Yo Yo Mar is one of my heroes. His passion for music is inspirational. For the past few years I’ve been writing a novel with music as the theme, and this quote sums up what connects my three interlinked stories: “I have always been very curious, wondering, above all, what is it that makes us human? It took me many years to realize that music is one way that we ask, and answer, that question.”
Confronting the question: “what is it that makes us human?” is surely the fundamental reason for writing a novel, no?
On the first anniversary of 9/11, Yo Yo Ma played a Bach cello suite at Ground Zero on the first anniversary of 9/11. The video of that performance inspired this extract from my first chapter:
“The Sarabande was the most profoundly moving piece of music he could imagine. Whenever Edward was troubled, he played it in his head. Now, as the solemn notes rolled around the salon, each an extension of silence, the spaces between them filled with hope, courage, and resilience, he was reminded why we make music. The Human Condition—Humanity—this is what Bach explored with these notes.”
I recently spent a week in hospital (hip replacement surgery). With time on my hands, there was plenty of stuff running through my head. I wanted to write some of it down (perhaps for the memoir that is, of course, a never ending work in progress.) But I wasn’t well prepared—no laptop, pad, or even a smart phone. So in the end I resorted to making some notes by hand in the back of a novel I was reading—diary entries about the quirks of hospital life, glimpses of what living with a disability might be like, musings on ageing, claustrophobia, lockdown, why we shouldn’t fear death. This blog post is the result …
DECEMBER 2020. It’s finally time to do something about the arthritis in my right hip. My right leg is shorter than my left and I walk like a ninety-year-old (I’m 67)—bent over like a tree in a hoolie. The pain in my spine and right knee is relentless. There’s no cartilage left. Bone-on-bone …
For a while I’ve been putting this off, head-in-sand style. After all, I can still walk (just about) and windsurf (albeit with so much pain afterwards that I limit myself to an hour max and only when the conditions are special). As the hip deteriorated, my wife, Nikki, has been trying to persuade me to get it sorted before I find myself unable to get out of bed and confined to a wheelchair.
So I book an appointment with a traumatologist at our local hospital (the Quiron, in Costa Adeje, Tenerife). When he sees the Xray, his face folds into a frown. “¿Malo?” I ask. “Sí, artritis severa,” he replies. “You need an operation. You want it next week?”
“Well, umm, I’m not sure…” I was expecting this, but his enthusiasm still comes as a shock. I’m not quite ready to commit there-and-then. He notes my expression and suggests we wait until after Christmas.
Later, I realise just how lucky I am to be offered an operation at all. Since qualifying for my UK state pension in 2018, I’ve been eligible for the Spanish national health system, but most routine surgery has been postponed indefinitely because of The Pandemic. However, when we moved to Tenerife, in 2007, we had to take out private insurance. Now is the time to claim on it.
JANUARY 2021. I see the surgeon again, and he books me in for the op. I have a blood test and a check-up with the anaesthetist. She asks me what blood group I am. I confess I don’t know, but remind her that I’ve just had a blood test. Apparently this wasn’t tested (wtf?), so I make an appointment for some more of my blood to be extracted (it’s the only niggle I had with the hospital during the entire process). The day before the op, I have a Covid test and am relieved when it’s negative. No excuses now.
THURSDAY 28/01/2021. I check in to the Quiron. I’m allocated a bed, undress, and am wheeled down to the operating theatre. This is my first major operation and tbh I’m terrified (not helped by having to sign legal consent forms listing what might go wrong—including the word “death” 😦 )
But there’s no time for second thoughts. A brief, lighthearted conversation with the friendly Danish anaesthetist helps calm the nerves. I’m having an epidural and I request to be unconscious when they’re slicing into me. I remind them which hip is being replaced (maybe their pretence of not knowing was all part of the pre-op de-stressing strategy.)
There’s a sort-of rushing, free-falling sensation—like plunging into a vortex. Then nothingness. Time passes (how much is a mystery) …
I hear voices. Where am I? Who am I? It’s like the time I took too much LSD on my own and lost all sense of myself. The hallucinatory moment gives way to awareness. Consciousness returns. I remember. The pain in my back is intense. I attempt to move, but they tell me I mustn’t. They increase the analgesic medication dripping into my arm, and I resign myself to my situation.
Later, I have some thoughts about being anaesthetised. When you open your eyes and claw yourself back to reality, it’s like waking from a bottomless, dreamless sleep—or like coming round after fainting (if you’ve ever fainted, you’ll know what I mean). The time I spent in the operating theatre is lost from my life. It wasn’t experienced consciously. No memories. No ‘Me’. Nothing. If I hadn’t woken up, I wouldn’t know I was missing—and ignorance is bliss. So, if death is the end of consciousness, there’s really no need to be afraid of it. There won’t be a ‘Me’ to be afraid. I simply won’t exist. No big deal. Closure.
