Plastics & the universe

A few years ago, I went on a back-to-nature holiday with my dear friend Mario. We went to Bali. Bali is a paradise for those who are environmentally conscious; at least, the part of Bali where we were.  We stayed in a little villa amongst the paddy fields and ate in a raw green restaurant called Alchemy.

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I remember with fondness the coconut shell bowls, the bamboo straws and the reusable food packaging (though they were over-priced).

In a fit of environmental fervour, I started googling these products with the idea of buying them. But wait a minute….they have to be shipped – nay, flown – to me across the ocean, burning carbon as well as a hole in my pocket (postage is not cheap).

Obviously, importing reusable stuff from across the miles is not a good solution. It might reduce my plastics usage, but it creates a burden elsewhere.

For those who are wading into the plastics war, I would recommend reading the Bellagio Principles:

https://www.iisd.org/pdf/bellagio.pdf

Advocacy alone is not enough to rid the world of plastics. It will reduce the usage, definitely….in the educated and privileged classes who have the luxury of making a choice.  This is a reusable mug.

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I mentioned this in a previous post about the people in my neighbourhood (in Asia) who are one of the biggest users of plastic: these people exist on breadline, and they have very little choice. I asked the lady who sells 300 drinks a day in plastic cups (and straws) if she knew about the damage she is doing the environment on a daily basis and her reply was, “OK. Plastics very bad. What you want me do?” She feeds her family on the back of this….and she has a large family, including extended family members. She cannot afford to make changes that will hit her precarious living by increasing her costs.

Any long-term changes must therefore address these three axioms of the triangle of humanity:  “People, Planet, Prosperity”.

A couple of years ago, I had an interesting conversation about the environment with an economist who had a hydroponics project going in my daughter’s school. He said that the only way to stop massive deforestation is to provide the people who live in the forest with alternative means of income (e.g. eco-tourism) so that they do not collude with the illegal loggers….you can preach all you like to them about the environmental impact of deforestation, but unless you provide them with a means  of putting food into their children’s mouths, they are going to cut down trees for money.

My question; is how do we bring people together to work together to effect positive change that goes beyond advocacy?

My daughter suggests buying 100 reusable plastics drinks cups and donating it to the lady who sells 300 drinks a day and ask her to give those to her regular customers, offering them a 0.05THB discount on a 20THB drink (because that’s how cheap a disposable plastic cup is).

Here’s a review of reusable plastic cups. Eeks, mine has only a shelf-life of 30 uses!

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jul/04/five-of-the-best-reusable-coffee-cups

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My children’s father’s most cherished books is Viktor Papanek’s Design For The Real World: If only designers could spend 10% of their time working on solutions for real problems in the world.

 

Plastics – what’s the solution for the real world?

One of the things I tell my children is don’t just lecture people about your values. THINK!

For instance, we, the privileged ones, are telling all and sundry not to use plastics. But what choices do those existing on breadline have? Advocacy alone is not going to rid the world of plastics. It just generates more hot air. Thus, we need environmental stewardship to go with eco activism and I don’t see enough of that.

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Twenty six years ago, way back in 1992, I wrote a book on the Environmental Impact of Paper Recycling.

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Back then, the environment wasn’t a trendy issue, unlike today. Today, each time I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed, I am bombarded with messages about saving the planet.

Twenty six years ago, when my book came out, I was ridiculed. I was called a New Age hippy, a rebel without a cause, a Sloane Ranger, a fool. Back then, recycling was all the rage. I tricked my way into a paper mill to show that recycling can actually do more harm to the planet, especially when the heavy metals used in some inks get leached into rivers.

I don’t think my fairly high profile shouting made that much of a difference back then.

Today, fortunately, much of paper wastage is eliminated with the advent of technology. We seldom print out stuff. We read online. This migration is both good and bad for humanity, but on the whole, it is very good for the environment.

But what about plastics? I hear the battle cry but what’s the solution for the real world?

Here’s the view from ground floor level:

I live in a humble part of town. The people here are normal, working class Thais. They work as tuk-tuk drivers, massage girls, waiters. You can get a drink in my part of town for THB20 (less than 40p) and lunch for THB70. These drinks and food are packaged in plastic cups, plastic straws, polystyrene food boxes.

Straws and a lot of plastic cups are most commonly made from type 5 plastic, or polypropylene. Although type 5 plastic can be recycled, it isn’t accepted by most curbside recycling programmes. When plastic straws aren’t recycled, they end up in landfills, or even worse, polluting our oceans. And they don’t biodegrade. Not for thousands of years. And in the meantime, they choke wildlife, enter into our food chain and kill us silently.

