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July 2nd, 2003

  Feelings, Wo Wo Wo Feelings


The rules of writing comment columns permit me to write one column about my dog and one about how I'm feeling. Well, I have already done the dog column, so today you get the one about how I'm feeling.

How am I feeling? Better! Let me explain.

Most of this has to do with pain. George Gissing wondered why, if the human mind is such a sublime creation infused with divine fire, it can be put almost totally out of action by a migraine headache. With me it's not headaches, it's my back. That needs a little historical background.

A couple of decades ago, when I was young, single, and carefree, I used to support myself doing contract computer programming. Though very boring, this was extraordinarily well paid. I have no expensive tastes, so after completing a 6-month or 1-year contract, I'd take a few months off to do something I just felt like doing. (Wasn't that somewhat improvident of me? I hear the financially-responsible, career-goal-oriented, carefully-invested, gonna-retire-at-45, wing-tip-brogues-and-pleated-pants yuppies gasp? Yes, it was. I am white trash. We're like that. Yes, I'll have to work till I drop, and you'll have the last laugh. Enjoy it. It's my business, okay?)

Well, what I felt like doing one summer was construction work. I had always liked construction work. It had seen me through my college vacations. After months of sitting through lectures on functional analysis and algebraic geometry, it was agreeably mindless and strenuous to spend one's time digging holes in the ground or trundling wheelbarrows full of wet concrete around.

In my home town, in the east midlands of England, the people I found myself working with were interesting, in a multicultural sort of way. A lot of them were Irish, sturdy corn-fed lads from the Gaeltacht who had the same attitude to paid employment as myself: work just as much as necessary in order to be able to take time off and do what you like for a while. They would come over in the spring, work through to the fall, then head back to Connaught and Donegal for the winter. The non-Irish were local men. Those with some skill — carpenters, bricklayers, wire-fixers — were mainly respectable working-class types. Some of the common laborers were like that, too, but there was a salty admixture of lowlifes: petty criminals, army deserters, gypsies, and so on. It was a colorful scene, and you learned a lot about human nature.

This particular summer I got stuck with the job of breaking up a large concrete ramp. There was a team of us, four or five guys in a line, all operating jack-hammers. The jack-hammer is a mean sort of beast, and there is a trick to handling it that I had never completely mastered. When the concrete is being especially obstinate, you need to lean down hard on the jack-hammer, to add your own weight to its. There is a right and a wrong way to do this, though, and if you do it the wrong way, your entire body goes into a sympathetic vibration with the jack-hammer. It is not altogether an unpleasant feeling — a bit like one of those massage chairs you can buy at Brookstones, but around forty thousand times more intense.

Among the parts of you that are vibrating are your spinal vertebrae, and they are vibrating relative to each other, waves of compression traveling up and down your spine. Now, in between your vertebrae are little disks of a very tough rubbery material, filled with gluey viscous liquid. Under the intense squishing and stretching induced by the vibrations of the jack-hammer, these disks can split, allowing the stuff inside to bulge out, pressing against the nerves in your spine. Then you have a back problem.

And once you've got it, you've got it for life. That's what the nurses told me as they sealed me into the full-torso plaster cast. When they cut me out of it three months later, the pain was gone, and I felt as good as new, once I had got over the sight of the curious brie-like substance that had accumulated in my belly button. (You try taking a proper shower in a full torso body cast.) Ah, they said, but you'll have to be very careful with your back from now on. Don't bend it when lifting, don't jump down from a high place … They were right, of course, as every few years I am painfully reminded.

Last Sunday, reminder time came round again. I was cleaning up my basement and there was a large, heavy dehumidifier in my way. I picked it up. KRRRRRKTCHRGHHHH! People who study these things say that the very worst kind of pain is the pain resulting from burns. (Which is why, I suppose, Hell is filled with flames, rather than with jack-hammers and dehumidifiers.) If that is true, I hope I never find out. Back pain is quite excruciating enough for me. It now takes me a full minute to rise from a chair; and I know from experience that this state of affairs will last a week or so. To compound matters, a few days ago my left lung decided to partially deflate itself once again — another chronic problem. It hasn't deflated enough to justify hospital treatment, and will right itself in time, I am told, but what with that and the lightning bolts shooting up and down my spine, I feel around 90 years old as I inch up, creaking and wheezing, from my bed of pain.

