Friday, December 16, 2011

The music weaver

Imagine in three dimensions, with texture and pulse
I often visualise sounds as shapes. I'm not sure I can explain it in words, but a certain tone of voice, or the sound of an instrument, will give me a sense of shape - like a flowing, fluid metal in a particular width and form. It's not sinesthesia (though I do sometimes dream where my perceptions confuse in this way, which is most peculiar), but more a way of feeling how the sound connects with me. Perhaps even with my very molecules.

Last night I went with friends to the chilly Fitzwilliam Museum. On a December evening, with the threat promised of snow hidden by the cold rain, we joined perhaps a hundred others in Gallery 3. Up the magnificent staircase, with the beautiful dome above us, the sumptuous surroundings were chill.

Once seated and settled, the crowd (mostly senior, but with an eclectic mix that is so typical of Cambridge), we applauded as the Granta Chorale entered and took their places, ready to regale us with Christmas music. Gaudete, with a smart percussion accompaniment from the conductress, lifted the room with its strident time signature and tight harmonies. A nice start to the evening.

Her hands now free of her small tambourine tabor, the conductress orchestrated the singers as they offered renditions of Christmas music new and old, English, European and American. She took the music as it spun from the singers and - her hands dancing and manipulating the sounds in the air - she wove it's complex patterns and then released it to us, moulded and melded.

If you can imagine someone teasing clouds with their fingers, taking those insubstantial wisps of sound and weaving them into complex and beautiful patterns, then you can perhaps imagine how it seemed to me. The singers provided the thread, and she took each colourful note and created the skein that we wrapped about our senses. Oh yes, one or two cords snagged, but on the whole we were draped in a beautiful blanket of sound.

I looked up to the angels above us - perhaps enjoying their names being sung in praise within their frigid home up in the rooftop. Cold marble, dusty and dry, eyes unseeing and unseeable. Around us the portraits seemed to smile, attentively, joining us as audience for the evening. Even the horseman in his bold red coat seemed to pause, and listen to us through the window of his gilt frame.

For one day, they stopped. Just one day.
Further entertainment was provided with two non-musical interludes - John Betjeman's poem Christmas - performed not just recited. And later in the evening, readings from the letters of servicemen from the 1914 Christmas truce. Tears in my eyes at the beauty of the words, simply said, written so long ago by men who had seen such horror, and yet could share such moments of humanity and move us still.

Join us and sing, Silent Night, in German and English. A single Carol, that had united two warring forces. For just a day. The audience raised it's voice to join the choir, and the conductress turned her skills upon us.

Light and careless almost, the last songs were mirthful and bright. Jingle bells adding that seasonal spice, like cinnamon.

At the end of the evening I had simply attended a rather nice concert, with a good choir, in a beautiful setting. But I had also seen a little bit of magic in a pair of hands.

Soundwaves image- borrowed from http://www.sonicmusicproduction.com/
WWI Photograph - found on the web, no original credit known

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Charity begins...

I just heard on Radio 4 that the BBC appeal at Xmas last year, with St Martin's, raised more money than ever before. And Comic Relief raised record amounts - when we are in the midst of a very difficult economic period (with a further recession predicted).

So are people giving more, even though funds are tighter and the cost of living is rising in excess of most peoples' pay rises (if they are lucky enough to have one)?

I'm not sure. I think people are still giving, but giving more selectively. Third Sector magazine, which reports on the not for profit world, says that anecdotally that 'people are saying that things are getting tougher' (which is really no surprise). The UK's largest fundraising charity this year has reported a fall in voluntary income.   So how do we match record figures for appeals like Comic Relief against falling income for many charities?

In recent years we have had some awful international disasters - floods, famine, tsunamis... and the great British public has responded generously and speedily.  I personally think that people like to give to something they feel they can make a difference to now. Investing in medical research, conservation or third world development has tremendous long term impact, but it's the emotive 'quick fix' fundraising appeal that is giving people the feeling they want when they give. Our instant gratification society - something will happen, quickly, as a result of their gift:

My £2 a month will feed that dog. My £20 now will provide a tent and clean water for the refugees from the flood.  My £5 will buy a goat for a farmer in Africa.

So how does Comic Relief fit in? In this case, I feel it's about the ask being immediate. We are doing it 'once', and 'now', and responding to emotive issues within the context of entertainment and appeals from those who command our respect (well, so I understand celebrity appeal to be, though it's not what floats my boat).

Comic Relief is a 'quick fix' charity ask. The quickness being that it is a very time limited appeal (though fundraising goes on all year, it does have this one day annual highlight), and that the maximum interaction with donors and supporters is focused around a short time period.

So are people giving more, or not giving more? Are people cutting their charitable giving, or not?  In recent months charities have seen a decline in direct debit giving, probably a result of financial reviewing as times get harder.  Rather than have an automatic gift going out each month to one or more charities, individuals are giving as and when the appeal appeals to them. The 'now'.

The other main reason that some charities may actually be growing in income (the smaller ones are benefiting more than the larger ones), is association. Direct association with a cause will give you dedicated, long-term supporters who will continue to support your cause even during difficult times. Whether the association is through experience (for example, a disease or condition) or a passion (eg conservation or education), the stronger someone feels about something, the more likely they are to continue their support even when it is financially challenging.

So who is giving? Are the rich rallying round in these tough times and supporting charities more? Especially given the tax breaks that high earners get by donating to charity?

Interestingly, it is those with lower incomes who give the most (percentage wise) of what they earn to charities. These people are probably those who watch Comic Relief, and receive appeals from charities through the post on a regular basis.

The other area where charitable giving is getting stronger is through active and challenge fundraising. For example, doing a charity parachute jump, a walk, marathon or mountain climb. The strength of appeal in this area is that the individual gets something for their efforts (realisation of an ambition or meeting a personal challenge) and they can engage supporters around them to contribute without any further expectation from them. It's easy to donate to a friend doing an event - you just sponsor them, give them the money. You don't even have to engage with the charity that is being supported, just with your friend the fundraiser.  Given these hard times, I can see the logic for this mode of fundraising to be increasing in popularity. Everyone is a winner (in most cases!).

There are 161,669 charities registered in England. What do you support? Who do you support - a charity in your neighbourhood, or a cause you believe in? Something that you have a long term commitment to, or do you just respond as and when asked?

These are just my thoughts, from both working in the sector and as a donor myself.  I would like to know what you think.

Useful links:

Third Sector
Charities Commission
Comic Relief
The Big Give - make your donation to charity worth double
Charity Challenges (one of the many companies)
Chronicle of Philanthropy - what happens in the US usually follows on in the UK

Photograph courtesy of Alzheimer's Research UK

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Squirrel!

The village where I work is not that huge, but there are some lovely houses. And around the houses, gardens, and in the gardens, trees.

In one garden is a huge sycamore - bare but for clusters of seeds at the end of thin twigs. I stood and watched half a dozen squirrels hopping about the lawn, diligently digging around in the leaf litter on a wet green lawn for winter snacks.

I could hear the sound of the seeds falling from the trees - and some of these spinning jennies hit me as I stood quietly watching these industrious little rodents. Cute simply by dint of a fluffy tail and their boldness (but otherwise no more than a pretty tree rat).

Enchanted as I was with this family of Sciuridae, I looked up to see the branches silhouetted against a dull grey sky. And saw that the seeds descending upon me were not victims of natural autumn fall, but rejects from more of the family, balanced acrobatically right above my head.  

AFter about five minutes of simply standing watching the squirrels, I decided to move on. A car had pulled up at the side of the road. 'Three squirrels' said one emerging occupant as she looked up at the tree to see what I had been watching. 'Eleven of them'. I added - for that's how many I'd counted on the ground and in the tree.

