One day it seemed I’d been parachuted onto another planet, a slightly faded version, where the force of gravity is greater, the air thinner, and movement painfully slow. Out there, hurtling time continues its implacable and unnerving acceleration, except when you’re brushing your teeth for the recommended full two minutes.
How can this be? I’m doing my best to be upbeat, confronting the issues, and trying to find sustainable solutions to the interconnected problems, by shining a light on them and making them more transparent and accountable, naturally.
First, this planet seems slightly faded because, well, it is; that is, for me. It’s because I am, as my extraordinarily assiduous and professional opticienne tells me, developing cataracts. Unfortunately, they’re not sufficiently bad yet, according to the supposedly clear–sighted policy makers at the NHS, Whitehall or wherever, to be operated upon at public expense, notwithstanding the small fortune I’ve contributed in tax over the years.
I spoke recently to the aforesaid brilliant opticienne who will test me again soon in the hope that my eyes have deteriorated enough to warrant NHS treatment. (Now there’s a thought: hoping to get worse? I wonder if there’s anything I should do to help them along.) If not, we will have to resort to our health savings account built up by Joan, for she is now the sole bread-winner, who sets aside an affordable sum each month. If you knew Joan, you would not be surprised to learn that this is offset against what remains of the mortgage.
In parallel with the cataracts, this little nest-egg has been growing for some years with only modest depletions, and is more than ample to cover an operation, or two, it must be, I suppose. Right now I have other priorities, such as making sure the house doesn’t fall down, but soon the most critical dilapidations will be fixed, and I’ll be ready for the knife in the eye.
The second stone in the sandal is the big one. The increase in the force of gravity, I’m forced to conclude, is real as well as apparent. The Archimedes moment came, co-incidentally, when I stepped into the bath, that historic fount of insight. Of course the force of gravity has not increased because the earth has become more massive, it’s me! The bath water hath thpoken.
In fact, those young cataracts have been at least partly responsible. The problem is they make reading my weight on the bathroom scales beyond difficult. No combination of my optical aids make it possible for me to read the dial without getting down close to it. Even when I managed to squat precariously on the scale platform, looking down between my naked, doubled thighs, I was unable to decipher the small and fading marks. The metrics have been, in consequence, rudimentary for some years now: belt-buckle holes, trouser button tension, that sort of thing.
Early in the year, Joan and I went in search of winter sunshine on a cruise around the Caribbean, a celebratory treat to mark her sixtieth birthday. For me, this supposed odyssey of self-indulgence turned out to be a bit of an eye-opener. My vision didn’t improve, but sunning myself one day beside the pool on the lounge-deck, I caught sight of my reflection in the smoked glass door of the poolside toilets, when I had to go for a slash. A somewhat crooked old man apparently six months pregnant and apparently still vain enough to dye his fair hair, though not, curiously, his beard. Grotesque to behold, and never a pretty sight, even so, by no means out of place amongst others on the lounge-deck, Joan excepted of course.
I didn’t hang around to reflect further. Chastened, I limped and shuffled pensively back to my sunbed. I’ve had a few wake-up calls in my time, and this was one. I lay down and dozed off.
Some hours after being dumbstruck by that, dare I say, damn-a-scene, reflection, I was struck down by a virulent bug, spread throughout the ship, I imagine, by the aircon. We gathered from other guests that it had affected at least half. The symptoms were a terrible wet chesty and protracted cough with generous concomitant sputum, the absence of any appetite and a slight fever.
Our cruise tickets were all inclusive which roughly translated means gluttony unconfined, yet I was barely able eat so much as a mouthful of the oceans of rather decent food available, on one deck or another, pretty much 24/7. I managed, of course, to force down the odd glass of wine, but by the time we docked, my six month bump had subsided to a three monther, in just a week. I feverishly wondered if this could be a new diet plan as I lay on my sun bed watching, aghast behind my dark glasses, the morbidly obese air their puckered corpulences.
Joan remained completely impervious throughout. Thank God for that and for her. Despite the disappointment of the trip, she quite simply got over it and got on with it. It is her most creditable way. It took me a good fortnight to recover after getting home. When I did, I was onto tinternet in a byte or whatever, and, less than twenty four hours later, was unpacking a super-large display, decimal/imperial, digital bathroom scale in teal by Salter. (Unfortunately for me, this is not a product placement puff.) This elegant instrument instantaneously showed on its super-large digital display, my naked weight as 86.5 kilos. I can see, even without my specs, the figures like petrol pump numbers. Even better, when one dismounts, the recorded weight remains displayed for 30 seconds, time enough, if you still need them, to put your specs on. All this for less than 25 quid, including free delivery. Awesome or what?
I felt a surge of self-confidence. With an instrument like this surely I’d be able successfully to navigate the treacherous journey back to that planet where I once pranced and gambolled in a field of normal gravitation.
