The Loneliness of the Self-Scanner

Been to a supermarket lately? Noticed anything?

Those of us in the UK who don’t have our groceries delivered [and I have penned a blog post about this in the past: Wandering Around in the Bagging Area] and who frequent supermarkets are being subjected to an offensive regarding the way we gather our comestibles etc.

It goes like this: A number of members of staff are allocated to diverting we unwary shoppers into the self-checkout tills, or worse, into the scan-as-you-go system.

From the shop’s point of view, I suppose the aim is ultimately to cut out manned check-outs altogether, chopping their wages bills and perhaps maximising shop floor space.

A quick glance around the store tells me I’m not alone in being unenthusiastic about the automisation of the shopping experience. For a start, it’s not like I haven’t tried it; it’s just that they are never fully automated, are they? Something always goes wrong. A number of people have to be employed simply to sort the glitches which renders the machines pointless-

Then there’s the term ‘self-check-out’. It’s a little too uncomfortable for those in later life. Myself, I’m not ready to ‘check-out’ yet.

Scan-as-you-go may well be the answer to the supermarkets’ prayers but it has no appeal for me.  We have grown used to weighing and labelling our fruit and vegetables in French supermarchés, however I’ve no desire to scan each and every thing I want to toss into my trolley. I want a carefree wander among the aisles, browsing and speculating.

Our nearest grocer is an upmarket, dearer one and dominated by older, retiree shoppers. Some of them are very elderly, shuffling around in slippers and comfort clothing, dependent on the trolley for support. In my younger, more ignorant, more impatient, time-poor days I’d castigate the elderly shoppers, fumbling for their purses, dropping things, peering with rheumy eyes at the card reader, but as one whose hands are no longer entirely at their owner’s bidding I have more sympathy for the slow, muddled, dithering old folks as they dawdle up and down deliberating at the freezers and pondering over the bread.

For a number of the lonely elderly a chat with a checkout operator may well be the only small piece of human contact they’ll get that day. If the human interaction element of the shopping experience is denied them they’ll be deprived of an essential bit of contact. I too want this minute bit of engagement. I want to be greeted, to be asked how I am, to have a snippet of conversation about the loaf I’ve selected or how beautiful the apples look. Maybe when I worked all day [talking] and only wanted to lie down in a dark room when I got home I’d have relished the thought of completing the shopping quickly and in solitary silence but I’m not sure that becoming fully automated is such an advantageous initiative.

There are already threads in the media over our screen use; how we choose to peer at tiny screens instead of conversing, how we’d prefer to play solitary screen games rather than engage with other humans. What effect is all this solitary behaviour going to have on us in the future? Answers on a virtual postcard…

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What Makes You Old?

A woman at my book club told me she didn’t begin to feel old until she reached her sixties. But what exactly is feeling old? Is it to do with physical failings? Memory? Loss of independence? Or does it occur due to fear of death, which, of course comes closer with each passing day?

Sibling 1 moved house last week, after more than thirty years in the same, large, old, character-ful home. He was seventy last year. Like many of us, the old family home has become too large for two growing-older people to manage. His new home is a bungalow; tidy, neat and unremarkable. We live at opposite ends of the country, he and I, communicating sporadically and meeting infrequently, but in his email he writes of needing to walk with a stick, having to ‘get a quart into a pint pot’ [of the downsize they have made], of the various health issues he and his wife are experiencing.

It is dispiriting to read this. While we are dependent, to a degree on fitness to stay the fears of old age, seventy should not, need not feel old, any more than sixty should. After all we are used to seeing footage of centenarians running marathons or parachuting out of planes. So what makes some continue to be adventurous and intrepid in older age and some not?

I believe it is possible to think yourself old and I suspect it has much to do with how you have lived life all along, who you’ve hitched up with, where you’ve taken up residence, what your occupation was and many other, related factors.

The small town Husband and I moved to a year ago has a reputation for being home to the largest population of pensioners in the country and this is often evident on Mondays, when the market in the High Street is beset by swathes of motorised scooters, walking stick wielding geriatrics and silver browsers.

And yet on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night the town hums with fun seekers; music lovers, clubbers, theatre-goers and the pub community thronging the streets. In the pubs there’ll be live bands attended by drinkers and dancers. The restaurants are full and the streets are busy with revellers moving from one venue to another. Look closely and many of these fun-seekers are the same, older folks that were in the market, determinedly rocking the night away. And who can blame them?

