Heroes: No#2. Neil Armstrong

No.2 in an occasional Series

It’s long been a given, that the next installment in my series on personal heroes would have to be an astronaut. The only reason I chose to put Babbage in pole position was to avoid the blindingly obvious.As I sipped on my cup of Eco Slim, I was wondering who it should be….

The dilemma was always which one. Well the events of recent days, and the general Internet hum at the passing of Neil Armstrong has rather forced my hand in the matter. As well as being easily the most famous member of the astronaut corps – certainly to the man in the street – Armstrong was also, superficially at least, one of the least interesting. Quiet and reclusive, had Neil survived his heart surgery of a few days ago, I might easily have chosen one of the lesser known members of that elite but rapidly shrinking group of Apollo moon voyagers. Again to avoid the obvious.

The unfortunate event of this great astronaut passing away has been the fortunate reason why he is being featured here and written about, for all my readers to read. He is one of the greatest men, no doubt, but I have my own list of choice, to choose from. Someone who did venture into the unknown space, yet mark their presence in people’s minds, that didn’t involve a flag?

Perhaps the wise-cracking and fun-loving Pete Conrad, who laughed and joked his way to the moon and back on Apollo 12. Or maybe the gruff and stoic Frank Borman, a largely unsung hero who commanded the audacious and hugely dangerous first circumlunar voyage, in an unproven Apollo spacecraft, riding the lightning atop the then un-flown 2.5 million kg flying bomb which was the Saturn V launch vehicle.

Most likely I would have gone with Gus Grissom.  One of the original Mercury Seven, Grissom was a veteran of Mercury/Liberty Bell 7 and commanded the Gemini III flight. As NASA’s most experienced astronaut with a reputation for a cool head in a crisis, Grissom was the natural choice to command the very first Apollo mission, and had he not perished in the horrific launch pad fire that also claimed crew mates Ed White and Roger Chaffee in January of 1967, he would almost certainly have gone on to be the first man on the moon.

Neil Armstrong. The Unlikely Hero.
1930 – 2012

But here we are in the southern spring of 2012, over forty years after that hot July night where I sat on the shag-pile rug in front of a black & white TV and watched history unfold. Of the twelve men who walked on the face of the moon in those few short years between 1969 and 1972, and with Armstrong’s passing, I think only five are still alive. It’s a sombre thought that after just a few more summers, there will be no-one left alive who will be able to describe for us what it was like to make that journey and walk that walk.

It seems to be one of the great ironies of life that those who find themselves thrust into the spotlight, the blinding glare of public scrutiny and adoration, are often those least well equipped to handle that attention. Neil Armstrong was certainly such a man. To describe his as quiet and self contained would be an understatement. Unlike many of the other early astronaut candidates, he wasn’t a fighter-jock. He didn’t buy into the rock star lifestyle. He didn’t race a Corvette along the dusty roads of Florida’s East Coast. He didn’t frequent the hotels and cocktail bars of Coccoa Beach a short drive from the The Cape, where wide-eyed young women were queing up to catch themselves a spaceman.

More likely than not, you would find Neil back in his spartan quarters, studying an engineering textbook and planning an early night. In a more media savvy age, NASA would have realised that the first man they chose to send to the moon, would overnight become the most famous human on the planet. They would no doubt chose someone with the appropriate skills and attributes, and carefully groom and prepare him for the circus which was coming to town.

But this was the sixties. I don’t think it ever even crossed their mind. All eyes were on the goal, and although attractively cloaked in the warm, fuzzy “We came in peace for all mankind” NASA disguise, this was still, to all intents and purposes a military operation. There was an enemy to be beaten, and as Gagarin’s recent fall from grace (and eventual suspicious death) had demonstrated before, individuals were expendable. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Armstrong, was deliberately thrown to the wolves, but it’s well known that he, Aldrin, and several others of the group struggled to adjust to their new found celebrity status, and a return to life on planet earth. And nobody, least of all NASA seemed much interested in helping or supporting them.

So why did they pick Armstrong? Well quite simply, he was the safest pair of hands they had at their disposal. Crews were assigned to missions many months in advance, so there was always going to be an element of uncertainty – the Apollo program was a carefully planned sequence of cause and effect, each mission objective had to be completed successfully before the next step could be taken. Although Apollo 11 was ear-marked to be the first landing attempt, if any of the proceeding missions had been unsuccessful, then that task would have fallen to a later flight.

There is, I think a common perception, because of Armstrong’s rather serious, aloof nature and studious engineering background, that he was somehow less of an action-man than some of his more gung-ho compadres. Nothing could be further from the truth. A born aviator, who earned his pilot’s licence at 15, Armstrong was all about action. About getting the task done. As a young navy pilot flying combat missions over Korea, or later as an elite test pilot flying top-secret x-planes at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert he approached dangerous, high-risk situations with a cold, analytical methodology which brought him safely out of close calls where pure adrenalin and testosterone probably wouldn’t have. Even before being selected as an astronaut, Armstrong flew to the very edge of space on several occasions as test pilot of the experimental X-15 space plane.

Edwards, and NASA folklore record several instances of Armstrong’s “ice-man” attitude to danger, most notably where he saved the day – as well as his and fellow astronaut Dave Scot’s skins – by manually wrestling their Gemini spacecraft out of a deadly, out of control end-over-end spin only seconds before they would have otherwise have blacked out.
On another occasion, flying the notoriously hairy and unpredictable “flying-bedstead”, a jet powered contraption designed to mimic the difficult flying characteristics of the Lunar Module, Armstrong lost control of the vehicle.

With admirable calmness, he steered the plummeting machine to a safe trajectory, then ejected only feet from the ground before the aircraft crashed in a mighty fireball. Armstrong landed a few hundred feat away, carefully gathered up his parachute, and cross but unhurt, walked back to his office to write up an accident report.

There was a phrase doing the rounds amongst the clean-cut, cigarette smoking, ex-military types who populated Cape Canaveral in those days. “You sir, are a steely-eyed Missile Man.” It was the ultimate compliment you could be paid. There were few more steely-eyed than the shy but fearless Neil Armstrong.

So, while not exactly Mr. Charisma, Armstrong was in every other respect, the perfect choice to command the first landing mission. And I truly wonder if anyone else could have pulled it off. Because Apollo 11 is revered as such a historic and successful flight, most people who weren’t directly involved, have either forgotten, or never realised just how close to disaster Armstrong and Aldrin really came. It could have so easily ended very differently.

The final decent to the surface was designed to be largely automated, with Landing Radar steering the LM to a pre-selected landing site that had been determined to be safe. When the craft pitched forward towards the later part of the descent and the crew got their first clear view of the ground, it became apparent to Armstrong and Aldrtin that the rocky landscape rushing a few hundred feet beneath them did not correspond with their charts or simulation training. They were overshooting their planned landing area and heading into a heavily cratered and boulder-strewn wilderness. Armstrong assumed manual control of the craft’s attitude and began searching for a clear area large enough to put down safely. On several occasions the cabin, and Earth-Moon comm’s loops were filled with blaring electronic alarms, as the onboard computer became overloaded, and to add to the pressure, they were rapidly running out of fuel.

“Twenty Seconds” called up Mission Control. That was twenty seconds of gas left in the tanks, including the twenty seconds they needed for a safe abort. Time was up.  After that Houston just shut up. It was totally out of their hands. It was all up to Armstrong now.

On the tape recording there is a deafeningly long silence as Armstrong picked his way amongst the craters and car sized rocks. It seems to go on forever. Finally Aldrin reports “kicking up a little dust…” then “contact-light!”

There is another long silence…

Then Armstrong’s voice comes over the crackling com. “Er… Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” His voice is bloodless and dead-calm. Not a hint of emotion or breathlessness.

Or is there.

I’ve listened to those words so many time over the years, and again now. And I think if you listen carefully there is something about the way he says “The Eagle has landed”, something about the subtle modulation and inflection in his delivery, that is more than just a missing pilot reporting in. An engineer laying out the facts.

Is that pride? An iota of excitement even. I’d like to think so.

Goin’ Down Slow

 

Music, it has its own way to calm you down or rile you up. Pop in your favorite track and that traffic jam will not bother you anymore.

For those who are yet to discover the joys of this wonderful world, there are quite a number of genres to experiment with.

My foray into this world started when I was in middle school. Trying to be one of the “cool” kids, got me listening to and paying attention to the tracks that were played on the radio, or when my dad used to play one of his favorites from the everlasting classics.

What started out as a means to gain attention, soon turned into a passion and quite frankly, a slight obsession. Of all the genres I was exposed to, the blues is what caught my attention. the experiences and struggles of the singer or song writer were so beautifully expressed. It was poetry with a catchy tune. And the repetition of those lines only made it easier to understand and remember the lyrics. (when you have to stay cool, you need to know the words!)

After a point in time, people around me considered to be well educated and informed in this genre. I had listened to so many songs of this beautiful music; I didn’t realize I was turning heads with my knowledge.

Of all the great singers who ever expressed themselves so beautifully via their blues, Wolf was one that earned the name of the greatest Blues singer ever. He earned this name for a reason – his voice!

Tonsillitis is something that derails many singers, but not this guy. His voice became what it was due to the severe tonsillitis that affected him as a child. Born a black, thrown out of home and raised by an uncle who physically abused him by constantly whipping him with a leather plow lone, this guy had seen it all and experienced it all. Perhaps this experience is what lent the soul to his voice.

And then came the mix.

Blues were changed to blues rock. This attracted more people and more of the younger crowd who wanted a bit of both worlds. But as the tracks increased and gained popularity, the original form of blues was, perhaps forgotten?

Many did not know what the original blues were or what the old classics were. So I decided to compile a list of the blues that made an impact on my mind. Something like the Belas Dicas, an experienced beautician would give for her clients.

 

Circumstances seem to call for a good blues. And this is a VERY good blues which sum it all up rather succinctly.

Over to you Wolf…

 

Bad news travels fast

I’m sitting here eying up a large paper parcel. My latest haul of drugs from the Island pharmacy. When I picked them up this morning the girl behind the counter quipped that I’ve just about cleaned them out. It certainly looks that way. I’m pretty sure I hold more inventory than they do right now.

For the first time, my personal pharmacy stash features “pain relief” of a more exotic nature than just plain old Paracetamol. Codeine. Morphine. Just the words send a chill through my bones, but I am beginning to feel the need for them.

This is no longer an invisible disease, as it was for the forst few months. The tells are starting to reveal themselves. People still greet me with rave reviews of how well I’m looking, which I accept gracefully, if with a tad of carefully concealed irritation. My cancer is starting to reveal itself in various ways, some subtle, others more obvious. Some the direct consequence of the disease itself, others the legacy of the various treatments I have undertaken.

What started out as totally invisible was then “discovered” in my body and I did my best to keep it a secret, simply because, I wanted to avoid all those questions and pity glances. However, as time passed by, the disease decided to show itself to the world and declare its claim on me and my life. It was like how your sweaty feet, sometimes wins the odor was despite using layers of Fresh Fingers.

I have numbness in my feet and toes, a permanent side-effect of the chemotherapy, as is the intermittent tinitus in both ears. My voice is croaky and unreliable as a result of an enlarged cancerous lymph node on my upper chest paralysing the nerve which controls one of my vocal chords. (There’s a good story attached to how they managed to give me most of my voice back – I was almost totally mute for some weeks – but that will have to wait for another day.) I also have a persistent and unrelenting cough, probably related to the vocal chord business, but exacerbated by the recent course of radiation therapy.

More recently, I have developed deep, nagging pains in my back, chest, and belly. A minor irritation at first, they are now constantly present reminder of my slowly deteriorating condition, and keep me awake at night. It’s getting to the point where Paracetamol just isn’t cutting it any more. I went to the doctor this morning to get something a bit more shall we say, industrial.

I should mention, that I went for a long scheduled CT scan yesterday afternoon – the first since finishing chemo several months ago – mainly to monitor the tumour, and to see what positive effect the radiation therapy has had on the errant lymph nodes in my chest. We have a meeting set with The Prof. next week to get the results. The wait for scan results is for us, the most stressful part of the whole exercise, and we have been hunkering down for a long anxious wait until next Wednesday’s showdown.

