When I was younger, newspapers were fond of stories of people who triumphed in the face of adversity. You know the kind of thing: “I lost my job but invented a hairdryer and now I’m a millionaire” or “I learned to play the piano while going through chemotherapy and now I’m playing Carnegie Hall!” Reading these full-page stories, usually accompanied by photos of the people in question, smiling beatifically, the younger me tended to agree. Taking a traumatic event and turning it into something positive; that was good, right? That was what you ought to do.
Then, when I was nineteen, I got cancer myself. And despite having ambitions of being a writer, I spent most of my eight months of chemotherapy glued to the couch, exhausted, constipated, or both. No writing got done, and for a long time afterwards I viewed those eight months as wasted time. I could have done more with all that free time. I should have done more.
Fifteen or so years later, I had another life upheaval and reacted differently. I lost a long-term job while I was still reeling from a painful breakup. No physical illness to add to my troubles, thankfully, but a similar form of mental adversity. This time I took a step back and thought about what I needed to do. I travelled and made plans and shifted my life in a direction that I hoped would make me a better, happier person. I wasn’t suddenly in a different place, just moving in a different direction.
So I handled the second crisis much better, didn’t I? Got lemons and made lemonade, whereas previously I’d just sat on my couch and done nothing, right? That’s how I saw things. It took me a long time to realise that I was wrong.
It’s not just that the circumstances were different. In the first case I was still a student, reliant on my parents and suffering from both a disease that had taken a huge amount out of me for a year and a half and a treatment that wasn’t much less gruelling. In the second I was in receipt of a decent payoff from my old employer and more emotionally mature, despite any relationship trauma. What I could do in the two circumstances was worlds apart.
It’s also that my needs were very different. In the first case I was ill, and getting better was the priority. Putting pressure on myself to write wasn’t helpful, whereas resting, spending time with family and friends, and enjoying being in one of the most beautiful parts of Northern Ireland certainly was. In the second, I’d been uncomfortably static for a long time and needed to shake things up. Travelling gave me time to think and learn from new experiences, and I followed it up by going back to college and trying out several new jobs, putting a new shape on the next decade.
In both cases, I did what I needed to, which was the best thing for myself in the circumstances I was in.
Right now, we’re sharing similarly traumatic circumstances. Covid-19 has circled the globe and everything feels like it’s on shutdown. Circumstance and carelessness have ballooned a crisis into a potential catastrophe that people all across the world are working, sometimes at risk to their lives and health, to forestall. For the rest of us, we don’t know what the next few weeks or months are going to bring, but most are spending a lot of time at home, our normal habits and activities disrupted.
Amidst all of this, I’ve seen more than a few suggestions that people should take advantage of this disruption to tackle the mountains that loom in the back of our heads. To finally write that novel, learn how to play that instrument or speak that language, take up baking or knitting, or get fit and cut out the junk food. My sympathy is far more with those who respond to such calls with a simple, “Eh, no.”
Don’t get me wrong: if the need’s been in you to do something and you have the time and energy, go for it. But take it from someone who knows: don’t beat yourself up for not doing the things you think you ought to be doing. Figure out what you need instead. And if you’re struggling to cope with the day-to-day news, isolated from your loved ones, or even spending three hours a day trying to persuade those loved ones to go to sleep, then what you need might be to curl up on your couch with Netflix or Disney+ and the relaxing beverage of your choice.
As for myself, I’m doing what I can. I’m isolated enough that I’ve taken to speaking to myself just to hear a voice, but that doesn’t make me any more crazy than I already was. I’m getting as much exercise as I need, experimenting with baking and cooking because I enjoy the experience and can eat the results, reading more than I have in ages, and catching up on a load of TV shows. I haven’t done much writing, and there are three unpainted miniatures on the table in front of me most days, but they’ll still be there if I need them.
So do what you need to do, however active or inactive that might be. If you achieve something new, that’s awesome. If you come out the other end of this in a good mental and physical place, that’s even better. I’ll meet you there, and maybe we’ll swap stories.
A brief and positive update. Last Thursday I had a CT scan, which turned into a bit of a trial, though thankfully not a lengthy one. This morning I got the results: The cancer is responding to the treatments and the tumours that the doctors are watching have all shrunk. So that’s nothing but good news. More details will come, but for now let’s be thankful for medical science and living in a country with a mostly functional health service. I’ll keep taking the pills and staying as far away from Covid-19 as I can. One life-threatening illness is as much as I want to cope with right now.
Well, we’re now officially in lockdown in Ireland, also known as the golden age of video chat. (I had three video conversations yesterday evening, which is more than a little exhausting for an introvert like myself.) It also might be the golden age of sourdough baking. All of a sudden almost everyone is stuck at home, with large stockpiles of flour that need to be turned into something, and sourdough was already having a moment, even before all of this.
Since I’ve stuck images of my loaf attempts up on Instagram, a couple of people have asked me how to go about it. Why they’re asking me when there are literally thousands of YouTube videos on the subject, I don’t know, but I thought I’d explain my own method anyway. I may not be a baker, but I am a technical writer, and if there’s one thing I can do, it’s write instructions.
Necessary caveats before we get started: This is my method, cobbled together from various sources, and it shouldn’t be seen as the best way to do anything. It changes from week to week and will probably continue to change as I come across new ideas. Yours should too — take everything below as a starting point, or even just as a collection of ideas to pick and choose from.
Beyond the ingredients, you’ll need:
A couple of bowls, one large and one normal sized
Cling film and a tea towel to cover the bowls
A set of scales for measuring — everything is done by weight below.
A dough scraper (this is a piece of hard plastic with a curved scraping edge — they’re cheap and easy enough to find and they’ll make your life a lot easier)
A container for your starter, which should have a cover and be made of glass or clear plastic
A cast iron Dutch oven and a baking tray or shallow dish (these are optional, but they help the final result)
A willingness to get your hands covered in sticky dough
Sourdough is pretty simple in terms of ingredients. You don’t need anything more than flour, water, and salt to begin with. The flavour and rise come from the sourdough starter, a culture of natural yeasts that you feed on a regular basis and use in place of store-bought yeast.