What should we do, then? Some simply give in to aches and pains, sit around and eat themselves into a blob. Others don their lycra, deny themselves to anorexia and run, cycle and circuit train themselves into gristle. Personally I prefer the happy medium. I like to walk and cycle and enjoy it all the more with a slice of cake, an ice cream or a glass of wine at the end of it!

But most of all I could never, ever give up to the point of buying and living in a bungalow!

‘When You’re Sixty Four’…dum-de-dum…

I’m about to be 64. ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, the song was written by Paul McCartney when he was sixteen-an age at which you could never imagine becoming sixty four and at which you would think it to be a very old age to be.

Like everyone says, most days my body does feel ancient, but inside my head I don’t feel much different, or old. Every day some part of me aches or feels stiff. I forget things. Words escape me. I’m not au fé with some of the more contemporary aspects of technology [I can’t tell my mega-bytes from my giga-bytes]. Some of the ‘classic’ acts at Glastonbury seem newbies to me.

But I keep abreast of current affairs, I like to try new things and I know it’s best to keep moving regardless of what hurts.

I’ve just reached another age threshold by officially becoming a state pensioner. I’m one of those women whose birthday falls between two dates that have been used to equalise the genders so that men’s and women’s retirement ages are the same. Fair enough. I’ve no quibbles with it. But most delayed pension age women are upset not to have been informed sooner [not until a year before the previous state pension age [60]]. I’ve been fortunate to have paid into an occupational pension scheme, but for many of those who have not there was no time to plan for a later retirement date and many have suffered huge financial losses [with the loss of their home for some] due to the lack of warning.

I’m also about to apply for that Holy Grail of retirement benefits- a bus pass. For the last few years I’ve been trailing behind Husband as he hops on to the bus, flicks his pass on to the scanner and slides into a seat while I scrabble for change or apologise for presenting a note. There have been times when I’ve been the only fully-paid-up passenger on a bus.

I’m also being offered a winter fuel payment and have received a [so far] small amount of state pension payment-at the same time as the announcement that due to a tax adjustment my occupational pension is reduced.

We are constantly being reminded that we have an obligation to keep ourselves healthy; to eat a sensible diet, not over-indulge, not imbibe an excess of alcohol, count steps, not have sugar, do this, don’t do that. Nobody can argue that we should not over-burden our already beleaguered and precious health service.

What a pity, then that three appointments I’ve had to have a scan on a relatively minor problem in my foot have been cancelled because I ‘don’t meet the criteria’ for help. Were the problem to be sorted I could get back to doing my thousands of steps, exercising and doing my bit to keep out of hospital wards and GP surgeries.

Sixty-four eh? However did that manage to creep up on me?

Let It Be

In 1970 The Beatles famously ended their brilliant association with the song, ‘Let It Be’. Letting it be by then would have been the only option, since the differences between them had become more influential than the similarities. But though tragic [for those of us who’d grown up with them at least] it was a wise decision to split and the song really did underline this with Mother Mary’s words of wisdom.

As I get older I find that ‘Let It Be’ becomes more and more of a mantra in my life and gets applied to almost everything I do or say.

Those friends whose response to invitations, messages and contact is sluggish? Let It Be. Get some new friends-or spend more time in the company of more responsive acquaintances. The musical instrument you have striven to coax, cajole, nag and bully your child to practise? Let It Be. Let them pursue the football, pony riding or art club they’d be more likely to enjoy. The climbing rose that you’ve attempted to persuade up and around your pergola about twenty times? Give it up. Plant a durable and exuberant honeysuckle that will not be riddled with black spot and chewed to death by aphids.

We might all lead safer and happier lives if some of the world’s politicians had this ‘zen’ attitude to their policies and reactions. Imagine Korea’s esteemed [by his subjects held at gunpoint] leader posturing and showing off his missiles to be met with the studied indifference a sensible parent gives a tantrum-ing toddler . Oh I know it would take nerves of steel, but with nobody to react to his lunatic threats where would he be? Of course there is still the matter of the continued horrific treatment of the citizens of beleaguered North Korea, which must never, ever be left to let it be…

And if only each new education minister could let it be! Teachers and children could simply get on with the process of their education without constant interference and meddling.