An hour after the op, I’m wheeled down to Radiography for the ‘after’ Xray. It must be OK, because it’s not mentioned again. Later, I download a copy—proof I’m now officially bionic. Hip, Hip, Hooray …
FRIDAY. Bedridden all day. My leg is a dead weight. No muscle power to move it. It’s normal, but still rather scary. The back and knee pain increase through the day, and the night is challenging. Normally I alternate between sleeping on my back and either side to relieve the pain, but now I can’t change position. It’s a long, bleak, sleepless night. I pass the time reading and playing with the remote-controlled electric bed.
I’m given a plastic bottle to pee in. It doesn’t do much for one’s self-image, but it’s quite relaxing to be able to pee without getting out of bed, then push a button and summon a nurse to empty the bottle. Enjoy it while you can, I say to myself. I can’t expect Nikki to be on bottle-emptying duty in the wee small hours—that would definitely be taking the piss.
SATURDAY, SUNDAY. I’m allowed out of bed to ‘walk’ (well, hobble, stumble and crawl, slug-like) with a Zimmer frame walker. It’s seen better days and a bit rickety. I tighten up the bolts, but fail to notice the damage the abrasive handles are doing to my hands. Eventually I cover them with towels, but by then I have a nice hole in my left hand (equivalent to a good day’s windsurfing, after a run of no wind has allowed the callouses to go soft).
I begin to realise what living with a permanent disability might be like (mine is temporary, of course.) Everything has to be planned in advance: how to get from A to B, how to carry things, where to put them … it’s frustrating, but it keeps one’s brain occupied, like solving an ongoing crossword puzzle. There’s plenty of scope for logistical ingenuity and creativity—having a brain like the late, great Stephen Hawkins would help.
Minor improvements can make my day. For instance, it’s a real pain finding places to balance a crutch when you want to pick something up. But when I get home, I discover I can hook one of them over the stair bannister, the ideal place for when I need both of them to climb / descend the stairs.
I have this friend who’s been paralysed from the waist down for years, after a snowboarding accident. He designed a special kitesurfing board with a seat and more-or-less invented ‘seated kite surfing’. He organises wheelchair tennis tournaments. He has a specially adapted VW van and drives all round Europe. He’s always been my hero—even more so now.
A while ago, my friend inspired an idea for a sequel to my novel TOO CLOSE TO THE WIND (a philosophical thriller about an Ozzie windsurfer who gets caught up in a mysterious cult). My narrator, Nick, would have a similar accident and end up in a wheelchair like my friend. I asked him if he’d be interested to collaborate on the project, and he said yes. So the sequel would be grounded in his experience of life. Hopefully, one day I’ll write it.
MONDAY, TUESDAY. Insomnia has me in its grip and I’m feeling a bit disorientated. My hospital room is a Covid ‘bubble’. I’m not allowed out. The window looks out onto a concrete wall and the world outside might as well not exist. It’s like being confined to a luxury prison cell, or ‘house arrest’ as one of my Facebook friends called lockdown—which reminds me …
Before going into hospital, I was working on a chapter of my next novel, THE RHYTHM OF TIME, in which my partially autobiographical narrator finds himself stuck in solitary lockdown …
I found myself alone in this New Normal—just me and my demons. There was no escape from them in my claustrophobic apartment. Before the lockdown I had deadlines, rehearsals, networking, Sophia … I could lose myself in work and the social interaction that came with it. Now there was a vacuum.
He fills the vacuum by working on his music (he’s a composer). Every day is the same, as it is in hospital, but he finds the routine liberating …
My windowless box room studio was my universe. I lost track of time. Days became nights became days … and they were all the same. I fuelled up on alcohol and the amphetamines I kept for deadlines, ate while I worked, and hardly slept at all.
In the following chapter, he gets Covid and dies in hospital (yes, I know, a plot spoiler—but hey, it won’t be published for ages, and now if you’re reading this, you’ll have to read the novel to see what else happens.) I promised Nikki not to write that chapter until I came out of the Quiron (not that we’re superstitious, but no point in tempting fate, eh?)