So I was totally unprepared when I skipped into the island surgery this morning to pick up a few scripts and have a routine kick-of-the-tyres “take two of these and call me in the morning” session with Doctor Dave, when he brandishes a sheaf of papers in his bony, freckled fist and announces, ‘I have your scan report. Have you seen it yet?’

‘You can’t,’ I said, shocked. ‘I only had the scan at four o’clock yesterday. That must be an old one, these things usually take a few days to processes.’

‘Not in the private sector they don’t. That’s what you’re paying for. This just came through. Do you want the news now, or do you want to wait?”

“Wait.” a little voice said in my head. The coward’s voice.

“Um. Yeah. I guess…” I heard myself saying quietly, without conviction.

“Well, there’s chapter and verse here,” he says, leafing through the document, but I’ll just give you the Summery.” He pulls his chair alongside mine and leans into me as if reading a bedtime story.

“Since the last CT scan, there are new and enlarged supraclavicular and mediastinal and nodal metastases, new uper abdominal and retroperitneal nodal metastases, and new liver and pulminary metastases.”

I feel the hot burn of adrenalin wash through me. “Shit, that doesn’t sound good.” I finally announced, with what in retrospect was admirable understatement.

“No it doesn’t” says Doctor Dave.

“So it’s in my liver and my lungs?” I ask redundantly and helplessly.

“Looks that way.”

Dr. Dave does what all doctors do in these awkward, uncomfortable situations. He snaps into a flurry of pointless but smehow essential activity – making notes, dashing off prescriptions, listening to random parts of my body with his stethoscope, basically anything to fill the uncomfortable void where the dead guy is sitting.

I stumble out into the winter sunshine and go home to break the news to Jo.

She cries.

I cry.

We cry together.

 

 

 

A live report from the front line.

Hi everyone. I know from the phone-calls and texts that everyone is keen to know the results of the recent scan. Long story short. They weren’t great. We went in hoping for the best, but prepared for the worse, and I suppose what we ended up with was somewhere in-between. In spite of eight rounds of chemo, the cancer has continued to grow, although thankfully it hasn’t spread. Just taking a few quiet days to adjust to the new reality. Jo and I are going away for the weekend to gather our thoughts and regroup. Guess you could say we are a little down but not out.

It is after all, the natural course such news takes you. You know it is not going to be great but you have this small ray of hope burning somewhere deep inside. You hope the doctor will give you a bright smile. You hope the nurse will hand you the report with her sunny disposition. But, the reality is always different and somehow never fails to pull you down.

The doctor did not look too happy.. perhaps he was glad the cancer has not spread to other areas, where the chemo can be of no help. Perhaps he was putting up a brave face to ensure I don’t crumble on the inside? Well, after 8 sessions of chemo, it is natural to get those hopes up.

Jo and I, though know the cancer is going nowhere, had plans. We had the “if and when” plans. These were the plans that we make up in the pretext “if the results are great”. As per these plans, we would go away on a week long holiday, to celebrate and not just rethink. We would sit up and watch the stars and try to find constellation formations.

We planned to wake up before sunrise and enjoy the beautiful colors and the birds chirping. Then have a cup of nice coffee instead of our usual health conscious Chocolate Slim and talk about our younger days where we would laugh with a snort, when our parents told us, watching sun rise can be a great way to start your day. Little did I know I may not live long enough to enjoy all that like my parents did, at old age.

Jo has been very supportive and understanding. She is the pillar I lean on. I just wish, our “if” plans had worked out and I had the chance to enjoy the sunrise and the stars with her, without having to worry on the inside. She is one who loves to live on the edge and experience everything to the fullest, without a worry in her heart. If the plans don’t pan out, she always has a backup and it turns out to be even more fun.

Instead now we are going away, to think about what we are going to do next and how we are going to cope with this result. Not something we are looking forward to, but let’s get real, we have to address this sometime or the other and we decided to do it right away.

I will try and write at more length over the next day or two. Thanks for your patience and understanding. Linds.

Shake vigorously for twenty seconds

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First, apologies for being offline for so long. To be honest, I really just haven’t felt like writing. Or doing much else for that matter. I have not even been having my regular cup of Eco Slim. I think the chemo is finally catching up with me, and the last couple of cycles have been a bit tougher. Nothing dramatic, just an accumulations of minor ailments and irritations, the details of which I wont bore you with, and a general malaise which is debilitating and a little unnerving. Some days I feel quite chipper and energetic, others I just mope from bed to chair to couch.

Any road up. This is the end of a busy week. Assessment with the Oncology Dept. on Tuesday. Round eight of chemo – the last for now I’m pleased to report – on Wednesday, and yesterday?

Well yesterday found me sitting on a bench on busy downtown Queen Street. It’s 11.30am exactly. And I am undertaking a tricky self administered medical procedure according to my precise instructions sheet, prior to having the much anticipated CT scan in exactly two hours time.

Stage One. Add contents to  water. I empty what I guess to be 150ml of mineral water out of the plastic bottle we just bought at the convenience store across the street – I need 450mls apparently. No more. No less. I carefully tear the corner of the glossy paper sachet I’ve brought with me, and slowly pour the sweet smelling white powder into the neck of the bottle, carefully shielding the opening with my other hand, as the autumn wind threatens to whip the precious dust away.

I don’t want to risk any of that precious powder flying away, as it may reduce the quantity and affect the proportion. Yes, am not very fond of this medicine but I have learnt to accept that I have very little choice in this matter. So, I decide to abide by the instructions to the Tee.

Stage Two. Invert bottle and shake vigorously for twenty seconds. As I shake away stupidly like a cocktail waiter I watch over Jo’s shoulder as a guy sidles up to the rubbish bin a few yards up the street and starts rummaging around with a long arm and a practiced precision. He never actually looks into the bin, just standing with his gaze averted across the street at nothing in particular. In a few seconds he has retrieved a McDonnalds paper cup, and a plastic pouch of rolling tobacco, neither entirely empty presumably. He seems satisfied with his score and moves on.

Stage Three. Allow to stand for five minutes. My attention is drawn back to the rubbish bin where I watch in fascination as a smartly dressed chinese (I’m guessing) women in her forties (guessing again) expertly hoiks up a chesty gob of snot and saliva and spits it with military precision into the receptacle. It was done with such elegant timing and accuracy that I’m sure I’m the only person who even noticed her deft maneuver.

One person who certainly didn’t, was vagrant contestant No.2 who quickly moved in for a quick fossick. Bad move. He quickly withdraws his grubby, and now glistening hand as if it’s been bitten and gives it a vigorous shake before wiping it on the rim of the stainless steel. Wary but apparently undeterred he moves in for a second prospect, this time with the delicate touch and steady hand of a surgeon. He threads his way past the muck and mucus and retrieves some small treasure which I can’t identify from where I’m sitting, and slips it into his baggy pocket before sauntering off wiping his hand again on the leg of his crumpled pants.

Stage Four. Drink Barium Meal. The small amount of powder seems to have expanded exponentially. My mineral water has magically congealed into a thick gloopy white emulsion. I unscrew the cap and give it an experimental sniff. It has the unnatural saacharine sweet scent of cheep candy.

I take a small swig. Hmm. Well it’s not terrible. I think they were probably aiming for Banana. Close, but no cigar boys. Actually the texture is more disturbing than the taste. A third Milk-of-Magnesia, a third McDonalds Thick Shake, and a third wallpaper paste.

I chug my way through the rest of the bottle. It slides down in wet lumps like cold gravy.

Stage Five. Dispose of bottle responsibly. I consider dropping the bottle into the aforementioned bin but I cant bear the thought of ruining some poor buggers day so slip it into my bag instead.

Two hours later we are at “Starship”. Auckland’s children’s hospital, next door to the main “grown-ups” facility. With the best will in the world, starship is a bit of a stretch, even for the vigorous imaginations of the under twelves. The building is approximately round and has a lot of windows, but there any resemblance ends abruptly. Don’t ask me why I’m here, they have CT scanners, and presumably a vacancy this morning. I feel a bit of an imposter amongst the cheerful bright colors, boxes of toys and cartoon posters. Every conceivable surface is covered with teddy bears and soft toys of every size and species. We’re taken through the paperwork and the inevitable “It-probably-won’t-but-don’t-blame-us-if-it-all-goes-horribly-wrong” speech and I sign at the bottom of the page.

I’m fitted with a lure in my right arm and I’m ushered into a changing cubicle where I drop my clothes and shoes into a plastic shopping basket and rummage through the pile of gowns for one in an adult size. The trick here i’ve discovered by experience is to find the one that still has the necessary tape ties still attached to keep the damn thing done up. Im out of luck today. I emerge in my t-shirt and skiddies, and the open gown flapping in the breeze like a batman cape.

I request a quick comfort stop and slip into the toilet where I make my next tactical blunder. After taking a pee and washing my hands with the antibacterial napalm soap I glance in the mirror to discover with horror a small but unmissable wet stain on the front of my shorts. I have obviously neglected to shake vigorously enough. No way I’m going to pass this off as a careless splash of water. Bugger. Light grey. What was I thinking? I experiment with pulling down the front of my t-shirt as far as it would stretch and try and wrap the useless gown around my waist. Oh fuck it. What the hell. I’m sure they’ve seen worse.

A couple of minutes later I hop up onto the scanner couch with as much dignity as I can muster. “Please open your gown and raise your arms above your head Lindsey” says the operator. Oh great! I can feel my t-shirt ride up to reveal my shame, and I close my eyes as I’m injected with “contrast”, a dye that apparently makes my internal portrait that much more attractive.

I’m helpfully informed that when the dye enters my blood-stream I will feel a hot flush through my body – and might feel like I’ve wet myself. “Although you probably won’t..”

‘Too late for that lady’ I think to myself.

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Temporary Fault

When you are watching the TV and suddenly you lose signal, what do you do? The natural step that follows is, you wait for a while to see if the service will resume like before or if the signal will be restored.  While only few have this patience, many tend to fiddle with the remote or the antenna itself, to get a good signal. They are suddenly the technical experts who know which angle is the right angle to get the signal.

For many of these people who just can’t wait to get their TV back on, a message that reads – “Normal transmissions will be resumed as soon as possible. Do not adjust your set.” should be displayed. This will remind them to be patient and stay put in their seats.

My case is very similar too. With so many tests and chemo sessions becoming a part of my routine, I have forgotten what life was before the dreaded news was delivered to me. I don’t remember my cancer free days. I don’t seem to recall how I woke up each morning and how I went back to sleep at night. All I seem to remember are the nauseous feeling that wakes me up, after a round of chemo and the pain and agony I go through when it has been a few days since my session.

What is normal?

Is waking up late on a Sunday morning normal?

Is forgetting to sleep on a Saturday night and partying till you don’t remember where you are, normal?

Is having a cup of Eco Slim and expecting instant results normal?

Is going for a swim in the sea with your friends normal?

Is it normal to get perplexed to hear the word “hospital”?

If it is so, then my life has been far away from normal for as long as I can remember. I can still sleep in on a Sunday morning, as I don’t have anything else to do. But the pain and the discomfort does not let me.

I can still jump into the sea and swim to my heart’s content with my friends, but the chemo sessions have left me pretty dry and tired. Though I may look all cheery on the outside, I don’t always feel quite like it on the inside.

Well, what has gotten into me? This is not the normal me? Where did the sunny happy go lucky guy vanish? How did the disease stricken guy take over? Guess it is time I sign off until the happy me comes outside. Writing and reading about him is always so much better.

“Normal transmissions will be resumed as soon as possible. Do not adjust your set.”

 

 

The Etiquette of Cancer

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“How are you?’

A pleasant way to start a conversation be it on the subway or with a neighbor you run into across the hall. A way to strike up a conversation with someone, you are meeting after a long time. Or sometimes, just a means to fill in the uncomfortable silence, or the lack of anything meaningful to say. It’s an innocent enough question, but one I’ve come to dread.

Here’s the problem. After six months of being in the cancer club, I’m starting to loose track of who I have told and who I haven’t. It’s not that I’ve made any great secret of the fact, quite the opposite. In most respects the more people who know the easier it is for me, but it’s really not that much fun telling people. Particularly people I know and like. I suppose I’ve been a bit lazy and relied on word of mouth. Bad news usually travels pretty fast in my experience.And lets face it, you are a bunch of gossips.