I may try some photographs tomorrow - they were posing so perfectly. And there's still a few seeds left on the tree.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Crocs in the Fens

The other night I helped out at a tasting evening at Johnsons of Old Hurst. Through a friend of a friend, I ended up manning a stall selling sloe gin, sloe whiskey, sloe vodka,sloe brandy, cherry brandy and damson brandy. Being a person of timeliness most of the time, I turned up early. Way too early. I fell asleep in the car in the late evening sunshine listening to Radio 4 and watching crows on the fence debating whether a toy tractor in the kids yard was a good place to poop or not.

I didn't snooze for long though, my phone woke me with a start. My friend C1 was not far away in Huntingdon. I had an hour and a half before my new-found colleague from Sloe Motion arrived, so she drove up to join me and we headed to the cafe for a hot chocolate. But there was a large modern barn, with a glass side, next to the cafe. And a sign that said 'to the crocodiles'. Who could resist? Sure enough, there were four crocs in or by the pool. You can see a video of them on Youtube.

The farm was in the middle of a building project, there were builders and farm workers running around everywhere. Though the cafe was actually closed, a nice young lady let us have our hot chocolates and I enquired whether the tasting event was to be held in the cafe that evening. No, she replied, she was preparing to feed all the builders. The tasting evening was taking place in the new build outside - which wasn't finished.

Amazingly enough, they did get the building finished enough to run the event. A horseshoe shaped series of barns linked together with exit into the farm shop (stocked with fresh meat, veg and a whole host of wonderful tasty delicatessen type goodies). My new colleague arrived and C1 waved farewell, wishing me luck.

After a thorough briefing on the making of sloe gin, the farm where it's grown and the history of  the drink, I was ready! Thankfully the barn was just about ready too, with a cardboard door to prevent egress without visiting the farm shop.

The farm staff were really friendly and helpful, and I think Sloe Motion were the only third party supplier there. As seven thirty approached, the queue began. And it was a huge queue! Steadily from 7.30 to 9.45 a non-stop stream of general public entered through one end of the barn and tasted their way down sausages, pork pies, multiple cheeses and fruit concoctions to eventually finish their session off with a quick slug of sloe gin (or whisky etc). Of the two hundred or more people who paraded through the tasting alley, I was amazed to bump into two people I knew. Yes, out there in the Fens, nowhere near my usual territory at all. One was the son of my ex next door neighbour, the other a nurse I had previously worked with. They both recognised me (not I them) 'by the earrings', Julie said. Hmm... I am known for my dangly earrings when I remember to wear them.

Generally the evening was a great success with the farm shop doing brisk business and lots of complimentary comments on the various comestibles. As the general public thinned and the tables were bare but for crumbs of their delicacies, we tidied up and chatted. The farmer and his family were very friendly and mostly wore US Western gear. I fit right in with my Arizona cowboy boots!

After I had packed up, I went into the shop and bought some lovely veg and was very kindly given a present of some sausages by the farmer. That was really kind! And, of course, they tasted delicious. They weren't crocodile sausages, but you will be able to buy crocodile meat from him soon.

Photo courtsey of National Geographic

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Are celebrities ashamed?

I have worked in the charity sector for some time and often used this resource 'Look to the Stars' which tells you which charities celebrities support, and which charities are supported by which celebrities.  It's useful when you are researching someone to see if they support a charity like yours, or have a particular interest.  And also interesting if you just like finding out about celebrities.

Annie Lennox supports more
than 30 different charities
When I looked at education, cancer, environment and child related charities the numbers of celebrity supporters ranged from 85-115. Yes, a big charity with a wide emotive appeal may have more than a hundred celebrities who are prepared to put their name down next to that charity and offer support in whatever way they can. Sometimes it's just a name on a list or attending a function, sometimes it's full fledged fundraising or financial support. Most of the time it falls somewhere in between.

When you look on the site and find out how many celebrities have nailed their colours to the mast of Alzheimer's - you get ten. Just ten. Yet dementia is one of the most pressing issues in the western world. So my question 'are celebrities ashamed?' is a valid one.  Are they not willing to put their name to a charity that deals with addressing a challenge that very possibly faces us all? At least 50% of the UK population know or have a relative with dementia, and something like one in three over 65 will die with a dementia related illness over the next thirty years. So why aren't there more high profile individuals who support research and care for dementia?  I don't suppose any celebrities will pipe up and respond to my question.

My thoughts are - and these are just my personal thoughts - that they are if not ashamed, perhaps embarrassed. I think most people have a cautious reaction to dementia because the symptoms manifest in behaviour change. Dementia patients are very often fit and healthy - yet their behaviour and cognitive abilities make them 'difficult' to manage in a society where we have a culture that aspires to youth, health, beauty and (I think there is irony here) celebrity.

Sir Terry Pratchett
Yes there are celebrities who support dementia and they will have a tale to tell of close personal involvement and the distress that is unavoidable with this degenerative disease. Sir Terry Pratchett has been very active in his media awareness campaigns about Alzheimer's - understandably as his own health deteriorates with the rare version he has. Glen Campbell has openly told people he has the disease and is doing a last tour 'while he still can'. Actors Tony Robinson and Larry Hagman, entertainer Russell Grant and musician Sir Cliff Richard have lost loved ones to Alzheimer's. But with dementia affecting nearly a million people in the UK alone - surely they aren't the only ones?

But I am not laying the blame for lack of public understanding of dementia at the feet of celebrities or any one part of society. Every single one of us must look into our own hearts. There are very few of us who will not be coming into contact with it over the next thirty years.

Useful links:

Alzheimer's Research UK
Alzheimer's Society
Dementia statistics
Look to the Stars

Photographs - from Look to the Stars website

Monday, October 24, 2011

La Traviata

My good friends at the University of Essex gave me a fabulous farewell present - two tickets to La Traviata at the London Opera House.  Though I left Essex back in July, my tickets were not until October - last Saturday to be precise. And well worth waiting for!

La Traviata means 'the tramp'. Well, ok it translates as 'the fallen woman' but tramp kind of says it all. But in fact she is just a good time girl who is having a ball, makes the fatal mistake of falling in love and discovers she has consumption (tuberculosis). All set for a fun-filled evening?!

Yes! The singing was amazing, the set and costumes sumptuous as expected. And I managed to spot Philip - one of the chorus. Now why was I interested in spotting a member of the chorus? Because by mad chance, I had played bass for a celidh band for his 50th birthday the previous week in Lewisham. Small world, eh? Don't go to the opera for years, then bump into several of the cast of the next opera I am going to see within seven days.

I asked my friend to come with me so that we could have a good old 'girls night' on the town. She was due to arrive for lunch but the vagaries of a closed M11 delayed her arrival. Instead of duck and wild rice for lunch we had a couple of hasty but tasty duck sandwiches.

Anyway, back to the opera. We travelled on the train to Kings Cross, then to Covent Garden. Oh boy, I don't like those lifts at that station! We wandered round the market for a bit and had some supper (take away jacket potatoes) and a drink. Then to the opera house for our dose of culture!

But I'm getting ahead of myself, because on the train journey we met an interesting chap. Sitting in seats parallel to us were two young men, early 30s probably, with accompanying tins of cider  and shiny bomber jackets (and a Protestant tie). The one nearest me leaned over and, in a very broad Scots accent, asked if we minded him asking where we were going? Of course not, I replied, the opera.  What ensued may not be what you would typically expect. We then had a conversation about modern art, in particular Picasso. This young man and his colleague were on their way to Corby to an art exhibition. Don't go by appearances. The two lads departed at Stevenage and wished us well for our evening. We responded likewise, hoping they remained sober enough to reach their art exhibition.

We arrived at Kings Cross to refill our oyster cards and hit the underground. My friend queued up at the ticket windown and the young man serving her said 'any railcards, like senior citizens?' Standing nearby I could not help but hoot with laughter! My friend is many years off her senior citizens railcard! The ticket seller looked up and, as much as a gent with such lovely dark skin could, went as red as possible with embarassment. I perhaps shouldn't have put this, but it was terribly funny.

We did eventually reach the opera and, though sat high, we still had a reasonably good view and the show was fabulous. We enjoyed a wine in the wonderfully refurbished bar at the interval, and left (shamefully) before the final curtain calls so we could join the throng at the underground station before it became too like a cattle market.

