May 2010 Archives

Self aware

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So, it was as I predicted. I choked, I froze, I generally went to pieces on the baseline, and the court stubbornly refused to open up and swallow me. In short, I did more to demonstrate the importance of good sports psychology in one weekend than could have been achieved in a year of victories.

But for all of that, I came back from the weekend feeling energised and more enthusiastic about tennis. I remain a passionate believer in the vital role that sport can play in physical well-being for many people, especially after sudden disability. But there's something more and, not for the first time, I find an entry on Andrew Farrow's blog that is both timely and apposite.

For me, tennis provides me with moments of total focus when I am oblivious to all else. It was this sense of my 'mind quietened' that drew me to climbing and working at height (up a tree for example). This coupled with an acute awareness of every movement, and an almost hyper-reality that I felt which no doubt came from overcoming one's instinctive anxiety about being off the ground.

However, tennis involves something altogether less familiar and utterly fascinating. When playing under pressure, the body suddenly decides to do something completely different to what is asked of it. Instead of fluid hitting through the ball, the shoulder decides to get heavily involved and a simple topspin forehand becomes a drive that a pro-golfer would be proud of.

Please forgive me if it sounds like I am covering the same ground as in numerous previous missives. It's just that I think I am beginning to understand what fascinates me about the collapse in my co-ordination...

Over the last five years, I have spent many, many hours becoming extremely aware of my physical manifestation. The loss of function and sensation in one half of my body seems to have intensified my experience of 'how the other half lives'.

Coupled with this increased awareness of sensation has come a need to consciously think about how to look after the rest of me, the part I can't feel. I have had to learn how to assess circumstances or incidents in terms of injury risk without the signals that one instinctively relies upon. In other words, just because it don't hurt, doesn't mean it ain't broke. And fixing it is often more complicated, too.

I have learned how to balance myself and my wheelchair when even the tiniest movement can be enough to throw me off balance. There is a tendency among some in the SCI community to view people who still have functioning abdominal muscles as being able to balance and function like any able-bodied person sitting down. While it is true to say that I can sit upright in a chair without leaning on a backrest, it takes very little to unbalance me. If I reach out with one arm, for example, I have to work extremely hard to avoid losing balance, and I certainly couldn't pick up anything of even modest weight without holding on to something with the other hand for stability.

But all of this has become (almost) second nature, yet another example of our astonishing ability as a species to adapt and overcome profound adversity.

I still can't hit a tennis ball if anyone is watching, mind.


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Ah, the joys of the self-fulfilling prophesy.
Late due to traffic, I take to the courts in a hurry (unnecessary as there were few matches to be played today). Sure enough, my serve abandons me, returning late in the game, just in time to say farewell to my forehand.

The annoying thing is that I lost to a player less experienced than me who I play with nearly every week, and who simply held it together better than me.

I have realised that this is because I don't play enough tournaments to get used to the competitive pressure. I hate it. But yet I can't help coming back for more. Tennis competition is the crack of the sporting world. After 'tournamenting' I feel sullied and grubby. I leave my dignity on the service line, along with any ability to play that I may have erroneously believed I had.

If I win, then there is a high, but it's tinged with an 'it's only a game' hollow feeling. But if I lose, then it's 'I knew that was going to happen, who am I kidding.'

And still I come back for more. I am fascinated by the battle for self control, for focus. I am intrigued by the feeling of exposure- there is nowhere to hide on the tennis court. If I double fault, then the next serve holds even more pressure. It can get worse. I could double fault through an entire match. It is possible.

One good shot and I'm planning ahead, thinking of the games, sets and eventually match I'm sure to win. One bad shot and I can feel the humiliation of not winning another point. EVER. And I can feel the eyes of the entire world boring into me through the tinted glass at the end of the court.

All this goes to show that I'm just not cut out for this, and I've still got the doubles to go.

But I'll still be back next year.

It's that time again...

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Yes, people.
It's that time of year when I drag myself screaming (but not kicking) to the National Wheelchair Tennis Championships in Gloucester, just so my serve can fall apart, I can buckle under the pressure of playing in public, and come home full of frustration and remorse at losing to people I know I should have beaten. And all for fun.

That's the trouble with tennis. At some point in the first few goes, you hit the ball well. By accident, it may be, but it doesn't stop the brain from setting that as the benchmark by whihc all future shots must be judged.

