Saturday, 28 April 2012

Life on hold but hopeful

I have been sitting in my van, listening to the rain. There has been a lot of rain and I am told there will continue to be so. It was, after all, inevitable after the pronouncements of drought by the weathermen. But the rain falls on the metal roof of the van and I sit wistfully, regarding my reclaimed cedar cladding and watching the rain run in rivulets down the windows.
 The tendency to introspection engendered by the atmospheric and moody (Literally!) charm of rain is much portrayed in popular culture of all types, but sitting in here, the picture of Me Old Dad looking down at me with amusement, the longing for adventure is poignantly underlined by the tip-tapping of huge rain drops outside, like a thousand unsynchronised tap-dancing weasels on my roof. I look longingly at the steering wheel, reminded that the DVLA (the government dept responsible for all matters automotive) still have not given me the go-ahead to drive.
I have no idea if driving would be a challenge for me yet. I suspect not. Mostly it is brain stem stuff and automatic, but perhaps my still-addled attention machinery might pose some level of risk. Hard to say until I try and until I get the letter from their medical panel, I suppose I can't try.

So, I sit in my van and I potter. I make a new cupboard with the remainder of the ancient planks and admire the beauty of the woodgrain. And the rain falls. And I Imagine it is sea-rain, driven off the Atlantic after a long day's paddling about in my kayak.
My Sit-on-Top Kayak. My favourite toy, by the sea at Putsborough
 When I got my van, it was a ex-railway crew-van, with all manner of industrial gadgetry inside. It all had to come out. And gradually, I have built it into a comfortable mobile beach cabin and lodgings without spending any significant cash on doing so (except for the £450 I got from the sale of the van's Predecessor which the kids affectionately named "Venus" after an astronomical event a few years ago - it is a Transit, you see).

But given my recent gift of New Perspective, I am eager to rejoin life. There are things I am impatient to do, like get traveling and "doing stuff!". There are beautiful woodlands to explore.

Lower Woods, Inglestone Common, Gloucestershire.
 There are distant, historical towns to visit, where we can walk at twilight and perhaps eat dinner in some rustic restaurant where they only seem to serve dishes containing duck or goose.
There are moody sunsets to be watched as they fade to dark, when we can retreat inside the van, draw the curtains, make some cocoa and read the papers before going to sleep, with the rain pit-pattering reassuringly on the roof, as we drift off cocooned snugly in warmth and comfort.

And in the morning, after a hearty breakfast, the rain will have stopped

there will be a walk along the beach and the space will get into my head and all will be mellow and happy.
But first I have to get back to full health and to be allowed to drive.
It won't be long. And then, there is Stuff to Do and I am going to jolly well do it! You just watch me!

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Just mooching

Sitting, looking out of the window at the garden yesterday,  I couldn't help admiring the goldfinches on the bird feeder. Occasionally a magnificent bullfinch and his wife would come along, but they are too timid for me to photograph. It was sunny then and as yet no clouds had rolled across the blue skies as harbingers of the dismal inclemency the weather was due to offer later.
I think goldfinches are almost too exotic and beautiful to be British birds
It occurred to me I had been sitting far too long and ought to go for a walk.
I have been doing a lot of walking. Its the only exercise I can do at the moment and I try to do some every day. Yesterday, I walked the mile and a half down to Yate which is the nearest town with a reasonable shopping area. It is a bit of a blot on the landscape and mostly I try to forget Yate Shopping centre exists. But on the way, there is a rather quiet and tidy housing estate and many of the gardens have the most beautiful trees, mainly prunus or malus.
The camera did not capture the true purple deliciousness of this tree
I wore my favourite hat, since by then it was raining and it makes a fine mini umbrella. It is a wool-felt fedora my son persuaded me to buy in M&S one day and I think it is rather stylish.
Imagine my surprise then when two late-teenage girls, blobbing along ungraciously in some type of ugg-boot type footwear decided my hat was hilarious. I stood looking ruefully at them as their sponge-boots wicked up water from the puddles and wondered a little at the notion of what people can be persuaded to do in the name of conformity. At least my hat is practical.

My purchases completed, (some brass hinges for a new cupboard in my van - bought in one of the few remaining "real" hardware shops and handed to me in a brown paper bag) I was tired so I stopped at the cafe in the centre of the precinct. I ordered a mug of tea and a sultana scone. My roots are showing when I say that in my mind, this rhymes with "stone" as changing one letter would not seem to me to be a reason to override the rule of the "magic e" I learned in "look and read" in 1970.
A quiet girl, perhaps twenty years old or so, served me. As she looked up and handed me my change, I saw her eyes and they were really quite beautiful. I was momentarily dumbstruck and then after a moment, we both became embarrassed and I scurried off with my tray. Once, in 1984, in Woolworths in Pontypridd, a similar thing happened and I actually plucked up courage to tell the owner of the eyes that I thought them beautiful, which seemed to brighten her day. In this case, I am old and she is young and it would probably seem creepy. So I sat down and and consumed my tea and scone.