The journey back was speedy and pleasant, with us both tired and relaxed after a full evening's culture. And I don't just mean the opera.

Photograph of the opera from the Guardian review. All copyright remains with the original publisher.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Jerry the knife, Colonel T and Bob

I met some interesting people in Arizona - and I'll tell you about three of them. Let's start with 'Jerry the knife'. No, that's not his name or his handle or street name or whatever, I just think it made a good title. But Jerry and knives do go together, as you will find out.

I met Jerry (and Colonel T and Bob) at a baseball game. They came with us and Sean, who had got us the tickets thanks to his Sergeant. I didn't get to meet the sergeant to say thanks, but I did see him at a distance and noticed he was one of the few individuals wearing a Pirates hat at a Diamondbacks game (their stadium, playing the Pirates).

Jerry is in his early twenties and looks like a young, beardless, blond Jack Black. He had that same enigmatic half smile, that hints at hidden wisdom (perhaps). After the game, we went to Sean's for a barbecue and I spent quite a bit of time talking with Jerry. He was very soft spoken, wore black and we had in depth talks about environment, food security and respect. A gentle soul, mostly I think. He is a computer nerd, and does some work for people fixing this and that. But the other way he earns money is demonstrating a high quality set of kitchen knives. I can imagine him being very good at it, with his soft spoken way and demonstrating how swiftly and effectively his cordon bleu kitchen weaponry can slice through even the soggiest tomato.

He didn't get a chance to demonstrate his knives to us, though he was quite persistent in bringing the subject up after the BBQ, especially as we gave him a lift back to his apartment. 'The knives are just in the house, I could bring them out quickly and show you...' No thank you Jerry.

He also told us that his brother lived in the next building. His brother is a twin, but likes to wear cowboy hats and walks with a silver topped cane. This caused the local supermarket checkout lady a lot of confusion until she finally twigged that there were two of 'him'.

So that was Jerry the knife - a nice guy, and not the sort of person I am likely to bump into all that often in the normal run of things.

But this BBQ also had Colonel T and Bob - as well as Sean, myself, Sandra (Sean's girlfriend), Les and Nadine. An odd assortment in many ways.

Bob and Colonel T are brothers. They are both in their late sixties I'd say, and both work with Sean doing 'serving'. Serving writs for lawyers - delivering papers to people who really don't want those papers. Bob is a retired fingerprint specialist who still does some consultancy. He was a big guy with a big personality, and a lot of tales to tell. The sort of crime scenes he was called to were probably not the type I wanted to hear detailed descriptions of, but he could certainly write an interesting book about the things he's done. He took my fingerprint and pressed it onto a business card. He always carries his little ink pad with him.

His brother, Colonel T, told us tales of his visit to Italy when he was younger. The family originally came from there, and he had visited a valley that suffered a famous flood in the early 60s. He'd got out of the valley just hours before the disaster. He was also quiet a lot of time, unless he was talking, because he was partially deaf. 'I was an artillery gunner for years, makes you deaf'.

These are not the sort of people I usually meet - and they are interesting and different and talking with them was an enriching experience. I may see some of them again (I have met Jerry once before, so am likely to meet him again), I may never see them again. Either way, they have given me something to write about.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Letters to my brother

Hi Phil

I still hold out some hope that you are out there and may, on occasion, do a bit of internet searching and find me. But even if you don't, it's still good to talk to you - in the only way I can.

I've just got back from a holiday in Arizona and had a fabulous time. I really enjoyed walking round the various environments - it's such a diverse state! I think you could probably fit GB inside Arizona about six times...

I go out there in particular to visit my friend Nadine, but also it's a place I really like. Lots of interesting birds, wildlife and architecture. (See my visit to Ramsey Canyon, amazing!)

At the moment I'm living just with Mel - it's weird! Number one son is away at Uni again, and husband is living with his partner the other side of Cambridge. So I am learning to be single. Weird feeling - having never actually lived on my own. Well, OK, I'm living with Mel so I'm not 'on my own', but she's nearly 18 and not exactly living in my pocket.  It is nice to come home when she's in though.

Do you like the picture I posted? It's our dad's half-brother, Peter, in 1925 on the boat out to Australia. He was just 16 when he was shipped off to Oz. I found out all about him from his granddaughter, who is some kind of cousin to us I guess. Her great grand-mother (Elsa) was our grandmother. I know dad always wanted to know what happened to him, so it's kind of cool to find out now.

I have a new job which is really enjoyable and hugely challenging - I'm learning lots of new stuff and really stretching my brain. But it's very worthwhile and with a subject like dementia, something that's going to affect us all at some point I guess.

But mum's ok, she's not got any signs of dementia any more than the usual forgetfulness that we all experience. The difference between being forgetful and dementia or Alzheimer's has been explained to me really simply: "Forgetting where you put your keys is one thing; putting your keys in the fridge is another." Makes sense, doesn't it?

Sally has health issues of course, she'll be 80 in January after all. One of them is macular degeneration which really affects her eyesight, but there's not a lot that can be done unfortunately. She's managing fine now and in fact has just been on a two week holiday with Daphne down to Cornwall and the South coast.

She's given up the house in Mallorca now - it was too hard for her to manage. But Carlota has said we can go visit any time we want. It would be nice to go back out there, but it won't be the same.

Well, back to work, but - just wanted to catch up.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Friends we've never met

There's a well known line that a 'stranger is just a friend you've never met'. Well, that's a lovely rule to follow, but not always true of course. And in pre-internet days you'd never have made a friend you'd never met except, perhaps, a pen pal.

But the delights of the internet are that you can make friends, real friends, that you've never met. And sometimes you get to meet them, and sometimes you don't.

I have good friends - friends who came into my life in different ways and some who were here for a reason, a season, and a lifetime.

I have friends I made over the internet such as Cathy (in Ireland) and Nadine (in the US, pictured left)  who I have met and who have deeply influenced my life. They've been a terrific support in hard times, great fun in good times, and opened up my life. I now travel to Ireland and the US to visit them and we will be friends come hell or high water!

There are also 'lost' friends you find again on the internet. Facebook is a typical example of how this can happen. An old school friend, a former lover, a long-lost family member... or a friend of a friend that you share interests with.

There are also friends I've made who I've never met. There are people I have learned to admire like WoodlandDave on Twitter. A real nature explorer and education specialist. I've never met him, but I know he's someone I would like. And then there's Linny - we don't just tweet at eachother, we have a dialogue and we 'chat' over twitter and Facebook. I know already I like her. She is a friend, even though we've never met.

The internet is, of course, a potential minefield of danger and duplicity. But if, like me, your basic instinct is trust, it can be a heck of a good place to make new friends. Just don't ever send money, and never arrange to meet anyone you aren't absolutely sure of.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Ramsey Canyon

What a wonderful place! This nature reserve, just 28 miles from the border with Mexico (don't go after dark! It's not just the bears that'll get you), is a beautiful little canyon that is home to many amazing animals and birds native to Arizona.

My first and most favourite is the hummingbird - and the conservancy put out feeders so you can just sit back and watch those beauties buzz around like feathered bees.  Most of them are no more than a few inches long - and their flight patterns almost impossible to follow as they zoom around to sip nectar  (whether it's in a flower or a feeder).

The best photographs, consequently, are of them at rest. But I have a whole lot more pictures on my flickr account - just take a look when you get the chance. 

However, as soon as we pulled up in the parking lot at the Canyon, the first thing I saw was some hawk zoom into the woods next to us. I got the camera out and took a shot through the trees - it was a Cooper's Hawk I think. Anyway, he posed a good while, so I got some nice pictures.

We entered the Canyon and the scenery was amazing - unlike where I'm staying up near Phoenix (which is desert) this is a lush green environment with beautiful trees and mountains.

