Mon, Mar 1
This month's philosophy, as determined by my finger-picking method, is Stoicism. It was a close-run thing. A couple of inches higher and it could have been Sophism, which seems to have been the idea that you can make anyone believe anything, given a few cheap rhetorical tricks.
Like hedonism, I thought I already knew what Stoicism was until I read the entry from Duffers. There I was informed that it combined the determinism of the Atomists with the hedonism of Epicurus.
The debt to Atomism consisted in the idea that everything was entirely predetermined, though in accordance with 'divine will' rather than the Atomists' mechanical necessity. Our freedom as human beings lies in the fact that we can either assent to the divine will or dissent from it. In other words, attitude is everything. It's all about accepting your fate, whatever that happens to be, rather than complaining about it. Basically, Stoicism seems to have been an early version of Monty Python's 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' with a bit of grin-and-bear-it and stiff-upper-lip thrown in.
As for the debt to hedonism – again I'm paraphrasing Duffers here -- the Stoics developed Epicurus' emphasis on reducing one's desires so they can more easily be satisfied. But they went further, believing one should cultivate a state of apathy or indifference to pain and pleasure, likewise to material possessions, so as to make oneself immune to adversity. This reminds me of an episode of The Simpsons where Homer advises Bart to aim low in life because that way he won't be disappointed. Homer seems to be a weird mix of Stoic and hedonist: he reduces his expectations of pleasure so as to increase his enjoyment of pleasure.
In light of the above, I've come up with a few Stoic resolutions of my own for this month:
· eat a frugal diet (rice, potatoes, fruit), no crisps or chocolate
· ration my booze intake to 4 units a day, and jam doughnuts to one a day
· renew my lapsed gym membership
· regulate my TV viewing
· read for at least an hour a day
· go to bed at a reasonable hour
I'll begin this new regime tomorrow as there's a late movie on tonight that I want to watch and anyway I've already broken the first two resolutions.
Tues, Mar 2
Popped into Waterstone's at lunchtime, bought the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Selected Works of Cicero and Seneca's Letters from a Stoic. Jerome spotted them on my desk during the afternoon and tried not to look impressed.
After work did a big shop at Sainsbury's. Filled trolley with dirt-cheap own-label items, figuring there probably wasn't much difference in quality between these and the pricier stuff. But there is. Rustled up a chicken curry with own-label chicken and own-label veg tonight and ended up throwing most of it away.
Weds, Mar 3
Made appointment at pain control clinic in Colney for next Tuesday. Figured I could get some general tips on how to raise my pain threshold. 80 quid plus VAT for a one-off consultation sounds a bit steep, but hopefully I'll save more than that on painkillers over the course of a lifetime, so probably worth it.
Thurs, Mar 4
Took a packed lunch to work today (cheese sandwiches, yogurt, banana) as part of my new regime of simplicity and moderation in all things. Around 12.30 Jerome poked his head over my cubicle wall.
'Coming for lunch?'
I told him no, I'd brought sandwiches.
'What, money not that tight, is it?'
I said no, it wasn't that, I had a dicky stomach. Then for some reason I decided to add, 'irritable bowel.'
'Oh dear, nasty,' he said. 'Well, see you later.'
Only then, as he walked past my cubicle entrance, did I see that he was accompanied by Vanessa. So Vanessa must have heard what I said about having an irritable bowel. Which means that now, whenever she thinks of me – which of course she probably never does -- she'll think of diarrhoea. Another own goal. They seem to be mounting up.
Fri, Mar 5
There are some things I'm finding it very hard to be stoical about. One of these is the almost constant barrage of deafening music from my upstairs neighbour, Gemma. I can't help thinking she's cranked up the volume even higher, as some sort of punishment, since I dumped her friend Cat.
Tonight I tried watching TV with the subtitles on, having abandoned any attempt to compete sonically with the screech-fest from above, but soon gave up when it became clear the subtitling was the work of a drunken surrealist poet. A documentary about the favelas of Rio had the people living 'under Paul O'Grady conditions.' Poor, degrading conditions? Appalling, degrading conditions?
I try to retain my equanimity. I seek comfort in the Stoic authors.
Seneca: A man is as miserable as he thinks he is. Marcus Aurelius: If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs you but your own thinking about it, which you can change.
Which is all very well in theory. But sometimes the music's so loud that thinking anything at all's impossible; I literally can't hear myself think. Maybe I should contact the noise pollution unit at the local council, get a decibel reading. In the meantime I content myself with turning the volume on my iPod up to max, so at least I'm deafened by my own music rather than someone else's.
Sat, Mar 6
Had the mother of all clear-outs at home – the Stoics seem to have been the original downshifters. Filled half a dozen bin liners with stuff I don't need or never use – clothes, books, knick-knacks, bedding, table lamps – and took them to the animal charity shop in Anglia Square. The old biddy behind the counter was less grateful than I'd expected, I had to wait while she went through each of the bags in turn, deciding whether or not to accept them. Honestly! I felt like saying something – beggars can't be choosers came to mind – but managed to button my lip and put on a forbearing smile.
