Tempus Fugit

− Hi. Can I ask you something?
− I don’t see why not.
− How long do I have?
− You want an accurate answer or will I make it up to make you feel immortal?
− No, the truth of course.
− OK, 24 years, 123 days, 4 hours and 16 minutes. 8889 days or 213,000 hours, 12.8 million minutes. Accurate enough?
− Yes, thanks. 8889 days doesn’t sound that much. 24 years ago I was already 35, and it doesn’t seem that long ago.
− True, and don’t forget how time seems to gather pace as you age.
− Thanks a bunch! So that’ll make me just under 84 when I shuttle off, which bears out the theory about knowing when you will die.
− What’s that? Not that God-awful idea in Tuesdays with Morrie? The one where you note the first day you spent more time looking back than looking forward and double it? Pile of crap, you know. Do you want to know how it ends?
− No, I don’t think so, thanks.
− So, why did you ask how long?
− I was reading about climate change and the prediction that Ireland will be overwhelmed with floods and storms and baking hot summers within the next few years and I was wondering whether it would be in my lifetime.
− It will.
− OK, so what am I going to do with the 24 years and some? I’ve been wondering if it’s all downhill from now.
− Well, let’s see. You currently spend 16.7% of your time watching television. And that’s actually 24.6% of your waking time. Can you go downhill from that?
− Sure. Not all of that is a waste – though nearly all. I’m assuming there will still be TV in 24 years, and that it will still be full of reality shows and soaps and movie re-runs?
− Yes, and news will be available on premium-rate channels which you’ll be vetted for before you can subscribe. Except during elections, when it will predominate on the soaps channels. There’ll be the ‘live war’ channel, and a whole raft of live disasters channels, mostly featuring storms, hurricanes, floods and suchlike
− And will I spend 16.7% of my time watching TV in 20 years time?
− No, 25%, which will amount to one third of your waking life. You’ll actually be sat in front of the holographic 3D light box on your coffee table, as it will be then, for one in every three minutes of your conscious existence. The quality of the input will have gone down, and your lack of processing will have gone up, so you’ll effectively be vegetating.
− What else will I be doing that I don’t do now?
− Well, you currently sleep 31% of your time, and that’ll drop to 25%, as you’ll need less. Not to mention the time you currently spend on the toilet, 1.7% of your waking time, will treble. You currently read 4.2% of your time, and I’d be lying if I said you’ll become a literary leviathan by then. You’ll try to read for half the amount of time you do now – you just won’t have the attention span. You currently spend 6.3% of your time eating, which is taken up with one hot meal and two snacks a day, with conversation and pace to them. This will remain the same, though you will eat less and more slowly, and the conversation will be desultory, or non-existent, depending on whether you outlive your wife.
− I hadn’t thought of being alone. Will I be? Alone? Wouldn’t that have a big impact on my use of time?
− Yes, but you don’t get to know about anyone else, so let’s make the assumption you go before she does.
− OK, let’s. What about exercise? I must spend an average of an hour a day in the gym or walking the dog?
− You currently spend 4.2% of your time on that, and it will halve, as you become less able to walk, though you’ll still try, but it will take you ages to get anywhere, so it will take 2% of your time. The gym membership will lapse pretty soon.
− So I make pots – I spend 4.2% of my time in the pottery – not a lot, I know, but I guess that falls away.
− Yes, and the 8% you spend earning your living on the computer. That goes pretty soon too, though you’d have it continue, you pass your sell-by date. Pretty ignominious really, but let’s not dwell on how everything falls away. You’re depressed enough already.
− What else?
− You spend time maintaining your home, cleaning (though that hardly counts), washing, doing paperwork and emailing, shopping, driving and lots of little things. Sex takes 0.3% of your time now, and you can guess how much that’ll be in 20 year’ time.
− Thanks. Let’s not dwell on that slippery slope.
− You currently spend 4% of your time doing nothing. On a good day. In 20 years’ time that’s trebled, and while your down-time now is infused with thoughts and ideas, creative nuggets, angst and schemes, it will be infused with confusion and numbness, blank spots and desperate attempts to recall names.
− Fuck. So it is all down-hill from here on in? Does it have to be? Shouldn’t I have one last fling? Another joust at the windmills of life? Take on a big challenge? Bite off more than I can chew?
− You really do fancy yourself as Don Quixote, don’t you. I was thinking more of Sancho Panza…
− Or maybe Brando in On the Waterfront: “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”
− What I’ve told you is what will happen if nothing else changes. How it might be if the context stays the same and you don’t make anything happen. There are two options. Either you try and make changes, rather than strutting and fretting your last 213,000 hours upon the stage, or the world will change so fundamentally that whatever you think you’re going to do will be changed for you.
− And?
− And I’m not going to tell you how the world will change that will affect your life, but rest assured it will. I’m going to say that regardless of how the world is going to change – the climate, the migration of your species, the religious violence, the political violence, the economic injustice blaadie blaadie blaa – you’re going to have to make your own changes. Start with the hours in the day. Start with the minutes if you prefer, but make some changes, because the life force will not always be so strong. The opportunities for change will not be so great.
− OK, so. Any suggestions?
− That’s for another day, if you can spare some of that wasted time to think about it.

