It’s a cliché for people to say their grans are strong. And maybe most of them really are. But my gran could beat up your gran. No question. Under the skin of those scrawny arms were iron pipes. Her legs were twin pistons. She could walk for days, and her will was made of steel. After getting the biopsy which eventually diagnosed her lung cancer, she walked a mile to the shops and back. She survived cancer and having two thirds of her lung removed. She lived through a war. There’s a reason you can’t spell “granite” without “gran”: she was old-school hardy.
Physical strength was never her problem.
My gran, Mary “May” McLeish, has always been a massive part of my life. By the time I was 5, my mum was raising my brother and I in France, and Gran would travel over from Scotland to look after us, even though she didn’t speak a word of French. At 6 years old I was her translator/enforcer. A story she used to love to tell was the time a waiter gave her Spanish Pesos for change, and ignoring her protests, I ran back into the café to confront him.
When we moved to Scotland she became a staple of our lives. In fact for the first 6 months she opened her home to us. A deeply religious woman, she accidentally imparted on me a lexicon of words with which I unintentionally blasphemed regularly. I remember the first time I – in my French/English accent, at 9 years old – said “Oh my God!”. She almost wet herself laughing. Then told me to never use the Lord’s name in vain.
I don’t remember ever being disappointed with visiting Gran, or having her come round to our house. Sometimes she would babysit us with my great-aunt Alice and the two would sit on the couch, telling stories, cackling with laughter (maybe Alice more than Gran), and drinking from a bottle in a brown paper bag which they euphemistically called their “medicine” to dissuade us from trying it. One night I convinced Gran to let me tape Die Hard to watch the next night – I set the VHS recorder to the right channel and time, and went to bed. The next night we all sat down to watch it together. I hit play, and up came some blurry-lensed channel 5 softcore “erotic thriller”. I’d accidentally (I promise) set the machine to tape the wrong channel. My brother and I stared confused (OK, entranced) but Gran leapt to action and switched it off, suggesting we see what other videos we had.
Once, on a visit to Gran’s when I was really young I told my mum I wished I had a different mum. Not out of malice but as one of those stupid, thoughtless, greedy things children sometimes say. The memory still haunts me. A few years later I told Gran how guilty I felt, and how I was worried she didn’t know how much I loved her. Her answer was simple and reassuring: “She knows”.
Gran died on Tuesday 5th of May, 2015. Four days ago. And all I hope is that she also knew how much I loved her.
And although she died on Tuesday, we started to lose her a long time ago. Having swatted away every one of life’s assaults, she eventually succumbed to the most insidious of all: an attack on her mind. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 4 years ago, and her descent was relentless. The first time she failed to recognise me, I realised too late what I – what we all – had lost. I regret not having taken greater advantage of knowing this incredible woman while I still could. For years I had planned to record her life story, and now it’s lost. I regret not showing her how much she meant to me while she could still appreciate it. And since her diagnosis I regret not having visited more, to support her at her weakest.
I take some solace in having been with her for her final 24 hours – I’m glad I could give her that much. In her last days she was surrounded by generations of family: siblings, children, grandchildren. Even at her weakest she found a way to bring us all together. We reminisced, we contemplated, we joked, we cried. Her last days rolled back the years to the times when we would gather in her house for a weekend, as a family. Over the last 4 years we had lost that. Yet in her passing, she still managed to leave us a gift.
Rest in peace, Gran. I have so much more I want to say, but I know what you’d reply: “I know”.
I recently had the tremendous honour of attending the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Colorado, as a panellist and solo presenter. The experience was incredible, and I’m working on a blog post all about my week there which I’ll post here very soon.
In the meantime, audio recordings from my panels were made available online, so I thought I’d share them up here for posterity.
The format for all these panels (bar my solo presentation) is that there are 4 speakers, each begins by giving a 10 min talk about the subject (you only get given the title, no other info), then a brief round of back-and-forth discussion from the panel members, then Q&A with the audience.
