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Archive for the ‘Experiences’ Category

Sticks and stones I can cope with, but the past couple of years has thrown up an almost relentless series of words and sentences that I’d never heard before.

Individually they’re unpleasant.

Cumulatively they’ve been as draining as anything I can remember, and their impact has been much deeper and persistent than any bruise or broken bone.

 

Aggressive T2 tumour in the bladder… radical cystectomy…

We think you should involve the police… “I just want it to stop“… 

Congestive heart failure… passed away peacefully on 14th September

masses in the lymph nodes and pelvis… chemotherapy… inoperable… balancing quality vs quantity of life…

the diagnosis of Dementia is confirmed – Alzheimer’s/Vascular mix… unable to live independently at home… had another fall last night…

Anxiety attacks… learning support… there was an incident… not engaging in class… found crying in the toilets… didn’t turn up…

Significant degradation in the visual fields tests… low-pressure glaucoma… repeat these tests every 6 months… if it affects the other eye you will have to inform the DVLA…

‘Concrete thinking’… sensory overload… problems with language processing… gender dysphoria… meltdowns… 

…confirm the diagnosis of Autism – Asperger’s Type… Cognitive Behavioural Therapy… 

 

I know that everyone goes through this sort of stuff. I know that many, many people have it much worse.

I know I am blessed with loved ones, family and friends.

I know I have much to look forward to, much to be thankful for.

I know that diagnosis is a starting point, an opportunity to shape a new normal.

But right now I’d take a beating to not have heard some of these words, or to not hear them again.

 

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Theresa May is the British Prime Minister. She was appointed 6 months ago after becoming leader of the Conservative Party by the votes of just 199 MPs. Barely 6 weeks before that she had unsuccessfully campaigned for her country to Remain in the European Union. In October 2016 she spoke at the Conservative Party Conference and proclaimed

…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.

I could launch into dictionary definitions and how her blinkered ‘vision’ is inadequate for the complexity and interdependence of the world in 1917, let alone 2017…

…but instead, here are three reasons why I believe in my heart and soul that she is wrong and why, despite all the Brexit sound and ‘America First’ fury raging against me, I’m proud to think of myself as a citizen of the world and a citizen of my country. Indeed, I can only think of myself in that way.

Eurocamp

For virtually all of my childhood that I can remember, I enjoyed family holidays in France, Germany and Italy, usually staying in Eurocamp tents on sites from Brittany to Tuscany, from The Dordogne to the Black Forest. I learned how to ask for baguettes and croissants, understand different road-signs, convert kilometres to miles. I discovered the joy of Orangina in funny-shaped bottles. Europe wasn’t something to be feared or resented, it was full of people quite a lot like us, with fabulous countryside and terrific summer weather. I’ve tried to pass on these attitudes to my children.

orangina

Put the Zep on…that snowpile is dead.

Between school and university, I went to the US for 6 months on an English-Speaking Union exchange to a High School in Princeton, and this boy from the Cotswolds discovered the world…

I found I could escape my (self-imposed) teenage persona of clever but never ‘cool’, often painfully awkward. On the very first morning, I was invited to skip class by other guys in the Senior Year, and we went out to get ice cream (it was January and about 5 degrees below zero), before one of them drove his car around the icy carpark, spinning and wheeling in all directions, ultimately ploughing into a snowbank. This seemed a long way from Gloucestershire.

I played baritone sax in a jazz band, played alto sax in a student rock band, started to write a screenplay, skied in Colorado. I travelled alone from New York to Seattle and San Francisco and back again. I was refused re-entry to the US at Niagara Falls. I gambled in casinos in Reno. I thought I was Don Johnson on top of the World Trade Centre…

world trade center

I grew up and grew out of myself in America. I couldn’t understand it in this way at the time, but travelling and living in another place made me appreciate my home all the more, while respecting and loving the differences.