This is my local drinks stall.

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In a day, during high season, she sells 300 drinks on average. That means 300 plastic cups and 300 plastic straws. Just on my road alone, there are 45 of these stalls (I counted).  Some of these stalls are a lot busier than this one. We are looking at 13,500 plastic cups and plastic straws A DAY from just one road in Thailand during high season. That’s heck lot of plastic ending up in landfills!

But here’s the fact: much of the local economy in Asia is run on this cheap, widely available plastic and polystyrene packaging. Every evening, the municipal bins are over-spilling with food and drinks packaging. Where I live, that is the biggest contributor of plastics pollution.

But on the flip side of the coin, the lady who owns the stall and her husband support their whole family (including extended family members) selling drinks at THB20 per pop. They are making an honest living and creating a better future for their next generation, though yes, at the expense of our planet.

What’s YOUR solution for her livelihood, if you are telling her not to use plastics?

It is a privilege to be able to make choices based on our values. I am privileged that I can afford to buy a Starbucks reusable flask, several cloth shopping bags and even tiffin carriers to take my takeaway meals home in. I made this cup for my friend to take green smoothies home in.

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But what about the small-time traders who are the biggest users of plastics, serving a segment of the community that exists on the breadline, for whom choice is not their privilege? What would you propose for them to use instead, if you are telling them don’t use plastic?

Here are my suggestions for food packaging (for fish and chips from the UK, and for nasi lemak from Malaysia) but I have none for drinks. What do YOU think?

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JK Number One Rule for Parenting

I am JK. I have 5 children. I write parenting books and articles. And here’s my rule for parenting:

Have very, very few rules.

Don’t confuse children with a long list of do’s and don’t’s, to the extent that they dare not fart without your permission, get confused as to whether it is OK to eat ice cream at 6am or think they’re growing up in a correction unit for criminals.

Don’t nag children either about homework, dietary choices, bedtimes, etc, because they will develop selective hearing, i.e. they will perfect a mechanism for tuning you out very effectively.

Moreover, the longterm effect of nagging is it makes you sound and look like an old hag.

For my headstrong, impatient and extremely wilful youngest child, I only have three rules:

  1. Church every Sunday.
  2. Score goals on the football pitch.
  3. Learn Chemistry MY way.

This is the logic behind these three (only three) rules:

  1. Church because it is about being part of a community. My daughter is leads a privileged life, and she has to learn to be on equal terms with children whose parents do not own cars and who and to walk for miles to school. She needs to spend Sunday chilling out and “doing nothing tangibly useful”. This “going to church” rule is also about teaching her to believe in something beyond self, to wonder and to question, more so than indoctrinating her with specific religion.
  2. Scoring goals on the football pitch teaches her about commitment, hard work and dedication. And a certain amount of physical fearlessness (which translates into confidence). It is also about being outdoors, lots of exercise, learning how to get on with her peers and the thrill of winning.
  3. Many friends chide me for being a tiger mum when it comes to teaching my child chemistry. Oh dear friends, please understand that it is not about the marks (I know she will exceed her university requirements) but the process. One must learn how to obey before one can lead. Chemistry seems to push all her buttons….and mine, too, unfortunately. So we circle each other like a couple of warring hellcats, but we will get there in the end, battle-scarred and hopefully wiser as individuals and closer as mother-and-daughter: it has been said that the most challenging thing about parenting is being patient to a smaller version of impatient you. It is weird but in the last two years or so, we learn to find our way to each other hearts and about life though our shared, and sometimes contentious, journey in chemistry.

Note: hell breaks loose if any of these three (only three) rules are breached. But touch wood, I have a high level of compliance because my children know they have a good deal. Only three rules!

A different Christmas

We put so much store into Christmas. I, for one, am guilty. I blame my mother. She would start baking Christmas cakes as early as October and the tree would be up in our house by the first day of December.  And yes, she does go over the top with the celebrations.

“It’s the happiest day in the year!” My mother would say with a big, happy, smiling face.

But what if it’s not?

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When my friend Nico’s wife died 2 years ago, he suddenly became a single parent to their three sons. Before then, he had been a rather hands-off father, having spent most of his life working long hours whilst his wife stayed at home to bring the boys up.

So suddenly, he is plunged into the deep end. And he is often at a loss about what’s the “right” thing to do.

This year, his sons signed a “petition” and presented it to him – they don’t want Christmas!!!!

He was absolutely distraught,  torn, because being Italian, being home with his Mamma at Christmas is very important to him. He had not missed a single Christmas at home, and was so looking forward too, to this time to heal, replenish and recharge with his large family.

“Why don’t you want Christmas?” I asked the boys.

