Monday, 28 December 2015

How to be happy

What is happy? What makes you happy? What are the things you chase in an effort to be happy? How high on your list of priorities is being happy? And, ARE you happy?

I'm noticing lots of blog posts about wrapping up 2015 and looking ahead to 2016. A lot of them focus on looking ahead and making sure 2016 is better than 2015. A lot of them talk about being happy, striving to be more happy. 

So, I started thinking about happy too. 

The things that make me happy are pretty simple really. A nice meal with someone I care about. Cooling rain after a stinking hot day. A call from one of my children. Finding a book I've been searching for for months (that was yesterday afternoon!). Having things to look forward to - my goddaughter will be here in January and emailed me asking to meet up for lunch. That's not a definitive list, it's just what popped into my head as I typed. If I try to make it longer, my head will empty out and I'll have nothing to type because it won't DO lists! The really important thing about that list is how random it is, and how 'small' each thing actually is, how fleeting. Also, apart from the book, how there's not much to do with actual 'things'. 

The flip side of this is the number of support groups I belong to for chronic illnesses, and the number of people I know who are really sick. Being happy is a topic that comes up in many different guises, mostly in the framework of NOT being happy, due to pain, many losses, issues with doctors/drugs/family/friends, any number of other things. Alongside that are my own sadnesses - illness, the loss of my beloved friend from ovarian cancer, news from No.1 that his youngest half brother is battling Hodgkins Lymphoma for the second time at 15, endless delays with Dragon Dad's business that see us still in Sydney a year after he said we need to be in Melbourne, and so on... And yet, despite my illness, I have achieved a number of important (for me) milestones and goals, I was able to spend time with Lizzie before she died that was very special and that will always be a lovely memory, No.1's reports of his brother's progress are peppered with his awe about how the boy is managing that for himself that has been a huge lesson for No.1 about real priorities, and the extra year here has enabled - among other things - me to have priceless time with a cousin that I'd not have had. 

For me, happiness is not just a feeling. It's a 'doing'. Happiness isn't something that just happens, it's something we make. All year, I've watched the gratitude thing happening on Facebook - people posting a number of things for which they're grateful daily for a week and tagging friends to challenge them to do likewise. I resisted picking up those challenges, because I usually resist being part of the herd, but I watched with interest. The big flurry of gratitude posts has faded away, but there are a few individuals who clearly decided that it was a good habit to make and continue posting daily. Clearly, they've found that habit, in itself, created a different attitude with which to approach life. 

The reality is, if someone is determined to be miserable, there's not much anyone else can do to help them. We've probably all had that experience of trying to cheer up a friend who's having an awful time over something. And, being miserable isn't bad. It's absolutely natural in the face of sad or nasty things happening, and needs to be acknowledged as valid. However, I question a determined effort to NOT try to move out of it - particularly if that comes with building complaints about how no one understands, and how increasingly lonely the person is getting. That old saying, 'Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone.' comes to mind here... It's very difficult to be with someone who is always unhappy, always complaining, always asking for support and help, but refuses to make any effort of their own to change their situation. 
Dragon Dad does this stuff. He smiles at everyone he encounters, and mostly, people smile back. He chats with the checkout staff at supermarkets and asks how their day is going, and usually, by the time our groceries are all bagged and we're paying, we get sent off with a 'Have a nice day!' that's NOT like the routine script they get trained to deliver to customers. He managed to get himself moved to an earlier flight home one time by being friendly and nice to the airline staff - the guy before him had been aggro and demanding and didn't get the flight... Basically, Dragon Dad approaches life positively, and a lot of positive stuff comes right back to him. Consequently, while there are inevitable challenges he has to face, he's a pretty happy guy most of the time. He's made a habit of doing that, and it's paying off.

