My latest foray into the wide world of published stuff...
Ever since I was a shorts-wearing, blotchy-skinned, knock-ankled (most people had knock knees; I did things differently and had the special shoes to prove it) freckled child, I have been a car nerd. I only stopped (or put the brakes on…see what I – never mind…) being a car nerd when I left the country of my birth in 2002 and arrived in the land of enormous engines (‘motors’) and roads without many corners or bends to disrupt their flow across the continent. The time once existed when I could identify a model of a car by the smallest piece of evidence (which occasionally came in useful during my former career), a knack which fed into my love of all things automotive.
Such truths only make it more strange that, once unleashed upon the world with a salary and pockets for it to burn holes into, I embarked upon satiating an apparent compulsion to purchase a succession of what we in England used to refer to as ‘sheds’. Sheds as in not very useful as cars, and frequently static. Sheds as in ugly, strange-smelling places. Sheds as in – on one troubling occasion – populated mostly by spiders and mice.
What I was doing, of course, was approaching the art of car buying from the wrong angle: desire. The first car I bought lasted less than two hours in my possession, and was returned to the dealership before it – and my horrified father - spontaneously combusted. But it looked good…I fell in love with my first permanent car because it too looked gorgeous, albeit in a 1970s way (so: not gorgeous at all). It took only two days to firstly break down and then - on the same day - run itself into a concrete bollard (a long story which I don’t have the space to include here; best buy my book then…). ’Twas an omen, my friends.
There then followed many years of appalling vehicular choices (punctuated by one glorious interlude which I naturally had to ruin by selling the darned thing for a stupid reason) and the disappearance of an alarming amount of money while I pursued my four-wheeled and two-wheeled urges. Rarely did I make a reasoned, sensible choice and even when I did, things tended to figuratively - and often literally - fall apart.
Middle age brought with it one last mighty spasm of automotive torture (an Audi) before things finally settled down a few years ago. Finally, I said to myself, I’ve served my time. I’ve at last arrived at a place where I have a car I enjoy and can have faith in. Like a fool, however, I’d reckoned without the cruel humour of the automotive gods. Like a blinkered idiot, I’d overlooked the demise of fossil fuels and its associated technology. The result is that after all this time and all those struggles with bruised knuckles, oily rags and wet driveways, I find myself staring down the barrel of the truth. Gasoline is dead. My beloved car – my all-time favourite – is obsolete.
As we used to say in England at such moments: bugger.
I’m a dinosaur, I know. I carry no huge bony plates upon my back, my neck isn’t twelve feet long, and my arms are neither too short nor puny for me to be able to pick my nose, but I am from another time.
My life could, however, be split into different epochs, much like the Jurassic, Devonian or Cambrian (and if they’re in the wrong chronological order, I shall huffily claim that such was my original intent).
In my case, first came the racist epoch. I was raised in a very white household in a very white part of England. I can still remember the first time I saw a black person in my home town, because as a child of eight, I stopped and stared. My parents (and therefore the rest of us) regularly used racial slurs in conversation, told one another racist jokes and laughed at overtly racist comedy on TV (there was a lot of it on TV in England in the 60s and 70s). And then, one day, I met a person of colour. Finished.
Then there was the homophobic epoch, which also began in childhood (once again in the parental home) and was nurtured in the poisonous atmosphere of single-sex education. It persisted into my late 20s, when the universe gave me a good shake to show me some sense. That shake came in the form of two gay neighbours (whom I had immediately regarded with a mix of suspicion and dismissive contempt), who, to my surprise, turned out to be two of the kindest and warm-hearted people I had ever met. Prejudice finished.
The sexism epoch arose from fear. Having been utterly comfortable in the company of girls as an elementary school kid (apart from that time, aged seven, when Mandy Thompson told everyone who could hear that she would be sick on me if I kissed her), during my adolescent years and that single-sex schooling, things changed. I became terrified of girls, and the potential for rejection by them. As I grew older, I avoided contact with females (especially the ones I found attractive), and regarded them as unreachable and beyond understanding. When I fell in love for the first time, those blinkers began to shrink away from my eyes. Prejudice finished.
Now, in my mid-fifties, I face another opportunity to learn. I speak of my mild confusion – if that’s the right word – around current attitudes towards gender; I’ve always been slow off the mark. The issue isn’t my understanding that gender is a far more fluid and dynamic concept than I was ever taught; I have learned that my map of the world was not the world. The difficulty I experience – and I get it that many, many people are way ahead of me on this – is that my instincts are still programmed for a two-gender world.
I see someone dressed in traditionally male garb, and my instincts say: “That’s a man.” Likewise for someone wearing what I identify as traditionally female clothing: “That’s a woman.” It has nothing to do with my respect for a person’s gender identity, and everything to do with fifty-plus years of social conditioning. I’m not sure that this can be judged; it simply is. My instinctive responses - which happen before thought - are beyond my control, although with time, and my immersion in a new, more inclusive society, I’m optimistic that things – like my racism, sexism and homophobia – will change. But from time to time, as I make progress with this, I know I’m going to screw up.
My hope is that my relatively minor difficulty will not be misinterpreted as some kind of ‘anti’ prejudice. This is still a new concept for me. It’s a new thing for my reptile brain (I told you I’m a dinosaur) to learn about and – here’s the crux of it: to become accustomed to.
Most changes in my life have dawned upon me retrospectively – that is; the realisation that I have changed tends to come into my awareness some time after it takes place. This helps me be optimistic about adapting to change now and in the future, and I’m resigned to living the idea of: ‘I’ll know it’s real when it’s been happening for some time without me noticing.’. I’m sure that my old ideas about gender will evolve to meet the reality of our world; they have to. While I’m waiting for the process to complete, I need to be aware of the possibility of unintentionally offending some people through my momentary lapses of awareness.