Erasmus

At the end of my 2nd year at university, I signed up for an ERASMUS exchange to study in France, without consulting anyone, let alone my parents. A real snap decision, it was also a brilliant and far-reaching decision, as I got to go skiing in the French Alps A LOT, enjoyed a long weekend on the Mediterranean coast, and a week travelling into Italy to Genoa and Florence. I met and studied with multi-lingual French, Italian, Dutch, German students.

Most far-reaching of all, it was in Chambéry that I studied marketing & market research for the first time, and discovered more human, real-world ways to apply my thinking beyond the abstract, macro-economic aspects of my degree course.

Even more so, if I’d not studied in France I wouldn’t have been at university in Exeter for a 4th year, and almost certainly wouldn’t have met Rachel.

Erasmus

Erasmus. A scholar and citizen of the world.

I once gave a pecha kucha presentation about key moments in my life. Two of those focused on the experiences I had in Princeton and my decision to study in Chambéry: they have been that fundamental to my life since, the way I see myself and the way I see the world. I Reckon it’s simplistic to say the least, and actually insulting to suggest that people who think beyond their own country misunderstand the concept of citizenship.

So I encourage, implore you, dear readers, to think broadly about how we depend on each other, how we are stronger for being part of things that transcend nation-states. Be citizens of the world. The world needs us.

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Right now, in the afterglow of 2016, there are a few things I know to be true.

2016 was not the Worst Year Ever

  • To be sure, the ‘important’ celebrity deaths seem on a different level, especially as they now include stars who came to world attention in the broadcast media age. It’s very sad that Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (her Mother) died within hours. But please, it’s only a tragedy for their friends and family. It makes me sad for them, and a bit sad for me as I’ve loved their films, but it’s not life-changing or tragic or unbearable. Really, it’s not.
  • Brexit and Donald Trump have rattled my cage and dented my rose-tinted liberal view of the world, but they’re not massively unsurprising. With a smidgen of hindsight, it’s quite easy to see them as a natural progression of where we’ve been going in recent years, perhaps somewhat extreme, certainly upsetting for me, but actually almost inevitable.
  • Similarly, while stories and images from Syria have been uniformly depressing and the scale of destruction seems more catastrophic, how different are they from Chechnya, South Sudan, Iraq, Rwanda, Somalia, Kosovo and other conflicts of the last 25 years. The so-called ‘refugee crisis’ is  similarly the natural extension of what’s been building for a long time.

I’m done with thinking of The New Year as Something Transformative…

Just because the year changes on the calendar doesn’t mean I can swivel on a sixpence and turn things around. There are things I can control and things I can’t, things that actually affect me and stuff that simply bothers me. I’m trying to stop caring too much about celebrity deaths, or what Donald Trump has proclaimed about Vladimir Putin, or what kind of Brexit we apparently want today.

But I can’t shrug off or simply change my attitude about a whole shitpile of things that affect me directly and are at least partly beyond my control. I can’t pretend to even consider the sort of upbeat “let’s make 2017 AWESOME” posts that are just about everywhere. Because while I am privileged and lucky to be British, white, born to affluent parents (etc), and we had many fine experiences last year, I can’t hide that, overall, 2016 was bloody hard. And the things that made it hard aren’t going away anytime soon.

  • My Dad still has inoperable cancer and has been increasingly breathless, which unsurprisingly is taking its toll on Mum, so they need our support more than ever, emotionally and physically.
  • Christmas 2016 was the last that Rachel and I will celebrate in either of our childhood homes.
  • We’re still helping Hannah through a protracted process to get her the support she needs to make sense of herself, feel less anxious at school, and to give her a shot at achieving her undoubted potential in an education system that seems to be going back generations in its approach to testing and exams.

Believe in Better

I do believe that it will be all right in the end, but I can’t see the end right now. So please, try not to encourage me to make 2017 amazing or exciting. Please don’t tell me to ‘consume less/create more, frown less/smile more’.

