The surprising seductiveness of slow

I nearly wrote a letter last weekend. What? Yes … an honest to God, old fashioned paper-based communication intended for distribution by snail. In the event, I didn’t. The digital habits of a fair chunk of my lifetime got in the way and I sent an email instead.

The impulse was triggered by reading that a lot of teenagers, missing their mates during the lockdown, re-discovered the joy of sending and receiving hand-written notes. In the isolation of their homes, apparently many found letters to be more intimate and emotionally connecting than texting, ‘social’ media posting and similar. Thinking about it unlocked the ghost of letters past that’s clearly still lurking inside me, and the memory of how much I used to enjoy getting mail. This chain reaction concluded in my close encounter with a blank page. 

The article transported me back to the heart-lifting discovery of a hand-written letter nestling seductively in one’s letterbox. Then the ritual of finding the right place to read it; a, secluded place under a tree. curled up in a big squishy chair in front of a roaring fire, or even a sweet scented, candlelit bath. The setting depended on the relationship with the sender — family, friend, lover, admirer — and the season. There was always that gorgeous moment of holding back, of prolonging the anticipation before finally ripping into the letter. Often there would be a quick scan of the contents for anything scary or sensational, before settling into a leisurely read through.

Good letters take time to craft. The best are intimate and personal. From soul to soul. As the words gather momentum they open avenues to the unburdening of our hopes and fears, loves and hates, joys and sorrows and the feeling of connection as we share the minutiae of our days. There’s something about the flow of a pen over paper that is missing altogether from keyboard bashing. Lacking a delete button, there was a need for precision and coherence of thought. Although the growing pile of screwed up paper as errors or uncertain confidences were cast aside spoke volumes on that score. There was an almost hedonistic pleasure in the first the first stroke of a fountain pen on a blank sheet of high quality paper. Or the challenge of writing in tiny letters to pack as much as possible onto those impossibly small pre-paid airmail letters that you folded up and licked the stuck tabes which stuck it all together. You were lucky if you managed to do this without acquiring a paper cut on your tongue. ‘Nanny state’ would probably have something to say about that these days.

Sorry planet — I know how wasteful and unnecessary this feels now in this device-laden era where resources are diminishing as fast as pack ice in the Arctic and the tyranny of air miles is never far from our minds. But email just doesn’t hack it as a substitute for a neatly tied bundle of letters from a loved one or a box full of the most memorable greetings cards. I still have swags of each. Even if you print emails, they just don’t have the same bang for buck. 

I’m a bit worn out by life in the ‘fast lane’. Living through the lockdown has seemingly awakened a sleeping dragon in many of us — the surprising seductiveness of slow. A nostalgia for bygone pleasures: the allure of a trip to a library; being literally lost in a good book; sitting down with friends and family over a leisurely and carefully crafted meal rather than shovelling in some hastily acquired takeaway or dashboard dining option. Most of all, there’s all too little of the ultimate luxury; reflective time, something that is considered to be essential to our health and wellbeing.

This morning, I woke up with the poem Leisure by W H Davies rattling around in my head. Although I learned this ‘by heart’ at primary school, it’s meaning pretty much passed me by as a ten-year-old, but it resonates strongly now. I’m sure my teacher would have been highly gratified! The poem was published in 1911. In the opening lines, the poet asks, “What is this life, if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” What indeed! The thrust of the poem is that the hectic pace of modern life has a detrimental effect on the human spirit because there’s no time to appreciate the glory of the natural world around us. (Read Poem).

Willian Henry Davies was a Welsh poet and writer who grew up in a highly dysfunctional (though not poor), family. He dropped out and spent a significant part of his early life as a homeless drifter on both sides of the Atlantic”. The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, published in 1908, is about Davies’ life in the US between 1893 and 1899. Apparently, he crossed the Atlantic at least seven times during this period, working his passage on cattle ships, then travelling through many of the states, sometimes begging, sometimes taking seasonal work, often spending any savings on drinking binges with fellow travellers. They didn’t teach us this in school by the way — we might have paid more attention if we’d know a bit more about his colourful life. It would likely have seemed pretty romantic to the impressionable kids we were. Davies became one of the most popular poets of his time by drawing on his observations about life’s hardships, the ways in which the human condition is reflected in nature, his tramping adventures and the characters he met. 