There are two ways to create a sourdough starter. The first is to grow your own, which is a complicated and tricky task, and I have no intention of going to go into that here. If you want to know more, seek out Seamus Blackley on Twitter, as he‘s something of an expert. Instead, I’d recommend the second option: get someone to give you some of their starter.
I got my starter as part of a one-day course at The Baking Academy of Ireland. Many sourdough starters that you’ll see on YouTube or TV are goopy messes that need to be fed every day, like a demanding child. You don’t need that, and I don’t have the patience for that. Mine lives in the fridge and gets fed once a week.
Perhaps it’s a good thing I’m not a parent.
To feed this “Hard Levain” starter, do the following:
Take the 80 grams of starter you begin with and split it into lumps of 20 grams and 60 grams. Put the 60 grams aside.
Put the 20-gram lump in a bowl and add another 20 grams of warm water to it. Mash it around in the water until you have a milky, lumpy liquid.
Add 40 grams of flour to this liquid. I use a mix of strong/bread flour and rye flour, in a ratio of approximately 5–1.
Stir and mix the flour and liquid together for a while. Once all the flour is incorporated, you should end up with an 80-gram dough ball.
Put the dough ball into a clear, covered container (I use old plastic takeout pots) and set it aside for four to six hours.
At the end of this resting period, check the bottom of your container. You should see bubbles forming at the base of the dough ball. This means the natural yeasts in the starter are getting to work, eating up the flour.
Stick the container in the fridge. This will slow down the yeast, so that you don’t need to feed the starter again for another week. When you do, just start again from the top.
You don’t need to wait a week to bake with the starter. Just feed it every time you do. Also, if you forget to feed it once a week, the yeast can probably be revived. It just might need to rest for a little longer in step five.
As for that 60 grams we set aside in step one? There are three things you can do with that. If you’re just feeding the starter and not planning on baking, you can throw it out. I wouldn’t blame you — I’ve done it myself. Despite all the benefits, baking sourdough can require exhausting work and forethought. Again, like children.
The second option is to share your starter. Split the 60 grams up into three 20-gram portions and feed each as in the instructions above. In these lockdown times, sharing samples of biological materials is probably a no-no, but I can arrange dead drops for anyone who’s interested. Not abroad though — I don’t want to end up in jail over this (and the starter likely wouldn’t survive).
The third option, of course, is to bake. So now we get to the fun part.
The Loaf Itself
All the Ingredients
As stated above, this process is almost certainly not the best one to use. It’s just the one I use to get the bread you see in the images all over this page. It’s also prone to change due to experimentation and forgetfulness. I can say that one advantage of sourdough is that it generally tastes good, even if it doesn’t turn out looking the best.
The instructions below ended up a bit lengthier than I expected them to be, but it’s important to note that making sourdough involves a lot of waiting. Only the kneading requires consistent effort, and even that’s only for 10–15 mins. Amid all of the waiting, you can, and probably should, be able to do any amount of other things.
Stage one is to take the 60 grams of starter and turn it into more starter for the planned bread. You’ll need to do this a day or two ahead of when you actually want to have an edible loaf, so bear that in mind.
Put your 60 grams of starter in a bowl. (I like to use Pyrex/glass so I can check the state of the starter, as above, but it’s not mandatory.)
Add 65 grams of warm water, and once again mash and mix the two together until you have a milky, lumpy liquid.
Add in 120 grams of flour (100 grams of bread flour and 20 grams of rye flour for me) and 1 gram of salt.
Mix the whole thing together until you have another, larger dough ball.
Cover the bowl with cling film and set aside to rest for 18–20 hours, until it’s doubled in size and has all those lovely bubbles visible from below.
This gives you the starter for your loaf. Once it rises, you’ll need to add it to your “autolaise” to create your dough. The autolaise itself is pretty simple: just add 290 grams of flour (250 grams of strong flour, 40 grams of rye flour) to 215 grams of warm water in a large bowl to form a sticky mess. Set that aside for at least half an hour to rest, covering the bowl with a tea towel.
While all of that is resting, measure out another 8 grams of salt into a small container. It’s the last thing you’ll need for the loaf, and you’re now ready to start.
Build Your Loaf
Uncover the squidgy mess that is your autolaise, in which all the flour should now be properly hydrated. Scatter over the salt, then use your dough scraper to remove the starter from its bowl and add it to the party in the larger bowl.
With damp hands (so the dough doesn’t stick as much), take a few minutes to mix the ingredients together. Do this in the bowl so that the salt doesn’t scatter everywhere before it’s properly mixed into the dough. Once everything is incorporated, use the dough scraper again to turn the dough out onto a smooth (non-floured) surface.
You are now ready for the form of exercise known as kneading, or alternatively, smacking the crap out of your dough.
There are lots of techniques for doing this, all of them with the goal of developing the gluten in the dough, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m particularly good at it. However, in the interests of completeness, I will describe my preferred technique: the slap and fold.
Grab the lump of dough with your clawed fingers from front and back.
Lift and turn it 90 degrees, so your hands are to either side.
Slap the dough down onto the surface, as if it was a towel you were smacking someone with (this is the best metaphor I can come up with and it’s not a good one — really, watch YouTube to get your own technique).
Fold the dough that remains attached to your fingers over the slapped dough.
Grab once more from front and back and repeat.
This will occupy 10-15 mins of your time, during which the dough should become more coherent and stretchy. Essentially, kneading it in this or any other way improves its internal consistency. It will also exhaust you, so have some TV, podcast, or music entertainment on and run a timer while you work. At the end, you’ll probably have to use the dough scraper to scrape dough from your fingers too.
Ideally, the dough should become stretchy enough to stretch to almost transparency without tearing, but I find that hard (and not entirely necessary) to achieve. Once you’re happy enough with the dough, scrape it up and put it back in the big bowl. If it’s still noticeably sticky, you might like to scatter some flour over the top of the dough, then use the scraper to flip it over, so the floured side is down.
