The Sound of Memory

November 1999, or thereabouts.

Have you ever heard a song or a sound that has put you somewhere very specific? So strong even your senses are momentarily transformed and you remember details beyond time and place and it practically moves into the realm of an actual experience, right in the present moment.

Remember the old Windows 98 startup sound? I'd forgotten it, I'd heard it somewhere out of the blue a while ago and was struck with a very specific memory.

It took me back to my mum's flat in York, late 1999. I didn't think I had a close attachment to the place. I was living down South at the time and would visit periodically,although in that classic son's lament, perhaps not enough. That sound reminds me of sitting at my mum's computer (an AMD K6-2 333Mhz, pretty decent for the time) and pottering about. Sun coming through the windows, the gentle patter of the cat's paws on the floor, and the smell of shoe leather and polish from the cupboard next to the computer desk. My mum wasn't there, I think it was one of those moments she went out and left me to my thoughts (and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, the original one, not the shite you have today). The cat would fuss, missing her and letting me know all about it.

I tried to understand why it was such a strong and specific memory. There's some obvious things. My mum isn't around anymore, she died of cancer 16yrs ago. The place is meaningful though, it was the last home she had in York - the city of my adolescence - before moving to London, effectively severing my last link to the city. It was at at time when I was listless and I think contemplating coming back North, but that never got beyond a thought.

There's a lot of memories associated with sound, but I think I like to hang on to this one because it is a moment representing something that is otherwise lost to me.

Megadeth's Best?

The first 'proper' metal concert I went to was Megadeth, March 1991 at the Apollo in Manchester. They were supported by The Almighty and a just-breaking Alice in Chains. Great night. I was 17. They had what many consider to their finest line up, Dave Mustaine, David Ellefson, Marty Friedman, and the late Nick Menza.

That lineup would last - by Megadeth's standards - a long time. from 1990 to 1999, before finally changing in what were metal's post-grunge post-black album lean years.

There's a video on YouTube of a soundcheck where 'Five Magics' from Rust in Peace is played. I don't know the date or the location, it isn't provided, but it's likely sometime '90 or '91.

There's some interesting details. As The camera moves around the microphone captures acoustic bleed-through from the drums and monitors, so you hear what the band hears on stage. You can clearly hear Friedman's guitar amp switch channels between lead and rhythm, and the drums gain more volume as the camera nears the PA.

Menza's drumming is spectacular. As someone in the YouTube comments observes:

"I love that Nick is playing like if the stadium was already full with people haha"

That was Menza. He was flamboyant and fun, and had that holy triad of power, timing, and virtuosity. Such a shame he was not able to rejoin Megadeth before his untimely passing. I've seen Megadeth three times, and it was always this lineup. For that I'm grateful.

The Wages of Spin

November 2020

As part of my long term treatment post-immunotherapy, I go to the doctor frequently. This comes with data collection, namely vitals. Blood pressure, temperature, and...weight. 254lbs. That's 18 stone in British money, or 115kg in enlightenment units.I have never been that heavy. How did I get there?

Slowly.

Putting on weight is like getting into debt. Very slow at first, and then frighteningly quick. I felt this was a fulcrum point. If this continued I would very soon tip into morbid obesity. Since the pandemic started I'd been working from home since Spring. Almost one year ago! As Winter came along I'd developed the habit of sitting around working all day, then sitting around drinking beer and watching telly. I'm 6'3", so I can carry the weight without too much external change, but I'd noticed the tightening belt and the touching thighs. I had become...a fat bastard.

/images/fat-bastard-gif-18.gif

Getting some in

In 2018 I'd developed a good routine at the gym, before I got sick (detailed extensively on this blog if you're curious) and had to stop. I knew I could stick the routine with a bit of effort. I'd got myself an inexpensive spin bike to help out (I used to like to do steady cardio in the gym on the bikes) and decided to pick up that routine again. I targeted 30 mins every other day, as this was close to what I did in the gym. The problem is, it's not enough. I knew that was well short of what the average commuter cyclist does every day. I started to drop days, and pretty soon I wasn't doing it all. Reset.

I resolved to try harder, and decided I'd attempt 30 minutes every day. The problem with the indoor bike is that it does get boring - there's no way past it, it's a simple fact - so rather than do the cardio bunny low-resistance thing while watching Netflix I thought I'd better challenge myself. That's when I discovered GCN's YouTube videos.

Global Cycling Network (GCN) is the 1000lb gorilla of the cycling world on social media. Based in Bath, Somerset England they pump out an incredible quantity of content, and have an international presence, with staff from all over the world. I've counted American, Spanish, and German contributors so far. For me, it was their High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) videos that really helped. Here's the 30 minute one I use a lot:

The first time I tried this it beat the hell out of me. I could only do 15 minutes before an attack of fuck this came over me. I knew it would get better, and the next day I was able to complete it, with the simple trick of slowing down deliberately in the rest periods. I was able to do two weeks of this with 5 on, 2 off, although I felt I could do 6/1, but in the fourth week I started to sense some fatigue in my legs. I have not sensed any injury so for now I'm pressing on.

