Monday, 27 June 2016

The die is cast

And so - the fall-out from surprise result of last Thursday's referendum continues in the wake of the vote for "Brexit".  17.4 million Britons, or 51.9%  voted that they no longer want to remain in the EU.  Six weeks of campaigning produced a close result, which was expected, but an overall vote to leave, which wasn't.  There is apparently a petition currently attracting signatories - many of them allegedly fraudulent - demanding a re-run.  But seriously: the question was simple enough: in or out and it produced a majority in a free vote.  That's how democracy works in action.  You can't have endless re-runs using slightly different rules until you get the result you want.

I'm old enough to remember Britain's first attempts to join what was then known as the 'Common Market', twice frustrated in the 1960s by the veto of French President de Gaulle.  Over the years since then the face of Europe has changed beyond recognition with the virtual end of the Cold War, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the enlargement of the EU into a sprawling union encompassing virtually every country in Europe.  The character of the union has changed too, from a simple trading area to a more of a political union raising in turn questions of national sovereignty.  So the pressure which gave rise to the demand for the referendum in the first place I think was inevitable.  What has tipped the balance seems to have been the migration/refugee crisis, Europe's collective failure to deal with it, and the resulting pressure on the UK public services and facilities.  A relevant question to my mind is why, with open borders and 25 other countries to choose from, do so many migrants want to come here?

Much of the scaremongering which marked the campaigning was just that - scaremongering.  The plain fact is that no-one actually knows what's going to happen to jobs, prices, and trading in the future.  Gone will be the loathsome petty diktats which regulated amongst other things the curvature of bananas.  Perhaps too we shall see the end of the 5% VAT on gas and electricity which was a Brussels imposition.  But I've no doubt whatever happens we shall survive.  Better off in some respects and worse off in others.  However the feeling of having chosen to do something as opposed to having it imposed against your wishes is in my view a price worth paying.



Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Running out of options

It must now be getting on for twelve months since I noticed in the shower one morning a small bulge on the right-hand side of my ballsac.  I wasn't unduly bothered: it didn't seem to hurt or anything but conscious of the thought that it might be cancerous or something I booked an appointment at the doctor's.

The doc examined me and her diagnosis from this initial consultation was that I had an inguinal scrotal hernia.  She checked and seemed rather pleased when she announced that she was able to do a referral for me to see a specialist and when a week later I got a letter through the post I booked an appointment using the NHS 'choose and book' online.  I believe that theoretically a patient can elect to go more or less anywhere in England, but I was offered a choice of four local venues and since the waiting time (about six weeks I think) was much of a muchness I just picked the nearest - University Hospital Coventry.  

The first hitch was that the Hospital rang me up the day before the appointment to say that I'd been referred to the wrong specialist and I would need to see a urologist instead.  Quite why they waited until the last minute before checking and discovering this has never been properly explained to me.  The guy they now wanted me to see I discovered is a specialist in female bladder incontinence!  While he may have a nice sideline in doing hernias as well, I wasn't filled with confidence and went back asked the doc whether I could pick one of the other choices instead.  The NHS being what it is, it wasn't that simple: a fresh referral was apparently needed with the result that I'd go back to the beginning of the 18-week "guarantee" of treatment which is supposed to be afforded to patients these days.  

Come the late autumn, I saw a very pleasant urologist by the name of Mr Strachan at Warwick Hospital, who checked me over and said he thought I had in fact got a bilateral hernia (one on each side).  I looked and saw what he meant: the groin area on my left did look as if it had a bit of a bulge, whereas the original bulge on the sac had got noticeably bigger.  He said he'd arrange for me to have a consultation with a surgeon there with a view to having a hernia repair operation done on it/them.

It seemed likely that nothing much was going to happen until after Christmas so I I took advantage of the lull to find out a bit more about what all this might entail.  I was quite minded to let well enough alone: I wasn't in any pain or particular discomfort and most of the time I was hardly aware I'd got them.  So when February came and I got to see the surgeon I was given the distinct impression that an operation was a 'done deal' and perhaps rather foolishly went along with it to the extent of actually getting a date booked.

I can't really describe the turmoil I went through except to say that I really didn't want to have it done.  Although everything I read up on told me it was a routine procedure carried out with a high success rate I was just haunted by the prospect of something going wrong and either ending up a vegetable or swapping what by this time had become mild discomfort for constant agonizing pain.  I would burst into tears at the slightest provocation and eventually went back to ask my doctor for a second opinion: was an operation really the only answer?  She persuaded me to simply cancel the date I had booked and fix up another consultation with the surgeon which would give me a chance to ask all the questions I should've asked the first time round and didn't.  It was a huge weight off my mind.  The guy was very nice and seemed to understand my dilemma: I didn't want to end up a statistic but on the other hand neither of us can predict the future.  He agreed that I should go away and think about it and he said he'd be happy to see me again if I changed my mind.