Don’t worry — the kneading was the hardest work you’ll do. We’re on the home stretch (ahem) now.
Next comes a bit of repetition. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and wait for an hour. At the end of the hour, uncover it, grab a side of the dough, stretch it out, and fold it over the dough itself. Turn the bowl and stretch and fold again, until you’ve done it five times and your dough looks like a squishy pentagon. Cover for an hour and do this again. Then cover for another hour and do it again.
After your third stretch-and-fold session, leave the dough covered for another 20–30 mins. Next up is the final shaping. This is traditionally done in a basket called a banneton. If you have one of those, you are far more fancy than me. I use a bowl and a floured tea-towel.
Take the tea towel that was covering your dough and use it to line a small bowl. Liberally scatter rye flour on the inside surface of the tea towel.
Scatter strong flour on a surface and turn your dough out onto it.
Grab the bit of the dough furthest from you and fold it over the rest of the dough.
Grab the left side of the dough and fold it over to the right.
Grab the right side of the dough and fold it over to the left.
Grab the nearest edge of the dough and fold it away from you.
Use the dough scraper to flip the dough package you’ve just made, so that the folded edges are down.
Place one hand on each side of the dough, in contact with the surface, and slowly turn the dough, tucking its edges in under itself, until you have a rounded boule.
Once again, use the dough scraper to flip the boule into your hands and drop it into the tea towel-lined bowl (or banneton, if you must) with the folded side uppermost.
Fold the excess parts of the tea towel to cover the dough. (This isn’t necessary, just neat.)
The next bit is your choice. You can either let the dough boule rest in the bowl for an hour and a half, or stick it in the fridge overnight. Either way, the dough should double in size. If it hasn’t risen when you take it out of the fridge, leave it to warm for half an hour while you prepare for … the baking!
Yep, after everything you’ve gone through, you’re almost ready to have edible bread. I hadn’t expected these instructions to run on for so long. Honestly, you should’ve just watched YouTube instead.
Anyway, take your cast iron dutch oven and put it in the oven. At the bottom of the oven, put a baking tray. Turn the oven to 220º C.
While the oven is warming, spread out a large sheet of baking paper and scatter flour (any flour will do) over it. Turn your shaped dough out onto it. You should see the shape of the towel impressed into the dough. It won’t be as nice as a banneton would have been, but that’s okay. We’re not that fancy.
Using a freshly sharpened knife or a razor blade, slice into the top of the dough. (There’s a specific baker’s tool for this too, but I’m still not a baker and still not that fancy.) Slice your initials, if you like.
Once the oven has warmed, take the dutch oven out, take its lid off, and use the baking paper as a sling to drop the dough into it. Put the lid back on and put the dutch oven back into the oven. Wait 20 minutes. Perhaps breathe a sigh of relief that your long sourdough nightmare is at last almost over.
Before the 20 minutes are up, start a kettle boiling. You probably should have done that instead of all that sighing. At the end of the 20 minutes, open the oven and take the lid off the dutch oven. Your loaf should have expanded under its own steam, but now it needs more steam to brown properly. Pour boiling water from the kettle into the baking tray in the bottom of the oven. Close the oven and turn the temperature down a little to 210º C.
This last bit is somewhat subjective. After a further ten minutes, take a peek into the oven. How brown is your loaf? If it’s not brown enough, close the oven up and keep baking. Check every five minutes or so. I like to bake until the tips of the crust on top are almost burned, but your mileage may vary. Once it’s the colour you want, turn off the oven, remove the dutch oven, and carefully extract the loaf, placing it on a wire rack to cool.
And cool, and cool. No, it doesn’t matter how nice it smells. Leave it until it’s properly cooled. At least three hours.
And that’s it. You should now have your loaf. Hopefully you have a decent bread knife and something to spread on the slices too. However it looks, I hope it’s tasty. Thanks for reading through all of this, and if a little sourdough helps you get through all that the world is going through right now, then maybe writing all of this has been worthwhile.
A quick one on this front. Not much change from my last report. As Covid-19 cuts a swathe across the world, people being treated for cancer, and especially lung cancer, have more reason than most to avoid infection. Thanks to my particular treatment, I’m not immunocompromised, but I’m still going to be avoiding people as much as I can for the foreseeable future. For the moment at least, I feel good and am getting as much exercise as I can. Next week is my scheduled CT scan, after which I should know more about how things are progressing. Fingers crossed.
Or maybe it didn’t. We’ve been watching the news from China, and then from Italy, for the past couple of weeks now. We’ve seen epidemics spread before, and this is one we had plenty of time to see coming. (I cancelled a trip to Northern Italy a couple of weekends ago, before there was any news of cases here in Ireland. Maybe I missed my chance to be the local patient zero.)
So now we’re all in quasi-lockdown in Ireland. Or at least we are south of the border. Large gatherings are banned, shops have been sporadically denuded of a selection of items (flour, eggs, toilet-paper — sounds like the start of rag week in college), and those of us who can work from home have been strongly encouraged to do so. Which is a bit of a pain for me, as I have a Lego International Space Station set due to be delivered to work, and if there’s a classy way to go mad in isolation, it’s fiddling with a massive set of Lego.
Betrayed by timing once again…
Regardless of my Lego woes, there are bigger problems out there. Even at this first level of disruption, we’re about to find out exactly how robust the systems of our society are, and how much capacity we have to absorb periods of stress. I suspect we’re in for a rude awakening. Plenty of people now work freelance or on contract without support, and when their employers start grinding their gears in the absence of income, that pain is going to get passed along.
I’m not in that situation at the moment, thankfully, and there seems to be an initial burst of solidarity here, which is good to see, but how long that survives is the key question. Schools have shut months before summer was due, putting pressure on parents who may be struggling to make ends meet as it is, and our social services are already overworked. As someone with recent experience of the HSE, I can say that I’m glad my next appointment isn’t until the end of the month. At least I’m not adding more to what they have to deal with.