Measurement

I realised early on I was short of the sort of metrics that everyone in cycling seems to love, namely:

  1. Cadence

  2. Watts

  3. Heart Rate

I had a simple 'spin bike', with a weighted flywheel, variable resistance via a brake, and a head unit that displayed time, speed, calories, mileage, and odometer. Quite standard for this kind of bike.

Yosuda spin bike

The exercise videos don't expect you to have anything but a bike, which is really quite excellent. They rely on Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) which is a scale by which you estimate your effort from "I can do this all day to "I am going to die" [CDC]. The problem I encountered is '1' is easy enough, and '10' is easy enough, but distinguishing between 6-10 is very difficult. In my own experience the difference between a maximal effort and nearly maximal doesn't feel that big, but the physical effect is profound.

Cadence is simply crank RPM, or how fast you're peddling. You can estimate it by counting the rise of one knee over 10s, then multiplying by 6. I was able to tally that with displayed speed saving me the count, but the digital speedo had slight latency and with my eyes in low light I could strain to read it.

Watts (power, essentially) is the gold standard. The cyclist and bike are basically a system - an engine - and measuring the power output of that system is the most effective way to evaluate fitness. This is typically measured with a meter at the crank, a small strain gauge altering it's own electrical resistance due to deflection and this allows calculation of torque. Multiply that by RPM and you get power. More expensive bikes and 'smart' trainers have this included, or you can purchase pedals that measure it where the pedal fastens to the crank.

I bought myself a fitness 'tracker' for Christmas, which has been very interesting, especially if you like data. I wanted it mainly to capture my heart rate, but it also measures my sleep, and estimates blood oxygen saturation during sleep. These are helpful indicators of systemic health.

To measure is also to pay attention, and I'd realised how much I'd been overeating. I don't count calories, I tried (I really did) and found it frustrating and boring. I do pay attention to food labelling though. Having children about means there's no shortage of very tasty snacks (crisps/chips, cereal bars) and they're right there. I cut the beer to one night a week too. After the first fortnight I stopped trying to train after drinking because it just wasn't working for me, so I organised my time to not have to worry about that.

Winter riding

My wife kindly gave me her bicycle. It's a 'hybrid' bike, which means it's a road bike with fat tyres that can do some limited off-road, and it has an absurd amount of gears, 21, with a 28/38/48 crankset. It also has sprung forks and a sprung seat post. It fits me nicely and has an aluminium frame, but it's pretty stout and doesn't feel much lighter than bikes I owned as a teenager.

/images/Main.jpg

The housing plan I live on has a convenient loop that's about 700m long. This forms a nice circuit, but it's on a slope, so one side is entirely uphill with the other, er, down. This has the effect of creating a very short interval between climbs. The first time I tried it was a bucket of cold water. I got completely out of breath after about 20 minutes and had to stop. I was disappointed as I thought I would do better with a couple of weeks spinning under my belt. I just wasn't able to climb well, and it wasn't even that steep. I had tried to maintain a cadence of around 75-80rpm in a midrange gear (why, why? I still don't know why) and it just destroyed me.

The 2nd time out I decided to use the appropriate gearing and simply slow down if I felt my heart ringing in my ear, and managed my 30 minute goal without drama. The third time was similar but I really struggled with the cold. I can't wait until spring when I can take the bike to the park and some trails.

A late convert is a fanatic

I haven't even thought about a bike, because I rather like the one I have, but I have been buying things. I got a chest-strap heart monitor because I can output it to my phone/tablet with pretty much every cycling app. My Fitbit wrist tracker is great but I do find it hard to read during exercise. it's also proprietary and doesn't talk to other apps. Come on, Google. I also splurged on a power meter (I told myself I was going to want one, so just get it over with) and that meant shoes because the pedals are 'clipless', meaning they do in fact, have clips. The whole shoes/cleat situation is utterly confusing, cycling industry. Sort it out. It also gives me cadence, so ya-hoo.

The power meter (Favero Assioma, if you're curious) has opened up a whole world of apps and fun. That's another blog post.

Fat bastard does Zwift

I have no idea what I'm doing why is my heart beating so fast

Reference

CDC

(Perceived Exertion (Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale) | Physical Activity | CDC) https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/measuring/exertion.htm.

Senna and Mansell: For the last time

November 1992, Adelaide Australia.

