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.

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.

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.

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Goin’ Down Slow

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…

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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.

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.

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

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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 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.

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.

20120413-150245.jpgStage 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

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

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The Etiquette of Cancer

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“How are you?’

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 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.”

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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. 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.

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.

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Heroes: No#1. Charles Babbage

No.1 of an Occasional Series

Anyone with even a scrap of imagination or ambition has heroes. Individuals who’s lives and deeds have influenced, informed or inspired our own. The nature and calling of our heroes has changed over the years – a century ago, they were military figures and explorers, Nelson, Clive of India, Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott. To my father’s generation in the post-war and cold-war years, conflict had lost it’s luster, and military men became a necessary evil rather than something to be celebrated. There were however still frontiers to breach, mountains unconquered, and oceans uncrossed. My dad’s heroes, and therefore mine, were Edmund Hillary. Thor Heyerdahl. Sir Francis Chichester, Jacques Piccard and Chuck Yeager. In the sixties and seventies, a new breed of hero emerged. British working class kids, myself included, decorated our bedroom walls with new sporting icons. Bobby Charlton, Graham Hill (who I think my dad secretly modeled himself on), George Best, Barry Sheene. We thrilled to their exploits. Copied their clothes and adopted their haircuts. (Well not Bobby Charlton’s obviously.) Then of course, we discovered pop music and everything changed again. Down came the football posters and the racing cars and up went T Rex, Slade and umm Garry Glitter – ok, with the benefit of hindsight not the best choice of role model for a young man, either ethically or sartorially, but you have to admit the shoes were good. A few years on I traded my platform boots for denim and cheesecloth and the glam-rock bling was superseded by the more cerebral iconography of Roger Dean, and the album cover art of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Sadly I no longer have posters on my bedroom wall. But I still have heroes. Some of my childhood favorites are still there of course, added to which are an eclectic group of Individuals (with a capital ‘I’) that I have adopted as my cultural, intellectual and spiritual touch-stones along the way. Here, in no particular order, are a few of them.

Charles Babbage

INVENTOR 1791-1871

Twenty five years ago, I became enamored of the emerging new technology of personal computers. I owned one as soon as I could possibly afford to, and read numerous books on the early history of computing. I was surprised to learn, that the concept of a programmable, multipurpose computing machine had been around for much longer than most of us imagined.

The name Charles Babbage cropped up time and time again, and I became fascinated by this extraordinary English gentleman and his Victorian computing machines. I spent a couple of years researching his life, and even started writing a book about him. Needless to say, like most of my personal projects, I ran out of steam and it was never finished.

Babbage was hopeless at finishing things too. In fact, like several of my personal heroes, he was a deeply flawed man. Detached. Aloof. Obsessive. Intolerant. Irascible. The archetypal grumpy old bastard and proto-geek.

If not actually barking mad, he was certainly wildly eccentric. Amongst the various clubs and clandestine institutions he either formed or frequented as an undergraduate at Cambridge were The Ghost Club, dedicated to the pursuit of supernatural phenomena, and my personal favorite The Extraction Club, where initiates took a vow, and made elaborate plans to spring any of their membership from the mad house, should any of them ever be committed for insanity.

At one point his clearly intense, if unruly intellect settles briefly upon the problem of broken factory windows. He actually published a paper in 1857 entitled “A Table of the Relative Frequency of the Causes of Breakage of Plate Glass Windows”. In this groundbreaking, or should that be glass-breaking document, Babbage noted that of 464 broken panes, 14 were caused by “drunken men, women or boys”. Charles didn’t care for children much. In 1865, he embarked upon a public crusade to have the popular childhood pastime of hoop-rolling banned from the streets as he considered it rowdy and dangerous. He also has a thing about organ-grinders and street musicians, who he also unsuccessfully tried to have banished.

These minor diversions and distractions aside, Babbage dedicated most of his long life and personal wealth to his calculating engines. Although his solution was devilishly complex, his idea was simplicity itself. In Victorian times, indeed right up until the invention of the electronic calculator, mathematicians, engineers, bankers, soldiers, sailors and tradesman referred to books of mathematical tables to perform everyday calculations. There were tables for everything from logarithms to interest rates, maritime navigation to ballistic shell trajectories. These tomes were calculated and compiled by hundreds of largely unskilled clerks called ‘computers’. Then an equally unreliable and accident prone cadre of printers would reproduce the calculations in published form. The resulting tables were littered with mistakes and erroneous values that could result in anything from minor inconvenience to considerable fiscal losses or even loss of life.

Babbage set out to design and build a machine that would calculate and even print these essential tables completely automatically and without human intervention. Using the technology of his day, brass gears and cranks, levers and cams, he designed an elegant and beautiful device The Difference Engine. Funded by the admiralty, Babbage engages skilled engineers and machinists to manufacture components to his intricate design.