The day-today routine in hospital runs like clockwork: a meal every four hours (excellent food), blood pressure and pulse monitored, fresh bottle dripping into my vein, make another hole in my wrist when the catheter gets too painful, hobble doggedly around the room with the walker and the hole in my hand … As with my locked-down narrator, the routine is reassuring and unlike him, I’m not in solitary confinement. Nikki and I speak on the phone and she’s the only visitor allowed to share my Covid bubble. Then there’s the banter with the nurses …
They are lovely: efficient, sympathetic and friendly. It’s an opportunity to improve my Spanish, but they want to practise their English, so we swap vocabulary and communicate in ‘Spanglish’ … “How you say this—la sábana?” one asks, as she makes the bed. “That’s a sheet.” She says the word and I giggle. Spanish pronunciation makes it indistinguishable from “shit”. I attempt to explain the difference, miming what comes out of one’s backside and we both collapse with laughter.
Tuesday is a fiesta (la Virgen de Candelaria.) The hospital is quieter than normal. No outpatients, just an emergency doctor and a skeleton staff. It feels like I’m the only patient. The nurses have a bit of fun, Canario-style, skateboarding along the corridor on medical trolleys 🙂
WEDNESDAY 03/02/2021. Back home! I get out of the taxi, Nikki hugs me and our pooch, Gizmo, goes crazy. He watches me hobbling around on the crutches and licks my bad leg sympathetically.
Nikki has performed miracles: installing grab rails and raised toilet seats, rearranging the house with a bed downstairs, buying me a walker etc. She looks after me with the patience of a saint, and I feel blessed to be back with my soulmate of thirty-seven years. The long and winding road to recovery starts here …
This is my tabla de inversión. I keep it in my writing room to stretch my back after too many hours sitting at my desk, staring out of the window (the view is temptingly distracting: Mt. Teide, the highest mountain in Spain and the second highest volcano in the world). It also gives me a chance to turn problems on their head and look at them from a different perspective.
Notice the photo on the wall in the background: a windsurfer suspended upside-down above Ho’okipa (Maui), mid loop. It reminds me of this passage from my novel: TOO CLOSE TO THE WIND …
“The wind was kind to me as I launched. I powered through the shore-break, celebrating by throwing myself into a forward loop. The world turned arse over tit and I landed still planing. Yeeha! It was something of a breakthrough moment. For one heady moment my life was turned on its head and suddenly it seemed more bearable from that perspective.”
As we look for a chink of light in these dark days, it’s important to stay flexible and think out of the box. For example, we might find that social isolation is an opportunity to get ‘Back to Basics’ and rediscover forgotten skills, hobbies, values: Cooking, DIY, Conversation, Reading, Writing, Making Art, Music … Our dog, Gizmo, has his own take on this (cartoon by my wife, the artist: Nikki Attree):
Sunday, 29th March. The clocks went forward today (or was it back? I can never get my head around this). Whatever. I’ve always thought it was a bonkers idea. I mean, BRITISH SUMMER TIME … in March? … wtf!
If, like me and our dog, your daily routine is set in stone, then it’s just one less hour of sleep, really. I try and get out of bed before 8am, unless severely impaired (by excess Sangria the previous evening, for instance) and it’s that much tougher if it’s only just getting light outside. It usually takes me, Nikki, and Gizmo most of a week to adjust.
When the clocks go back (?) again in the autumn it’s no better. You’d think that I’d get my hour of kip back again. But no. Gizmo wakes up when he sees daylight and insists on his pre-brekkie walkies, whatever the clock says.
So I drag myself out of bed, get dressed (relatively simple here: shorts, teeshirt, hoodie if it’s cloudy), grab dog plus lead, head out of the door … and stop. What have I forgotten? Keys—check. Sunglasses—check. Ah yes: my phone and driving license / ID, in case I’m stopped by the police. We’re allowed to take the dog outside to do his business, but the police have been stopping people. Nikki sometimes takes Gizmo’s pet passport with her, to prove he’s really our dog and not one we’ve rented just to allow us to go for a walk.
It would normally be quieter than usual on clock-moving Sunday, but this morning is, of course, exceptional. Week three of the lockdown begins today. The silence is eerie, the feeling of isolation total. It feels as if overnight all the humans on the planet have been abducted by aliens, leaving just me, Nikki, Gizmo and the seagulls. Alone. Perhaps this is how El Médano was in the Good Old Days: no airplanes, no traffic, no tourists, no surf shops—just a few fishermen and camels (yes, historically true) …
And then a police car goes past, as it does every morning at the same time—as measured by the clock.
We’re all like dogs. We need our routines. They give us freedom. Because freedom can only exist within a structure that allows you to appreciate it. Freedom is a state of mind. Imagination is escape. Creativity is therapy.
In these dark days, when borders are closed and we are locked down in our homes, I try not to think of myself as a prisoner … but if tempted to do so, I think of the prisoners who have endured longterm confinement: Nelson Mandela, Anne Franks, Gregory Roberts* … They survived by escaping via their imagination and creativity.