As well as the birdlife, we saw lots of squirrels and lizards. As we came out of the canyon, one of the conservancy workers was very excited as he'd just seen a bobcat and a deer. We were also told that early in the morning (on the higher trail which we didn't take) someone had seen a bear and a mountain lion. The bear was likely, the lion not quite so - but it was amazing to think we were so close to these wild creatures. And reassuring to know we were unlikely to bump into them too!

We spent a good few hours in the canyon walking just over a mile - but it was wonderful just to look at the birds and the plants, listening to the gently burbling stream and admiring the handiwork of early settlers who'd built their log cabins and managed to eke out a living in this lush, but difficult environment over a hundred years ago.

If you love wildlife and are going to Arizona or south New Mexico, don't miss out. Ramsey Canyon is a real treasure.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Buddy can you spare a biscuit?

Halfway to Sierra Vista and we stop over at a well known fried chicken emporium where a dandy white suit and a bowtie are the preferred attire of the founder.

We went in and Nad said 'you have to try a biscuit'. This was following a conversation in the car (road trip!) about cookies, crackers and biscuits.

In this instance, a biscuit was a scone. A savoury scone - but nonetheless light, fluffy, round and about an inch and a half high. But this wasn't a scone, this was a biscuit. And very tasty it was too - unlike the dried up carcass of spiced chicken limb accompanied by 'wedges' (which were, I believe, once parts of a potato).

After completely confusing the gent serving us with my English accent, we ate our meal and looked at the view outside, admiring the amazing scenery. Buddy (he wore a anme badge on his bright red shirt) came out to talk to us. 'Noticed the camera'. Though he may not have served us the best meal in the world, he turned out to be a valuable contributor to our road trip.  Buddy told us how he'd 'worked in nearly all the states in the US, fifteen of them' (funny, I thought there were more than that) and how he loved this place the best.

And Buddy told us about Ramsey Canyon, just south of Sierra Vista. He told us how to get there, and how we could see hummingbirds (on that word I was instantly sold, of course) just everywhere.

We visted Ramsey Canyon, part of The Nature Conservancy, the next day and it turned out to be a wonderful place. We spent a whole morning there - I could have spent a week. So thanks Buddy, I'll always be grateful for your tip, if not the stomach ache.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Three strikes and you're ... very confused!

My first baseball game! Between the Arizona Diamondbacks (D-Backs) and the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was, I am told, one of the worst games that any of my American friends had ever seen! There was very little hitting of the ball, lots of waiting around and they only seemed to score in binary... 0,0,0,1,0...

But the advantage of the game being slow was that Sean could explain every move and game play to me as we went along and I didn't miss a thing. Well, how can you when most of the play is just something that happens between adverts?

Oh, and 'kiss cam', and the mascot race, and the camera zooming around the stadium to encourage people to gasp with amazement as they see themselves live on the huge screen. This inevitably prompted them to displays of dancing, hands over wide open mouth and mad waving.

OK, so back to the game. This was the second game in a series of 3. The D-backs won the first game - but the Pirates were up (and indeed won) this time. D-backs in white, pirates in black and grey. There's the pitcher (which is like a bowler, not a huge jug), and the batters (or batsmen? I'm not sure). There are bases which get loaded (batters on them, not drunk) and a mound that the pitcher stands on. They don't always run, sometimes they get a walk. That's usually because of four bad balls. But if the pitcher throws three stikes, which means the batter misses and the catcher catches, then the batsman is out. And it goes three in, change - team, next three in - change. So it's fast paced as per who is batting.

There are nine innings, unless something happens earlier on which means... ooh I don't know. A home run is hitting the ball right outside the yellow line (forwards only, sideways or behind is out). I didn't see any of them. But lots of long high balls that were caught.

Of course I had to have 'baseball game food'. I had nachos and cheese. My friends  had hot dogs and a huge apple covered in toffee and chocolate sprinkles.

Three hours later, and about 5 or six runs later (made up in stages, not home runs), I had seen my first complete ball game.

Summary: take cricket, mix it with rounders and then throw in some random rules = baseball. Oh, and a lot of fun actually too.

For more photos, visit my Flickr account.

Monday, September 19, 2011

San Tan Sunrise

5am. The air is chill. Crickets sing lazy goodnight an the sky turns amber. Outlines of mountains, trees and seguaro, profiles sharp and clear. Silent cyclist clicks by. Sweet smell of fresh cut grass - so strange in this desert - as the early morning routine upon the golf course takes its path towards the burgeoning heat. I sit and listen, and watch. My head full of words.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Brains


When starting a new job there's always a lot to take in. Whether it's the organisational structure, a new field, or simply the kind of work you are doing, there's a learning curve to be followed.

My new job is no exception, and I'm learning some fascinating stuff. As well as getting stuck into the marketing side of my job, I'm beginning to understand more about medical research (a good follow on to what I did at Cambridge many years ago) and dementia.

One thing I picked up on pretty quickly is that Alzheimer's is a disease like any other - like cancer or liver disease. It is not a 'natural part of ageing' (though occurs more as people get older) and is not a psychological condition. It's your brain being affected by various things which deteriorate the brain and impair function. You aren't mentally ill - you have a disease. Big difference. See the picture I found on the internet? It shows you a healthy brain, a brain with dementia, and then compares the two. It's a real, physical thing, not a state of mind. Imagine if that was your heart, or liver, or kidneys...

The scary thing is the fact that with our ever-ageing population here in the West, it is going to become more and more prevalent - to the extent that 1 in 3 over 65 are going to have some form of dementia in the next decade or so. I'll be in that profile then. So will many of my friends.

So - scare factor? Well, I guess I am as scared of Alzheimer's as I am of cancer - but the difference is that the symptoms of dementia don't just affect the individual, they affect everyone around them so much more. I have a very good friend who's father has advanced Alzheimer's. The effect on my friend and her siblings, on his wife, on all of them - I could easily call it devastating. But for them it's caring for the person they love, even though he is not really with them any more. And at the moment there is very little that can be done medically to help. In his case, virtually nothing.

But people know about the difficulties of the disease, and mostly seem to understand the symptoms (and are often tempted to make jokes about something that really isn't funny for the family or the person with dementia).

I guess my take on this is that Alzheimer's and dementia has the public face that cancer used to have two generations ago when it was only ever referred to as 'the big C'. People didn't mention cancer, or talk about having it. It was a social taboo because it was so often associated with fatality. There are now lots of treatments for cancer and there has been some terrific work done to combat causes (like smoking!) and reduce risk. But it's still part of our lives and something people can talk about and discuss and help support individuals and families through. The taboo has been dropped. That's one heck of a sea-change in social attitude. But it is happening - slowly the Government are listening (thanks to lobbying organisations and individuals such as the amazing Mr Pratchett) and - let's face it - with statistics like this, it's something that can't be ignored. 

So why isn't it like that with dementia? I think it's scare factor, because the disease affects behaviour, not just physical condition. People don't know how to talk to individuals with dementia - I certainly don't have any real experience; just a few friends whose families have a close member with the disease. And there is no 'right way' of handling it I guess - it's up to the individual, the circumstance, the stage of the disease. It's a case of adapting and understanding.

Changing the attitude of society will take generations - but in generations (as with cancer) we could very well make inroads into tackling the causes and symptoms of the disease so that families and individuals with dementia can actually enjoy a better quality of life. The aim is to one day have treatments and cures that will have a real impact. So much has already been done, what could still be achieved is hope for the future for everyone.

Recommended reading:

Information about dementia
Recommended websites:

Alzheimer's Research UK
Alzheimer's Association (US care and research association)
Azlheimer's Disease (the Wiki entry)
Alzheimer's Society (UK care organisation) 

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Beautiful


Why would a woman who is my age want to get a tattoo? Mid life crises? Very late onset teenage rebellion?

No, it's very simple. For many years now I have felt so bad about myself - I still refer to myself as OFU - old fat and ugly. After all, the facts is the facts. I've had a terrible few years where my self-esteem was not only low, but constantly undermined from lots of directions. I'd keep struggling on, and make some ground, only to have it pulled from under me like a rug on a polished wood floor.