If I’m lucky, stay focused and can stick to my intentions, I’m hopeful I can be enriched in 2017 by

  • moving house (while staying local)
  • helping my parents downsize into a smaller home
  • spending more time writing this than getting annoyed on Twitter
  • continuing my cycling evolution; ride more often (commuting), further (100 mile rides), in new places (Wales, Yorkshire, France?), and more with our children
  • (re)watching Mad Men
  • helping our children to thrive, laugh and be everything they can be
  • the love and support of Rachel, Hannah & Eleanor, as well as my family and friends

Wish me luck…

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You have glaucoma in your left eye.

A few months ago I had a routine eye test at our local opticians in Tetbury, part of which was the normal visual field test. I stared into the eyepiece, waiting for the machine to whirr and flash a series of tiny pinpricks of light, to which I would respond by clicking a button whenever they appeared. All-so-normal, until it seemed my left eye wasn’t quite so good at noticing the dots. This was unexpected, and very different from just 12 months earlier, so the optician asked me to repeat the tests. The results were the same.

I can still sense the whirring of the machine as it flashes lights that I ought to be able to see. There’s a rhythm to it that I can recognise. With my right eye there’s a regularity to the button clicks as the lights register in my brain. For my left eye there are gaping silences where clicks should be. I’m staring, squinting, aching to see something that means I can click. I’m tempted to cheat. The test takes longer as the machine gives me more chances, makes the lights brighter, trying to understand what’s there and what’s not there for me. And while I know it’s only minutes it feels much longer. I sense the nurse knows what the silences mean: this isn’t normal.

Visual Field Tests Glaucoma

This isn’t mine… but it’s sort of similar

 

And so last week, after further tests, a precautionary MRI scan and a couple of months of eye drops, I sat with the consultant as he confirmed the inevitable, and talked about my glaucoma.

There are fairly significant differences in the visual field tests in your left eye, notable damage to and thinning of the optic nerve…

…but your IOP (intra-ocular pressure) is normal, much lower than often is the case with glaucoma…

…you’re really quite a lot younger than the typical progression, a bit of an outlier on that graph…

…nothing on the MRI scan, so we can definitely rule out anything like a tumour pressing on the nerve…

…there’s no increase in your pressures since taking the drops, no real progression since the last tests (3 months ago), so that’s pleasing…

…you probably won’t notice anything different, until you do bump into something (joke)…

…playing a wind instrument like an oboe or French Horn can cause spikes in IOP, although I’m loathed to tell someone who loves playing music to stop…

So the long and the short of it is that I’m now taking daily eye drops (painless, no hassle at all), and will have repeated tests every 6 months. And that’s it.

Except…

The following day, at my regular orchestra rehearsal, I was acutely conscious of sensations of ‘pressure’ when playing, especially loud and high notes. We’re playing Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, which has plenty of loud and plenty of high, especially for 1st/3rd horn. In fact there’s mostly a lot of notes that are both loud and high, in rapid succession, in violently percussive chords and fanfares. In exercise terms it’s high impact, like running up and down stairs. I could feel the impact inside my head, around my eyes, behind my eyes, in ways I’ve never actively noticed before. And all the time I was thinking

Should I be doing this? Am I risking my sight?

There were moments when I wanted to play quieter, or stop. There were moments when I didn’t want to play my Horn any more, at all, ever again.

Apparently the mean time for progression from early diagnosis to loss of vision is more than 20 years: for normal tension glaucoma and for younger (under 60) patients it’s even slower than that. So I’m probably being over-sensitive. But if the visual field loss starts in my right eye, I’ll have to tell the DVLA. And then I’ll have to be reassessed for driving.

So.

I’ll take the drops every morning, and play 4th horn instead.

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For years I’ve been an armchair cycling fan, following the Grand Tours on ITV’s excellent coverage, and everything else through a terrific range of podcasts including The Cycling Podcast (hosted by proper journalists) and Velovoices (run amazingly by passionate amateurs).  But for the last 6 weeks I have been the proud, obsessed, small-boy-excited owner of a spiffy new road bike. I have become a MAMIL.