Underneath I am of a lightly boned and muscled build, which, years ago, was speedy, agile, and sufficiently strong. The last time I saw such a person in a mirror was when Neil and Louise were born, twenty five years ago. I needed to stay alive to be a father and with iron discipline and much raw cauliflower, I got there, my target weight, about 78 kilos. “I’ve been there and will return.” He vowed.
When I do, I’m hoping the thorns in my side, pain in my hips even, will be eased. No longer bearing the perennial deadweight of 8 kilos of superfluous lard, I expect, if not a silver bullet, a big improvement. It stands to reason: diminish discomfort, and activity will presumably, more probably, resume.
I‘ve seen a little muscle wastage, I suppose, though it’s hard, through lard, to tell. Certainly the skin on my upper arms and thighs is now looking a tad too large for its contents. Look, my modelling career is long past, and in any case I simply don’t care anymore if I get as wrinkled as an elephant’s armpit, or sport bingo wings any self-respecting flying-fox would be proud of. As for the lounge-deck, nobody would even notice that my birthday suit needed pressing.
Keeping active is for me more a thing of the past, and hopefully of the future, than of the present, at present. I can be very active, but only if required, and with the aid of heavy doses of analgesics and anti-inflammatories, but right now I prefer not.
So apart from what’s supposed to be my daily PowerWalk to pick up the paper from the newsagent, any DIY that I can do, the free taxi service, the gardening and household chores, bringing in the smokeless coal, chain-sawing logs, taking rubbish to the tip and so on, there are squats and there are Pilates.
Amongst the countless scans, physio sessions, cortisone inoculations, and exercise therapies I’ve undergone, the single most efficacious and sustainable action, standing head and shoulders over all, is, as it happens, oxymoronically, the squat. I was introduced to the squat by a wonderfully effective physio-osteopath. It is one of a number of exercises she taught me over about six sessions, and it is exceptionally helpful. To my amazement it continues to bring almost instant relief to my hips and keeps my lower back free of pain. Life’s quite worth living again; a small action with big consequences.
So I have my squats and I’m proud of them. They’re the real thing, right down on my hunkers, arms above my head, with effort but not difficulty, rarely a breaking of wind, five reps, three times a day; chemical-free analgesic. Huge.
Pilates is more an acquired taste. Before I met the Priestess of the Squat, despite the stiffness that made me feel a good oiling would help, I’d work out at the gym: a bit of treadmill here, bit of resistance work there, ab crunches, etc. It hurt, but for about three hours afterwards the endorphins worked wonders and I’d feel great, but then the stiffness would gradually restore its stony grip more firmly than before. When I told her this, the Priestess of the Squat forbade me, on pain of more pain, to espouse such heretical work-out practices and pointed me at Yoga or Pilates.
Now Joan happens to be a quite long-term Pilates disciple, and it happens too, that Clare is about to take her Pilates Instructor qualification, so now it’s family classes in the dining room and no excuses. On Black Friday we got an incredible deal for kit. 75% off the 40 quid advertised price for four very decent mats, and a fifth one, free into the bargain, courtesy of the incompetence of the supplier’s shipping department. The stars aligned.
When I first began, I was sceptical, I was used to exercise that made me sore and out of breath. I hadn’t understood that Pilates has to be learnt. Most of the session was spent on the basics: breathing into the lower thoracic, exhaling as if blowing out a candle, the imprint position, the neck-stretch nod, the clenched pelvic floor, which, I must admit, I found a bit weird, et cetera. Clare is a great teacher, concerned, sensitive but disciplined, and I’ve persisted. As I’ve learned the ropes, she’s gradually made the sessions more testing, and now, afterwards I get a passable flush of that delicious exercised feeling endorphins bring, but not the frightful stiffness that used to follow. Progress.
Not that you’d think so if you saw us in action. Joan’s sister, Molly who’s a few years younger than her, sometimes joins us. We are all well over the hill, some nearer the bottom of the valley than others. Pilates; seals out of water more like, and under-performing seals at that. Much wallowing, grunting and flapping about, occasional repressed belly-aching sniggers. Nevertheless, speaking as by far the most ungainly seal in the troupe, I assure you we are taking things seriously, and they are not as unpromising as they appear to be and sound.
We actually can do the exercises, often quite well. The trouble comes when we have to change positions. The most difficult manoeuvre is turning from supine to prone or vice versa. The simplest solution is the lateral 180 degree roll followed by a squirm or three back onto the clement padding of the bargain but premium Pilates mat, whence the roll began, taking the seal from, as it were, the soft sand of the mat onto the rock of the adjacent and unforgiving floorboards.
Standing-to-lying and vice versa transformations are made easier by my squatting virtuosity, but it only takes me so far. Going down beyond the extreme squat, I then have to roll backwards trying to prevent the rapid, uncontrollable momentum gain at the tipping point. Bump. Even a premium Pilates mat can’t provide a completely soft landing.
So that’s keeping active….. could do better. But if it is virtuous to do Pilates, virtue need not be pretty, particularly when it keeps the pelvic floor shipshape. Ship shape?