It had been Nigel Mansell's year. Having come close in 1991, the technical triumph that was the legendary FW14B was unstoppable in Mansell's hands. If you're new to watching Formula 1 and lament the Mercedes dominance, understand that nothing lasts forever. McLaren were champtions in 1991, 1990, 1989, and 1988. They started 1991 with four straight wins, and following a mid-season slump where Williams found form, McLaren surged back to take the title.

The Adrian Newey-penned (I think he might go places..) FW14 was an excellent chassis. It was arguably superior to the McLaren MP4/6, but had terrible reliability at the beginning of '91 with persistent transmission failures. The same chassis design was good enough to compete in 1992, but with the addition of active ride (or platform control) which was decisive in optimising the cars aerodynamics. Mansell had a particular feel for it (unlike his teammate Patrese whom never got along with it [Motorsport]) and was extraordinarily quick every Grand Prix weekend. He would take an amazing 9 wins in 1992, and seal the driver's championship in Hungary.

Honda were McLaren's engine supplier throughout their championship winning years, and in '91 they decided to switch to a V12, which was against the trend they themselves had embraced previously. Senna had concerns about the V12. [Primotipo]

Honda V12

The RA122E. License:

A V12 is longer, heavier, thirstier, and requires more cooling. The tradeoff is greater power. Senna did lots of work on the driveability of the Honda and ultimately used it to great effect, so one can't say Honda were wrong to go in this direction. However Renault had done a better job, and were getting similar performance out of a lighter package.

By the Australian GP at Adelaide, the championship was long decided. Mansell would not even be in F1 the following year as Alain Prost had outmaneuvered him into the Williams seat for 1993. He would be denied a record breaking 10th win at the GP after a rather silly collision with Senna.

Senna would stay with McLaren for 1993. They would lose their Honda deal and would be running the Cosworth V8 for what would turn out to be one of Senna's most memorable years. 18 months later, he'd be lost to us.

Enjoy this slice from the apogee of F1's 'gizmo' era, courtesy of Formula 1's official YT channel.

Reference:

Motorsport

Head, P., 2021. Mansell's perfect ride - Motor Sport Magazine. [online] Motor Sport Magazine. Available at: https://www.motorsportmagazine.com/archive/article/march-2012/66/mansells-perfect-ride [Accessed 15 February 2021].

Primotipo

primotipo... 2021. McLaren MP4/6 Honda V12 1991…. [online] Available at: https://primotipo.com/2018/10/16/mclaren-mp4-6-honda-v12-1991/ [Accessed 15 February 2021].

Metallica Fighting Fire With Fire

Metallica were one of my major adolescent musical influences. This is a live performance of Fight Fire With Fire from 1984's Ride The Lightning, and it really gives lie to some of the popular misconceptions about latter-day Metallica.

Firstly, Lars Ulrich is absolutely on form here, check out the double-bass in the coda. Ulrich has had a lot of shit for his form in recent years and a lot of it is at best unfair and at worst plain disrespectful. Lastly, James Hetfield can fucking shred. Enjoy!

New Beginnings ..

February 15th, 2021

The time had come for me to move my blog of the basic hosted Wordpress (WP) service. Wordpress was wonderful, but I wanted to self-host, and I was hesitant to go into WP self-hosting because frankly my web administration skills aren't really good enough. PHP scares the shit out of me, and I did not want the arse-ache of keeping on top of a WP installation.

So I discovered Nikola, which this is hosted on. Nikola is a static web-page production tool which spits out a ready made web directory you can then host. It doesn't get much simpler than that. It's built on Python 3.* and is really delightful to use.

There's a really good Wordpress import tool, and my blog is largely intact, save some link niggles which I am well aware of and will get to, in good time...I haven't yet started to really mess around with it, and there's some not-quite-perfect things I want to look into (comments, mainly. I'm using Disqus for now, it served me well for a long time elsewhere and has decent social media integration.

sullybiker on #life,

Death and all his friends

February 16th, 2005

I'd got the call from my sister. "You'd better come". My mum had been fighting terminal cancer since the previous August , and over the new year we were waiting for the other shoe to drop. She'd become increasingly frail and had lost a shocking amount of weight. A couple of days earlier - Valentine's Day, just to twist the knife a little - she'd had a precipitous decline. I didn't fully understand the biological mechanism, but her failing liver being slowly consumed by cancer (which would go on to kill her) meant she was slowly poisoning herself, most evident of which was the loss of mental faculties.

I had understood some of this when I arrived in Southwark, but not the extent of it.leaving the underground at London Bridge and walking to my parent's flat, I did not know what to expect.

My sister opened the door. As I walked into the vestibule I caught sight of my mum moving upright in bed, apparently trying to get up.

Is that my boy?

