Monthly Archives: December 2013

A Close Shave

I’ve just shaved for the first time in a long, long time. In fact, if I work it out, it’s more than 20 months since I’ve scraped a razor across my face. I didn’t have a thick 20 month-long beard to remove as I trimmed it every week to keep a short stubble: whenever it went beyond a week I would start to pull at (and out) the lengthening hairs whenever lost in thought.

But today, the last day of the year, I feel an overwhelming need to cut off the long hair I have been growing for over a year, and attacking the constant beard seems a less drastic (or mad) option.

I have never liked shaving. It’s an unrelenting chore that by its nature causes rashes and bleeds at the very time you need to be most presentable (just before a date or work).

I know it’s over 20 months since I was last clean-shaven (I despise that phrase which implies that the natural expression of an adult male is somehow ‘dirty’) as I last shaved on the day of my father’s funeral. It wasn’t an easy shave, either, as I had not shaved since my mother’s funeral 4 months before that so there was no razor in my travel kit.

My ‘clean’ face was achieved with the help of a very blunt and pink Lady Shave that my sister had brought with her from Australia. It was a horrible task but, given what was going on at the time, somehow necessary as I was MC-ing the funeral and didn’t want to offend anyone with my choice of personal grooming. That said, more than one relative asked me why I had shaved as apparently I “suited a beard,” looking “like George Clooney” to some elder relatives and/or “like Keith Urban” to the teenage daughter of my sister’s friend.

Such flattery went down well and only encouraged my desire not to bow to the pressure in Western society for men to have faces like pre-pubescent boys.

While it may seem that facial hair is ‘all-the-rage’ with a story on the internet yesterday stating that beards were ‘cool’ again the actual stats indicate that only about 9% of men in Western society are game enough to sport facial hair. Razor companies rely on this consistent statistic (and pressure). No politician can succeed in the West with a beard while the opposite is true in many non-Western cultures, and the moustache has been relegated to the realms of irony or a tidy one-month ghetto of fund-raising.

Am I being reactionary, shaving mine off as soon as they are deemed acceptable? Nope. It’s about me and personal choice. Yes, it’s a substitute for shaving my head, but it’s much more than that.

I shaved because I wanted to blog about my weekend in Christchurch, how my body is still sore and my mind full of experience and reflection, and shaving is always a good way to wipe away the sludge and get motivated. But the physical process of doing something so mundane and unremarkable took me back to that sunny day in April 2012 when I last shaved.

You see, my father never went past a day or two without shaving. As children growing up in Christchurch my sisters and I often begged him to grow a beard or moustache, just once, just for fun. Why couldn’t he? It was only temporary and could easily be removed. He never did.

I don’t say this with sadness but I was never close to my father.

It was hardly a unique situation, most people say the same. But we had a greater distance as Dad was an Englishman born in another age – the Roaring 20s – when George V was on the throne, Hitler was a no-body and every mature man in the West had either a beard (Windsor or less regal) or a moustache (Charlie Chaplin, handlebar or fine).

His father, who died in 1946, had fought in WW1, and I imagine he kept his thoughts and emotions even closer still. Dad said that on a full moon my grandfather would be silent for a week. I can only imagine why.

Dad died 66 years after his father following a long, awful illness that took him 1hour before Good Friday last year. It wasn’t a peaceful end so it was a great relief to see his body at rest. As I helped lift his withered (but still unexpectedly heavy) body into his coffin his stubble grazed across my soft inner arm: he had not been shaved in over a week.

Being Easter weekend, we had to keep him in his coffin for over a day before he could be cremated. In that time we dressed him with clothes, photos and significant objects to keep him warm and amused, talking to him just as we did when he was lost in the Alzheimer’s he hid for so long by always making a joke. I gave him a Best Bets and $10 for a flutter (while his father was a great gambler, Dad stuck to the gee-gees). Twice, I polished the coffin with the soft wax provided to bring up the beautiful grain but I did not once think to shave him.

Yes, his stubble appeared to get longer but it is a myth that our hair and nails continue to grow after death. It is an illusion caused by our skin shrinking.

Today is the last day of the year, the final day I can say that my father died last year.

I did not intend to write this today any more than I intended to shave.

I am just thankful that, unlike my distant English grandfather, I was never forced into the trenches to cower from, and kill, strangers: that, unlike my remote father, I did not have to face the results of such trauma while a silly dictator with a ridiculous moustache sent his minions to drop bombs in my father’s garden.

And that this morning, I chose to shave my face and not my head.

On the Road to Crikey

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I’m writing this sitting on the bus to Christchurch. I just got on at Ashburton after a lovely family Christmas at Seafield and the sign says my old home town is 87kms away.