(* You might not have heard of Gregory Roberts, but his is an interesting story … He wrote his novel: SHANTARAM three times after prison guards trashed the first two versions. It’s 933 pages long and a bloody good read).
One challenge that Nikki, and her fellow artists face is running out of art materials. When lockdown was announced with just a few hours notice, we rushed out to stock-up on food. She never thought about paper, paint, canvasses, sketch pads etc. Now the local Chinese shop and papelería are closed. Thankfully, an online search reveals that the art shop in Los Cristianos will still deliver. Phew! Nikki shares the good news with the Arte in Tenerife Facebook group that she set up: https://www.facebook.com/groups/488660071536915/
We writers just need a laptop (or, at a pinch, a bit of paper and a pen) to keep scribbling (as I discovered while waiting in line to get into Mercadona) and, of course, our imagination—which, again thankfully, is freely available. If you follow Socrates’ advice, you’ll know where to look for it.
Some people have been quoting the Gaia Principle and talking about the Corona virus as a manifestation of the planet fighting back, rebalancing, attributing it to “the cosmos and its laws” . Some mention God. But you don’t need to invent cosmic entities. Just look to humans themselves …
If humans over-exploit the planet for a few centuries, they produce phenomenal economic / technological growth, but eventually they reach a tipping-point when it becomes counter-productive. At that point, less selfish behaviour becomes more-and-more necessary for survival.
Humans are in constant flux—a feedback-loop between selfish & communal behaviour, war & peace, exploitation & conservation, consumption & creativity … But things only tend to change radically when there’s a crisis. Humanity needs a deadline.
‘Human nature’ = a constant rebalancing between periods of growth and optimism … spilling over into selfish exploitation … leading to pessimism … leading to a crisis (war, famine, disease, climate crisis etc) … followed by a rebalancing … leading to optimism …REPEAT INDEFINITELY
You don’t need to bring God or the Cosmos into it. The answer is in all of us: “Know Thyself”.
So, I don’t believe there’s a causal link between, say, global warming and the virus. If there is a link, then surely it can only operate the other way round: the virus might result in an economic slowdown, less tons of CO2 emitted, and possibly even a change in attitude (paying people a universal living wage / retainer not to work, or imposing a global carbon tax, might become more popular long-term strategies).
This crisis is fuelling a fascinating debate: a collision of cold, hard, scientific / politico-economic analysis vs emotional, spiritual / philosophical / moral arguments (not to mention humour). These are entirely different, often conflicting ways of looking at the human condition and the meaning of life; two tribes, often with mutually exclusive values. Both are valid, and necessary, imho.
Tuesday, 24th March. My first visit to the supermarket since lockdown was imposed. My first time out of the house, except to take our dog, Gizmo, for a walk in the barranco behind us. My first contact with anybody except my wife, Nikki, for the past nine days (“contact” being a smile from a safe, two metre socially-isolated distance and a few words exchanged with the checkout lady).
The cosmopolitan, busy little town I call my home, is a ghost town. The streets are empty. The beach deserted. There’s an eerie stillness.
This quote (from the first chapter of my novel: TOO CLOSE TO THE WIND) describes the normal vibe:
“El Médano was a party town, an ‘Endless Summer’ kind of place, a town with no winter where everybody pursued sun, sex, surf, and fun—endlessly. Médanites wanted to let the good times roll …”
Driving through Ghost Town is weird, but hang on … Every cloud, silver linings, reasons to be cheerful … The eerie stillness is actually surprisingly relaxing. Now you can hear the sound of the surf, the breeze in the palm trees, the seagulls’ plaintive cries. The streets are empty: very few cars—which makes driving a pleasant experience (perhaps as it was fifty years ago).
I arrive at Mercadona and things get rather more stressful … The carpark is chock-a-block, with cars queuing to get in. Eventually someone leaves and I take their space. Then I notice the queue to get into the shop. It stretches right around the carpark and into the street. Around 30 – 50 people are waiting in line. I think about turning around and going home. But I don’t. And, again, it’s a lot less stressful than I’m expecting.
Okay, the queue is not what I’d call typically Spanish (let alone Canario). The mood is sombre, spooky even. Nobody speaks. We avoid eye contact. The person ahead of me puts on a pair of purple gloves and then washes them with sanitiser from a dispenser in his pocket. But hey, it is a typically glorious day (sunny, 22c, as normal) and nobody is too stressed.
