can be, not to mention how scathing of Palin:

Transcripts and videos from her time in Alaska show her parlaying the barest minimum of rhetorical and intellectual resources into a formidable electoral weapon. The least one can say of her is that she quickly learned how to make the most of herself.

What is most striking about her is that she seems perfectly untroubled by either curiosity or the usual processes of thought… Palin never thinks. Instead, she relies on a limited stock of facts, bright generalities and pokerwork maxims, all as familiar and well-worn as old pennies. Given any question, she reaches into her bag for the readymade sentence that sounds most nearly proximate to an answer, and, rather than speaking it, recites it, in the upsy-downsy voice of a middle-schooler pronouncing the letters of a word in a spelling bee. She then fixes her lips in a terminal smile.

Fantastic. How cleverly Raban crafts his words to paint a rich picture of Palin. Now I am feeling the joy that Fadiman speaks of in her adulation of long words. Except my joy doesn’t rest on the length of the words, rather the way they are put together to construct a representation of reality that has meaning for me. And I guess the occcasional dip into the dictionary (or wiktionary) has only got to be good for me on my lifelong journey of exploring the wonderful world of words. Before you know it, I will be reeling off sesquipedalians like a lexicographer. Or maybe not – new words can be fun but I also quite like being easily understood.

Business Backpacking

I got to my hotel in central Paris through Senegal, Pakistan and even Iraq. Or so the taxi driver informed me: “this is not Paris, this is … (insert country of origin of particular immigrant population)”. All in a French accent. Well, pretty much in French actually – his English was as good as my French. No matter where you go in the world you always encounter prejudice. Taxi drivers are often an excellent barometer with which to assess the social pressures in particular cities or countries.

I am lucky enough in my job to get the opportunity to travel regularly. After years of backpacking I have become a bit of a business traveller. At least that’s how it feels to me, with my suitcase on wheels rather than backpack, and stays in hotels rather than on the rooves of hostels. But for this trip to France and England I decided to pull out my trusty backpack. I was going to be travelling on trains and there is no substitute for a backpack when it comes to ease of getting around.

As I was going so far I also added on an extra day to have a look around Paris and an extra day in London. So I cruised the city just as I would have several years ago when travelling through Europe. In true backpacker spirit I slipped a couple of bread rolls and peices of cheese into my bag from the hotel-provided breakfast, so I wouldn’t have to pay for lunch. I had my day-pack, a bottle of water, a map and off I went.

The years, and quite probably the business-travel, had softened me. Wandering up the stairs to Sacre Coeur, in a jet-lagged fog, I was brough to an abrupt halt when a man thrust a loop of green, yellow and black thread in front of me. “Put your finger in here”, he demanded. I hesitated. “Don’t worry, I’m not dangerous.” Not wanting to give him the impression that I was actually thinking he was dangerous (which, for the record, I was not), I put my finger in the loop. And that was it, I was a customer… this guy was good at his craft.

He talked and asked questions of me non-stop, as his hands whizzed the thread into what I quickly realised was a bracelet. He was from Kenya and had come to France to learn French (apparently). I was interested in talking with him but he wouldn’t let me get a word in edge-ways. I can understand why. Until he had the bracelet tied around my wrist I could easily remove my finger. He didn’t want me to start talking about how much this was going to cost me and risk loosing a paying customer. But he didn’t need to worry with me. I had already resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to pay, and that I was probably going to be ripped off. I may have gone soft but it doesn’t take long for the lessons to return. One of those I learned while backpacking was to accept that you will most likely be ripped off at least once in every country you visit. It saves you a lot of angst if you can accept that fact with grace and move on. Mind you, I am not sure how well I am doing on accepting this one. Fourteen NZ dollars for a cotton bracelet in Kenyan colours was probably one of the biggest rip-offs I have experienced. I have not managed to bring myself to take it off yet – wanting to get the most of my money even though I don’t really like wearing bracelets. But I console myself with the fact that he needed the money more than me, as is usually the case.

I wasn’t sure just how I would end-up feeling about backpacking after this little trip. I often suffer bouts of nostalgia about my travelling days. I have lots of great memories and I love my backpack like an old friend. It has experienced so much with me. But it has been a while, and I am not so romantic to be able to deceive myself that time and age don’t add a different perspective to something that was enjoyed in the past. I’m pleased to report that, overall, I really enjoyed it. There can be a higher level of hassle but that is counteracted by the enhanced sense of freedom and independence a backpack adds. Everything you need can go on your back. It is easy to carry and manage. And somehow it really makes me feel like I am travelling. It certainly added a sense of novelty and difference to what was an ordinary work trip. I might hvae to do it more often!