When friends ask me how I am, and what's happening with treatment, and so on, I find that they are often more unhappy on my behalf than I am myself these days. Don't get me wrong - I'm NOT happy to be sick. No one in their right mind would be! BUT, I'm alive and breathing, and there are many other things in my life to think about apart from being sick, so I make the choice, as much as possible, to do that rather than dwell on the illness and what that means for me every day. There's a blogger I've been following who has terminal bowel cancer, and has four little girls - the eldest has just finished primary school. While there are definitely posts she writes about her darker times, her blog is mostly a shining story of someone who is fiercely living each and every moment she has, and focusing completely on that. As things stand, she's just passed the time span she was originally given to live - and with fabulous humour, posts photos of herself as the 'undead' that are so triumphant I have to smile when I see them. There's a lesson there - a BIG one. My disease is highly unlikely to kill me. Hers is ultimately unlikely to let her live - but is that what she focuses on? Hell no! Her energy goes into every moment she can have with her husband and little girls, and she celebrates that, and there are, as a consequence, oodles of dizzyingly happy posts to read on her blog! 

Every single thing we encounter in life can make us happy or unhappy - it's a matter of how we respond. How we choose to respond. We can let ourselves get beaten around by circumstances that are less than ideal, wallow in the misery of being neglected or hurt by people we thought were our friends, bemoan our lot constantly - and we will be very unhappy most of the time. Alternatively, we can choose to tackle life quite differently and look at the other side. The frustrations of delays that have held up Dragon Dad's business and our move have been very real. The lost time can never be regained, and that sucks. On the other hand, he's had much more down time for us to spend together and for him to get stuck back into his cycling (and now he's decided to compete in the World Masters Games in 2017...oy!!). We've had more time to spend with family and build relationships there. We were able to get our second kitten from the same breeder as the first one. We've also been able to do the sorts of things that one never does in the place where we live - and make sure that we create some excellent memories to take with us. I got to meet a friend I had met on line in person, because our cities are just close enough for that to happen if we plan well. At times it's all been very frustrating, but on the whole, it hasn't been a terrible year. 

I'm going to finish with another meme that someone posted in one of the support groups I belong to - I think it's a great idea, especially if the notion of making your own happiness is a foreign concept. Is it a little bit twee and geeky? Maybe. But, I figure, if it makes a difference to how any of us feel and helps build a different attitude to living, then that doesn't matter at all. 
The good things don't have to be spectacular - while we'd like to win the $50M in Powerball, the odds against that happening are enormous, so it seems to me to be a bit of a waste of energy to focus on that particular hope! However, if you manage to time your next grocery shop (as I managed to the other week) so that you get one of those times that nearly all the things you usually buy are on special, well, that's something to be really quite tickled about I think! And if you manage to achieve something that you didn't think you could, even if it was a struggle to get there - well, go you!! Add that in too and the hell with the struggle - you did it, and that's what really matters. You made it happen. And I really believe you can make happiness being a normal thing in your life happen too, if you really set your mind to it.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Herbs and spices - more than just good flavours...

I've calmed down since my rant about Dragon Dad slaying my mint and lemon balm, but have been thinking about my new herb garden when we move, and the sorts of things I'd like to do. I lust after one of those traditional walled gardens with lots of hedges separating beds of different herbs, but it's highly unlikely I'll ever live in the kind of house that has the possibility of that kind of garden! And, hedges or lawn need to be not part of a herb garden in my life - the possibility that Dragon Dad might feel moved to do more overenthusiastic trimming needs to be minimised! 

My reality is probably going to be raised beds, because they're easier to work in, and paved pathways around and between them so that there's NOTHING to prune!! Something like this:
Ultimately, I'm not too fussed, as long as I can have a dedicated space to grow what I use most of the time, plus a few other odd things that I like to have in the garden because it's fun. I cook with them all the time, and I've long had an interest in the medicinal properties of herbs and spices, as they were all that was available to people to deal with illness and injury for millions of years, until medical science began to create drugs a bit over 200 years ago. There's a brilliant three part series that screened here on SBS TV that can be obtained from ABC shops on DVD called Pain, Pus and Poison, that's well worth watching for anyone who is interested in the developments over that 200 years. I also just found it on Amazon.