Cannondale Caad8

My new favourite thing. No, not the chair.

Where’s the Harley?

Perhaps this is the third phase of my ongoing midlife crisis, which started with this blog just as I turned 40. I try not to think of this blog as a slightly crosser version of my teenage diaries, but with a name like What I Reckon and my built-in tendency to rant, I realise I’m not fooling anyone. The middle phase perhaps started with my fitness/weight loss drive a couple of years later, which then morphed into occasionally taking part in Obstacle Course Races. That has now become a more esoteric and possibly fair-weather pursuit along the gorgeous lanes of the Cotswolds.

As a brilliant spoof article exclaimed, midlife crises ain’t what they used to be. Instead of a boozy trip to Vegas or the guttural roar of a sports car or motorbike, I’ve instead opted for losing 2 stone (and keeping it off), sessions of circuit training and paying for the privilege of getting filthy and knackered, and now Sunday morning outings on a very expensive, but beautiful piece of engineering and design.

Just set up a separate bank account…

Perhaps in an earlier century, middle-aged middle-class men would have sought outlets for their angst in the arms of younger women (OK, I’m thinking of Roger Sterling from Mad Men). Nowadays we’re still finding ways to spend our money, just in more family-friendly ways. There’s a lot of kit involved. Having not really cared too much for my gym/obstacle course appearance (we all look the same when we emerge from a filthy swamp), I now find myself getting very choosy about colour-coordinated tops and bib shorts, even socks and sunglasses… there’s always new tyres, gears, brakes, shoes to consider, not to mention the branding.

It appeals to my inner statto

While I’m less obsessed about the telemetry of my bike (give it time, I’m still a newbie), the whole process of planning routes and measuring my ‘performance’ really brings out my geek tendencies, and there’s no shortage of technology to help me. Apps like Strava are heavenly, measuring segments of rides where I can compete against myself or others. It’s like I’m 16 again, doing the scoring for the school cricket team, looking at patterns in bowling performances or great batting statistics (have you read my posts about cricket!?) .

A bit of self-awareness

Just a few weeks of being a MAMIL has made me more self-aware and aware of others on the roads. I’m understanding how I enjoy climbing hills for the challenge, but also regaining my exhilaration at speeding downhill (just not so much on the steeper, twisty, narrow, sandy lanes…).

When I’m driving I find myself much more aware of potholes and the state of the road surface. I’m more considerate of cyclists, but also more frustrated when they occasionally ride poorly (3 abreast on a busy road, really?).

It doesn’t get easier, you just get faster…

These words of wisdom were offered to me recently, after I had remarked that I could already feel I was improving after just a few rides on my new bike. I’m smoother in my pedalling and gear changes, maintained momentum better on rolling roads, and I haven’t got my shoes stuck in the pedal clips and fallen over while stationary for at least a couple of rides now…

…but last Friday my growing confidence was truly put to the test in the Tour de Creston, an annual event organised by my company’s ‘parent’ group. About 60 of us set out from our offices in Bristol to ride 57 miles to Amesbury (near Salisbury). This was easily the longest ride I’d attempted, and it also included the longest and steepest climb I’d ever encountered.

For the first 2/3 of the ride I was doing just fine. I took it easy to start with, I felt great on the long climb, I enjoyed flying downhill at every opportunity. As we climbed up onto Salisbury Plain, the terrain got lumpier and more exposed, and in 80º sunshine we also faced a breezy headwind that really made me understand what is meant by “leg-sapping”. It was harder to maintain 13mph in the afternoon than it had been to ride at 18mph in the morning. I rode with four colleagues who were both patient and brilliant at pacing This Old Man up the hills. I was broken as we rode into the finish, but my memories of the day are hugely positive. I want, I need to get better at this…

Tired. Happy.

