Saturday, January 26, 2013

It's a warning

‘A stroke is the worst of all,’ my GP said to me once many years ago.  Her words have stuck.  ‘Imagine it,’ she said.  ‘You’re alive, but paralysed.  At best you might get back your ability to walk, to use a knife and fork, to speak again, but at worst you’ll sit like a vegetable, brain damaged and unable to care for yourself for the rest of your life.’

My older sister takes good care of herself these days.  She meditates first thing in the morning.  She eats a balanced diet, does not drink too much, or smoke, and is physically active.  Recently she started to feel dizzy to the point she dared not even drive her car.  

Next a visit to her GP who told my sister it was lucky she had arrived at the doctor’s surgery when she had.  She could have suffered a stroke.

 Besides the dizziness, my sister’s blood pressure was up.  The doctor then urged my sister to take blood pressure reducing drugs. 

This then is story one: my sister’s blood pressure, and given she is my sister I go out in sympathy with her.  I watch as my head starts to feel dizzy and my blood pressure rises.

Story two:  my sister in law who last week took herself off for her regular two yearly visit to the optometrist.

‘There are signs of a stroke, here’ the optometrist said to my sister in law after he had examined her eyes.  Best you take yourself off to your doctor to get it checked out.’

My sister-in-law’s doctor then sent her off to a specialist for tests.  She’s yet to get the results but her GP had tried to reassure her that these are signs only, not facts.  Besides people can sometimes have tiny strokes and not even notice.  Still it’s a warning. 

A warning of what? I have this tendency to identify with people and their ailments. In any case, I’m off to see the doctor tomorrow to check out my own rising blood pressure.

I bought a blood pressure monitor from the chemist so I could take my blood pressure myself away from the anxiety producing doctor.  ‘White coat hypertension’ they call it.  You see the doctor and the minute she applies the cuff around your arm and pumps up the monitor your blood pressure increases. 

Now it’s happening to me.  I can feel my heart race as soon as I consider the possibility of trotting off to the kitchen to check my blood pressure.  And it has not registered at 138 or less systolic since I started checking a week ago.  So now I’m panicking.

Story three: my mother’s heart began to fail over eighteen months ago now.  Medication has kept her going but there’s only so much more her heart can take before it gives out altogether. 

The blood pressure monitor sits on the kitchen table calling to me.  It calls to me, ‘come now and try again’.  You never know it might be normal once more and then you can sigh a sigh of relief and when you go to the doctor tomorrow you can tell the doctor it has been high at times but it has also been normal.  And the doctor will say, these things happen, not to worry. 

Or the doctor, my doctor, will be like my sister’s doctor and whack me onto blood pressure reducing medication. 

I’m happy to self medicate from time to time with alcohol.  I’m happy to buy over the counter herbal remedies, but I do not enjoy the thought of taking the medication that western medicine produces unless it is for short term purposes.  Nothing of the long term variety for me and yet I know there are times when it is essential.

Until ten years ago my mother boasted that she needed no medication whatsoever to keep her going.  Even in her early eighties apart from a calcium supplement and the occasional use of painkillers to help her with her arthritis she took nothing.  Now she takes lolly bags full of the stuff, pink and blue, yellow and green, large pills and small, morning, noon and night.  

There are worse things could happen, says my optimistic self.  So what if you need medication to reduce your heart pressure?  But the me that prefers to have a body that goes on regardless, that needs almost no attention whatsoever beyond eating, drinking and sleeping, and the occasional walk or exercise, hopes to be spared.  

My mind split off from my body however, is a different matter.  It needs all the attention it can get.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Half awake

The sleep mask slips from my face and the clock digits blink at me – five am.  I have another hour before dawn, mid dream and I want to get back into it, but his snoring like a bandsaw cuts the silence.  I nudge him once, twice. 
‘Could you please roll over?’
‘Sorry,’ he says.

It’s no use.  All the sorries and the rolling over in the world cannot unblock his blocked nose and throat, so I take myself into the spare room, to the couch I hate to lie on when I wear black because the cats sleep there by day. 

I wipe the couch before I lie down with my special blanket, the furry one, fake animal fur.  It was once my daughter’s but she’s allergic to it, so I have taken it over as my night time blanket.  I drape it over my cold body whenever I must play musical beds on account of the snoring. 

I am in a bad mood.  The dream has disappeared by now.  It was a good dream, the sort that begs for continuation, rather like a story you don’t want to end. 

My eyes are heavy, my mouth is dry.  A slurp of water from the tap before I try to squeeze my overly long body onto this short couch.

