Senior Moment

November 28th, 2015

Despite having reached an age that most would regard as being quite old, I cannot say that I am always cognisant of that fact, although my awareness of my old age does return swiftly whenever I find myself beset by the aches and pains that seem to accompany the arrival of old age. However, I have always convinced myself that whilst as an old man I might be more feeble now in body, my mind remains as agile as it ever was in my youth, - as evidenced, for example, by my considerable ability to solve Soduku puzzles and my still undiminished facility to recite poems that I had learned as a schoolboy. Indeed, like some keep-fit fanatic submitting his body to tortuous exercise, I tend to subject my mind to some energetic mental exercises such as reciting the 75 times table, - which, as countless devotees of “Countdown” will no doubt vouch for, is extremely useful with the show’s numbers game. Sadly, I have discovered that even meticulous care and painstaking nurturing of one’s mental faculties is no safeguard against the mind’s susceptibility to the sporadic stupidity that the ageing process engenders. One such episode of stupidity occurred to me recently when I tried to leave an underground car park in Walthamstow. It was early morning, - about seven o’clock, and the timing of the occurrence, - the early hour, may well have had some significance for the lack of rapidity with which my mind reacted on that occasion. I offer this as an excuse because there is, I believe, a theory that holds that the human mind tends to react rather lethargically to events in the wee small hours of the morning. Indeed it is this theory apparently, that underlies the police practice of staging early morning arrests, predicated as they are on the belief that the pre-dawn lethargy of the human mind makes it less likely to be disposed to offering resistance to arresting officers. At any rate, my mind was not disposed that morning to offering any resistance to the vagaries of technology that confronted me, even though they amounted to nothing more than a malfunction of an automatic door, in an underground car park. At that time of the morning, the car park was virtually deserted, as I parked my car and walked up to the exit that led to the street above. The exit was clearly marked “automatic doors” and on approaching it, I fully expected the doors to part before me like some biblical sea before fleeing Israelites but to my surprise they remained unyielding. It was annoying and it might have been tempting to blame modern technology. However, I am not as cynical about the efficiency of modern British engineering as many people these days affect to be. I therefore attributed this system failure, perhaps somewhat charitably, not to poor engineering but to a possible cost-cutting measure instituted by a parsimonious local council, whereby the automatic functionality of the doors was switched off outside of normal working hours. Undaunted, I made every effort to open the door manually but no amount of pushing at the door was of any avail: it remained firmly shut. Somewhat disappointed, I turned round to try and find another door that I could use to let myself out and as I did so, noticed a young girl walking in my direction. To my alarm, this young girl appeared to be heading for the same door that I had just tried and found wanting. Normally, as an old man I would be wary of accosting young girls but on this occasion my sense of civic responsibility welled up in me. In a display of public-spiritedness, I assumed my most polite manner as the girl approached and announced to her that the door that she was about to use “was not working”. The girl’s immediate reaction surprised and delighted me, - because she responded to my pronouncement with the sweetest smile that I could possibly have encountered from a stranger. To my dismay however, she seemed to take no notice of my warning about the problematic door. Charmed as I was by her smile, I could not help entertaining the uncharitable thought that this girl was so full of youthful confidence that she could not be bothered with good advice that was not only well intentioned but would soon prove to be to her clear advantage. Like some wise old sage about to prove the sceptics wrong, I waited with smug expectation to see the girl make a fool of herself. But my smugness turned the next instant to acute embarrassment when I saw to my mortification that the girl, far from being thwarted by the door, had sailed right through it by the simple expedient of pulling it open rather than pushing it shut, - as I had been doing. I stood open mouthed in grudging admiration, marvelling at this young girl’s mental alertness which enabled her to make light of a situation that had confounded me and which now made me feel feeble minded. Why, like her, hadn’t I thought to pull the door when pushing it did not work? Why wasn’t I sufficiently compos mentis to cope with this most unchallenging of situations? Slowly, the realisation came upon me that that my mental faculties for all their daily exercise had not overcome the perennial problem of age related stupidity, known euphemistically as a “senior moment”.