I’m considering wearing a badge…
While I write the blog for the enjoyment of it, I'm also trying to become a professional writer who can support himself through such work. I know, I know - sad isn't it? Pathetic, even. But that's the truth of it, and short of kidnapping you and forcing you to log into Amazon and buy a copy of my book (there's another one almost ready to publish)...although, I haven't actually tried that yet...hmmmm, hold that thought...
...where was I? Oh yes; here are the links through which you can purchase the 500+ page book for only a few dollars/pounds. I think that's bloody good value, but I'm biased, so what do I know? Go on, treat yourself for Christmas...
Ignore the hardback version. The paperback represents reasonable value, but the e-book is a stonking bargain if you ask me. Beware, there is a photo of me on several of these links.
“How are you?”
In a typical situation, it’s the most casual of questions, the response almost irrelevant and hardly ever heard. I know that I’m guilty of it; I’ll ask the question and already be moving along to the next sentence before the reply reaches me. Frequently, the response is the same question coming straight back at me. Lately, I’ve been slipping back into the glib, largely meaningless reply – perhaps not too surprising, since I’ve done it almost my entire life. Nevertheless, every time I throw out my trusty “Fine thanks, how’re you doin’?”, a little part of me pulls the same face I reserve for bad smells. I disappoint myself each time.
Today, for example, someone greeted me with the question, and I replied with the reply. Even as I said it, I regretted it. Firstly, it was a lie, and secondly it dawned on me almost immediately that the question was genuine. I was forced to do that most un-English of things, and actually share something of my genuine feelings in person. Generations of emotionally stunted ancestors spun like dynamos in their graves as I braced myself and shared the fact that at that particular time, I really wasn’t feeling too good.
My reward was a brightening of my day. A brief, interrupted conversation it may only have been, but I discovered that this person – an acquaintance but still a relative stranger – actually cared about my reply. I felt a little ashamed about almost brushing off the enquiry with such little regard, but much more than that; I felt warmed and gladdened by the honest concern for my well-being. It made me feel better.
It made me reflective, too. I realized with a small shock, that I very rarely answer that particular question honestly. Not – bizarrely - even to my doctor! I don’t, however, think that this is something unique to this middle-aged Englishman (yes, I’m Canadian but culturally, I’m still English). I’ve been in this beautiful land for many years now, and in my experience, most of us (if not all of us) tend to behave in a similar way. Greetings are words that we habitually throw at one another like snowballs; ephemeral, almost meaningless and rapidly forgotten. Anything more communicative can be confusing, but perseverance can open up another world – and not necessarily as alarming as an immigrant Englishman may find it - of meaningful, emotional living.
It reminds me that communication is as much about listening as it is about what we say. If we truly listen, we may discover previously unknown facets of our surroundings. My discovery was that a person I know only a little genuinely cares about me. I find that rather moving, and it has the welcome side-effect of snapping me out of my habitual grumpiness. Perhaps (cue: sarcastic gasp of surprise) the world is less uncooperative or unpleasant than I sometimes assume!
I’m going to have to do some more listening to find out what other revelations may be waiting for me…
I don’t plan on having a headstone. I’ve never visited my grandparents’ graves – in fact, I don’t even know where they are. I have seen – in photographs - but never visited the site of my father’s ashes interment. The reason? I don’t see the point. I know that my father or other deceased relatives are not in the ground to be aware of me standing there talking to them. My grandparents never met me (having all, with spectacularly poor timing, died before I arrived in the world), so they wouldn’t recognise me anyway. My personal beliefs are such that I find no comfort standing at a graveside. If I did so, I don’t believe that they could know I was there or hear whatever I had to say and neither can I imagine their voices speaking to me.
This leaves me with scant reason for having my surviving loved ones go to the trouble and expense of finding and purchasing a headstone. I find them universally dark, unfriendly things anyway. The only exception I’m aware of is from Spike Milligan, who went to a lot of trouble to have “I told you I was ill’ inscribed for all the world to see. I love that, but if I’m honest, I think it’s impossible to equal.
So, what to do? Well; nothing. And that’s partly the point.
However, if I was to indulge myself and put money aside for a chunk of bedrock with some words upon it to commemorate my existence, I may just choose to go the curmudgeonly route (I was going to say “…and be damned.”, but I don’t believe in that either). If I could get them past the censors overseeing the Garden of Remembrance for Deceased Curmudgeons, I might try for one or more of the following:
“A car has BRAKES, not BREAKS”
“The $ sign goes BEFORE the numbers…”
“There, Their, They’re. Where, Were, We’re. Your, You’re.”
“Learn about apostrophes.”
“A Lot, NOT A lot.”
“For Ever can be two words.”
In the interests of practicality, I’d need a whole new (wasteful) stone upon which to address my pet driving peeves, and a whole tomb (if not a chapel) to begin dealing with issues deriving from politics.
Three years ago, I visited Westminster Abbey in London, and there I came across the tomb markers for such giants as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Alexander Pope and Charles Darwin. To stand in the presence of such markers was a surprisingly moving and even exciting experience. However, I’m not famous, and I never shall be. The people who remember me will have known me, liked me and loved me (or not, I suppose). I doubt that they will need a physical reminder of my existence. I hope instead to leave behind many happy memories, no regrets and a few books (one down, how many left to go?) to mark my life.
I hope to be remembered, and I hope those memories shall allow those who know me to smile and reflect upon a life well-lived. Just don’t expect a headstone; it might spoil things.
I can remember a time before TV remote controls; a time before VCRs (never mind any other recording device, the acronyms for which I shall not attempt to remember here) or DVD – I got that one right - and Blu-Ray players. It was a time when TV sets occupied large wooden boxes which were large enough to take up an entire corner of the living room, when switching a TV on meant turning a knob, then sauntering back to the settee, completing a jigsaw puzzle and reading a short novel before the valves had warmed up enough for a picture to be visible on the screen. It was a simple time, and – in the UK at least – it was awful.