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Being home

I was just back from another world and floating into the fog, and when the air cleared, I was submerged in work. The work is mechanistic and impersonal, but needs attention. More attention than I have to spare. The other world still held me and re-entry was hard. Still, January could be far worse with nothing happening. Work flows in, time passes and finally the mornings are bright. It’s probably better that way. The days pass more quickly and there’s a sense of purpose, even when the purpose is meaningless – other than making a crust.
I read about impending doom with a world teetering on the brink of financial ruin. I read about the Irish economic bubble (deja vu). That would be the sort of bubble which forms in the mouth of a rotting corpse perhaps. Ah, no! Come on now! Sure, we only just pulled ourselves out of a six year recession by dint of diligent hard work and austerity. Doesn’t that word make you think of monks? I’ve stared in the faces of the Irish workers and seen few monastic features. We seem to be fine. We’re cloaked in local comforts, local worries. We examine ourselves for blemishes and they are there. We examine the world around us for warts, and sure, they’re there too – but it’s all within the comfortable space we occupy. We don’t want to see anything bigger.
And that other world is not what it seemed, all exotica and mystery. It’s dry and hard and hungry. It’s enveloped in subjugation. They aren’t insulated from the world. In fact, they’re more encroached by it than we are, in the monastery here. Get a grip and take the heat of the kitchen. Focus on what’s in front of you and not on what you left behind. Did the astronauts look at the world at a distance once they climbed out of the capsule? Nope. They got wet in the Pacific or wherever.

Thursday

Why do insurance companies specialize in making drivers who are looking for quotes feel guilty? So you’ve got three years no claims discount? Why only three? – Well, I probably had an accident a few years ago – in fact I had a prang about six years ago and it was disputed and took three years to settle and then they took away my no claims. What’s that about – a problem? I have to ask what they want. Business without risk of course. Only three years without a claim – he isn’t one of those drivers who is ultra-cautious and polishes his car on Sundays and never breaks the speed limit. How many penalty points do you have? None? Are you kidding me? You don’t sound like the sort of guy to have none. In this day and age? Of course you must have some, but if you’re going to lie to me, that’s fine because we now have the perfect get-out clause on your policy – you lied, it’s null and void.
Deaf in my right ear. Have been so for some years, but today and yesterday it’s assumed deafening proportions. It’s that underwater feeling when the water just won’t come out. With the hearing aids in there’s a little sound, but it’s fairly little. I start to wonder if this is in fact not an ear infection (most likely explanation as my tear duct is also sore) but another step – a quantum drop – in the ever deteriorating body. Does it matter being 59? Does it matter that I can’t hear everything, that the sight is second-rate, that there are always aches? And what other performance characteristics are measurably worse. We’re in the Lancaster, we’re ditching. The film is grey and grainy. The dials – there are many – are flicking back and forth – the biggest one has years on it and that’s steadily emptying like the fuel gauge as kerosene streams from engine four. Then there’s the memory gauge… holding steady at half mast. The crew is watching my piloting skills with frowns on their faces. Shouldn’t the assistant pilot take over? Are we going to crash land or ditch in the sea? But hang on, the gauge is faulty – the hearing is fine, it’s just that the hearing aid is blocked. The memory gauge, is that broken – not a chance – the memory is fucked.
Do you expect the world to come and get you? Do you think anyone wants to see another’s self-pity and destructive doubt written large in front of them? Of course not. It acts like a mirror. They work hard to keep the wagon rolling, and then you leap out in front of them like death and it causes their horses to shy and the wagon to swerve off the trail.

