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2013 – A vintage year in summary

December 8, 2013

Grape_crop2012-13Towards the end of 2012 I was bemoaning how bad my grape crop was and fearing for the future of the UK’s wine producers as vineyards on the south coast announced they had abandoned the year’s harvest.

What a difference a year can make!

Following a succession of average and bad summers, the 2013 UK summer is the best I can remember. I have vague recollections of the summer of 1976 being a long, hot one and also being stuck in an airless office for much of the hot spell in 2003 – but this year has been absolutely glorious.

A recent article on the BBC website asked “Is the British weather unique in the world?” and concluded that up to six air masses battle it out for dominance above our island nation making for rapidly changeable and unpredictable conditions that are rarely experienced to such a degree elsewhere.

Added to this is the coriolis effect, a meandering  jet stream and the increasing intensity of weather events driven by global climate change.

The net result is that we can experience some of the hottest and driest weather on record to the wettest and coldest within the space of few weeks.

In recent years, my grape crop has been a very visible and tangible barometer of these volatile weather changes. You can literally ‘taste’ how good or bad the weather has been – and 2013 has undoubtedly been a vintage year. My vine produced around 10lbs of ripe grapes that I turned into 4 litres of delicious grape juice. The next time I get a bumper crop I will try turning it into wine.

Here are some of my other personal highlights from 2013, arguably – ‘the best year of my life’ …

Me ears are alight (with the sound of music)

Those of a certain age may remember an advertising classic of the late 80s – Maxell cassette tapes take on Desmond Dekker’s song “The Israelites” that was based on misheard lyrics – ‘Me ears are alight’ being the classic line.

As I’ve been losing my hearing for much of my adult life I can’t really remember the last time I could listen to a song and understand the lyrics clearly. In 2012 I reached a new low in my battle with hearing loss as I tried to grow my small business and struggled with telephone calls and noisy networking events.

But what a difference a year can make!

After becoming officially ‘self-employed’ and subsequently establishing a limited company towards the end of 2012 I gained some valuable support from the UK Government’s ‘Access to Work’ scheme to buy a set of the latest hearing technology that included state-of-the-art hearing aids with various compatible phones and wireless device connectors.

hearing_aids2012-13I took delivery of the new equipment in March and described the initial experiences in a blog post that was well received. particularly by others with hearing loss. Since then, the improvements to the quality of both my working life and home life have been fantastic. Being able to use landline and mobile telephones effectively again has been essential to the day to day running of my consultancy business and being able to cope far better in noisy environments has helped me regain confidence in meeting, workshop and networking scenarios.

In terms of home life, this new equipment has turned the clock back about 10 years on being able to participate effectively in family activities and improved my self-esteem considerably. As my earlier blog post explained in detail, being able to hear music again properly is a wonderful gift. From rediscovering many favourite pieces of music to attending live performances again has been incredibly fulfilling. Particular highlights were attending a performance of the ‘Rach 3’ at this years BBC Proms and heading to The O2 Arena in October for Peter Gabriel’s 25th anniversary tour of the So album that I saw him perform at Earls Court in 1988.

To celebrate this fantastic and unexpected development, I’ve indulged in a new section on my blog called Ten Top Tens where I have listed the main music that has filled my technologically enhanced ears during the last six months of rediscovery. It also includes clips of what could be described as my all time top ten across the different categories of music I have enjoyed over the years.

Walking the weight off

The insidious nature of hearing loss dulls you. Withdrawing from social circles means you care less about other aspects of your appearance and well-being. In my case, as my hearing has declined and the challenges increased, I have unwisely let my weight creep up and up and fitness levels drop.

walk_montage1

Many miles, many memories and a few big blisters …

But what a difference many miles on foot can make!

Now that the clock has been turned back 10 years on my hearing abilities I have been far more determined to turn it back on my weight and fitness too.