(I’ve listed the panellists in order of appearance, so you can skip to a specific participant’s bit. I would recommend listening to the whole thing, though. And the Q&A is where some of the best discussion happens)
The entire conference is fascinating, and the discussions vary massively. I’m planning on spending the next month listening to all the panels I couldn’t attend as a participant or audience member, so I highly recommend checking the others out on the CWA Archive Page.
No dice. So I have to come to terms with the fact that the quote is not – and has never been – in the play “Hamlet”. Worse yet, no variation of the phrase exists in any of Shakespeare’s plays. I can only imagine I attributed the quote to old Will because of its similarity to the famous line “to sleep, perchance to dream”.
But if so, where does the “to bed” quote come from?
Searching for “to bed but not to sleep” isn’t very useful – it seems that a million and one people have used the phrase at some point or other. The number one hit for the exact phrase (in quotes) is a TripAdvisor review.
No citation for the quote (thanks Ann R), but here at least we have a slight variation on my initial quote – this one begins with “And so”, which sounds more complete, and therefore more promising. What does a Google search for that give us?
Well, apparently those are lyrics from David Cassidy’s Where is the Morning – a song I’m convinced I’d never heard before today.
A dead end.
Let’s think this over – the phrase seems to have been used a number of times. Who coined it? Can I trace this back to its nexus? This has become a search for the genesis of a phrase.
Onto Google NGram, a project which allows you to search for phrases across millions of digitised books, and see how their use changed over time.
OK I don’t really know what that tells us. At its peak, 0.00001% of all Google’s digitised books for a certain year contain the phrase “but not to sleep” (the full quote is too long for NGram). Google has digitised about 30 million books, so that means in the late 1700s, 300 books were written containing the phrase. At least the NGram gives me a rough time period to search for – nothing appears prior to 1700, although that could just be how far back the archives go.
So what if I search directly in Google Books?
Aha! The oldest book Google has digitised containing the phrase “to bed, but not to sleep”. The knowledge is like an oasis in the desert. Let us crawl to the water’s edge, plunge in our heads and drink deeply.
The Strange Adventures of the Count of Vinevil and his Family is a book by Penelope Aubin, written in 1721. Personally I think the subtitle could have left a little more mystery but it’s certainly descriptive:
And the excerpt itself, courtesy of Google:
Don’t get me wrong, Penelope seems to have written the oldest recorded instance of the phrase, but other notable authors were hot on her heels, including:
Henry Fielding – The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742)
John William Polidori – Ernestus Berchtold Or The Modern Œdipus (1819)
Charles Dickens – All the Year Round vol 2 (published at some point between 1859 and 1895)
And that, as far as I’m concerned, is as satisfying an ending as I think I’m entitled to tonight. Were it not close to 2am I might try to delve deeper into the etymology of the phrase, any tie-ins to other languages, how it spread and who spread it… I may even have tried to find out exactly where I personally had come across the phrase in the first place.
But it’s late, and I’m heading to bed. And to sleep.
Day six and Lady Luck finally flashed me her brassiere. Met a mope named Gilles said he had a lead. An artist surprise surprise. Unshaven, unintelligible, and stinking of wine, I went to meet him. Told him I had more leads than a dog-walker – and more balls. When he finished talking my jaw was on the floor. So was the rest of my face; I passed out. This thing goes higher than a pothead in a zeppelin.
Valentine’s day in the city of love and the only card I need is this ace up my sleeve.
The plane landed like a legless cat on a sidewalk. My ears rang worse than Notre Dame. I shoulda told the broad in 4B to pipe down, but along with locks I’ve learned to pick my battles. First day back in Paris and it’s like I never left. Cigarette smoke burning the inside of my nose, money burning the inside of my pocket. Last night I scoped a place called the Suckling Ferret, looking for leads. Place had more Jean-Pauls than the Vatican. I’m still no closer to cracking this case, so I’m cracking a case of scotch instead.
I recently went on a trip to Paris to visit family, and decided to post status updates in a Film Noir detective style.