We had three channels when I was a kid. To make matters worse, we were only allowed to watch either BBC1 or BBC2 when my father was in the house. He regarded the third channel – ITV – with the kind of suspicion Donald Trump might reserve for a lawyer with a microphone in their button hole. TV programming – don’t let the oldies fool you, kids – was best characterized as terrible, with occasional outbreaks of entertainment. As children, we sat before the glowing box with a kind of stoic belligerence, daring the set to brighten our evenings, often in vain.
Remote control devices were quite large compared to our modern versions; they were warm, fleshy, clothes-wearing and were referred to by the names of the youngest people in the household. They were typically voice-activated (clever, huh?) and responded to commands such as “Leo, put it on BBC2.” Or “Turn the sound up so your dad can hear the football results.”, but apart from a brief delay brought on by adolescent truculence or inertia, they tended to be rather reliable.
Not so in my experience these days. I have a troubled relationship with most things electrical – in fact I seem to live by one of the lesser-known laws of physics; that which states that the reduction of moving parts in a device is inversely proportional to its reliability. I can’t, for example, keep track of the number of remote controls I have owned for the TV, DVD, Blu-Ray, PVR (I just dragged that one out of my memory) or the cable box. I may be cursed, but it’s a mightily specific hex.
Recently, however, the solid state gods have been smiling upon me. My current TV remote (let’s call him Reg) is a marvel. In fact, he seems to go from strength to strength no matter what I do. Held together with short strips of electrical tape, Reg has the structural integrity (and feel) of a bag of potato chips, but he refuses to stop working. Many pieces of Reg have been swept up and discarded following unintentional interfaces with the floor, but he keeps on keeping on. I cannot break him. Reg transcends the curse!
It rather makes me wish that I was still the household TV remote control unit…
Ten things which, thanks to the internet, I have discovered I don't care about today:
1. Johnny Depp opening up about playing Grindewald.
2. The source of the rift between Kanye and...well, anybody...He's obviously not very well, let's not stare at him while he struggles with his state of mind.
3. Celebrities who didn't show up to the recent royal wedding. They sound like sensible people already.
4. Any news connected with baseball, hockey or football (of any kind).
5. Melania Trump talking. About anything. She is irrelevant.
6. How the cast of 'The Big Bang Theory' looks in real life. I'm going to stick my neck out and guess that they merely wear different clothes and have slightly altered hair.
7. Stephen Harper (Canada's former prime minister in case you've never heard of him - you didn't miss much) talking about how great he was/is/was/is...was...
8. Duchess of somewhere narrowly avoiding a wardrobe malfunction. Obviously, nothing happened, and even if it had...
9. 50 foods I should never eat. Next year they will be 'must-eat' foods.
10. Anything to do with Meghan, Duchess of Harry.
Patriotism is a strange subject for this immigrant to think about. The matter used to be very black and white for me; Rule Britannia, God Save the Queen and serving my community with no little pride as a first responder under an oath of allegiance to the monarch. Leaving the land of my birth and upbringing was a series of steps away from that way of thinking; steps which began with witnessing at first hand the amount of effort and public money spent every time a member of the royal family (or for that matter, a high-ranking politician) set foot in ‘the provinces’. As a member of the escort team, I saw extraordinarily privileged and/or rich people being presented with trunk-loads of gifts simply for turning up at a venue. Inevitably, my feelings about my country slowly began to change.
My former home was tired, and much of that society either didn’t work at all, or was showing its age. Moving to a new country became an exciting adventure rather than – as it sometimes felt - some kind of betrayal of old values, and bringing my young children to a place where they could be more free (and by extension, happier) turned into an aspirational goal. We would become Canadians.
Surprisingly, despite having prepared myself for it, leaving Britain was still a wrench. Mostly, I felt sad at leaving behind my oldest friends, but I also left behind everything that was familiar - everything that was comfortable - and that too was hard. Any sense of disquiet was overcome by the excitement of arriving in a new country that we would call home, and Canada rapidly became our favourite place on earth.
Many years later, we are all, indeed, Canadians – we have pieces of paper to prove it. Am I, though, patriotic about this enormous place? If I’m honest, not in the same way that I used to be about my hereditary birthplace - but then, my ideas about patriotism - along with my ideas about my country of birth - have evolved. Blind patriotism is the sibling of nationalism, and neither is a force for good (witness the worst excesses of the redneck American flag-wavers/wearers). There is much about Canada to be proud of, but as for every country, things which we prefer to pretend never happened. Sometimes we are successful in keeping them quiet, although dark secrets, I find, only tend to fester. The appalling scandal of the Residential Schools system will linger – quite rightly - for generations to come.
I am proud of much that Canada stands for on the world stage today (the recent disagreement with the evil regime in Saudi Arabia and refusing to back down in Trump-initiated trade negotiations being examples), and I am pleased and proud to identify as a Canadian, despite my English accent. I feel protective of Canada, of BC and of our little island in a calm, shimmering sea. But, I know the lady (Canada) has flaws.
If anyone (including old friends) claims these days that their country is better, I’m liable to make a farting sound with my lips and tongue (quicker and easier than pesky words, I find), but I’m mindful of the mistakes – some of them terrible, even horrifying – that were made in our history, both ancient and modern. We are not alone. Name me a country without a troubled past, and I’ll give you five with blood on the walls. Canada is no exception to the latter. It’s an ugly side of human nature which we seem unable to escape; the strong will, inevitably, overwhelm the less strong or the peaceful. Cultures will be ridden over and erased, replaced with whatever the strong wish to impose. We are a violent species.
Conquest is a nasty, horrific, messy business. Boasting about it (cue: the imperialism live and well in English ‘Gentleman’s Clubs’ or that redneck flag-waving habit of our neighbours) is simply shitty and un-evolved.