An unexpected but very welcome result of the glorious summer has been my wife and I rediscovering the joys of walking which, in turn, has helped us both lose weight. We have walked many, many miles through the Hampshire countryside this year and loved every minute of it.  As well as discovering how beautiful the local area is, rather than sitting in front of the TV in the evenings we have enjoyed the delights of watching rabbits, deer, foxes and badgers frolic in the glorious sunsets. The added benefit is that I have been able to up the pace a bit since and can now run the distances and speeds I was doing 10 years ago and feel a lot better for it.

When you start to walk regularly you come to appreciate quite quickly the difference between good navigation instructions and not so good ones. Like all areas of endeavour, the web is bursting with ‘have a go’ amateurs keen for you to enjoy their versions of walks and it is, on the whole, much the richer for it. However, this is an area we have learned from experience where paying a bit of cash for higher standards saves some boot leather and unnecessary blisters.

This gives me a gratuitous but very well deserved reason to plug someone I worked with over 10 years ago now who founded an excellent website – based on superb understanding of how websites should work – that really delivers high quality information. For any prospective ramblers, Walking World is well worth signing up on and produces the best quality of walking instructions we have yet come across.

The kids are alright

It’s been a big year for both my children. The eldest took her GCSEs and left school to start A levels at Sixth Form college. The youngest did her year 6 SATs and moved on to secondary school.

In part as a reward for their results and ongoing enthusiastic attitude to their new places of learning we headed out to Florida during the October half-term. We also felt that this was really the last ideal opportunity for a family holiday of this type as exam pressure will build for both of them over the coming few years and by then they won’t want to be seen within 100 metres of their parents, and quite possibly each other, if they can help it 🙂

But what a difference 6 years can make!

discovery_cove2007-13

Our first family visit to Florida in 2007 coincided with my eldest’s 10th birthday and to make the trip extra special we arranged for her to swim with dolphins on that day. Six years on we decided it only fair for our youngest to enjoy the experience of swimming with dolphins too.

As a diving enthusiast who enjoys the natural world and all its wonders, I have had serious reservations about places like Seaworld and Discovery Cove. We arrived in Orlando two days after Blackfish was shown on CNN and the silence on the Florida news channels was deafening – not a single mention of this damming documentary, that targets Seaworld primarily, anywhere in the two weeks we were there. Firstly this reinforced my views on the generally ‘unquestioning’ nature of the American media and also how the relentless bombardment by 2000 TV channels simply numbs the brain. Secondly, Blackfish is yet another indictment of the US corporate machine and its primary need to protect the interests of shareholders.

On balance, I have no doubt that Seaworld and its many employees ‘care’ for the animals they keep and the superbly designed and presented park provides a positive experience for children in terms of raising awareness of marine life and the need to protect and conserve it. In the wake of watching Blackfish and particularly some of the poorer responses from Seaworld senior management I am inclined to agree with my wife’s observation during our visit that the web address plastered around the park – http://www.seaworldcares.com – should probably be more accurately renamed – http://www.seaworldcaresabit.com.

Subsequently, my youngest daughter’s delight and enthusiasm for the new reef development  at Discovery Cove that enables even the least confident kids to swim and snorkel with an amazing array of fish has moderated my views somewhat.

I thoroughly enjoyed the original reef on our first visit, but the kids were both too young to get the most out of it. However, on this occasion they absolutely loved it and didn’t want to leave. Even better, I’m delighted to say that both of them want to take up diving now too.

As with the majority of Orlando ‘attractions’ it has been done extremely well with a clever slanting glass wall between the main reef and a secondary area where a number of species of shark are kept. When you swim around the corner at the back of the main reef you don’t see the glass at all – only the sharks!

