Cold comfort

Some readers may have been wondering about the break in service here at GofaDM, most (I suspect) will have just been enjoying the peace and quiet.  A few may have correctly guessed that my cold, once eliminated from my sinuses, did not do the decent thing and leave my body.  No, instead it chose to begin a seven day residency in my chest and throat – which has meant me spending much of the last week coughing (both day and night).  I have also had much reduced appetite – though in some ways, for a chap trying to base his diet on local fruit and veg, this is about the best possible time of year to eat rather less.

I am far from alone in suffering under a prolonged cough, based on my friends and family, I am thinking of naming 2015 the Year of the Cough (though I note that our Chinese friends went with the Goat).  Indeed, I spent last week staying in an unseasonably warm Edinburgh with friends who were both similarly afflicted.  Obviously, this rather limited my scope for sympathy – but the excellent Edinburgh Science Festival provided further restrictions on traditional responses to a nasty cold.

A common response is to seek an antibiotic prescription from your doctor – rarely useful as most colds are viral in nature and antibiotics can (at best) see off bacteria (and perhaps archaea? fungi?).  Having been to a brilliant talk entitled Antibiotic Apocalypse! I was fully aware of the risks to both patient and society of unnecessary prescribing of antibiotics.  I could have been suffering from “strep” throat, but since it seems to have largely cleared up with the benefit of time, some menthol sweets and a lot of hot drinks (many containing honey and lemon) that now seems unlikely.

It was also very hard to wallow in self-pity after going to a talk on Motor Neurone Disease (or ALS for any American readers).  This would tend to put one’s minor ailments in their place at the best of times, but the fact that I spent a good hour sitting within a few feet (at times less than three) of a chap who really was dying (and fast) really did make it impossible.  He – Gordon Aikman – is a one time national gymnast and is still barely thirty: which certainly reminds one of the capricious (and cruel) nature of Fate.  The talk was fascinating and rather affecting: we know neither what causes MND nor can do anything to prevent its progress and Stephen Hawking is certainly not a typical sufferer – half of all patients die within 14 months of diagnosis and very few live for as long as five years.  It is surprisingly common – with some 400 current sufferers in Scotland alone.  Given our extensive ignorance and the swift, debilitating progress of the disease, efforts focus on improving the (all too short) lives of patients and basic research to try and understand why neurons in the motor cortex and spine start dying.  Some of the former efforts can be quite simple: for example, arranging for patients to have a single appointment to cover everything rather than forcing them to waste their very limited remaining time visiting five different specialists.  Others are more complex, including an attempt to use modern technology to allow sufferers to keep their own voices – rather than a standardised electronic voice – which improves quality of life for both them and their friends and family.  It certainly made me think how important it is not to waste NHS money on things which benefit neither patients, medical staff nor tax-payers.  It marks the current government’s awful, bodged attempts at soi-disant reforms (which seemed cunningly designed to help none of the traditional stakeholders even had they worked) as particularly wicked – they have probably set back real attempts to improve the financial management of the NHS by decades.  It also threw into sharp focus the trivial nature of any of the election debates on the subject of the NHS.

Anyway, lacking a decent route to self-pity and unaided by antibiotics, my immune system has had to do some work and see off the invaders on its own.  It does finally seem to be gaining the upper hand and (according to at least one test) I am now restored to 75% of normal function.  As a result of my reduced depletion, blogging should be fully restored.

The illness was not a complete dead loss as it led me to discover Belvoir Fruit Farms’ Ginger Cordial – which I purchased for its medicinal properties (well, a chap can dream), but which turns out to be worryingly delicious (at least when taken hot, I have yet to try it cold).

The Completist

I am current suffering suffering through (what I hope is) the tail end of a cold – my second of 2015 (though, apparently, this still does not make for a statistically significant rate of infection).  Given the timing, I had a number of social engagements whilst the cold was closer to its peak and so did a little research to identify whether I was likely to be infectious – despite my naturally giving nature, I felt sharing my viral load with friends and family was probably de trop.