We are in Brittany with our lovely camper van. Let it be is compulsory for this kind of travel. We do have a mirror in the van [Husband uses it for shaving purposes] but other than glancing into it occasionally when dragging a brush through my hair I find looking into it unnecessary-and undesirable. I don’t let personal hygiene be, but the neglect of make-up and grooming products is a very restful state. Strangely, many people’s inhibitions seem to flee on sites and ‘aires’. I’ve seen women in hair curlers and quilted dressing gowns outside their vans in the early mornings cleaning windows and sweeping out; and while this is an admirable pursuit of ‘let it be’ I feel that an absence of curlers and robe would adhere to the principal more strongly.

Of course a day will come when the ultimate ‘Let It Be’ will need to be applied, as it does to each and every one of us-one of the two life events we all have in common. You hope that when this time comes you can meet it with dignity; and maybe the ‘Let It Be’ principal is just preparation for it.

 

Ditch the Bucket-

By the time you read this we’ll be wending our way into the next adventure.

If anyone were to ask me what the most important ways to enjoy retirement were I’d have to say having adventures.

Adventures come in many forms. They may entail travelling somewhere, but travel is not essential to having escapades. All I’m saying is escape from routine is a requirement of happy life. It doesn’t matter what the escape is. A visit somewhere different, an encounter with someone new, learning a skill, joining a shared initiative-these are all adventures, as was the move to a new house we made last year.

A friend who, [by her own careful, clever planning], achieved early retirement tackles a different, arty hobby each year. Some enterprising older folks in Devon have established a business growing and marketing oysters-and have provided employment for many younger people along the way.

You hear a great deal about ‘bucket lists’. In my view these smack of the ghastly ‘targets’ that those of us who are retired are so relieved to have left behind. You don’t want your adventures to be a source of anxiety. It is a blessing to be flexible, to be able to change your mind, revise plans. As we age there are going to be many things we’ll never do, skills we won’t learn, marathons we won’t run, places we’ll never visit, foods we won’t eat, books we won’t read and plays we won’t see.

Three years ago we’d a mind to escape the chilly UK spring and take our camper van down to the Spanish Mediterranean coast where we would visit friends and find somewhere without too much development to enjoy some sunshine [not an easy undertaking, as those who know that coastline will know]. Passing heaps of scruffy snow in northern France we got down as far as Bordeaux and realised the temperatures were not likely to improve any time soon, so took the decision to turn right instead of left, aiming for Portugal. As soon as we crossed the border from Spain it was warm sunshine all the way. Result!

Of course much is published about the poor, subsequent generations and how we, the Boomers have robbed them blind and how they’ll be working themselves into their graves. Most of us, however have done all we can to support our children through further education and beyond, while also caring for aged parents. But having read that life expectancy is increasing by five hours per day I feel that our children and grandchildren, too will enjoy the benefits of retirement, albeit at a later age. I’ve pledged to do my utmost not to be a burden to them when they get there!

Until that time I remain unapologetic about enjoying our freedom. I imagine there may well be a time when I’ll only be able to enjoy the photos and the memories so I’m making sure there will be some to look back on…

 

Not That Ancient!

There are some nasty tricks played by ageing. They creep up in unexpected ways and follow you around waiting to remind you at inopportune moments, peeping over your shoulder into the mirror in the changing cubicles of women’s sections of department stores and mocking you as you attempt to run for the bus.

A couple of weeks ago, whilst waiting in a queue to gain access to the auditorium hosting a Christmas concert by the inmates of my granddaughter’s nursery I was spotted by an acquaintance who told me I looked ‘sprightly’. Sprightly? I am a woman in her [still relatively early] sixties. I am not ready to be called sprightly-a term I feel is reserved for anyone in their eighties or above who has not yet resorted to a Zimmer frame.

Then there was the occasion when I followed a bus-pass wielding woman on to a bus and got waved through by the impatient driver who clearly needed to make up some time and must have assumed I was another pensioner, despite my brandishing the cash in his face.

The fact that I am a pensioner does nothing to alleviate the shock of incidents like these.

I use a strategy to dull the injury of each passing birthday. It is thinking of myself as being the next age number months before it arrives. I call myself ‘old’ or ‘elderly’. I acknowledge arthritic jabs and aches as part of the decadent process. I’ve adopted ‘Granny’ as a grandparent pseudonym in order to brazen out the image it creates. And yet, when the perceptions of others bear it all out I am taken by surprise!

This is the well-known paradox of getting older; the mismatch of how you see yourself v how others view you. What is to be done about it? A friend called before Christmas to tell me she was scheduled for a face-lift, that she ‘should not be so wrinkly at her age’. She, like me is in her sixties. Admittedly she has suffered the indignity of being dumped by her husband of 40+ years [a blessing for her, to my mind] but what if she feels no better after the procedure?