I went swimming last night for the first time in a year. I swim very slowly, but steadily. I have no technique to speak of other than one that suits me. I enjoy it, it makes me feel good and I am in a nice quiet place in my mind when I swim.

And that's when it hit me. My tattoo is the first thing about me that I can say is beautiful. It is a part of me that I am not ashamed of - and even though it is an addition rather than actually me - I am pleased to have something beautiful about me for the first time in my life.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Deepdale Cowboy

At a party last night a lady said to me "I know that voice, it's the Deepdale cowboy." Yes, she meant me. So, why the Deepdale cowboy and what was the party like? Two little tales which I am happy to relate.

Some months ago I went on a walk in Norfolk, from Burnham Deepdale. My current blog portrait is from that weekend, so perhaps you can see where the 'cowboy' reference comes from. I did also have my stetson from Arizona with me, in case it rained. So, the Deepdale cowboy it is (or I am)!

At last night's party, where so addressed as the Deepdale cowboy, I was in fact dressed in a pilot's uniform, complete with hat, gold be-ribboned sleeves, shirt and tie. Oh, and high heel boots. What decent pilot wouldn't wear high heeled boots, whilst stumbling about in a field with guitar and wine in hand.

To explain a little further - I was invited, along with some friends, to a nautically themed party. Now maybe being a pilot wasn't exactly very nautical, but as my three friends were dressed as jellyfish, we attended as 'Captain Birdseye and her amazing dancing jellyfish'. In the end I announced that I was in fact Captain Smith of the Titanic and that no one should panic, she's unsinkable.

The jellyfish costumes were see-through umbrellas with bits of bubble wrap and other colourful threads hanging from them, and looked a lot of fun. Other costumes at the party included someone dressed as a lifeboat, a few pirates, quite a few seamen/women, a couple more jellyfish and some folks dressed ready for the beach - complete with inflatables.

To reach our destination we headed, four of us (the jellyfish and the captain) in a Ford KA to deepest darkest Bedfordshire. Along a main road, then a village road, then a side road, and eventually down a dirt track (which tickled the belly of the poor little car) to a huge farm house. We parked in a field where other guests were cavorting - setting up tents, getting out costumes and generally congregating. Once unloaded, which included jellyfish umbrellas, wine and four fold-up chairs, we headed into the grounds around the farm.

By now it was dark, but not cold. There was not a lot of light, but some tea light lanterns led us into the party venue which was the grounds around the house. It was a garden party with a difference. Amongst the trees, on bumpy grassy ground (eveyr now and then I would sink into the earth), were some marquees. One was open sided and had a small stage, food and drink all laid out. As it got darker, you just had to take a guess at what the food was as you ladled it on to your plate.

One marquee was very low and lit like a gypsy boudoir (or as one might be, I imagine), another had sheets of hanging pale blue gossamer like fabric that was the 'undersea adventure', with hanging glass fish and other decorations. From the trees hung nets, shells and very possibly things like sharks and whales - but you really couldn't see.

We set up camp next to the beach. Now you may not be aware of many beaches in the middle of Bedfordshire, but this one was very special. There was water, a sandy shore and, at the far end, a cocktail bar. To acquire a cocktail, one had to either brave the small inflatable boat (which 'Jack' from the Titanic did, but alas - as per the movie - resulted in a very wet and bedraggled individual) or wade out in your bare feet. The bar was stewarded by Batman's arch rival, the Penguin.

Now just in case this wasn't surreal enough for you, the main attraction in the food/drink/music marquee was a rather handsome pirate with gold lamee trousers and an assortment of squeezeboxes. He was a mighty fine player and a good singer, and some sea shanties were duly delivered. I played along on my guitar - with his consent.

So picture this - a cool balmy Bedfordshire evening in the grounds of a farm house, the quacking of annoyed ducks in the distance, a singing pirate accompanied by a playing pilot surrounded by dancing mermaids, sailors and variously otherwise designated nautical individuals. And it being quite dark as well.

If we met people we knew, it was by chance. You couldn't really see who people were until you were right up close, unless you were in one of the better lit marquees. But it was much more fun outside anyway.

We set up camp next to the shore (where one of our jellyfish decided to make some sandcastles) was also next to a huge pile of wood ready for a late night camp fire. As the evening progressed, the fire was lit and people came around to enjoy the glow. Guitar in hand I played some songs and had different people join in at different times. One young lady pirate (bemoaning the loss of her partner, who was dressed as an ice cream), insisted I play some Abba. I gave it my best shot. Which was, alas, rather far off the mark. I had earlier played American Pie and one of our dancers had been the ice cream. Though my folk songs are not exactly campfire material, I managed to belt out a few joiny-inny things and had a terrific time. One day I will buy myself an appropriate songbook to take with me to such events.

When at last our designated jellyfish decided it was time to go, I wandered ahead to escape a very persistent individual who wanted me to sing more (and who had earlier grabbed my bum and scared the life out of me as I was packing up). Only I got lost. I wandered up and down amongst the trees and couldn't work out where the car park was. I was rescued by a nice looking man who, it turned out, was actually the Penguin in mufti. Rather cute, lovely voice, but a tad too young for me.

I regained the car (via some cow poop) to find two out of three jellyfish ready for the off. The other had gone to look for me - trying to find a pilot with a guitar and a fold up chair. Luckily she returned in good time, realising I had been found.

The road home was conversely the dirt track, the side road, the village road, main road and then back to jellyfish number one's house. After a relaxing natter, I slid into the guest bed and pondered what had been a very strange and highly enjoyable evening. A most excellent adventure!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Chats and changes

After six lovely months at Essex, I am now back in my home town and working near Cambridge again. New job, new house, new car, new life ahead of me.

They say 'life begins at 40', well I guess mine stalled a bit, so I'm going for round two from a slightly older age... ok, no hiding it, I'll be 51 this year. Worried? (I mean me, not you!) Not really, as long as I am reasonably healthy and active and enjoying my job, I guess age is not something that has really made me stop and ponder or worry about my mortality.

However, it's a bit late to start again in other ways, especially if you ain't exactly 'eye candy' (OK, actual definition is OFU - see previous posts for what that means). But never mind. I think finding happiness is about finding yourself more than anything. So, I'm on the hunt! But I won't be navel-gazing or mirror-watching. I'm gonna look out there for who I am and who I can be.

There's things in life I really enjoy - and I want to do more of them. Travel, dance, sing, play, be out there and living life. But that doesn't mean I won't follow my obligations - being a good mother, friend, employee. Yes, the latter is important to me too as, once again, I find myself (by design) in employment with a strong social responsibility. And that is, I know, where I am happiest and most productive. So I am heading for a good life, but not hedonism. Still with me?

I know I need to eat less and exercise more - and one of my 'plans' is to start swimming again. OK, that's not huge, but it means taking time for me. This year has given me many opportunities as well as challenges. I have met some amazing people, done some quite unusual things, and learned (as ever) a huge amount. I never stop learning (I don't always act on what I learn, but I do love new experiences). There's a bit more of a spiritual aspect to my life now, but I still don't buy all that 'god' stuff. Never will either. She's got to show up in person to get me on the team!

Over the past year I have found some new and wonderful friends, as well. And, interestingly, I have learned to 'chat'. No, not the WWI habit of taking lice off eachother (the origination of the word), but simple idle chatter with friends on the phone. Now that may not seem unusual to you - something you do all the time perhaps? But actually not something I was comfortable doing for many years.

I remember a good few years back my friend Jan phoning up and after a short conversation thinking to myself 'now what did she want?'. Well, she didn't actually want anything, just to chat - but I was not a chatter over the phone, it was quite simply a skill I didn't have. She must have felt a bit put off by my response on the phone - but I honestly didn't have the experience of calling just to talk about stuff. Calls had to have a purpose or reason. God - what a bore I must have been! I can imagine some of my contemporary friends raising their eyebrows at this (the calls, not the fact that I am a bore) - I am quite often found nattering away for over an hour on the phone now. See how people change.