"Is that my boy?" It would be the last coherent thing she said to me, and through the cell her body and mind had become she had somehow managed to put on appearances for my benefit. I sat next to her on the bed to cuddle up to her tiny, emaciated frame, and realised something was very, very wrong.

want to trip inside your head Spend the day there To hear the things you haven't said And see what you might see I want to hear you when you call Do you feel anything at all? I want to see your thoughts take shape and walk right out

There was no life in her eyes. I remember looking deeply into them to see If I could see any remnant of my mum in there (that U2 lyric would be swimming around my head for days. I still cannot listen to that song.) I was visited by the thought that his person - my mother - was no longer there; that all she was and ever had been had been taken from me, leaving just an automaton, an empty shell. It sounds dramatic, but I had about 15 minutes alone with her and the memory is still devastating to me. The slow destruction of a person is a terrifying thing to behold. In time I recognised this was worse than anything that followed. I wanted to scream, I was so upset, but I kept it all in, because i was trying to reach her.

She would hang on for another 9 days, before passing away with us all there around 6.30pm on February 25th, 2 days after her 62nd birthday. Fuck this fucking disease.

I swore at the time that if anything like this happened to me I would not let it go that far, that I would not want anyone to see me like that. I have no idea what that might have entailed. Maybe I would jump off Beachy Head, or go and walk into the sea somewhere, let the waves claim me. I was, of course, completely full of shit, because I would get to find out.

Who said God had no sense of humour?

Fate would have its way with me. I would get get the disease, not the same kind and mercifully not as severe. I may be half-blind, but in all likelihood it's not going to kill me (if it ever looks like it could, remind me I wrote this. I will laugh, I promise)

it's easy to retreat into solipsism and self-pity, and I have definitely had those moments ("why me?") but you have to just keep going and be there. It's a different story when you have a family; . You have to learn to eat some shit and smile, then eat some more. Every day is a small victory. I know that if the worst were to happen to me, my family would be there to the end, and they would deal with everything that followed, because when the time comes, people find it in themselves. Every three weeks I sit down and get 200mg of immunotherapy drugs. The people there always impress me. Some are very much in the trenches with their illness, but they have such incredible spirit. It's not at all what you might imagine a chemo treatment centre to be.For obvious reaons, I've a bad association with hospitals - carbolic acid and death - and I've come to realise it's not like that at all.

This helped me understand what happened with my mum that day, finding that last shred of strength and dignity to try and show me that she's okay; that through all she was enduring she would stand tall for her son.

I recently started to dream about her pretty regularly. The illusion of dreams is that you don't really question context - "What am I doing here? Why can I fly?" I never question that she shouldn't be there - although I had those dreams in the past. It's just normal, she's alive and we're doing mundane things. I don't question it too deeply, but it's a pretty nice thing for my brain to do.

LON_0023_1024
MCT, 23/02/43 - 25/02/05

I hope for a lot of things. I hope my eyes recover, I hope to be completely clear of cancer, I hope my wife gets a break. Most of all, I hope it stops at me.

45 pt. 2

Eyes

By March my vision had continued to deteriorate to the extent I was becoming quite afraid. I made an emergency appointment to try and figure out what the hell was going on. I got a visit with an ophthalmologist that just happened to be a retinal specialist. She is French, had only been in the country a few months, as luck would have it, she was absolutely brilliant.

Generally speaking, nost of the senior female medical professionals seemed better listeners, and thus far I wasn't convinced I was being heard. My wife describes this as a 'specialist trap', in other words if a doctor can't diagnose a problem, they become indecisive and fail to advocate for the patient. You must see the right people. The right doctor at the right time makes all the difference. In the US system in particular, you must learn to stamp your feet. It's very hard for me, as I am a classic British never-complain type, but when you're really sick, that attitude can kill you.

This particular specialist took complete ownership of everything, and the more difficult the case got, the more interested she was.

I had some images taken of the eye, and she immediately identified inflammation of the nerve bundle behind the retina. This is generally known as posteriour uveitis, and it's potentially very serious.

I had to undertake a lot of tests, includng tuberculosis and syphilis,(symptomatically similar) which amused me (yes it came back negative, you shits).

I ended up being prescribed an oral steroid (prednisone) in a shock dose, tapering off as time went on.

Steroids do odd things, it felt to me like I was highly caffeinated; I couldn't sleep, put on a load of weight (yay!) but avoided going crazy -Apparently some people don't respond well to them.

My vision stabilised, you wouldn't call it good but at least it wasn't getting worse. Uveitis is idiopathic in about half of the cases. In simple terms, it it not known what causes it. At this point it was purely hypothetical that my vision problems were linked to whatever was growing under my arm, immunology is complicated and requires highly specialised domain knowledge, there isn't a magical test for it. The test is basically ruling out everything else.