It has to be said, I lust after ‘slow’ until I remember what life was like without the convenience of Google as an information source. without which Mr. Davies would have remained an enigma to me. In all seriousness, I wouldn’t go back to the pre-internet/digital era. There’s just too much that is genuinely better about now. But I do hope that we can hold on to some of the specialness of slow as we move on through this pandemic. To have time to see and enjoy the moment, to revel in our lives and in nature and the endless possibilities on offer. To take the time to share our dreams and disappointments with loved ones by whatever means are to hand, snail or otherwise. To have the luxury to simply stand and stare and understand how infinitely precious it all is … and how easily lost.

Do the Covid Shuffle?

“Did you have a good lockdown?” the wags are all asking since we moved back to Level 1. As if it really was a war. Maybe it was? Thinking about it, if it was a war, it’s still very much alive on many fronts. The phantom menace we’re ‘fighting’ — the pesky Coronavirus — still stalks the earth.

It’s still hard to take in. It’s as if a fictitious dystopian future has jumped off the page.Life BC seems to have happened in some parallel universe … far, far away. “Unprecedented” they say. Unprecedented, ‘they’ say a lot. It’s le mot du pandemic. The top cliché of our coronavirus times. In these times, our vocabulary has extended — flatten the curve, epidemiology, self-isolation, social distancing and bubble love. ‘Quarantinis’ replaced martinis for the fashionable set, and the WFM brigade came out of lockdown Zoomed-out, near Zombies reeling from Zoomchosis. You know the drill? All that pacing up and down the living room, head shaking purposelessly from side to side, unfocused eyes looking inward to some analogue paradise of yore.

Coronavirus pushed us to a locked-down standstill. A global pause. Emergency workers diced with death, the rest of us dug in at home and were forced to deal with whatever daily reality home represented. We got creative and entertained each other in profound and emotionally charged ways. We laughed We cried. We grieved. We rejoiced. We lost our jobs. We worried about our jobs. Our businesses. We valued things we didn’t before. We applauded new heroes. We teared-up as plucky, indomitable Major Tom shuffled his Zimmer-framed way back and forward across his garden earning staggering amounts for the British National Health Service. Those of us who could, counted our blessings.

We did the COVID Shuffle. That excruciating manoeuvre as you step off the pavement to maintain the requisite distance from an approaching person or bubble, whilst simultaneously smiling like the Cheshire Cat and offering hearty greetings to avoid causing offence. Also, to have a precious moment of human connection.

It’s a bleak time for the party animals in our midst — “introverts, your extrovert friends need your help” was one of the more entertaining and ironic truths coming through from the meme land. Life in the time of Lockdown was also something of a bonfire of the vanities. What’s the point blinging-up a storm to sit at home? Actually, I did smear a bit of make-up around most days — Zoom has a certain motivating quality on that score. Occasionally ditched the leggings for a skirt, or even a dress.

But hey, we succeeded. We flattened the pesky curve. For an intoxicating number of consecutive days, no cases at all — existing, new or prospective. “FOR NOW!” said our Prime Minister, another hero of the moment. Jacindamania isn’t only a New Zealand phenomenon. I know Aussies who’ve asked her to invade and spare them from the bigoted, climate denying MAN they’re lumbered with. How right she was as we now three new cases delivered to our doorstep by returning residents. This was always likely and wouldn’t be too troublesome if the border quarantine procedures hadn’t turned out to be a monster cockup. Jacinda and her plucky little team of five mission are now royally pissed at whatever ‘them’ was responsible. We’ve all eaten our greens and done what we’ve been told at … er … unprecedented cost. Why should other people be allowed to break curfew, even on compassionate grounds? Hey, ho, it is what is.