At least when I played football, it was a fluid situation, where I could run around lots and show willing, even if I was having a bad game. And I could always hurl myself enthusiastically into a tackle to win the respect of my team-mates.

But in tennis, you're all alone. In fact, it's worse than that. You have yourself for company, and that's often the most difficult person to win over.

At least it's a different kind of pain, for a change. And it's all for fun. Wish me luck.

Cheer up.

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Making my way back from the shops with my family, when an elderly woman passes me on the pavement. As we near her, she says,
"I hope you get better."
Erm...thanks? I'm not sure what I should say to this. I don't have the heart to tell her that it's extremely unlikely to happen unless there are a whole series of Eureka moments in medical research.  So instead I just smile and try to look hopeful.

Then a week later I am at a gig, enjoying a pint while the support act shreds the eardrums of anyone foolish enough to go into the auditorium. The noise finishes and people start making their way in. While queuing to go in, a woman in the crowd looks over at me and says,
"You look really sad. Don't be. What you're about to see is going to be amazing."
She is referring Gogol Bordello, the band I have come to see and who certainly know how to put on a good show.

I explain to her that I have seen them before so I know what to expect, and that 'sad' seems to be a default position with my face and that I'm actually perfectly happy, thank you very much.

I did for a moment toy with the idea of looking even more morose and saying,
"Yeah, well, I'm in a f***ing wheelchair, aren't I!" But it seemed a little cruel.

So I have now set myself some homework. I am going to practice looking a bit less miserable. Who knows, I might even try smiling, but people will probably just think I'm a bit simple.

This too shall pass...

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alternative title: Another unwelcome visitor...

Yes, after five years of hassle free bladder management, I write this coming off the back of bladder infection number 2 in the last two months.

This one was much less severe than the last, so I just felt pretty rubbish, had a fever off and on,  increased neuro-pain for two days and yet another course of anti-biotics. I'm hoping this'll be the end of it all for a while.

While lying on the sofa, I found myself projecting forward and taking some comfort from the thought that,

'this too shall pass'.

This idea, much loved by Persian Sufi poets and others (most recently the band OKGO), can sometimes help me to see beyond those times when pain has moved from musak to  virtuoso performance. These are the times when everything else gets blocked out, when it's easy to feel like my entire life is dominated by pain. Times when I forget that I am not wincing through every waking moment.

But it does pass. It gets better. I am mostly happy. I do have a life, I do have a wonderful family, I am a father and we do have fantastic, loving, supportive friends.

So now it has passed, it's time to enjoy a little more of the simple pleasures. To start with, I'm going to have a glass of Rose, as I've just spent the day in a t-shirt! Hurrah for the false summer of late May that is inevitably followed by three months of drizzle.

And I'll leave you with another simple pleasure, achieved with two yogurt pots and a whole heap of talent:

The Visitor

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Yesterday morning, at about 11a.m. the doorbell rang. Well, more of a buzz, really. One long, persistent buzz.

Assuming it was a delivery, I pressed the door release button, and opened our door to the hall.

The front door opened, and in stepped a well dressed woman in her mid-forties. She had a little too much eye makeup on, and seemed slightly confused, perhaps unsteady on her feet.

"Er, can I help you?" I asked.
"Is ok," she replied in a strong Eastern European accent. "I come to work here." She was clearly expecting me to let her into our flat. Instead, I barred her entrance, and said, quite politely,
"Who are you?"
"No, I come here to work," she replied.
"I'm sorry, but I have no idea who you are, and I'm not going to let you into our house. Can you please leave."

Once I had repeated this statement a couple of times, she left. It was all a bit odd.

Then it got even more odd.

About ten minutes later, the door goes again. This time I opt for the entryphone. Through the handset came the same voice.
"Please, I need to come in. I need to see your children."
"I don't know who you are, and I'm certainly not letting you in to see my children."
"But I must. I need to see them."
"I don't know who you are."
"I am Yelena(?) and I must see your children. Then you will understand."
"I don't even have children." This will surely throw her off. I was beginning to wonder if there was a case of the wrong house, because it's unlikely that she could have confused me with someone else.

Her reply chilled me.
"Yes, you have daughter."

Now I felt like we were being watched, and I was beginning to feel quite angry.

"Now look, I don't know who you are, now will you please go away."

"Ok, ok, sorry."