Ireland, of course, is sandwiched between the U.K. on one side and the U.S. on the other. In the former, a laissez-faire government is currently at war with businesses and organisations that aren’t quite as sanguine about the prospects of selective exposure working out when so little is known about how Covid-19 spreads. On the other, you have a government rotting from the head down and desperate to pass off responsibility for the problem to someone — anyone — while dragging their heels on doing anything. In comparison, Ireland looks like an oasis of calm, albeit one where two weeks ago people were up in arms over the fact that we didn’t have a government, and we still don’t.
We’re stuck this way for the rest of the month at least, which is going to mute the St. Patricks Day celebrations somewhat. Not that I mind — I haven’t been to the parade in years — but it’ll be a bit strange to have empty streets on a March 17th and a bit nice not to have hordes of drunken revellers infesting Temple Bar and staggering home at all hours. So let no one say that Covid-19 has brought nothing good.
After that, it’ll be back to the new normal. Properly leveraging all those many means of communication that we now have to keep touch with our family and friends. Getting out for regular walks so our muscles and brains don’t atrophy from being inside for so long. Making serious progress on your Netflix or Amazon Prime backlog, or your unread bookpile if you’re more erudite than I’ve become myself. And in the absence of my Lego set, I’ll see if I can finally get around to painting those three miniatures that have been sitting on my table for months.
For now, I hope you’re doing well in the midst of all of this, wherever you are, and that Covid-19 is brought under control to the point where our medical services can cope with a minimum of disruption. And as a last bit of entertainment, I offer a little Tom Lehrer (apologies for the lack of embedding — I’ll figure that problem out later):
Not a huge amount of news to share here. I’m aware that once again I haven’t updated in a little while (I had another post planned, but circumstances distracted me) but truth be told, I continue to take the pills and am still waiting on the CT scan at the start of April to find out what sort of work they’ve been doing. In the meantime, I’m doing my best not to become a total couch potato and remaining aware of my breathing (a little short right now but otherwise clear). Obviously, getting sick when my lungs are already below maximum capacity would lead to complications, so I’m going to avoid that too. For now though, life goes on and so do we all.
Over the years, I’ve appeared on a few TV quizzes, including victory in an episode of 15-to-1 that is thankfully lost to the mists of time—thankfully because of the terrible goatee I sported back then. One show that I would still love to appear on is the venerable Mastermind, BBC’s extra-dramatic test of general knowledge. Just the contestant seated in a black leather chair under the spotlight, as questions are fired at them.
One nice little touch in Mastermind has become the show’s catchphrase: should the final buzzer interrupt a question, the host will still let the contestant answer, with the phrase “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.” Thus there’s no frustrating sense of being cut off, and the contestant’s fate remains in their hands, not those of the inexorable progress of time.
This twist on the quiz format fits my psychology well. I’m a completist, and I get irritated when I can’t wrap my affairs up neatly. (Not to the point of being obsessive-compulsive, though you will occasionally find me straightening the salt and pepper shakers during dinner.) The main impact of this is that if I start reading, or watching, or participating in something, I don’t like to step away until it’s finished.
Given that TV shows and book series can turn bad during their runs, this isn’t the happiest of traits to have. Spending my time and money on entertainment that makes me feel resentful instead of happy isn’t logical behaviour, but the fallacy of sunk costs has a powerful grip. If I give up, aren’t I just admitting that I’ve wasted the effort and attention I’ve already committed? Having come so far, I may as well see things through, right?
Like most personal flaws, once you’re aware of it, you can take steps to rectify it. I’ve gotten better over the years at walking away from activities that I’m not enjoying any more. Not that I’m perfect though. If I’m quitting a TV show, I’ll still watch to the end of the current series. I might abandon a book series if I’m not enjoying it (Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time was the first I did this with), but I’ll still finish an individual book, no matter how much the experience drags.
My recent diagnosis was a reminder that I need to get better at this. Though the initial impact has faded away, replaced by a return to something resembling normality, the reminder that the time we have available to us is finite still lingers. Wasting time on activities that I’m only persisting with out of a misplaced need to have a tidy ending isn’t a worse idea than it was a few months ago, it’s just that I’m more aware of how bad an idea it is.
This shouldn’t require some grand audit of how I spend my time, either. Just a metaphorical tap on my shoulder any time that I find myself bored or annoyed at a time when I ought to be engaged with whatever I’m doing. Do I really need or want to be doing this? And if not, what could I be doing instead? (This includes nothing—allowing myself time to recharge and decompress is better than spending my time busy when I’m achieving nothing more than winding myself up.)
So, unlike that metaphorical contestant on Mastermind, I don’t always have to finish. I can just walk away if I want to. Though in one particular instance, I might decide to finish properly. You see, the main reason I’ve never been on Mastermind is that my brother works for the BBC—an organisation that’s a bit touchy about potential impropriety. But it seems that an external company has now taken over the show, so that bar to my participation is no longer an issue. Next time they’re looking for contestants, I might just see if I’m a good fit for that black leather chair.
Missed a week, didn’t I? That was careless of me. Still, it hasn’t been a fortnight filled with incident, so you’re not missing too much. I’m just about finished my fourth week on (and hence first pack of) Alecensa, and the major side effect has been a reduction in my average heart rate of around 10bpm. You’ve probably heard enough about my digestive issues already, so on that side let’s just say that everything is under control with only minimal interference on my part.
I’ve also been putting on a bit of weight, though whether that’s down to my lowered metabolism or the fact that I’m back at a workplace which is keen to provide as many meals and snacks as possible is hard to say. Maybe both. In any case, a visit to the doctor in midweek suggests that the cancer has paused its advance, though more detailed results won’t be forthcoming until early April. Until then, let’s hope for smooth sailing (and an absence of coughing).
