Health, wealth and happiness

Okavango-BotswanaIn my lifetime the human population of the world has doubled and, according to the World Bank, global Gross Domestic Product has quadrupled to over $42 trillion. There are many more of us than there were and inequity remains rife but we are, on average, much wealthier. Some of us are twice as well off as folk in the less crowded days I toddled through in the early 1960’s.

Collective wealth translates to tangible benefits. For example, we live longer than we did. Mean life expectancy is well over 75 years now in most western economies thanks to better nutrition, health care and a two-thirds drop in infant mortality. Babies survive because we have better sanitation and primary health care and mothers are well nourished. And then that health care system helps us recover from sickness and keeps us going when our bodies begin to tire.

Despite the fear mongering and the real dangers in conflict hotspots around the world, on average, we are much safer than we were. Marauders, thieves and bullies still exist and yet we can mostly walk the streets and laneways more safety than our ancestors.

Then there are the material benefits. Today in the ‘west’ we shop more, consume more and enjoy a lifestyle that would be the envy of the average 1960’s family.

I can still remember the excitement of the ‘pop man’ delivering soda to Nanny Olive’s two up two down terrace in Staffordshire, a place near the heart of the engine that drove the industrial revolution. I used to take an empty bottle of soda from the wooden crate hidden in the pantry in both hands and hand it over in gleeful anticipation of a full one in return. Tell a kid today that soda should be a once a week treat and she will swear at you — just like this little tyke from the same part of the world who took the ice bucket challenge. Classic at just 2 years old.

Wherever you look today you can see people who are healthier and much wealthier than their predecessors.

I lived in Botswana for seven years in the early 1990’s. The country was booming on the back of diamonds with roads, housing, shops, schools and health care facilities springing up out of the Kalahari sand. The grandparents of the kids that were in my classes at the newly independent University of Botswana could not believe the changes. Just a few decades before the country was one of the poorest in Africa, frequently ravaged by drought and hunger.

The old folks complained of the excesses, the traffic and the loss of the old ways. But just about every Batswana today is healthier and wealthier than the elders in their family.

Or are they? After all health and wealth are relative.

Is a man with access to modern heart surgeons who reconfigure the plumbing of his arteries clogged by poor diet and lifestyle choices, healthier than the villager who dies from malaria after 40 years without an ache or pain?

Does the ability to buy a plasma TV that keeps me forever on the couch make me wealthier than the villager who spends much of his day walking through the bush to find food?

Does the extra longevity I gain from my modern health and wealth help me if I am so stressed that if I stop even for a moment my world will come crashing down?

The thing is we can never answer these questions.

We can speculate that happiness is found in the pleasure of gathering your own food as you are nurtured by nature. And that happiness exists in the closeness of village life with its allure of support from kin and kind, even if that village culture also brings genital mutilation, domestic violence and inter-tribal warfare.

Whilst we know that obesity, diabetes and cancer will not make us happy; we know that warmth, comfort, and food do. When pressed most of us would agree that the modern village has its benefits too.

And there is a hidden benefit. As a general rule healthier and wealthier people do live longer. So health and wealth give you more time to find and experience happiness.

What to do with grumpies

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you are of a certain age you will be familiar with a lessening of capacities. The muscles ache a little more than they should, the hair is grey or gone and the boobs are sagging. And no, this is not sexist — just have a surreptitious gander at a few middle-aged men next time you’re about town.

For grumpies this is the time of life for reflection, a pondering of why time steals faculties. And for some it is a time of crisis.

Needless to say I plumped for crisis. What else would you expect from a wannabe writer and career risk taker? It is inevitable that once the energy of youth is spent there is little left to fuel the courage needed to absorb uncertainty. Almost overnight we want life to be simple, predictable and safe.

The time for dream chasing is replaced with rounds of golf and coffee after yoga class. But even this is not enough because the ego suddenly realises that it might not be needed if all you are going to do is relax and sip lattes. It rails at its impending redundancy and makes you feel like a failure.

Before you know it, sagging pecs are the least of your worries.