Well, we all change, all the time, and sometimes it's slow and unnoticeable, and sometimes it's drastic. Most often it can be a combination - a slow build up to something extreme. Well, maybe and maybe not, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that I like change. I have gone through some extremely difficult and challenging things in the past few years, but change - painful as it can sometimes be - is also good.


So here I am, ready to face a new era in my life. And though I am on my own, I know I have my kids, my friends and actually lots of strangers and 'friends to be' who will help me, wish me well and be there if and when I need them. Just like I am for others, so I hope they will be for me.


And if I am dissapointed? Well, I'd rather live in optimism and be disappointed than be pessimistic and proven right. Being right ain't all it's cracked up to be. I know.

I guess this post is the first step in accepting the huge changes in my life. Time to stop feeling sorry for myself and - as my son kindly advises me - 'move on'.


Photograph: me playing at Cambridge Folk Festival 2011.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

University life

You know the feeling? Leaving the family home, off you go, world in your suitcase, to a new set of friends and a completely different environment. Everything is strange and new, there’s so much to learn.

Of course, that’s just starting a new job, it must be tough for the students too. After all, I was only moving to Essex for a few months, not three years. And though I’d be working hard, no one was going to be examining me. Mind you, I wouldn’t leave with a degree either.

Taking a maternity cover post at the University of Essex turned out to be one of the best moves I’d made in a long time. Though leaving my family during the week was hard, I was given the chance to strengthen other friendships and explore new opportunities.

I’ve worked in higher education before – but the University of Essex and the University of Cambridge are two very different beasts. As different as the lion rampant and the wyvern.

When I first got the job in Colchester I had a problem; where to live? I was very lucky to be offered a place to stay with friends - people I knew through music. Though we'd known each other a good few years, the friendship was based around music and, to be honest, we didn't really know each other. This six month sojourn turned out to be a great chance to learn just how much we did have in common. And let's face it, if you can have someone live with your family for six months, it certainly helps if you can get on. Which we did, and had some fun times including living through the fun dramas (noise, dust, hunky workmen everywhere) created by building work.

Whilst in Colchester, and living in Ipswich, I made other friends too. Friends of my hosts, plus people I met through music. There is a great open mic in Wivenhoe, and a nice folk venue in Ipswich, plus the folk club in Colchester itself. I got to see and know a few faces regularly and enjoyed playing in a 'new territory'.

I met other people too and had some completely new experiences, including singing 'ohm' in a circle of very interesting and lovely people. It wasn't as mad as it sounds - in fact it was very calming. I also met quite a few interesting people at a moot in Ipswich and, to my delight, won a set of tarot cards in the raffle!

That was the social life around 'home', then there was the work environment too - the wonderful setting of Wivenhoe Park. The University may be a huge 60's concrete world, but it certainly has its good points. Though not a fan of that period of architecture, the idea of the squares (almost plaza like) is good, and there are great resources on site. From laundry to post office, hair dresser to co-op. And, of course, the SU bar and other eateries. The landscape is wonderful - with lakes and the most amazing old oak trees. You may be in an office in a concrete building, but it was but a step to a completely different environment which was full of wildlife and the delightful atmosphere of youth and adventure. I like that environment.

The people I worked with were really nice - so nice that I had tears in my eyes when I said goodbye. Just six months, but long enough to get to know some great people and know that I've made some good friends. Just take a look through my previous posts and you'll find me singing in the pub with one colleague, taking another bunch round the campus to look at birds and visiting Athens with my boss (OK, that was work, but it still counts).

For my leaving do I was given a dinner party - how cool is that?! Not only did we have great food and champagne, but when the 'lightweights' had gone home, Vicki and I went to the pub. I met a very nice young man called Daniel who I chatted away too assuming he was someone Vicki knew. Nope! Was a good laugh - but that whiskey chaser was just one drink too many. I still rolled into work bright and breezy though, it wasn't that much, just too much.

To top it all, my leaving gift was two tickets to the Royal Opera House to see La Traviata - how cool is that!?

I made many friends in the University in different departments as well as my own. I shall miss them and the challenge they face as higher education enters a new funding structure and interesting future.

So now I've left University, but once again with a strong desire to return to education in the future and get some edufication myself one of these there days.

Links:
Essex Music Events
University of Essex
Steamboat Tavern

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Birding the campus

Aren't these guys the cutest ever? Today I led an 'expedition' around campus to look at the birdlife that shares this amazing environment with us. The sun was shining, the air was thick and muggy, and it was a lunchtime. What more could one want?



Well, with a troup of 11 other bird-interested colleagues with me, some birds would have been nice!

There were, as usual, no shortage of jackdaws, ducks and Canada geese, but of almost every other kind of bird (especially of the small variety) there was no sign. Not a robin tweeting, a blackbird singing or even a pigeon cooing! Where were they?


Well, maybe it was the weather, maybe it is the fact that there are people everywhere getting ready for Graduation tomorrow, but even so... the birds on campus are used to people are usually everywhere! I think someone told them: "Bird watchers coming, hide!!"


OK, a dozen people tramping along are not exactly quiet, but we weren't exactly noisy either. However, we did get to look at lots of habitat, and discuss the birds that - ahem - should be present! We know there are green woodpeckers, long tailed tits and even the odd tree creeper around, but none of these exotics graced us with their presence.


We walked on round the campus, looking at the ducks on the lake (and finding two tufted ducks) and eventually ended up in the car park. This is where I daily hear the goldfinches. Silence. Then, at last, one long songster at the top of a bush! We gathered round the cars and looked at the little chap singing his heart out. A bird worth seeing, with his lovely red face and gold striped wings.


We walked on, round to a more wooded area and stood silently beneath the trees. Once again... silence. Then, at last, another chirrup. Two more goldfinches appeared, and I managed to snap one of them with the camera. He was very visible and started to preen in front of us. Not only visible, but a show off too!


It was, if nothing else, a lovely walk in the grounds on a sunny afternoon, but I hope during the re-run next week, we see a few more birds.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The secret tea room

I've heard of geurilla gardening, but this was the first guerilla tea party I had ever heard of!



I received an invite from the Secret Tea Room and myself, and quite a few others, were given a rendevouz point (outside the Zest cafe on site) and arrival time. At the duly appointed 5.45pm a few individuals started to gather in the square as the light finally warmed the concrete squares that had been so shadowed by the clouds all day. And then I saw someone I know with a box full of plates. I followed!



Into the building - signs saying 'this way, shhh!' appropriately positioned along the route. I followed the box of plates and the signs until reaching a cozy common room. Lights low, soft 20's style music playing on the gramophone (well, ipod really), and coffee tables decked in white, lace, and with tiered cake stands laden with delectables.



One table held the most marvellous looking carrot cake - huge, square, moist, decked with icing and crushed nuts. Another held neat little sandwiches, filled with cucumber, cheese and qunice jelly. The scones were given pride of place with cream and jam as standard bearers, whilst fresh strawberries added a blazen of rich colour to the delicious scene. Pure white fresias, gently drooping on green stems, bowed to the scene.

A teapot bedecked in a colourful knitted cosy, complete with china lady, sat plumply expectant next to the crockery, awaiting the infusion and preparing to delighted the now-gathered company. A blend of special teas, served from the pot with a strainer.



From just 8 months old and squirming to dignified 70s, young and old, men and women, faces from around the world gathered to chat and 'take tea' in the old English manner. A delightful and enchanting evening, where the home-baked food surpassed visual anticipation and the company was varied and stimulating.



I do hope there is another one before I leave this wonderful and surpising place. And I wonder if I can track down the remains of that delicious carrot cake today?



Friday, June 24, 2011

Booksale!




I know many authors think that selling books second-hand is selling them (the authors) cheap, but it may also have a beneficial effect; introducing readers to new authors (who then go out and buy more by the same person).