I tell myself yet again, I should prepare better.  It’s not every night that I find myself here but there are enough nights in the week.  I should organise a better pillow.  I should make sure the spare room blind is drawn.  I should switch off the computer and printer whose lights blink on and off in that strange hypnotic way that reaches under my closed eye lids and will not let me get back to sleep.

I should prepare for these times.  It’s worse than living with a baby whose cries interrupt my sleep at random intervals.

The cat slinks in and sits on top of my feet.  She claws at the imitation blanket, which smells of dog.  She tries to ruffle the blanket to size for comfort and my feet which were once freezing begin to heat up.

I shove her off with one heave on my right foot, but she’s back in an instant trying to slide in between my legs and the end of the couch.  I must get back to sleep.  I have only thirty minutes before the alarm, before the day begins.

Why does the world seem so bad when I am only half awake?  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Let this be over

There is a company that – for a price – will take you and your loved ones for a day, treat you each like a movie star, dress up your hair, pile on makeup and turn you into one. 

You bring along the best clothes from your wardrobe, a sample of day wear, casual and evening wear, and the various photos taken will be pitched at creating a certain image of you. 

Your best shots.  Your best foot forward, the you that lies beneath, an exaggeration of you, a simulacrum, a Disneyland-like version that you will never forget. 

Next week late afternoon on Tuesday a photographer is coming to take family photographs.  It was intended as a gift to me from my husband and children for my last birthday.  

I do not intend that my family become a simulacrum, and yet there may be elements here. This photographer is not interested in posed shots.  He wants us to go about our business as though he were not there. 

The plan is we will have a picnic in the local gardens in Burnley.  We will take along a picnic blanket, a bottle or two of Prosecco, and the sturdy champagne glasses.  We will have some cheese and biscuits or maybe some cakes.

In other words, we will have a picnic, which we rarely do, at least not in my recent memory.  We have family meals together often but usually in someone’s house or backyard, or in a restaurant. We do not go out on picnics, at least not en famille. 

Already my husband baulks at the thought, not only for the fact of it – he does not enjoy stage managed events – but also because it means he will need to leave work early and he’s only just back there. 

The last time we had 'professional' family shots taken was nineteen year ago after Christmas when my youngest was still a baby and all my children were still very much children.

This photographer preferred to have people pose and we wore our Sunday bests. 

This time we wear whatever we like.  We will go as we are, but the reality is we would not normally be in the Burnley gardens on a Tuesday afternoon as an extended family, trying to freeze dry a few moments in time for posterity. 

A few years ago I met a man at a life writing conference, an older man who was exploring notions of disability relative to his son who had died at the age of 22 from muscular dystrophy. 

This man showed photos and talked of Roland Barthe’s differentiation between what he calls punctum and studium. The latter studium is visible in ordinary photos that reveal only the conventional, and where every event is balanced such that it might represent a stable and predictable moment in time;  this as opposed to punctum the element that carries a sting, a punch, a sudden shock in one or another of its components. 

Punctum can emerge not simply from the photo itself but from our knowledge about the photo, which may come after we first viewed it. 

This man showed two family shots.  In one he is sitting in the background, with his then wife in the foreground, in a wading pool.  She is dressed in bathers and holds her 18 month old son.  Their daughter, seemingly a couple of years older than her brother is also in the wading pool.  The daughter  sits to one side and is smiling. A family photo that reflects the seemingly benign and predictable.  

Then the man showed another photo in which his son’s disability was more visible. 

Would we think so if we did not know?  The little boy is stretched out in the second photo as if caught in an awkward shift of body.  There is something in that shift that bespeaks some sort of bodily spasticity, some awkwardness of tone, but if all of this is punctum, we can surmise it only on second sight.

I enjoy playing around with photographs.  I enjoy taking them and trying to interpret them, but I do not relish the thought of my family posed event where we will all be conscious of the camera’s eye marking us forevermore in this way or that. 

Still I take to heart John Berger’s words when he writes about photography:  

‘There is never a single approach to something remembered.  The remembered is not like a terminus at the end of the line.  Numerous approaches or stimuli converge upon it and lead to it.  Words, comparisons, signs need to create a context for the printed photograph in a comparable way…A radical system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic.’

And so our efforts to freeze dry time must be considered similarly, a moment in time that leads from many directions and will move out in many directions. 

And where will the punctum lie this time? The shock, the unexpected image that will throw everything else into relief and tell us so much more than we might otherwise see, like the crying baby above or the child whose eyes are closed – she blinked.  They might well speak for all of us that day.  

Saturday, January 05, 2013

His plaything

The algae in the dog bowl grows back as fast as I can clean it out, a dark green velvet on the base of his otherwise blue bowl.  It has the appearance of close shaved moss and when stirred up makes the water murky.  