So, on reflection, it has been a sort of is a war. For more than two months, we sequestered ourselves in our home shelters while the Coronavirus sent its silent but deadly aerosols into our communities and ravaged our economy. Many of us wondered what will be left when the dust settles. For now, we Kiwis have won a battle, but the war itself rages on around the world and the breakout this week shows how easily we could get sucked back in. But it’s not just the pandemic. As we navel-gazed our way through the Lockdown fog, pondering the meaning of life the universe and everything, for even the most fervent deniers, it was hard to ignore the inconvenient truth that our planet and our lives are globally and intimately linked. And that our certainties can be upended in a heartbeat. We now understand in a visceral and undeniable way that there are bigger and deadlier risks on the horizon if we don’t dramatically shift our values, and how we live, spend and consume.

Countries are struggling to meet their sustainability commitments. People are worried — time is not our friend. It’s as if the Coronavirus has swept the lid off a contemporary Pandora’s Box and out has poured the sickness, death and other evils which have blighted the world while we watch the horror unfold with horror and incredulity in real-time on our devices. The gap between the super-rich and everyone else yawns like a gaping chasm that can’t be bridged. Extreme weather events get more extreme. It seems as if we’re fiddling while the Outback burns.

We make pacts with our higher powers that the future will be better. That sustainability won’t be thrown out with the bathwater. We talk about “the new normal” as if it’s a point in time we are waiting to arrive at. But there’s no pre-ordination involved. The new normal is a blank canvas waiting for our artist’s brush. The only question is what do we paint? Will it be a beautiful harmonious landscape? A primal scream? A world where no-one is left behind? I’m putting my money on the latter.

Crises serve up latitude to break moulds. To change the status quo. Shock allows for more shock. We’ve been through so much, what’s a little more if it turns this moment to benefit? As New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel put it, Right now, in the midst of a series of cascading, intersecting crises (racial and economic inequality, climate change, mass unemployment, a pandemic) what’s possible feels more of an open-question than any other moment in recent times.”

My sudden addiction to The Chase during Lockdown, did kick up a useful piece of trivia. Pandora’s Box didn’t only contain all the bad stuff. It also held Hope and we need Hope to soar around the world and work its magic. With hope loose in the world, I’m backing us humans to open our minds to the possible and make all the sacrifice mean something.

Wag the (alien) dog?

I just read a wonderful hypothesis outlining a genius way of mitigating the threat of global warming. The hypothesis is that we need to invent a new and super-scary existential threat — like aliens threatening to annihilate the world if we don’t instantly come up with a convincing plan for drastically cutting emissions. Think about it for a moment, it’s a perfect concept!

The central tenet of this inspired piece of thinking is that we need a total “re-imagining” of the world political order. That business as usual just won’t cut it if we are to do enough, quickly enough. While that’s not exactly visionary — I could have come up with that bit — I wouldn’t in my wildest dreams have imagined inventing a threat from some green-minded ETs to get us fully focussed on the important stuff.  As far as I am aware, this let’s pretend it’s aliensthat are causing all the problems thing is genuine blue sky thinking by NY Times OpEd writer Farhad Manjoo.

But why on earth (pun intended) would we do that?  Well, according to the marvellously creative Mr. Manjoo, our current reality of fake news, alternative facts and outright, barefaced lying opens the door to bending the truth for the greater good. Let’s face it, playing ‘let’s pretend’ for something of paramount importance would be a refreshing take on the now seemingly acceptable art of the untruth.

In Manjoo’s Wag the Dog scenario (by the way if you haven’t seen this marvellous Hoffman/De Niro black comedy about a spin doctor and a Hollywood producer who fabricate a war to distract voters from a presidential sex scandal, you really should — it’s hilarious) the threat of an alien invasion is the lever to get humanity off its collective arse and working together to save it’s collective bacon. Imagine if you will, the world receives a tweet from the alien leader “We will boil your planet alive. Only a carefully designed plan for cutting and capturing emissions will save you now, suckers!” It might be a bit of a stretch that said alien leader has such a good command of the English vernacular. Maybe she was equipped with one of those Babel Fish so useful to travellers in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? You know the ones, when played in your ear, these clever fish will live there and translate any form of language for you. Yup, I believe everything I read.