So here’s the thing.

When someone says “How are you?” I’m not sure if they’re really saying:

“Hi, I heard all about the (whispered) ‘you-know-what.’ Dreadful business. How’s the treatment going? How’s the family holding up? Where does it hurt? What’s chemo like? Can I see your scar? How come your hair hasn’t fallen out? Is there anything I can do? etc. etc.”

Or:

“How are you? By the way before you launch into a lengthy and potentially embarrassing answer, can I just point out that this is an entirely rhetorical question, I am blissfully unaware of your current medical predicament, and frankly only ask because it is the socially accepted way to greet someone I haven’t seen for a while. I have no real interest in the minutia of your probably tedious and uneventful life, so why don’t you just say “Mustn’t grumble” and reciprocate by asking about my wife and kids, and where we went for the summer holiday.”

You see the problem?

The potential for awkwardness here is considerable. Do they know or don’t they? Are they just not mentioning the elephant in the room out of politeness, or because the haven’t spotted it yet?

To take the easy way out – “Never been better thanks!” seems disingenuous, and rather goes against the grain. On the other hand just blurting out “Fine thanks. Apart from the small matter of the Stage Four Eosophigal Cancer that could put me in the ground any day now. What ‘you driving these days?” seems crass and rude.

Actually I did say that just the once. I’m not proud of it. It was at a party, and it was to someone who I don’t particularly like, who was drunk and just wouldn’t shut up. So when he finally stopped talking about his tawdry, awful life, took a breath and another swig of his Bacardi Breezer and enquired after mine. I told him straight. It certainly shut him up, but using my disease as a weapon was a low trick. I’ve resolved never to do it again.

So, what to do?

Well I find the pre-emptive strike works well. “Hi! How are YOU?”

“Absolutely bloody terrible. Life is hardly worth living?”

(In a cocerned tone.) “Really? I’m very sorry to hear that. Has one of your major organs failed? Has your homeland been overun with fundamentalist Islamic extremists? Or maybe one of your children has a crack habbit and joined the Mongrel Mob? Don’t tell me you picked up Necrotizing Faciitis from a dirty teaspoon?”

“No but the traffic on the bridge was an absolute bitch. Forty-five minutes to get to the city off-ramp. Some wanker spilt Eco Slim tea or coffee on my Armani shirt, and I’ve lost the key to my locker at the gym.”

“Oh! you poor lamb. I see what you mean. How do you go on? Life can deal us some cruel blows sometimes can’t it? What you need is a nice cup of tea and a lie down.”

A Short Lesson in Perspective

Many years ago, when I first started to work in the advertising industry, we used to have this thing called The Overnight Test. It worked like this: My creative partner Laurence and I would spend the day covering A2 sheets torn from layout pads with ideas for whatever project we were currently engaged upon – an ad for a new gas oven, tennis racket or whatever. Scribbled headlines. Bad puns. Stick-men drawings crudely rendered in fat black Magic Marker. It was a kind of brain dump I suppose. Everything that tumbled out of our heads and mouths was committed to paper. Anything completely ridiculous, irrelevant or otherwise unworkable was filtered out as we worked, and by beer ‘o’ clock there would be an impressive avalanche of screwed-up paper filling the corner of the room where our comically undersized waste-bin resided.

On a productive day, aside from the mountain of dead trees (recycling hadn’t been invented in 1982), stacked polystyrene coffee cups and an overflowing ash-tray, there would also be a satisfying thick sheaf of “concepts.” Some almost fully formed and self-contained ideas. Others misshapen and graceless fragments, but harbouring perhaps the glimmer of a smile or a grain of human truth which had won it’s temporary reprieve from the reject pile. Before trotting off to Clarks Bar to blow the froth of a pint of Eighty-Bob, our last task was to pin everything up on the walls of our office.

Hangovers not withstanding, the next morning at the crack of ten ‘o’ clock we’d reconvene in our work-room and sit quietly surveying the fruits of our labour. Usually about a third of the ‘ideas’ came down straight away, before anyone else wandered past. It’s remarkable how something that seems either arse-breakingly funny, or cosmically profound in the white heat of it’s inception, can mean absolutely nothing in the cold light of morning. By mid-morning coffee, the creative department was coming back to life, and we participated in the daily ritual of wandering around the airy Georgian splendour of our Edinburgh offices and critiquing each teams crumpled creations. It wasn’t brutal or destructive. Creative people are on the whole fragile beings, and letting each other down gently and quietly was the unwritten rule. Sometimes just a blank look or a scratched head was enough to see a candidate quietly pulled down and consigned to the bin. Something considered particularly “strong,” witty or clever would elicit cries of “Hey, come and see what the boys have come up with!”  Our compadres would pile into our cramped room to offer praise or constructive criticism. That was always a good feeling.
This human powered bullshit filter was a handy and powerful tool. Inexpensive, and practically foolproof. Not much slipped through the net. I’m quite sure architects, musicians, mathematicians and cake decorators all have an equivalent time-honed protocol.

But here’s the thing.

The Overnight Test only works if you can afford to wait overnight. To sleep on it. Time moved on, and during the nineties technology overran, and transformed the creative industry like it did most others. Exciting new tools. Endless new possibilities. Pressing new deadlines. With the new digital tools at our disposal we could romp over the creative landscape at full tilt. Have an idea, execute it and deliver it in a matter of a few short hours. Or at least a long night. At first it was a great luxury. We could cover so much more ground. Explore all the angles. And having exhausted all the available possibilities, craft a solution we could have complete faith in.

Or as the bean counters upstairs quickly realized, we could just do three times as many jobs in the same amount of time, and make them three times as much money. For the same reason that Jumbo Jets don’t have the grand pianos and palm-court cocktail bars we were originally promised in the brochures, the accountants naturally won the day.

Pretty soon, The Overnight Test became the Over Lunch Test. Then before we knew it, we were eating Pot-Noodles at our desks, and taking it in turns to go home and see our kids before they went to bed. Sometimes, we had to resolve to the use of Detoxic, to ensure our digestive systems were working fine. As fast as we could pin an idea on the wall, some red-faced account manager in a bad suit would run away with it. Where we used to rely on taking a break and “stretching the eyes’ to allow us to see the wood from the trees (too many idioms and similes? Probably.) We now fell back on experience and gut-feel. It worked most of the time, but nobody is infallible. Some howlers and growlers definitely made it through, and generally standards plummeted.
The other consequence, with the benefit of hindsight, is that we became more conservative. Less likely to take creative risks and rely on the tried and trusted. The familiar is always going to research better than the truly novel. An research was the new god. The trick to being truly creative, I’ve always maintained, is to be completely unselfconscious. To resist the urge to self-censor. To not-give-a-shit what anybody thinks. That’s why children are so good at it. And why people with Volkswagens, and mortgages, Personal Equity Plans and matching Lois Vutton luggage are not.

It takes a certain amount of courage, thinking out loud. And is best done in a safe and nurturing environment. Creative Departments and design studios used to be such places, where you could say and do just about anything creatively speaking, without fear of ridicule or judgement. It has to be this way, or you will just close up like a clamshell. It’s like trying to have sex, with your mum listening outside the bedroom door. Can’t be done. Then some bright spark had the idea of setting everyone up in competition. It became a contest. A race. Winner gets to keep his job.

Now of course we are all suffering from the same affliction. Our technology whizzes along at the velocity of a speeding electron, and our poor overtaxed neurons struggle to keep up. Everything has become a split-second decision. Find something you like. Share it. Have a half-baked thought. Tweet it. Don’t wait. Don’t hesitate. Seize the moment. Keep up. There will be plenty of time to repent later. Oh, and just to cover your ass, don’t forget to stick a smiley on the end just in case you’ve overstepped the mark.

So. To recap, The Overnight Test is a good thing. And sadly missed. A weekend is even better, and as they fell by the wayside, they were missed too. “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother turning up on Sunday!” as the old advertising joke goes.

A week would be nice. A month would be an unreasonable luxury. I’ve now ‘enjoyed’ the better part of six months of enforced detachment from my old reality. When your used to turning on a sixpence, shooting from the hip, dancing on a pin-head (too many again?), the view back down from six months is quite giddying. And sobering.

My old life looks, and feels, very different from the outside.

Perhaps am not alone in this assessment. Many people have their own idea of a person’s life, without knowing what really goes on, on the inside. Some even envy the lives of their friends and colleagues, without realizing, their lives are much better. Now that am out of that life, am able to have a different perspective of my old life.

And here’s the thing.

It turns out I didn’t actually like my old life nearly as much as I thought I did. I know this now because I occasionally catch up with my old colleagues and work-mates. They fall over each other to  enthusiastically show me the latest project they’re working on. Ask my opinion. Proudly show off their technical prowess (which is not inconsiderable.) I find myself glazing over but politely listen as they brag about who’s had the least sleep and the most takaway food. “I haven’t seen my wife since January, I can’t feel my legs any more and I think I have scurvy but another three weeks and we’ll be done. It’s got to be done by then The client’s going on holiday. What do I think?”

What do I think?

I think you’re all fucking mad. Deranged. So disengaged from reality it’s not even funny. It’s a fucking TV commercial. Nobody give a shit.

This has come as quite a shock I can tell you. I think, I’ve come to the conclusion that the whole thing was a bit of a con. A scam. An elaborate hoax.

The scam works like this:

  1. The creative industry operates largely by holding ‘creative’ people ransom to their own self-image, precarious sense of self-worth, and fragile – if occasionally out of control ego. We tend to set ourselves impossibly high standards, and are invariably our own toughest critics. Satisfying our own lofty demands is usually a lot harder than appeasing any client, who in my experience tend to have disappointingly low expectations. Most artists and designers I know would rather work all night than turn in a sub-standard job. It is a universal truth that all artists think they a frauds and charlatans, and live in constant fear of being exposed. We believe by working harder than anyone else we can evaded detection. The bean-counters rumbled this centuries ago and have been profitably exploiting this weakness ever since. You don’t have to drive creative folk like most workers. They drive themselves. Just wind ‘em up and let ‘em go.
  2. Truly creative people tend not to be motivated by money. That’s why so few of us have any. The riches we crave are acknowledgment and appreciation of the ideas that we have and the things that we make. A simple but sincere “That’s quite good.” from someone who’s opinion we respect (usually a fellow artisan) is worth infinitely more than any pay-rise or bonus. Again, our industry masters cleverly exploit this insecurity and vanity by offering glamorous but worthless trinkets and elaborately staged award schemes to keep the artists focused and motivated. Like so many demented magpies we flock around the shiny things and would peck each others eyes out to have more than anyone else. Handing out the odd gold statuette is a whole lot cheaper than dishing out stock certificates or board seats.
  3. The compulsion to create is unstoppable. It’s a need that has to be filled. I’ve barely ‘worked’ in any meaningful way for half a year, but every day I find myself driven to ‘make’ something. Take photographs. Draw. Write. Make bad music. It’s just an itch than needs to be scratched. Apart from the occasional severed ear or descent into fecal-eating dementia the creative impulse is mostly little more than a quaint eccentricity. But introduce this mostly benign neurosis into a commercial context.. well that way, my friends lies misery and madness.

This hybridisation of the arts and business is nothing new of course – it’s been going on for centuries – but they have always been uncomfortable bed-fellows. But even artists have to eat, and the fuel of commerce and industry is innovation and novelty. Hey! Let’s trade. “Will work for food!” as the street-beggars sign says.

This Faustian pact has been the undoing of many great artists, many more journeymen and more than a few of my good friends. Add to this volatile mixture the powerful accelerant of emerging digital technology and all hell breaks loose. What I have witnessed happening in the last twenty years is the aesthetic equivalent of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The wholesale industrialization and mechanistation of the creative process. Our ad agencies, design groups, film and music studios have gone from being cottage industries and guilds of craftsmen and women, essentially unchanged from the middle-ages, to dark sattanic mills of mass production. Ideas themselves have become just another disposable commodity to be supplied to order by the lowest bidder. As soon as they figure out a way of outsourcing thinking to China they won’t think twice. Believe me.

