25 April, 2013

"....No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should....be at peace with God" (Max Ehrmann) - well not in my kitchen!

Dave Flatt  was a great teacher and a great Headteacher. I worked for him forty plus years ago for about three years. Dave was also an unashamed “bloke”. He smoked continuously – when you entered his office to speak to him you did so through a fog!  When he left school each tea-time he would stop for a few beers with drinking companions in a local village pub. And he openly admitted that it was a great sadness to him that in this modern world women’s lib and other such trendy ideas were becoming fashionable. “The rot set in” he would say “when women were allowed into pubs! If we have to have them then they should use a separate room!”  Dave longed for an age gone by – where the old songs were the best songs and the only good values were traditional ones – a good pint of English ale, a good lady to have his tea ready when he got home and a the world was a place where “fashion” and “trendy” were unknown words.

Professionally he was at the top – children, parents, inspectors, and staff loved him, the school was very highly regarded, had high standards and would stand scrutiny with the best. But despite Dave’s many professional strong points he also had a weakness.  He hated leading school assemblies – which as Headteacher was not insignificant. He was very uncomfortable with any religious element and clearly felt ill at ease with anything that might, no matter how vaguely, be termed an “act of worship”.   He used any ruse to get out of leading a traditional assembly - all staff had to be on a rota for leading assemblies, assemblies were consciously not to be religious, children and classes were timetabled to be responsible for leading assemblies. And the result was that it was only once every week or so when Dave found himself standing, looking uncomfortable in front of the whole school. When this happened, we, the staff knew what would occur. The assembly would be one of three types – a moan and a telling off for the children about some poor behaviour, an espousal of some school event like the football team winning a game or, lastly, a series of announcements about forthcoming events – summer garden party, trip to the zoo, parents’ evening and the like. And, when all these failed there was always Dave’s fallback – the crisp packet!

You see - Dave was right screwed up packaging
 springs back into life to threaten our world
The eyes of staff (and children too) would glaze over, when two or three times a term, Dave would revisit his crisp packet story. Not for Dave tales from the world’s great religions, no reminding of great moral truths or references to tales from our cultural heritage from which children could learn, no singing of hymns or the reciting of a quiet prayer. No, instead we had the crisp packet - a time when Dave would remind the children that progress wasn’t always a good thing and that “old fashioned” was good! He would always illustrate his point with a crisp packet – which he would bring, especially for the event. He would stand in front of the rows of assembled children and open crisp packet and, as he talked, eat the crisps. He could time it to perfection - as he finished his brief talk he also finished off the last crisp. Then he would screw up the packet into a tight little ball and throw it into a waste bin (usually by this time there had been a number of low groans from the children who had seen all this before while staff tried desperately to stay awake or at least look interested!). And then the “punch line” – Dave would peer into the waste bin, reach in and pull out the packet. Instead of the tight little ball of screwed up paper ball that he had thrown in the packet had sprung open again – it wouldn’t stay screwed up. “In my younger days” Dave would tell the children “crisp packets were made of a different material and when you screwed them up to throw away they stayed screwed up but modern crisp packets don’t!” These new fangled packets, suggested Dave, might be good at keeping the crisps fresh but because they don’t screw up into little balls they are causing havoc with our refuse dumps and land fill sites. The whole country, according to Dave, was going to sink under a sea of wayward crisp packets! The staff would sit squirming, kids yawned and Dave, empty crisp packet in hand, would scurry from the Hall of the sanctuary of his office – leaving the Hall filled with people pondering Dave’s wisdom!

I mention all this merely as an introduction. In the past week or so I have found myself muttering Dave’s long forgotten words and thinking of those far off assemblies. For the past few days I have been eating cereal for my breakfast and each morning as I struggle to open the plastic packaging I curse – it always ends in the same way. I fight to open the tightly wrapped cereal bars and eventually the wrapping bursts, and cereal crumbles and spills everywhere. I stand and curse – and Pat raises her eyes to heaven!  Then I mutter “Dave was right all those years ago – crisp packets, cereal packets. and the rest, they were much better when I was a lad!” and when the cereal box is at last empty and I squeeze the plastic wrapping into a tight little ball ready to be thrown away it suddenly leaps into life again. Just like Dave’s crisp packet it refuses to stay in a little ball but flaps around the table or the floor with a mind of its own scattering residual crumbs of cereal everywhere! And we call this progress – I’m sure that I heard Dave say that too!!!! It’s all very frustrating.

But it isn’t only cereal packets that confuse and frustrate me. So often now I begin a conversation (Pat usually calls it a “rant”) with the words “And we call this progress!” Each morning, having cleared the detritus from my battle with the cereal packet from the floor and the table I look around me and reflect that I increasingly seem to grow out of touch with what the rest of humanity accept as normal, acceptable or good. I suppose it is what many would call being a grumpy old man. I’m quite prepared to accept that verdict – but at the same time my grumpiness does, I feel, raise questions about where the world is heading. My grumpiness can range far and wide....... it can encompass the trivial and the temporary but also the serious and, in my view, the potentially worrying. It can be concerned with purely personal foibles or the great issues facing mankind. Hardly a day goes by without my feeling at odds with some aspect of the modern world and these wide ranging grumbles could fill all my blogs from now till the end of time. I will save you that experience but I will, however,  continue on the theme of packaging!
The ring pull.Guaranteed to snap off in my
 hand - then it's back to hacking with a
screw driver! This is progress I am told.