Glorifying patriotism as a virtue is a kind of madness I wish we could overwhelm and utterly eradicate. In fact, while we’re at it, why not simply recognize patriotism as the root of so much evil, which it clearly has been and continues to be?
All too soon, the nation’s thoughts will turn to yet another general election (cue sardonic and feeble “Hooraaay”) and of course the economy will take centre stage. In my fevered imagination, however, ‘economy’ triggers thoughts of other things…flying, for example.
Staying on our tiny island is a great option at any time, especially when travel further afield (for example to the land of my birth) has become less and less edifying. Flying ‘economy’ class has come to mean many unpleasant, teeth-grinding things:
It means a seat not designed for anyone larger than half my size.
It means a TV screen that is at exactly the right distance from my eyes to make focusing upon it impossible.
It means the previous occupant of my seat having locked the in-flight entertainment system in Icelandic.
It means being entirely unable to use the system (in any language) when the person(or: twat) in front of me reclines their seat until their hair is in my face.
It means having the back of my seat repeatedly jerked backwards by the weak-bladdered passenger (or: fucker)behind me.
It means having a fold down 'table' cunningly designed to be the perfect size to accommodate nothing of any use.
It means trying to force useful things (sandwich, chocolate bar, water bottle) into a seat pocket obviously designed to hold only a single moist towelette.
It means being offered 'food' which uses that word in an entirely new way.
‘Economy’ means sitting underneath an overhead locker which contains a bag belonging to the world's most restless man (or: dickhead) sitting six rows behind me.
It means having a close-up view of his trouser crotch area on each of the many occasions he visits the locker to look for that important doohickey. He’s always disappointed.
Flying ‘economy’ means having my shoulder knocked an average of 37 times each flight, either by robust flight attendants or more robust passengers who seemingly need to visit the bathroom every 13 minutes.
It means that I share a tiny bathroom with at least forty people (or: arseholes), one of whom manages to beat me to the toilet every time and leave unpleasant evidence of their visit on the seat, in the toilet bowl and – bewilderingly - paper towels spread around like confetti – oh; I nearly forgot the liquid soap on every surface above hip level.
It means that, with an impatient passenger (arsehole) hopping about outside the door, I am forced to clean up someone else's mess to avoid the accusing, blaming eyes of my fellow passenger (arsehole) after they’ve kindly dislocated my shoulder on the way back to their seat. The bastard.
Finally, flying economy means the unnerving knowledge that the flight attendants hate me. No matter how bright their smiles, how fluttery their eyelashes, I can see the contempt in their eyes as they welcome me and my protruding shoulders on board, offer me a complimentary drink or slide a tray of unrecognizable ‘nutrients’ onto my postage-stamp sized tray table. I never dare to think about pressing the call button…
Apart from these issues, I quite enjoy flying…
It's funny how things can suddenly take over your thoughts, isn't it? Well, maybe not yours, but certainly mine. A ten minute 'surf' of inconsequential stuff today jumped up, slapped me about the face, tweaked my nose, made me feel quite odd for a few seconds and then settled down again.
In the course of my meanderings I had, you see, come across an article about the 1980s and the ever-present threat that the cold war posed to global well-being. I was still a child (but only just) as the eighties began, and while it was certainly an interesting decade in many respects (the dawn of colourful clothing in Britain!), the continuing threat of very silly people pressing buttons and bringing death down upon us remained very real.
I first became aware of the threat of nuclear conflict/obliteration in the early to mid seventies, mostly through the things that occasionally popped up on TV and snippets of discussions overheard in the family. Phrases such as 'the four minute warning' and being ready to climb under our desks became part of our lives in those days. Occasionally, old World War II air raid sirens, still in use for much the same purpose, would be tested, and send a chill of fear through us all for several minutes. I grew up on a small peninsula within sight of the once bustling but still important port of Liverpool, a few more miles from one of the country's largest oil refineries, and forty five minutes from two airports. It was reasonable to assume that if some grey-suited idiot thousands of miles away chose to kill us all, our part of the world would be among the priority targets for the enemy (whoever that really was).
It's hard to convey how that felt - as a child, in particular. It was certainly unlike anything my parents faced as the high explosive and incendiary bombs fell around and upon their homes during the Second World War - we didn't have that shocking reality of immediate death and destruction to deal with. My generation only grew up wondering...wondering if the leaders of the world were really that stupid, and if one day a mushroom cloud over Liverpool would herald the end of everything. We never had to face the horrors of ‘total’ war on our own doorstep as my parents had done, we didn't have to witness the real barbarism of humans willfully murdering others. What we dealt with was not knowing, and in my case, not trusting stuffy old men (and one very strong-willed woman in particular) in suits, who said silly things and rattled sabres with gusto while knowing full well that their families would be safe in bunkers if all hell broke loose.
Famously, we in the general population had been fed the line that told us all to - in the event of the alarms going off - rip off an interior door, lie it against an interior, load-bearing wall of the house, provision it for up to two weeks of survival and then climb underneath. Writing it now has me chuckling at the ludicrous prospect of anyone trying to do that. A family, plus provisions for two weeks under one door - and by the way, that was to be accomplished within four minutes. I don't how many people bought that nonsense (I know that I did at the age of eight or nine, at least for a while, until I began to think critically) but it was all that the government of the day offered for advice. As a young police officer I was entrusted with certain information about local civil defence, public order provisions and survival infrastructure. Without breaching any security protocols, I can reveal that what was envisioned and planned for the population was not exactly encouraging.
My memories of the 70s and 80s, filled with the stuff of childhood and adolescence as they are, remain tinged with the shadow of real fear that loomed over me even as I used to walk my old dog along Hoylake beach, stare apprehensively at the distant waterfront of Liverpool and wonder if that day would be THE day when the world went mad; if that was the day when I might blink and open my eyes upon a towering mushroom cloud.