I woke up feeling like I’d been eating gravel. But those days are behind me so it had to be the bourbon. The plane shook like a dame trembling in the rain and my nerves rattled more than the windows, but I could fix that with a shot. Shots are usually from my revolver, this time from a bottle. Time flies when you’re having fun, but not with me in the economy seats. I was heading to France, land of musk and svelte dames.
Biomechanically, I am not the man I was when last I typed at this laptop. I sit before you now with only one pleura. Technically, half of me is breathing like an elephant.
To drop the epic wordage for a moment, I’ve just come back from a stay in hospital after receiving a pleurectomy, an operation which basically consists of removing the lung’s protective outer-layer and gluing your lung to your chest wall. This was sadly a necessary step after falling prey to a second collapsed lung.
So how to summarise the whole experience? I’m now short a pleura, I have 5 new scars and I partially breathe like an elephant.
Oh yeah, the elephant boast. So most mammals (humans included) breathe by expanding their ribcage and lowering their diaphragm, creating a vaccuum in the sealed chest cavity. This vaccuum causes your lungs to expand and inhale air to fill the space that your expanded torso has created. The space in between the lung and the chest wall is known as the “pleural cavity”, and basically gives your lungs some leeway when it comes to expansion. Elephants are unique in that they don’t have a pleural cavity – their lungs are fixed to the insides of their chest, meaning that their breathing mechanism doesn’t rely on vacuum: their lungs expand because they are attached to the expanding chest walls. This allows for greater sucking power (too easy, move along) and is why they are the only mammals who can breathe submerged.
The doctors essentially obliterated my pleural cavity by removing my pleura, roughing up the outside of my lung, and letting the blood and inflamation create a seal between my lung and my chest wall. My lung now expands because it’s stuck to my chest, just like an elephant’s.
If anyone has any French elephant jokes, you will never get a better chance.
So my hospital stay started off pretty banally – I went in the day before my op and was subjected to the usual tests: blood, xray, ECG, MRSA. During admission, the nurse put a paper bracelet around my wrist with my name, consultant, date of birth and a barcode printed on it.
“This is so we can ID you,” she said.
She then took my other wrist and wrapped an identical bracelet around it.
“Is that in case I lose an arm?” I joked.
“It’s in case you get an IV, and we need to cut off your bracelet.”
Which is the type of sensible, pragmatic answer that makes you feel like a nob for ever joking about the topic at hand. The kind of answer where the only valid response is to nod dumbly and make a mental note to re-evaluate your life.
The next morning was similarly uneventful. I woke up with the Zen serenity one can only feel when everything is now out of their hands, and the pre-op soporific was unnecessary. I was wheeled down to the theatre and moved onto the operating table, where an oxygen mask was placed over my face. There was something incredibly strange about seeing half a dozen people gathered around, watching, waiting for me to fall asleep so they could get on with their jobs. It felt sort of humbling to realise that for the next couple of hours, the lives of these 6 people would revolve entirely around me and my well-being. I stared up at the UFO-dish operating lights and felt my limbs tingle. The anaesthetist was speaking.
“You might feel something cold on the back of your hand. That’s the anaesthetic. It’ll feel quite pleasant, like a pint of beer.” He paused, “Then the rest of the keg.”
I laughed “Oh good. Thought you were calling me a lightweight.”
The last thing I remember is feeling my limbs go numb, looking up at the anaesthetist and mumbling “This is interesting.”
The transition from lying dopily on the operating table and lying dopily in post-op felt like a movie fade – I knew, logically, that time had passed, but I hadn’t felt it. It’s the sort of cut that I’d only previously experienced after blunt head trauma. I felt fresh as a daisy, and asked the nurse sitting at my bedside what time it was. We chatted for about 20 minutes before I realised that I had been asking this guy the same questions over and over, and he was casually answering them the same way every time.
I asked him how long I’d been awake and he told me “About an hour.”
