Muppets Rule OK

Photo: BBC News

Something weird happened at the end of January. A muppet asked everyone a question on Twitter (that’s weird enough, you’ll agree) and received a barrage of pain in response. 

It was a dark Monday (of course) so it’s maybe no surprise that the innocent question – how is everybody doing? – resulted in over 13,000 replies and almost 150 million views. So how are we all doing? Turns out, not well. Some people talked about losing their jobs, ongoing anxiety about world affairs and even existential despair. 

Elmo, with his red fluff and sweet smile, is probably the kindest muppet out there, so I do worry that this unloading of despair onto his little shoulders must surely have given him his first frown lines. 

Soon enough, of course, the memes arrived and Elmo appeared to be staring into a fiery abyss or widening his eyes at the scale of despair he’d unleashed. Even Cookie Monster got involved and offered to help – ‘me here to talk it out whenever you want, me will also supply cookies.’

It was funny and weird and interesting, but it was also profound. We’re all coping with stuff, all the time, and the world is on fire right now. We need to share the burden with each other, to ask for help and to admit that some days it’s all too much. 

Alarm Call

Not to make this blog a middle-aged moan but…something else has annoyed me and the New Year is still quite new. Sorry.

For many years now I’ve been woken from slumber by a soft whisper of Classic FM. I’m so clever that I set the alarm for four minutes past the hour so that I won’t hear the news. When I have to get up early, especially to get ready to lead reading groups in prison settings around the country, I need to awaken slowly and gently. I also have to admit that I tend to feel most unsteady in the mornings, when MS is taking its sweet time to bring my head into alignment. Slow and steady is the aim.

This detailed preamble is clearly leading to a terrible shock, isn’t it? One morning recently, instead of stringed instruments, a hideous (and loud) BUZZ shook me awake. It was incessant and just didn’t stop. It took several seconds to work out where (and who) I was, before I reached out and thumped the alarm. What was going on? I was cross all morning, grumpy over my bran flakes and even grumpier in rush hour traffic. It was just a terrible start to the day.

On researching the issue, having assumed my alarm clock was broken, it turns out that Classic FM no longer transmits on DAB radio. You need DAB+ now. Apologies again for sounding like an old biddy, but there’s nothing wrong with my little radio alarm – why do I need to get rid of it and buy something new? The answer, of course, is simple: capitalism. We live under its thrall and it’s ruling our lives with an iron fist. Built-in obsolescence? Check. Gadgets that no longer work after a year? Check. Inability to talk to friends and family, or do some work, until you buy the latest model? Check. It’s a bit depressing. In my day (sorry) we could open something up and get it fixed, keep things going for years. Now bulging landfills, everlasting plastics and cobalt mines are the only option. 

I was continuing to rant to myself until I approached the prison gates and remembered why I was there. Leading reading groups in these difficult places has opened my eyes to so much – about the world and about my place in it. Perspective is everything, and my hill of beans is very small indeed. 

The Birds

There are seagulls and crows having a shouting match just outside the shed today. We live quite close to Belfast Lough so the gulls are probably flying by the houses to say hello, before they go back to stealing peoples’ chips along the shore. I don’t know what the birds are saying to each other. Are these  alarm calls? Greetings? 

As I was making plans to learn more about birdsong I happened upon a news item that made me smile. A Dutch biologist, Auke-Florian Hiemstra, was recuperating in a Belgian hospital when he noticed an unusual nest clinging to a tree outside his window. Sure enough, it was covered in sharp objects. It seems that magpies all over Europe have been dismantling bird spikes from buildings to use them in their nests. Us humans think we’re so clever. Must keep our buildings (and heads) free from dirt, so we just need to glue a deterrent onto gutters and sills. That will sort the problem. Job done. It makes me laugh to picture men attaching fearsome-looking spikes as the magpie family watch, tilting their heads (and raising eyebrows if they had them) to plan their next move.

Photo by Auke-Florian Hiemstra, The Atlantic

Corvids are famously clever – crows have also been found to remove deterrents. Maybe pigeons are getting there too? Years ago, we were trying to keep pigeons away from our van roof and placed a plastic owl nearby (it’s supposed to scare other birds away). Needless to say I looked out the window later that day to see a pigeon sitting calmly next to the owl, with a rather supercilious look on its face. It almost shook its weary head. Humans.

The smart magpie in her safe nest made me think. These clever birds have learned how to take something negative and turned it into something positive. Unpleasant spikes become beautiful nests. An attempt to keep them away, or even hurt them, has been reclaimed for their own purposes. It’s simple but brilliant. Their ability to use imagination and creativity is quite simply inspiring. 

In fact, it’s art. This is what art can do. Where would we be without it?

Walk This Way

Do you like the way you walk? I only ask because I recently noticed that my boots are more worn on the outside and therefore I may have a strange, tilting gait – like a car that needs a wheel alignment. Or maybe I’m striding along with such purpose that my boots can’t keep up? 

It’s more likely that I just need new boots. But it got me thinking about how I take up space in the world. For a while now I’ve been carrying out an experiment when I walk along pavements, especially in the city centre. When others approach in the opposite direction I used to get out of the way (often even toppling into the road to avoid bumping into them, usually while apologising) but now I’m standing my ground. I make a conscious decision to hold the line and even tilt my head up slightly and give a polite smile as I approach. And you know what? It works. It might take a while but generally the others (sometimes two or three in a line) notice that I’m there and step out of the way to allow me to carry on. There have been one or two shoulder bumps but it’s a price worth paying.

This sounds like a small thing but it’s been kind of profound. It’s as if I’ve suddenly decided that I’m allowed to be here too. And now I walk with a spring in my step. Move aside people, I’m on my way!

Mind the Gap

Here’s another annoying thing about growing older – your teeth start to crumble. The other day I was happily flossing (and therefore, I assumed, being smart) when a corner of one of my front teeth CAME OFF. It felt weird so I looked in the mirror and, sure enough, there was a little triangular gap. I wasn’t even eating crunchy food or biting confidently into an apple at the time. The injustice.

Since it was the weekend I put up with it, and hoped no-one would notice until I could get to see my dentist. It wasn’t sore thankfully, it just felt strange and I had to eat soft food very slowly and carefully. But the most annoying aspect was the odd noise I made when trying to say ‘pstpst’ to the cats. They gave me funny looks which is disappointing, though not unexpected – a pet dog might have been more compassionate. I spent the weekend smiling less, or less fulsomely at any rate, but Chris assures me that it was impossible to tell. Friends only noticed when I pointed it out (while looking for sympathy). 

I also spent the weekend actively looking at other people’s teeth (sorry). And I noticed that very few of us have bright white rows of little chopping instruments in our mouths. We’ve got snaggle-teeth (usually the vampiric incisors), gaps and all sorts of little twists. It makes me a bit sad that cosmetic dentistry is taking over and these interesting smiles might soon be a thing of the past. I like how different we all are and I want to embrace our quirks and twists.

Having said that, I did go to my talented dentist in the end and she fixed it in less than twenty minutes. It’s as if the gap was never there. The rest of my teeth are still a bit wonky (and I’ve no idea what my ‘wisdom’ teeth are doing) but that’s okay. They work when I’m eating and they work when I smile. And that’s good enough for me.