As promised, something a little lighter. The turn of the year brings with it Oscar season and a swathe of awards-bait movies. Somewhat unusually, this year I’ve managed to see a few of them. This has proved to be good timing. Movies gunning for golden statuettes can tend to be desperately self indulgent, but I actually enjoyed most of the movies that I watched over the Christmas period.
Below are brief reviews of four of those movies (one of them is not an awards-bait movie, but I did see it over the holidays). I also saw The Irishman, Scorsese’s mob epic, on Netflix, which was probably the best way to watch it, as it’s an interminably long retread of ground that Scorsese has already crossed and re-crossed, mostly in the company of the same actors. I’m not a big Scorsese fan but when all a movie has going for it is familiarity and technical achievement, it’s going to be a lesser work.
For upcoming movies, I still want to catch Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and I’m looking forward to Armando Ianucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. However, while I wait for those, on with the reviews, in more or less chronological order:
Knives Out, Rian Johnson
Having become the focus of Internet fan ire a year earlier for his work on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson’s return with a wonderful modern version of the classic Agatha Christie detective story is a warming success. Garnished with a truly wonderful cast, led by Anna de Armas and Daniel Craig, it does what Johnson likes doing best: takes apart a well-known genre, figures out what makes it tick, then puts it back together in a form just skewed enough to require the audience to pay close attention.
Paying attention pays off in this case, as Knives Out plays fair throughout, providing all the information that the audience needs to figure out what’s going on. Casually mentioned facts reappear later in the story, and no one is entirely to be trusted. Even better, the film lays out early on exactly what happened, turning instead into an exploration of how and why it happened. It’s a subtle distinction, but it brings the characters and their motivations to the fore, much to the evident joy of the cast.
Often when the people involved in a movie have clearly had a good time making it, the movie itself is a bit of a mess. That’s not the case here. Johnson’s script is tight and purposeful, and his cast are clearly having a ball playing a bevy of horrible, entitled people. Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, and Jamie Lee Curtis are all worthy of note, but Craig’s louche detective Benoit Blanc is a constant joy. All the happier news then that Johnson is planning further movies starring him. Bring them on.
Star Wars: Rise of the Skywalker, J.J. Abrams
It’s been a tough few years for Star Wars fans at the movies. For all the money they’ve made, the Star Wars films have stuttered for Disney, with production on movies outside the main story having been halted. Which leaves only the final movie in the trilogy of trilogies for now. Following on from The Force Awakens, which was predictable but buoyed up by its appealing young cast, and The Last Jedi, which did interesting things with the Star Wars universe but clunked in several areas, we have Rise of the Skywalker, which lands with the dullest, heaviest of thuds.
The problem lies mostly with the writer/director. J.J. Abrams has a talent for tapping into fan nostalgia and grabbing audience interest with mysterious stories, but if Rise of the Skywalker proves anything, it’s that he has no idea how to plot a movie. He got away with it in The Force Awakens, which could devote itself to setting up mysteries for later films and which in any case borrowed its plot from earlier films in the franchise, but here he’s required to provide payoff for at least two and as much as eight earlier films, and he really doesn’t.
What he does instead is deliver a film stuffed from one end to the other with incident, action, and brand new and unexplained twists and turns. In this constantly weaving spaghetti junction of plot lines, the appealing traits of the core cast are lost and no time at all is taken to build suspense or allow the impact of seemingly galaxy-shaking events to sink in. Despite watching Star Wars since I was old enough to follow a story, my sense of wonder only twitched once, a positive reaction far outweighed by my eye rolling at overt fan service and sighing at yet another pointless hint that never gets followed up on. This should have been so much more.
JoJo Rabbit, Taika Waititi
Imagine the trickiest assignment you could give a scriptwriter. A comedy set in the waning days of World War II, told from the perspective of a ten-year-old Nazi fanboy, with Hitler as his imaginary friend? Oh, and it has to deal sincerely with anti-semitism, tragedy, and despair, all without being offensive or trite. That’ll probably be close to as tough as it gets. It’s entirely to Taiki Waititi’s credit that he took on the assignment in the first place and a sign of just how good a writer and director he is that the resulting film is something close to a triumph.
I’ve seen and heard a few reviewers complain that as a satire it’s toothless as a result of its silliness, which somewhat misses the fact that JoJo Rabbit isn’t a satire. It’s a coming-of-age story, told amid the most insane of circumstances, as the titular JoJo is required to confront the Nazi “truths” that have been drummed into him from his earliest days, embodied by Waititi’s Hitler, an imaginary friend who is by turns supportive, manic, and hateful.
The complexities of the supporting characters are deliberately hinted at rather than delved into: JoJo simply isn’t equipped to understand their despair, devotion, and rebellion. The exception is Thomasin McKenzie’s Elsa, a jewish girl he finds hiding in his house. Older and more insightful than JoJo, she has a drive for survival that he doesn’t understand, and it’s through her that he finds a path to growing up and developing empathy. By turns hilarious and deeply heartfelt, JoJo Rabbit was my favourite movie of the winter.
1917, Sam Mendes
Most of the attention paid to Sam Mendes’ World War I epic 1917 prior to its release centred around its unusual editing. The entire two hours is presented as taking place in more or less real time, with a single time jump in the middle. Any edits are carefully concealed, with the result that the camera almost never leaves its protagonists as they struggle through no-man’s land and across the western front during a lull in the fighting.
Does this structural flourish actually serve the movie? Arguably, it increases the sense of immersion, as the audience has little opportunity to breathe or look away across the two hours of the film. By the end of the movie, they’re likely to be just as exhausted as the survivors are. However, film editing is an almost universally recognised language, and at times the refusal of the editor to cut away or switch to a closeup can be jarring and remind the audience of the artifice of what they’re watching.
What’s left then is a solid, well-told story of desperation and heroism amid the horrors of the World War I trenches. Mendes doesn’t shy away from showing how awful the experience was, though the film is rarely gratuitous in its use of corpses and death. The cast, while not as impressive as that of Knives Out, does provide some highlights for viewers, but it’s the core duo of Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay that impress the most. The weight of having an entire film production focused on you for far longer than normal can’t be underestimated, and succeeding as well as it does marks 1917 as an impressive feat.