It may seem strange to say it, but I’m glad that I have these memories. Dark though they may be, I wouldn’t wish them away, for they give me a perspective about where I now find myself. I’m an ocean and a continent away from my old home town, and half a lifetime away from those days of fear and foreboding. I live among beauty, and peace. My horizons today are filled with mountains, and hope. Even allowing for the nonsense of modern politics, we have come through those days with an intention never to return. We have produced a generation which may learn from our mistakes without repeating them (and boy, did we – and do we still - make some mistakes). I have faith in an educated society which may learn from the past, from our growth in knowledge and which may fulfill the hopes of its under-achieving parents (i.e. myself and anyone else willing to accept responsibility).
The future looks much brighter to me than the past (even though we really did have some very colourful clothing in the 80s), and sometimes it’s nice to have that contrast to help me appreciate my good fortune.
The world returned in a jumble of noise; my name being shouted, some words, and a confused image of a vaguely familiar face. It was chaotic, alarming and disturbing for a second or maybe more, but much later, I remembered recognizing and acknowledging the face and saying ‘OK’. I think. The world blinked out again.
My eyes opened – properly this time – onto a new room (or the same room from a different angle). Two people were at my bedside, calling me. With an effort I looked at each of them. Things were in contact with my head and my face, and breathing was difficult. Time had passed without me.
For the second time in my life, I’d been anaesthetized for an extended period, and it had passed in the blink of an eye. I didn’t remember blackness. I hadn’t dreamt; there had simply been suddenly nothing, and then suddenly wakefulness. It was a new sensation, and while I would much rather have been unconscious while the surgeons did their thing, I initially found it unaccountably disturbing.
The waking-up part was (the second time around) uncomfortable and surprisingly difficult, but my sense of disquiet emanates more from my first and significantly more protracted surgery. The problem is that it has left me with large blocks of missing memory, both from immediately before I went into the operating theatre, and from the two or three hours afterwards. I have only one memory from waking up that first time, and that is – thankfully – of seeing my wife and daughter at my side, and speaking briefly to them. Everything else is simply absent.
Absence; my point (finally).
Falling asleep is familiar to all of us – most of us do it at least once each day, without any terror of not being conscious and in full and immediate control of our destiny. We have to do it; without it we eventually die, and in a rather unpleasant way, too. Falling asleep is natural, and often we approach the onset of losing consciousness with enthusiasm. We dream, some remember our dreams (I do, but only for a very short time) and some don’t. I often have at least some kind of sense of the passage of time between falling asleep and waking. But anaesthesia is different. There is simply awake, and then waking without realizing that consciousness had left. It’s confusing and disorienting. There is no perceived passage of time.
This makes me wonder if the death that we all must experience one day is in any way similar in terms of our perception. Do we simply ‘flick out’, as I remember doing? Are we, then, just suddenly absent? If so, we have nothing to fear from death. A state of merely not being holds no pain or suffering; no sorrow or regret. No loneliness. The pain of loss is felt by the living, and in particular the loving and the loved. We who remain suffer, while the dead are merely absent and unknowing.
No really, it is. Leaving aside the fact that ‘being sick’ means – in the land of my birth and first thirty seven years of life – almost exclusively, vomiting (or if you prefer: barfing, making a pavement pizza, yelling into the the big white telephone), being sick is a strange place to find oneself. Unless a person is frequently unwell (in which case my heart goes out to them), finding oneself incapacitated and unable to do a great deal about it in a short time frame can be perplexing, frustrating, frightening and, well…extremely strange.
I’ve been lucky, in my fifty three years, to have mostly enjoyed good health. My body has typically behaved itself (we’ll overlook the whole type one diabetes misunderstanding) and overall, my mind and the oversized lump that carries it around have been good friends. They have, for the most part, understood and cooperated with one another. This situation makes the whole ‘becoming seriously ill’ thing rather perplexing and not a little confusing. Somebody (and I’m not pointing the finger here), somewhere, went off-message.
Without wishing to play the blame game, I’ve found myself wondering not only why this has happened, but how. Gaining an intellectual understanding of the ‘how’ certainly helped me come to terms with the misfiring of my mind-transporting device, but I have remained somewhat unsynchronized emotionally. I wasn’t emotionally prepared to be seriously ill (I don’t recall placing the order for this disruption), and catching up with it has been problematic.
Two main issues remain: firstly, simply accepting that it is real. Being ill – as in properly ill – was something I grew up believing always happened to someone else. After all, in all the books I read, all the movies I watched as a kid, the hero (me, naturally) was never the one who became ill or died. Death could be cheated, held off and with the correct combination of noble intent and rugged good looks, avoided almost for ever. I grew up, therefore, with a belief that it probably wouldn’t ever happen to me. Now admittedly, I am neither noble nor ruggedly good looking. I have a lifetime of learning experiences behind me, but please don’t overlook the possibility that I am either a) very stupid, or b) emotionally immature. Or, if you’re feeling vindictive: c) both.
Secondly, I have still to come to terms with recovering in a way that is less than spectacular. As much as I might wish it, I’m not going to bounce back from my illness very quickly. Not for me the Pluto-greets-Mickey-home-from-work kind of energy levels – no, no; things are instead moving along at a sedated Droopy-who-hasn’t-had-his-coffee-yet kind of pace. I want the former, but I’m stuck with the latter. That makes me mad (I told you: Droopy). My one-step-at-a-time recovery consists of short steps and extended pauses. I’ll know I am getting better when my paces become longer and my pauses shorter, but I suppose I must wait for that to happen, dammit...