Tumour won't wait

The mass under my arm was no longer leaking, had fully re-accumulated, and was now starting to press on surrounding tissue, which caused pain. Around 1am on the 3rd of Aoril, I realised I could no longer sleep. Heat, painkillers and and ice-packs did nothing. I remember sitting on the bed in front of the wardrobe mirror thinking that I have to do something.

My wife had a continuing concern that it might burst, which could be life-threatening. My plan was to go to the ER, perhaps they could drain it, or at least get me some pain relief.

The emergency room reception wasn't busy, a TV played one of house-hunting shows where a couple have an incredible budget. It was set in Fareham, just a few miles from my previous home, which made me laugh at least. I got triaged quickly. The feeling of the nurses - rarely hesitant to give an opinion - was that this thing needed to be out. No shit. A young doctor told me she couldn't do anything invasive as if it was potentially malignant as that could be harmful. so, no drain. In the meantime she saw me wincing with pain and suggested an analgesic. I got a long lecture about opioids "You've seen the news, right?" And then they injected something with a long name into my IV

It felt a bit like the drop off the lift-hill on a rollercoaster, I actually held on to the sides of the bed, I felt a kick of nausea, thought I might throw up, then it passed. I was now, to use the medical term, as high as fuck.

The doctor got on the phone to the surgeon (I think it was 3am) and got it done - I would be operated on the next day. My bed was moved to a remote end of the ER and I entertained myself sending Beavis and Butthead gifs to my sister.

Beavis_Butthead

I don't really know why, when you're stoned everything is funny. It had to bag up my clothes and belongings and put on a gown.

.

Dark, dreamless sleep

I got visited by the anaesthetist, who explained that I would be asleep through it all, and a reflexologist, as the surgeon was concerned my nerves were getting damaged by the tumour, but this was luckily not the case.

My abiding memory of 'serious hospital stuff' is the flourescent lighting scrolling overhead as you are moved on a stretcher,that and the smell of alcohol swabs and the chirp of ringing telephones. The operating room actually resembles a hotel kitchen, lots of stainless steel, aluminium, and dark tiling. Only the huge overhead lights set it apart, and large pieces of equioment that go 'beep'. I had to move laterally onto the OR bed and had my inflatable stockings switched on, which feel a bit like a python constricting around your shins. That's all I remember

Waking up from a general anaesthetic is abrupt, it sounds like people are shouting.You wake up with a start, It's such a deep sleep. I wasn't aware of any pain, but my armpit felt like it was completely gone, which was weird but also a relief. My treat was a cup of crushed ice. I hadn't eaten in about 17hrs.

I spent a night in the hospital in a very pleasant room, and stood up for the first time in hours. I had a drain fitted, which is a plastic line from the surgical wound terminating in a rubber bulb.

surgiclvwound
Wound and drain line
This fucking thing would be the bane of my existence for a week. A fwwnurse ran in and told me if I needed to urinate it had to be into a plastic flask about the capacity of a litre. I filled that fucker to the brim, handed it to her and said "enjoy". She didn't even smile- heard it all before, I expect.

The surgeon visited and instructed me to monitor the drain, as he did not want it in there any longer than necessary, as it's an infection hazard. He also explained the surgery was a success apart from having to leave some tissue which had tied itself around a vein. This would cause almost 5months of discussion as nobody seemed to think anything should remain in there, given how fast the tumour developed, but that story will have to wait.

At home, I had to learn to live with the drain, which was a great annoyance as the slightest pull on the tube was sharply painful. I had to sleep on my back (which I never do) so it was a tough few nights. On the very day I had just got used to it, I made the appointment to have it taken out.

It would be many weeks, and several labs before the tumour's classification was known. In the meantime my oncologist wanted to discuss options. At that time it was possibly some radiation therapy along with some chemo. Great.

Black May

I had so many appointments in May I lost count. I'd had my drain and stitches out, my oncologist informed me that the mass was classifed as a 'metastatic melanoma of unknown primary' in other words, skin cancer, but no skin lesion would ever be found. This supposedly true in 10% of cases. I had the feeling the onvologist was not that convinced, but genetic markers gave him treatment options. I would be put on immunotherapy, which had the reputation for miraculous results.

I would require immunotherapy every three weeks for a year. I watched an educational video about chemo, and I mostly learnt to be grateful I wasn't having chemo. The treatment building is a squat, brutalist structure near the mall. It struck me that nearly all of the people there looked very worse for wear. I asked the nurse if they looked like me when they walked in, but I don't think she saw the funny side. </p

To be continued

45

December 27th, 2018

On the morning of my 45th birthday, I stood before the bathroom mirror's harsh, yellow light, looking at a lump where my armpit should be. I'd felt something under my arm in the shower, a bulge where the hollow of my armpit is, the 'axilla' as I would learn to refer to it. The lump was alien enough to be worrisome. When I lifted my arm up, the raised spot looked like half a tennis ball was stuck under the skin. It was soft to the touch, and at that moment, painless. Happy birthday, James.