November 22nd, 2015

Halloween up until recently had meant very little to me other than as a day in the calendar that had some strangely rustic associations with the world of witches, warlocks and ghouls. Until recently also, it was not a day that was marked by the observance of any particular custom. Children especially were as unaware of the passing of Halloween as the Ides of March. The 31st of October, in those days of pre-Halloween-bliss, was not a day that children awaited with anticipation, thrilling at the prospect of dressing up in ever more expensive witch-costumes and frightening the neighbours into handing over money and sweets. The thought of wreaking such havoc at Halloween scarcely stirred the childish imagination in those days and peace and normalcy prevailed at Halloween just as it did over Christmas. Little did any of my generation then suspect that these happy times would soon be a thing of the past. It is not possible to-day to say when exactly it was that the idyll of Halloween-obliviousness ended and the purgatory of  Halloween “trick or treat” began. But “trick or treat” has now found a firm foothold amongst the popular customs that children in England follow; and the children’s adoption of this American custom has had some serious repercussions for the adult population as well. For adults, “All Hallows Eve” is no longer the inconsequential day in the church calendar that could easily be ignored. It has become a day that must be noted and carefully prepared for, - to ensure survival at the end of a demanding evening of “trick or treat”. Preparation for the rigours of modern Halloween can be a daunting task but the elderly like myself have found that they can do worse than to begin by acquiring a plentiful supply of sweets and chocolates in readiness for the evening’s trials. Also to be advised is the precautionary step of ensuring that a sufficient amount of small change is to hand to dispense to groups of importunate children arriving at the doorstep. Following these two simple guidelines has served me well over the past few Halloweens. I have always managed to send away “trick or treat” children knocking on my door with very little to complain about and in the process have given myself what I consider to be a well-deserved feeling of smug satisfaction at having coped adequately with a formidable challenge. However, life is always full of surprises and even great wisdom acquired through long experience is not immune to being frustrated by the turn of events, - as I found out for myself at this year’s Halloween. This year, to my great disappointment, all my diligent preparation for meeting the challenges of Halloween turned out to have been totally in vain. I followed all my carefully devised plans this year as in previous years, to prepare myself for Halloween. On the day, I went to my local Sainsbury’s and purchased a goodly quantity of sweets and chocolates. Next, to obtain some loose change, I decided to forego my usual custom of paying by credit card and chose instead to pay by cash at the check-out. With some trepidation but with all the charm I could muster, I asked the check-out girl if she would oblige me with some twenty-pence coins. Noticing that she showed not the slightest bit of irritation at this possible impertinence on my part, I went on to impose on her good nature by explaining that my strange request was actually intended to spread happiness amongst “trick or treat” children who were sure to be around later that evening. The check-out girl exceeded all my expectations and let me have three pounds’ worth of twenty-pence coins. Armed with my shopping bag full of sweets and weighed down with my small change, I felt confident that I was fully prepared for the ordeal that lay ahead that evening. Little was I to know, as I awaited the arrival of fearsome mask-wearing Halloween children, that the evening was to end without a single child deigning to grace my doorstep with his presence. I waited nonchalantly, with the confidence that comes with good preparation, for the ring on the doorbell but to my complete surprise and some disappointment the doorbell remained silent. The hours ticked by, - six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight, nine! At half past nine, I conceded that this Halloween night had gone by without troubling me with the ritual of “trick or treat”. I was more amazed than relieved. How could this have happened? Could this have been Sod’s Law working in my favour or had Providence rewarded me with a lucky escape for some good deed that I might unwittingly have performed in past life. With my usual mistrust of children, I was even tempted to believe that this might have been a fiendish trick played on me by the kids, out of sheer wickedness, deliberately to deny me the opportunity of giving them a treat and feeling smug about it,  - but deep down I would have to admit that I was quite glad that this Halloween, “trick or treat” for once, seemed to have gone back to being what to me it always  was, - not at all a very English custom, at least in my little corner of England.