At this time in the world’s history the towns and cities of western economies are replete with people of this certain age. A quirk of demography, nutrition and the wonders of modern medicine have made it so. There are lots of folk pondering and trying to come to terms with their depleted courage.

Some of them are still in boardrooms and in parliament where they stumble onto decisions that reflect their mood and what got them there — the status quo. The time for radical risk and innovation is long passed for there is no courage left for such things. Instead the obvious is to conserve what we have by doing more of the same. After all, it worked didn’t it. At least that is what President Obama just told the State of the Union.

When you add up more of the same what you get is growth. More of everything got us here, so yet more of everything will see us through any crisis, personal or otherwise.

Does this mean we are addicted to growth? No, probably not. It means we are mentally lazy and lack courage. And these are two of the inevitable properties of a certain age. And being of that certain age myself, it freaks me out.

The obvious solution is to replace all the grumpies with newer models — energetic, courageous types with an idea or two and a spring in their step. Only this takes time for the system first makes youngsters jump through enough hoops to use up all their sprightliness. And if we fast tracked them they’d lack all the life experience that is an undeniable benefit of being a certain age.

No, the solution is this. Reenergise at least some of the grumpies with a dose of certainty. Give them permission to spend a decade at the end of their careers revisiting the ideas of their youth. Allow them to discuss way out notions and suggest possibilities without fear of persecution at the polls or on Facebook. Let them feel free to give it a go.

Who knows what will happen. It cannot be any worse that the leadership vacuum we are in.

Pure genius #2 | George Bailey

GeorgeBailey23cric4You don’t need to be a cricket tragic to get this one but it might help.

George Bailey is a professional cricketer made captain of Australia’s T20 side in 2014 and promoted to bat at six in the test team. Most pundits thought he probably wouldn’t cut it in the longer form of the game thanks to a tendency to dangle the bat outside the off stump in a rather English fashion [enough said].

So this moment of genius is as much about the circumstance as it is about the quite common event of a gifted athlete achieving near perfection in a sporting contest.

The moment was in the second T20I game against England last year. Australia had performed heroics in the field, diving and sliding their way to restricting the english to a modest total. Australia cruised in the chase thanks mainly to brisk work by Shaun Marsh [another prone to random bouts of genius] when a couple of wickets fell bringing Bailey to the crease.

A few defensive prods, some deflections and even a dangle or two outside off was as expected. Then a couple of bigger hits, one into the midst of the inebriated 10 rows back.

As the commentary team flagrantly warmed to another Australian showing the English what for, the moment came.

A packed offside field and a good length ball delivered at respectable pace, all normal enough. Except Bailey smoked the ball along the ground so fast that nobody moved until it hit the boundary rope, threading the path of the ball with precision between the fielders posted to stop that very shot.

When I was 15-year-old school kid I saw an english cricketer Derek Randall do the same thing at the Oval in London, an image I will never forget. It is such a thing of beauty when timing is combined so effortlessly with intent that the result happens before anyone can move.

Bailey did it and others do it on occasion and I thank them with spontaneous applause from the couch.


banana pancakes Back in the day some genetic conditioning had me realize that “he who provides will find a mate” a confused confusion if ever I heard one.

So I learnt to cook.

Not to the Masterchef skill level but enough to hopefully impress the ladies. I can remember a few horribly lame attempts in the early days — meat and two veg is never going to cut it. And then I discovered pancakes.

Now we are not talking about the sickly sweet variety that begins life as powder in plastic bottles on supermarket shelves.

These are proper pancakes with whole meal flour, eggs, a dash of milk and a layer of lightly stewed apples with just a little too much cinnamon. Topped with real maple syrup this works a treat, as my beautiful wife will attest.

After more than a decade of happy togetherness I am still grateful to the whole meal pancake.

Then a problem emerged when a year ago we made a family decision to give up eating wheat. Well almost because I challenge anyone to give up pasta made at home by an Italian.

Once in a blue moon a home-made pizza also makes it onto the dinner table but bread has gone the way of pastries and other commercial grain products. We pass on any processed foods with flour.