Reference to Dr Internet (largely due to my iron self-control) did not lead to any escalation of my self-diagnosis, but nor was it particularly definitive as to whether I would be playing the role of Typhoid Mary de nos jours across East Sussex.  However, NHS Direct did suggest a number of precautions I could take to reduce the risks for those I would be visiting.  Only time (and lawsuits) will tell whether these will have proved successful.

My colds tend to be follow a very standard timetable – from first detection I have a sore throat and catarrh then after 72 hours my nose will run like a tap for 12 hours. I will then start to recover, though initially will feel worse and the cold will then degenerate into a cough.  I have yet to find any cold “remedy” that does much good, though anaesthetic throat lozenges help with the sort throat and Night Nurse helps with the disturbed sleep.  NHS Direct also gave details of the typical length of an adult cold and the normal symptoms.  I tend to have all the standard symptoms and most of the uncommon ones – but this time, I managed to achieve the whole list and some extras!

In terms of the progression of a cold, I tend to follow my father – however, with this cold I also followed both my sister and mother.  On Good Friday in particular, my sinuses were clearly massively unhappy – this means that as well as my nose feeling vaguely on fire, my brain felt too big for my head and all(!) of my teeth ached constantly.  NHS Direct did rather fail to mention the toothache aspect of the typical cold – but my sister has experienced this, so I’m not the first.  For some reason, I also had issues with the movement of my eyes within their orbits – and so it was much less painful to move my head to look at something than more my eyeballs.  This is surprisingly hard to remember to do: the eyes do seem to have a mind of their own.  In addition, my eyes were horribly bloodshot (I could have been cast, make-up free, as a zombie) and became very photo-sensitive as well: the lighting in railway carriages really needs a dimmer switch.  I think this extension of symptoms to the eyes I have from my mother.  I’ve even had to give up on the Night Nurse as my body mostly ignores it, then about three hours into the night sweats to an insane degree and I awaken drenched – which apparently happens to my dad when using paracetamol as well.  If nothing else, this cold strongly suggests that I am not adopted!

Fortunately, today I am feeling somewhat better – though my overly emotional response to watching the latest re-boot of Thunderbirds may suggest that normal service is still a little ways off (or perhaps it brought a tear – or a flood thereof – to the eyes of many a middle-aged chap).

Anyway, as a result of the severity of this cold (and the completeness of its symptoms) I have been forced to live for four days as conventional wisdom would suggest much of the population lives all the time.  Basically, illness has made me into a couch potato – with little or no exercise and far more time spent sitting or lying down than is normal for me.  How do people do this?  I ache everywhere – far worse than after even the most extreme of gymnastic sessions or even a full day of art gallery viewings – and that’s after only four days.  Does one eventually adapt to being a settee tuber?  Fortunately, today matters have improved and I have travelled a modest distance on my bike and had a very gentle session at the gym – which did cause my body to receive olfactory hallucinations, but the aches are diminishing.  On the plus side, whilst my nose is now imagining smells, hanging upside from the bar has done wonders for clearing my sinuses.  Well, when was the last time you saw a bat or sloth with the sniffles?

What would Emma do?

As you will discover, in due course, this sentence will be the only reference to the work of Jane Austen – so put Ms Woodhouse from your mind.

Back in January, I spent a long weekend in Cambridge – which does not indicate that it was dull, far from it!  Over this weekend, the teaching of music became a major theme which this post will probably explore (or that is the plan at this early stage).

The theme started with a viewing of the film Whiplash, in which the music tuition is very fierce indeed.  By comparison with the trainee drummer portrayed, my commitment to anything in life would scarcely even be considered half-hearted – despite what I may have thought was serious application on my part.  I have also been spared any teacher even remotely so psychotic – which may perhaps explain my dilettantism, but for which I am suitably grateful,  I’m sure real drummers and jazz aficionados will find much to criticise in the film and others will object to the lack of female characters and rather limited characterisation, but the film is very powerful and gripping and I’d recommend it despite its (no doubt) numerous shortcomings.

At the end of the weekend, I saw Murray Perahia giving a masterclass with the Doric String Quartet.  In contrast with Angela Hewitt last year, Murray is not a natural teacher and much went completely over my head – but there were still some nuggets of interest which I might try and use in my own musical life.