The flat's almost empty now, looks like I've just moved in. You could count my possessions on your fingers if you were a pair of conjoined twins: bed, sofa, table, chairs, and a few sleek black boxes and their accompanying wafer-thin screens. Not just a Stoic but a minimalist too! I have to admit it feels quite liberating. I feel less restricted somehow, lighter. How does the old song go? Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose? Not sure I should have given all the table lamps away, though.
Dinner with H and Jane at their place in Bowthorpe. Delicious meal of French onion soup and succulent lamb casserole followed by a heavenly light-as-air lemon sorbet. I tried not to enjoy it too much.
Jane went to bed early, heaving her enormous bump up the stairs like an oil drum strapped to her stomach, while H and I got stuck into the 12-year-old malt he usually reserves for special occasions. He asked for my advice. Says he's met a woman at the recruitment agency where he spends most of his days and is thinking of starting an affair. I tried discouraging him, told him he's got too much to lose: lovely wife (well, I was being generous), nice house, child on the way. I quoted Cicero to him: 'To be content with what one has is the greatest and truest of riches.' He said yeah, that was all very well, but Cicero probably had his pick of nubile Roman slave girls.
Mon, Mar 8
The Stoics believed in what's called eternal recurrence. They believed the universe began with a giant conflagration and would end with another such conflagration, after which the whole cycle would begin again. Not only that but, in line with the determinism they inherited from the Atomists, they believed the universe repeated itself with absolute unvarying exactitude each time. Which means I've written this sentence an indefinite number of times before in the past and I'll write it an indefinite number of times again in the future. This is possibly the most depressing idea I've ever heard in my life – or, if the Stoics are right, in any previous or future life.
I found myself thinking about this today because there was a young female translator from Denmark in the office, working with Jerome on the English-Icelandic project he heads up. As I walked past his cubicle on my way to the coffee machine, I overheard him talking about sunshine and reflected light.
'...Whether the surface is wet or not. Whether the light is passing through clouds. So you've got glow, glint, glisten...'
Suddenly I thought I knew how the Stoics must have felt.
Tues, Mar 9
The Tower Hospital is situated a few miles west of Norwich in pleasant rural surroundings. I followed the signs to the Outpatients Dept and parked my clapped-out S-reg Polo in between a brand-new Z4 Beamer and a Jeep Grand Cherokee, distinctly lowering the tone of the neighbourhood. The slanting evening sun warmed my face as I approached the entrance, bringing with it the first authentic whiff of spring.
I entered a modern red-brick building with a tasteful interior of glass and wood. Confirmed my appointment with the slim blonde receptionist and was asked to complete a short medical history and supply my credit card details.
'There's a table over there, bit more comfortable,' she said, smiling and nodding to a pair of sumptuous Italian-leather armchairs and an expensive-looking deco table. 'Can I get you a tea or coffee while you're waiting?'
'Thanks, a coffee would be nice,' I said. 'But I'd like to pay cash if that's OK.'
The smile froze on her lips. She looked at me askance, as if I was persisting in some ridiculous outmoded custom belonging to another age. 'If you must,' she said.
The coffee never appeared.
The consultation took place in a bright cheerful room with a Dr Subramaniam, a small dark man with an excessively polite manner. He asked me what I did for a living and went through my medical history with me, commenting on my bee-sting allergy but tactfully skirting my teenage circumcision. Then he sat back in his chair and looked slightly confused.
'I'm slightly confused,' he said. 'There's nothing here about any present medical condition. So I'm wondering where exactly is your pain and what do you think might be causing it?'
'I'm not in any pain,' I said.
'But I thought... You do understand, you've asked for pain-control advice.'
'Yes, I know. That's what I want. For when I'm in pain in the future. Which I'm sure I will be at some point.'
'I see,' Dr Subramaniam said. 'Well, that's rather unusual. And extremely far-sighted of you, I must say. But it means that most of the treatments I might recommend aren't appropriate in your case. For example electrical stimulation, acupuncture, hypnotherapy and so on.'
I waited for him to continue.
'I suppose I could teach you a few techniques you could employ for yourself. In future. When you're in pain.'
'That sounds like it might be useful.'
He asked me to lie down on the couch and make myself comfortable. No, I didn't need to remove my shoes. Not unless they were hurting me of course, he added with a shy little laugh.
First of all he got me to concentrate on breathing correctly, which meant deeply and evenly. Then he led me through a series of mental exercises, from one called dissociation to another called sensory splitting, all of which in one way or another involved detaching my attention from the source of the pain – in my case the imaginary pain – and thinking of something else instead, such as a sunny beach or a machine that sucks up pain.
I know the names of all these techniques because, before I left, Dr Subramaniam gave me a printout listing 'Ten Top Pain-Management Methods,' including all those he'd just shown me. Then he shook my hand and said goodbye. Probably easiest 80 quid he's ever earned.