I showed my wife, who immediately looked concerned, "That looks like a lymph node, is it hard? You should get it looked at". I had no intention of doing anything that day, I think my exact words were "I am not going to the fucking doctor on my birthday." I resolved - unwisely, in retrospect - to wait and see. Dr. Google said If it got any bigger, harder or didn't go away, I should go and get it looked at. When? Who knows. This was really the stupefying cloud of denial and fear, leading to poor decisions

What the hell is wrong with my eyes?

Earlier, around Late September, It had become apparent something was abnormal with the vision from my right eye - the good one - in that a little patch of my visual field had a distinct blur, as if there was Vaseline smeared on it. This got bad enough that I was worried the retina was at risk of detaching (lottery-like odds of this happening to both eyes) but a trip to the eye doctor revealed absolutely nothing unusual, and It felt better - a good example of white-coat syndrome, as I would later realise. A bit like the way toothache stops in the dentist's waiting room.

As Autumn receded and Winter started to take hold, I realised my vision was not improving, daily tasks like driving were becoming difficult - depending on the angle of the sun and cloud cover, It could be very difficult to see clearly. In January, I had a light bulb moment: Could these things - this lump and my sight - be related? I was starting to feel the first nips of panic, for such a condition could potentially be very serious. Did I have a big, dangerous cancer hiding somewhere? Was I already too late? It was strange, because i felt absolutely fine. The only physical symptoms I had were the lump and vision problems, which is fairly bad, I suppose. I hadn't been ill for months, and I always got colds in Winter.

The end of the beginning

I couldn't get a doctor's appointment until March, and this was hardly a job for a walk-in centre, so I resolved to go to the emergency room. It was January 29th.

Medical staff are careful not to give anything away, but they don't always hide their emotions that well. On lifting my arm up, it was clear from the 'ohs' and 'whoas' I should have got it examined earlier. I got a minor telling-off from a nurse to that effect, and the doctor, whom I swear was barely a day over 20 informed me I had to have a CT scan, the first of what would be many.

...soft tissue material likely represents a Rokitansky nodule related to a mature teratoma. The lesion measures 10 cm craniocaudally...

Jesus Christ, 10 fucking centimetres? Teratoma? Big relief, that's just a harmless, big 'ole fatty lump. I get a referral to a surgeon and am sent on my way, hugely relieved. I would need to have it removed, but that's no big deal, right?

Not so fast..

My 'surgical consultation' was with a typically brash but professional general surgeon who promptly went on to scare the shit out of me. He told me that he did not want to operate until he had a biopsy, as he was concerned it was lymphoma. Lymphoma is not a word you want to hear, and I had already persuaded myself this was not serious. The Biopsy came round a couple of weeks later, and I reported back to the hospital to have it done. Essentially I had a local anaesthetic and then the physician's assistant uses ultrasound to poke around with a huge needle to identify and capture some samples. The first thing that happened was I started leaking, so the fluid had to be removed. In totals 225cc of reddish/pink stuff was drained out; the swelling all but disappeared, like a deflated balloon. I left with a warning that there is a risk of infection, and to be watchful. That turned out to be an interesting bit of foreshadowing. Meanwhile, my arm felt normal for the first time in weeks. It wouldn't last very long.

The biopsy results came back as inconclusive, by now this wasn't surprising, and this pattern would repeat for some time with my eyes, too. Nobody seemed to have any idea what the hell was going on.

It would turn out that my case was 'rare on top of rare', to quote one doctor.

A frightful referral

The surgeon called me, and casually notified me he wanted me to see an oncologist. I knew full well what that meant. I was worried sick. The appointment would not be for two weeks, plenty of time to tie myself in knots. In the meantime I had undergone an MRI to try and get to the bottom of my eye problems, and that had a neutral result too. Whatever was going on, it was not in my brain, thank God.

Infection

The biopsy site got infected on the day I had to see the oncologist, of course. This doctor was a mild-mannered Indian chap, and he was not able to tell me much I didn't already know, outside of the fact a gang of them had discussed my case at a 'tumour board', which sounds like the shittest party ever. They only knew that it wasn't a teratoma, because those don't grow this fast. I would need another scan and lots of blood work. The proposed scan would be a PET, and would be six weeks later. This wait was important to 'allow things to settle', inflammation from the biopsy could produce a false positive, but more on that later.

The infected site responded almost immediately to antibiotics, but would continue to leak. My wife, ever inventive, devised a dressing using my youngest son's diapers (much to his annoyance - "you stealin' my diapers!") And I continued like this - changing it twice a day - right up until the lump was excised. It leaked a ferocious amount, my morning routine involved pulling off the dressing which would typically be a bloody pulp after soaking through the night. There was a distinct relationship between pain and the volume of the mass, as it filled with liquid, it got painful, so the leak was a blessing in disguise as it relieved the worst of the pressure.