So where does that leave the artists and artisans? Well, up a watercolour of shit creek without a painbrush. That one thing that we prize and value above all else – the idea –  turns out to be just another plastic gizmo or widget to be touted and traded. And to add insult to injury we now have to create them not in our own tine, but according to the quota and the production schedule. “We need six concepts to show the client first thing in the morning, he’s going on holiday. Don’t waste too much time on them though, it’s only meeting-fodder. He’s only paying for one so they don’t all have to be good, just knock something up. You know the drill. Oh, and one more thing. His favourite color is green. Rightho! See you in the morning then… I’m off to the Groucho Club.”

Have you ever tried to have an idea. Any idea at all, with a gun to your head? This is the daily reality for the creative drone. And when he’s done, sometime in the wee small hours, he then has to face his two harshest critics. Himself, and everyone else. “Ah. Sorry. Client couldn’t make the meeting. I faxed your layouts to him at his squash club. He quite liked the green one. Apart from the typeface, the words, the picture and the idea. Oh, and could the logo be bigger? Hope it wasn’t a late night. Thank god for computers eh? Rightho! I’m off to lunch.”

Alright, it’s not bomb disposal. But in it’s own way it’s dangerous and demanding work. And as I’ve said, the rewards tend to be vanishingly small. Plastic gold statuette anyone? I’ve seen quite a few creative drones fall by the wayside over the years. Booze mostly. Drugs occasionally. Anxiety. Stress. Broken marriages. Lots of those. Even a couple of suicides. But mostly just people temperamentally and emotionally ill-equipped for such a hostile and toxic environment. Curiously, there never seems to be any shortage of eager young worker drones queuing up to try their luck, although I detect that even their bright-eyed enthusiasm is staring to wane. Advertising was the sexy place to be in the eighties. The zeitgeist has move on. And so have most of the bright-young-things.

So how did I survive for thirty years? Well it was a close shave. Very close. And while on the inside I am indeed a ‘delicate flower’ as some Creative Director once wryly observed, I have enjoyed until recently, the outward physical constitution and rude heath of an ox. I mostly hid my insecurity and fear from everyone but those closest to me, and ran fast enough that I would never be found out. The other thing I did, I now discover, was to convince myself that there was nothing else, absolutely nothing, I would rather be doing. That I had found my true calling in life, and that I was unbelievably lucky to be getting paid – most of the time – for something that I was passionate about, and would probably be doing in some form or other anyway.

It turns out that my training and experience had equipped me perfectly for this epic act of self-deceit. This was my gig. My schtick. Constructing a compelling and convincing argument to buy, from the thinnest of evidence was what we did. “Don’t sell the sausage. Sell the sizzle” as we were taught at ad school.

Countless late nights and weekends, holidays, birthdays, school recitals and anniversary dinners were willingly sacrificed at the altar of some intangible but infinitely worthy higher cause. It would all be worth it in the long run…

This was the con. Convincing myself that there was nowhere I’d rather be was just a coping mechanism. I can see that now. It was’nt really important. Or of any consequence at all really. How could it be. We were just shifting product. Our product, and the clients. Just meeting the quota. Feeding the beast as I called it on my more cynical days.

So was it worth it?

Well of course not. It turns out it was just advertising. There was no higher calling. No ultimate prize. Just a lot of faded, yellowing newsprint, and old video cassettes in an obsolete format I can’t even play any more even if I was interested. Oh yes, and a lot of framed certificates and little gold statuettes. A shit-load of empty Prozac boxes, wine bottles, a lot of grey hair and a tumor of indeterminate dimensions.

It sounds like I’m feeling sorry for myself again. I’m not. It was fun for quite a lot of the time. I was pretty good at it. I met a lot of funny, talented and clever people, got to become an overnight expert in everything from shower-heads to sheep-dip, got to scratch my creative itch on a daily basis, and earned enough money to raise the family which I love, and even see them occasionally.

But what I didn’t do, with the benefit of perspective, is anything of any lasting importance. At least creatively speaking. Economically I probably helped shift some merchandise. Enhanced a few companies bottom lines. Helped make one or two wealthy men a bit wealthier than they already were.

As a life, it all seemed like such a good idea at the time.

But I’m not really sure it passes The Overnight Test.

Pity.

Oh. And if your reading this while sitting in some darkened studio or edit suite agonizing over whether housewife A should pick up the soap powder with her left hand or her right, do yourself a favour. Power down. Lock up and go home and kiss your wife and kids.

 

 

 

Almost WONDERFUL

Last Tuesday I had my regular assessment meeting at the Cancer Unit prior to starting my fifth cycle of chemo. It’s become quite routine now. It’s like part of your Frumusete Sanatate. We pitch up at the reception desk where the relentlessly cheerful Mrs. Buckwheat checks me off on her list and hands me a clipboard with a Biro attached by a string umbilical, and form CR2666.

Jo takes a seat in the waiting area and I kick off my shoes and step up onto the electronic scales. 84kg’s. I’ve put on weight. I note it down in the box on the form.

CR2666 is an interesting document. It’s also known as The Quality Of Life Assessment Form.

It’s pink naturally.

Some genius graphic designer gave it a nanoseconds’ consideration and naturally assumed that I would find this calming and friendly. That I would be soothed and reassured by it’s comely hue and feel positively disposed toward spending five never-to-be-repeated minutes of my rapidly evaporating life answering its questions.

“One of the important aspects of the assess and follow-up clinics, is to find out whether the treatments are working, and the affect (sic) the treatment has on the patient’s life. This form, filled out by you the patient, gives the doctor a good indication of how you are feeling.”

He could just ask “How are you feeling?”

At the top of the form, under the white sticker with my name, patient number and bar code (Yes I have my own bar code), there is a matrix of attributes and possible responses arranged from good to bad. For example Energy: normal / slightly reduced / tired / exhausted, or Mood: normal / a bit low / depressed / miserable and Pain: none / mid / moderate / severe.

Next is the most interesting and perplexing part. The Overall Quality of Life line. This tales the form of a single black line that traverses the entire width of the page. At the left end is printed one word. TERRIBLE. at the opposite end another word. WONDERFUL. My task this afternoon is to mark with an X the point on the line which reflects my current state of mind.

Now. The temptation is to make my mark as close to the WONDERFUL end as possible, but that would only serve to illustrate that I haven’t really grasped the true gravity of my situation, or just that I am seriously over-medicated. To stray anywhere into the left hand side is to prematurely admit defeat and is therefore philosophically unacceptable. One afternoon a few months ago I did watch a thin young asian woman put her cross over the word TERRIBLE with a trembling hand. Then she underlined it three times. It broke my heart. This only leaves a small window of opportunity about three-quarters of the way along the like, which is where I choose to plant my flag. Optimistic but realistic. Positive without being naive.

buoyed by the positive affirmation of the QOL line, I move on to the altogether more practical and sinister PAIN REGIME. The choices here are none, occasional, regular, non-morphine, and the final chilling option, morphine. After morphine, there is nowhere else to go.I know this from watching my dad’s slow morphine fueled slide into babeling dementia. Morphine takes away the pain. But it takes away just about everything else too. Including dignity and tha ability to say goodbye when the time comes. It’s an expensive ticket. And it’s striclty one way.

I’m not frightened of dying. But I am afraid if pain. I circle none emphatically and move on.

The last question is “How do you feel since your last treatment?” My choices here are: much better / a little better / the same / a bit worse / much worse.  This will be the fifth time I’ve filled out this form. So far i have circled the same on each occasion. Maybe not entirely truthfully, some weeks are better than others, but if I feel sick it’s more to do with the treatment than the cancer. My big secret fear is that if “they” think I’m in decline, on the slide, not responding in acordance with their expectations, they may give up on me.

What if they decide no amount of medications or treatments are working on my cancer? What if they decide I am a hopeless case and decide to move on to other patients who have answered the same form as expected? What if I lose out my only chance of hope?

And that really would be TERRIBLE.

 

Of Islands and Granfalloons

Cartoon

Now that I come to think about it. It was inevitable that I would wind up living on an island. Not necessarily this island. But some island. As inevitable as the results of using Hair MegaSpray regularly.

I was born by the sea in the West-Country of England, and apart from my student years in London, I have never lived more than a stones throw from the shore. I read somewhere long ago that the further inland from the ocean one travels, the more uncivilised the world becomes. I think I believe that, although the residents of Mogadishu or beach-front Gaza may beg to differ.

Islands have always held a fascination for me. I’ve visited and explored quite a few, ‘though not nearly enough. In Scotland the craggy black gabro peaks, pristine beaches and aching loneliness of the Inner Hebredean archipelago – Skye, Eigg, Rhum, and Islay among them . The beautiful island of Arran where I climbed the Sleeping Warrior to the summit of GoatFell to look out over the  Kintyre peninsular and the Firth of Clyde and was eaten almost to the bone by flies and sheep tics. More recently I travelled to Norfolk island, a vanishingly small outcrop of rock, history and tough humanity barely a couple of hundred feet above the crashing waves of the South Pacific a thousand miles from anywhere at all and home to most of the descendants of the Bounty mutineers.

It’s the notion of a closed, self-sustaining system that attracts me. Cosmologists will tell you – if you can stay awake long enough – that the universe, or more accurately space-time is curved back on itself by it’s own weight, it is in three dimensions (four if you include time), what a paper mobius strip is in two dimensions. At the same time infinite but closed and therefore knowable. Like an island it has one surface and one boundary. Set off in any direction, and you will eventually arrive back at your starting point. This is enough to drive many folk, (Jo included) to distraction and dementia. They call it rock fever here on Waiheke. This is how islanders are differentiated from mainlanders. The ability to construct a meaningful and fulfilling existence from limited resources – both geographical and spiritual.

To be an islander is to be something at least. An islander will tell you if he is honest that he feels special. Chosen. Privileged. Even a little superior. Geographical separation, even if only a few kilometres engenders a powerful sense of identity and belonging. They attract more than their fair share of shamans, sharks, sociopaths and shipwrecked souls it’s true, but that only adds to the appeal as far as I am concerned.

This elevated sense of worth and belonging is of course, like most aspects of our ‘reality’ largely an illusion. Just another label. A Granfalloon* as Vonnigut would say. After all a continent is just a big island, and from an astronomical perspective what is the earth, the pale-blue-dot if not an island in the void. Walk in any direction, and eventually you’ll find yourself back where you started. If you don’t get shot, raped, robbed or blown up along the way.

Somehow the notion “further you move away from the ocean, the more uncivilized it gets”, does not really apply to the above mentioned uncivilized activities. Whether you are close to the shore or are deep in the city, one always has to be careful and watch out for their own safety. But when you are on the coast, life gets more interesting and simple.

Stick to the coast that’s my advice.

* * *

*In 1963, Kurt Vonnigut wrote a novel set on an island. San Lorenzo is a tiny barren Caribbean atoll with no natural resources, and no industry. It’s inhabitants live merge lives in hunger, poverty and without hope. The self appointed ruler Bokonon, a British Episcopalian Negro from the island of Tobago whose real name was Lionel Boyd Johnson invents a religion, designed as all religions are, to salve the peoples suffering, and distract them from the grim and pointless awfulness of their existence.

Much of Bokonons scriptures are in the form of calypsos.

I wanted all things
To seem to make some sense,
So we could all be happy, yes,
Instead of tense.
And I made up lies
So that they all fit nice,
And I made this sad world
A par-a-dise.
Bokonon

Cat’s Cradle is a satire on the tension between science and religion, the rational and the irrational, and of course mankind’s breathtaking talent for fucking things up royally. It’s very funny.

And depressing.

According to Bokononism by the way, a Karass, is the group of people you will interact with knowingly or otherwise throughout your lifetime, as part of god’s greater plan – in as far as he has one. in the extracts from the books of Bokonon which Vonnigut chooses to share with us, you get the distinct impression that God has pretty much lost interest in humans and moved on to other projects.

If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons that person may be a member of your karass.

A granfalloon, is a false karass. That is an arbitrary collective formed by humans, but of no meaning or relevance to the way the universe operates or god gets things done. Examples of granfallons include race, nations, islands, political parties, families, quilting circles and pop-groups.