A great read

For me there is nothing better than a book that makes you think. Although it has been a while since I read it, the book The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS did just that. What a fabulous read. Author Elizabeth Pisani draws on her years of working as an epidemiologist trying to understand the HIV epidemic, particularly in Asia (read more at her blog), to create a funny, intelligent and well-researched book that is educative and entirely readable. I devoured it in a few evenings. I have been wanting to post about it for a couple of months now but left the book in the Solomon Islands for a colleague to read. So I am unable to draw from Elizabeth’s writings in this blog but thought it was high time I posted on it.

I also heard Elizabeth talk on National Radio, in an interview with Catherine Ryan. It was fantastic to hear her remind us all that what we are essentially dealing with when we try to prevent/mitigate HIV and AIDS is sex and drugs. And that means we are talking about pleasure. Yes, pleasure. People actually have sex because it is fun. Don’t you? Of course there are those who have no choice, or who have a set of choices that you would never wish on your worst enemy. But for a great deal of people, sex is enjoyable. And we tend to forget that in our discussions of condom negotiation, partner reduction, abstinence etc. And this has an impact on the way we go about talking to people about HIV.

I have mixed feelings about the focus on HIV in international development. It is a hideous plague that has, and continues to, kill so many people across the world – mothers, fathers, nurses, doctors, teachers, police, politicians, children. It needs attention and it cannot be forgotton. However, at times I wonder if we are spending money in the right places for the right reasons. And Elisabeth confirms that we aren’t, particularly not in the world outside of Sub-Saharan Africa (and a handfull of other countries that include PNG and Haiti). We’re not paying anywhere near enough attention to sex workers, men who have sex with men, and injecting drug users. And we’re not paying enough attention to the type of sex people have, who they have it with and when. These are crucial considerations to make when deciding how to spend our precious aid dollar. But discussion about sexual behaviours and injecting drugs have never really been great topics in the open-plan offices of official aid agencies (even though they are fun).

I would like to write more about HIV because it is a fascinating and interesting topic, as well as being a severe health issue. But it is complex and it is not my key area of focus. So bear with me and when I have some time I will pull my thoughts together and share them with you.

In the meantime, get reading the Wisdom of Whores – a guarenteed good time in bed.

Maternal mortality gets a mention

I’ve just had a glance through Oxfam’s new book ‘From Poverty to Power’. It is a whopping 522 pages (including index etc.)! An impressive amalgamation of researched information arguing that active citizens and effective states are the key to building a peaceful, prosperous and just world.

True to Oxfam’s usual polished marketing they have a video that makes you want to get out and be an even more active citizen than you already might be.

Of course, I flicked straight to the section on ‘HIV, AIDS and Other Health Risks’. Apart from my initial negative reaction that HIV got named, while everything else was lumped under ‘other’, the section provides a pretty good overview summary of the health issues confronting poorer countries (many of which still have applicability in richer countries too). And I was wrapped to see the much neglected issue of maternal mortality get a solid mention.

In Ireland, as the book points out, the lifetime risk of a woman dying due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth is 1 in 47, 600 in Ireland. In Niger the risk is 1 in 7. (A little closer to home: in NZ the risk is 1 in 5,900; in Australia it is 1 in 13,300; in PNG it is 1 in 55. Sourced from UNICEF State of the World’s CHildren report, 2008.)

The inequality is staggering. And then add to it that almost all maternal deaths are preventable – we know what to do and have done for a very long time. The problem is the lack of effective states. Where is the political will and commitment to improving women’s health? And it isn’t just lacking from poorer countries either – all those donor countries certainly haven’t been prioritising safe motherhood as a key funding priority.  As ‘Poverty to Power’ points out,  the fact that immunisation rates and access to water and sanitation have improved in poor countries shows what can be achieved when states wants to achieve it.