Beware Card Fraud - It Can Make a Fool of You

October 20th, 2015

Life often has a disconcerting habit of making a person feel a fool just as he is beginning to think that he is being smart. I was a victim of this cruel propensity of life quite recently, although thankfully in my case, the experience, far from leaving me scarred, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the narrative below reveals. About a fortnight ago, quite unexpectedly, I received an unsolicited phone call, purportedly from my credit card provider. I had compelling reasons to believe that it was a purported, as opposed to a genuine call from my card provider, for reasons that I am about to explain. I am a septuagenarian, – at an age at which an old man’s mind apparently acquires a child-like gullibility that makes him an easy prey for tricksters and fraudsters. Friends and relations, with my best interest at heart, are constantly warning me of some diabolical swindle or the other, that they have heard of, that is targeted especially at unwary senior citizens. One such swindle that has been brought to my attention concerns credit card fraud. The intended victim of this fraud receives an unsolicited phone call, supposedly from the fraud prevention department of his credit card provider. The caller informs him that some fraudulent transactions, involving his credit card, have been detected and advises him to phone immediately, the emergency number shown on his card. The devilish part of this fraud is that although the victim phones the correct helpdesk number, - as shown on his card, he in fact ends up speaking to the fraudsters. Extraordinary as this may seem, this remarkable feat is easily achieved, allegedly, by the simple expedient of the fraudster’s continuing to remain on the line at his end and thus intercepting any subsequent call that the victim may make from his phone, - including the call to the card provider’s helpdesk. Having thus intercepted the victim’s call and duped him into believing that he is speaking to his card provider’s helpdesk, the fraudsters then inveigle from him, the card number and the pin details and use the information to make fraudulent transactions, - which now are of course actual as opposed to the fictitious ones used initially as a pretext for calling the victim. All of this detail, in this frightening scenario, had been firmly implanted in my mind by well-wishers, with an admonition not to allow myself to be caught out as other slow witted pensioners had been hitherto.

Despite being thus forewarned, I was totally unprepared for the unsolicited phone call that I received one morning and heard the dread words that announced that the caller was from my card provider and that there had been a fraudulent transaction on my card. Although I recognised this to be the opening gambit of the diabolical fraud that I had been warned of, I could scarcely believe that I was actually being ensnared by it. Like many an optimist, I had imagined that the law of averages would somehow ensure that I would be amongst the numerous who on the balance of probabilities could expect to remain untouched by this unwelcome event.

It was therefore a disappointment, that my justifiable optimism had not been rewarded. The laws of probability had clearly not worked in my favour but it was no use pondering over the vagaries of probability theory. Undeterred, I rose to the occasion and with great presence of mind informed the would-be fraudster that I was “right in the middle of something” and would he therefore call later. Congratulating myself as I put the phone down on having skilfully warded off an attempted fraud, I allowed myself a moment of triumphalism: these fraudsters would have to get up very early indeed to catch me out! But my elation did not last long and soon gave way to alarm as events began rapidly to take on a sinister turn. Having cut short the warning call that I had just received, I was keenly aware that I needed quickly to contact my card provider, to ascertain whether or not the call had been authentic. But mindful of the warning that the telephone must not be used on such occasions, to avoid being intercepted by the fraudsters, I rushed to my mobile to contact my card provider, - only to discover that someone had already placed an ominous message there, asking me to phone my card provider. This was now becoming a worryingly fiendish episode. Not only were the fraudsters lying in wait for me on my landline but they had also sealed off my only other avenue of help, - my mobile. For a moment I seriously contemplated going straight to the police but it so happened that I had a previous engagement to attend, - the computer class for senior citizens where I tutor. Reluctantly I decided that for the moment I had no option but to defer contacting my card provider until later. As events were to prove, that was the most sensible decision on my part that morning. For as I went to my local supermarket after my computer class and tried to pay for my shopping with my credit card, I found that it was no longer valid. This was an embarrassing development but it occurred to me that it could scarcely have been engineered by the fraudsters. They would have wanted to use the card, albeit unauthorisedly, but would not have sought to block it from use. Rather perplexed, I went home to phone the card company. By now the house phone, some four hours after the initial call from the people whom I had assumed to be fraudsters, should have unblocked itself and be available for normal communication. My inquiry at the card provider’s helpdesk, after the usual security related questions, brought forth an immediate explanation of the morning’s events. “We tried to contact you contact this morning, Mr. Keskar” the girl at the helpdesk informed me, “we were expecting your call, did you get our text ?”. It then transpired that my card had indeed been used for fraudulent transactions in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, of all places. In consequence, the card had been cancelled. As is normal in such circumstances, my card provider did not hold me liable for these transactions and asked me simply to await the issue of a new card.