All joking aside, we humans have always been stellar at responding to external threats. We’re not so flash at changing our own behaviours, particularly if it means trading off some of our comforts and taking decisions that will hit our wallets. But seeing off a threat from potentially “murderous aliens” to save the planet might just galvanise us.As Manjoo says, “Even for people who do believe in global warming, pretending that aliens are attacking the earth accomplishes a neat mental trick. It helps to frame the scope of the threat — civilizational, planet-encompassing — while also suggesting how we might respond: immediately, collectively and for as long as it takes.”

And it could work! All you have to do is consider the hysteria that broke out in the US on October 30, 1938, when a 62-minute radio dramatisationof The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells (confusingly produced and narrated by Orson Welles) was broadcast. Apparently even people who had never heard Welles reading the HG Wells story about invading Martians wielding deadly heat-rays later claimed to have been terrified. Welles used simulated on-the-scene radio reports ostensibly by the military and air force about aliens advancing on New York City to pep up the story. According to popular myth, thousands of New Yorkers fled their homes in panic, with swarms of terrified citizens crowding the streets in different American cities to catch a glimpse of a “real space battle”. While this over-reaction has lately been outed as largely urban myth it’s not hard to imagine something similar happening in our current reality. I’m thinking about the arsenals of special effects available to film makers that could achieve genuine mass hysteria and harness it for good. Sadly, it’s also totally imaginable that we could harness it for worse, but let’s give humanity the benefit of the doubt here and assume we’d do the right thing.

OK so this is just fantasy, but it’s the most engaging solution I’ve read so far. Let’s face it, if we hit or exceed two degrees further warming, the scale of potential devastation will be catastrophic. This is not something even progressive governments can tackle in isolation, however well-meaning. Mitigating climate change is no longer just one item on a governmental ‘to do’ list. If we don’t act now, it will become the only thing that matters a damn. The build a wall thinking, the isolationist ‘dwarfs are for dwarfs’ ignorance imaged in C S Lewis’s Narnia finale The Last Battleunderpinning MAGA and, slightly differently, BREXIT, will be patent nonsense in the face of what is to come. Go aliens — pretend or otherwise — save us from ourselves.

P.S. Farhad Manjoo’s articleis entertaining and (by my way of thinking) totally on the money if you have a few minutes to spare.

Statements of the bleeding obvious #201: Nice doctors really do make a difference!

It’s amazing how many times what’s billed as breakthrough new research really just confirms what we already understand from experience. Stuff like the fact that singing is good for us and can prolong our lives. That dogs and other animals lift the spirits of long-term hospital patients … as well as mostly everyone else. That laughter is infectious. That lovesickness is a genuine state.

OK, so we’re in an era where it’s possible and considered desirable to research esoteric and non-fundamental subjects. I’m cool with that — non-fundamental subjects like these actually make a lot of difference to our daily lives bringing cheer and happiness, often in dark times. So providing evidence that they really do achieve what  we intuitively feel they do is fab … even if the headlines they provoke seem more like statements of the bleeding obvious than radical insights into the  human psyche.

It most definitely is good to know that singing regularly could prolong my life — I do enough of it after all. It’s a bonus to know that, as well as the immediate buzz from   opening your larynx and letting rip, it’s a gift that keeps on giving in the all-of-life context. Also great to know empirically that my love of animals — near obsession it has to be said — is healthy. That bringing animals into hospitals is genuinely therapeutic and can bring comfort to people in pain or despair. Who hasn’t ever listened to a friend break out into a great belly laugh and  been been compelled to laugh too? Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone … so true. And love sickness? Well, it’s been a while since Apollo fired an arrow into my tender  heart and catalysed all the turbulent symptoms I described in an earlier blog You Make Me Sick! But I haven’t forgotten the visceralality of it all — there’s no question in my mind, it’s a lurg just as debilitating as a fluey cold.