Babbage’s greatest flaw, and ultimately his undoing, was his relentless perfectionism. Frustrated by his workman’s inability to machine parts to the exacting tolerances that his specifications demanded, he continually refined his designs and manufacturing processes. He would spend months and years perfecting a mechanism, only to later abandon it in favor of a new improved design. Eventually his backers tired of the constant delays and cut his funding. He continued to work on The Difference Engine for the rest of his life, and although a fully working engine was never completed in his lifetime, Babbage left hundreds of detailed and beautiful engineering drawings, manuscripts, countless notebooks and several working fragments and demonstration pieces of his creation.

Between 1989 and 1991 the London Science Museum undertook a full size working reconstruction of the Babbage Difference Engine No.2. using the original working drawings, and employing only period correct fabrication techniques and materials. 150 years after its design, and on the bicentenary of Babbage’s birth, The Difference Engine was finally realised. It comprises over 8,000 parts, weighs five tonnes, and is eleven feet long. When it was (literally) cranked up for the first time it performed flawlessly, calculating values to an accuracy 31 digits, far more than most modern pocket calculators. Babbage’s design was vindicated. It’s a fascinating thought experiment to speculate how different things may have been had he succeeded to construct a working, steam powered computer in the mid nineteenth century. Would the information technology revolution have happened a hundred years earlier than it did? What would the world be like now?

I made a pilgrimage to London from Edinburgh to see The Difference Engine the week it was unveiled. It was so beautiful, so precise, so perfect, I was moved to tears.

Charles Babbage was definitely my kind of guy.

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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. 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.

And thast really would be TERRIBLE.

 

 

 

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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.

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.

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)

 

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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’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.

X
Did I mention bloody cricket?

 

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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

How are you feeling today?

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.

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.

 

 

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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

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?

 

***

 

And speaking of messiahs…

 

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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.

I’ve been sitting here 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.

 

 

 

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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.

Merry Christmas everyone.

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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. 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.

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.

 

 

 

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Another fly in the ointment

I’m grumpy today. And frustrated.

Right now I should be sitting in my favorite big green viynal lay’z’boy in the corner of the oncology day-stay center being pumped full of vicious, cancer killing chemicals.

Instead I’m cooling my heals here at home on a humid, windy, overcast Wednesday afternoon. I’ve been bumped for another week. Or ‘deferred’ as it says on my chart. Bad blood again. Those pesky white cells and neutrofills are once again conspicuous by their absence, my iron is at an all time low and all in all – and in spite of feeling tickety-boo (technical medical term) – I’m apparently not fit for the rigours of chemo today, or in fact for another week at least.

The first time this happened, I was happy to accept the unexpected gift of a week off from the strict drug regime, which tends to rather monopolise day-to-day life on chemo. Eat what I like, when I like. Sleep in if I feel like it. It’s not all bad.

But this time, I just feel like time’s a waistin’. I don’t want to be sitting around contemplating my navel – which incidentally, I can now see without the aid of a mirror. I want to be killing and maiming cancer cells. I’m on a crusade here.

To add to my apprehensive mood, Monday is a very big day. I’m to have a CT scan to establish just what my cancer has been up to this past few months. It’s one of the things I was keen to discuss with my oncologist Mike at my assessment meeting at the hospital yesterday. The way I see it there are only three possible outcomes, I suggest, ticking them off on my fingers.

1. The cancer has grown and spread. 2. It’s unchanged. 3. It’s getting smaller.  4. The cancer is gone. It’s a bona-fide miracle, and I have to become a Catholic.

‘That’s exactly right’ Mike nods. ‘What you have to do is mentally prepare yourself for each of those possibilities.’

‘When will I know’ I ask.

‘We’re getting you in for an Iron transfusion on Tuesday, if the scan results are through by then, I’ll come and find you to talk you through them. It’s not the sort of thing I like to do over the phone, and we don’t want to leave you hanging over the christmas holidays’ . Bloody right you don’t. It’s slowly dawning on me that this is to be a watershed moment in my journey.

I ask what impact the scan results will have on my treatment.

‘Well if the tumours are static, or smaller, we carry on as planned. If the news is bad, and the cancer has spread we will probably stop the chemotherapy and consider other treatment options.’ I feel suddenly cold. This is not something that had occurred to me. That they would just throw in the towel. Give up on me.

‘And what are those treatment options?’ I ask slowly. Mike casts his eyes around the room, like he’s looking for something. Well, they are limited’ he concedes after a pause.

‘He’s grasping at straws here.’ I’m thinking, but not really listening. There is some talk of experimental drug trials. Unfunded therapies. Blah Blah. Private sector research ‘of limited benefit to some patients’. Blah. Blah.

I’m desperately looking for some reassurance now, and Mike picks up on this. ‘There’s always a possibility that the news could be bad,’ he says, ‘but with you looking as well as you do, I’d be surprised.’ ‘Only if my luck changes’ I think to myself. That’s clearly the best he can do, and I’m grateful for the positive spin. I like Mike.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had the other day with a friend on the island, an ex nurse. I was complaining about never seeing the same doctor twice on my regular visits to the Oncology Unit. That’s probably not by accident, she told me. They rotate the patients around the oncology team by design to avoid forming doctor-patient relationships and dependencies. A high proportion of you cancer patients aren’t going to make it. It doesn’t pay to get too attached…

 

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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 oly 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.

A. 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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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