Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Commercial Break

It has been a rather odd few weeks. My best supplier of books went bust, a friend learned that they were in the final stage of lung cancer and my oldest son almost managed to burn the house down.

My wife says she feels as if we're in a badly-written soap opera. I know what she means, although I'm sticking to the 18th century novel theme that I mentioned in an earlier posting. Our lives are more Smollett than Eastenders, not relentlessly grim, but oscillating unpredictably between triumph and disaster.

For example, only days after my book supplier went out of business, a far bigger one got in touch and said that they would be able to supply me with whatever I needed. Then a week later, a corporate customer contacted me about supplying books. My only role in both events was to say yes.

Sadly, I don't see how there will be a change in fortunes for the friend with cancer.

20 years ago, she was living in Los Angeles. Her father was a Hollywood screenwriter, her sister was married to a movie star and our friend worked for a film studio. She seemed to have a gilded life. But then the biological clock began to ring and she convinced herself that a man she met at a party was 'the one'.

She became pregnant and looked forward to a new life with her husband and child, but two things happened. First, she quickly realised that the father was not husband material (or even father material). Second, the baby turned out to be babies.

For some reason, she decided to raise the children in her native England and found a house in Lewes. As a single mother of twins in a new town, life must have been hard enough, but it would become even more challenging when it emerged that one of her boys was severely autistic.

I've no doubt that smoking played its role in the lung cancer, but I also think that she was run into the ground by a life that was unremittingly hard. Her autistic son never sleeps for more than a couple of hours at a time, so neither does she. Sometimes he hits her. She looks frail and worn out.

When I drove her home from the hospital, I tried to think of something to say. I thought of all the people I knew who had survived cancer. But I also knew that whatever I said, it would sound like a hollow platitude. In the end, all my wife and I could offer was practical help: homemade soups, lifts and visits.

This year has made me feel jittery. I think most of us like to believe that we have a certain degree of control over our lives, but during the last 11 months, most of the evidence has been to the contrary. I notice that I have become obsessed with certain household chores, as if the chaos of the external world can be counterbalanced by the order of the internal.

Perhaps that's why some people in Russia and East Germany have expressed their nostalgia for the days of communism, when people could feel reasonably confident that nothing would ever change.

Take this old Soviet commercial, for example:

There's no existential nonsense about lifestyle or aspirations of auditory perfection. It's a radio. It's got a volume/on-off button and a tuning dial. You can be certain that it will be slightly crap and that you'll have to wait for two years before yours is delievered from the Novgorod People's Transistor Radio Combine.

I wonder if the Soviets included batteries?

In the next commercial, the announcer is saying "Can you guess which one of these men is a Zionist enemy of the people?"

It's a little menacing.

The next commercial is jollier, but notice that the man has to try twice to shut the door of the car, and the numberplate is wonky:

In the next commercial the message is clear: if you want to eat a decent meal, you need to be a magician:

The final clip has some groovy music and features a couple on their journey to nuptial bliss:

It's a pity they'll have to share their flat with another family. The whole business of flat-sharing was, perhaps, the single biggest failure of the Soviet Union. In a country with such a low population density, why was it impossible for the communist authorities to provide every family with a home of their own?

But perhaps that will be London in a few years, unless someone stops people treating the city's property as an investment opportunity. Apparently, 75% of all house sales in inner London go to foreigners (and by foreigners, I mean people who live outside the UK, rather than the ones that have moved here) who want a good property portfolio. It's utter madness.

It's interesting how the two extremes of a completely planned economy and a totally free market end up producing the same results. That's why I'm always suspicious of people on both the right and left who pursue ideologies at the expense of common sense.

I apologise for being so serious in this post. Let's have another commercial break:


Annabel (gaskella) said...

Good news about your suppliers, but I am so sorry to hear about your friend - both her situation and illness. I'm sure your help and friendship means a lot to her.

Canadian Chickadee said...

I know what you mean about life seeming like a soap opera sometimes. I lived in my version of one for ten years, lurching from one disaster to another on all fronts. I am still trying to recover from the feeling that I had been run over by a double decker bus.

I'm glad about the new book suppliers, but so sorry to hear about your friend. I think your practical solution of soup, and tea, and rides to and from the hospital are the very best thing she needs right now. It's kind and generous of you to take it on, when so much of your own life is in flux.

More anon. In the meantime, all the best to you and yours, and on behalf of Americans everywhere, I want to wish you a happy Thanksgiving. It's one of the nicest days in the US calendar -- except for gathering together and feeling grateful that we survived another year, not a lot is required. xoxox

Steerforth said...

Annabel - Thanks for your kind words. By the way, I agree with you about the Four Sea Interludes - wonderful music!

Carol - I'm glad that you came through your horrible decade. I hope you're in calmer waters now.