That the prospect of being a fraud victim had been averted, was indeed a great relief. But it was at the same time curiously disappointing, that what had appeared earlier in the morning to have all the appearance of becoming a drama, should have ended in such an anticlimactic fashion. There was really no fraud after all, - at least none associated with the phone call that I had received that morning. I had not acted with great presence of mind. Rather, I had been tilting at windmills. Fired by the tales of fraud that I had been subjected to, my wild imagination had conjured up villainy where none existed. In reality the fate of being the victim of a vicious phone scam had not befallen me, - nor had I been the plucky victim who had fought back. My ego, which had begun to inflate itself with the thought of having turned the tables on some despicable fraudsters, was rudely pricked. There was ultimately nothing to boast about in what I had done, and certainly no danger of resting on my laurels after a great triumph. There remained only the realisation that I had narrowly escaped making a fool of myself, - which I certainly would have done, had I gone to the police that morning as I had intended. 

A Visit to the Dentist

October 20th, 2015

Last week I visited my dentist for my periodic dental check-up and came away, much to my surprise, quite elated. Dental check-ups are not an activity that I can claim to be able to take in my stride and my attendances at dental check-ups tend not be nearly as frequent as they ought to be. Received wisdom about the frequency of dental check-ups has equivocated over the years, - sometimes declaring six-monthly check-ups to be essential for good dental care and other times conceding that check-ups might be undertaken at longer interval such as a year, for example, without serious detriment to one's long-term dental health. This division of opinion as to whether six monthly or yearly check-ups are the more beneficial has been a welcome gift to a phobic like me whose fear of dental check-ups is incurable. With blatant opportunism, I have seized on the apparent rift in expert opinion, to allow myself to conclude that my own check-ups could be made at an even more extended interval of fifteen months instead of twelve months. I haven't of course taken care to appraise my dentist of this unilateral decision of mine to institute fifteen monthly check-ups. Consequently, at regular intervals of about six months or so, his practice continues to send me polite communications reminding me of the imminence of my dental check-up and inviting me to attend at my earliest convenience. I steadfastly ignore the first several of these entreaties in pursuit of my own agenda of fifteen monthly check-ups, although I am aware that this practice might well lead even some close friends to shake their heads and conclude wearily that this is simply procrastination on my part, designed to disguise a phobia of dental treatment. I choose on the other hand to characterise it, perhaps rather grandly, as my iron determination to adhere unflinchingly to my aim of extending the intervals between dental check-ups. Unsurprisingly therefore, when the usual series of reminders arrived in the post just prior to my last check-up, I carefully ignored the first several, until deciding in due course that it was at last timely to make an actual appointment with the dentist. As usual, on the day of the appointment, I was assailed, almost from the moment that I woke up, by a feeling of foreboding, which precedes all my encounters with the dentist. On my way up to the surgery I even tried to invoke the power of prayer to ensure an easy passage through the ordeal that I imagined awaited me. But the efficacy of prayer seldom offers much hope to frayed nerves, and I arrived at the surgery in a state of despondency and somewhat disappointed that prayers had proved so futile in my particular case. Mercifully, I didn't have to wait long before the nurse came out to escort me into the dentist's presence. My dentist greeted me cheerfully as usual. He is the personification of charm and good  manners, and when it comes to examining teeth, he happens to have the gentlest touch that I have encountered amongst dentists - and I have been under the care of several over the years, including one who easily qualified as the "Butcher of Walthamstow". As I reclined in the dentist's chair and closed my eyes, as is my wont when undergoing dental examination, I could feel the dentist carefully probing my teeth and uttering the ritual intonations that dentists resort to during dental check-ups: upper right four, upper right five, upper right six missing, etc. They made little sense to me but I apprehended that they might possibly be a damning verdict on the state of my teeth. After what appeared an eternity, which in reality was no more than five minutes, the dentist stepped back and with a most pleasant smile announced that everything seemed to be alright, and that he didn't think we needed to anything to them, - meaning my teeth -, 'this time'. It took a moment or two before the import of his words sank in. If there were such an emotion as 'stunned happiness' then I had just experienced it and I was having some difficulty containing my joy. I should have remained calm and thanked the dentist politely but I did no such thing, and probably to my dentist's horror, disgraced myself by bestowing on him an undignified profusion of thanks, accompanied by several incoherent expressions of gratitude. The dental nurse, possibly mistaking my emotion for distress, came to my aid and escorted me out to the receptionist, to complete the formalities of form-filling and charge-payment. I left the surgery in a state that some dental surgeons might describe as 'post check-up' euphoria. Its effect was to cram my head with all kinds of joyful thoughts and as the euphoria subsided, the realisation gradually dawned on me that the most exhilarating moments in life were not necessarily engendered by extraordinary events such as one's rare achievements or even rarer strokes of good fortune but quite often by the ordinary and mundane things in life such as a visit to the dentist.

