Archive for October, 2012

When my son was six months or so, his mum offered him a biscuit. He reached out with his left hand, something I immediately spotted. Over the next few months it became clear that he was left-handed. Why did I spot this? Because I should have been left-handed.

I was about four years old and in primary school when a teacher yanked the pencil out of my left hand, stuck it in my right hand and told me: “you don’t write with your left hand.” It was traumatic enough for me to remember it over 50 years later. Usually such early memories are of a painful physical nature – and I have a number of those – but I remember it as if it happened yesterday. And the damage done by this single action has been enormous.

Why was being left-handed frowned upon years ago? Historically, the left side, and subsequently left-handedness, was considered negative in many cultures. The Latin word sinistra originally meant ‘left’ but took on meanings of ‘evil’ or ‘unlucky’ by the Classical Latin era, and this double meaning survives in European derivatives of Latin, and in the English word sinister. Meanings gradually developed from use of these terms in the ancient languages. In many modern European languages, including English, the word for the direction ‘right’ also means ‘correct’ or ‘proper’, and also stands for authority and justice.

I do not understand the concept of right and left. When designing, a common cry in the office used to be: “move the picture to the right – no, the other right.” At a t-junction, it’s a 50:50 call – satnavs have been a godsend as I can quickly cast a glance at the changing map.

If I sit and concentrate I sometimes get it but more often than not I don’t. Take the example of when I did my motorbike test in the mid-90s. The examiner rode on a motorbike behind me, giving me instructions via an earpiece I wore. This was hell for me. At one point he said: “take the next left”. I moved to the middle of the road and looked for the ‘left’ – the other left in my case. After five minutes or so, he told me to “pull into the petrol station ON THE LEFT.” I looked and looked and then as my eyes glanced across the road I realised my mistake. We pulled in and he left me to calm down for a few minutes. My error meant I spent over an hour and a quarter on the road instead of 45 minutes. When we got back to the testing station, he asked me all the standard Highway Code questions and then said:

Well I’m pleased to tell you that you’ve passed but I have one question for you.
What’s that? I asked.
What the f**k were you doing when I told you to turn left??

Apparently the reason I passed was because I did all the correct manoeuvres for a right-hand turn. I should have been prepared for this – I did the same thing in my mock motorbike test. And my car test. And my mock car test too!

This has also adversely affected me as a maths teacher. When teaching negative numbers, most teachers use a horizontal number line with the negative sign being used as a direction along this line. For me this is purgatory! I adopt the other approach of using a vertical number line and comparing the direction of negative numbers with a lift going up and down. Even if I could understand left and right I’d probably still use this approach because pupils tend to ‘get it’ better – but I wouldn’t have used it at all without my problem.

What exacerbates the situation is that I’m left eye dominant (as are most left-handed people) so I naturally aim with my left eye. It used to be fun trying to play snooker: I had to put my chin over the cue to be able to sight with my left eye. Karate was fun too as was dancing many years ago. How difficult can it be to put your left foot forwards? In my case, very! And as for my handwriting… The only advantage here is that I can read anyone else’s no matter how illegible!

Is it a disability? Not really but it has hindered me in a number of ways. The first time I picked up a guitar (aged 12 or so), the salesman pulled it out of my hands, turned it round and said “you play guitar this way round.” Who knows – I could have been the next Jimi Hendrix!

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“I love you”

The three magic words.

“Je t’aime”, “Te amo”, “Ti amo”, “愛してるよ”, “Ich liebe dich”. Poetic in any language (Ok, a bit of a stretch in German). But what does it really mean? How far would you go for someone you say you love? I’ll take a male perspective on this.

Treat this like a game of snakes and ladders. Let’s start with an easy one. Would you pass on your favourite TV programme to allow your loved one to watch a different channel? Forget Sky+, Tivo or the like. No recording. One TV. Would you? Most of the group will go up the nearest ladder.

You’ve been asked to spend the evening with a couple you really loathe. A cosy foursome. You’d rather have your teeth pulled without anesthetic. Up the next ladder or exit via the nearest snake? There should be a decent queue for the ladder.

A favourite band hasn’t played in your country for over 10 years. You have tickets for you and a friend when your partner informs you she has tickets for the ballet. Two tickets. One for you. The ballet. What do you do? Is this the straw? Probably not. A few might skip the ladder for the downward trail but most of the group’s still together.

Your partner’s had a really bad day at work, comes home and wants you to sit down and listen. Just listen. Not solve their problems the way you usually do. Just listen. Five minutes, ten minutes. You have deadlines to meet, you’re running seriously late. Fifteen minutes, twenty minutes. It’s interminable. You sit, you smile, you feign interest. After half an hour you’re ready to jump. The nearby snake beckons but there’s still plenty of you lining up for the next ladder.

So far so easy – now let’s up the ante. Money. Your partner steals from their company. Hundreds of thousands of pounds. Blows it on gambling or another addiction. To keep them out of prison you have to sell your house and hock your future. Nothing left. Nothing at all. Do you do it? And then do you stay with them? The queue for the downward slide suddenly increases and there’s more space for the rest to climb the next ladder.