Seize the day

I can spend the day in between self-belief and fear. There’s nothing to prove, and nobody sitting there in judgment, but the day is long and there is nothing to hang on to.
I might begin by believing that I can do what I want and with diligence and care, I can be good at it. I might believe that I am OK because others show me that’s what they believe. But I can fear the loss of that self-belief. I can fear the space I have between now and decrepitude, between disintegrating faculties and death. I can fear the judgment of those who thought me better.
So it’s a circle or maybe a spiral of self-analysis, assessment, evaluation and justification. The spiral rarely winds upwards.
I’m good at finding tasks which self-justify. Fillers, duties, amusements and identity markers. Make a dozen mugs. Go on Pinterest and find some clever new ideas someone else came up with for where to tuck the used teabag or how to stop that little tag on the end of the string from falling in the cup. Or even come up with a new mug idea, such as how to make two mugs lock together so they can easily be carried in one hand by an old man who needs his other hand to hold tight to the banisters when he’s taking his and his wife’s early morning cuppa up to bed.
You see? This self-justifying act fulfills so many things. It fills time. It potentially makes money, assuming said cups are popular, and it sends a warm feeling through the sentimental tunnels of love which allow us to see the old man and his wife of sixty years in their love nest.
I can spend the same day chasing people to chase me. That means either generating marketing messages for experiences people might want to tune in to, or it means asking existing customers to consider whether they want more of what they’ve had. There’s always a string of vaguely engaged ex-customers who have rosy memories, or need prodding to get on with the projects they’ve been meaning to start. I can go through the list of touch-points in my life and see who they touch, liaise, massage, re-visit.
Is that what we are? Marketable entities, which interface with our audience at touch-points? Perhaps that’s a valid way of looking at our place in the world, and a way of deciding what we need to do to affect it.
I can spend that same day in passive stimulation, which feels informative, perhaps inspiring, but is still ultimately passive. Reading, watching TED talks, surfing sites on Big Data and its implications for mankind. Whatever. I come away with a more replete brain, without anything good and new planted or attempted or thought about. Does this passive process affect my active process? Am I inspired to use it to change the way I treat the world? I’m not convinced, but then as someone hugely impressionable, perhaps I change through this. Thinking about Elena Ferrante or Johnathan Franzen, or the latest TED evangelist, I am undoubtedly moved, educated and inspired. It must rub off.
You can spend the day being needed. You can work hard to make a living. You can engage more thoroughly with those who love and interest you, because that is your modus operandi, your raison d’etre. You can be needy, vulnerable, assured, supportive, attractive and attracted. Why can’t I?
So this is a hiatus when it comes up and bites me in the face. This is the space between one meaningless gesture and another, or between one clear-cut journey and the path that peters out, between one false start and another, between one over-reaching dream-state and its concomitant fall to earth.