In between these lessons for others, I tried to fit in a singing lesson for myself.  The observant reader may object that this coincided with the time of “the cough” and they would be right – however, the cough seemed to be somewhat in abeyance so I thought it was worth a try.  My voice was not at its best and the cough not as quiescent as hoped.  Under such circumstances finding pitch is quite a challenge as notes tend to be produced much lower down the octave than expected, my breath control (poor at the best of times) was completely shot and even having found a note I had great difficulty maintaining it.  Notes towards the top of my range were particularly problematic.  My performance was not unlike a teenager’s, with the pitch breaking up and down uncontrollably (so my voice, mental age and self-image were in alignment for once).  To help me obtain the best from my damaged voice, my teacher referred me to the advice of Emma Kirkby – famous soprano – as to how to manage under these circumstances.  It seems natural (to me at least) to be somewhat tentative when singing with a cough (or similar), but this makes things worse.  By maintaining good airflow over the old vocal chords, I found that production of the desired note stabilised and my voice sounded pretty good – though I did then run out of air much too soon.  Now, I had been told this many times before, but this was the first time I actually “learned” the lesson – it was instantly obvious the difference that having proper airflow made to my singing.  Today, was the first time I had tried singing since and, old dogs being hard of learning when it comes to new tricks, I started off somewhat tentatively – this is also partly to avoid frightening the neighbours or any nearby cetaceans (well I am a bass living near the coast).  This did not go so well, so I remembered Emma’s advice and went for it (airflow-wise) and my voice worked very nicely thank you.

All I need to do now is sort out my breathing – a skill which, despite having almost reached 49 (not out), still rather eludes me on an all too frequent basis.  That same weekend in Cambridge, the soprano soloist at the Deutsches Requiem was (a) very close to me and (b) wearing a dress that was tight around the lower trunk which made it very clear that she was breathing from the diaphragm (or even below) – rather than (as I do) noisily snatching breaths from the area of the pecs.  My lower trunk is rather too rigid – which is great for the gentleman gymnast and the six-pack, but not so good for proper breathing.  Somehow I need to learn to relax “down there” – something I do automatically when laughing, but can’t do on command.  If only there were more (or indeed any) middle-aged singer-gymnasts I could turn to for advice or inspiration…  Now, what would Emma do?

My Snow White moment

As previously established, I have been living with a cough for a while – and recently this has been joined by some of the more traditional symptoms of the common cold.  I do not mention this again in the hope of receiving sympathy (as, frankly, I have nowhere to store it – but would note for future reference that I will rarely refuse a grape) but because of its importance to the narrative which follows.

Yesterday evening, I sat down – as is tradition – to enjoy a piece of fruit.  I have often had my mouth full of cox in the past, but last night something went wrong.  A small piece of my apple must have taken the road less travelled, and in conjunction with my cold-restricted airways (not an ideal name for an airline) I was rendered unable to breathe.  As a result of my modest abode and love of privacy, I am not shacked up with seven chaps of less than average height and adjectival names and so there was no-one available to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre (and as a procedure it is quite hard to self-administer – even for a gentleman gymnast).  The end of GofaDM (and its auteur) did seem to be at hand! (To avoid unduly raising of cortisol levels in my readers, I should reassure you that I did survive the incident).

A long and very loud combination of coughing, choking and almost retching ensued and some transport of oxygen to my lungs was gradually reinstated.  I presume most of Hampshire were left wondering what the noise presaged, but no medical aid arrived (nor did a prince to kiss me better).  My eyes turned very red and liquids issued from most of the orifices in the body from which this is possible, but despite this I can confirm that there is no discernible erotic element to asphyxiation (well, not for me – though I suppose I do have very little interest in gland games, even in more ideal circumstances).  My life did not pass before my eyes, but the link between my predicament and that of Snow White did.  I suspect this would tell a psychologist all they need to know about me.  Despite my antipathy to the wasting of food, I should also admit that I did abandon the rest of the apple – sometimes discretion is the better part of valour.