Tired. Happy.

And now the 2015 Tour de France has started. There goes my productivity for the next 3 weeks. I’d better get route planning for their rest days…

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At the end of May we made our now annual pilgrimage to the Jurassic Coast. At once inspirational and calming, this has fast become one of my favourite places in the UK. We camp at the Golden Cap in Seatown, just a few minutes walk from the pebbly beach, the SouthWest Coast path, and the fabulous Anchor Inn, with possibly the best beer garden in the world…

Sunset Golden Cap Seatown Anchor Inn

We were only there for 3 days, but we managed to enjoy a lot of things, namely…

  • 2 breakfasts at the Watch House Café in West Bay
  • Watching the children somersaulting down the steep beach at West Bay
  • Having a whale of a time at the brilliant West Bay play park – far too good for kids
  • Walking up Thorncombe Beacon for lunch at the fabulous Down House Farm café
  • Having salted caramel icecream and making sand castles on Lyme Regis Beach
  • Stovetop coffee in the quiet of the early morning, sat in the sunshine, revelling in the view
  • Making s’mores on the Barbeque. I’m not a fan of marshmallows, but toasted and squished between homemade oat cookies, I’m prepared to be converted.

Perhaps best of all is the experience of  Wessex FM – which we perhaps cruelly rename Toilet FM. It’s the background music in the wash blocks and communal facilities, and it’s completely predictable. It seems to be set about 15 years ago. The playlist below pretty much sums up every tune I heard in the 3 days we were at the site. Disclaimer: I have left out Uptown Funk as the only current track.

Let’s hear it for the boy
You can’t hurry love (Phil Collins)
Candle in the wind
A view to a kill
Always on my mind (Petshop Boys)
We built this city
Sex Bomb
Don’t leave me this way (Communards)
A kind of magic
Wake up! (Boo Radleys)
Holiday!
Hungry like the wolf
There she goes (The La’s)
Oh what a night!
Get into the groove
You give love a bad name

And what’s not to love about that?

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If this is a mid-life crisis, I’m quite enjoying it.

I took part in my first Obstacle Course Race (OCR) in 2013, as a group of colleagues ran the Tough Mudder event. I surprised myself by how much I liked it, so did it again last year, but a combination of TM’s openly-relentless commercialism and injuring my foot just 3 miles into the 12 mile run left me somewhat deflated.

So I pledged to renew my enthusiasm and entered a ‘smaller’ event (there are tons to choose from all over the UK), which had received excellent reviews, and looked quite a lot like Tough Mudder, but without quite so much running, and lots more obstacles. I tried to corral a team of colleagues, but through a toxic combination of inertia, personal circumstances, illness and plain laziness I arrived at the RockSolid Race just outside Exeter last weekend, running solo…

RockSolidRace Exeter 2015

That’s what I’m going for…

Nobody does #rocksolidrace alone…

I was more than a bit nervous beforehand, as I struggle on obstacles like Monkey Bars and the 8-foot walls. But the RSR team have a great social media style which is a million miles away from the testosterone-fuelled corporate behemoth of Tough Mudder (more of which later). This event is friendly, it seems organised for its runners.

RockSolidRace Exeter 2015 Twitter

And of course they’re right. Around the course people help each other (like in TM) over things and through things. At every 6/8-foot wall around the course, the volunteer marshals were brilliant, all chipping in to give people a boost up. The final wall came about 3/4 of the way through, so everyone is knackered when they reach it, but the lady manning the obstacle (surely no more than 5’3″ herself) cried

No one walks around my wall…!

…and insisted on giving a boost to anyone and everyone who needed it, no matter what their size.

The clue’s in the name…

If I wanted to run 12 miles around a muddy wood, I could do that quite easily close to home. But I don’t, I want obstacles, and the 10km RSR course included 38 obstacles, which I Reckon is a great ratio. I was running on the 2nd day of the event, meaning there’s a lot more mud. 1,200 people have churned up the tracks already, so what was simply a steep hill on Saturday becomes a treacherous slide on Sunday. And I love it that way. The RSR obstacles are a brilliant mix of natural terrain, ‘created’ terrain and man-made monsters.