Tale of an Idiosyncracy

October 18th, 2015

One of my recreational activities, for some time now, has been that of jogging. Despite being a long-time jogger, I have to confess that jogging remains an activity that does not come easily to me. As a jogger my efforts are risible and my jogging is probably best described as "shambling". I cannot claim to be naturally athletic and somehow the fitness that most joggers acquire through regular exercise eludes me. To compensate for my natural lack of fitness, I have been compelled to resort to such desperate stratagems as running in as lightweight a running attire as possible and wearing the thinnest-soled trainers available in sports-shops. The latter of course has a drawback: lightweight, thin soled, trainers are not really considered to be best suited for running. The received wisdom about appropriate footwear for running has it that they should be specially moulded to provide support for the arches of the foot and have soles which are stout enough to absorb the shock that the human frame receives as each foot lands on a hard road surface. Such shoes however, could scarcely be my preferred choice since the thought of running in stout-soled shoes rekindles in me all the painful memories I have of gasping for breath whilst running in army boots in my younger days as a serving soldier. I always regarded it then as a form of torture inflicted on less fit soldiers like me by the Army's sadistic PT instructors. I therefore studiously ignored all good advice about the correct running shoes and remained steadfast in wearing the minimalist footwear that I fondly imagined to be performance-enhancing for non-athletes like me. I may well have persisted in pursing this course of idiosyncrasy had it not been for a chance event that normally need not have concerned me at all. The event itself was quite dreadful: a ram-raid on a sports-goods shop at Chingford Mount, - not very far from where I live in London. I happened to be walking past the shop and was quite saddened by the scene that I witnessed. The shattered shop-front and the ransacked interior of the shop were a grim testimony to what had occurred. I recognised the man standing in what remained of the shop-doorway as the owner of the shop. I had seen him before on my occasional visits to the shop with my late wife to get trainers for our grandchildren. The shop happens to be a family-run business and the courtesy and good manners of family members who serve in the shop had always made my shopping trips there a pleasant experience for me. Seeing the owner standing in front of his now devastated shop, I could not help feeling an overwhelming sense of sympathy, although what I did next was, I realise now to my embarrassment, something prompted more by an idle curiosity than my deeply felt sympathy: I asked the man what had happened, - a question that he had probably already been asked a dozen times that morning. To his great credit he retained his good manners, and even managed to raise a friendly smile as he informed me that the shop had been ram-raided in the night. Everything in his demeanour was a lesson in stoicism in the face of adversity which I found so touching that I felt it deserved some helpful gesture on my part in return, no matter how trivial. I decided therefore that this was the time to get the new trainers that I had been contemplating buying for some time but had hitherto procrastinated for various reasons. I walked into the shop and after trying out one or two pairs of trainers, selected a pair that was predictably of the thin-soled variety that I always preferred. This turned out, to my surprise, to be a pair of ladies' gym trainers, as the owner soon informed me when I took the pair to the till for payment. I am not sure if my disappointment and confusion were all too obvious, but the owner felt obliged to