I am vigilant about keeping up the dog’s water supply.  Dogs unlike cats need a constant and fresh supply. The dog has none of the cats’ ingenuity in locating water. 

If only new ideas grew as readily as algae, or at least fresh and good ideas, but they’re as hard to keep up with as fresh water.  They take effort.  At this time of the year, so close to its beginning, I have run dry. 

My father came home with his first television set when we lived in Healesville in a log cabin styled house nestled in the valley off Myers Creek Road.  Reception proved a problem in those days and it was necessary to fix an aerial to the roof, stiff and angular like a scarecrow, but not a scarecrow to scare off birds, rather a scarecrow that might draw in sounds and frequencies.  

As well we had a small portable aerial that sat either on top of the television itself or nearby and needed constant adjusting whenever the picture began to run reel by reel over and on top of itself.  Sometimes one of us needed to hold the aerial in a particular way throughout the entire movie to stop the picture on the screen from warping and running on.  

The frustration of early television watching was only matched by the pleasure of entering into this new black and white world where people in the movies never seemed to bother with the trivia of life like earning a living or going to the toilet.  

Why ever not?  Why did these people in movie land not need things like toilets or money?  They ate food occasionally, or at least they gave some impression of eating in so far as they sat in front of a table of food set for dinner but rarely did they hoe in.  

They reminded me of the nuns at school, those black robed women whose bodies were completely concealed under layers of material.  They never ate or used the toilet, or so I imagined as a child.  Underneath their bodies were not like ours.  They did not therefore need to function as did we with eating and elimination.  Nuns were pure. 

Advertisements were the most intriguing aspect of television in those days, the way the model, the beautiful, bright smiling, impeccable model might bite into a chocolate coated ice cream.  

You could hear the crunch of chocolate as it cracked but never a drip of ice cream dribbled down the model's chin, and although she closed her mouth over the bite and smiled broadly as if savouring the sweetness, I imagined a spittoon nearby into which she might spit out the concoction, mostly because I had heard such advertisements take many cuts to make and if she needed to eat all that ice cream over and over again she would soon be sick.

By the time I reached adolescence my imagination was caught up in the bodies of these actors.  The way a man might hold a beautiful woman close to him to kiss her or to dance with her and she wore a backless dress.  His hot hand stroked up and down her back.  I imagined him doing the same to my back in horror.  My back by then was lumpy with pimples. 

I spent my time comparing myself to these on screen heroes and heroines imagining that no such life awaited me.  I was too imperfect.  Too hungry, too spotty, too poor to be on screen. 

By the time we left Healesville and moved to Canterbury, my TV tastes had changed from preferring a rich diet of cartoons, only available in the late afternoon, to the midday movie which we watched as often as possible while our father was away at work during school holidays.

When our father was at home, he commandeered the box.  He decided on boring stuff, the equivalent of Meet the Press with Bob Santamaria or the News, but we preferred Disneyland with its choice of destinations, Frontier land, Adventure land, Fantasy land, of which trips into fantasy land usually in the form of cartoons or fairy tales was my preferred destination. 

One day, I must have been around thirteen years old and conscious of my body in a different way;  conscious that tiny breasts were beginning to bud on my chest; conscious that I was beginning to outgrow my clothes at a much faster rate; conscious that my underarms and pubic bone were sheathed in fine hairs; and conscious of my father as he sat me on his lap in front of the television. 

We were watching Brian Henderson’s Bandstand.  Singers and musicians performed while my father played with the zipper at the back of my dress in unison to the music.

My father stank of alcohol and of cigarettes as he rode the full length zip up and down so that my entire back was one minute exposed the next covered. I wanted to get off his lap but felt glued to the spot.

I wondered that my mother who sat in a chair only inches away with her eyes fixed to the television set did not notice my father, or not so much my father as my discomfort at what he was doing. She smoked a cigarette, while tears rolled down my cheeks.  Silent tears. I did not dare let my father know that I objected to his zip pulling. 

It felt wrong, as if my father were doing something he should not do, as if he were teasing me the way he liked to tease my mother when he tried to take her apron off as she stood at the kitchen stove. 

When she pushed him away he lurched for her and she pulled back.  He ripped at her dress and tore the front half away from her body.  My mother stood in shock in her petticoat.  Bits of dress fell to the floor and my father looked triumphant as if he had exposed her at last. 

Was this what he was doing here?  All this activity on the television and my mind was a jumble of thoughts about the drama going on in our lounge room, only no one could see but me and my father.  To this day I am not sure how conscious he was of what he was doing, or of how he had made me feel. 

I was his plaything.