PET time

A PET scan involves being injected with a radioactive tracer; essentially it measures metabolic 'uptake' of the solution. Cancerous cells absorb this solution at a significant rate. The bottom line is the radiologist gets a 3d image of the body, and can pick out hotspots of high uptake.

The scan was straightforward, it takes about 20 minutes after a 40 minute wait for the solution to be metabolised. I would have to wait to see my oncologist for the result.

Late, in the oncologist's office the flat-panel monitor showed the images from the scan. Scrolling through the cross section with the mouse wheel, the Dr. indicated the mass under my arm lit up like a stadium in a sea of dark greys and browns. The high absorption rate was pretty clear; a child could read it.

FINDINGS: ...intense metabolic activity within the relatively large and lobular malignant appearing mass of the right axilla. The mass contacts and possibly invades the lateral margin of the right pectoralis major and minor. Soft tissue infiltration extends from the mass to the skin surface at the upper right breast with high metabolic activity at the skin surface,,,

'Malignant'.'invasive' These were words I expected but I had not wanted to read. I still had inflammation because the axillary mass was by now permanently agitated in a cycle of muscular stress, draining and re-accumulating. There was a chance this caused the high-uptake indication.

There's a paradox when you are unwell and nobody knows what's wrong with you. You want a diagnosis, no matter how bad, because there is then a way forward. When I had the MRI, I wanted something to be found, despite the fact that this could only be very bad news, and felt despondent when no abnormalities were found. By the time it looked increasingly obvious I had some sort of cancer, I was - in a small way - relieved. I knew what I was facing, what the fight would look like.

Oncology were still a little puzzled, because none of their blood work had shown the slightest trace of anything unusual. This would set the tone for the invesigation that followed. little about this would be straightforward.

The Doctor quite memorably summarised "We don't know precisely what it is, but it should not be there, and it needs to come out, sooner rather than later.

It did not appear to have spread anywhere, which is a huge bit of luck. I just had to wait for surgery.

Around this time, the leak stopped, and the pain started to become significant. The mass was also harder, feeling more like a waffle of pulpy tissue than a hollow sack. My proposed surgery was three weeks in the future. I was not convinced the mass would wait that long, and I still wasn't getting anywhere with my eyes.

At this point all I reallly knew was that i very likely had cancer, and was possibly going blind. I was otherwise perfectly healthy; 2019 was going to be great.

To be continued

Looking back

I've had a rough year, health wise. I'll write about it at some point. Consequently I've had lots (too much?) of time to think, and as is human nature I've looked backwards a fair bit, so excuse the nostalgia.

I'm not sure what prompted it, but I got thinking about my college days. College in the English sense (further education, 16-18yrs) as opposed to university. My first run at university was abortive, so college took on particular meaning for me as it would become the closest I got to the 3yr university experience.

I'd been at a rural grammar school in East Yorkshire for 3 years. I absolutely despised it. It made me miserable, shattered my self-confidence, and I struggled academically. I had been in and out of schools my entire childhood due to frequent relocation around various parts of the world; I was already behind when I started secondary education and the truly shitty school environment only made things worse. My GCSE performance was predictably poor. I hated school, I didn't want it, and it apparently didn't want me - I was not invited to continue on to A-level study.

I moved to the city of York in summer 1990. I was to attend York Sixth Form College, but as my GCSE results were poor I had to complete a foundation year, which would mean I'd be there for three years in all, assuming I continued on to A-level; not everybody did, as there was a technical college (vocational) down the road that was also on the foundation year pipeline. Some people simply went straight into employment, with no continuing education.

The college was located on the southern edge of the city, next to the green belt. There was little beyond it but fields and the motorway. It had been operating as an FE college for 5 years, prior to which it had been a secondary school. It had around 900 students (the number surprised me. I would have guessed less than half that) and in hindsight with the benefit of years of FE/HE experience from the inside the college was small, utilitarian, and dated even by 1990 standards. And yet, it was more than the sum of its parts.

YSFC from Tadcaster Road, 2005
Front of the College, photographed 2005 by Neil Turner. Source

I had a lot of questions; and I was quite apprehensive. It was the first state institution I'd been to since primary school. I told myself I was worried I wouldn't fit in, but the fear was deeper than that; would I even survive? It's stupid and laughable now but having been in private educated for previous 8 years I picked up some completely stupid stereotypes about what to expect from state schooling. I considered it perfectly likely that on hearing my accent I'd probably get beaten up. I had an intake interview with the college principal and he seemed so kind and welcoming. Honestly, the fact he wasn't a complete arsehole already put him ahead of much of my grammar school staff experience. It was a decent start. "See you in September!".