On Statins

Today I passed the Boerhinger Pharmacovigilance Adverse Event Reporting Certificate of Competency! If it meant anything, it would be because I was a UK pharmacist who was responsible for selling BI products and needed to be a responsible person when it came to reporting hazards. As it is, I’m not and it doesn’t. But it made me think about the need to know what the side-effects of drugs are and how to deal with them – if not for others, then for oneself. This in turn reminded me of my experience with statins.
What is an ailment? Assuming it is something physical and we have it, rather than something psychosomatic (something metaphysical which we think we have, and which we therefore have, which is a metaphysical truth) then it is something which ails us – something worth complaining about, something worth trying to right.
Let’s assume we have ailments that are no more than irritations, as opposed to life-threatening diseases. For me that might be the ache I experience in my thumbs or wrists, or a tingling in the neck brought on by pinched nerves. There are some ailments that, though they present as irritations, are somehow indications of a more serious problem, or potential problem. Losing weight? Cancer! Strange dark patch under the arm? Cancer! Headache? Brain tumour! So we listen, and we check out what that might mean, and we take preventative action or we don’t.
Till I went to the doctor and had a blood test for something else which I can’t for the life of me remember (perhaps it was alzheimers), I didn’t know I had high cholesterol. That is, I didn’t know that my score was higher than the average for my age. I had a 6.9 against an expected 5.5 or whatever.
So, I could have surmised it might be because my father had very high blood pressure on account of his narcolepsy drugs, and his father died of heart disease aged 51, and because my diet has always ignored the risks of saturated fats (notice the de-personalisation of blaming my diet, rather than myself directly). But I felt nothing bad from the high cholesterol, and would have done nothing about it, except the doctor was ‘slightly’ concerned as were those around me who have some sort of vested interest in my good health. Then, on a trip to Barcelona with my brother-in-law, it became clear that the generic version of the statin I would have to take to get my cholesterol down was only €2 per month, rather than the branded version costing €45 on prescription in Ireland, so I bought a couple of years’ worth, as you do, started taking them and waited for my score to drop. Which was all very well except I wasn’t prepared to pay the €50 for a blood test to find out how well they were doing their job.
I didn’t notice any side effects, and the cost was negligible, but the question occasionally came to me as to whether I was creating some sort of physical dependency on the statin, and should I stop taking it, it would react by allowing my cholesterol levels to rise dramatically. There’s no evidence for that, but when one starts to fantasise about medical issues, the universe is your oyster. I imagined that the cholesterol molecules must have been waiting patiently somewhere in my bloodstream to attach themselves to my artery walls and once allowed to do so by the absence of statin policemen, they’d fight each other for their bit of space, and like bats in a cave, they fill every part of the wall and the blood stops flowing… OK enough!
So, about two or three years later, on a trip to India, I decided to stop taking the statin – a unilateral decision, based on nothing other than a negative feeling about permanent medication, and because I’d never actually been prescribed the statin in the first place. Three months later, for some reason, I had another blood test, and lo and behold, the score was way up – 7.7 now. Stupidly, I’d never checked the score whilst in the middle of taking the statin, so I didn’t know how effective it had been at reducing my cholesterol level. This time, the doctor expressed more concern as the score was higher, and actually prescribed a statin, which I then took again for about two or three years.

There is evidence that statin-type cholesterol-lowering drugs reduce testosterone levels (BMC Med, Feb. 28, 2013).