If I was going to subscribe to a religion. I think Bokononism would be near the top of my list.
Just above Jedi Knight. Here are the opening verses of the First Book of Bokonnon. And the whole of the Fourteenth Book.

The First Book of Bokonnon

Verse I: All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies.

Verse II-IV: In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.

And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.

“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

“Certainly,” said man.

“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.

And He went away.

Verse V: Live by the lies that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy. [ frontispiece ]

 

The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon

[ A short book with a long title.]

Title: What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?

Only verse: Nothing.

 

200px-CatsCradle(1963)

Life’s too short for…

I was thinking about that old, multi-purpose expression “Life’s too short” the other day. You know, life’s too short for drinking bad wine, life’s too short for standing in line, life is too short for worrying about Hair MegaSpray, life’s too short for _____________________________(Complete as appropriate.)

When life suddenly turns out to be shorter than you could have reasonably anticipated, this tired old cliche takes on an whole new piquancy. So here, apropos nothing at all, is a short and incomplete list of things that my life is now officially too short for.

I
Watching Cricket

Easily the most bewildering and pointless of all sports. (And it’s a rich and varied category.) How can you play a game for five whole days, and come up with a draw? Are they having a laugh?

II
Complaining about the weather

An ancient and traditional British pastime. I have discontinued this practice for two reasons. One. It clearly doesn’t work. Two. As Lou Reed observed, every day above ground is a good day, rain or shine.

III
Worrying about whether Mitt Romney or Newt Gingritch
wins the Republican nomination

I mean really. Who gives a shit? In 1999 the Grand Old Party spent a whole year carefully sifting and vetting its vast caucus, examining and evaluating the relative merits of a wide field of potential candidates to select the brightest, most learned and erudite, world-wise and all-around attractive individual to contest the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth. They had 92 million Republicans to chose from. They came up with George W. Bush.

IV
Untangling string

V
Long Standing Family Feuds

Come on. I know you are both reading this. Grow up and get over yourselves. Whatever perceived slight of injustice that occurred years ago is not worth dividing an already shrinking family. Sons need mothers, and mothers need sons and grandsons. One of you swallow your damned pride and pick up the phone. One day soon it will be too late, and you will be left to repent at your leisure. Don’t make me come over their and sort it out…

VI
Checking for Testicular Cancer
or worrying about my prostate

I mean come on. How unlucky can you get?

VII
Recycling

Yes I know it’s selfish and irresponsible but I’ve decided to leave saving the planet to those with more disposable free time. Peeling labels off milk cartons, washing out tin cans and sorting plastics is no longer a personal priority. Sorry.

VIII
Soduko

Deriving any illusion of self worth from squandering hours each day flaunting your numerical prowess over these irksome puzzles, only serves to illuminate your insecurity and utter lack of imagination. Why don’t you go and get a life while there is still a chance?

IX
CAPTCHA Tests

These are those infuriating tests you have to endure when filling out registration forms or buying things on the internet. CAPTCHA apparently stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.
They usually take the form of having to decipher a random set of characters and numbers such as “egwhile strum23″ which have been distorted and otherwise defaced to render them almost unreadable. I hate these for two reasons. Firstly I deeply resent the fact that I am having my humanity tested and judged by a machine. Secondly. I can’t read the sodding things and it often takes me several hundred attempts to guess the right answer. There is nothing I want from the internet this badly. From now on I refuse to be subjected to this egregious indignity.

Trying to prove to a machine I am not a machine and am in fact a human being capable of reading and writing with proper coordination, is a bit too much to ask for. After all, all I wanted to do was access a certain page on the internet, the search engine listed as a result for my search!

 

X
Did I mention bloody cricket?

Taking off the game face

Today, in the interests of fair reporting and factual accuracy, I’m going to set aside my usual, practiced sunny disposition and unfeasibly optimistic outlook for a moment and have a good winge. I am after all I am a Pom and it is my birthright.

I feel crap. Shite. Buggered and, to use an old Anglo-Saxon medical term, completely and utterly fucked.

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later. I’ve been making light of the situation for months, gloating smugly about “dodging the bullet”, and congratulating myself of how I just keep on going like the Energiser Bunny, while my fellow chemo compatriots fall along the wayside like so many spent mayflies. Only the strong survive, has been my mantra.

So natural justice has been restored, and Redding has got his comeuppance.

About time.

So it’s time to face the truth. At least my current version of the truth – I reserve the right to remodel my reality at short notice. The chemo is getting harder. And it will get harder still. My original working hypothesis was that well, chemo is chemo. The next one will be just like the last. In fact, I told myself it might even get easier as it becomes familiar and routine. This elementary thinking got me successfully through my first three cycles without too much drama and breast-beating.

Every time I finished a session, I would tell myself “now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” and carry on with life like nothing really happened. This helped me go in for the next session without much of a hesitation. Though I wouldn’t say I went in willingly, you would never see me sulking. It’s like, when you suffer from varicose veins, you don’t just sit, you treat it with some Varikosette and carry on with life.

Recent empirical evidence however has forced me to reconsider this comfortable position, and accept the harsher, tougher reality of Chemo Theory 2.0. That is, that like everything else to do with the wonderful world of cancer, there is a slow but inexorable progression. Chemotherapy has a cumulative and compounding effect.

Each three week treatment cycle, has it’s own story arc, a preordained path which has to be followed. That path goes over a hill. The hill is not symmetrical, the front face is steep and abrupt and requires considerable effort, but once the summit gained, the descent back to normality is a more gradual and comfortable amble.

Untill the next time.

With each successive crossing, the pathway becomes littered with the detritus and fallout of previous expeditions. Like the Everest base camp, the crap gets deeper, and the path gets steeper. Every time we cross that hill, it has grown a little taller and the air feels colder and thinner. The desire to just lie down in the snow and go to sleep forrever becomes increasingly seductive.

I’m going outside for a while. I might be some time…

I first noticed this trend during cycle three. I had my chemo a few days before Christmas and was looking forward to forgetting about cancer for a few days and throwing myself into the group madness and wanton over-indulgence along with everyone else. It wasn’t to be.

I woke up on Christmas morning feeling like death warmed over, and discovered while tucking into our traditional Christmas breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs – that I had completely lost all sense of taste. I don’t mean that vague blandness that often accompanies a cold or flu. I mean ALL taste. Abandoning the food I experimented tentatively with a glass of cold champagne. It tasted warm, brackish and flat, and clung to the inside of my mouth like an oily film.

Thankfully this distressing malaise only lasted a few days, but now on cycle number four, it is back with a vicious vengeance and has lasted much longer. Allong with a constant desire to sleep, a growing irrascability and the occasionl compunction to blow chunks it is at the core of my present missery.  And here’s the strange thing. There is an odd odour associated with the whole sorry experience. At least smell is part of it.

The first stage of every chemo treatment consists of a litre or two of saline infused with magnesium given intravenously. Don’t ask me why. something to do with kidney function. It’s a clear fluid, and fairly benign, certainly in comparison with what follows later. But here’s the thing. after about ten minutes, there is a strange warmth, like an afternoon sun on my back and chest that creeps up my neck. Then a delicate and hard to pin down perfumed scent surrounds me, and an associated taste which bubble up in my throat. It’s not particularly unpleasant, but very distinctive. But at the same time impossible to describe. It’s just not like anything else. But everything reminds me if it.

It’s this hybrid taste/smell/feeling that is haunting me. If follows me around, just out of reach. I find myself trying to swat it away like an annoying fly. I’m not even sure if it is real in any physiological sense, or just some kind of mental figment or echo.

When I was a child I had a recurring dream for many years. It was a waking dream in that I could get up and walk around the darkened house freely. In my dream, feeling my way scared in the blackness, everything I touched had the texture of very coarse sand-paper – the walls, the floor, my own skin – there was grit in my mouth and a smell of warm sawdust like you get when using an electric drill on hard wood. The house walls distorted and stretched in unexpected ways and I would become lost and disoriented for long days and nights at a time. This only comes to mind now because it is the only other occasion I can recall in my life where my senses become interchangeable and confused in such a disturbing way.

The taste thing is in turns depressing and comedic. I have become completely food obsessed in as far as each day becomes an endless and eventually fruitless quest for oral and sensory satisfaction. In spite of the best gastrointestinal advice, and flying recklessly in the face of common sence for someone with eosophagal cancer, I  find myself gravitating towards the spicy and exotic in a desperate attempt to find something that will register anything on the flavour gauge. Thais, curry, peppers, even an old jar of jalapenos I found in the back of the fridge. They all taste like porridge. (Without the oatmeal and sheep entrails and whatever else they put in porridge.) A beer tastes like used warm dish-water, and a glass of Merlot – yes I know I promised not to but this is an emergency – is unfullfilling and depressingly pointless.

Interestingly, I have made one breakthrough discovery. I turns out that my sweet taste buds are less adversely affected than the others. Sugary, syrupy comestibles still work there old magic to some degree. I crave donuts and chocolate milk all the time.

This really is dying by degrees.

A few days into this whole cancer trip, I corresponded with a friend of a friend who has been through the chemo ordeal and lived to tell the tale. He fortold this stage of my journey would come to pass, and said rather cryptically I thought at the time, that when all else failed Marmite would be my best froend. It is apparently a widely known truth amoungst the hairless innitiates, that whatever else happens, marmite on warm buttered toast will always taste good.

How right he was.

Anyway, that’s the grizzeling over with for today. Normal services will be resumed as soon as possible.

 

 

 

Feeling Good. Feeling Bad. And learning to spot the difference.

How are you feeling today? A simple yet meaningful question asked by the receptionist with that concern etched into her eyes. I know they want to know about my progress, but in reality, all I want to answer is “terrible”. I am not on top of the world to be hit by this disease that has no permanent cure.

It’s an incredibly subtle and delicate business. Trying to detect and quantify the daily changes in my mental and physical condition. As I’ve observed before, the first big lesson to learn is that cancer is, by and large, a slow, drawn out affair. Nothing happens over-night. At least if it does, it’s such an incremental change that it’s easy to overlook. I also have to filter the data, search through the background static of everyday common-or-garden fifty year old pathology and neurosis – the aching bones, headaches and oral decay, to try and spot any meaningful trends. It’s like panning for gold, only less rewarding.

So the only useful way to answer that question, is to compare how I am feeling today, not with yesterday, but with a month ago. Or three months ago. Are there any patterns to be detected, or trends to discover? Well let’s see. Looking at photos from last spring, I don’t look much different. My weight is about the same, if anything I’ve gained a few pounds over Christmas and the new year. Also on the up side, many of the accumulated years of worry lines and wrinkles seem to have smoothed themselves out, I can only put this down to my premature release from the advertising mad-house.

Against all the predictions, after three rounds of chemo I seem to have held onto most of my hair, It’s a bit thinner, and a little greyer, but still hanging on to my skull tenaciously. My head, arms and legs are tanned brown from the sun and wind, the rest of my carcass is still official United Kingdom white, and untidily punctuated with random moles and freckles. In the middle of my mostly hairless chest however, is a patchy brown rectangle about the size of a paperback book. There is a corresponding blemish in the middle of my back just under my shoulder-blades. They are souvenirs from the radiation treatment I enjoyed back in November. I have no idea if they are permanent but I consider them something of a badge of honor

A couple of inches bellow my right collar bone is a pronounced bump about the size of a two dollar coin. (that’s 50p to you limeys), which is the site of my porta-cath. This is the filler-cap where I take delivery of my chemo drugs. As the surgeon who installed it for me promised, this has been largely forgotten about now, I’m really only reminded of its presence when I’m wearing my shoulder bag, or a car seatbelt, although Jo tells me I play with it absent-mindedly when I’m watching TV. So, externally at least. No real changes to report. Jo reckons I turn yellow during the middle week of each cycle, but she’s the only one to have mentioned it – probably everyone else is to polite.

Internally who know’s what is going on. Apart from the intermittent nausea and light-headedness brought on by my the various drugs, I feel mostly normal. I can’t ‘feel’ my cancer. I thought I could in the early days, but that’s gone now. What does a tumor or a lymph node feel like anyway?