What? But I’d only woken up 20 minutes ago! I then got a couple of random memories of discussing meditation and other random topics; scenes which I had no recollection of having ever experienced, but which sat there in my mind like disgarded puzzle pieces. The memories were set in the same room that I was currently in, and featured this guy, so I just had to accept that since I’d never been in this room before, those moments must have occurred well, moments ago. I asked him if I’d been talking total shite and he gave me a charitable “Nahh…”
The rest of the day passed in a series of fade-in/fade-out moments as various people managed to snatch conversations in between my blackouts. The doctor said everything had gone well, and not at all disturbingly, that my lungs were nice and pink. I remember a lot of eating. I found myself thinking “That was a piece of piss”. I couldn’t believe how well I was handling it.
“I am a fucking Spartan.”
The next morning, I discovered the source of all my power was hanging from a dripstand to the left of my bed. I woke up at 6AM in agony, wondering what had happened overnight to cause me so much pain. A nurse pointed out that I hadn’t self-administered any morphine overnight. I beeped a dose and felt some of the pain ease away. Three minutes later, when I was allowed another dose, I beeped it. Three minutes after that, I wrote myself another prescription. This went on until eventually the pain disappeared, and my brain melted.
I spent days swept up in the haze of a morphine high. Confined to my bed, I dozed and dreamed, only able to observe placidly as my mind unspooled itself and leaked out my ears. Battered by stroke after stroke of genius, I struggled desperately to keep track. I resorted to memorisation techniques to store all my ideas – using the Loci method, I placed idea-tableaus around a mental reconstruction of my house. In the hallway was a frozen game of Execution Bingo. In the living room, a ninja cutting a man’s head off with the blade of his hand.
I eventually discovered I could force hallucinations. I closed my eyes and thought “Falling from the sky” and wham-
I was above the clouds, unsupported, clothes buffeted, face blasted by the force of the wind as I hurtled towards the ground. I took a moment to observe the world spread out below me like a map, stretching into my periphery, and then-
A nurse walked in cheerily, bringing in cereal. I looked at my watch and realised it was 8AM of the same day. It had only been two hours since I’d woken up in pain. I clambered out of bed and dumped myself into a chair, making a mental note to just put up with the post-op pain. I caught the nurse’s worried look before she said “We’ll get you off that morphine today, eh?” and all I could reply was “Thank God.”
My body spent the rest of the day punishing me for that morning’s abuse. I went from supernova to white dwarf as my brain was crushed to the size of a grape. System-wide shutdown. Activate secondary power units. Disable all non-essential functionality. I sat in a chair and felt as if my universe had collapsed in on itself. It was horrible. To top it off, I’d noticed earlier that sitting or standing up brought on terrible waves of nausea. And so, slumped upright in a chair, I felt the stirrings of a revolution in my stomach.
By 11AM I had closed myself off to the outside world, battling nausea, waves of heat and cold, and the unsettling feeling that my brain was about to collapse into a singularity. It was during this period of ill withdrawal that my replacement doctor paid me a visit (my original, excellent, consultant had left after my operation), accompanied by the usual awed entourage of nurses and trainees. One of the nurses warned him “He’s feeling quite sick at the momen-” but was cut off with a hand gesture.
“How are you, young man?” he asked me.
Curled in my chair, my face in a paper-maché bowl, I managed,
“Feeling a bit ill actually.”
Then withdrew into my shell. The nurse asked if I could get a few minutes to recompose myself, but again he waved his hand at her and asked me how the pain was. I could still feel the morphine numbness. I told him it was alright.
“Alright?” he repeated.
“Uh, yeah. Alright.”
He turned to the nurse and said “He’s not in pain, he does not need painkillers” which brought me partially out of my stupor.
“Well, the pain’s alright because of the morph-”
“Take him off the morphine, nurse,” he said, and pointed decisively at nobody in particular. “It is this drug which makes you ill, young man,” he said, his face inches from mine.
“Actually I felt ill last time I stood u-”
“We will take you off this drug, and we will take your drain out.”
With that, he straightened up and hurried out, obviously eager to beat the new personal record he’d just set for number of sentences interrupted in one sitting. At the door, as an extra kick in the nads, he ordered that I be given daily anti-clotting injections in the stomach.