However, letting nature take its course turned out not to be as straightforward as I'd thought.  The hernia has now become massively enlarged to the point where my groin is very noticeably and obviously swollen, and a bit tender, with occasional background abdominal aches and pains.  Standing about for any length of time is becoming virtually impossible and I have to take such frequent rest breaks to sit down or even lie down that it's impinging on my ability to lead anything like a normal life.  Tight jeans are out of the question, even loose-fitting clothes seem to reveal a visible bulge, and it's now got to the point where I've had to start using a dressing pad to protect my scrotum from rubbing a sore patch against my thigh.  And I'm very much aware of the possibility of the hernia becoming strangulated.

The inescapable conclusion from all this was that the balance of the equation was tipping the other way and I was just storing up trouble for myself: consequently I bowed to the inevitable and re-booked to have it operated on I feel I just can't go on as I am.  I'm already having days when I really don't feel much like doing anything, which isn't fair on the people depending on me, nor on myself either for that matter.  So, three weeks tonight, I shall hopefully be starting to recover from keyhole surgery, and with a bit of luck perhaps even wondering what on earth I was making all the fuss about!

Friday, 30 October 2015

Sowing and reaping

Like many people, I was both saddened and disturbed to read of the tragedy in Cults Academy, an Aberdeen secondary school, this week: a 16-year old pupil was stabbed to death by a classmate in what's been described as a "pointless fight which got out of hand".  Incidents such as this are fortunately still relatively rare in UK schools, but this one appears all the more shocking in that it occurred in what is reportedly a 'good' school in a 'nice area'.  In what must be every Head Teacher's worst nightmare, headmistress Anna Muirhead has paid tribute to the "gentle, caring pupil" Bailey Gwynne who lost his life, while presumably asking herself the question "How could something like this happen in my school?"  One young life has been lost, another has been turned upside down, while for two sets of families nothing will ever be the same again.

Rumours have surfaced to the effect that the attacker had been being "teased" about his weight but so far it's not at all clear what form this took. Judging by the outpouring of sympathy and the tributes that have been paid, Bailey doesn't fit the typical profile of a bully and I can't detect any undercurrents of this being an issue - although there is and always has been a fine line between the supposedly harmless tradition of teasing at school (in which the victim sometimes gives back as good as he or she gets) and its more malicious and sinister form properly known as bullying.

Fights themselves at schools are of course nothing new: we had playground fights when I was a schoolboy and I well remember the chant of "Fight... fight... fight..." that would go up as we all flocked round to try and get a better view.  That in turn was invariably the signal for a couple of prefects or a Master to appear out of nowhere and break it up, fortunately before any real harm had come to either of the participants.  I've written about my own experience of being picked on for a fight at school: looking back on it now, although I can still clearly remember who my assailant was, I've no idea what started it nor do I attach any real significance to it other than it being part of the rough-and-tumble of school life at the time.  I guess that's probably true of the ten or dozen other playground fights I witnessed during my schooldays, too.  But we never had fights or violence in corridors, still less in classrooms. Nor were weapons of any sort used.

So the other dimension, I suppose here, is the use of a knife.  We had metal knives rather than plastic for use in the school dining hall, albeit rather blunt ones.  And in those days quite a lot of boys had penknives, especially those who were keen on scouting activities (which didn't incidentally include the stabbing of fellow scouts - at least, not deliberately!).  I didn't own one as far as I recollect, nor did I have one of the other types popular at the time - a flick-knife.  Illegal I believe they were at the time, but brought back in appreciable numbers from the Continent!  I didn't personally know anyone who had one and I can't imagine that anyone who did would've dared bring it to school.         

Back in the present, there are no easy answers to the question of why this happened in the way that it did,  I daresay in the fullness of time questions will be asked, reports written and the proverbial "lessons will be learned".  That's what schools are for, after all.  But it will, sadly, come too late for poor Bailey.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Autumn reflections

The remains of summer have fizzled out unspectacularly, leaving the characteristic chill of autumn nights.  I cranked the heating into action once again, counting myself fortunate that since we had the new boiler fitted the gas bill these days is a mere shadow of its former self.  Doesn't stop spammers phoning regularly (or, more accurately, phoning the answerphone regularly) to remind me about the government boiler grant awaiting me alongside my unclaimed PPI refund.  Do people actually respond to this rubbish, I wonder?

And I've had time too to reflect on, and start coming to terms with, Raggs' passing away.  I got the casket containing her ashes back: one of my fellow students of Italian kindly gave me a lift to the vets' after our class on the Friday that week, and I carried it home on the bus in the little posh carrier bag looking for all the world as if I'd gone to do a bit of upmarket shopping!  I haven't yet decided what to do with them.  Although I'm conscious of the theory that clinging on to the remains acts as an impediment to grieving properly and letting nature take its course, I'm a little undecided.  I didn't want to scatter them in the woods as I had done with Molly, but I rather favour the idea of perhaps burying the casket in the garden amongst some spring bulbs to make something resembling a little shrine,  Maybe that in its own way is just as creepy an idea though.  For the moment I'm not in a hurry.  I find its presence acts as a comforting souvenir of the happy times we had together and I'm happy to accept it as that however ghoulish it may sound.  While I initially found it difficult to accept the proposition that we can't have another dog, the plain reality is that I don't any longer have either the physical ability or the lifestyle to walk as far or as regularly as I'd need to and it really wouldn't be fair or kind.  Even an older dog needs some exercise.  I haven't ruled out the idea of another cat on the other hand: maybe I'll just wait and see how things pan out.