Thanks for the Thanksgiving wishes. I didn't realise that it was today. I don't think I realised how important Thanksgiving was until, of all things, I watched Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Since then, I've studied the subject in further detail (well, the Ladybird Book of the Pilgrim Fathers). Hope you have a good one!

zmkc said...

I liked the old Soviet joke about a man who orders some crummy Eastern bloc car ( let's say a Trabant) and is told it will be delivered seven years hence. When? he asks. Oh probably in October. When in October?. Oh maybe late October. No, but when? Let's say the fifteenth? When on the fifteenth? Why? Oh because they're delivering the washing machine in the morning.

Steerforth said...

Yes, I like that one. I use to have a copy of The Soviet Joke Book and I can remember a couple:

Q - Why do secret policemen go around in threes?

A - One can read, one can write and the other keeps an eye on the two intellectuals.

Q - What's the definition of a string quartet?

A - A Russian symphony orchestra after a tour of the West.

Rechelle said...

there are days and times that it just feels like your life gets hijacked...

Rog said...

I quite like that theory about life satisfaction being U-shaped. Although just as you emerge into the quiet tranquility of later middle age bits start dropping off in my experience. I suppose every dog has its day or something.

Speaking of which, I sell early Russian cameras and binoculars and the quality is surprising good - built like tanks. With their massive natural resources the last laugh may be on us :-(

helenalex said...

I know how you feel - this year I underwent a series of surgeries to deal with a major medical problem and something has gone badly wrong literally every step of the way. Something which should have been done with by September at the latest will now be completed at some point next year (assuming things don't continue to go wrong). Sometimes I feel like life waits until I've reached the point where I can cope with my situation, and then makes things worse.

CC is right - practical help is the best kind; platitudes are useful sometimes but are more likely to be annoying (well, depends on your friend's personality, I suppose). For yourself, remember to take time to do things you really enjoy, even if they seem self indulgent. You need to put your own mental health first if you want to continue to be strong enough to look after other people.

If you find yourself getting really depressed, I found cognitive behavioral therapy quite good - it's based on identifying unhelpful and untrue thoughts like 'this will inevitably go wrong', 'everything is terrible' and so forth and destroying them with logic. It works even if your depression is a rational response to a genuinely shitty situation. I think it is subsidized by the NHS.

I hope this is helpful; feel free to ignore it if it's not.

Steerforth said...

Rog - I think you may be right. They have the land and the resources. If only they'd stop drinking so much! I also agree about those chunky old cameras - my wife had a Zenith when I first met her and weighed a ton, but the photos were surprisingly good.

Helenalex - I'm really sorry to read that you're having such an awful time. What's particularly hard is the way that you are facing a succession of hurdles. I can only hope that there'll be a resolution and this time next year, things will be very different.

I have thought of CBT, as my ability to remain positive has been undermined by recent events. In addition to the friend with cancer, two other friends have been very ill and I've found the whole thing very unsettling. Suddenly, every twinge of pain feels like a harbinger of doom!

Debra said...

As Annabel says, that's very good news about your suppliers. With a little bit of luck, upward business times just MIGHT improve your mood a lot.. even without therapy.
I was in psychoanalysis for years. It helped. Particularly having people listen to you in a quiet, private place helps a lot. Really listen to you. And when I say this, it makes you realize just how few opportunities there are for people to be really listened to right now....
As for the power of positive thinking... well, maybe, but I have always been a negativist in a positivist's world. It's really not the end of the world being a negativist ; what IS the end of the world is hearing so many people tell you earnestly to be and think positive...OR ELSE...
The last Soviet commercial probably should have made me laugh, but somehow it really didn't. It got up my nose.
Take care.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Just wanted to wish a very happy Thanksgiving this Thursday. Hopefullly our day will be less stressful than the one in "Trains, Planes, and Automobiles!"


Steerforth said...

Debra - I agree, the last commercial is awful. I want to shoot that man, or have him deported to the gulags.

I also tried psychoanalysis, after a bereavement. I saw someone who trained with Freud's daughter, so I was only two steps away from the great man himself. I'm not sure if it worked, as she was quite unconventional and kept inviting out me to meals and concerts. I thought the patient was supposed to fall in love with their analysts, not vice versa. But it was just good to have a space where I could talk.

Carol - It's been a little stressful, moving one and a half tonnes of books 90 miles in a van that kept veering sharply to the left, but a hot bath and bottle of Cava later, I feel fine!

Hope you've had an enjoyable day.

helenalex said...

@Debra: Yes! I don't know what people are thinking when they tell ill people (essentially) that if they don't cheer up, they won't get better. It's massively unhelpful, to say the least.

@Steerforth: Thanks for the kind thoughts. Things feel less grim than my post probably implied. I think I've reached the 'acceptance' stage of dealing with bad things; I've come to terms with the fact that this is apparently how my body operates and there's not much I can do about it. Getting to this point was weirdly and unexpectedly sudden, and briefly derailed by another thing going wrong, but generally I can look at things with a sort of zen calm which I didn't have before.