On the second day after my operation, I was visited by the third and strangest doctor. Short, agitated and clambering for an air of gravitas, he paced up and down my room as he listened to a summary from the nurse. Insanely, he refused to acknowledge that I was sitting in the same room, instead posing his questions to the nurse, who found herself having to pirhouette awkwardly between myself and the good doctor, asking me his questions and relaying my answers. It was quite possibly the maddest situation I’ve ever found myself in – I thought I was in a Marx Brothers sketch.
“Wassat, Harpo? Wassa problem? Wassup with this guy? Alright alright, two words. First word. Hands. Smackin’ ya hands. Slappin’ ya hands. Clappin’. Clappin’? Clap? Lottsa clappin’. Claps? Claps! Alright second word, jacket. Chest. Breathin’. Wheezin’. Rhymes with tongue. Claps… Claps lung! He gotta collapsed lung?”
Eventually this psychotic panto ended (or rather, changed venues) and I was left with a directive to stay in hospital another night. An anonymous author had written on my file “Leaving on Sunday” which had thrown the flustured doc completely, causing him to ask wildly,
“But that is tomorrow, why is he not leaving today? Who has written this? Why did they say tomorrow and not today?”
The unnamed scribe had unfortunately left no indication of their reasoning, and rather than apply his own (God forbid), my manic doctor decided to just go with it and kept me in another night for no discernible reason. The next day, I packed up my things, gave the nurses a sketch I’d drawn, and left.
And that, rather lamely, is that.
I feel I’ve probably protrayed my stay rather disingenously, implying the place was run by madmen and incompetents, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact is that I had an excellent consultant and surgeon, an incredibly competent anaesthetist, and for the most part, lovely nursing staff. It’s testament to all their skills that 72 hours after surgery I was back home in only the slightest pain. If anyone has the misfortune of needing a hospital stay but the fortune of being able to choose where to go, I’d highly recommend the Golden Jubilee.
And if you’re nice to the nurses, you get extra toast in the evenings.
I woke up at my usual time, stood up, sat down. Stood up, tried to stretch, sat down again. It felt like a lead ball was sitting in my chest – every time I tried to take a breath, it would send a wave of – not pain – discomfort across my upper body. I shuffled around for a while, giving it a chance to dissipate, but it got worse.
If I were directing this film, we’d now cut to a montage of half-second shots spliced one after another: stethoscope placed on a back; blood filling a vacuum tube; a blood pressure sleeve inflating; the flash-click of an X-ray machine; EKG stickers ripping off a chest. After a swathe of tests, I was moved to a room and told to wait for a doctor.
Three hours later, she appeared.
“All the test were clear – you can go home!” she said, obviously expecting me to high-five her and scamper.
“Oh, great… What’s this pain then?”
“Maybe a pulled muscle?”
“Well, if it still hurts in a couple of days, should I come back?”
“Have you tried any pain killers?”
“Try some… Cocodamol?”
She had no clue. I didn’t want to ignore the pain – I wanted to know what was causing it. To me, that’s like responding to getting shot in the stomach by changing your shirt. Nevertheless, sad little pack of painkillers in hand, I was sent home with an all-clear.
Two hours later I got a phone call from the same doctor.
“We’ve been looking at your X-ray again and you need to come in, OK?” She went to hang up.
“Oh, there’s a pocket of air.”
“In your chest.”
“Outside my lung?”
“Right hand side.”
“Wait, outside my lung?”
“Right hand side.”
It was infuriating. So I packed some overnight stuff and headed back to hospital. When I got there, I was assigned another doctor, who promptly informed me that I had spontaneous pneumothorax.
“What caused this?” I asked
“There’s no real cause. It tends to affect young, tall men – how tall are you?”
I was sitting down.
“Well, young men.”
I didn’t have time to feel offended as she reeled off a number of things I’m now no longer allowed to do: Scuba diving, free diving, space travel. (Space travel! Looks like I’m never getting off this rock.)