I remember the beach. Mile upon mile of warm, golden and white sand and the ever-present breeze blowing loose granules across the surface to caress my bare feet. I remember the deep blue sky of the days I chose to venture there to face my pain. Once I had used the vast spaces of my beach as a teenager to walk in loneliness, yearning for a soulmate and with only my old dog as a companion. As a young adult I walked there to face and feel my pain; the agony of loss.
I’d found my soulmate several years earlier. As these things so often happen, I was taken by surprise but soon fell completely in love. Almost three years later it was over, and I had been to blame.
After months of brooding and flirting with dramatic acts of despair (none of which I ever followed through on, or else I wouldn’t be here today), as the seasons ticked over, I returned to my beach to acknowledge the pain. My old dog had gone two years before, but the beach remained. I had grown up within sight of it, had childishly regarded it as my own, and had grown to love the anonymity it afforded me. Within twenty minutes of walking (or five minutes of running), I was an indistinct dot, isolated from the land and the source of pain, free to yell at God and free to let the tears flow in privacy.
My beach was where I went, long ago, to grieve.
Sometimes I still have the dream; the dream where I sit on the sand, sobbing as the sand blows against me. The dream where she finds me, returns to me and tells me that she loves me. The dream where I hold her again, and then wake with my eyes wet and my heart pounding.
I had the dream last night. As usual, I woke and lay in bed, waiting to calm down. I was still breathing heavily when the bedroom light flicked on and movement in the bed told me that my wife was also awake. “Are you alright, my lovely man?” she said, in the voice from my dream. The very same voice. My tears flowed again as the truth arrived to wrap me in its delicious embrace. You see, she did find me, she did return to me (across an ocean and a continent), and yes, she loves me.
She took her time, though. Twenty two years after we parted, we re-discovered and re-ignited our love half a world away from where we first met. It felt – and feels – perfect.
My life is the stuff of dreams; my first and true love came back. Old, horribly deep wounds have been healed and no longer have power over me. I have a new, happy beach. I am very, very happy. I am very, very lucky. Life has taught me another lesson.
Never give up. Never stop loving (I know; that’s two lessons; sue me).
“Move pen, move - write me a mountain.”
A sentence among hundreds in a TV documentary some time ago about a famous performance ‘slam’ poet. I have, for as long as I can remember - and without knowing why - felt that poetry was an overblown, pretentious art form with little relevance to my life. Nevertheless I was intrigued by this programme and resolved to watch it through.
I spent much of the ensuing ninety minutes watching the screen with tears streaming down my face. This man has a unique gift with words. Not just the words that he chooses, but the ways in which he strings them together, weaves them and throws them at his audience like a warm water bomb. His audience became saturated with his word craft, swept along upon a tsunami of emotional exploration and realisation. His words overwhelmed me. Quietly, I admitted to myself that I envied him for his talent and his drive. Even as I was enraptured by his gift, I wished that it was mine.
I also write, although he and I inhabit different spheres of ability and achievement. Perhaps that’s how it should be. We have, after all, lived different lives and experienced the world in very different ways. Two things we share, however; we write about ourselves and we are moved by our relationship with our respective fathers.
I began – tentatively – to write about five years ago. My father had died, and I travelled to England for his funeral. Standing in a church for the first time in many years and – to honour his memory - speaking the words that I no longer believed, I realised that my father was gone. He was gone, and I had no idea who he really was. All I knew was the ‘Dad’ persona; the side of himself that he had made available to me and my own children. ‘Tommy’, however, was a stranger.
I’m not bitter. He was a quiet, self-effacing kind of man. Talking about himself did not come easily to him, but reading between the sparse lines of his story, I know that he led an interesting life, and was a good man who left behind many friendships.
Twelve months later, the truth slapped me in the face. Finally it dawned upon me that I must not leave my children wondering the same things about me. Somehow, my story (hopefully nowhere near its final pages) needed to be told. The resulting memoir – all five hundred pages of it – took almost three years to write, re-write, re-write again, walk away from and finally return to. It took more nerve than I had guessed to publish it, but finally doing so became an emotional triumph.
My father taught me many things - for example: how to wound oneself performing any banal household task – but his greatest teaching was entirely unintentional. His biggest lesson was to never leave unsaid that which can bring joy to others.
My words are my gift to my children.
I have two reactions to this statement. One is very old (by my standards, although I am beginning to nudge the relevant age bracket) and spends most of the time locked in a creaky cupboard somewhere in the back of what passes for my mind. Upon reading these words, it kicks open the cupboard door and bursts into my awareness with a rather startling “THAT’S TRUE!!!”, complete with bulging eyes and wild hair (think of ‘Animal’, the Muppets’ drummer). As an aside, I have already taken it to task over the use of three exclamation points/marks, but it’s a bit of a rebel, so I usually let that slide.
I used to think this way. For much of my life, I was frightened of talking about death. This was, I have to admit, sometimes rather awkward since part of my professional life as a first responder was to deal with death in many different circumstances. It was also sometimes my job to break such sad news to people who did not yet know that they had become a widow or widowers, or orphans, or no longer a brother or sister. Talking about death, however – while never exactly comfortable – was something that I was required to do. So, I did it, as respectfully, as completely and as compassionately as I could.
My own death, however – that was out of bounds. Taboo. Not going there. I had been convinced from a very early age that death was a whim of God; something that might overtake us any day. So it might, but I thought that I would be tempting fate to discuss it or – good grief, imagine this; face the inevitable.
It took me a long time to think about this properly. And when I did, I didn’t die. I wasn’t struck down by a malevolent deity throwing lightning bolts, buses did not suddenly begin trying to run me over, aeroplanes did not drop out of the sky. In fact, nothing unpleasant happened at all. This may have something to do with the fact that my thinking on this subject took place at around the time when I left religion behind. At that point, I left a great many other untruths behind along with my fear of death. I left behind all the things that I had been told by people who had no way of knowing if they were telling me the truth.