Your loved one is terminally ill. They don’t want a local authority or privately-funded carer – they want you to look after them. No hospice. They choose to see out their days at home. For how long can you cope with this emotional and physical rollercoaster. Do you bail or do you see it through to the end? I never said these would be easy decisions. The group is definitely starting to thin out as it approaches the next ladder.

A close family member is critically ill and needs a kidney. You are a perfect match but you find that one of yours is damaged. You could donate the other one but doing so would compromise your health. Dialysis and a shortened lifespan. The hospital advises against this and your partner questions your sanity but the alternative is to watch your brother, sister or parent die. What do you do? Do you accept the curtailment of your active life or draw the line? Not too many left in the group as the final ladder approaches.

As your wife or child crosses the road, you see the oncoming car they’ve missed. You can get to them but to do so would signal the end of your life. Would you die for them? Don’t just say ‘yes’ for the sake of it. Could you definitely make that ultimate sacrifice or in the final moment of reckoning would you hold back?

How many of you made it to the end of the game? Don’t feel contrite if you didn’t. We’re all human and fallible. Sometimes what we do is driven by a desire not to feel guilty rather than real commitment. And I haven’t even touched on the religious implications.

So next time you go to tell someone ‘I love you’, just stop and ask yourself: how much do you really love them. Would you give your life for them?

Me? I’m not giving up the TV remote control for anyone!

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As a year has passed since I left Jewish Care, I thought it opportune to take stock.

While I left in October 2011, the process of change started three months before. That timeframe exacerbated the level of stress I felt and by the time I left I was wrecked, physically, mentally and emotionally. Going straight into another job with that level of baggage wasn’t the most sensible thing I’ve ever done. That said, I found out pretty quickly that the black art of t-shirt printing really wasn’t for me.

So what have I done courtesy of being made redundant? Let’s start with what I haven’t done. I didn’t seek counselling or any employment assistance although both were offered by friends. I felt from the beginning that I needed to work this out for myself, that any gains I made would be stronger that way. For me it was the right move; others have chosen different paths. As mentioned in a previous blog, I also realised early on that no-one owed me anything nor would anyone do anything to help me. Not quite true but a healthy attitude. When you’re employed you have the safety net of a job even if you’re disgruntled and looking to move on. Once out of a job you have to learn to stand on your own two feet – and quickly.

Once I had made the decision not to return to full-time employment, I also made the decision to work to my skill strengths. Unfortunately the world has moved on! Even though I have a 25-year history as a journalist, my areas of writing (music and computing) have been superseded by blogs and on-line news and features. Many of the paper-based magazines I wrote for no longer exist and those that do have very small budgets and a small group of loyal writers.

I spent 10 years as a maths teacher followed by 10 years in commercial publishing. The market for the latter may have contracted but certainly not the former. There are numerous local secondary schools looking for maths teachers and had I wanted a full-time job, I could have had my pick. Instead I went down the tutoring route, something I had taken seriously throughout my teaching career. For me, one-to-one tutoring is real teaching. I don’t have to be concerned about discipline or trying to engage all pupils in a classroom. There’s also less admin work though with over 15 students, I take the work very seriously and do far more planning than I ever used to!

The real godsend for me has been gumtree. I found my tutoring agencies through gumtree along with an ad for Mad Science and the radio room for the Olympics. It’s a real treasure trove as long as you don’t mind trawling through thousands of ads to find the right ones for you.

Swings and roundabouts
So what have I lost in the past 12 months? For starters, a regular income and job security. More importantly, the camaraderie of being part of a team: I miss the team I spent years working with. I’ve also lost the daily routine that anyone in a full-time job has.

What have I gained? Time and choice. The time to do things I haven’t been able to for years and the choice of where, when and whom I work for. Prior to six months ago I had never worked with primary school-aged children. Now I teach maths to ten-year-olds sitting secondary school entrance exams and ‘mad’ science to much younger kids. It is difficult to put into words how fulfilling this is. I still tutor GCSE students too. And had I been employed full-time I would never have been involved with the Olympics, an experience I will treasure.

I’ve also gained three tattoos but let’s not dwell on those!

The highs and lows are more dynamic now than when I was employed. On days when I’m on my own I can get quite low. When I’m tutoring or in a classroom doing science experiments the satisfaction can be huge. I frequently come home from such work feeling that I have the best job in the world!

Am I still angry at my redundancy? Yes, especially the process I went through. Have all the decisions I’ve made over the past 12 months been the right ones? Most of them. I’ve turned down one or two opportunities and then wondered whether I made the correct decision but so far, so good. Will I ever get a full-time job again? I hope not!

To those of you who have shown faith in me, both personally and professionally, over the past 12 months, thank you. Your support has meant a lot to me. Don’t forget to email me or pick up the phone occasionally!

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