And it is not just about saving the lives of 500,000 women every year, although that is a totally important goal in and of itself. For every woman who dies, about 20 others experience serious or long-term consequences that impact on their well-being. And then there are their children. The health of children is inextricably linked to the health of their mother. New information emerges all the time to highlight this – even a woman’s nutritional status before she gets pregnant can have an impact on their potential foetus and future child’s health. Children who loose their mother are more likely to die than those who have a mother. Girls who do not have a mother are less likely to go to school. There are huge community-wide benefits to ensuring that for all women, where-ever they live, they do not have to face a risk of dying during pregnancy and childbirth greater than 1 in 47,600.

OK. Enough for now. There is much more to say on this topic but that book is long, and I am quite keen to read about some areas that I’m not quite so familiar with.

I’m in a hazy daze,

in a week of blurry days. My husband had open heart surgery last Wednesday to replace a floppy aortic valve and part of his aorta (the big artery that sends oxygenated blood from your heart on its journey around the body). I’ve been absolutely shattered and I wasn’t even the one who had the surgery! I can’t imagine how he must feel – although I do get a sense of it as I help him recover. For me, the week has just smugded itself like pastels into a fuzz of emotions:

  • sadness as we waved goodbye while he was wheeled into theatre
  • fear as we whiled away the seven hours of his surgery
  • relief at the surgeon’s call to say it went well
  • bubbling laughter at his leftover silliness as he emerged from his medical coma
  • and a myriad of ups and downs, fatigue and alertness as I have watched him suffer and progress over the past week.

 Mostly now I just feel really, really tired. It has been a long time coming – six months of knowing the surgery was necessary but needing various tests to ascertain just how much the surgeon needed to replace. But even now that the operation is over it is still a slow road to full recovery. Heart surgery with the heart-lung bypass machine is intensive and leaves people fatigued for several weeks. 

I am used to caring for people and have found my nursing knowledge and skills coming back to me quite easily. However, when you have such an emotional investment in the person who needs caring for, and when it is 24/7, the load feels much heavier. It’s a bit of a rollar-coaster ride, that’s for sure. Many times over the past few days my husband and I have wondered just how other people do it – those who live alone, who are less mobile, who can’t afford or are unable to take time off work, who don’t have easy access to a GP. Even just juggling the pain relief and anti-nausea medication, along with all his regular medications is a challenge. Then add in the sleeplessness, the memory loss, trying to eat around the nausea, visual disturbances and figuring out what is a normal side-effect of the surgery (which most of the above are) with what might be something that requires attention. It is hard work! 

I’m too sleepy to really think about these things at the moment but it has given me a small insight into how some people live their lives every day – caring for a loved one with a chronic condition and interacting with various health professionals. When I was working as a nurse I only ever saw people in the hospital. I never saw the whole continuum of care – from no-contact with health services, to contact with primary and community services, through secondary and tertiary care, and back out to the community again. It would certainly be a fascinating pathway to follow. Currently another close relative has tread this pathway also and it is interesting comparing the two roads. Something I might write about one day.

But for now, I’ll sign off and go and catch a few rays of sun. Very therepeutic!

Wooly Wisdom

On Saturday I went to my first ever ‘Spin-In’. We were looking to buy some fleece to felt with. But you would’ve thought we’d stumbled upon some grey-haired gangster gathering when we were accosted at the door by what could not be described as anything other than a chain-smoking, 70 year-old bouncer in a cotton sweater and green polyester slacks. ‘How long you going in for’ she demanded from us as we sidled up to the entrance. To be fair, she was trying to assess whether or not to charge us the full $5 entrance fee or a reduced rate. She let us off with $2 each and gave us the glare for free.

Inside the hall, in the centre of the room was a circle of older women all clicking and hooking various needles. Some women were juggling three tiny needles, others crocheted hats, while the majority were just plain-old knitting. Around the edge was a jumble of stores all selling vibrantly dyed wool of diverse descriptions.

It was an odd feeling entering a community that I don’t usually associate with. I felt out of place, almost like an intruder, in an alien land of older people and wool. But I reassured myself that if I took the time to sit down and pull out my needles, like anywhere, people would chat to me and connections would click into place. It was a glimpse at an intriguing community – just one of the many that makes up our society. I left wondering what experiences all those women had lived in their lives, and what they thought about the world as it is now. What peices of wisdom could they share about the things they have learned? Not to mention the absolute wealth of knowledge about how to create useful things with wool! I wish I had paid my $5 now and made a bit more time to have a cup of tea and chat. Who knows what I would have learnt.