Which brings me to my up-to-date thought about talking about death: of course it won’t kill you. Talking honestly and rationally about death can only be positive. Is it a happy subject? Not to me, but death is not something that I face with the terror of hell (which used to be the case), for example. Talking about it enables me to plan for the times leading up to it. It prevents me from ignoring the inevitability of it – which, let’s face it (pardon that pun) isn’t rational. It allows me to think about the time after I have gone; what it might mean for my children and friends. It allows me to plan my legacy, whatever that may be. I still need to remind myself sometimes; talking about death fearlessly enables me and allows me to do things which need to be done while I am still alive. I call that a positive effect
I was – or at least I thought I was – dimly aware that dignity is one of the first casualties of a stay in hospital. Surrendering oneself to the tender ministrations of the health service is an act which silently says “Please help me with everything…”. Or so it would seem as far as the doctors and nursing staff are concerned. For example, I don’t recall asking to have my stools softened – but I was medicated with stool softeners. Because I know that you are now irrevocably fascinated with my stool consistency, I shall put you out of your misery. The stool softeners didn’t work. Constipation abounded (pun intended), and ultimately led to the stripping away of another, intensely personal, layer of dignity. I will never again smile at the concept of an enema.
An all-time classic horror (from a patient’s perspective) of hospital stays has been the dreaded ‘bed bath’. For decades, the concept of such a thing has made me smirk, smile and grimly laugh. No longer. I’ve been there. In a scene not dissimilar to a 1960s British farce comedy, I was asked if I wanted to have, then advised/told in no uncertain terms by a pair of experienced nurses that I was having a ‘sponge bath’. Drugged (and thankfully de-catheterized) as I was, it seemed but a few seconds before my blanket was lifted, my hospital gown pulled out of the way, and a surprisingly soggy sponge was enthusiastically applied to my quivering white flesh with a disturbing “SCHLAP!” sound. Thankfully, it was at least warm.
It’s been forty-something years since another hand washed me, and to put it mildly, the sensation no longer appeals. It appeals even less (as I found out) when the washing continues despite my silent wishes for it to stop, and reaches a crescendo as the unfamiliar, gloved hands explore regions exclusively reserved for mine and my wife’s knowledge only. It would be overstating matters to say that I felt violated, but I think I now know what it is like to be beaten up with a sponge. It may not hurt, but it makes me squirm.
Worse humiliations awaited me in a subsequent stay in the same hospital, however. Less than eight hours after leaving the operating room and feeling really rather sorry for myself as the sun peeped over the horizon to illuminate my room in ICU, my nurse approached me with a ‘request’. “Since this is your second stay here in a short period, we need to take a swab from your mouth to test for MRSA. Is that OK?” I nodded feebly “Yes, no problem.” I meant it too – simple common sense. After the swabbing and the careful preservation of the sample, the nurse spoke again. “Now I just need you to roll onto your side.” he said quietly. While I was still wondering why, he continued: “I have to swab your bottom.” Indignation rose within me like a Las Vegas fountain, but in my weakened state (he had chosen his moment carefully, the swine), all I could manage in response was an incredulous “Really?” “Oh yes.” He said firmly “It is part of the protocol.”
It probably offers up a wealth of information for any bored psychologist, but my overriding worry was this: “Is my bum clean enough to be swabbed without causing any nose-wrinkling?”. I had been unconscious for the best part of seven hours, and I had no idea what my backside had been up to in my absence. My fear was very real. The nurse, however, was not in the mood to allow me any time to consider my options. “We must do this at once. I am off duty in ten minutes.” Oh don’t mind me! I thought indignantly as I rolled clumsily onto my right side. Just stick your swab up my bum and go home, why don’t you? He must have read my mind.
Twenty seconds later it was over. Twenty seconds later I was no longer a bottom-swabbing virgin.
As a result of my recent encounters with the hospital, I now carry various scars. My nose will never be the same again after having been chosen as the route for brain surgery (yes, really), one of my shoulders barely works after what I presume was some over-enthusiastic manipulation on the operating table aggravated old injuries, and my head now bears a truly impressive curving scar after the second attempt to remove tumour tissue from my grey matter.
But, the mental scars run deep too, and one of them will be the memory of having no choice but to allow a strange man to run a large cotton bud along the full length of the area between my peach-like bottom cheeks.
“So…you cracked a tooth, did you?” I shook my head. “Well I recently underwent some surgery, and I believe that they had to anchor some tubes and such to my teeth, and I lost a filling as a result.” The dental assistant nodded encouragingly. I wondered for a moment if this was because she couldn’t fail to see the ugly, curving scar which ploughs a furrow through my already thinning hair, and was drawing a not-unreasonable conclusion about my grasp on reality. Ah well, I thought, such is life after brain surgery.
Two minutes later, she was staring at my tooth using her tiny mirror-on-a-stick. “Which tooth is it again?” she said, setting off a tiny but improbable alarm somewhere in the darkest reaches of my mind. “It’sch gak gonn.” I said with my mouth wide open, and pointing with my tongue. “Just point to it with your tongue.” she said, skating on very thin ice. In frustration I used my finger instead, succeeding only in pointing to the wrong one (be fair now; how often do any of us point to one of our own teeth?), and quickly reverting to using my tongue. “Gak gonn.”
“Riiiight” she said, adjusting her angle of attack. “Hmmm. Be right back.” The little, distant alarm rang once again as her footsteps receded.
Despite advancing years and the infuriating tendency for forests of hairs to sprout from my ears, I have excellent hearing. Snatches of puzzled whispering floated through the background noise of drilling and suctioning to reach me; “…lost a filling, but I can’t…” “Did you ask him to…?” “Yes, but I don’t think that…”. My little alarm bell was beginning to sound more like Big Ben. To nobody within hearing range, I laughed nervously.