I don’t particularly enjoy seeing any wild creature held in captivity and the larger killer whales were notable by their absence at Seaworld on this visit however, there is always the question of where do you draw the line when enlightening and enthusing new generations through interacting with animals. Perhaps the best ‘caged animal ‘ experience I have ever had is seeing the enormous and majestic silverback gorillas and their offspring seemingly loving their amazing enclosure at Animal Kingdom on this visit.

expedition everest

Expedition Everest – Dad & No1 daughter 2nd row from the front

For the sake of posterity here are my top ten attractions at the Orlando theme parks …

1. Harry Potter – Universal Islands of Adventure – superbly imagined and engineered

2. Kraken – Seaworld – smooth ride with jaw dropping twists and great G

3. Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster – Disney Hollywood Studios – Aerosmith (say no more)

4. Spiderman – Universal Islands of Adventure – 3D immersion at its best

5. The Hulk – Universal Islands of Adventure – plenty of thrills packed into a tight space

6. Tower of Terror – Disney Hollywood Studios – induces terror and big smiles

7. Manta – Seaworld – fly like a ray

8. Space Mountain – Magic Kingdom – an inspired classic

9. Expedition Everest – Disney Animal Kingdom – big ups and downs and backwards too

10. Star Tours – Disney Hollywood Studios – a digitally remastered  classic

Six years on from our first visit to the theme parks, Epcot is still my overall favourite for its vision and content but the ride experiences were disappointing. The main signature ride Test Track was down for most of the day we visited and I’m not entirely convinced by the Chevrolet makeover. Soarin’ is in desperate need of a digital projection makeover as the bits of dirt on the film sequences detract from the immersive experience. Finding Nemo had key animatronic bits clearly not working and that is inexcusable for a world-class attraction and Mission Space could do with the type of digital remastering that Star Tours has had. In terms of innovation and updating, Universal is now trumping Disney in many areas and that is reflected in my list above.

Florida has a lot more to offer than the theme parks. Just 40 minutes drive away from Orlando is one of the most inspirational places I have ever visited – The Kennedy Space Center – which now houses the Atlantis space shuttle in a superbly created environment that brings the 30 year shuttle program back to life. I also recommend the ‘all-American’ adventure that I blogged about here. Hiring an iconic Harley Davidson, heading down towards the Everglades for some alligator spotting and firing some guns is undoubtedly the best fun I think I’ve have had in any single day 🙂

Reconnecting with the past

My general approach to life has been to look forward and not back. This means that for much of my career I was keeping an eye out for the next big thing and moving on when I thought I’d spotted it – rarely looking back to previous endeavors or keeping in contact with former colleagues to any great degree.

In the first part of the year I was immersed in some significant projects for my home city of Southampton. It’s over 20 years since I’ve worked with local organisations like the City Council when, as an account handler with a Southampton advertising and marketing agency, I used to liaise regularly with the Council’s tourism unit. Back then, the Council was a top target for agencies as it had minimal in-house expertise or resource.

But what a difference 20 years can make!

future_southamptonIt has been an absolute privilege to work with some great teams of people on creating the Discover Southampton website, which is designed to showcase and promote the City and the communicate about the latest visions and plans, and also the My Journey websites for Southampton, Hampshire and beyond. What started in 2012 as a 6 month contract extended to 18 months and, despite some disillusionment with the broader challenges of sustainable transport which I feel would benefit from more radical thinking, it has been one of the best projects I have ever worked on. I am also delighted to say that the excellent teams I worked with have been acknowledged in the National Transport Awards 2013 with Southampton winning Transport City of the Year 2013.

As the safety net of this regular contract dropped away in September, the natural result of networking to grow my consultancy business has brought me back in contact with a whole bunch of folks I have enjoyed working with in the past.

In the latter half of the year I have been working with former bosses and associates from Virgin Media,  Immediacy and Le Creuset on web developments associated with their latest ventures and this has given me some interesting insights into the worlds of solar farms, villa property promotionhigh performance windows and doors and water technologies.