“Because it’s sad. Our Mummy died at Christmas.”

“Christmas is horrid.”

“We hate it.”

I read them The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore,via Skype. It’s a classic, and I grew up listening to my mother read this story to me. Here’s a youtube clip of the story:

 

The three boys listened attentively, despite themselves, because they love stories.

And then…..

“We don’t want Christmas!”

Their father is equally adamant that they will not be sitting at home in a motherless house missing their Mummy either.

Then I had a brainwave.  I suggested, how about visiting the Plum Village, which is near where they live? It’s the home of the spiritualist, Thict Nhat Hahn, whom I’ve been studying, after accidentally discovering his work with my partner about a year ago when we visited Ho Chi Minh City.

Father and sons did their research.

“GOOD IDEA!” They beamed happily at me. 😀

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For more information about Plum Village, please visit the website.  

Photo: Plum Village.

What to do when the youngest child leaves home! Help!

My psychologist-friend told me with grave seriousness, “Read back your last 10 Facebook posts to me.”

Eeek ….. food, food, food, misbehaving teenager, misbehaving twenty-something, food, chemistry tests, medical school application for the youngest, friends, food.

“That’s where you are at,” my friend said smoothly. “Mentally and emotionally.”

“Jac, I hope you are not going to fuss over me instead when Georgina leaves home,” my partner said with a heart-felt shudder. “I don’t need a mother, housekeeper, cook, office manager or tutor, you know.”

“I don’t fuss,” I told him haughtily.

“Yes, you’re right. You don’t fuss. You OBSESS.”

“Well, that has always been my nature. I give 100%. That’s what makes me successful in everything I do.”

“Just don’t make me into what you do,” he muttered.

Truth is, my whole world has shrunk to encompass only green smoothies, bone broths, energy balls, organic food, the forthcoming international baccalaureate exams and running 35 kms a week.

Sure, I am content enough with my life. Who wouldn’t be? It is a blessed existence. And I am fortunate enough too that I write books that win awards that people want to read. But a small voice inside me asked, “Will this be all?”

Yes, a very small part of me miss getting dressed to go to work and not care about food, kids and a properly-run home. I feel like not nagging sometimes or not getting all huffy when my bread goes wrong. Hmm, I didn’t used to be like that…..

I began putting out feelers for the D-day, which is the last day of my youngest child’s all-important exams (May 2018). You know, JUST IN CASE.

What’s out there?

A few years ago, UK’s National Health Service talked about working with Harvard University to train leaders for the health service. That scheme came under a lot of criticism because currently, the NHS is so poorly managed that it is always in deficit. Hospitals are closing, wards face severe shortages, staff over-worked…..there are certainly challenges and opportunities there for reform. With the right training, it could be the perfect desk job for someone who has strong views (and experience) about how the health service should be run.

Mumsnet, the leading UK website to support parents, have a Returning to Work section within its careers area.  The Return Hub is a specialist recruitment agency working with financial firms which are supportive of women returning to work after a career break.  Credit Suisse runs a very interesting programme for senior returnees who undergo a 12-week trial period before walking back into top positions (yes, with lots of mentoring, emotional support and learning new technologies):

If like me, you are thinking of the “just in case” scenario, do get your CV shipshape. Just in case, you know. There are certainly plenty of opportunities out there.

To help you, here’s some good advice I found: https://jobs.barclays.co.uk/how-strong-is-your-cv/

Who knows, I might do another postgraduate degree.

“Just not in my area,” everybody at home gasped, aghast, even my beloved father. My daughter threatens to have extensive facial reconstruction and change her name by deed poll should she find me lecturing at the medical school she intends going to. But you know, the world is my oyster in my second stage of life.

Main photo: in the days I used to get dressed and go to work.

How to cuddle your teens (and grown-up children)

I fight with my 17-year-old.  “Hellcats, both of you,” her father says in exasperation.  We fight about everything, like two feral cats in a paper bag, in her father’s colourful terminology.

Yet I hold her close always. I mean physically close. Especially when words fail me. Our physical closeness nullifies our meaningless fights:  immediately after a shouting match, she would huff at me and tell me I am annoying, but with that slant of a smile in her eyes, building up to a hug that makes everything better between us once again. I will worry the night she goes to sleep without hugging or touching me, or if I could not kiss her cheek, her hair, and feel her melt into me.

I notice this is an oddity, even in Western cultures, to be always touching and hugging one’s teenage child. Those who spout attachment parenting in early years are surprisingly non-tactile to their teens.  My psychologist friend tells me that there is this belief that the teenage years is about “individuating” a child, that is to say, force them to become self-sufficient.