Thirty seconds later I was watching my dentist – a young lady whose incredibly gentle ministrations had mightily impressed me several months earlier – as she threateningly (it seemed to me) pulled on some latex gloves and asked me again why I had chosen to darken their workplace doorstep. I explained again – now with an uncertain smile – what I believed had happened, and pointed (successfully, this time) to the offending premolar. She smiled indulgently, produced one of her instruments of torture and leaned over me. “Let’s take a look.”
She poked the errant tooth.
A minute or two later, as I listened to her explain that I hadn’t lost a filling after all, that the tooth in question bore no signs of ever having been filled, and that (this was in her tone rather than an explicitly expressed statement) I was clearly a buffoon of the highest order, I began to giggle like a naughty schoolboy. I was still chortling when, in order to save face as much as anything else, I made an appointment for a clean and thorough check-up in two weeks’ time.
Some things – in this case, my talent for making a fool of myself – never seem to change…
“This wasn’t part of the plan, was it?” my old friend in France messaged. My heart skipped a beat (and not just because of my autonomic neuropathy, for a change) as I thought about what he was going through. A mere three months after his wife of twelve years had died from a reoccurrence of her breast cancer, he remains bereft. Other issues (you know the kind; family disputes that strike at the very foundation of our world view) have crippled him before, during and since her passing, and the poor guy, whose heart is 24 carat gold or else I’m no judge at all, has been left reeling by the cruelty of people he once thought loved him.
By comparison, I’m having a cake walk.
I know what he means, though. All he wanted was to enjoy the semi-retired life with his lady love, and to be left in peace to do so. All I want is to be healthy and to live a long life (largely because it means I get to enjoy the company of my loved ones for as long as I can), but right now my body seems to have other ideas. I’ve been in hospital again, for more surgery.
Several weeks after a man wearing scrubs (well actually, more than one) inserted things up my hooter and messed about with the inside of my cranium and then plugged the hole with tissue taken from my left hip, I had an MRI to plan for some radiotherapy. That was a Saturday. A week later I was back in Vancouver General Hospital for ‘emergency’ surgery to remove some tumour tissue that had re-grown from the original operation site. I had suspected that something was amiss when the sight in one eye had again begun to deteriorate, but this was still a shock.
An even bigger shock was the extent of the ‘damage’ this time around, since the first surgery had been, to all intents and purposes, invisible. I am attaching a photo below…feel free to use it to keep the kids away from the ‘fridge.
Oddly enough, this surgery has been much more straightforward to come to terms with – certainly in terms of physical recovery. That ugly scar is healing well, I have been up on my back legs and out in the community – albeit gently – from a week after they took the top off my skull, and so far there are no signs of another resurgence. My fingers, toes, legs and eyes are firmly crossed that the path back to some kind of normality may be a swift and simple one.
I have even picked up my writing cudgels once more. I’m contributing to our local (very local) newspaper with short articles, I’ve sent an unpublished book to a friend, I’ve written a brief eulogy for her husband who died in the same week that I was re-admitted to hospital, and I have started to finally proof-read and edit an old piece of work with a view to self-publishing it later this year. I had almost forgotten how good it feels to write…
No, none of these things were ever in the plan, but then I am a notoriously poor planner. I’m so poor a planner, I stopped doing it years ago. I never planned to write, and I never planned to be sick, but since I’m doing the latter, I may as well make use of the enforced time spent on my over-sized derriere, and get some unplanned writing done.
As the old medical adage goes: every surgery has a silver lining.
As most of us are aware, social media can be a curse as well as a blessing. It can be an incredibly useful tool for staying in contact with friends and relatives, or it can be an outlet for buffoons and malevolent individuals. Using social media can be entertaining and uplifting, or it can prove to be the opposite.
My recent extended and ongoing flirtation with the health service is a case in point, although perhaps not quite for the reasons most people may anticipate. My life has always been something of an open book – and indeed I recently published a full-length memoir. In this spirit, I decided to keep my friends and family fully informed about my adventures in Vancouver General Hospital, using social media and email. The expressions of love and support that I received in return were both humbling and moving.
You know there’s a ‘however’ coming, don’t you?
However… (told you)
While I am completely aware that every single message had good intention behind it, some hit the mark while others – sadly, because I know they really were intended to be of some help - did not. It took me a little while to work out why I received some better than others, and then, one day, the penny dropped. That falling coin has forced me to change the way that I now communicate with others in difficult circumstances (e.g., this very morning, a cancer-survivor friend who has just been hospitalized and is naturally very worried about what the future holds).
I discovered - to my mild surprise - that there are two kinds of things to NOT say to me when I am in hospital, feeling rather unwell and/or worried: Firstly, don’t tell me to ‘stay strong’ or ‘be strong’. Instead, assume that I am doing my very best already, and that I don’t need instructions. Second; avoid the ‘thoughts and prayers’ cliché which is so over-used by politicians and other public figures. Why? Well...because it's bollocks - at least in part. The 'thoughts' are welcome of course, but the 'prayers' bit you can keep. If prayers worked, there would be no suffering anywhere. Both of these kinds of messages suffer from the same problem, which is that they are – to be blunt – lazy, impersonal and totally lacking in empathy. They lack creativity and any kind of engagement with the real issues.
This doesn’t mean that everyone misses the mark – by no means is that true. My wife, after all, physically and emotionally supported me in person throughout my illness. My daughter wrote me a public message which moved me to tears as I read it. She told me that she recognized that what I was experiencing was difficult, she told me that she knew that I was trying my best to get through it, and she told me how much she loves me and that she wishes me a speedy recovery. In short, she probably told me everything that I needed to hear someone else say. She made the difference by engaging with what was happening to me, and by empathizing with my feelings. She engaged with me….
She told me – without using these exact words - that I was not alone.
I’m not sure that it ever gets any more reassuring than that.
Grumpy middle aged git moaning about stuff and occasionally trying to be funny.