I digress. In an email conversation this morning, following a post on Facebook, I was asked if I'd write a blog post about the herbs and spices I use and why. In between bits of work today I've been thinking about how best to construct it, and what to say, so it's taken me most of the day to get to it. I must stress, as a disclaimer, I am NOT a doctor, nor am I a qualified herbalist. I am writing this from personal experience, and it is not intended to be instruction. My main use of all the herbs and spices mentioned in this post are in cooking, with an eye to their beneficial qualities, and I do make tisanes, or teas, from some of them specifically for medicinal purposes. The book I use mostly for reference, which of all my books on the subject is my favourite, is the Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants, by Andrew Chevallier. Follow the link for the Amazon page for purchase. 

I will list the herbs and spices that are part of my regular cooking, along with their common medicinal properties. I'd also suggest, for those who are interested in experimenting, that you look into Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbooks, which are focused on Middle Eastern style dishes, and commonly use lots of herbs and spices. It's an easy way to get into using them and accustoming yourself to the flavours if you've not cooked that way before. Indian food is another cuisine that uses a lot of spices and many herbs, and provides easy access and familiar flavours for many. I can't go there as I'm allergic to chilli! It's something that takes familiarity more than anything else, if your usual acquaintance with herbs is a sprig of parsley to garnish! 

Here's what I use on an almost daily basis in one of other combination:

Parsley: (I like continental, or flat, parsley for the stronger flavour). The leaves and stalks are highly nutritious, and provide an excellent natural vitamin and mineral supplement.
Mint: Ordinary garden mint has mild digestive benefits. Variants, particularly peppermint, can have slightly different, or stronger, properties. Peppermint is particularly good as an anti-nausea remedy, in addition to being useful for soothing the whole gastro-intestinal tract. Topically, it can relieve pain and headaches. 
Basil: The quintessential Italian herb, and for me the flavour of summer... It can relieve indigestion, and ease flatulence, stomach cramps, colic, nausea and vomiting.  Externally, it's an insect repellent and the juice from the leaves can ease bites and stings.
Dill: This one calms the digestive system and can relieve wind. It's a mild diuretic, which can be useful for all sorts of conditions that cause fluid retention, and chewing the seeds improves bad breath.
Garlic: Nature's antibiotic. All the alliums (the onion family) are natural antibiotics. I'd like to think that one of the reasons I don't often catch colds is because of how much garlic we eat! That, and I love onions, and eat them most days one way or another. Garlic is also beneficial for the circulatory system, can help regulate high blood pressure, lower blood sugar and improve circulation. It has decongestant properties, which is why it's suggested as an addition to a hot toddy.
Bay: Another digestive aid - it stimulates the digestion, can settle a wonky stomach and helps with the breakdown of heavier foods like meat. The essential oil can be diluted into a carrier oil (grapeseed or something else that's light) and used as a massage oil that eases muscle aches and arthritic joints. A decoction (where you boil the herb then let it steep) of leaves can be strained and added to a warm bath for to ease aches and joint pain.

Cinnamon: Stimulates circulation, especially to the extremities - which, for arthritics, can help ease inflammation. It's also a digestive aid - useful for nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea. It can help ease the aches and pains of colds and flu.
Ginger: This is one of the kings of spices for digestive issues. It's a powerful anti-nausea remedy and is good for travel sickness as well as nausea caused by prescription drugs. It aids digestion, eases wind and colic. It's a circulatory stimulant, and increases sweating, which can help ease a fever. Added to a hot toddy, it can aid coughs and colds.
Turmeric: There's been huge quantities of research into the medicinal properties of turmeric and many mainstream doctors are telling patients to take it either through cooking, or in capsule form (my own rheumatologist included). It has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, and is also anti-bacterial. It can be used to ease nausea and improve circulation. It is also an anti-fungal.
Cardomom: Another digestive aid, it can ease indigestion and griping stomachs. 
Pepper: Improves digestive function, and has antiseptic qualities that are particularly useful for the gastro-intestinal tract. The essential oil can be used to ease rheumatic pain, but that must be done with qualified supervision.
Cumin: This spice relieves flatulence and bloating, as well as stimulating digestion. 
Coriander: Both a herb and a spice, it has many uses. The fresh herb, infused as a tea, can be used as a remedy for flatulence, bloating and griping. The seeds can be chewed to freshen the breath. A lotion made with the seeds can be used for rheumatic pain - again, that is something that should be sourced from an expert. 