Cancer Update: Towards the end of my second week on alectinib/Alcensa, things are settling down a bit. The most notable side effect has been a lowering of my heart rate, which may have knock-on effects in time but otherwise isn’t bothering me too much for now. My weight has also gone up a bit, but the cause of that is harder to identify. Constipation and returning to a sedentary job with ample access to snacks could both be contributing. So it’s probably a good thing that I started running again today.
Well, I say running. It was more of a 5k run/walk/stagger. However, the breathing wasn’t a problem. Instead, the out-of-practice legs were. So, as before, good news worth taking and I’ll run with that. Once I recover, that is.
(Not actually a ninja. Though I do have a sword. And a bow and arrow. And I like dressing in black. So maybe there is a little bit of ninja in there.)
A lot of the experience of cancer is waiting. Waiting for a scan and then the results of the scan. Waiting for the next treatment, and then for that treatment to take effect. Waiting to see if the cancer has progressed, stalled, or retreated. Waiting across the span of weeks and months.
It might all be a bit annoying if I wasn’t used to being patient. Possibly more patient than I ought to be sometimes, but that’s a topic for another post.
When I was first diagnosed with lung cancer, some of the tumour samples were sent off for a trio of extra tests. These tests were looking for a specific mutation, ALK, that might open up other treatment options. Normally the chance of finding this mutation is pretty small, but I was already an edge case as a relatively youthful non-smoker, and the doctors figured my odds of having it were higher than normal. So they crossed their fingers and sent the samples off.
And then we waited.
Waited long enough that I had to make a decision on whether or not to start the standard chemotherapy course or wait for the test results. Deciding that punching the cancer in the face right away was the better option, I decided to go ahead, and the results of that you can read about in a preceding post.
The second course of chemo was due for yesterday, but it didn’t go ahead. Why not? Because the long-awaited test results came through, and they came through positive. Or mostly so—two out of three tests returned positive, and the third was ambivalent. My tumour was one of the rare ones with the ALK mutation, and that meant that a drug called Alectinib was now the preferred treatment option.
Why preferred? Well, beyond prospects for better results, Alectinib is delivered in pill form. Instead of going to the hospital every three weeks to have cytotoxic drugs dripped into my bloodstream, I get to go to the pharmacy and collect a box of pills, which I’ll take twice a day, with breakfast and dinner. Side effects too should be much milder, though everything to do with this kind of treatment is described in terms of percentages and I’ll have to wait and see what my percentile dice roll turns up.
As for treatment prospects, I’m still doing the reading and not getting too ahead of myself, but Alectinib does seem to offer a much better outlook than chemotherapy. The numbers for lung cancer are … not good, as a rule. The numbers for Alectinib specifically look better, with the caveat that this is a very new treatment. So new that they talk about two-year outcomes instead of five-year outcomes.
But I’m not getting too far ahead of myself on that score. This is probably the best news that I’ve had since my initial diagnosis, and if nothing else it means that I can live a much less restricted life than I was worried I might have to. One pill, twice a day, with fewer side effects than chemo? That’s something to be glad about.
Of course, this means that I’ll also be back to work before too long, and living something resembling a normal life. There’ll still be things to write about here, and I’m hardly going to be forgetting that I have cancer. There will be plenty of tests and results to wait for. I’m also giving serious thought to deleting my Facebook account, as I’ve already made the decision not to link any more posts from here to there.
For now though, I’ll take the win. More to see and more to do as the year comes in, but for now I’m in good form and hope you are too. Thanks for reading.
Another new year. A new decade, in fact. (The “starting on a 1” thing doesn’t count for decades. We’re in the ‘20s now.) And what have we learned?
<Takes a quick look around at the current state of the world.>
Not a damn lot, apparently. Going to have to do something about that.
It looks like it’s going to be an interesting year and decade. For most of the world, this is because there are people in positions of power trying to kill them in pursuit of endless profit growth. In my case, that too, but also because there are parts of my body doing their best to kill me in pursuit of endless growth.
Fun metaphor, isn’t it? Oddly, I don’t ascribe malice to either. In the case of cancer, anthropomorphising my tumour isn’t a step I’m willing to take just yet. It’s just a bunch of cells with faulty instructions, following those instructions to the letter and completely ignorant of the fact that their ultimate success leads to their ultimate destruction. If I’m not around any more, no more growth for them.
Malignant, yes. Malicious, no.
Corporate bosses wedded to the desire for continual growth are more culpable but still trapped by the same faulty instructions. As someone who had a job for years reading business magazines, the constant desire for growth always struck me as odd. If a company failed to increase its growth rate year on year, or worse yet failed to grow, the market would “punish” it by hammering its share price.
Why? Because shareholders demand a return on their investment, and merely remaining profitable year on year offered no great returns. Companies had to grow like crazy (hi Amazon!), promise future crazy growth (hi Amazon!), or dominate their market to such an extent that they grabbed all the profit therein (hi Amazon, Apple, Google, etc.!). Growth, growth, growth. Didn’t matter how it happened, as long as it was legal-ish, and as regulations on markets have tumbled and frayed around the world, the definition of legal-ish has gotten wider and wider.
The people at the helms of these growth machines are only doing what they’ve been taught to do. Maximise profit and growth and minimise loss, whether in the form of taxes, salaries, or competition. The results we see all around. People struggling to make ends meet on jobs that once would have supported most or all of a family. Social safety nets so threadbare that more and more people fall through and end up on the streets. Ecologically damaging industrial machines that keep churning because the alternative is to drop a few share points. More and more of the world’s “wealth” concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. And for wealth, read “power,” because that’s how the world has been arranged since mankind got over its self-consciousness and started living in groups.
Malignant? Yes. Malicious? Not in most cases, I think. But vicious? Definitely. Vicious to anyone caught in the teeth of the growth machine.