As Gissing noted, the truly wicked thing about pain is that it fills up the whole of your consciousness. You can't do anything else. You can't even read, or write. You sink into an ugly, whining self-obsession. Pain leaches all the pleasure and interest out of life. The rest of the world seems distant and not very important. What's Hecuba to me, or me to Hecuba? What's North Korea? Interest rates? The Supreme Court? I've got this pain in my back to obsess about. When in pain, unless you are possessed of a very high degree of fortitude (which, as you can plainly see, I am not), you are more than usually trapped in the narrow little prison cell of Self, groaning in solipsism while your own waste products pile up around you.

And yet the miracle of life is, that there is always a way out of that cell. Sometimes you have to hunt around for the key; sometimes you need to have some acquired skill or training or habit to help you get out of it; sometimes the cell door is just flung open for you by kind Providence. With me it was the last. By six o'clock yesterday I had just about convinced myself that I was the most wretched mortal ever to have been cursed with existence, when duty called. It was time to take my son to his annual recital. He studies piano, you see, with a wonderful lady named Donna. Once a year after regular school is out for the summer, Donna holds a recital where all her students perform.

So off we went to a hired room in the local library, where Daniel Oliver (8 years old this month) joined with 14 other kids, all dressed up in their best, to give piano and violin recitals — solos, duets, trios and one quartet. Donna, whom we see the rest of the year in comfortable slacks and sloppy sweaters, was impressive in a concert gown. (In addition to being blessed with infinite patience, Donna is a musician of some accomplishment, a graduate of Juilliard.) There was a baby grand up there on stage, and music stands for the violinists, and of course the place was packed with parents and siblings. One of the mothers had spent hours on her home computer making up a very pretty little program. We showed Danny his name all printed up. He feigned indifference, but not very convincingly.

I am very susceptible to high culture: not just to the thing itself, in which I have had no proper training, and of which I have picked up only random fragments, but also to the trappings of it — the furnishings, the traditions, the outfits and the manners, the style. I have an old boxed cassette recording of Britain's National Philharmonic Orchestra doing Swan Lake, and there comes with it a booklet, that has in it a photograph of the corps de ballet in the second act. The dancers are lined up in three files of nine, with their arms in fifth position en haut (I sure hope I'm getting my ballet jargon right here) and their feet, oh I don't know, croisé derrière, I think. Here, see for yourself. To me, that rather simple photograph speaks volumes about the civilization I was lucky enough to be born into. Look at the precision of it! The discipline! The gravity! (Vladimir Nabokov had a paradoxical quip I like, something about "the precision of the artist, the passion of the scientist.") There is three thousand years of continuous cultural development, encapsulated right there. Well, according to me, anyway.

Our little recital was of course some way below a full-dress production of Swan Lake in the grand scheme of things, yet even an event as trivial as this inspires something of the same feeling in me. There was Donna, majestic in her gown. There was my son in a group of little boys at the front, all scuffling and whispering as little boys always have and always will, pausing now and then to squirm uncomfortably in their white shirts and clip-on ties. There were the girls, aloof and nervous in their best dresses. And then, of course, there came the music — the concertos, sonatinas, rondos and minuets. It is, again, the gravity of it that gets to me, the seriousness of the whole enterprise.

What, after all, is more serious or more important than the transmission of culture? There were our kids, representatives of the future, playing compositions by people long dead; and there was I in the middle of it all, trying to hand some of it on, as a parent should. And all that was taking place in the proper framework for the handing-on: respectful silence, applause, whispered words of encouragement, formal clothes, printed announcements, intermittent tuning-up noises, the teacher grave and watchful, the parents silently willing their child through those two difficult measures that had been practiced so many, many times at home, amid frustration and tears. Everything about the event said this is serious, this is important, this concerns matters far above your own trifling pains and discontents, this is a bunch of citizens with their shoulders to the great wheel of civilization, pushing it forward an inch or two.

Danny got through his solo (Bach's Musette) very nearly note perfect, and acquitted himself very creditably in his duet and trio. I took the family to dinner afterwards at TGI Fridays. We chattered excitedly about our July 4th plans — beach trip, fireworks. My back? Hey, stuff happens. It'll get better. Look — my boy can play the piano!