Refreshed, I walked home through the rain. It had eased off a little now so getting nearer home, I popped into the allotment to check on progress. Hmm.. peas not up. No sign of the turnips or spring onions. Well, it has been cold. Broad beans are looking good and strawberries promise a good crop.
I use landscape fabric and carpet to keep the weeds down on beds I have yet to plant anything in. Lifting one corner of a carpet, a movement caught my eye. It was a toad. A small one.
Meanwhile at the allotment, I lifted some carpet and...
I stroked its warty back a couple of times because I wanted to feel the texture of it. It felt unbelievably cold for a living thing. Then I covered it up again and left it in peace.
Picking a handful of late broccoli for lunch, I headed home since the rain had now got more insistent. It wasn't an auspicious morning, but it's good to feel part of the hustle and bustle of life again.
Then it started raining again.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Getting away from it all.

A couple of months ago whilst visiting my son for the weekend in Plymouth, I espied this little gem of a beach hut on the old part of the Plymouth sea front. It was built into the slope that characterises the older cliffs-and-concrete ediface that is where Plymouth Hoe meets the sea.
I took a sneaky snap of the cabin because I thought the space and the idea behind it was so delightful. How lovely to take a book and a picnic and on those days when there are no pressing commitments and the sun is shining or even intermittent, and to head off to ones own little sanctuary for the day. My love of beach cabins is perhaps apparent from my banner picture. Perhaps my van is a mobile proxy since I do not live immediately by the sea. I have seen beach cabins all over the country in their colourful lines facing beaches and stretches of rocky shingle adjoining the ocean. I don't know if this is a particularly British phenomenon as I have rarely been to the seaside in other countries. But this one has a very English feel to it.

I just had to get a photo as I passed by. I know it was intrusive to do so but I suspect the tenant of the cabin is extremely unlikely to pass by this humble page. And even should he do so, I would explain how uplifted I was to see his little space by the sea and how homely and cheerful he had made it. I also very much approve of his choice of headwear. He must be a splendid fellow indeed!
And the view was, given the glorious early spring weather, quite beautiful. My picture does not do it justice. I am not often covetous but I am deeply envious of this chap's opportunity to sit in comfortable solitude with a cup of tea and look out at Drake's Island and the sea beyond.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Not quite Phineas Gage but...

For my birthday last week, I went to see a neurosurgeon. Well, it wasn't for my birthday, but it was a worthy day to sped visiting such an august fellow. I do so admire experts, especially those who you would be happy to sit next to at a dinner party, should I ever get invited to one.

He was an interesting fellow and answered all my questions, which have been burning in the area of my brain which deals with curiosity for sometime.

So, to quickly explain, merely by way of illustration of a point I want to come to later, about my lingering interesting symptoms and their explanation: The gentleman in question listened patiently for me to articulate precisely my frustrations and to ask for some understanding of the nature of their origin.
Then he got out his brain. Well, not his brain, obviously, but a life-sized model of a brain in, I suppose, carefully modeled plastic. I was shown the places through which the arteries and viens are routed and the point at which my own creaky blood vessels had succumbed to the pressure and let out some of their contents into spaces where there shouln't be blood.

"But!" cried I in indignate incomprehension "If my own haemorrage was down at the less scary end of the scale, why all the fuss and headaches?"
Apparently, at the other end of the spectrum, huge bleeds fill the ventricles of the brain and kill its owner immediately. I did not have such a serious form of this affliction, fortunately. But nevertheless, the brain does not like blood in the wrong place and finds it extremely irritating and disruptive to function, even with a relatively small bleed. It's still, apparently, extremely serious and not to be taken lightly. I started to calm down a little.

So, the esteemed gentleman continued, the part of my brain afflicted was the pre-frontal cortex. It seems there is still a lot of "cellular debris" and the wreckage of clots hanging around in various membranes, disrupting the blood flow and causing various problems with normal brain activity, and this will continue for some months if not a year.
"Just what kind of activity?", I wondered aloud.

Well, quoth he, "executive functions". And this is where it gets interesting. It is now understood from extremely credible evidence, that the pre-frontal cortex deals with interesting higher functions of mental processing such as motivation, decision making, attention and personality. It is, he said (and after all, he should know!), "that part of the brain which makes us us"
"Ahh!" I exclaimed mischievously "That's where the soul lives!"
I surmised from his expression that he had long since discounted the notion, given his understanding of the machinery of cognition and concsciousness.