When I got home I tried practising some of the techniques I'd been taught, but it was hard to know whether or not they were working when there wasn't any pain to control. So I began digging my thumbnail into the palm of my left hand and seeing how long I could stand it for. Then I attached a few clothes pegs to my cheeks and noted how long I could tolerate that for. The answer was: not very long. Then I repeated both procedures while trying to concentrate on my breathing and practise some of the pain-control methods I'd learned from Dr Subramaniam. The idea was to compare my levels of pain-tolerance with and without the new techniques. The trouble was my hand and cheek were still really sore from the first run so, when I did the second run, I scored much lower, even though I was using the new techniques. I'll have to give this some more thought.
Thurs, Mar 11
The pain-control experiments are proceeding quite well. Tonight I managed to hold my left hand over the gas ring at a height of 12 inches for 22 seconds, a personal best.
Fri, Mar 12
Seems I was a bit over-zealous in my pain experiments.
Woke up in the middle of the night in excruciating agony. Switched on the light and had a look at my left hand. I could actually see the blisters forming, bubbling under the skin. The palm of the hand and the undersides of the fingers had the texture and colour of roast chicken skin. Took a couple of Neurofen and tried out my new pain-control techniques but neither the pills nor the visualization exercises made the slightest difference. It felt like someone was holding my hand inside a blast furnace.
First thing this morning I drove to the NHS walk-in clinic in Castle Mall, one-handed all the way, too painful to touch anything with my left hand, lucky I've got an automatic. While I was waiting to be seen I called work, spoke to Jo, told her I'd be late, a bizarre ironing accident.
I gave the same explanation to the doctor who examined me, a sweaty grumpy man in his forties. Told him I'd tripped over the cord while doing the ironing, knocked the iron off the ironing board, grabbed hold of it to stop it hitting the floor but grabbed the wrong side. I could see he didn't believe me -- perhaps my blisters aren't the sort of blisters you'd expect from an iron-grabbing accident.
'Look, I won't beat about the bush,' he said. 'Did you inflict these injuries on yourself?'
'No! Or rather yes. But I didn't do it deliberately!'
He turned to the computer behind him and keyed in a few words. Great. So now my medical record will contain 'possible self-harmer' or something similar.
Then he wrote me out a prescription for heavy-duty painkillers and left. A nurse came in and dressed my hand with a thick while salve and an endless-seeming bandage, which she wound around my hand like she was wrapping an Egyptian mummy, rendering it for all practical purposes useless. I tried to imagine a giant Dyson vacuum cleaner hoovering up the pain but it didn't do much good.
At work everyone wanted to know what had happened to my hand, so I had to repeat my bogus explanation about the ironing accident and pretend through gritted teeth that I wasn't in too much discomfort.
As I passed Vanessa's cubicle at lunchtime I heard her and Aysha talking in lowered voices. I clearly heard my name mentioned. Then Aysha said 'A bizarre ironing accident!' and they both shrieked with laughter.
Sun, Mar 14
Been so preoccupied with my pain experiments and my damaged hand that I clean forgot about Mother's Day. Too late for a card or flowers so I made a call. Bad move. Apparently Mum's taken to her bed, hasn't been in to work at the laundry for three days, she's so worried about me. She's convinced I've got some horrible disease.
'Have you, son?' my dad asked in his gentle coaxing voice. 'Is that what it is? You shouldn't be afraid to tell us, you know, we're strong enough to take it. What is it, cancer? AIDS?'
'Dad, read my lips. Oh, you can't, OK. Well, listen to what I'm saying. I haven't got any kind of horrible disease or sickness, all right? Not cancer. Not AIDS. Nothing.'
'Is it money problems then? You know we're only too happy to...'
'Dad, no, it's not money.'
'You're not a drug junkie, are you?'
'No, Dad, I'm not a jug drunkie, I mean a drug junkie. Look, put Mum on, will you? I'll try and explain.'
It's been a while since Mum had one of her depressive bouts. When I was growing up it used to happen all the time – the slightest note of discord round the Sunday dinner table and she'd be upstairs, wailing and sobbing for days on end. Dad would have to take time off work to look after her. He lost a couple of jobs that way.
There was a long pause before I heard Mum's weak trembling voice at the other end of the line. 'David? Is that you?'
'Yeah, Mum, it's me. Look, I know you're worried about me. And I know I've been acting a bit... well... strange lately. But here's why, OK. It's a bit complicated but I'll try and keep it simple. It's because I'm conducting a sort of experiment, a sort of philosophical experiment if you like. I'm trying to find out... well anyway, never mind about that, but in January I was trying to think and behave like a Determinist, OK? You know? Someone who believes everything is already predetermined? Which is why I couldn't make up my mind about anything. Then last month, well last month I was a Hedonist, so...'
'Stop!' she cried. 'David, please, stop! You're talking gibberish. Oh God, Jim!' I heard her moan to my dad through her choking sobs, 'it's even worse than I thought. David, please promise me you'll get some help for this. A psychiatrist, a counsellor, someone...'
'Mum,' I said, but she'd already passed the phone back to my dad, though I could still hear her long wailing cries like those of a wounded animal in the background.
'She'll be all right in a little while,' my dad said. 'I'll calm her down, make her a cup of tea. Thanks for calling.'
'Happy Mother's Day, Dad.'
'Happy Mother's Day, son.'