I use all of these herbs, singly and in varying combinations, most days. For dinner last night we had grilled chicken that had been marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and pepper, and our salad had chopped dill and parsley added. Other nights there might be more spices, and less herbs. It varies. One way or another though, I add SOMETHING to what I'm making. Dragon Dad has a bit of a delicate stomach, and the mint, dill, parsley, basil combination that lands in our salads, couscous or other grains, at least three to four times a week was started so I could see if it would help. He's noticed a significant difference in his digestion in the time that I've been really focused on doing this, and if I haven't made a good herby salad or side dish he complains and asks for it - and he was skeptical initially... For myself, my drug list and accompanying side effects is now very large, so between that and the herbs and spices, I can't honestly tell what's doing the most good. One thing I do know though, is that everything smells so good, and on the days my appetite is off, that's a huge help. 

Again, I have to reiterate that you're unlikely to get into any strife adding these herbs and spices to your cooking. However, if you want to investigate further and look into using essential oils, tinctures and teas, consult an expert, because like misused drugs, some of these, used wrongly, can be dangerous. 

And, because it's beautiful, the Chelsea Physic Garden, which is on my visit one day list... A garden planted specifically because of the medicinal properties of the plants absolutely fascinates me! Dragon Dad would have the whipper snipper out to do those lawn edges though...!

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Needless deaths at Stereophonic festivals

Photo: Sky News


One young woman, Sylvia Choi, 25, pharmacist, dead.
Another person taken to hospital, and now recovering.
A man charged for allegedly supplying Choi with the MDMA she took.


One young man, Stefan Woodward, 19, dead.
Two others, a young man and a young woman, being treated in the Royal Adelaide Hospital for drug overdoses. 


Teen taken to hospital in a critical condition from drug overdose, now in intensive care serious but stable.


Twenty young people hospitalised after overdosing.

WHAT is going on with our young people? In articles I read in the Sydney Morning Herald over the weekend, those interviewed were obviously sad about the deaths, but at the same time, were seemingly blase about the drug use. "Everyone does it" - apparently. What they did want were better options for on site drug testing so they could be more sure that what they're taking is safe. I had to read that over a few times, to be honest. 

The risks don't appear to make any difference to their decision making, even the deaths... Said one 25 year old in a SMH article:
If we really want to look at why people are putting themselves at risk, it's because they think the risk is worthwhile ... The feeling of happiness is unparalleled. 
So, they're at a music festival - which one assumes they wanted to attend - and they're with their friends, which is a good thing, but neither of those things is enough. They have to get high too. And risk dying. 

In the same article, from a rap by Melbourne musician, Remi:
The pupils of our generation are looking pretty gacked, huh ... We know we're f***ing stupid for doing it but whatever... 
Reading through various Facebook threads following articles about the deaths, there is blame flying in all directions. The police haven't cracked down enough, or they've cracked down too hard, which results in people taking all their drugs at once prior to being searched on entry. There aren't good enough tests available to check the drugs themselves to see that they're 'safe'. It's the dealer's fault for selling compromised drugs. That the first aid people didn't do enough... 