offer to help me with the selection of a suitable pair of men's trainers. He showed me a couple of pairs which he recommended as being good quality as well as reasonably cheap. To my alarm both had the thick soles that I had always imagined to be inimical to my puny efforts at jogging. Not wishing to offend the shop owner, I rather hesitantly mentioned my absurd paranoia that thick soled trainers were akin to heavy army boots and would therefore prove my nemesis when engaged in jogging. If the good shop owner were perplexed by this bizarre assertion of mine, he did a remarkable job of keeping a straight face and maintaining his professional manner. With commendable forbearance he explained that there was no question of these shoes being heavy. They were ergonomically designed to be both light on the foot and provide maximum support for the foot's arches. Normally, I should have dismissed this explanation as typical sales talk but there was something disarming about this shop owner's obvious honesty which persuaded me that perhaps what I was being told was simply a frank comment on the merits of the trainers that deserved to be heeded. It was time, I felt, that I rose above my phobia and committed myself to using the kind of running shoe that was regarded by most sensible people as being the most appropriate one. Assailed as I was with lingering doubts, I willed myself to putting aside my reservations and agreed to the purchase of the trainers that the owner had recommended to me. I need not have tortured myself as to whether I had made the right decision. My trust in the shop owner's advice was fully vindicated. The shoes, as it happened, turned out to be the most comfortable as well as the most lightweight shoes that I had run in to-date.

This happy outcome nevertheless gave me some food for thought. Rational beings like to believe that their actions are the result of rational thought. That I should have eschewed the use of what might be regarded as the ideal footwear for jogging for so long, appeared to me on reflection not so much a harmless idiosyncrasy as an illustration of irrational fears harboured by otherwise rational minds, - if such a generalisation might be permitted from my own particular example. Even more irksome to me was the realisation that my irrational fears were not dispelled by any application of rational thought on my part but rather by a chance random event, i.e. a ram-raid on a shoe shop. This realisation was itself quite unsettling in that it seemed to confront me with what I believed to be a different kind of irrationality, - that of the phenomenon known as chaos in which chance random events result in equally random unforeseen consequences. I am not sure however, whether my unease about my brush with chaos was well-founded. The very unpredictability of chaos has now become, I believe, the subject of a rigorous mathematical theory. One of its better known propositions concerns the so-called Butterfly Effect, which holds that a random event such as a butterfly fluttering somewhere on the edge of the world can be the determinant of a full-blown hurricane, thousands of miles away in mid-ocean. The romantic in me likes to believe that researchers into the Butterfly Effect will perhaps be able to construct a neat mathematical formula to explain how a random ram-raid on a shoe shop somewhere in Chingford, came to be the determinant of my burst of rational thought, which dispelled my phobia of thick soled trainers. The realist in me, on the other hand, tells me that such a formulation would be unlikely. I do harbour the hope however, that I might have provided mathematicians with some interesting empirical evidence, - that of my experiences with my trainers, with which to validate, or otherwise, their Chaos Theory. Perhaps my episode with the trainers had served some higher purpose after all.