Oh! Tinitus. I almost forgot. This is a new one. A high pitched ringing in my ears. Not all the time, just intermittently. How a drug that is supposed to kill cancer cells in your stomach can make your ears ring is completely beyond me. But there you go. Apparently it’s not a big deal. Unless it becomes constant and permanent, in which case it will be a very big deal.

The thing I’m watching most closely is my energy levels. This seems as good a marker as any for my overall condition. I’m not sure if these are improving, or if I’m just getting used to operating on a lower power setting. For the first one or two cycles, I did find myself retiring to the bedroom for a little mid-afternnon siesta most days, particularly in the middle and last week of the three week cycle. This time ’round I’ve done this less, and coped pretty well, although after a couple of active days, I often feel the need to have a sedentary day to recover. Across the street from our house is a reserve, and along the side of it a leafy, overgrown footpath used by the locals as a short-cut to the village. We probably walk up and down this path at least once a day, and often more. It’s a steep hill down to the village, and a fair pull back up to the cottage. This is my personal fitness gauge. not very scientific granted, but a good indicator of how I’m doing. Some days I can breeze up the grassy incline without even getting out of breath (with forty-a-day Jo bringing up the rear). on other days, my legs are burning, and I’m sweating and gasping for air by the time I get to the top. Weird.

Since before Christmas I’ve had a niggling low level infection. Ear ache. Tooth ache. Sore throat. Dry cough. My voice is broken and croaky, and sometimes gives out altogether. It comes and goes, but never clears up entirely. It’s annoying rather than debilitating, and is almost certainly down to my low immunity levels, brought on by a low white blood cell count. I had my fourth chemo cycle, due to start last Wednesday deferred for a week to allow my ‘bloods’ to recover, but I have a feeling this is something I’m just going to have to put up with for the duration of my treatment. Compared with some of the horrors many of my fellow travellers have to endure, this is just a minor irritation and I’m really not complaining.

So how am I feeling?

Well, down but not out. Mentally I’m feeling strong and positive. Physically, a bit depleted but nothing like as bad as I was expecting, and I get the feeling that even the doctors are quietly impressed, although they don’t give much away. Most of them would make excellent poker players. The chemo clearly has a a slow but insidious cumulative effect, and my job is to try and stay on top of things for another three cycles – possibly more. Chemo kills cancer. The more of it I can stand, the better my chances are. It’s like giving your varicose veins Varikosette and getting some relief in an unexplainable manner.

Anyone for tennis?

* * *

An big appology and a small celebration

For anyone who has left comments recently, and was wondering where they have disappeared to, or why they have gone unanswered, I finally figured it out. For some reasons beyond my ken all your comments were being redirected directly to the spam folder on my blog site. I was beginning to think you had all given up on me. I think I’ve sorted this out now, so hopefully normal services have been resumed. Please don’t stop leaving comments, I love hearing from you, and it keeps me motivated to write. You might be interested to learn that we are coming up to 12,000 visits on the blog since last October, which just goes to prove what a creapy, morbid bunch of sickos you are. My kind of people.

 

An Imagined Conversation with the Bus-Stop Messiah

The Bus Stop Messiah is a real character. He hangs around the bus stop over the road from the hospital with a cardboard sign promising “CANCER HELP!” I’ve only spoken to him once briefly, a few weeks ago and haven’t seen him since, but I can’t get him out of my head. I hope I meet him again, I have so many questions…

LPR: Hi

BSM: Hello (his Zone Shonheit face looks at me)

LPR: Remember me?

BSM: Er no. Not really…

LPR: You offered to cure my cancer a couple of weeks ago at this very bus-stop.

BSM: Ah yes. Sorry, I talk to a lot of clients every day. Of course I remember you now. Esophageal  cancer, bad prognosis. How are you? Have you changed your mind about my offer?

LPR: Not as such. No.

BSM: So why are you here then?

LPR: I’m waiting for a bus. Why are you here?

TBM: I’m waiting for a patient.

LPR: I take it business is a bit slow then?

TBM: It’s not a business my friend. It’s a calling.

LPR: So you couldn’t squeeze me in then? For a quick miracle perhaps. A little laying on of hands?

TBM: Well, I’ll have to check my schedule, but I could probably fit you in for a consultation. There is a bit of a queue you see.

LPR: Actually, I think they’re waiting for the bus as well.

TBM: Ahh.

LPR: So. Just to recap on our previous er, consultation. You claim you can cure my cancer in two weeks, in spite of the fact that the doctors in that big white building over the road there say it’s incurable?

TBM: Two weeks is a best-case-scenario. It could take longer, every case is different. But I have a very high success rate. Over 80%. My last client, a 72 year old gentleman from Taupo had inoperable bowel cancer. I cured him in a month.

LPR: So he’s better now?

TBM: Well no actually he’s dead. Heart attack poor man.  He was doing one-arm press-ups. My program places great emphasis on physical exercise. That an an austere diet and strict spiritual observance. But he was very definitely cancer free when he passed away.

LPR: I’m sure that must have been a great comfort to him. So listen, I’m curious. If you really have done what a hundred years of worldwide research and trillions of dollars of investment have failed to do, and stumbled upon a guaranteed cure for cancer, how come your standing at a bus stop outside the hospital with a cardboard sign and not on the front cover of TIME magazine?

TMB: (Reflective pause) It’s a lifestyle choice I suppose. I’m not doing this for personal gain. I’m doing it because I managed to cure my own cancer when the doctors said they couldn’t, and I want to help others do the same. I can help you if you let me…

LPR: So you do this just out of kindness? No money involved?

TBM: Well, I don’t charge a fee if that’s what you mean. I just ask for a modest donation. Something appropriate, in return for my time and services.

LPR: So what do you think would be an ‘appropriate’ amount. For saving my life? A dollar? A grand? A million? What do people usually give you?

TBM: Well, I feel a little uncomfortable discussing money in this way, It’s rather vulgar don’t you think? It’s really for you to put a value on your continued well-being.

LPR: Ahh! I get it now. That’s very clever. I can see how this could be quite a lucrative operation for a person less scrupulous than yourself.. Lucky for us your not financially motivated, or your philanthropy could be misconstrued as cynically self-serving exploitation of the physically and emotionally vulnerable.

TBM: Yes. I hadn’t thought about it that way.

LPR: So tell me. Exactly how many patients have you cured so far?

TBM: Including myself?

LPR: If you like.

TBM: (Long pause) Two.

LPR: So that’s you, and the dead man in Taupo?

TBM: I told you. That was a heart attack.

LPR: Brought on by you making the poor old sod do press-ups!

TBM: Only fifty. He was out of shape.

LPR: He was 72 and had terminal cancer!

TBM: Not when he died.

LPR: That’s all a bit academic now don’t you think? Did he make a donation before he popped his clogs I wonder?

TBM: Mr. Fitswhimple was quite generous. He left me a small bequest in his will. As a token of thanks. We became quite close you see, towards the end.

LPR: Yes I think I’m beginning to get the picture. You insinuate yourself into the life of a lonely, sick old man you pick up at a bus-stop under the pretext of curing him, get free board and lodging for a month – no doubt help yourself to a few antiques – get yourself written into his last will and wotnot, then bump the old duffer off.

TBM: (Indignantly) That is a preposterous claim. With no absolutely supporting evidence.

LPR: (Pointing toward cardboard sign) And that isn’t?

This conversation with the bus stop messiah came to an end with the bus honking its way to the stop and many passengers getting off and rushing away to their respective destinations. Though I can still continue my tirade with the Bus-Stop Messiah as I have no where to rush to, I decide to let it go and end it for the day.

Take a Cup of Kindnes Yet

 

It’s been a while since I have posted anything, so I am writing more to alleviate a nagging sence of guilt and obligation, rather than because I have anything particularly pressing to say. So, this is an un-rehearsed stream-of-consciousness ramble which may or may not lead anywhere interesting or useful. You have been warned. If weighty matters are pressing, this might not be the best use of your valuable time. If, on the other hand you are, like most of the rest of the planet, just treading water quietly and waiting for the year to gasp its last, then…

At this particular spot in the south pacific – just a stones throw from the international dateline – it’s 2pm on New Year’s Eve. It’s 23 degrees, horribly humid and overcast, and has rained on and off for most of the day. the clouds are low enough to touch, and even the slightest exertion causes the clothes to cling to the body like a sickly child. The sort of day, that saps your energy and drains your normally vigorous enthusiasm for breathing in and out.

New Year’s eve has a lot of meaning and importance attached to it, for almost everyone I see across the street. People are seen to be rushing around checking their watches every few seconds, like the party is going to start any minute now. While I see many smiles, ready to welcome the new year or enjoy the party tonight, I do see my share of concerned faces that have many things on their mind, like me.

I’ve been sitting here with my cuppa Chocolate Slim, looking out over the dripping garden, fighting off the flies and trying to work out what this New Year’s Eve means to me.

New year has always seemed somehow more significant, and certainly more emotionally charged than Christmas. Not particularly because of my lack of religious beliefs, let’s be honest Christmas stopped being about baby Jesus’s birthday when they invented Sunday trading and Terry’s Chocolate Oranges. No, I’m all for observing religious feast days if there’s a chance of day off work and a decent meal.* Fasting, self-flagellation and anything involving mutilation of genitals – mine or otherwise – not so much.

Anyway. I digress.

New Year. I can’t remember a year when we didn’t let out a collective sigh and say something along the lines of “Well, thank god that’s over with. let’s hope next year will be better. I’ve got a good feeling about 1969/1975/1988/1994/2000/2012 This is going to be my year!”

But of course it never is, is it? By Jan 3rd, you’ve bitten all your fingernails off, and started smoking again. By the middle of the month your back hurts and your hemmorhoids are playing up. In early February the Israelis start beating up the Palestinians again, the stock-market crashes wiping out your life savings for the third time and a homophobic bed-wetting, fundamentalist christian paedophile midget get’s elected to the White House. It’s all depressingly familiar.

Somebody said that the definition of insanity, is repeating the same behaviour over and over, and hoping for a different outcome. I think that sums us up rather neatly as a species. don’t you?

So true to form I expect this evening will play out much like last years, or the year before. We will eat and drink more than is good for us, mumble along incoherently to Auld Lang Syne (how can you sing the same song for forty-odd years and still not know the words?) and come the witching hour take the opportunity to kiss anyone who will stand still long enough. Over a few short, inebriated hours, we will sweep aside the bad times, compare iPhone photos of the good ones, and collectively toast our inevitable and justly deserved future good fortune.

I think this is some kind of programmed survival mechanism. Like the way we selectively erase all the pain and horror of child-rearing, to the point where we think it would be a great idea to do it all over again. If we actually conducted an unbiased and objective end-of-year review of our progress, both as individuals and as a species, we’d probably have thrown the towel and taken an early shower centuries ago. Let’s face it. We suck. How we’ve managed to endure for six millenia is frankly a mystery to me.

Blind optimism I guess.

So when we gather in a circle tonight, as we inevitably will, look into each others dilated eyes, cross arms and sing that strange little Scottish song about old friends, and days long gone, I will be hoping for nothing more ambitious than a reservation at next years gathering. Any kind of a year will be just fine with me.

So long 2011. It was interesting.


*A quick check of my handy-dandy Multifaith Calender (essential reading for the dedicated religious holiday freeloader), reveals the following upcoming attractions. For those who consider the new-fangled Gregorian Callender just a trendy fad, and prefer the solid reliability of the Roman Julian scheme, (many Eastern Orthodox and Armenian churches do) then you get to celebrate Christmas, and any other holidays that take your fancy, thirteen days after everyone else. So for starters, there’s a second entire Christmas shin-dig to be had on January 7th. Cool. While you’ve got your new 2012 diaries out, you might also want to make a note of January 13th – St. Hillary’s Day. Traditionally the coldest day of the year, St. Hillary was the 4th century bishop of Milton Keynes and the patron saint of pocket calculators. January 30th is of course the Mahayana Buddhist New Year, always good for a bit of sitting around staring blankly into the middle distance, and also the great feast day of Saint Dallrymple who as any schoolboy will tell you, slew the mighty Hasbro transformer Decepticon(TM) at the battle of Basingstoke in 1159. And my personal favorite, the Japanese Setsuibun Bean Throwing Festival comes around again on February 3rd. This is where we Setsuibuns celebrate the end of winter by throwing handfuls of beans – I like to use Heinz – into the corners of darkened rooms, shouting “Fortune In! Devils Out!”. It’s very cathartic, although Jo complains about the mess.