When lunch time raises its head there is often another reason for me to reflect on Dave Flatt’s wisdom. With what seems monotonous regularity a can has to be opened or a new jar of mayonnaise unscrewed or a sealed pack of meat slices or cheese unsealed. Each of these presents its own peculiar set of problems. All too often the tin of corned beef or luncheon meat ends up being hacked at with a screw driver because the ring pull has broken off while I was trying to open the can. The electric can opener is no use on a rectangular shaped can so in the end I resort to a blunt instrument and dark mutterings. On another day Pat might hand me a jar of mayonnaise or sauce of some kind and plead “Can you do something with this?” And so will begin more tensing of muscles, raised blood pressure, curses and discussions about the stupidity of modern packaging as I pit all my might against the screw top lid . Or what about trying to open a pack of sliced meat? You first have to find the little tab and peel it back.  Invariably, however,  when I pull it breaks off in my fingers so once again I hack away with the bread knife!

And when the lunch is finally on the plate and I have breathed a sigh of relief that I have survived another potentially life threatening few minutes where I ran a serious risk of hacking off my fingers or severing a major artery as I did battle with scissors, screw drivers and sharp knives there is the ultimate irony. As the unused piece of corned beef or slices of meat sit there on the working surface Pat will remind me that they need to be wrapped up.............in cling film. I now steadfastly refuse to use cling film and if forced to it is only a short time before Pat whips it out of my hands. Whenever I touch the stuff it wraps itself round me and tears in the wrong places. Instead of a neatly wrapped piece of meat or cheese I am left with a crumpled mess. I shake my head in frustration and confusion – having suffered the trials of unpacking items we then have to put the remains back in equally frustrating wrapping. And, in the case of cling film what confuses me even more is its clear gender preference – the stuff hates men! I have noticed that any woman can pick up the roll of film and without even looking tear off exactly the amount required and in one smooth movement wrap it around the object. Clearly, I missed out on that gene!

Why does an iron hasp and staple bracket
need to be in an air sealed pack for which you 
need a chain saw to open?
But above all of these – the cereal packets, the cling film, the cans of food there is one form of packaging that not only increasingly defeats me but, in my view, is for the most part totally unnecessary and responsible for most of the world’s ills. I can understand why food is packed in sealed containers of some kind – but why, in this modern world is everything else. Buy a screw driver from the DIY store and it will come packaged in an impenetrable, tough plastic cocoon. So often I mumble do screw drivers, felt tip pens, electric plugs and millions more everyday items need to be sold in hermetically sealed packs – which, of course, then fill up my dustbin and have to be recycled.  How often do I stand naked in the bathroom, having had a shower (my glasses either steamed up or left in the bedroom!) trying without success to open a new toothbrush or packet of dental floss – its plastic and cardboard needing a SWAT team’s expertise to open it. How many times have I taken a knife or a pair of scissors to some plastic packet strong enough to keep the gold in Fort Knox safe from criminal hands and ended up sticking plasters on a bleeding finger.........and that is another thing! Am I the only person in the world who cannot work out the logic on the packaging of medical dressings? Of course these need to be kept clean – maybe even sterile – but am I the only person on the planet who, having sliced his finger floods the floor with blood as I desperately try to defeat (usually one handed!) the packaging for the dressing. I often wonder if, in this litigious age, Pat could sue the dressing manufacturer – if I bled to death because the dressing packet could not be undone! The whole thing is a mystery and a great confusion and frustration to me.

Max Ehrmann - such a calm, thoughtful 
man. His "Desiderata"such a quietly inspiring
 work. But then maybe he didn't have to 
deal with cereal packets or ring pull cans. 
And he probably never felt he was bleeding
 to death while trying to open the 
wrapping on a medical dressing!
So often now I look up to the space on the kitchen cupboard and shake my head. Until we had the kitchen re-vamp a year or so ago we used to have a copy of the famous verse “Desiderata” by the 20th century American poet Max Ehrmann stuck on the side of the cupboard and now, even though the verse is no more, its words ring through my head...... but somehow sounding less reassuring than they used to:  “.....whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.....” . In his lovely verse Ehrmann never mentioned packaging – maybe things were better in his day. Maybe, had he written his poem in the early years of the 21st century, he might have amended his thoughts little. It does seem increasingly difficult to accept that the world is “unfolding as it should” or indeed that I should  “keep peace with my soul” – in the face of cereal packets, wrapping paper, cling film, plastic packaging and the rest, all with a mind of their own and all beginning each day with the intention of frustrating me!

Each day, it seems a new confusion or frustration arrives. It all reminds me of the wonderful American  TV sit com of many years ago “Soap”. The bizarre and often confusing plots all based around the Tate  family in the USA were compulsive weekly viewing in the late 70s and early 80s. At the beginning of each episode the announcer would give a brief but totally confusing description of the convoluted plot. He would end this by saying “Confused? You won’t be after this week’s episode”. But of course we always were!   And as each episode came to a close a voice over would pose a series of questions relating to the episode: “Will Jessica’s affair be discovered?” Will Chester fight the duel?” “Does anybody care? And then the announcer would then say “These questions and many others will be answered in the next edition of Soap”. And that, somehow, sums up my increasing view of the world – confused and frustrated by what seems to me to be an increasingly bizarre place – a place where I look for common sense and sound judgement but increasingly seem to find only odd behaviour, and strange values – and, of course, wayward packaging. But then again, I might just be a grumpy old man! Having said that, however, I am sure that Dave Flatt had a point all those years ago!

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