I’ve driven this road countless times over the years, it’s as boring and straight as a road across the desert, with only one or two places where the driver needs to turn the steering wheel beyond a few degrees.
For all of the overwhelming straight nature of the road, it is not flat, the surface of the Canterbury Plains are as bumpy as a corrugated roof so any vehicle higher than a car rises and falls like a boat powering through a moderate sea.
This metaphor first came to me over 20 years ago when I was part of a group of actors crossing the country performing plays in schools. We would often be away down South (or up North) for weeks at a time travelling through the varied landscapes of New Zealand in a second-hand Bongo that had used up its life in Japan.
The Bongo was comfy but when we hit the corduroy roads that lead to Chch the van would bounce as if at sea (or, maybe, sitting on the skin of a drum).
It’s over 12 years since I’ve caught a bus on this road. At the time I was living in Timaru doing a fiction writing course. My family still lived up in Crikey and I often came up to see them when I picked up work at the rugby in the weekends.
I loved being on that course. It made me feel like Harry Potter, as if a veil had been lifted on my life and I was doing what I was born to do. I thrived in the environment and, in the following years, wrote short fiction whenever I could, finding some success.
I even started formulating a novel about my town which had a neglected and unique past. I tracked down and read every single original source about the lives and aims of those pilgrims (yes, that’s how they saw themselves) who crossed the oceans to found and settle a well-planned city on the Canterbury Plains.
Although I was working up in Auckland I would fly down regularly to see friends and family and continue my research. It was a fascinating story that needed to be told and the first chapter of the as-yet unfinished novel was included in an anthology of the best writing of the year.

This straight road to Chch is a dangerous one and head-on crashes plague it. We have just been diverted by one such smash. People blame tourists unused to our conditions but it is invariably due to lack of attention and impatience.

Likewise, my novel was diverted by something sudden and unexpected. The terrifying earthquakes that smashed my hometown, killing so many, also put a halt to my novel. How could I create an alternative Christchurch, made strong by an unexpected earthquake, when nature suddenly did just that?

I have not given up on my novel any more than people have given up on Chch. I am heading there now to stay in a hotel in the Square. I want to be there by myself, to sit by the damaged Cathedral that nature couldn’t bring down. It was a central part of the foundation of this utopia on the plains
and it guts me to think that it will be torn down by those with no real knowledge of why it was built.
My novel lives on inside me just as the lost city continues to exist in the memories of many.
This blog, Zildchurch, is a reminder to me of what I must rebuild.
I can’t wait to be alone with my thoughts, a pilgrim seeking a better future.

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Knock knock

What a strange feeling seeing my daughter’s door shut and wondering if I should knock. It’s always open. Always.

She only shuts it with a conspiring friend inside or after a storming huff, and I never knock in those situations.

Maybe she is tired and having a nap. It is the second day of the 6 week summer break, her first one, something she’s not entirely down with.

This is a child who got up and walked into the kitchen on the morning of the last day of school crying, “I don’t want school holidays”.

Who on the first day of the school holidays snarled, “I hate school holidays”.

There have been play-dates each day and we have read books together, been up in the garden, hula-hooped on the deck. But it’s only day 2.

I imagine she misses being part of a gaggle of children most. So many friends to flit about, so much to do and say in a world built for them.

With a cast on my leg I’ve been spending a lot of time down there, it’s a different world at their height, eye-to-eye with a 5 year-old. I can see why they leave so much on the floor; it’s a very handy surface with everything in reach.

It’s at least 45 minutes since she tootled down to her room after playing by the Christmas tree while I did the lunch-time dishes. I came down to see what was up about 15 minutes ago and, finding her door closed, slipped next door to the office to wonder if I should knock. Maybe my girl is growing-up, wanting private time? Or is she just having a nap?

I shall knock quietly as I imagine she will indeed be asleep. We’re not far off the longest day so each day stretches out with a tiring reach. She had a sudden snooze yesterday, in the sun on the spare bed while I wrote. She hasn’t napped here with me since she was 3.

It’s been a big year: her first at school.

She has learned to read and found a singing voice: grown noticeable inches in sudden spurts.

There is one other ‘maybe’ and that is maybe she is crying. But that is the smallest maybe of all.

Here we go. Knock-knock.

Wait, how do I knock on crutches?

I guess I’m about to find out.

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Cast Away

My 5 year-old daughter tells me its 6 days till Christmas. She’s very excited. But Christmas arrives early for me because on at 08:45 on Christmas Eve I get my cast cut off. I can’t wait.

I have come to hate the cast (and being on crutches).

At first I was so caught up in the novelty of hospital and the procedure that was performed 5 weeks ago to fix my Haglund’s Deformity and dodgy Achilles’  that I couldn’t wait to blog about the process.

But a day or two later, clear of the hump of a general anaesthetic and overnight-stay, I started to understand the nature of what I was going to have to live with until I saw any improvement beyond what I had endured before the operation.

I was on my arse with leg elevated for the first 2 weeks, getting up only to visit the toilet, something I managed with a mix of confidence and terror nursed, as I was, in a split-level house.

I fell on both initial attempts of the 4 stairs (going down, coming up). I didn’t hurt anything apart from my confidence, always falling to protect the ankle.