Another ten minutes go by before the same persistent buzz fill the flat. This time there was a new angle.
"Hello, please I just need to get my handbag, is all Please let me in."
I opened the inner door so that I could see the hall. She certainly had not left her handbag by the door. I went back to the entryphone, resisting the temptation to boom "None shall pass!"
Instead I stuck calmly to the facts.
"Your handbag isn't here."
"Yes. Please, I must get my handbag."
"Well, it's not in the hall," I insisted.
"No, I left it in your house. In one of the rooms. Please can I come and get it."
Now I was beginning to think that she must be a few sandwiches short of a picnic, which made the whole 'daughter' business even more unnerving.
"You haven't been in my house."
"Yes, yes, last night. And I left my handbag. please can I come in and get it. Please, just open the door."
I was starting to wonder if she was going to propose huffing and puffing and blowing my house down, but I felt safe in the knowledge that our house is brick-built, a huff and puff retardant material.
I decided to try a different tack.
"It's clear there's been some kind of misunderstanding, so why don't I just call the Police and get them to send an officer around. Then we can work all of this out."
"Ok, yes." came the reply.
"Great. I'll go and phone them now. Will you just wait there until they come?
"Yes, yes. I wait here."

I went and called the Police. I told them what had happened, and they sent a car round. Then I phoned R's school and told the head teacher what had happened. I wasn't sure what the purpose of this call was, except to make me feel a little better knowing that nothing untoward was happening at the school.
The next time the door went, it was the Police.
"We've been up and down the road a couple of times, and there's no sign of her." The WPC explained. "She was probably just trying to get in for a burglary."

I told them how unsettled I was about the reference to my daughter, and the WPC pointed out that R's very sparkly pink bicycle is in the hall, so the woman would have clocked that when I opened the door on the first occasion.

I felt greatly relieved, especially when the Police said that they had posted a description of the woman, and that they would be looking out for her.

After they had left, I Pieced together what had happened, and reached a few conclusions.

The visitor is scouting out the area for vulnerable people. She sees my platform lift, and tries the door. When I buzz her in, she tries to brazen her way. Many disabled people have carers who visit them regularly. As they will quite often be from an agency, it's possible that the client may not know the carer who visits, and they may just let her in. I didn't.

But because I had opened the outer door, she probably thought that I'd let her in if she persisted. The next time, she had the child/daughter angle, because of the bike she had seen. Perhaps I might take her for a nanny or something?

When this approach didn't work, and seeing as I was still being quite polite, she decided that she'd give it one more go. As soon as I mentioned calling the law, she  made a quick exit.

What annoys me most is that she took me to be vulnerable. At six foot three, I'm not used to people trying to intimidate me on my own doorstep. It also annoys me that she made me worry about R, and start thinking about what I would be able to do to protect her if we were approached in the street on the way back from school. With my increased upper body strength from pushing the chair all day, I reckon I could deliver a pretty hefty blow, should I need to, but if I were to come out of my wheelchair, I'd be useless, short of shouting, "Come back! I'll Bite yer legs off!"

And that makes me feel vulnerable, after all.


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here we go again. The chance to be governed by the old Etonion ruling elite. With their fingers on the pulse.

After all, Dave's met a black sailor who joined the Navy at ten. His domestic life also shows a common touch. The Cameron's are virtually working class, as he revealed when asked about his wife's privileged background...
"The papers keep writing that [my wife, Samantha] comes from a very blue-blooded background", but "she is actually very unconventional. She went to a day school."

Now, there's nothing to say that being a member of the Bullingdon Club makes someone incapable of delivering competent governance, despite Boris Johnson's best efforts.
(Boris told New Statesman he intends, "To keep blapping ministers between the eyes" until they rule out spending cuts on major London projects."

"Blapping"? From the Urban Dictionary definition of "blap":

1.Refers to the sound made by a penis makes when it is hit against a woman's face
2.The act of slapping someone across the face with your penis. They then become your property.
3.The art of slapping some across the face with your penis, they then become your bitch.)

But it's not the dining clubs, the public schools, the constant anecdotage offered to suggest some kind of understanding about everyday folk...

It's the vague policies, and the fact that Cameron effectively said nothing throughout the campaign.
He started with the 'big idea' that everyone was going to rush out and do voluntary work to sort out all the problems faced in 'Broken Britain'. Then he suggested that MP's are kind of voluntary workers in the community themselves (Insert expenses scandal outrage comment here).

Then there was the idea that people should be free to set up their own schools.
The free schools would be funded by the state, but they could be run by local enthusiasts. Hurrah!