We wait calmly, patiently, two metres apart, heads buried in our phones—all except me, that is. Unfortunately, my mobile isn’t smart enough to do anything interesting (it’s an eight-year-old, titchy little red clamshell that makes phone calls, but not much else). Now I’m regretting not bringing my Kindle with me … until I realised I have some paper (my shopping list) and a pen … So I spend the time writing some notes for a blog post about going to Mercadona.
Inside, things are again rather less stressful than usual. The shopping experience is actually relatively pleasant. The shelves are well-stocked (no panic buying here). My fellow customers treat each other with exaggerated politeness—none of the usual slaloming around with trolleys. And the staff are super friendly (PD: muchas gracias al personal super amable y servicial).
And to finish this post on a high … I invented a new word today: “Vexit” (Virus Exit Strategy) to cover the various stages we’ll have to go through before we get to the Light At The End Of The Tunnel: social distancing, herd immunity, antibody tests, a vaccine …
Maybe it’ll catch on (“Vexit”, that is). Perhaps it’ll go viral (LOL) like “Wooftastic” (which Nikki and I invented and is gradually becoming popular). One day “Vexit” and “Wooftastic” will join Brexit in the dictionary. You mark my words 🙂
Monday, 16/03/2020. Here in El Médano, Tenerife, we have the army on the streets to enforce the Spanish government’s ‘Estado de Alarma’, imposed yesterday.
Two days ago, I was on the ocean, windsurfing (El Médano is famously one of the best spots in the world). Yesterday, a couple of windsurfers ignored the lockdown. A few were jogging, cycling, strolling around. The mood on social media was upbeat, semi-jokey.
Today we’re effectively under house arrest. People are taking a dim view of anybody enjoying themselves. My Facebook friends are resorting to bleaker, blacker humour; and toilet paper is the new cryptocurrency.
The lockdown (or “martial law” as one FB friend insists on calling it) is about ‘flattening the curve’—minimising the numbers to allow the health system to cope with them. At this point, the UK hasn’t imposed a lockdown and there’s much discussion of conspiracy theories and the politics of ‘herd immunity’. It’s possible that the longterm economic effects of the remedy could prove worse than the disease. But in the short-term, an overwhelmed health service would be catastrophic. Imagine how many more patients could die from other problems if the health service was dysfunctional.
This, from Dr Francesca Cortellaro, an Italian doctor, puts our current lack of liberty into perspective …
“Do you know what the most dramatic feeling is? Watching patients die alone, listening to them begging you to greet children and grandkids. Covid-19 patients walk in alone, no relative there can assist and when they’re about to leave they can tell. They’re shiny, they don’t go into narcolepsy. It’s like they’re drowning, but with plenty of time to figure it out. Last one was tonight. She was a granny, wanted to see her granddaughter. I pulled out my phone and called it on video. They said goodbye. Shortly after she left. I have a long list of video calls by now. I call it a farewell list.”
Today the wind is howling, the waves are working, and the forecast for the next few days is for epic conditions … But most people tend to think twice about disobeying the law when there’s a tank pointing at them (although, of course, there’s that famous photo taken in 1989, in Tiananmen Square).
To keep spirits up (and to distract me from staring out of the window at the unridden waves) I try to come up with some reasons to be cheerful. It’s tough, and maybe these thoughts are just clutching at straws (pissing in the wind?) but here goes anyway …
1 – Perhaps this crisis will one day be seen as a wake-up call for the even more serious, long-term problems facing our planet. Forcing everybody to travel less, slowing down the economy, paying people not to work … All stuff we’re going to have to get used to eventually. Satellite pics have already revealed less pollution in China’s cities. There are fish again in Venice’s canals. The air in Tenerife is noticeable cleaner and sharper. I live 3km from the airport, right under the flight path—and I can hear the birds sing now.
2 – Maybe the crisis will bring us closer, in a we’re-all-in-this-together Blitz spirit, and result in a new-found sense of community. Maybe. Maybe not. Vamos a ver. I remain an optimist (albeit a pragmatist, who enjoys healthy sarcasm and even occasional cynicism).
3 – Hopefully, under lockdown I might write a few more words than I would have if I’d been allowed out to play. We writers have always self-isolated and social-distanced. We’ve always been antisocial buggers. Now’s the time to escape to the writing cave and into a separate reality. Perhaps it takes a crisis to focus on what’s really important (especially when one lives in ‘paradise’). No excuses now.
4 – Lockdown = a good chance to catch up with some reading. So many great books waiting to be discovered. Every cloud, silver linings etc
5 – I can’t imagine anybody I’d rather be locked down with than my partner of thirty-seven years, my wonderful artist wife, Nikki. If ever I needed a reason to be cheerful, she’s it!