Authors aside, we are readers. We (I speak for myself for those people who read this who like reading books, if you don't, please ignore this post. In fact if you don't, you probably aren't reading!) like to read books!

In clearing my house ready for a move, I had two bagfulls of books (having already taken several loads to the local charity shop) and thought I would sell them at work. Then a thought occurred to me - to sell them for charity.

I put a note round at my employers and not only did I advertise the sale, but I had more contributions of books! So at lunchtime today I spent an hour and a half in a meeting room surrounded by books: including the true story of a call girl and XML programming (in Chinese). So plenty of variety!

I am delighted to say that my kind colleagues helped me raise over £100 for Alzheimer's Research UK. Oh, and I picked up a few books for myself.


But the most important part of the exercise was the personal stories I heard, and of how Alzheimer's has touched so many people's lives. The stories were, of course, not happy ones. Suffering is part of the human condition. But wouldn't it be nice if we could, in time, actually remove this one from the list?


I know there are many good causes out there, and I have indeed shown my support for conservation well beyond my employment in that area. However, if you have five minutes and even just five pounds, your support could make a tremendous difference to the long term solution for curing dementia.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Running an Alumni Survey

You might wonder why this post is here - well, it seems the most accessible for the audience I would like to share it with. So if this seems a little 'off topic' from my usual posts, please forgive me! This is simply my personal, practical experience and in no way reflects my employer's perspective on surveys or the results of said survey.

Background

In April and May 2011 we sent a survey to our alumni from the University. We selected equal amounts of recipients from different age groups and for those we have email contacts from, with no bias as to country. In the UK, we sent a printed survey out to those who we only have postal addresses for.

We firstly tested the robustness of the survey by sending it out to alumni who are staff. They came back with many helpful suggestions on how to improve the survey as well as providing some feedback as well (from a different perspective of course).

The purpose of the survey was to assess our communications methods and messages, events and a little bit on fundraising. We want to make sure we are 'doing the right thing' and to improve where we can.

The process

We used an integrated survey tool that is part of our web-system called NetCommunity. We use this because it links directly to our database, Raiser's Edge. This had some advantages, but many disadvantages too.

In collecting data by email, we did not want to ask the same questions on the survey that the alumni would have to fill in when registering on the site, so for the email survey we did not collect employment information. For the postal survey, we collected some of that information, but then putting it into the system required manual input.

We had a bit of criticism that the questionnaire didn't pick up lots of new data, but the purpose of the questionnaire was opinion based, not data collection. Make sure you don't ask too much of one survey.


SWOT

Strengths: links direct into Raiser's Edge. Encouraged more individuals to register on line (from the email survey).

Weaknesses: postal survey meant lots of manual data input, and interrogation of the data is extremely basic. Though we could register who completed a survey, to find out what they actually answered we had to input manual attributes. To get anything really meaningful other than 'top line' (see picture) response, you need to export the data into a spreadsheet or some other tool and manipulate to find the real meat of your results (the way we did it, anyway). Very time consuming.

Opportunities: it would have been better to have all the data input in the same way, so mixing methods (email and post) could be improved. In addition, thinking about the level of data you want from a survey then look very carefully at the method you use. Those specialist survey companies charge a lot of money for good reason - they do all the work and can provide you with lots of fabulous data without you having to do all the work.

Threats: asking the wrong questions in the first place. If we haven't asked exactly the right questions, we won't actually learn anything. We may misinterpret data. Data can be skewed: for example we sent the email survey worldwide, but three quarters of responders were from overseas (so their perspective on events in London, for example, would not be fully representative).

Conclusions

The key is in knowing not just what you want to ask, but to what level you want to analyse your responses. Are there key differences in the ages of those you survey, of their location, and by subject perhaps? Set a very clear set of objectives beforehand and understand that different segments will respond differently. We selected equal amounts from each age-group, but unsurprisingly it was the older alumni who were more inclined to answer.

Use the right tool for the job, don't just go with what you have because it is easiest or what is cheapest.

And, finally, make sure you act on anything you have asked within the survey that requires a response; for example if they have offered an internship or a paper, follow up and thank them, engaging as relevant.

Recommended links:

Survey Solutions
How to run a survey
Some interesting info
Alumni surveys, an overview

Some example surveys:

Survey from Cornell
Colorado - Dental Medicine
Robert Gordon University

If you have additional suggestions, please add them to the comments box below.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Eating the campus

Is this a sign that a the end of term the staff have finally cracked and gone cannibal, dismembering and consuming those poor unfortunate students who have not yet escaped their academic refuge? No, tempting as it may be, today’s ‘eat the campus’ activity was actually a ‘walk and talk’ through the grounds. For now, the students were safe.

About one hour before we were due to start our lunchtime walk, the heavens decided that the dry spring was over and that all the missing rain from April should fall in one day in June. Consequently, it was with trepidation that we prepared to begin our ‘foraging’ trip and find out what plants within the grounds of beautiful Wivenhoe Park were edible. Clutching my book on trees we tramped off through the very damp grass, scaring away the young coots and agitated mother as we trod our path directly through their own foraging party.

We were lucky though, and the rain decided to take a lunchtime break too and only dribbled a bit on us when the wind shook the trees or it felt that we needed hurrying back to our offices.

We commenced our walk (about 12 people from different departments) led by Kate, who had her River CafĂ© foraging book to hand. Our first stop was the chestnut trees, followed by a cob nut (wild hazel) that I spotted by the lake. Though surrounded by ducks, we decided (though edible) they didn’t count as plants and were therefore immune from our consideration of their dietary potential.

We wandered up and around the lake, then through some woods and up to Wivenhoe House. We saw nettles (yes, edible), more sweet chestnuts and some beautiful cork oak. I don’t think it’s edible, but they were amazing trees. We managed also to track down the old ice house, now covered in trees and overgrown so that you’d never have known it was originally the house’s outdoor fridge.

We found lots of beech nuts, silver birch (who’s sap you can tap it seems) and plenty of blackberry bushes. There are definitely plans afoot to go blackberrying in due course. There's a by tree here somewhere too, but we didn't make it that far.

As the afternoon got a bit wetter and our walk took us further from the safe confines of our concrete shelters, some folks had to disappear back to their respective desks, whilst we remaining few stalwarts carried on and hunted out the elusive mulberry tree. It’s supposed to be by Kingfisher Lake, but alas we couldn’t spot it. Perhaps if it hadn’t been so wet and our lunchtime break nearly up, we may have explored further to see if we could find it. I haven’t seen a mulberry tree since I was young and used to come back smothered in juice stains from my great aunt’s house in Kent.

We found some elderflower, but plants such as jack by the hedge, wild garlic and mushrooms seemed to be hiding from us. And it was too early for berries, so perhaps an autumn walk will be in order.

It was a lovely way to spend a lunchtime – informative, entertaining and healthy!

Monday, June 06, 2011

Birthdays and Anniversaries: Advice

Today is my brother's birthday. Happy birthday Phil, wherever you are. I hope you are still with us.

He was kind of cross that we got married on his birthday; I guess we stole his thunder, but it was only for one day really.

Advice: If you are going to plan something on a special day to someone else, check it out with them first. They may be flattered, or flattened.

I do remember our wedding day in Barnet, the wind blowing, the party at Sally's flat, the evening do at the Raglan Hall hotel. Musician friends singing, lots of work friends attending (who if I look at in the photos now I wouldn't have a clue who they are).

Advice: don't invite work friends to your wedding (unless they are also good friends). Invite people you think will still be in your life in ten years time.

Well, it's 30 years since we got married. A lot has happened in that time; we have two wonderful kids, four albums (in the same band) and lots of happy memories. But the last five years haven't been quite so good, and all good things come to an end, as they say.

Advice: count the good things that were, and measure them st the bad things that are. The glass is probably half full, even if it used to be full and a lot got spilled.

