Monday, January 09, 2006

When I was seventeen

...it wasn't a very good year. Eighteen wasn't bad: when I was eighteen I passed my Cambridge entrance exam, got my first editing gig (a church youth newsletter), went abroad for the first time and did my first full-time job; the last of those doesn't really qualify as good (I was a nursing assistant in a long-term psychiatric hospital) but I'm glad I went through it. (There was also a woman I was quite close to for a while, but I'm not going into details about that.)

Seventeen, though... There was under-age drinking, there were A levels, there was self-importance, frustration and bad poetry, but beyond that I don't remember much. Apart from the orchestral concert where I played, with no one I knew in the audience and no one to talk to backstage, and where the flute part was doubled (and largely drowned out) by the second B-flat clarinet. And the party a girl called Liz invited me to - well, not the party, but the evening when I stood on her doorstep, holding a bottle of cider and a borrowed copy of Starless and Bible Black, and learned that the party had been the previous night. I have to say the music was good that year - punk had happened while I was 16, and I'd got into it around the time of "Pretty Vacant" (i.e. rather late). I didn't get to any gigs (100 Club? I never even made it to the Greyhound), but it was bliss in that dawn to listen to John Peel and buy singles from Bonaparte's, that I can say.

So 1978 wasn't all bad - particularly since I'd turned 18 by the end of it. Maybe in a few years' time, with a bit of distance, I'll be able to be that positive about 2005. Right now it looks like a pretty awful year.

Before I go any further: this post was inspired by an email from a coblogger which ended "May 2006 be better". When I read those words I had a frisson of alarm - I haven't talked to him about all that, have I? Well, no, I hadn't - and we've got plenty of shared, public reasons for hoping for a better new year - but the exchange reminded me that I'd wanted for a while to put some more personal content up here. This is one result: 2005, my (first) year as a blogger.

Or rather, my first nine months. It all began in March. I started transcribing Sir Frederick's memoirs some time ago, but I'd never seen the need for a blog of my own. In March 2005, though, Need to Know led me to Backing Blair, which in turn led me (from the sublime...) to comments threads on Tom Watson's site. The arguments being advanced, notably by Tom, against voting for anyone but Labour seemed so faulty, in so many ways, that I immediately felt that a series of posts would be required to answer them. So, over the next couple of months, I wrote a series of posts, pausing only to set up a blog. (The address of this blog confused people for months. What happened was that my browser crashed during the setup process, and by the time I got back in Blogger had flagged 'actuallyexisting.blogspot.com' as taken. Now it can be told.)

But we're in May already. Let's get back to March. On Monday the 14th I wrote the first For Tomorrow post (most of which has since been eaten by Blogger, annoyingly enough) and mailed a couple of people about it, hoping to get noticed and generally join the conversation. On Wednesday the 16th I set up my work blog, posted something on it about taxonomies & knowledge representation, and mailed a couple of people about it, hoping to work the same trick in a professional context. All exciting stuff, reminiscent of my early days on Usenet (circa 1996) - will I get followups? will I get followups from the regulars? oh no, I've written something really embarrassing, let's hope nobody notices... hey, I've written something really great, let's hope somebody notices... nonononono, what I thought was really great was actually really embarrassing, let's hope nobody's noticed already... All exciting stuff, and liable to cause heightened states of anxiety if taken too seriously.

On the evening of Wednesday the 16th I had a migraine - not my first, but the first I'd had in a few years. When the aura had cleared I lay down to wait out the headache, and found I was consumed with anxiety - about the wretched blogs. Was I being read? Was I being linked to? Who was linking to me? Was I not being linked to? Wasn't that even worse? What could I do about it? Urgh. I eventually got to sleep, resolving to leave the damn blogs alone for a bit.

The following evening, on my way home from the chip shop after my kids' school disco, I hit a problem with my health. What felt like an innocent fart turned into something copious and very wet. When I got home I made two discoveries. One was that I hadn't, in fact, crapped myself; what I'd passed was blood. The second was that I urgently needed to go again.