Southampton1993-2012

The ups and downs of Southampton FC have been frustrating and compelling to watch over the last 20 years. I still remember vividly watching their open top bus roll by after they won the FA Cup in 1976 and it is great to see them riding high at the top of the Premier league again 🙂

Celebrating a golden couple

My parents have not had the easiest of lives and perhaps having to deal with some big challenges has generally kept them strong and active. More importantly, they have stuck by each other in sickness (of which they have had more than their fair share) and in health and 2013 has been their 49th year of married life together. In recent years though, the health issues have become more challenging with old age and as my Father’s hearing has continued to decline to virtually nothing it has been harder and harder to communicate with him.

mum&dad2013But what a difference 50 years can make!

Dad was losing his hearing in early 1964 when they married and within two years he needed hearing aids. This was long before any Government sponsored workplace schemes or legislation for disabled people came into place and he was fortunate that the company he was working for at that time was enlightened and happy to help him buy hearing aids.

For the majority of his life, hearing aid technology remained virtually unchanged from those original behind the ear analog ones he first wore in the 1960s. In fact things only really started to change significantly at the turn of century when the NHS started providing the majority of deafened people with digital hearing aids. However, although the early generation of digital hearing aids provided some level of improvement for the moderate to severe levels of loss I had 10 years ago, they were of very little benefit to my Father’s profound loss. In retrospect, the significance of digital hearing aids was over-exaggerated for years and like many fields of technological development it has taken a good (and often frustrating) 10 years for the original promises to be realised.

Shortly after his 80th birthday last year, which I was determined to commemorate with some style, he received the news that he had been approved for a cochlear implant and that the operation would be scheduled within the following six months. At the beginning of March this year I took him to Southampton General Hospital for the implant surgery and picked him up again the next day.

The capabilities of cochlear implants are switched on gradually over a period of six months to allow the brain to adjust to inputs it typically hasn’t experienced for many years. As of the end of 2013, Dad is making excellent progress and at the last tests in mid November he was well ahead of the usual process. What that means in reality is that I can now hold a normal conversation with him, rarely having to repeat myself. As well as this, he too is gaining enjoyment from music again and is also reaching the point where he can follow parts of a TV programme without subtitles. All in all, this is a fantastic development and has prompted a new burst of creativity from him. When I last stood in his studio with him, he had at least 6 big paintings underway (all of which unfinished of course 😉 ) and had other ideas in planning.

mum&dad_50yrs

A summary of the summary

I have started describing 2013 as the ‘best year of my life’ – which is a bit dangerous I guess. Should I be setting this sort of benchmark at this point in my life and am I destined to be forever disappointed if my subsequent years never quite match up to this one?

People say ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’. With long-term degenerative deafness, my experiences this year and those of my Dad to a degree, it’s more a case of you don’t know what you had until you get it back again.

As my hearing has been disappearing gradually since my early 20s I don’t think I’ve truly appreciated for the majority of my adult life how special good hearing really is. Therefore it has been an absolute joy to get back the quality and richness of sound that I’ve been missing for at least 10 years, if not a lot longer. It makes the rest of life so much more brighter and enjoyable.

My biggest hope of course is that technology can now keep pace with the continuing loss. I fear however that there will come a point when what’s left of my hearing cells can no longer be prompted to respond by any digitally processed sound and replacing them with a cochlear implant is the only way forward.

Sadly, I think I am destined to lose the music again but hopefully new technological leaps will bring it back once more. In the meantime I’m going to continue to make the best of my reinstated hearing abilities to support my kids through the remainder of their rapidly disappearing childhoods and their journeys to becoming independent adults.

Finally, to end this long blog post in a year of longer than average blog posts (hey – I’m a longreads fan 😉 ) here is my favourite family photo of 2013. It’s of my youngest daughter competing in a dressage event a few weeks before she rode for the first time in the New Forest Show. Her self-motivation, discipline, dedication and hard work were a joy to behold. She came last in her debut event on one of the few days of torrential rain in the summer – but still had a big smile on her face !!!

If you’ve managed to get to the end of this mammoth summary then congratulations. A tongue in cheek piece of feedback on my blogging activities that I received from a former boss earlier in the year  was that “I’ve read some of your blog posts. One day I might get to the end of one” 🙂

chloe_riding

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