Myself, I think I simply have to do my best. I can scrub up alright if an occasion demands, struggle through a dance-exercise class and get up and down the stairs. I can do basic things on a smartphone, manage to communicate on social media, follow a conversation and even contribute. I won’t pretend I know anything about contemporary music [is there any?] but I have a reasonable grasp of today’s cultural achievements and try to keep up with events in domestic and world politics. I like to think I’ve kept a sense of humour, particularly as it relates to my own state-in other words I don’t get offended by gentle mocking of my ageing state.

BUT- I’m not ready to be called ‘sprightly’. OK? Save it for twenty years time.

Fiction Month. ‘The Courtyard Pest’ [Part 2]

               Nancy has heard enough from Jeffery and takes an escape route. Will she be able to integrate into her new community and can it offer her any of the comfort and friendship she misses?  Part 1 of this story can be found in last Sunday’s’s post on ‘Anecdotage’

The Courtyard Pest

Part 2

               Having had to demonstrate her intention by leaving the flat, she wanders along the High Street and turns down the lane leading to the library. There may be a noticeboard showing local events, groups and activities or at least someone who could point her in the right direction. The building is new with lots of internal glass. She spots a small, neat, grey woman like herself wearing a navy raincoat and realises it is herself, reflected in a rotating door.

The vast space is decorated in garish lime greens and scarlets. At a circular desk she has to wait as one librarian is attending to a young woman with a foreign accent and another is talking on the phone.

At last she is directed across to an area designated ‘local information’ where there are brochures, wall maps and a noticeboard advertising special interest groups and activities. She reads each flyer. There is a cycling club, meeting each Sunday morning at seven, a ‘knit and natter’ group in a church hall on Monday afternoons, there is the WI, the University of the Third Age and Psychic evenings. On a low table is a file labelled ‘cultural events’ and she bends to begin flipping through but is interrupted by a commotion around the reception desk.

Nancy straightens to peer around a bookcase and sees a figure in a beige waistcoat gesticulating at the librarian, who is responding by adopting a decidedly non-library tone and pointing in the direction of the exit doors.

“Mr Marsh, as I’ve said before we cannot stock every periodical and the library is run according to local authority guidelines. Now I’m sorry but unless and until you are able to follow our code of conduct I am going to have to ask you to leave the building and you may be barred from entering the premises in future.”

Her neighbour doesn’t spot her as he is escorted out of the exit doors. She sits down to look through the file of cultural societies, noting one or two phone numbers down then waits ten minutes before she leaves to avoid bumping into him.

She has walked twenty five yards before a dizzy spell threatens to topple her and she stops by a bus stop, clutching the side of the shelter until it has passed, then perching on the narrow plastic bench inside. A bus pulls up, disgorging several passengers; the driver leaning forward to see if she’s getting on. She shakes her head and takes a few deep breaths as the doors wheeze closed.

 

Back in the flat she feels jittery and unsettled. Perhaps getting on with her unpacking will help. But when she leans down from her bed to get a box out from underneath the dizziness descends like a fog and she sits back up, closes her eyes and sinks on to the pillows. A deluge of jumbled images gushes in to a background of piercing squeaks which rise to a crescendo, at which point her eyes fly open and she is aware of the door bell ringing with an insistent, lengthy clang.

“I didn’t know if you were in.” There is an element of reproach in his frown. “I thought I’d better let you know I’ve put some rat poison down in the alley. In case you go out that way. Let me know if you see anything, won’t you?”

It takes Nancy a moment to gather her thoughts. “Yes. Thank you. I will”.

He clears his throat. “Can I interest you in an early evening glass of wine? Over at my place?”

She pulls the edges of her cardigan together, aware that she is dishevelled from sleep. “Just a small one” he continues and she can think of no excuse to refuse. She keeps him at the door while she slips her shoes on and fetches her bag and keys. “All secure?” he asks, as she locks the door.

His flat is as different from hers as an identical design could be, the surfaces crammed with objects, odd-shaped stones, pieces of wood, metal parts of things; the walls clad in pictures, photos, mirrors and hangings. It feels claustrophobic, as if the entire space is closing in on her. She murmurs ‘thanks’ as he hands her a glass, watching as she takes a cautious sip. “Know your wines?” he asks, “Where do you think that one’s from?”