I hung on at home for a while, hoping that it would stop. It didn't; it gave me about ten minutes and then happened again. And again. Fortunately the nearest hospital was only ten minutes away by taxi. I may have missed one or two, but I think by midnight I'd had a total of ten bleeds. On the tenth I passed out; I remember a horrible moment when I was trying to stay focused, by telling myself who I was and where I lived, but all I could think of was the address of the house where I grew up. The next thing I knew, I was lying flat with an oxygen mask on. (Great stuff, oxygen. I can recommend it.) There weren't any more bleeds after that, thankfully. I remember a nurse helping me into a bed in a darkened ward, and telling her that I had an important meeting in the morning. "Not now, you haven't," she said.

Hospital life was what it always is - tedious, long-drawn-out and hideously uncertain. (On many levels. While I was in hospital we had a new TV delivered; at one stage I was seriously, genuinely worried that I was going to start bleeding again, bleed to death and never see our new TV...) What eventually happened was that I stayed in until I was strong enough to go home (yay, new TV!), then went back in for a colonoscopy. Which was clear; the betting was that the bleed had been triggered by a randomly malformed vein (a.k.a. angiodysplasia coli) and quite probably wouldn't happen again. Although it might. It hasn't yet, but I still worry that it's going to, about two or three times a day.

April was a bit busier on the blogging front - 14 posts (compared to 6 in March), including parts 2-8 of the For Tomorrow series and a sceptical post about Islam and radical politics. The pre-election daily blog roundup which eventually developed into the Sharpener got going this month, as did Tim Worstall's Britblog roundup; the short pre-election post which Tim picked for 2005: Blogged also dates from this period. Also in April, my wife's mother (80ish, living alone) had a fall and couldn't get up. She had to go into hospital, where she became extremely confused and developed a series of infections.

Even more posts (17) in May, including one about Christianity and conservative politics (not so much sceptical as furious). Mostly about the election, but there were a couple each about the EU constitution and the legality of the Iraq war. Plus a wave to an old college acquaintance, a plug for Ellis Sharp's blog and my first piece at the Sharpener. I had some energy back then...

June: 11 posts. Iraq, terrorism, Blairite triangulation, plus a couple of 'memes' and a bit of inconsequential chat (about time too).

Only 9 posts in July, mostly about terror and counter-terror - including this, one of the posts I'm most proud of. I was in a combative mood that month: I disagreed with Norm of that blog, agreed with Oliver Kamm, sniped at Harry and misquoted Nick Cohen, whose honour was defended vociferously by some drink-soaked Trots. (I almost miss them - they brought a lot of traffic with them.) My first post that month was dated 12th July. On the 5th I'd heard that my doctorate had been awarded (six and a half years after I began studying for it and eighteen months after I first submitted the thesis). On the 7th, well, you know. On the 8th, my wife was told that her mother - whose condition had picked up, although she was still quite weak - was much more ill than anyone had thought, and that we only had weeks or months left.

August: 8. Terrorism, de Menezes and a history of the House of Lords. Not very light and frothy. At work my contract ended; fortunately I had a new one lined up. We went on holiday, regretting not having got cancellation insurance. We didn't have to cancel.

September: 7. Four on Hurricane Katrina, two on Walter Wolfgang and one proposing to fix Wikipedia - whose shortcomings weren't all over the media at the time, I might add - with a kind of Pledgebank posse comitatus. Maybe this year I'll actually get something moving on this one. (Note to the Guardian journalist who I mailed about the Wolfgang incident: I'm not a lawyer either, but I know how to google up the text of legislation.) My mother-in-law moved to a nursing home, and started to get a lot more alert. I junked my ten-year-old Windows 98 PC and switched to an iMac.

Only three posts in October and two in November. More de Menezes, plus Bob Dylan, Guy Debord and the destruction of the Labour and Conservative parties by their respective leaders. Five in December: C.S. Lewis, Chomsky, Chavez, poetry and the 'infantile'. I've been posting all over the show, basically, and not very often. What happened? One thing that happened was that I started my third contract of the year (in the same place and very much the same job); this one lasts until January 2007, after which I'm hoping to get something a bit more permanent. It's four and a half days a week, which is longer hours than I've worked since 1998 - a bit of a shock to the system, and cuts down on blogging time. Plus I started playing the flute a bit more seriously around this time (jigs, reels and the odd hornpipe).