At the weekend, I read another about one of these completely unsurprising research findings. Can A Nice Doctor Make Treatments More Effective? Well dear reader, if you were in any doubt on this count, according to new research by Stamford University in the US, having a doctor who is warm and reassuring actually improves your health. REALLY? Who knew? Most of us I would have thought. I found this astonishing non-news in weekly round up of good news from the New York Times. It’s full of great stories and I love it.

Last week comes Romeo the Sehuencas water frog to my inbox. Romeo is a very rare creature. He was thought to be the last of his type. No Juliet to be found anywhere, let alone on ‘yonder balcony’. Day after endless day, sad Romeo croaked out “Juliet, Juliet, wherefore art thou Juliet?” from his home in a Bolivian museum. Actually what he said was, “ribbet, ribbet, ribbet …” but where’s the poetry in that? Cutting to the chase, biologists had pretty much given up their search in the remote and inaccessible areas of Bolivia where said Juliet might have been found. Then behold! There she was. Juliet the miracle frog — a potential mate for our lonesome hero. Being the only two Sequencas water frogs in existence, it was set to be a fine romance and I’d love to be able to say, “and they both lived happily ever after”. But even for a frog with only one possible mate, the chemistry still has to be right. Imagine the pressure! Without mincing words, would you be prepared to shag some random stranger to preserve our species? Fine if it’s George Clooney.  Not so fine if … well, the list is endless. But then again, unlike Romeo, no one I know is faced with the decision to take one for the future of our species and it’s easy to be precious when we’re in no imminent danger of extinction … unless we keep  messing with our natural habitat that is. All joking aside, a lot is riding on our precious frog prince. Let’s hope the chemistry is there and they soon start producing copious numbers of wee froglets to perpetrate their froggy line.

But back to nice doctors. Apparently the simple things a doctor says to you can have an impact on your health outcomes. Even a brief reassurance can relieve symptoms faster. The reassurance is more efficacious when it’s said in a kindly manner rather than barked out as a “you’ll be fine” afterthought when you leave the surgery. You can’t quite get away from the fact that the doctor has to be skilled and competent as well as nice. However, most of us have been on the receiving end of one of those grumpy types whose you mistake me for someone who cares demeanour is more likely to cause you to lose the will to live altogether than get well. Their cool indifference renders you as articulate as … well .. a frog .. when you try to describe the pain that was giving you hell until it magically disappeared nano-seconds after you made the appointment..

Anyway, the conclusion of the research was that doctors who don’t connect with their patients my risk undermining a treatment’s success. Apparently doctor-patient rapport is much more than the sum of it’s feel good parts. It’s a important aspect of medical care that significantly affects a patient’s physical health. Are you kidding me? It really does feel like a statement of the bleeding obvious that someone who is kind and sympathetic as well as good at their job is likely to achieve a better result.

The article ended by questioning what this means in the brave new world of artificial intelligence. AI opens the possibility of not having to go to the doctor for minor health issues. If interacting with a human being and hearing words of encouragement is part of the cure, this begs the wider question of whether our increasing isolation is actively bad for our health. As the opportunities and need for actually connecting with a fellow human in many aspects of our lives become progressively fewer, what collateral damage are we setting ourselves up for. Romeo the frog couldn’t help his plight. We can, and yet we continue to write people out of the script of our lives. When us humans humans actually get together face-to-face is, we open up the possibility for  laughter and  love. For conviviality and banter. We get to share the good and help each other through the bad times. You don’t need to be a Stamford luminary  to recognise that gentle and kind connections with other people — Doctors and the rest — are seriously good for our health and unkind, cruel ones are not. Comforting to know this is now “proven by scientists”.

 

Happy New Year … you’re under arrest!

Two burly, unsmiling cops barge into my office and stride purposefully to my desk. “Frances Manwaring?” the taller and meaner of the barks at me. “Er … yes,” I say a little tremulously, wondering what they want. “Frances Manwaring, you’re under arrest. You have the right to remain silent … ” As the cop reels off my Miranda rights, I wonder if I’m in the middle of a nightmare. I pinch myself to be sure, but voice drones on…

OK, so I didn’t get arrested — just wanted to build the drama of the piece. But seriously, it was how I imagined things might have gone down if my business partner hadn’t gone to collect our mail from our PO Box on Tuesday. This is a rare event — nothing of any use comes by snail these days so weeks can go past without either of us stirring our stumps to go and pick up whatever dross has gathered dust. In this case it had been only been a relatively short gap since the last visit and that only because I’m in the middle of a transaction in the UK with an antediluvian, seemingly technophobic insurance company for whom physical mail, for some unfathomable reason, is the only way it will communicate.