Some other anniversaries you may not be aware of today;

1868: Robert Falcon Scott leader of ill-fated south polar expedition, was born

1903: Aram Khachaturian, the Russian composer, was born

1933: The first concrete was poured for the foundations of the Boulder Dam

1944: D-Day, the allied forces launch their major offensice and land on the beaches of Normandy

1966: James Meredith, the first black man to brave the colour bar at the University of Mississippi, was shot

1968: Robert Kennedy was shot

1975: The UK has it's first nationwide referendum over the continued membership of the European Economic Community

2007: The G8 summit in Germany finally recognises that climate change is a 'bit of an issue'

Feel free to add any more intersting dates in comments below.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Curious Tiger

I feel the earth beneath my feet, damp and soft. It smells warm and familiar – comforting. My claws sink into the ground and I move quietly through the forest. I am not hungry; only yesterday I ate very well indeed. But today I want to walk through my domain and mark my territory.

I tread softly, for I sense a change. There is a tang in the air – a smell I do not recognise. I stand still and listen, my whiskers twitch forward, my mouth slightly open, my ears attuned to every crackle and creak. Standing still, I am invisible. Small birds and animals fly and scurry round me. They know who I am, and rightly fear me. That which is ahead of me is new, unknown, and I am cautious.

I am also a curious tiger, and instead of avoiding this uncertainty ahead, I move steadily forward. My presence is undetected, I am sure. The heavy forest air brings me scents I know and many that I do not. It is the unknown, which draws me.

I enter a small clearing and smell wood moke scented with the ripeness of burnt flesh, and of many other things I do not recognise. I am intrigued. I move closer and see a small fire in the clearing, but not fleeing through the forest as it may do on dry, dangerous days. It is controlled, restrained. I look carefully about: next to the fire is something I have never seen before. It smells of rotten plants. Next to that, is the monkey.

I call it a monkey for that is what it most closely resembles. It is decked in something that is not fur and does not seem to be a part of it. It smells of plant, and of bitter things that make me open my jaws widely so that I may detect their taint more clearly.

My ungoverned movement has given me away - the monkey has seen me! It stands with a strange stick in its hand as if in defiance. Puny creature! I lift my head – the stick exudes its own unique odour: It smells of wood, of the caves, and it the air about it tastes hard and sharp like the red rocks in the mountains.

The monkey is afraid. It waves the stick hesitantly in my direction and I can taste the odour of fear. This is reassuring; the creature is not so foreign, it fears me. Yet as well as fear there are many other smells and tastes that cling and cloy my senses – that of the creature itself, and many more that surround this strange animal. I decide that its signature is as distasteful as if it has dived into every kind of excrement it could find.

I gently pad a little nearer. The monkey sits down upon a rock, but has not stopped glaring at me, or pointing its stick - as if that might stop my progress! Its pale skin is damp, slick with sweat – in its fear. This is as it should be.

I do not wish to eat the monkey. But I am curious. I have heard of these creatures in the forest before. I have smelled their flesh-burning fires. I have tasted them upon the wind before. Like most, I have avoided them. But this is just one, on its own.

I move closer. The monkey is now shaking, trembling beneath my gaze like a found calf. Its legs have a very fine fur upon them, and each hair stands on end at my approach. Still it points the stick at me. Now I am nearer, I detect something else – further pungency from the stick: it stings my nose and I twitch in disgust. The stick smells hot, and it smells cold. It smells … of death.

I am now near enough to kill easily. But first, to try and understand this creature, I lick its nearest leg with my long rasping tongue. I can taste it completely now: Piss and sweat, strong, natural odours, combined with a myriad of other strange tastes that are sour and rancid. The creature shivers. It does not look nor sound like any monkey I know. I do not think it would be good to eat.

I look into its eyes, trying to fathom exactly what kind of creature this is? It has the tang of carnivore, yet is rank. I do not understand - as I look into its eyes I see nothing – no connection, no life behind its small, frightened white and blue eyes. It is almost like a dead thing. If I look at any other creature, or they look at me, we see that we are one. We know that whether we are predator or prey, we are all part of the same. We all know what we are and where we belong in this world. This creature – this upright, smooth skinned, foul tasting monkey – does not have a place.

With its acid taste lingering in my mouth, I yawn (for effect, I admit), and the creature waves its death stick at me again. At any moment it may fall back off its rock, its thin legs waving skyward – that would amuse me. But it does not. It just keeps watching me with those dead eyes. Bored, I turn my back on the thing – it is not worthy of my time or my interest.

I walk away, swaying my tail in contempt, letting the monkey see my strength and power. of course, it does not understand, it does not realise that I have given it the gift of its own life. that gift is a waste - I am sorry for such a thing that does not belong to the world.

My curiosity is satisfied. I move on, knowing that such creatures will not warrant any further investigation should they ever cross my path again.

(C) Carolyn Sheppard 2006

Monday, May 16, 2011

Dowse and out



I spent a few days in Mallorca recently and instead of coming home brown, I came home black and blue. Fell off (through) a ladder which wasn’t very clever. I did replace a roof tile and take down and chomp (ready for burning) around 30 dried palm fronds though.

I was only there for a few days, but long enough to make the place habitable for Sally for her last proper sojourn there as resident before she turns the casa over to Orlando’s children. I also managed to spend quite a bit of time watching two hoopoes in the neighbour's yard. Wonderful looking birds! The house, though, is too difficult for Sally to maintain, so it’s good that it is going back to Carlota and Robert now. There’s so much needs doing! Oh - and this was how the garden looked before we had a good tidy.

That’s why I was up a ladder, trying to clear the weeds off the bathroom roof, and that’s where I came a cropper as the ladder slipped its feet and I descended ungracefully and vertically through the rungs.

But black and blue notwithstanding, it wasn’t just Mallorca that prompted me to write this blog post today. I had an interesting couple of days this weekend too.

Firstly, I spent Saturday in Kingston helping out at a summer fair for the Aurora Health Foundation. This is a small local charity that works with people who were abused as children. It’s a valuable service and one that is desperately seeking funds, as are so many of these independent charities today. But they provide services that you can’t get anywhere else – counseling, complementary therapies, all sorts of things that the NHS can’t provide, even if they wanted to.

I spent my time singing mostly – sitting in the corner with my guitar and mumbling my music. I enjoyed the day not because of the singing, but because of the amazing atmosphere of cooperation and fun that there was. Everyone involved in the day was volunteering their services. What a nice bunch of people to meet. I also liked seeing the parakeets that are wild in that part of London. Noisy birds, but oh my, so colourful!

Late Saturday night my phone beeped at me. ‘Are you awake?’ – well I am now! My friends who had been to Glastonbury had been diverted and were near our house, could they stay over as they had to be back in our town in the morning? Well, of course.


So I set them up in my son's room, on his double bed. Meanwhile, an hour later (2am), Penni came by after a late night London gig. She stayed downstairs. So when my daughter came down in the morning, it was with some surprise to see five of us sitting down to breakfast.

The reason my friends were over our way was to visit Therfield Heath and go dowsing. I'd had a play with two dowsing rods and they wiggled wonderfully at the kitchen table! However, on the heath - where we had a very windy and slightly damp picnic - I was not so successful.

In an area on top of a huge water table, ripe with natural energy lines (St Michael's and Mary Ley lines go through our town, as does the Greenwich Meridian and two of the oldest Roman roads in Britain) I detected nothing. My pendulum did not swing except when caught by a gust of chilly wind, and my dowsing rods remained immobile in my frozen hands.


Looks like I'm not a natural dowser. The others in the group were tripping gaily over the ancient tumuli and planting little flags where they felt energy responses in the earth. And I wondered what it was I was missing - like being at a party and the only one sober, or in a room where everyone is speaking a different language.


I enjoyed it though - a different experience. As I wandered back across the heath to go home, there was a heavy metal rock band in a trailer playing to an audience of about three down by the sports club. There were dog walkers and children tumbling down the hills, rolypoly style. Kite fliers enjoyed the wind and the larks were christening the cool air with their melodies. Good thing that red kite I'd seen this morning wasn't around or they'd be dinner!