This time, my wife told me she had read online or on the packet, that one big side-effect of statins was the way they suppress the sex drive. And it was true that I didn’t want sex as often as I used to, but we’re talking about five or six years since I’d started on it, and that between the ages of about 50 and 56, an age when my sex drive might have declined anyway. Still, the mere pressure of her message made me concerned. That in turn made sex an ‘issue’ and she started saying the same thing in front of other people – not pointing the finger at me, but whenever statins came up in conversation – yes, that’s indeed another issue worth raising – she would mention in passing that they are reported as suppressing (or is it repressing?) the sex drive. It would be tempting to digress to another topic for the middle-aged – what is suitable table talk and how much do we wash our dirty linen (or in this case not dirty enough linen) in public.
OK, let’s move on from that one.
So within a few months, I’d made another unilateral decision to drop the statin, this time on potency grounds. In the context of having become a daily drinker, not to excess, but certainly enough to take the ‘edge off’ each evening, I couldn’t be sure that it was the statin police who were emasculating the prisoner. So this time, rather than flipping the switch in private, I decided to ask a doctor.
How often do we, the middle aged, seek reassurance from doctors? Why do we feel we need to book face time with over-busy not always reassuring people in this age of google reality checks?
But when the visit to a doctor costs €50, it is irritating to have to spend one’s hard-earned just for this advice, and call me squeamish, but I wanted a man not a woman to discuss this with, and my doctors’ practice is nearly all women. So I waited until some other ailment (again I can’t recall what, and it may well have been that insipient alzheimers again) happened to bring me in front of a male doctor.
I waited till he’s fixed me up on the other ailment, and then told him I’d decided to give up on the statin because it was suppressing my sex drive. He was older than me, though not in his dotage and sexually inactive – though I didn’t ask – and immediately told me he takes a statin, but he completely understood where I was coming from, and that the world is divided on the beneficial versus detrimental aspects of statins. There’s some evidence that they reduce mens’ level of testosterone production, and that by up to 10%. I did wonder whether that would be translated into a 10% reduction in sex drive – that’s one time in ten not happening, or perhaps one woman in ten not appealing, or perhaps one erection in ten not holding up or whatever – but of course, like the cup that runeth over, 10% less water and it just doesn’t run over at all.
Would my Cholesterol level be an issue, I asked? Would I begin to store up problems by stopping which outweigh the problems I was storing up by taking it? And here’s the nub of the equation. Do you live a life which includes the pleasures of good food, alcohol, even cigarettes, and certainly regular sex in exchange for the risk of killing yourself more quickly? Not that regular sex should be a death sentence, unless it involves a lioness, so “yes, yes, and yes” I say. How much weight can you put in one of the weighing scales pans before it drops to the floor? That depends of course what is in the other pan. In this case, sacrificing one’s sex life for potentially curbing heart disease or strokes is quote a biggie, but one is actual and the other is potential. One involves inevitable misery and the other is a gamble on possibly having a possibly fatal problem at some time. Easy if you’re a risk taker, but less easy than it used to be.
Well, this doctor, despite his own situation, checked my cholesterol scores against various good cholesterol and bad cholesterol scales (yes, bad things are not all bad) and decided that the score was not as clearly negative as all that, and given my level of fitness, and determination, perhaps I should stop taking it. I guess that was an alternative to prescribing Viagra, which incidentally I’ve always fancied trying, like coke or some other recreational drug.
I felt strangely absolved. I’d confessed and said my penance and now it was time to sally forth and get back on the bike. OK, enough.
So in the last two or three years without the statin, my sex drive is probably within the normal range for my age, whatever that is; another score to worry about perhaps? And my cholesterol score is probably through the roof, but I don’t care, because I feel no better or worse than I did at 50 before I took the stuff. So why did I even think I should take it? Why did I begin to feel part of a club I don’t want to belong to? One that involves taking the drugs-run to Barcelona, or anywhere else that sells cheap prescription drugs over the counter. By the way, there is some sick pleasure in spending only €200 on a flight and accommodation for a 24 hour trip to Barcelona (with the inevitable rich food and plenty of alcohol thrown in) to spend another €100 or so on prescription drugs which would have cost perhaps €500 in Ireland, and go home feeling like you’ve just found treasure! The club we join because we want to find acceptance in our life-stage? I put that alongside buying corduroy trousers and cardigans, or wearing one’s specs on a string round the neck in order to seem fogeyish.
Did I start to identify with the older middle-aged people around me and decide it was time to act my age? If I’d reached the ‘age of reason’ about my body, why then didn’t I choose the alternative and reduce my cholesterol by switching to a more sensible diet without cheese and without fries and with much less drink, and perhaps no coffee, and only low fat spreads, and less sugar or carbs. Why, in fact was I not prepared to make my self miserable on a daily basis for want of comfort food and drink, but not prepared to make myself miserable less often for want of sex? Simple. It’s all about the weighing scales and what is in the two pans.