But the main thing that happened in October was that my mother (80ish, living alone) had a stroke. We don't know - and never will - how long it had happened before she was found; my guess is 24 hours. She was taken to hospital, where I saw her soon afterwards; she wasn't speaking at all, had no use of her right-hand side and seemed very confused. In November she was moved to a specialist rehabilitation unit; she got the use of her right side back and started talking a bit. She clearly wanted to get up and walk, but she was very weak and unsteady, and still seemed very confused.

The rehab specialists seem rapidly to have formed the view that she wasn't getting anywhere. In December they told me and my sisters that she was going to require permanent nursing care; what this meant was there wasn't any point their trying to get her up to a level where she'd be able to look after herself, as that was never going to happen. On Christmas Eve I heard that she was moving into a nursing home - which she did, between Christmas and New Year. The council will cover the fees (which are high) for twelve weeks; after that we have to start paying, which essentially means selling the house. It's not our family home - my parents moved there about twenty years ago, after my father retired, by which time we'd all left home - but it's got a lot of history and a lot of memories; it's been part of a continuing story, which suddenly isn't continuing any more. More than that, the house symbolises the basic level of independence which lets you get by day to day - having things to do, going out and coming home, being surrounded by your stuff. My mother's now lost that; what's worse, some time this year my sisters and I are going to have to administer the coup de grace by stripping the house. My wife and her brother had already finished stripping their mother's house by this time; I said at the time that they'd be in trouble if she made a miracle recovery. (That doesn't seem likely, although she has hung on for six months so far.)

My mother's a lot more mobile since going into the home, and a lot more articulate - I've actually talked to her on the phone. But there's still something not there. I think short term memory's like a tape loop or a cogwheel - we're never simply in the moment (unless we're meditating or drunk), we're always checking back on ourselves, saying "right, I'm here, I've been there and next I'm going to do this". You get on with it for a while, then you stop and check again... and so it goes on. It's something like how I imagine it must be to skate: your body reacts automatically - reflexively - to bumps and gritty patches and gusts of wind, but your ability to stay balanced enables you to contain those reactions and stay poised. Not to blank out the reflex responses or even override them, necessarily - just to incorporate them into a kind of continuing dance with gravity. At the most basic level, I think it's that self-correcting - or self-articulating - mechanism that my mother's lost, probably for good: the stimuli come in and she reacts. And, er, that's it. (May be updated; I'm seeing her on Friday, for the first time since she went into the home.)

Skating through 2005 has been hard. I hope 2006 will be a bit easier.

4 Comments:

Blogger janinsanfran said...

Been there, done that. There was a nine year period that my partner and I recall as "the years of the dying mothers." For what it is worth, we probably feel better about ourselves for having done that.

Please keep blogging.

10/1/06 22:00  
Blogger tigtog said...

Dai's parents did their dying about 10 years ago, and we were there for them. It was worthwhile and awful, and her dementia was harder than his cancer. We could talk to Harry about memories and the grandkids' futures but Connie, although she reacted lovingly to the babies, said nothing.

Thankfully my parents are still hale and hearty at 70, though my Dad's memory isn't what it was.

You do what you have to do.

10/1/06 23:53  
Blogger Will Baird said...

I hope that your 2006 is definitely better than 2005. I understand bad years very, very well. 1997, 1998 and 1999 were rather rough ones for me, on a personal level, but there is always the light at the end of the tunnel, in my experience.

No worries, btw, I might not comment much, but I do read your blog, Phil.

viele glucke!

11/1/06 18:37  
Anonymous Syd Webb said...

Phil,

Echoing Will's wish for a better 2006. Also hoping for minimal trauma to those near and dear to you. And that should you have tribulations in the coming year you will have the strength, courage and good humour to push through.

21/1/06 03:35  

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