Tempted to say ‘Tesco’ she perches on the edge of a sagging sofa covered in piles of magazines and shakes her head. He grins, holding his glass up to an imaginary light. “Algeria! You wouldn’t know, would you? A friend brought it back from a trip for me. I love the stuff.” He places his glass on the edge of a shelf, snatches up an object from the coffee table and offers it to her. “What do think this is? Any ideas?” She turns the small, circular, metallic item in her hand. It has an opening with a serrated edge like tiny, sharp teeth

“A nut-cracker?”

He chuckles. “It’s a pepper grinder. African. I bet you’ve never seen one like that before!”

She clears her throat. “I must go, Jeffery. I have some calls to make. Thank you for the wine.”

“You haven’t finished it!”

“No. It’s very nice. But I’m not much of a drinker. It goes straight to my head I’m afraid”. She picks up her bag. He continues to stand, tilting the glass up to drain it then twirling the stem as he watches her.

Back in her flat Nancy makes some tea and takes it into the sitting room. She finds the numbers she wrote down in the library. As she picks up the phone she is distracted by a sound. She sits still and concentrates. There! A scraping, grinding sound, like a pot sliding along on the slabs of the courtyard. Jeffery told her if the rats got into the yard they might dig up the bulbs. She goes to the patio door and pulls a curtain back, peering along the shaft of light that’s been cast. But there is nothing other than the pots standing motionless in their places.     A rat, however large would not be strong enough to move a large, terracotta pot full of earth. The sound must have come from something in the alley; someone trundling something along there, perhaps. She picks up the phone again.

It is two twenty three when she wakes, having fallen asleep thinking about her telephone conversation with Rebecca Fripp, of the local amateur dramatic society. Rebecca’s response to Nancy’s enquiry had been Luke-warm, as if she’d be doing her a favour by allowing her to attend a rehearsal. But they always needed ‘front-of-house’ help, she’d said, even though Nancy’d explained about her experience in set design. Once she is awake, she is unable to drift off again and thinks that perhaps she should get up and make tea. She stretches out her hand to the light and there! There is the sound: scrape. Outside the windows.

She freezes, stomach churning, her skin prickly; but forces her feet to the floor; tiptoes through to the kitchen. She takes her time in the half light, pulling open a cupboard door to withdraw a heavy pan with a long handle. She breathes in long, slow pulls like an automaton. She returns to the living room, pan held to her side in one hand and uses a finger to create a slit of light in the long curtains.

A wind has got up, stirring the trees over the alleyway and chasing leaves around the small yard; but there is also a dark, rounded shape moving around the pots. Nancy grips the pan handle and uses her other hand to inch the patio door open. The swishing breeze is louder as she steps outside, flattening her nightie against her legs. She searches for the shape then spots it-moving from behind one pot to another. In two paces she is there. She pulls her arm back straight like a forehand smash and swings hard at the shape. Crunch! The contact is sickening, jarring her arm as she stumbles. The shape topples and she drops her weapon. She takes a step forward to look but the foot gives way, sliding and she falls to her knees in the wetness, confused. There has been no rain so why is there a puddle? Reaching out she feels fur, wetly sticky; then she is swaying, sinking as the fog descends.

 

She is dressed and in the chair when Sarah arrives. “Ready, Mum?”

Got your tablets and everything?”

Nancy nods. She stares at her daughter, eyes wide. She swallows. “Sarah-I can’t, I don’t…”

“Shh-Mum it’s ok. You don’t have to go back to the flat. Danny and I have packed all of your stuff. You can take a case with you today and the rest will follow.”

“How…how is he?”

“He’s doing alright, Mum. He’s a tough old boy. His skull has a small fracture but it will heal. He doesn’t blame you. He’s an idiot to have been there in the middle of the night! ‘Checking the rat bate’, apparently.

A solitary tear rolls down her mother’s face. “I’ve caused so much harm. I’m so sorry”

Sarah takes her hand. “No, Mum. I’m the one who should be sorry. I should never have nagged you to come. Now we must go or we’ll be late.”

Nancy stands and accepts her daughter’s supporting arm. In the car she sinks back, closing her eyes to picture Meg’s sparkly eyes and the way specks of scarlet lipstick are visible on her teeth when she grins. “You don’t have to downsize, dear” her friend had told her, sitting by the hospital bed. “Just come back and live at my place. We can look after each other, can’t we? And you can come back to The Nettlehide Players, where you belong.”

Nancy had nodded, feeling relief course through her like a transfusion. Of course. It was all anyone wanted or needed. To belong.