At the end of the day, there are two people to blame for the deaths of Sylvia Choi and Stefan Woodward. Those two people are Sylvia Choi and Stefan Woodward. They CHOSE to buy those drugs and they CHOSE to take them. Sylvia Choi was a pharmacist. You'd think, of all people, she'd have had a better idea than most just how dangerous that drug could be. 

The cold hard reality of all these recreational drugs is that no one knows how safe or unsafe they are, often until it's too late. There will be more deaths, as long as our young people feel they need to take them in order to have a really good time. There's no point in trying to lay blame on anyone other than the users. THEY are the ones making the decision to take that risk. I have no time for dealers, at all, and I think that the consequences for those caught dealing should be much more severe. But, at the end of the day, no one is forcing these kids to buy and take the drugs. 

Friday, 4 December 2015

The rape of the mint...

WHAT is it with men and whipper snippers and/or chainsaws??? I've been trying to think of something that women do that's sort of equivalent, but I can't - and I KNOW I'm being gendered here...but, ARGH!!!

We have two freestanding garden beds in our rented house. The first summer we were here, I got very busy with vegetables. The lettuce and herbs went well, the radishes were fabulous, the pick and come again old Italian varietal spinach was wonderful, but fruit flies decimated the tomatoes... And then Dragon Dad did his first clear up one day when he was mowing the lawns and took the whipper snipper to both beds and went down to ground level. I DID say at the time, that there had been other things in the beds that needed saving - ie, basil that was still viable, chives that were a permanent crop, Italian parsley that I'd FINALLY got well established (takes SO long), other herbs, and that old variety spinach, etc... He shrugged and said it had been messy and it was annoying him so he cleared it up.
I haven't tried to go again with vegetables - for one thing, all of this last year we've been poised for the interstate move that's been put off again and again. I did get some herbs going again in the big bed though, and we've been thoroughly enjoying the mint that took off, as well as other things. 
Today, it was lawns again, and I went outside to pick some lemon balm to try and see if a tisane with that and mint might ease the awful headache I have that's a side effect of a large drug infusion that happened on Thursday. This is what I found:
The mint, lemon balm and oregano have been annihilated. AGAIN. NOT happy. Both the mint and balm had got a bit leggy, and in need of cutting back. Cutting back. Not mown. Cutting back, fed, and watered so they could thicken up again. 
My mother was a mad gardener. I lack her dedication. But I do like to potter. And I DO love having fresh herbs available for picking - they're at their cheapest in the fruit and veg shops at present, but that's still $1.50 a bunch...which can add up when you use them as I do. There are lots of heavier jobs I can't manage easily now - damned RA. And sometimes - as in the case of my unfortunate herbs - I tend to put those jobs off, or do them in bits. Both tendencies clearly offend Dragon Dad's need to have things just so, and done in one hit!
Years ago, in one of my childhood homes, there was a huge exotic tree of some variety I can no longer remember that grew just behind the BBQ and screened the business end of the back yard from full view. My father had a chainsaw which he must have borrowed for some particular job, because I don't remember him owning one. His job finished, he was obviously having so much fun he had a go at the tree. Pruned it he did - so he said to my mother. Mum wasn't big on getting angry - she keep a lot of things down. That day though, I remember just how quiet she got - always a sign of imminent danger... The tree was a butchered, ghastly thing with great amputated thick branches sticking out all over the place. It took a very long time for it to recover and for enough growth to cover Dad's efforts. Mum never really forgave him - and the chainsaw was sent back to its owner very smartly. I don't remember ever seeing Dad prune anything ever again. 
Somehow, when we move and I get organised with herbs again wherever we're living, I'll have to manage it in such a way that prevents these over-enthusiastic efforts. Pots maybe - the various planter boxes and pots scattered around the property here never see the whipper snipper close up. So that may be the answer. What I do know is that there'll be no lemon balm tea for me - because that I can't buy in the fruit and veg shops, and it'll be a while before there's mint in any of our salads.
Who else has this issue? And can anyone tell me WHY they feel the need to be so over the top??