Actually using the toilet was a trial, too. Having to sit to pee just didn’t work well as the heavy plaster cast I had on my leg for the first week wasn’t to be rested on any hard surfaces which meant I was always lifting it with my quads, causing a tension near the bladder which meant simple relief was often elusive.

Because of the falls, and the jiggery-pokery of hopping around and down into position, (and the lack of true relief), I tended to make sure the need was pressing.

There were more falls, some landing on the heel of the plaster, but being on a mix of 4 different painkillers (9mm of bone had been cut from the heel and my Achilles scraped) I felt no discomfort even though the plaster on the heel began to crumble from the impacts.

One week after the operation the cast was cut off.

I was so excited, I took many photos (the cast coming off, my naked leg, the scar and stitches, the new, lighter fibre-glass cast), but despite my intention to blog about the process, I didn’t.

What was happening became something to be endured with good spirit rather than preserved in words. Yes, the new fibre-glass cast was much lighter and it made walking on crutches very much easier. The plaster cast had acted like a heavy pendulum weight, no-doubt altering my centre-of-balance, adding to the challenge. With my lighter cast I felt much more confident on crutches and stairs. The ache in my quads eased as a result and, best of all, I was able to stand when I peed without wobbling-over like an incontinent Weeble.

But that change was 4 weeks ago and I soon felt shackled and crippled: in no way better off. I was still observing things and writing in my journal but, much like a wounded animal, I felt a strong need not to advertise any weakness, to crawl away somewhere dark until the feeling passed.

I took a lot of photos from the couch over the weeks, on phone and camera, but I took none of me (and I’m not shy of a selfie). There is one or two taken by the friend who was caring for me. He had recuperated on the same couch last year and knew the process.

You just don’t want to know. You want it to be over.

Which is the peculiar nature of such a procedure: the benefit is not evident till after many months of disruption and discomfort.

In the days after the op I was very happy to have gone through the procedure as the pain that I lived with on a daily basis for the last few years was no longer there. I could sit or lie down without having to move my leg every 30 seconds to ease the pressure and pain caused by my Achilles’ rubbing against the bony growth on the back of my heel.

It actually took me a week to realise that that improvement was thanks to the regimen of pills, rather than the surgery. Hooray for painkillers, eh?

In fact, I won’t know much at all about any improvement until my first attempt to stand on the leg.

That said, I am looking at 12 months until 100% of the tendon flexibility is reached and full muscle mass returns in the incapacitated leg. I will be walking, running and standing before then…but it will be baby steps.

I am no spring chicken and my incapacitated leg is literally wasting away in front of my eyes. The purple cast that was tight on my calf when applied 4 weeks ago is now so loose I can slip my hand in beside my calf.

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Last night as I sat watching Masters of Sex (very entertaining and a tad frustrating as a single man on crutches at the start of summer with the silly season approaching), I noticed that the skin at the top of my calf was hanging from my leg with the same wizened droop and pudge of an old man’s scrotum.

It takes great effort to find the humour in such observations.

Yes, it’s pretty amusing the first time you tape your leg into a giant plastic bag in order to shower while sitting on a plastic stool. But it takes quite a lot of effort and you feel very precarious hopping around on a wet floor with a bag on. The process quickly went from novel/little-bit-scary/touch-of-kink to being something you avoid as the effort leaves you sweaty and worn out (which isn’t the point of a shower).

I began to understand how those dogs with humiliating buckets around their heads feel.

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I have tried to think of a moment when I felt glad that I have had the procedure. Apart from my deluded drugged-up moment, I can’t.

The cast feels like a sweaty cuff, a cloying shackle, and there isn’t an evening when I don’t fantasize about freeing my leg, just for a minute. I want to get some secateurs and cut the fucking cast off and let my suffocating leg breathe.

So why am I unloading all this frustration when I clearly want no one to know?

Because today, I fell at the top of stairs.

For a moment, I felt I was tipping backwards down the 5 steps that join my split-level house where I returned 2 weeks ago (my wonderful care-givers next door have shifted away). It was an awful and unexpected feeling. It’s nearly a week since my last fall (2 in 24 hours due to tiredness in leg and arms and mind) and I have become pretty confident, even being able to hop down the steps backwards …wearing a jandal (there are many hours to kill living by yourself).

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I was so angry and freaked out by the feeling. I went down on that knee hard, but it didn’t hurt. The helplessness and sudden loss of confidence did.

I hated my situation. It wasn’t that bad but it felt it. I sat for a bit with my leg up letting it drain, then pegged along to the office to remove the cork and bitch about my lot.

I know my trials are minor and will eventually be for the better.

But I can’t wait to cast off my cast on Christmas Eve.

I will progress to a non weight-baring moon boot, remaining on crutches, unable to work or drive for another 6 weeks (really? truly? …how?).

Marooned in a moon boot at the busiest time of year, at least I will be able to free my leg at night and not have a dirty old cast dragged through the street in my bed. My right leg will be clean between the sheets as I will be able to shower my whole body without wrapping it in a plastic bag.

At least, that’s my Christmas wish.

I’m as excited as a 5 year-old.