And then, feeling like a seedy call-girl, I was undressed, drugged up and things were put in my body. The doctor had a fun time making room for my chest drain. I didn’t so much hear as feel a crunch as he broke through my intercostal muscle. Within minutes, a tube snaked its way from 6 inches in my chest to a tub of water on the ground. When I breathed, the water bubbled.
For a beautiful, glorious moment I felt the cinder block float off my chest and I sighed in relief.
Then someone stabbed me in the lung. In the space of 2 minutes, my lung had gone from sad deflated party balloon to majestic zeppelin, and there were 6 inches of tube in my chest. Oh the humanity! I have this image in my head of my chest waking up from the local anesthetic, looking around, seeing a big daddy tube and going “WhoaaaAA! Get this OUT OF ME!” I was shot up with morphine and left in agony for a few hours until my chest must’ve decided to just get used to it. And so began my 3 night stay in a mad house.
I was kept in a ward with 5 other guys, ranging from 50 to – really – 95. Fun crowd. The guy to my left spent the first night moaning in agony. Distraught, he cried for a nurse for about half an hour. Thinking he couldn’t reach his buzzer, I buzzed my own and the nurse came through.
I said, “Sorry, it’s not for me, but this guy was calling for help.” She jabbed my buzzer off and yapped “He can do it himself!” I was outraged. Here I was trying to do good for my fellow man, and she had the temerity to chide me for it! After all his moaning and agonising, when she asked him what the problem was he replied pathetically,
“I’ve got heartburn.”
The next night, the man across from me – obviously delirious with fever or drugs – tried to escape. Since he wasn’t stable on his feet, the nurses had repeatedly told him to stay in bed. I watched him cast a furtive glance right and left, clamber out of bed wearing nothing but an adult-sized pair of nappies, and make a fucking run for it out the corridor. It was like the Great Escape. I buzzed a nurse and they caught him 3 hallways down. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the image I saw through the window to the corridor, of that near-naked man as he stumbled hurriedly to freedom, his glazed expression betraying an accent of hope.
When he wasn’t breaking out, Dave (we’ll call him Dave) spent his time sleeping, shouting at imaginary people, and stress-testing his Pampers. Terribly, I got used to it. I woke up on the third night to the sound of a meaty thud. Peering from my bed I just saw his two legs lying toes-down on the ground. I buzzed a nurse, made sure someone came, and went back to sleep.
Dave didn’t lack for competition. A man at the far end spent his time pulling his oxygen line out of the wall, grabbing his zimmer frame while lying in bed and sweeping it around dangerously, clattering cups and food all over the floor. So not an insignificant amount of my time was spent attempting to ignore the sound of oxygen hissing out of the wall, drinkware crashing to the floor, and hallucination-induced screaming.
The 95 year old man slept sitting upright in the chair next to his bed. He bore his illness stoically. During the day he’d shuffle up and down the corridor to stretch his legs. Every night he went to the bathroom and shaved, and the nurses told me that back home he looked after his wife. The dignity with which he held himself made me want to cry. I was sorry to leave without having spoken a word to him.
I’m now back at work, whittling days off the next 7 weeks until I can gingerly place trust in my lungs enough to start exercising again. In 7 weeks, with luck, it’ll be like nothing ever happened. But now I have a chink in my armour. It’s idiotic I know, but on an emotional level it took my lung collapsing to realise “Oh right, yeah, I’m not invincible”.
I should probably be clear – what I went through was nothing. At no point did I ever have to face my mortality, at no point was I ever in any real danger. My worst fate is that if it happens again, I might be forced to drop all forms of exercise. Compared to what so many people I know have been through or are still going through, it’s not even a drop in the ocean. It’s not a bead of sweat falling from a flea’s testicle into the Pacific.
But I can’t help feeling like King Xerces with a cut cheek, realising he can bleed, too.
And since we’re on a 300 kick, I’ll end with a quote from Richard, who kindly left me this message:
It’s just a lung. The Gods saw fit to grace you with a spare.