It is remarkable what a difference that decision has made to our health and, dare I say, wellbeing. And that is a big call from a crusty bread and jam addict.

It is also remarkable how restrictive it is being truly wheat free when out and about. I have often stared at the display cabinet in a café and failed to find anything that I could order.

But I digress. Back to pancakes.

Was it too much to also give away that small but significant token of affection? Of course it was for it is not the cooking that matters at all. It is all about the action of providing food from a loving place.

So I needed an alternative to the whole-wheat delights and found it in a fruit.

Banana pancakes

Yes, banana pancakes. They are  truly worthy and although the recipe is modest there is enough technique to demonstrate that you really do care.

  • 4 bananas [green tinged skin are ideal as you need firm flesh]
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 generous tablespoons of almond meal
  • half a teaspoon of baking powder
  • coconut oil
  • berries
  • maple syrup

Here is what you do

Add everything to a big bowl and blend with a stick mixer until you can get a lava like consistency to the mixture. There is no risk of over doing it.

While this is going on put the heat under the biggest and baddest non-stick fry pan you own. Not too much heat though. The trick to the banana pancake is long and slow for they are usually thick, more a pikelet than a pancake, and too much heat produces burnt mush.

The other secret weapon is coconut oil. You can use the spray can version but the solid stuff that comes in a jar is best

Let about half a teaspoon melt in the pan and spread it with a spatula.

Now add the pancake mixture one tablespoon at a time with space between the blobs.

They are ready to turn when a shake of the pan sees at least one of them moving.

Flip with said spatula for any attempt to impress with fry pan dexterity will end badly.

Serve on a big platter topped with berries of your choice — blueberries for the sweeter tooth and raspberries for those who prefer the tart taste.

Have plenty of real maple syrup to hand and present with two spoons. Eat directly from the platter remembering that although you are the bloke, under no circumstances eat more than half the pancakes.

This is such a winner that it may even be better than the original cinnamon-apple version.

formerly banana pancakes s

Minions will love it too.

Stumps makes you dizzy

When I was a student we played a drinking game called stumps. There are variants on it everywhere but ours was a cricketing homage involving two teams of equal number. Ideally it was my mates lined up in single file on the outfield against the opposition we had just bowled out in their chase of our out of sight total. Each team member has a pint of beer in hand.

The first in line downs the pint and inverts the glass over his head to prove the point and then runs to a cricket stump in the ground 22 yards away. Sliding to a stop he places his forehead on the stump and then as fast as is humanly possible circles it 10 times without lifting his head. At the ten count he stands and runs back to tag the next teammate. The first team with all beers downed, stumps circled and last man across the start line wins.

Now there is no real reason for the beer. This game is hilarious when played sober for standing and running are relative concepts in a dizzy state.

Most people have a great deal of trouble staying on their feet let alone making it back to their line of cheering comrades. No amount of brow furrowing or steely gaze makes any difference as they make their acquaintance with the turf.

Nearby bushes simply add to the amusement.

When beer is involved, fast drinking is just an additional skill that can determine the outcome of the race. In tight finishes drinking can be replaced by pouring the beer over your head. More than once this has saved enough time to secure the win.

If drinking games are now just fond memories [thankfully] then suspend your reflex to berate the youth and give the game a try without the beer. It is truly funny to see determination on faces as they come crashing down.

It is also quite a metaphor.

We genuinely believe that we can control anything with our will.  And whilst we accept that luck might send external forces for good or evil our way from time to time, we can always rely on ourselves.

Our trust in control often defines us.

The lunacy of stumps cheerily explodes this myth. It is why it’s so funny.

The athlete, the nerd and the boofhead use their determination to the max visibly forcing out control over their bodies only to fall over.

It is a true leveller.

Postscript on spin

The thing is if you spin around enough times and then try to reach a destination the chances are you will fall over and look very silly.

I think that Petr Cretin suggested that this game would be a ripper to play and Tony Abbott agreed.

Sure enough he looks very silly.