I needn't have worried about anything. My first year had some difficulties; I'd been relatively sheltered and I faced a period of shrugging a lot of that baggage off; I had to relearn who I was, loosen up a little bit, but the environment was simply amazing to me. You were treated like an adult; you could dress how you liked (within reason...) and were encouraged to be an individual. The teachers were fantastic, even though I didn't quite recognise it at the time. The students came from everywhere, but predominantly secondary schools within York itself. A fair few of them knew one another, but generally making friends was pretty easy. The biggest eye opener was nobody gave a shit where I was from. I think I'd totally forgotten about my old school by the end of the first term. I felt like a different person. I grew my hair out, had a few illicit beers (sometimes during lunch!) and generally had a blast.

Academically I did better, but not much better. Just good enough. I was absolutely distracted by a new found social happiness and was for better or worse not worried about the future. I progressed onto A-levels, grew my hair even more, joined a band (We were shit. That wasn't our name, but might as well have been) and just kept going. I had lost a few friends after foundation year. Some went onto apprenticeships or 'The Tech' down the road, but this wasn't an impediment at college, largely due to the fundamental layout of the place.

sixth-form-college-ground-floor-plan-1985
Floor Plan. From Yorkstories blog

The building featured a large room named the 'social area'. It was really the focal point of the block. It wasn't huge, less than 100ft long and about half as wide, and was open plan, with moveable bench seating. They were beige and pink, as I remember. Before classes started in the morning and during lunch, it was absolutely rammed. Because of this, boundaries really broke down; it didn't matter much what year you were in, or what you were studying, you could get to know people. There were certainly cliques, but everyone pretty much got along. It amused me how that room could change in character dependent on the phase of the timetable. During free periods it occasionally took on a monastic quality with just a handful of people in it. It wasn't anywhere near large enough for the entire student cohort at one time, so people spilled out into the corridors and the canteen, but generally the social area or the immediate vicinity was where it was at.

Time continued its march and in June '93 I completed my A-levels with fairly average results. A decade later after some epic fannying about, and in a different part of the country, I would end up working at an FE college. I never really made much of a connection before, but thinking about it, just being in that kind of environment felt right to me, and I've been working in education ever since.

York, March 2007

I'd been visiting my dad who had recently moved North again. We'd taken a trip into York on a rainy Saturday. It had been my first visit in about 8 years. He asked me if I wanted to go out along Tadcaster road, "go past the college" as he put it. Sure, why not. I already felt a bit subdued by the grey weather, and that odd feeling of knowing a place but not knowing anybody in it anymore.

It was gone. Completely gone. A huge, modern building was in its place. I was surprised to feel really quite emotional about it.

[googlemaps https://www.google.com/maps/embed?pb=!4v1561657105911!6m8!1m7!1sGEL0Ym1X2y2IjXpnL47-Sg!2m2!1d53.93030158522366!2d-1.114886151188279!3f124.64203456294452!4f-6.089662820368858!5f0.7820865974627469&w=600&h=450]

When I got back home I looked it up, emotion giving way to professional curiousity. It was a brand-new campus opening that September. In 1999 the College and Tech had merged. In 2005 the complex as I knew it was demolished to make way for the new buildings.

Demolition under way in 2005
Demolition underway in late 2005. By Neil Turner. Source

It looks fantastic, and was quite necessary. I was sad to see the old building go with all those beautiful memories, but the college most definitely needed more space, not to mention the potential purpose-built facilities offer for teaching. The original college could only deliver so much given its origins as a modest school.

I wonder if it has a social area?

Google and a rose tint

York Sixth Form College existed largely before the digital epoch, and definitely before social media/web 2.0 (sorry) took off. There's depressingly few photos of the place as I knew it. I have some envy for students nowadays as they have a glut of images to look back on when nostalgia descends.

I found a few on Flickr (which I've already posted), and some unlikely sources: Writer and journalist Sophie Heawood popped up from a Google search; I immediately recognised a photo she had posted in an article as being the bike shed/smoking area (the official one, anyway...). Those Portakabins in the background were ostensibly temporary. I suspect they remained to the bitter end. Anyway, It's a good read, and if my arithmetic is right based on what she wrote, I may have been there during her first year. It's a small world. A friend was also, er, kind enough to share one of me. Christ.

1929943_14193922338_7814_n
Askham Bar Park'n'Ride, 1993ish. Oh dear.

Of course, not everybody feels the same way. My best friend from college was very cool on the whole experience, and I suspect he thinks I'm mad for being remotely nostalgic about it. For most others I would think university superceded it in terms of sheer living experience. For me it was pretty special, and while I don't wish to sound like I'm living in the past, it's a beautiful place to visit once in a while.