However, motivation here is a fascinating concept. It is not, as it might initially seem, that which causes us to want to go to a football match or consume another pint of beer, or even strive towards a goal at work. Though, it is implicated in all of those. No, in this case motivation means "that which causes us to want to choose one course of action over another on an unconscious level".
You can probably see then how it has and effect upon attention and decision making. Given a panoply of data from the eyes, ears, nose and perhaps a rumbly tum, the brain has to categorise that information and choose what significance to apportion to it.
This was helpful when there were leopards, for instance, because a leopard shape glimpsed fleetingly through the trees was a more powerful piece of information than "Gods! I could murder a yam!" or "Ogg has a splendid new loin cloth. I wonder where he got it", at least where survival was concerned. Those who put their attention in the wrong place perhaps ended their introspective days under the hooves of an angry bison and did not get to pass on those genes, leaving their more switched-on contemporaries to survive to produce us (though sometimes looking around me in a shopping centre, I do wonder at the results of this particular selection process...)

Hence attention seems not to be under our control. It is directed by an unconscious decision making process based upon inputs from our senses, apportioning relevence and accordingly causing us to look in that direction regardless of our previous interesting thoughts. And this is the case for the defence when I find my eye drawn by a pert female bottom on a sunny day at the beach. But I digress in a shameful manner.

When I am in a roomful of people and there are mutliple conversations going on, I currently find it distressing. That process which directs my attention and decides where I should focus it is not functioning correctly. Because of the detrimental effects of this aspect of my brain of bits of blood clot and inflamatory agents from my immune system, I am unable to follow a conversation in the presence of other information. At this point, my mind stalls and I have a small kind of panic attack. Usually someone notices and takes me to one side and gives me a biscuit or something, for which I am grateful. But it is a wonderful illustration of how the brain works (or in my case, currently doesn't work).

So, on further investigation, I discover there are other bits: The amygdala which recognises emotional stimuli and flags them to the aforementioned frontal lobe for processing, the facial fusiform gyrus which deals with facial recognition and interpretation of expression, the anterior cingulate cortex which (I think) deals with error detection in expected perceptions (for an understanding of how this bit is exercised, try saying out loud the colours of the following words - Blue Purple Red. Thats called the "Stroop Test" and you have probably seen it before).
Its all really rather exquisitely put together and connected.

But what comes across to me again and again is just how contingent upon the integrity of the brain our cognition and consciousness is. Having had mine not working properly, I am fascinated by the way the function of the system (i.e. me and my personality and all the things I do, say and experience) is dependent upon the correct functioning of all of its parts together.

And though I may look at this process - the process as the man says which makes me me - with awe and fascination, I cannot help but begin to reaslise it is nothing but (and this in no way diminishes its spectacular wonder) a very powerful and complex difference engine - an analogue computer, if you will, which balances up a number of inputs to provide an output.

Ok the resultant phenomenon of consciousness which I enjoy every day (except for some periods during sleep) is pretty amazing. But it appears to be an emergent property of this incredible and complex machine (which currently is providing me with an altered view of consciousness on account of not working in the same way as usual). There are evident and glaring conclusions from the recent improved discoveries of neuroscience. I shall not go into those here because sometimes I find my views upset or offend people.

But for now, I shall continue to work with this astonishing machine that evolution has provided me with and since it has no manual, I shall carry on seeing what it can do by playing with it and being generally in a state of childlike delight at what I subsequently discover. Even when it's playing up a bit.

Saturday, 7 April 2012


We went to Avebury today. It's always been a favourite place of mine and does have a strange spooky air about it. I need to keep on with my walking, if I am to get back to fitness, so we chose this grey, drizzly day to wander round the stones. For some reason, four and a half thousand years ago or thereabouts, some people decided to drag a bunch of huge stones, some weighing several tonnes, to form three circles. Nobody knows why they did it but many hypotheses, none of which will ever be proven, have been put forward. I personally think it is a more impressive and accessible neolithic monument than Stonehenge and I cannot really work out why it is not as well known.
People seemed to have lived in that area since at least the mesolithic. Stone tools from about 11000 years ago have been found nearby. At that time, instead of the huge flat plain of the Marlborough downs, it would have been densely wooded. Quite when the de-forestation happened, I don't know. I know there was a huge population explosion around the Iron Age, but I have heard this was already a bleak, undulating landscape at the time of the building of the Avebury circles some 4600 years ago.

I shall not attempt to describe the place. There is too much to say for my current level of stamina and lyrical waxings are already abundant without me attempting to add another one.
There are many places online and in real books, where a description can be found of the circles and henges, along with some, occasionally bonkers, ideas about who put the stones there and what their purpose might be.I like to think it was done as the result of a drunken and earnest commitment one night after a few skins of mead: "Hey! You know what we should do? We should make an enormous stone circle out of some of these rocks! That would be a laugh, wouldn't it!" and then next morning, nobody felt they could back out without losing face so they had to build it and it all got rather out of hand.