RockSolidRace Exeter 2015 Course Map

OK, so this is really small. What it should label is MUD, HILLS, COLD WATER, and STUFF TO CLIMB OVER or THROUGH

There were huge piles of hay bales, tyres or logs, walls and A-Frames, tunnels, cargo nets, logs to carry, and a cruelly-twisted uphill sack race, cunning in its simplicity but agony on the legs.

#bemoremud

Best of all, there was a lot of mud and a lot of water. Our first taste (literally) of the former came early in the race (#6 on the map above, innocuously titled “River Run”). I’d assume this meant splashing through a stream, or something. When I reached the bank there was carnage. To reach the stream we had to cross a small ‘pool’, maybe 4m wide, but the ‘pool’ was in fact a sticky swamp, full of waist-deep, thick, sucking mud. How my trainers stayed on I’m not sure. This is probably the closest to drowning in quicksand I hope to experience. I ended slithering across the surface like a worm, until I got hauled out by someone standing on firmer ground. Later we crawled through muddy pools where the water was thick with mud and weeds, and it did not smell pretty.

It’s March and I’m running knee-deep up a river, but at least the water is clean…!

Did I mention how cold the water is in March? Blimey. I was grateful for the chance to run between obstacles to get my circulation going. The course had most of the mud in the first half, and most of the ‘cleaner’ water later, but there was a lot of this too. Crossing a lake via huge unstable ‘stepping stones’, wading through chest-deep water, a skip full of ice-chips, more (clean) streams to run and crawl through, a fantastic slide into another lake, followed instantly by a 12-foot leap into the other side of the same lake. It was relentless but brilliant.

Rocksolidrace Exeter 2015

Bruised but not broken at the finish…

By muddy runners for muddy runners…

I Reckon RockSolidRace is a far better event than Tough Mudder. It has more, and more varied obstacles. It doesn’t have some kind of overweaning adolescent need to promote its Toughness or Bigness or Whatever three times a day. It feels closer and smaller (because it is), but best of all, is the feeling while you’re there, at the event, that the race is organised by runners for the people taking part. A few comparisons…

  • I booked this 3 months in advance, paying £46. To enter the TM August event today would cost me £95 + £7 booking fee.
  • RSR charges £5 for carparking, while TM charges £10 (or even more in 2015)
  • The car park at RSR is a couple of minutes from the event, unlike my 2 experiences at TM where we were at least 15 minutes away
  • Bag drop is just £1 with staff on hand to supervise and secure your belongings, carkeys etc. TM cost £3 and felt much more like a free-for-all
  • Spectators can see RSR for free and many seemed to bring their own picnics. This year at TM spectators have to pay £10 each (+ booking fee), or £20 if you turn up on the day, and last year were actively discouraged from bringing their own food
  • RSR offers free hot showers and decent changing facilities. This is a complete God-send…
  • One of RSR’s sponsors, Tideford Organics, gave out delicious free soup for all the runners afterwards. Other food was available for less than £7…
  • The bar stocked ale, lager and cider (unlike TM which was restricted to sponsors’ brands) and cost £2-3.50 , not £5 for an alcoholic ginger beer.
  • I like the finishing token better…
RockSolidRace dogtags

Better than an orange headband…

TM seems to have examined every opportunity, every moment to charge money/generate revenue, and gone ahead. I’m sure this makes them very successful, but I Reckon it doesn’t make for a great experience. Last time left me with a slightly sour taste in my mouth, and not just from the mud.

I loved my first RockSolid Race, and I really hope to be back next year. If you’re thinking of giving Obstacle Course racing a go, definitely consider this one. In fact, if you only want to try one event, definitely go Rock Solid.

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