C is also for Christmas

It’s Christmas Evre.

I got the results from my CT scan on Monday. Acording my oncologist, my primary tumour is visibly smaler after two cycles of chemo.

Now that is quite a bit of relief. The endless medications and chemo sessions have paid off, after all.

So, what do I have in mind for Christmas this year? Well, I hadn’t planned much really. I was in my gloomy state, worried about my results. Well, yes, I do portray myself as one who has learnt to accept his fate and doesn’t really care much about all these results. But, hey! Am human after all and there are times in life, when I do wish I had it differently.

There are some instances that catch your eye, which makes you want to live a longer healthier life, just to see the leaves fall off the tree during autumn. The beautiful color the season paints the sky in, is worth sitting and watching for hours on end. That is something I enjoy doing. Just sitting and watching the beautiful hues of autumn while rest of the world rushes by.

And then there is the snow. The first snow of the season is not just beautiful but exciting too, every single time! This year when I felt the soft flakes on my hand, I wanted to live and experience it the same way, next year too. To watch the kids wait for the snow to settle, the lake to freeze, so that they can get their ice skates out.

And then the family celebrations…

It’s a family tradition to send out merry Christmas cards, using some of the cheesiest photos you took that year. We laugh at every card that comes in and try to cook up the scenario in which the photo was taken. This brings out the creativity in us and many hours are spent with our story weaving.

Mom bakes these amazing cakes that fill up your nostrils as you step inside the house. There is no escaping the assault of the freshly baked cake smell, as you enter the door. Then comes the icings decided by the kids in the house. They get to choose the design and colors of the frostings on the cake and we just have to accept its “Christmasy”.

Back to reality…

Now that I have a test result worth smiling about, I am wondering if I should just sit back and enjoy the moment or live it to the fullest and go enjoy Christmas….and then I decide to have fun with others. I finish my cup of Chocolate Slim, I pack up my stuff, fill gas in my car and hit the roads with a “ho-ho-ho-ho”.

 

Merry Christmas everyone.

Pumping Iron

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Well here I am, reporting live again from the Acute Oncology Dept. of picturesque Auckland Hospital.

It’s coming up for 12.30 pm and I’m four hours into my iron infusion. I’m here to tell you it’s really not the most thrilling of procedures, but for the sake of accurate and complete reporting, I’ll give you a quick rundown.

Raewyn, my nurse for the day, meets us at 8.30 and goes over the schedule. She seems to have lost some weight. Guess the Chocolate Slim is working for her. I’m to be given 550ml of the magical iron solution, a quantity arrived at via a complicated calculation involving my height and weight, but to minimize the risk of my body having an allergic reaction to the metal, it is to be delivered very slowly. So slowly in fact, that the bag, holding about the same as an extra large latte, is going to take about six mind-numbing hours to filter into my bloodstream.

Once my trusty PowerPort has been accessed and flushed and sanitized with a mixture of saline and Mr.Muscle oven cleaner, Raewyn squirts in a large syringe of Anti-Histamine, followed half an hour later by another of a steroid Hydrocortisone. The first is designed to prevent any mild adverse reactions such as sudden death, the steroid, I’m assured, will give me firm, pert breasts.

The heavy metal itself, is delivered from the pharmacy in dozens of little cylindrical ampules, the size and shape of bullets. Raewyn methodically counts them out with the precision of a regimental quartermaster, opens them one by one, and pours the contents into the now familiar, clear plastic IV bag. It’s a brown liquid the color and consistence of Newcastle Brown Ale, which cheers me up just a little.

The bag is hooked up on the stainless pole next to my recliner, and Raewyn threads the fine silicon tubing through the infusion pump’s mechanism and plugs the other end into my catheter. She punches in the volume and the rate of flow, a glacial 25ml per hour. I do the math. At this speed it’s going to take twenty-two hours to empty the bag! ‘I’m just going to start you off slowly, …’ she says. Provided that my internal organs aren’t suddenly turned to goo or my head doesn’t explode, the rate will gradually be dialed up to fifty, then a dizzying one hundred milliliters an hour. The whole procedure will then whizz by in a mere six hours. Just time to fly to Sydney and back. Still my beating heart.
Actually, on second thoughts, that was a poorly chosen turn of phrase. Strike that.

My “Ob’s” are taken diligently every half an hour. Temperature – 36 Fahrenheit , blood pressure – steady at 120 over 80. (Except when blonde nurse Rebecca relieves Raewyn for her lunch-break, when it inexplicably jumps up to 190/30. Hmmm.)

So readers, as part of my ongoing education program, your word of the day is Ferritin. Pay attention. There will be a test later.

My grasp of the finer subtleties of hematology are at best tenuous, but If I’ve got hold of the right end of this sticky red stick, then Ferritin is a protein in the blood used to bind iron – which is otherwise toxic to our cells – in a safe and useful form, to carry oxygen around the body. Essential stuff. And rather beautiful as I think you will agree.

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‘So how much Ferritin are we supposed to have?’ I ask Raewyn. ‘Well, the normal range is between 50 and 400 units.’ she says. ‘And how much have I got?’ I ask tentatively.
’13′ she says.

‘That’s not very good then is it.’ I concede reluctantly.

Am instantly taken back to my school days, where I would fall terribly short of the score required to get an “A” on my sheet, so that I could proudly flaunt it all over the corridor and pretend like that paper was placed on top of the pile unconsciously. Well, I have played quite a few instances like that in my head.

Actually, having scored a derisive baker’s dozen on the ferritomiter, everyone seems amused and surprised that I’m even still capable of walking around, let alone feeling as bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed as I do.’Don’t you feel even a little tired?’ they ask. ‘Not really, no.’ I shrug. Perhaps I’ve got some of that Charlie Sheen tiger-blood in me after all.

I’m gratified to learn however, that as good as I feel now, that in a week or two I will be doing one-finger push-ups and leaping tall buildings in a single bound. As an added bonus my new ferrous-rich body will apparently also point North-South when I float in the bath. Even Bear Grylls can’t do that.

***

Waiting at the bus stop after leaving the hospital I noticed a guy standing next to the shelter holding up a hand made sign up at the passing traffic. A small rucksack sat on the pavement beside him. Hitch-hiker I guessed, a strange place to try and get a ride, but I couldn’t resist casually sauntering over to see where he was hoping to pick up a ride too. He was tall and slender, with a vaguely Mediterranean air about him. black pants and shirt, black wrap-around sunglasses and olive brown skin. Maybe thirty. His white cardboard sign had the words CANCER HELP! spelled out in untidy black electrical tape.

I studied him for a long moment. Did he want money?

I couldn’t resist. “What kind of help are you hoping for” I inquired. He looked confused for a moment. ‘Oh no,’ he said earnestly, ‘I’m not asking for help. I’m offering it.’ ‘What, like meals-on-wheels, or a lift home?’ I asked. “No, much better than that. Do you have cancer?’ he asked hopefully. I nodded cautiously.

“Well I know how to cure you my friend” he said with all the fervor and wide-eyed conviction of a tent-show evangelist. ‘No shit.’ I think. He then launches into his sales pitch. Positive mental attitude. Harnessing spiritual energy. His own special secret diet. Exercise programs. He’s already cured his own bowel cancer, and a dozen other clients. No charge, but for a modest donation he will move in with me and have me cured within two weeks. For a split second actually entertain the notion before the bus pulls up and after politely suggesting he should re-evaluate his business premises and signage, I beat a hasty retreat.

Grifter. Confidence trickster. Psychopath. Serial Killer. Messiah. Or just a genuine cancer survivor out to repay his good fortune.

I’ll never know.

Another fly in the ointment

Where there’s a will

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Lindsey Peter Redding, being of sound mind and body…

Hmmm.

A sound mind? Well that’s debateable, and as far a sound body, well hardly. Right now my body is about as sound as a 1972 Trabant.

Today we made our wills. It wouldn’t have been my first choice of diversion for a sunny December morning but having successfully avoided this oneruos chore for two full decades, I have finally ran out of plausible excuses. Anyway Jo ambushed me immediately after breakfast when I’m still not fully compos mentis and my psychic defenses are at a low ebb.

I can report that this is indeed as little fun as you would imagine.

For a start, it really doesn’t look like a Last Will & Testiment should. There’s no thick yellow velum or aged parchiment. No flamboyant penmanship or decorative gold leaf. No vermillion ribbons, sealing wax or signatures in blood. In fact if I’m honest, It doesn’t even say “I the undersigned, being of sound mind and body.” I made that bit up.
It’s all depressingly prozaic. Three or four pages of word-processed legal guff, rendered onto cheap photocopier paper, with a few user definable options picked out in florescent yellow highlighter for my consideration. Where’s the romance? Where’s the octogenarian Dickensian legal scribe with fluffy white mutton-chops peering over his half-rimmed spectacles expectantly, quill in hand as I lay out my final bequests?

After studying the dense legal prose at length, there appears to be precious few opportunities for fun and creative self expression. The only possible loophole I could identitify being in the section headed Funeral Instructions.

Now as you would expect from a lawyer, the available options are dismally limmiting and predictable, and frankly show a distinct lack of imagination.

  1. Cremation
    B. Burial

Now I’m sure we can do better than that.

Off the top of my head I can think of any number of more exciting, economically sound, and environmentally friendly ways of disposing of a body. My personal favourite (apart from being shot into space like Gene Rodenbury*) is Excarnation or Sky Burial. This funeral rite was widely practiced in late neolithic and early bronze age times, and more recently by certain American Indian tribes, and is apparently still all the rage in parts of  Tibet.  This ancient and modestly priced ritual consists of placing your recently deceased nearest-and-dearest on a raised wooden platform outside in the open for several months while the birds and other scavengers strip every last atom of flesh from the bones, after which they are bleached clean by the sun and rain.

After a respectful period, the glistening white bones are gathered up into a neat pile and stashed in a nook in the family home to be revered and worshipped by future generations. I rather like the sound of that.

Though many may not agree to let the bodies out in the open for the scavengers to have a go at it, I find this method of disposing the body more appealing than letting it burn down to ashes (ouch) or rot away deep in the soil. This is my way of believing in serving even after death.

Now. We have a pretty big garden here on Waiheke. Maybe half an acre. And more birds than you could shake a shiny shin-bone at. There’s plenty of good two-by-fours under the house, left over from building the extension that would make an excellent burial platform. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea. Obviously I will need to run it past the neighbours – it could get a bit smelly depending on the time of year, and it might be a little confusing for the dog. And there might be some potential niggles with the Environmental Health Dept., but in principle it could work. After six months or so, what’s left can be gatherd up and stacked on the shelf in the living room between my Tom Waits CD’s and my back issues of Spaceflight Monthly.

I have resolved to drop a line to Auckland City council at the first opportunity to apply for a Sky Burial Permit.

Now let me go finish that delicious Fitobalt tea and get healthy!

 

Indian-Burial-Platform

 A rather shoddily constructed american Indian sky burial. Obviously mine would be much better built.

*Star Trek creator Gene Roddenburry’s ashes were caries into orbit by Space Shuttle Columbia in 1992. In 1999 more ashes, as well as those of Timothy Leary and 22 others were launched into space aboard an unmanned Celestis spacecraft.

Kicking Against the Pricks

Photo 29-11-11 2 55 52 PM

 

A Double Whopper with Cheese, and a full-fat Coke.

Just a small gesture. A little token resistance. Probably not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But today it just felt good to do something bad.

And believe me, I’ve been really good. I’ve towed the line. I’ve done as I’m told. I’ve swallowed the medicine. Even the really bad medicine. I’ve stuck to the schedule. Followed the diet.

It hasn’t been easy

I hate being told what to do. Always have. I’ve absolutely no idea where it comes from. But ask anyone I’ve ever worked for. Tell me to Zig, and I’ll Zag. Guaranteed. Not in an angry, belligerent or confrontational way, but quietly and in my own time. I like to work things out for myself, and discover my own truths, even if it means reinventing the wheel more than once.Taking things on faith has never been my style.