It helps that I have a wonderful husband who has had his own health problems in the past and knows what I'm going through. My life is pretty good, apart from the health stuff.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I'm so sorry to hear about your friend. How ironic to have started off with such amazing luck, only to see a complete reversal of fortune like that. I am sure you are right that the stresses and strains have worn her out and contributed to her illness.

I sincerely hope your luck improves for the better before life can take any more tolls on you and L. I think it is right to regard life as a soap opera sometimes.

Debra said...

Too many of us believe that we are "ill" for my tastes.
I asked my loony friends this morning :"Do you think that "schizophrenia" means the same thing in a society of full employment, or a society with 12% unemployment ?" And what about "schizophrenia" in English and "schizophrénie" in French ?
How could they POSSIBLY mean the same thing ??
Listening to France's heartbeat right now makes me wonder what your grandparents/great grandparents were thinking and feeling on the eve of the two world wars... if they felt as helplessly sucked into the maelstrom as it is easy to feel these days ?
Just to give a little perspective to our plights...

Steerforth said...

Laura - Thanks. I'd say that my luck has changed, as getting T to school, even if it's only for a few hours a day, is a major breakthrough - something I thought would never happen. If he can stop trying to burn the house down, I'll be even happier.

Debra - I was talking about this the other week, with some friends who have a teenage son who suffers from severe OCD. We wondered if the Maasai or Yanomami tribes ever experienced these problems, or whether a lot of mental illness was caused/defined by Western 'civilsation'.

re: war - my mother was nearly ten when World War Two started and I asked her if her parents ever showed any fear or reaction to the bombing. She said that the only time her mother cried, during the whole of the Blitz, was when some fragments of glass landed in the sugar bowl and they had to throw their week's ration away.

She clearly remembers the annoucement of war on the radio, but says that nobody really reacted to it.

helenalex said...

I've done some work on mental illness across time and cultures. There are some things which seem to be universally seen as signs of a real problem - attacking family members, being unable to carry out your basic societal role, hearing voices, and so forth. Even in societies where hearing voices can be seen as prophecy, people tend to make a distinction between people who hear voices because god is talking to them and people who hear voices because they're nuts - I have no idea how anyone decides which is which, but it happens. I think where contemporary western society differs is our weird urge to medicalise every human weakness and eccentricity - so you're not just sad because things are going badly, you're depressed; you're not just a bit odd, you're mildly OCD/aspergic/whatever. The positive side is people with genuine problems are more likely to receive some kind of treatment rather than being punished or told to just stop it; the downside is people who are basically fine being on meds they don't need, or making no effort to remedy personality flaws because they think it's part of their self-diagnosed 'condition'.

Compared to other societies, who knows? Perhaps we have higher rates of depression but much lower rates of being cursed by witch doctors, but about the same level of actual symptoms.

Steerforth said...

helenalex - That's very interesting. It sounds as if mental illness is accommodated (and sometimes even venerated) as long as it doesn't threaten the saefty of the social group.

I have mixed feelings about today's tendency to label people. On the one hand, I find it strange that in a climate that supposedly celebrates diversity and legislates against discrimination, there's a much narrower definition of 'normal'. My parents used to describe their work colleagues in the 1950s and half of them sounded barking mad. But as long as they did the job, there was a place for them. Today, they would have probably been "managed out of the business".

On the other hand, labels can also acknowledge that life isn't a level playing field and save people from having to go through intolerable situations. My son's life is much better now that his diagnosis has resulted in some help (although I wonder if there would be anything wrong with him if he'd grown up in the Amazon rainforest).

I do think the industrial revolution has created a very unnatural way of living and that we've paid a heavy price for our comforts. But after spending a day in my cowshed, any bucolic fantasies are quickly abandoned!

Debra said...

The problem with the labels is that it is well nigh impossible to escape them once you're stuck with one.
Our civilization is still busy closing the heavens to us.
That means axing... imagination, passion, visions of any kind... and now art.
Because we all have to be deadly serious about the 24 hour a day job of putting meat and potatoes on the table through work.. or else..
"We" seem to go through these rampant rages every once in a while. Remember.. "Arbeit Macht Frei" ?
I recently said to a friend that it is ironic how fearful we can be of a single loony in.. an insane society...
That's how it's looking to me right now, at any rate.

helenalex said...

You're probably right - there was one instance of a Maori prophet heard angels etc having a follower who also heard angels. The follower was considered by the prophet and everyone else to be mentally ill. I suspect this says a lot about the leadership qualities of each man, and possibly what their angels were saying.

It's something I wish I'd been able to do more work on, but unfortunately it was a side issue of a much broader project.