Anyway, back comes John with a bundle of letters, mostly bank statements and the usual junk promos. While we’re on the subject, what is it with banks? Mine seem hell-bent on squandering whole forests by continuing to send paper statements, even though I’ve opted for digital versions more times than Kim Kardashian changes her handbags. But I digress — back to the main event. Because I’m hoping to find a reply from the annoying UK insurer, I don’t just lob the whole lot into the recycle bin as I often do. Thats an inspired decision as it turns out. Irritatingly, the hoped for insurance missive isn’t in the stack. Instead, lurking amongst the wad of bank statements, is a formal looking item with “OPEN IMMEDIATELY!” emblazoned on the envelope. How intriguing I think … how very Alice in Wonderland. Then I notice the Ministry of Justice crest and figure it must be something follow up from the Jury Service stint I did in early November. Being a complaint sort of person (!), I open it immediately as instructed without any concerns. But a brief first scan of the the short letter almost stopped my heart.

Nothing magical about this missive! Turns out it’s a summons to appear in court on Thursday at 11am. I’m reading it on Tuesday at about 4.50pm, so the imminence is pretty alarming. Has to be a mistake I think. Must have read it wrong. Reading it again does nothing to alter my first impression — it’s definitely a summons and it’s definitely addressed to me, so not a case of mistaken identity. And the heinous crime that requires my presence in court? A speeding infringement from mid-2016. The letter contains a helpful, but not very imaginative infographic (being MD of a creative agency, I’m quite up on what makes a good infographic) depicting the scary steps involved in the apocalypse triggered by this infringement. If you don’t pay the fine instantly, you get a reminder and some grace to stump up (Step 1). After continued ignoring of reminders (Step 2), the up the ante with a summons to court (Step 3). Failure to appear leads to arrest (Step 4).

Poorly rendered though this infographic is (note to self – send our credentials to MOJ and see if they need a new creative agency), I’m now more than a little freaked out. Us head girl types don’t get summoned to appear in court, it’s just not in our DNA! Anyway, it’s now 4.59pm and I panic dial the Ministry’s 0800 quicker than you can say Great Train Robbers to see WTF is going on and what I can do about it. I thank my lucky stars to find someone still taking calls (at a government agency) after 5pm and I have a very convivial conversation with this saintly person who clearly doesn’t think I’m an axe murderer. Having cleared that up, we quickly cut to the chase. The problem turns out to be a timing issue. I’d just moved house at about the time it happened, so didn’t receive the original fine notice (thanks whoever moved into that house after me and didn’t forward my mail). Then I didn’t notify my change of address to the powers that be before the reminder was sent out, so I also didn’t receive that (another heartfelt thank you to the new incumbent).

It was a little un-nerving how much information about my movements my new BFF was able to access while we were talking. I did vocalise somewhat stridently (not too stridently as I didn’t want to get offside with MOJ) my disappointment and surprise that only the one reminder appears to have been sent, and that there had been no subsequent communications until this summons to court more than two years later. In any case, I had to agree it was a fair cop as I hadn’t sent the change of address out immediately and it was therefore on me that the documents never found me. As you can imagine, I threw in a few mea culpas at this point. I’m sure youll be very happy to know that all it took to fix the problem was a credit card and $60 of creditworthiness. I certainly was! The irony of it all was that the original fine was only something like $12, the rest being penalties and court fees which couldn’t be waived because of my failure to notify change of address. However, she assures me I dont  have to make an appearance in court appearance and the long arm of the law wont be reaching out for me and we’re done. Phew!