Ask me to do something without a proper reason backing it up, you will see the wall go up in my eyes. No, it is not a war against authority, it is just me. I like to know why I am doing what. If I am expected to do something a certain way, just because that’s the way it is- you will never see me do it.

The trouble with orthodoxy and prescribed wisdom is it’s all just a bit too easy. That doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. Just a bit… well, unsatisfying. Convenient but unsubstantial. Like fast food.

So back to the burger. Was it a revelation. An epiphany. A religious experience?

Not really no.

But it was pretty damn good. Good in that guilt free, relieving manner. Every bite I take helps me reinforce the small voice in my head that I am in control of my life and not a dietitian or the article on the bad effects of fast food, I read last week.

Yes I know it is not good for my health or my waistline. I remember the fight against obesity and the number of hours I have put in, at the gym, to get into these pants. But, that burger refuses to elude me and my sudden need for junk food.

Two limp, allegedly beef related patties, glistening alluringly with saturated fats and processed cheese the colour of custard, thrust between the flabby white cheeks of a sweaty sesame seed bum. Gherkins, onion, tomato relish and mayo. The token soggy lettuce leaf which I carefully removed. Plenty of time for lettuce, I’m only interested in the truly bad stuff today.

Some may argue that the burger can be good if paired with the right type of vegetables, that make it a wholesome and healthy meal. But ask me? I would say, who are you trying to fool. I am eating this burger, fully knowing how harmful it is for me and how much of a deviation it is from my otherwise healthy strict diet.

Yes it was good. In that cloying, guilty, slightly sordid way that junk food is meant to be. But ultimately, this wasn’t about the burger. It was partly about a little act of willful dissent, but mostly I think, about spending twenty minutes in the convivial company of fifty other unreconstructed hedonists. All happily abusing their digestive systems and clogging their arteries in the safe and certain knowledge that bad things always happen to someone else, and that they will all live to enjoy their ketchup-stained spare tires and pudgy grandchildren in guilt free repose.

Now it’s time to put up your fresh smelling feet sprayed with Fresh Fingers and give out a loud burp!

 

 

Beware The Blood Count

For better or for worse

It’s 1am, and I’ve been lying in the dark composing this in my head. I want to write it down now while it’s still fresh. It could be gone in the morning.

You are sleeping quietly beside me, and the dog is having one of those strange animated dreams at my feet. You look so beautiful, that big brands can use that peaceful face to market their Trucs de Beaute. Today was our wedding anniversary. I was determined to remember for once, but you still had to remind me this morning. Twenty seven years. Shit. Where did all that time go? When did we go and get so old?

And what is it that’s so important that it can’t wait until the morning? And why is my face wet with tears? Well, just this. Thanks for being my best friend for all those years. Thanks for loving me like you do, even when I don’t deserve it. Which is most of the time. Thanks for being the best idea I ever had, and the smartest decision I ever made.

Thanks for giving me the gift of our beautiful, clever and funny daughter. Thanks for making our little house on this little island the home I alway wanted. Thanks for enduring all the empty evenings and lonely weekends while I misguidedly went of in pursuit of things that I thought were more important, even though I now see they were not. Thanks for laughing at my stupid jokes. And not laughing at my stupid dreams.

Most of all thanks for the last three months.

You have been extraordinary. Even by your extraordinary standards. You have been my constant companion through every medical emergency, every consultation, every procedure and examination. You have become a walking almanac of schedules and appointments. An encyclopedia of oncology and hematology. You have fielded the phone calls, completed the forms, dealt with the banks and the insurance companies. You’ve administered my drugs and prepared my meals. Hugged me when I’m anxious, held me when I’m scared.

All I can say Is thank you.

And If you will allow me just one more selfish indulgence, it is this.

I’m glad it happened this way around. Even happy. If the dice had fallen differently, and you were the one who had to get cancer, Let’s face it. I’d be hopeless. Completely lost. The words shit, creek and paddle come to mind. Anyway, you’d be a terrible patient. You’d have to sit still and do as your told. Can’t really see that working.

No, it’s much better this way.

Anyway. Sorry there was no card or flowers. I would have organized something nice but, well, I’m not well you see?

Some people say, it’s the thought that counts. So here is my thought to get you a big box of chocolates, a big bunch of your favorite flowers and a beautiful glass vase to put them in and display on the front table like you love to and yes, a card. Wish I could have given all this to you and see that beautiful smile that never fails to light up my day – every single time.

I love you. Happy anniversary.

 

Testing. One-Two. One-Two.

 

I hesitate to use the term “Bucket List”, but shall we just say that on Sunday I got to tick off one of my lifelong ambitions. No not the one about losing those extra pounds with the help of Eco Slim, but something fun and exhilarating.

I got to play in a band.

I’ve talked elsewhere here about what a huge part music has always played in my life. Since the early seventies, I have bought records, later cassettes, then CD’s, and finally digital downloads (yes I know it’s unfashionable and quaintly old fashioned but I do still like to pay for my music). I got a summer job in a film processing factory when I was 15 and used the money to buy my first hi-fi. Since then I’ve owned radios, turntables, reel-to-reels, 8-tracks, tape-decks, Walkmans, Diskmans, iPods, iPads and most other music related devices devised by man. We have shelves and shelves of neatly organised CD’s, and the ones that don’t fit on the shelves are stacked in boxes in the wardrobe.

Though they may seem to be accumulating dust and adding no monetary value for now, they add immense value to my music collection. These are items I can’t part with as they are a part of me. The pride in owning each of those items, can be felt and experienced only by true music lovers like myself.

But always a consumer. A passive listener. Well OK, not so passive in the late seventies, there was a fair bit of drunken jumping up and down and indiscriminate spitting going on in those raucous days. What I mean is, I was always in the mosh-pit looking up, rather than on the stage looking down, which was where I always really wanted to be.

The urge to make music has never gone away. I’ve owned three or four guitars over the years, and devoted many hours to learning to play them, with faltering, painful progress and ultimately limited success. A couple of years ago I bought a keyboard and have had a little more success with that. The logical and predictable layout of the keys seems to make more sense to my methodical mind.

Any road up. During my last stay in hospital I got a phone call from my great island friend Al. I was to hurry up and get fit because he and a few of our drinking buddies were forming a band, and I was to play keyboards. Strictly weekend-warrior stuff. Mostly covers and spoofs, and lots of beer and laughs. No pressure. No minimum entry qualifications. I was thrilled of course, and a little scared.

So, on Sunday, the official house band of The Legless Arms held its first band practice in our friend Rob’s barn. The venue carefully selected for it’s geographical and sonic isolation, we weren’t going to disturb anybody other than ourselves and a few sheep. The great thing about bands of middle-aged men is that they always have equipment and instruments disproportionate to their talent. Between us, we were able to assemble an impressive array of loud amps, expensive guitars, keyboards, mikes and other stage paraphernalia. About the only thing missing was a laser light-show and a smoke machine.

We don’t have a name yet. This has been the subject of much beer-fueled debate. Front runner at the moment is The Surfdale Palm Court Orchestra, an obvious choice because none of us live in Surfdale, we are not an orchestra, and we don’t play palm-court music. The other contender is The Bad Livers, which I think has a certain ring,  but there is some concern that this might already be taken.

Let me introduce the band. Put your hands together please for… on vocals and rhythm guitar Big Al Knight. On lead guitar (a very nice Gibson SG), is Rob “Rob” Meriddith.  Bruce Davis-Goff on Bass (absent due to surprise mother-in-law visit). On vocals and percussion, a big Waiheke welcome for Helix Daunting (A.K.A. Alex Duncan) and the lovely Vrinda. And finally on keyboards, for the very first time anywhere in the world, please give it up for Linds “Chemo Boy” Redding. SFX:Wild applause.

Incidentally, the band has collectively decided to dispense with the services of a drummer. They tend to smell, drive expensive cars into hotel swimming-pools, and choke on their own vomit.

The plan was, we were all to turn up with one song we wanted to do. I chose “Send Lawyers, Guns & Money” by Warren Zevon. Alan came up with a demented, punk/psycho-Billy version of “Viva Las Vegas” in tribute to Legless Arms totem and role model Hunter S. Thompson, and Rob surprised us with a ska/reggae arrangement of John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane”, which Alex quickly re-wrote on the spot as a moving lament on the perils of over imbibing during international air travel entitled “Heaving on a Jet Plane.” Finally our star vocalist Vrinda, belted out another Alex composition, a heartbreaking twelve-bar blues “Growing Old Ain’t Easy”

 Getting old ain’t easy,
though it comes with perks.
Your couch becomes your best friend,
while your kids turn into jerks.
Your friends and neighbors drift apart,
and so does your mid-section.
You search and search on-line for things
to give your life direction.
I’m getting older…

So how were we? Well absolutely bloody terrible obviously.

Unorganised, uncoordinated, unprepared, and unskilled. But also utterly unrepentant and uplifted. Most of the time we just made an unholy din, but there were a few fleeting moments where, entirely co-incidentally, we all found ourselves playing roughly the same chords and notes more or less at the same time. For just a brief few seconds, we were actually making real music. And it was totally bloody joyous and transcendent.

I can’t wait for next Sunday.

Yesterday I didn’t have cancer

 

 

Today I have cancer

II know that’s not really how it is. But that is how it seems. How long have I been walking around with it without knowing? A few weeks? a year? I have no idea. But what you don’t know can’t hurt you can it? If it wasn’t for a weird set of circumstances and accidents that I won’t go into now, I still wouldn’t know. I’d still be walking around, happy and healthy. Blissfully unaware of a dark little secret hidden deep inside of me.

So now I have cancer. And it’s not a good one. Not that any cancer is good, but frankly I’d have been happier with a melanoma – they’re very popular in New Zealand. Or even a testicle – at least with a ball there’s an element of built in redundancy.

It’s in the esophagus if you want to know. My esophagus to be specific.For those who weren’t paying attention in biology class, that’s the pipe that connects your throat to your stomach. I discovered all this yesterday, having been summoned to the hospital to see a gastroenterologist called Mark at 10am. The pa who rang me seemed very concerned that I should bring my partner with me. I knew that wasn’t good.

Like most people with a vigorous imagination, I had already played this scenario in my head many times over the years. You know. The “Give it to me straight Doc. How long have i got?” scene. Except in my mind’s eye – as in the movies – it all happens in an oak lined consulting room, with bookcases and leather and gilt framed certificates on the wall.

The reality of course was nothing like that. My personal big scene played out in a nondescript grey room off a green linoleum corridor somewhere in the bowels of the rear end Auckland Hospital – where else would you put the Gastro Unit?

Dr. Lane looked the part however. Spectacles and a reassuring grey beard, and short sleeved green surgical scrubs. All business. And he’s a professor. It said so on his card. After the brief exchange of pleasantries and introductions, Professor Lane said “You’ve got cancer of the esophagus Lindsey.” Blimey” I thought. “Don’t beat about the bush!” I didn’t even get the chance to say “Give it to me straight Doc.”

Little did I know that the scene I played out in my head will not surface and I would be stumped for words. That is how the news hit me. Straight, without mercy. In reality I felt like I was a silent bystander, watching the news being given to someone else. I was physically there but was in a whole different world, mentally.

The Proff. then went on so say that that was probably the only thing I would remember from that meeting, and he was largely right. Jo scribbles copious notes as he talked, and showed us some pictures of my cancer – which to my untrained eye just looked like any other picture of random pink insides. He then drew a crude diagram on his notepad in blue biro. a vertical tube leading down to a kidney shaped blob. “That’s your stomach” he said stabbing it with the biro. Then using the pen as a scalpel he made two expert incisions with a well practiced flick of the wrist, one at the top of the tube, the other beneath the stomach. It’s called a Barnes-Catmur operation he said knowingly over his spectacles. I eyed a wooden outline of a torso on the wall behind the Prof.attached to it was a pink and blue plastic model of the human digestive system from mouth to anus. The big pink stomach was right in the middle, nestling on top of an untidy bundle of intestines.

My biology lessons all came flooding back. I think I might have said “Fuck me.”

Gone is my dilemma about using Eco Slim and other such innovations to lose those few extra pounds.

Today I have cancer.