‘Ah,” I said. “Be tough to a child in order to raise a tough adult who will be successful in a tough world.” I understood. I have seen, first hand, the destructive effect of the mindset that values self-sufficiency and independence above all.  I knew one woman who sneered at me, “You still run home to your parents, at your age?” She left her parents as soon as she could, never looked back and I suspect, she would not allow her son the luxury of this “weakness” of coming home to the family, of asking for softness. The son, a qualified pilot, is handsome, healthy and outwardly successful, but he is beset with something inside that made him break off a two year engagement because of fear of commitment rather than flaws in the relationship, have outbreaks on his youthful skin, and being unable to work in a career that he had trained so many years for.

From this example and others, I am convinced that emotional distance and lack of physical bond between grown-up children and parents is not healthy. Our adolescents and young adults still need to hear, feel, and know that we love them and enjoy being with them. Heck, I am almost fifty, and I blossom each time I hear those words! Thus, it feels good for me to be home in my first family’s home. I love the fact that sometimes, it seems as if my brothers and I have not yet left home.  The closeness remains, despite the miles and the passing time.

Hold your children close, and I mean physically, because sometimes, this matters more than words. But how? I hear many ask. Teens are especially prickly to close proximity, especially if they have not been brought up within a touchy-feely framework.

Six ways to cuddle your teen:

  1. Cook unhurriedly together with your teen/grown up child. With cooking, you stand close, work in concerted harmony, learn to anticipate each other’s moves and yes, touch.
  2. Rough and tumble. My children’s father still wrestles with his grown-up children – I have to remind the children not to be too rough with their old father! He is not 30-years-old anymore!
  3. Do things for each other, such as massage, manicure, reiki.
  4. Cuddle up together on a sofa watching a film. Slowly move closer.
  5. End each night with a goodnight kiss. I miss my mother’s “No star” (goodnight in Welsh), the way she touches me gently as she kisses me.
  6. Make time for each other. All of the above has to happen naturally.

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Why Emotions Coaching should be on the school syllabus

At a certain stage in their lives, our young-adult children leave an institution of higher education (be in high school, college or university) with a piece of paper that declares them literate and numerate, and thus ready for the world of work.

Unfortunately, there is no syllabus, tests or qualifications on the very important subject called Emotions.

In a bygone era, it was kind of taken for granted that children learn that from the home. That was in a time where families lived close together and children had the luxury of playing with neighborhood friends after school. It is amazing how much children learn from unstructured play and from being outdoors; how to get on with others, how to make up rules, conflict resolution, self-regulation, handling playground politics, coping with losing, managing own safety and the world they live in, to name but a few.

When unstructured, outdoor play and the benefit of extended families are removed from children, the task of Emotions Coaching is left unfulfilled. To compound matters, growing up in emotionally cold households does not provide children with the opportunities to learn about Emotions – theirs and other people’s.

Emotions are living beings within our physical selves, vibrant and alive. We have to learn how to connect with the Emotions within us and to manage them, rather than control and suppress a part of the human being that is meant to live and breathe. Controlling and suppressing are the cornerstones of Discipline. I think a more positive coaching path is to teach children how to connect and deal with the entity within.

We tell children to stop crying, without finding out why they are crying. We tell them it is silly to be frightened, without knowing what their fears are.

If we don’t know the Emotions that live within us, we feed them the wrong diet. They either grow into beasts or they die. If they are unloved, they will someday rebel or they will simply stop breathing. Even if these worst-case scenarios don’t happen, isn’t it sad that we are strangers to our own Emotions?

I have known adults who have successfully built cages for their Emotions, but there are incidences when their caged Emotions break free – as they do when they grow too large or too strong to be successfully suppressed by will power.

In some cases, Emotions die from neglect or never had the chance to grow to their full maturity. I have known a successful professional, a very charming friend and an attractive looking individual. But peel back the layers and you find a hurt and frightened little boy who lashes out uncontrollably, who was never given the chance to mature into a grown-up lover, a strong husband, a tender father. No outward career success, long line of exciting lovers or big address book of acquaintances can ever compensate for not knowing the deep joys of really loving and being loved, that only comes when we are connected with our own Emotions.

Thus, we have to step up to the mark and implement Emotions Coaching, first on ourselves, then our spouses and children. Be literate in this subject, because you have to know love before you can love; you have to love yourself the way you want to be loved before you can teach someone how to love you in the same way. Yes, it is deep. Yes, the syllabus is arduous and can be complicated. But you can’t afford not to invest in Emotions Coaching. Leave no child (including yourself) stunted, silenced and dying.