Capitalism as cancer then? But what about all the good it brings? Well, capitalism, unlike cancer, does have some benefits. It’s a remarkably efficient engine for generating wealth and enhancing productivity. But leave it unregulated and it might as well be cancerous. Growth for the sake of more growth, without regard to the well-being of the host body. When your concerns are wholly focused on the quarterly shareholder report, you’re not paying attention to the long term.
If there’s a solution, it’s that nasty word: regulation. Regulation in deed, as well as word. And that’s going to be hard. The first country to clamp down on unrestricted corporate growth is going to see an exodus of the big boys. (Ireland is particularly vulnerable in this regard, having made itself a cosy home for them in the past few decades.) Large-scale action, in the form of nations implementing new regulations together, might halt the growth of capitalism and the erosion of the society it’s built on, but the alliances of nation states that might make such things feasible are looking shaky these days. (Someone, somewhere, is very much enjoying Brexit and the Trumpocracy and all the international mistrust that’s spreading as a result.)
But, you know, it’s a new year. And only two days in, we ought to remain at least a little optimistic about how things are going to turn out. Hopeful that we’re in the midst of late-stage capitalism, not end-stage capitalism. Hopeful that some global medical team more knowledgable than me has the correct therapy to halt the ever-spreading gospel of growth. Because most of us have enough on our plates to deal with, without worrying that the whole system is going to collapse within our lifetimes.
Cancer Update: Since I know a few people are keeping an eye on this blog for reasons other than my anti-capitalist pessimism, a little personal update. The first chemotherapy session was two weeks ago, and things have gone pretty well so far. Side effects were minimal and gone within a week. I didn’t even need to use any of my anti-nausea medication (though the vile-tasting laxative drink did prove immediately useful). Next dose of chemotherapy is in a week, and if things turn out the same then I might be back at work before too long. As for any results from the treatment, it’s way too early for those, but maybe (just maybe) my cough seems a little less harsh. Even if that’s purely psychosomatic, I’ll take it. And, as before, I’m still fully active and enjoyed the Christmas and New Year period, so no complaints on that front either.
Most of all, I want to thank everyone who’s reached out on hearing about my diagnosis. It has been one of the nicest parts of this whole experience. Which is not saying a lot, I know, so just know that each and every one of you are deeply appreciated.
I don’t think I have any photos of myself getting chemotherapy from the first time around. That was nearly a quarter of a century ago, in the pre-digital age, so any photos there are would be the old-fashioned type, buried in a folder somewhere. In any case, it didn’t feel like the sort of thing one would take photos of. It was too desperate, too morbid, too confusing—too close to the bone.
Now though? Well, we take photos of anything, don’t we?
In the photo above, I’m having my first session of chemotherapy in St. James’ Hospital, getting a combination of pemetrexed and carboplatin pumped into my veins. Pumped very carefully, of course. These are toxic chemicals, and if the needle isn’t positioned right, well … 25 years ago it was explained to me that it would be like a chemical burn under your skin. They didn’t go into the gruesome detail this time around, but the nurse was appropriately careful.
You might note that I’m smiling in the photo above. Does that seem odd? Wrong? I don’t know, but it is honest. As much of a shock as the lung cancer diagnosis was, I feel like I’ve adjusted well. This is what needs to be done for now, and compared to a lot of other people, I’m lucky. I had one of my best friends keeping me company through the first session and plenty of others asking after me. Plus—and this is no small thing—I’ve been through this (or a variation of this) before. I’m prepared.
(Or at least I think I am. Time will tell.)
Back in the 1990s, the experience was similar, though maybe a little less efficient. Chemotherapy for Hodgkins’ Lymphoma likewise involved a combination of drugs, the names of which have long since escaped me. Though I was, at the time, put on the less harsh regime of the two available, it wasn’t a fun experience. Beyond having a line inserted into the veins of my hand (more painful than the elbow, but I have decent veins, so it wasn’t a chore for most nurses), the several hours that I spent in the ward watching drugs drip into my feed usually saw the side effects kick off, in the form of nausea and lethargy.
Whether the combination of drugs have been refined, or it’s just early days and I’ve yet to be worn down, that’s not the case this time around. The initial session lasted just a couple of hours, and two days later I’ve yet to be hit with anything particularly bad as regards side effects. Inevitably, the bit that has dropped in has been my least favourite: constipation. Still, that’s not so bad—my prescription included a couple of hefty boxes of laxatives, and I’m not going to wait around to use them. Fecal impaction is one of the least fun experiences I’ve had over the course of my life.
It’s probably too early to be making much of a comparison between then and now. I need a few more runs around the chemo carousel to get a better idea of how things are different. Or I need to do more reading to get a better idea of how things have advanced in the last quarter century of anti-cancer efforts.
What I can say is that this treatment does feel more refined. Last time out, I was taking in cytotoxic drugs two weeks out of three and swallowing enough pills every morning to make me rattle. This time, it’s one week out of three, and the drug intake has been pared down to cover the treatment days and any side effects that might crop up. My body should have enough time to recover between sessions. Hopefully the cancer won’t.
The reassurance, then: I feel fine, right now. Walking and driving around, living the same life as before. Waiting for the hammer to fall, just a little, but not so much as to stop me living my life. It’s Christmas, after all. I’ve got people to see. The role of a cool uncle to play (current plans include introducing my nieces and nephews to Dungeons & Dragons). Chemo’s not going to get in the way of me doing that.
(Content warning for discussions of illness and mortality. If you want to avoid that, skip to the last four paragraphs for the summary.)
That’s not 100 percent accurate. When I was 19 I was diagnosed with cancer, but the cancer itself—Hodgkin’s Lymphoma—had been hanging around since I was 18, perhaps 17. Over the course of a year and a half, it had kept me from sleeping with constant itching, set off regular sweating, and carved a couple of stone off my weight. When a couple of lymph nodes swelled up and I was sent off to a hospital for diagnosis and treatment, it was a relief.