But given the nature of life back then, I suppose it isn't hard to imagine it being some attempt to gain favour or influence with the Supernatural. When Winters meant death for the unprepared and you could expect half of your children to die before the age of five, an appeal to any supernatural agent must feel better than doing nothing. Possibly it was a cathedral of its day, offering equal efficacy in Conversing With The Weather as do its modern day equivalents.

What is funny to see, however, are the occasional "Druids" with long hair, grizzled beards and usually the obligatory Runestaff, who tend to appear on auspicious dates such as around May 1st or the Summer solstice (though rarely the Winter one, which to my mind would have been far more significant to people dependent upon the clemency of the elements. Bu thten, it is rather cold at that time of year) . It tickles me that "subtle Energies" are prostrated to and Unseen Powers are colluded with. I am never sure quite how such people square their appeals to elemental authorities with the patent lack of results that are their reward. I suppose it's all down, inevitably, to interpretation. As a child, I found magic easy to understand, but I was so very disappointed to find out it didn't actually exist. I suppose some never quite get over that disappointment.

Nevertheless, it is a special place and does evoke feelings of one's own impermanence compared to the passing of epochs and the countless generations that have come and gone since these megaliths were erected. On a blustery day in April, puffing and wheezing up the ramparts of the henge, it is impossible not to feel a sense of mystery at the questions raised by such a spectacular monument.
And that is my burst of creativity and controversy for today. I think two codeine and a stiff brandy are in order now.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

An insight

Well, it has been just over four weeks now since my mishap and I feel pretty much ok most of the time. So, I decided to see if I could write more than a two-sentence status update on facebook. Its a kind of experiment see. I need to know I still have all my marbles.

I have been making a lot of bread but I shall describe that elsewhere. Its very sequential and involves no decisions so I can do that.
Mrs E is in the kitchen making lovely things out of silver, as she does. My daughter is upstairs finishing a skirt on her sewing machine so I decided I would attempt this most miniscule act of creativity, as apart from the breadmaking (which i confess pleases me disproportionately), I have done very little except lie around watching science programmes on telly or walking.
I confess my brain is not yet up to scratch and so I apologise in advance for the probably poor quality of this post. But it's a start. Here is some of my bread. It's called "Fougasse" and was wonderful. I made the wine as well (plum). But alcohol has a powerful effect on me at the minute so I didn't finish the glass.
It has been an interesting month but not one I would care to repeat. I hope I shan't. But it has given me an insight into a few things, mainly, what it is like to find the world utterly confusing and completely bewildering.

My mother works at the Citizens Advice Bureau. It's a laudable way to sped one's spare time and I fear for it's continued existence in these austere times. I know the one occasion I had need of their help they were extremely helpful.It's quite handy to have someone in the family now who can advise on such things as employment law and consumer rights.
However, talking to her, I get the sense of the incredible complexity of modern life. A few hundred years ago, people had more serious worries certainly: Will there be enough for my children to eat? Will a marauding army come and burn our village down and kill us all? Will my children die of rickets/plague/a cut finger turned septicaemic?
But they had fewer and more tangible worries. Now life is so complex and so full of small but important details that can trip up even the most organised citizen; Have I filled in my tax return correctly? Is my car insured/taxed/MOTed? Do I have enough pension contributions to ensure I don't have to burn the furniture to keep warm when I retire? etc..

And so, not being of sound mind for a few weeks, with a brain running on far fewer cylinders than I am accustomed to, I have found many things utterly incomprehensible (like, more than two people in a room holding a conversation, for instance.)

So, when I hear of the plight of some poor folks who turn up at the C.A.B. with their IQ of 85 (as some must have if the average is set at 100 because that's how standard deviation works) with various forms they have to fill in because their job has gone away, there are no others and they are forced to claim benefits for a while, I think I understand a little of the bewilderment they must feel. No wonder they get in a muddle over things and get into debt.
For the first time, I am allowing the van insurance to be renewed automatically because I don't have the mental horsepower to phone up and compare the factors involved in choosing a (probably) cheaper provider. Normally, this would be a challenge to get the best deal. But I am, frankly, too thick to undertake it this year. Too Much Information.

And so, I now have a clearer perspective on how confusing the minutiae of everyday existence is in the 21st century for some people. Because frankly, befuddlement and consternation are common companions of mine at the moment when I contemplate the file of outstanding paperwork that I have stuffed in a drawer awaiting sorting out.

Anyway, enough of that: I was going to post a nice picture of some flowers to end on but blogger is acting up again so I can't. The bread pic took a quarter of an hour. I have been doing a lot of walking lately, as it's all I am allowed to do. On my wanderings, I have seen a lot of lovely things which I shall describe another time. But for now despite the neck-ache and throbbing cranium, I feel a reasonable sense of satisfaction that I can still string together some reasonable paragraphs without nodding off. Thank you for your tolerance :-) <-- uncharacteristic smiley.