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How to raise empowered children

This is my older daughter, Kat. She has a lovely, gentle temperament and is not in the least feisty, unlike her fiery younger sister.

But when Kat was around 9 or 10 years old, something that the American government did annoyed her a great deal (I can’t quite remember what). It was pre-Facebook days, so she couldn’t do what people these days do, namely spend hours venting on Facebook.

Anyhow, I suggested to Kat that she sits down and write to the President of the United States about her grievances. Take the complaint direct to the cause, rather than be angry, impotent and spread it round fruitlessly, which serves no purpose whatsoever other than raise the toxicity of the world with more angry, frustrated words.

Kat did write to POTUS in her meticulous hand and trotted off to the post office to post the letter.

To our surprise, she received a letter from The White House a few weeks later, signed by Bill Clinton himself. We still have that letter somewhere at home. So though Kat had not changed US policy one bit, she had learned a very important life’s lesson.

And here’s the thing: anyone can write to the POTUS or the UK Prime Minister, and this is often far more fruitful than bashing away impotently on social media, spreading negativity, heaping on more vicious junk on the Internet junk yard. You probably have more chance here of someone taking up your case.

A few years ago, I was so so so incensed by Lloyds Bank and HSBC in the UK. I had requested an electronic transfer from my savings account held at HSBC to my current account held at Lloyds Bank for £5,000.

But the money never arrived at Lloyds. I marched into HSBC and demanded to see the manager, bearing all the necessary paperwork to show that my account had had £5,000 removed from it but my account at Lloyds had not received the £5,000.

The manager shrugged his shoulders and said, “Your money has left HSBC but we don’t know where it went.”

Surely there is an electronic trail?

HSBC would not budge and did not want to help me further. Lloyds Bank said there was nothing it could do. It seemed that the £5,000 had gone missing during its transfer between these two shitty banks. The physical distance between the two banks on High Street Kensington was less than 50 yards, yet they were not able to pick the phone and speak directly to one another because of “Data Protection”. I was so frustrated.

I could have posted a lot of incensed posts on social media about my rage, but instead, I wrote one letter to my Member of Parliament, Sir Jeffrey Archer, whose office sent one letter to both banks, and the matter was instantly resolved, with HSBC changing its tune completely. It went all the way up to the HSBC Head Office.

Two years ago, I had enormous problems with Vodafone UK, which a lawyer’s letter could not resolve. Vodafone continued charging me for a phone line that I tried cancelling NINE times, by letter, by phone and by personal visits to the Vodafone outlet. I cancelled the direct debit as a last resort, and Vodafone sent a debt collection agency to deal with my “debts”.

I wrote to every single Board member of Vodafone and London Stock Exchange’s Disciplinary Committee (Vodafone is a public listed company) outlining Vodafone’s shoddy back office system and disgusting behaviour towards its customers. Within a very short time frame, a pleasant member of staff phoned me with a groveling apology from Vodafone in the form of free line rental for six months for my current line for my “trouble”.

When my younger daughter disagreed with something the textbooks say, I told her to write to either Professor Stephen Hawking or Professor Carlo Rovelli, the world’s leading authority on relativity, space and reality who had written several best-selling books. The result? Professor Rovelli read through the manuscript of my book, An Evening In Wonderland.

Children learn from their parents. Monkeys see, monkeys do. Show them that we can get answers, if we direct our issues appropriately, rather than venting on social media. Set the example. Empower your children to be stakeholders of their world rather than impotent bit players.

When do we stop teaching our children?

We teach our children how to walk, to use a spoon, to cross roads. We teach them to lock doors, to know about money, to plan their future. For me, the teaching never stops, because it represents a transmission of family history and values from one generation to the next. Parenting is indeed a lifelong labour of love.

I feel extremely fortunate that I am able to devote myself fully into teaching my youngest child. I teach her the physical sciences, though her mathematical brain is superior to mine. Indeed, I wrote a book for her, a novella that builds the bridge between the world of theoretical physics and the one we live in.

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I also teach her ‘school’ subjects, but with heart and soul woven into the endeavour. After all, history has shown us that scientific theories come and go with new discoveries. What remains is the beautiful lesson embedded within them.

I put my teaching resources on The Times Education Supplement. Until Sunday 12th February, you can obtain £3 credit off my Physics Relativity Option for 16-18 year olds, which includes an e-version of the book mentioned above. To redeem, enter code SUNDAY3 at tes.com/redeem. The link to the resource is:

https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/ib-physics-option-a-relativity-powerpoint-lesson-prompts-handouts-and-reading-material-11411922

You will find much here, lots of physics and love ❤

Photo: lesson plan for Chemistry that extends beyond the syllabus.

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