Chemotherapy consumed my life for eight months. As a teenager who hadn’t taken time out between school and college, it served as my gap year. I’d advise travel instead. Lethargy and nausea pinned me to the couch most of the time, and constipation was a very unpleasant occasional visitor. The brightest spot in all of this was getting to spend more time with my youngest brother, fourteen years younger than me, who was just starting primary school.
It was worth it in the end. After eight months I got the all clear and went back to college, doing my best to resume my life with barely an acknowledgement of what I’d been through. For the next two decades and more, I stayed healthy and gradually became something close to a functional adult.
Then, this January, I noted a wheeze in my breath.
Given how this article started, you can probably see what’s coming. I didn’t. For all that cancer had never left my mind, it wasn’t the first thing I thought of. Back at 19, I had symptoms aplenty. Now, I had none. I was healthy and fit. In fact, just a few months before, I’d run a half marathon in a little over an hour and a half. The wheeze was probably the remnants of a cough. It would go away.
After a few months, I went to see a doctor. They did the usual checks, listening to my breathing and my heart, asking if I had ever been prone to asthma or had any allergies. Neither those checks nor blood tests showed up anything, but I got an inhaler and tried it out. It didn’t make any difference, and running and cycling were now chores instead of enjoyable exercise.
I went back to the doctor again. My mum had gone through heart problems the year before, and I knew that heart and lung problems often went together. So I was sent to a cardiac consultant. Tests were done, including breathing tests, but once again nothing was found. I began to seriously wonder what was going on.
I went on a holiday to South America. You can read about it in previous entries in this blog. It was a special experience but I noticed that the wheeze seemed to ease while I was there. Could there be something at home causing it? I checked with the doctor when I got back. I’d had a leak problem in my apartment for a while, and I suspected that there might be mould present. But there wasn’t a good way to check for that, so I focused on resolving the leak and hoped that would deal with the wheeze.
Then I started to cough up blood.
Back to the doctor I went. I was referred to a respiratory consultant but first I was sent to St. James’ Hospital for a chest x-ray. The reaction was quick—my GP got in touch to tell me that the hospital would be arranging more tests. A couple of weeks later, I was brought in for a meeting with a consultant (by mistake, I was sent to the Lung Cancer Surveillance Clinic first, though I wouldn’t put it past the universe to just have a warped sense of humour) and told that part of my lung was blocked and had collapsed. I was scheduled for a CT scan and bronchoscopy not long after.
It was that day that I first became sure, if not absolutely certain, of what was going on. My wheeze had turned into a persistent cough, and the doctor performing the bronchoscopy told me (and my parents) that the CT scan had found a mass blocking one of the passages in my lung. The bronchoscopy saw a sample taken from it and an enlarged lymph node between the lungs, and I was told that the next step would be a PET scan.
Things moved slowly as the PET scan was scheduled. I did a little reading. If the CT scan and bronchoscopy look for the shape and substance of things, the PET scan looks for something different. It examines the body for fast-growing cells. Cells like cancer, wherever they might have spread. If I was being sent for one of these scans, the doctors probably had a strong suspicion that cancer was involved.
(As an aside, the PET scan was one of the more interesting medical experiences of my life. It involves being injected with radioactive fluid, which was delivered in a lead-lined case and injected using a lead-sheathed syringe. Before the scan, I was left alone in a room for an hour, and afterwards I was told to stay away from pregnant women and small children, so radioactive was I for a few hours. Sadly, no superpowers ensued.)
Finally, the day came. I was brought into another meeting in St. James, and I brought my parents. I’d tried to prepare them, explaining my suspicions the weekend before, but it still wasn’t easy. The doctor was clearly uncomfortable, and there was a nurse hovering behind us, perhaps ready to pick up the pieces.
Exactly what he said, I can only remember in snatches. Two-word bursts. Lung cancer. Not curable. I was more focused on my parents. My mum’s pained silence. My dad’s breathing coming in shorter, louder gasps. We were told the situation. Not curable but treatable. There would be more chemotherapy, and perhaps radiotherapy, after some further tests. No surgery though. It had already spread enough that cutting it out of the body would only inflict pain without benefit.
That was several weeks ago. The tests have been coming back slowly since then. I’m not a candidate for more advanced immunotherapy treatment, but I might yet be eligible for a pill-based form of treatment that would be preferable to the standard chemotherapy. Even then, there will be scans and tests aplenty to come. With cancer, especially one that is treatable, not curable, it’s all about seeing what treatment works best. Holds the cancer in check or even pushes it back.
That’s what my life is going to be now. Treat, test, repeat. Exactly what my prospects are, it’s hard to say. As a non-smoker in my 40s, I’m already an outlier among lung cancer patients, so the usual statistics don’t apply. For myself though, my assumption is that this is what is going to take me out eventually. Treatments don’t hold forever. There are two alternatives to this fate: some other death intervenes, or cancer treatments advance to the point where they can do something more than just treat. To where “not curable” is no longer the status quo.
Am I being morbid or hopeful? I’m not entirely sure. I’ve already had another two bad words: Stage Four. But that’s mostly a way for doctors to gauge their progress and effectiveness. What matters now is direction. Whether the cancer goes forward or backwards. I won’t know that until we’re already deep into treatment. Regardless, what I want is time. Time to read, to write, to travel. Time to spend with my family, especially my nieces and nephews. If nothing else, I want the treatment to give me that.
It starts tomorrow. My first chemotherapy session and six weeks absence from work. What do I do with that time? I have ideas, and some of them will show up here. I won’t be posting about this on social media, so this blog will become the home of whatever thoughts I do have. Though they won’t be restricted to cancer alone. Or at least not biological cancer—there are plenty of metaphorical cancers in the world. And I have thoughts to share on those.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. If you know me personally, I apologise. I’ve had to tell more than a few people about this, and it’s never been fun. If you stick around, you’ll have my gratitude. Already, I’ve been overwhelmed by the offers of assistance and expressions of love from friends and family. That, at least, is one thing I don’t see changing any time soon.