Later, I pondered the astonishing amount of effort that goes into a minor misdemeanour when so much other big crime goes unchecked. That’s a story of its own, but there’s another side to this issue. I’ve moved several times in the last few years. I’m pretty diligent about sending out change of address notices to people like the Transport Authority, and I genuinely thought I had notified them all after that particular move. Apparently not. Some time ago I decided to get around this by using my business PO Box as my personal address to avoid all the hassle involved.

But my point is how easy it is to get offside with the law. Many people less advantaged than me also move a lot for all sorts of reasons, including financial or family difficulties. Many more have temporary addresses or no address. For sure, a proportion of these won’t own or drive cars, so won’t be in line to clock up traffic offences. However, I’m sure many of them do and I wonder how much of our policing time is spent arresting people who, like me, didn’t ever get the fine notices in the first place? Being generous, I’m sure most of us would actually stump up, particularly as they offer payment terms.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing with the law. Curtailing the speed at which people drive makes us all safer and I do try to stay within the legal limits. I’m sure there are recidivists who never pay and deserve to be prosecuted because they clearly don’t care about the consequences. However, from this experience it’s easy to see how quickly things can escalate and suddenly you’re in trouble. I’m sure I wouldn’t actually have been banged up, but I might have landed a criminal record if I’d been convicted. I ended up thinking there but for the grace of God go I if John had postponed his trip to our PO Box by 2 days. Timing is everything! Happy New Year indeed.

Ghosts from Christmases past #2: Hip hip hooray!

Spending Christmas in hospital would not high on my Dear Santa wish list. I apologise in advance to all those dedicated and wonderful doctors and nurses who are rostered on through holidays to look after the hapless hoardes who are ill or break themselves at Christmas. Nope, those guys do a heroic job. But hospital at Christmas – it’s just not living the dream is it? It has to be said, I have been one of the hapless Christmas A&E admissions, having snapped my Achilles tendon on holiday on Christmas Eve a few years ago and I was truly grateful (a) that it happened in the early morning so I wasn’t competing with all the drunks that clog the system later in the day/night and (b) that those dedicated and wonderful types were with great good grace (amen) to put this Humpty together again without any kings’ horses or men in sight.

Still and all, a festive hospital visit is just not anyone’s top choice as a holiday destination. And yet, fifteen years ago, it actually was. I needed what is amusingly referred to as ‘elective surgery’. Elective because you can, in theory, choose whether to have it or not, and when, as the condition doesn’t need to be dealt to at a particular time — i.e. it isn’t life threatening. The whole elective thing is laughable. Big yeah right! In many cases there is a choice, but that happens when your surgeon accepts that your pain is so extreme that you’d likely go insane if you had to bear it for a nano-second longer.

To give you the back story, I had both hip joints replaced in my late thirties. I was unusually young, but by no means unique. There were a number of things wrong with me each one of which on its own wouldn’t have been much of an issue, but collectively combined to wreck the joints. Because of my age, my surgeon held the surgery off as long as he could because he was worried about future complications — the prostheses only last so long and there are only so many times you can effectively replace the replacements because apparently you run out of femur to play with (sorry if this is a little close to the … er … bone for some). It was all about probabilities. How long the replacement joints would last, how long I would live If the first was shorter than anticipated and the latter longer, I faced seeing my life out in a wheel chair. In any case, my condition deteriorated at a rate that would have made an Apollo Space Craft seem laboured. Movement became very limited, quality of life nose-dived and ultimately the pain became so bad he relented. I had both of them ‘done’ within a year of each other. Happy days!

Anyway, the ops were a tremendous success. I got my life and mobility back, the pain was miraculously gone and I was a happy little camper. Then several years later comes ‘The Fall. Before you get worried about my state of innocence, I don’t mean fall in the Biblical sense. No, my fall was getting a bit carried away at an al fresco party and missed my footing in the dark on the edge of some concrete circle we’d turned into an impromptu dance floor. Seemed like a great idea at the time. Wouldn’t have been too big a deal if I hadn’t landed so hard that one of my prostheses came loose. Back to limping, pain and the certainty of more surgery.