I assume the apple-choking was an accident, perhaps brought on by inadequate chewing or eating with my mouth open.  However, if it was a plot to remove me from the picture by a wicked queen, then I suggest he (or she) may wish to check the warranty on their magic mirror.  A properly functioning, enchanted looking-glass really should not be pointing me out as the fairest of them all.  I’m sure I’m as self-deluded as the next man (probably more so), but even I am not under the illusion that I am that dishy – relatively well preserved though I may be for a man of my advanced years.

*ahem*

Today’s title continues the fine British tradition of understatement – not as a matter of policy or desire, but because I am otherwise unable to spell the sound of a cough.  I realise “ahem” is more of a genteel throat clearing, but it was the best I could muster.

Ever since coming out as happy, in a recent post, something has been attacking my chest (something microbial or viral, rather than a confused woodpecker on the hunt for grubs) which I presume is the universe taking revenge for my o’erweening hubris.  As a result, I have been coughing for two-and-a-half weeks – and not usually in a genteel manner, for a start my coughing often seems to have more than a hint of a goose’s honk (though offers substantially greater volume and bass).  Despite the obvious hint for any believers in homeopathy (into which camp I do not fall), I have not been treating my condition with goose grease – for a start, is this the same as the goose fat which until so recently filled the seasonal shelves of our supermarkets?  Frankly, if we are going for seasonal unguents I’d prefer rubbing brandy butter on the affected area – though it would make a terrible mess of my clothes.

The last couple of weeks has been a tricky time to be afflicted with a cough, as a number of musical (and other) excursions had been booked back in the halcyon days when I still had my health.  As this blog has noted before, the concert hall and theatre are very much the preserve of the bronchially-challenged, but until now I have always managed to avoid adding my own input to the typical cacophony.  In an attempt to avoid becoming any more hypocritical than normal, I have been attempting to suppress the desire to cough on a rather regular basis of late.  This has generally been reasonably easy with the aid of the odd sucky sweet (one contained in a quiet wrapping and accessed in the gaps between the music).  However, early on in the world premiere of a quiet piano piece at Kettle’s Yard, I was overcome with an urgent need to cough and suppression proved very difficult, but a combination of physical contortions and a readiness to die rather than suffer embarrassment just about saw me through.  As a result, I remain (almost) entirely unsympathetic to those who cough their way through recitals.

Last Saturday, the cough appeared to be in remission and so I decided to celebrate by enjoying some live music at the Art House Cafe.  Well, of late at Fish Towers, and in direct contravention of the rules laid down by BBC Radio 2, Saturday is music night!  After the fun of the Skull Kids, the following Saturday night I found myself in King’s College Chapel listening to Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony and Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem – which provided a degree of contrast in my sonic outings.  This was also huge fun – it’s not often these days I get to see a full orchestra and choir in action – and from the front row a great wall of sound washed over me.  This Saturday was Jonny Phillips (a subset of Willowen) and Hot Feet – and once again, while being unknown to me before the evening started, they were excellent and I’d certainly seek them out again.  I’m not sure how the Art House chooses its bands, but they do seem rather good at it – perhaps the southwest is just blessed with good music?  I also love that the space is wonderfully intimate and (important for a man of my age) you get to sit down!

Anyway, having booked to go to the gig in the morning, the cough returned with a vengeance in the afternoon – with barely time to draw breath between vocal explosions.  Arriving at the Art House, I usually partake of their wares – and given how bad the cough was I threw caution to the wind.  Chocolate is not supposed to be your friend in my condition, but on the principle I couldn’t make things worse I had a hot chocolate (with my traditional shot of “medicinal” rum) and a thick slice of chocolate cake.  Delicious!  It also softened my cough to almost complete non-existence for a good three hours – in a manner not produced by any of the palliatives obtained from the pharmacy.  Now, this was not a proper medical trial – and I can’t be sure if it was the beverage, rum or cake which was decisive in effecting my miracle (if temporary) cure – but I’d thoroughly recommend it to any similarly afflicted GofaDM readers.  Even if it doesn’t work, you can still enjoy the cure – to an extent rarely offered by the stock of Boots’ the Chemist.

At some stage, I think I shall have to collect together all the “cures” for modern ailments I am discovering as I make my way through this veil of tears.  I can now fix both a bad back (using a car battery and a walk) and provide respite for those with a serious cough.  I am rapidly becoming the Galen de nos jours.