The problem is that the often quoted models for this change from big government to big society come from Scandinavian countries. In Scandinavian countries, they have big society AND big government.

Now they are at least backing off from the inheritance tax cuts for the super-rich.

It's going to be fun gaining credibility in Europe, too, what with the Tories' dubious choice of bedfellows in the European Parliament.

As far as the huge financial hole we are sitting in? Well, there's the one in a hundred pound saving. And there's the confidence of having George Osborne as Chancellor.

So we can look forward to more Free Market economics as the panacea. It has proved so effective, after all. In banking, for example.

But if the local school or hospital is underachieving, the solution isn't giving people the option to choose the next one up the road. The solution is to make it better. Choice can't solve the problem. Everyone can't all use the same school, the same hospital. In reality, it is often those with more money, more confidence and a better understanding of the system that get to choose. Those who can move into the right catchment area. The middle classes, in other words. That's hardly inclusive.

The NHS: Safe in Conservative hands... This little interview speaks volumes.

I really hope that Daniel Hannon finds himself in need of NHS treatment one day. Ah, but then, I'm sure he's sufficiently minted to pop off to a private hospital. Unless he needs emergency medical treatment, that is. There's no money in that, see? Just ask the 46 million Americans who don't have health insurance.

And 'our Dave' has promised to 'rebuild families'. What does that mean, exactly? And if your family doesn't need 'rebuilding', then what are they going to do, add an extension?

I am worried. I must confess to holding 'left wing views' (in case you haven't worked that out by now). But mainly I am worried because I have seen the positive effect of much of the investment that has taken place over the last twelve years. I have seen the benefits that SureStart and the Children's Centres have brought to our local area. I have seen massive improvements in the NHS after so many years of underfunding. I've seen improvements in the fabric of school buildings and libraries. This is the kind of stuff that helps to build communities, not giving every creationist nut-job the chance to run their own school.

I reckon there's only one fair way of sorting out the financial crisis. It might not be popular, but it is fair. Direct tax. Everyone pays a little more, but based on earnings, and it's universal.

But here's the important bit:
Pay more. Expect more.

Not more Nuclear Defence Systems (well done the LibDems for sticking to their guns on that one), or bank bail-outs, but better schools and hospitals, better local services, more social housing. Employ more people. Pay them a decent wage. 

OK, rant over now. I'm tired. And maybe a little drunk. But not too optimistic...

The future is unwritten...

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So, we move into uncertain times. I must confess to a certain anxiety over the future of the NHS, an institution that still plays a large part in my life, five years on from my spinal cord injury.

The Conservative Mantra of 'saving one pound on every hundred' is worrying. For what seems like a simple suggestion doesn't make sense when it is applied. What if they had suggested losing one Nurse in every hundred? One Doctor? One Police Officer? One teacher? One Consultant?

How about not doing one MRI scan in every hundred?

Of course, all the parties have been reticent about spelling out how they intend to reduce the deficit. It's unpopular, so it's not surprising. But cuts are coming, of that we can be sure.

The lack of straight talking honesty was probably best summed up by an advert for Asda supermarkets during the TV coverage on channel 4 last night.

The ethereal choral soundtrack would not have been out of place were we watching Frank Capra's heroes at the moment they discover Shangri-La.

Instead, the screen was filled with a floating, radiant pyramid made of bottles of gin, filling the aisle of a supermarket. And on special! [Music rises, more strident, "Laa laaa daa laa"] Gin! Bargain Gin!

Are we being serenaded by the sirens of a Hogarthian Gin Lane? Is this a call to fill our heads with Dutch courage before we bury them in the sand, while the bankers continue to swill their beer?

Or was it just a crap advert?

Only time will tell.

The Great Bear

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Analogy time:

In my mind I can see a huge, bad tempered bear.
 (my pain)
I shoot the bear with a tranquiliser dart.
 (I go to bed)
This makes the bear angry.   
 (Getting out of my wheelchair and lying down makes my pain worse)
The bear flails around, tearing at the dart with an angry paw.
 (I flail around, massaging my lower back with an angry paw)
Eventually the bear passes out.
 (Eventually, I fall asleep)
The bear wakes up with a sore head, and eats a jar of honey.
 (I wake up with a sore back and eat toast and marmalade)

So here is where my pain and I diverge. Clearly, I'm more Paddington than Pooh.


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