This time, there was no question of the surgeon putting up a fight — the revision clearly needed to be done and it was only a question of when. Luckily for me, I have a private health care plan which meant I really was in a position to choose a time that would be the least disruptive to my life. The first slot that my surgeon could offer was just before Christmas, meaning I would be in hospital for Christmas and Boxing Day. The next option was weeks away and, once I’d thought about it and got over the poor me aspect of it all, the Christmas timing was actually ideal. The private hospital I went to was very close to my house, so easy for family visits and minimal unscheduled time off work.

In all seriousness, apart from the fact that undergoing surgery of this sort is not a walk in the woods, once I’d got over the immediate effects of the anaesthetic and the post op trauma had passed, it was actually quite fun. I had a lovely big airy room on the corner of the hospital all to myself. The nurses were a great bunch, some were old friends from previous incarcerations. I think they were grateful to swop stories with someone who was under 85 to be honest as they dropped in more than was strictly necessary and we had a lot of laughs. It didn’t stop there. I had had more visitors than I probably would have had at home, and I didn’t have to lift a finger on the festive cooking front. The food wasn’t half bad, particularly a pretty yummy (for an institution) roast turkey dinner on the big day, washed down with one of those cute little miniature bottles of a hearty red and the decorations were pretty flash. Best of all, I didn’t have to suffer through all the endless repetitions of canned Christmas music. By the way, does anyone other than me find the whole idea that Santa sees you while you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake a bit creepy and stalkerish? Anyway, I was out by New Year and well into the familiar rehab routine.

Now that we’re in the hiatus between Christmas and New Year, there’s a bit of time to ruminate about stuff. This morning, in one of those desultory conversations one has with friends and family, my mother and I somehow meandered into comparing the vintage of our artificial joints. Tragic, I know but hips seem to be our family thing. We’ve all had them done. Big difference is when they were done; grandfather (late eighties and only one), father (early eighties and only one), uncle (well into his sixties and only one), mother (both — late fifties and early sixties) and sister (mid-fifties — one so far, but counting down to the next). Then there was me in my late thirties, not sure what happened there! Anyway, my mother’s first prosthesis is a venerable 25 whereas mine is a stripling at 20. No-one really knows how long they will last because everyone’s activity levels are different. Equally the vast majority of the recipients of artificial hips are quite old and so it’s difficult to measure average lifespans as the first one generally sees them out. However, 20 is thought to be a pretty good age, so mum and I were musing how much longer ours would hold out.

We also reprised a regular foray into imagining what our parallel universes would have thrown up  if this amazing technology had not been available to us. To be honest, It doesn’t bear thinking about. If we’d been born before the middle of the last century, we’d both likely be cripples, even if either of us was still alive.Early attempts at hip replacement were carried out in Germany in 1891 using ivory to substitute for the femur head. These were attached with nickel-plated screws, Plaster of Paris and glue. Hmmmm. Not surprising this approach didn’t take off. The pre-cursor to current techniques was pioneered in 1940 in South Carolina by US surgeon Dr Austin T Moore who performed the first metallic hip replacement surgery.  A more sophisticated version – the ‘Austin Moore Prothesis’ — was introduced in 1952 and is apparently still used occasionally. Like modern hip implants, it is inserted into the medullary canal of the femur, and depends on bone growth through a hole in the stem for long-term attachment. Another apology here if this creeps anyone out!

It’s always so tempting to think about the golden age that we perceive existed in our grand parents’ eras. Apparently, every generation since the newspapers rolled off the early printing presses felt this sort of nostalgia for imagined glories past, underlined by a fear of change and what it means for the future. Every time I get caught in this sentimentality for the halcyon past, all I have to do is think about my great good luck in living now and being on the receiving end of the incredible medical science and technology that is our norm. Even with all the problems we’re facing as a species, I’m grateful from the bottom of my soul that surgical advances have allowed me to live a full, pain free and normal life. When I think of Christmas miracles, my hospital experience in 2003 would have to be one of them. If we can achieve all this, surely we clever, inventive Simians, can find the tools to figure out the other stuff. Hip hip hooray to that!