And after a short summer break we start our Italian tutorial sessions again next week.  I did briefly resurrect the idea of going for an A level, but decided to plod on with our informal classes and buld up a bit more of a foundation while waiting to see how the transition from AS and A2 levels back to a proper 2-year course works out.  My practice is still sporadic and I have some "homework" exercises which I should have done and keep putting off but I'm heartened to find when I check out an Italian blog that I follow, I seem to be retaining more of what I've learned than I'd anticipated.  It's certainly encouraging me to keep at it, anyway.

A presto!

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Goodbye to my best friend

I seem to have got into the habit of relaying nothing but bad news on here: I was going to add "lately" but I see it's been eight months since I last wrote anything.  But whatever the ins and outs of that, the spur this time is the shock that late yesterday evening, Raggs passed away.  

It came as a surprise.  She'd been showing her age with some quite obvious signs in recent months, noticeably by scrambling a bit to get up, requiring my assistance in the form of a helping push on the bum to get up the stairs, and sitting (or rather dropping) down with a great thump.  Added to which, she'd become noticeably incontinent.  But all things considered, nothing that wasn't commensurate with the advancing years of a 14-year old bearded collie.  I never dreamt that she might be ill, and looking back on the events of yesterday, I'm not sure she had been.

The morning had passed in usual form, jumping up on my bed (she hadn't got to be too particular about whether I wanted to use it myself or not!).  She barked at a few things which were unwise enough to move in the street: although I had my suspicions that her hearing was no longer as keen as it used to be, there was obviously nothing wrong with her eyesight.  But around tea-time, I suddenly noticed to my horror that she appeared to have collapsed in the bedroom doorway, more or less lying adjacent to a puddle and a pile of the other stuff.  In the light of her previous deteriorating mobility, I guessed that she'd got taken short and had overbalanced in the act, but with the benefit of hindsight a more accurate guess I suspect, is that she'd had some sort of stroke.

I helped her to her feet with some difficulty, getting snarled at for my pains, for I think the first time ever since we'd had her.  But she seemed to recover while I cleaned up, pottering about with a wag of the tail here and there.  I took her out to see how she fared: she didn't seem to want to do anything but made it up and down the stairs without help.  Nevertheless I decided it would be a wise move to book her in to see the vet in the morning, and I followed that by booking a taxi to take us there.

But then when I took her out again a little later on, she collapsed again just by the garden gate.  Somehow I managed to get her back indoors (she's far too heavy for me to carry) but this time she lay down in the hall looking sorry for herself.  I got an old duvet and made her as comfortable as I could, hoping the rest would do her good and we'd see what the vet had to say about it all.  She looked up occasionally but then seemed to lose interest.  I knelt down beside her, conscious that I might be saying goodbye.  I saw around 9.00 that she'd been sick and was still dribbling: her breathing was becoming shallow, and a little after 10.00, as I knelt beside her, I heard the characteristic rasp of a death rattle.  She was gone.  With tears in my eyes, I said some prayers for her, noticing already how quiet the house had suddenly become.

This morning, I used the old duvet to concoct a makeshift shroud, wondering how or if I was going to get her to the vet's in the taxi by myself.  As you do on these occasions, I started simultaneously torturing myself with the inevitable "if only"s - if only I'd realised the significance of the warning signs, if only I'd acted sooner.....  In my rational moments, of course, I know full well it wouldn't have made any difference.  The healthiest animal we'd ever owned was already living on borrowed time and had been for quite a while: the life expectancy of a bearded collie is around 12 or 13.

So, a few phone calls later, full of mixed feelings, I sit here typing away to while away the hour or two before the pet cremation company arrive to collect Raggs.  We decided that's what we'd have done with her, as we had with Molly twelve years ago.  The alternative of a burial in the back garden, which I suspect is of dubious legality anyway is a bit of a no-brainer on practical grounds.  

The house seems eerily silent.  Gone is the patter of not-so-little-tiny feet, the head poked round to door to see what I'm doing and the barking every time anyone is rash enough to come up the path to the house to deliver something.  We've already decided not to get another dog: I was very much in two minds about it twelve years ago when faced with the same decision and given how much water has flown under the bridge since then, it just wouldn't be practical or fair.  Another cat, on the other hand however??  Hmmm, I wonder.

Anyway, in the meantime, here's a pic to finish with:

It's my favourite photo of her, taken in January 2004 during her first winter with us.  She always loved the snow and we never really to her way of thinking got enough of it.  A friend of mine made that photo into a mousemat for me, so somehow I'll always have her by my side.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Because it was there

I'm at home at the moment, slowly recovering from a groin strain.  With some strong painkillers at last making inroads into some of the worst pain I can ever remember experiencing (in fact at the outset it was so bad I thought I must have got appendicitis - but the Doc when she examined me said not) I'm trying to rest and let nature take its healing course.  I've done something I'd thought of doing before on a number of occasions, which is to do the food shopping online.  I had been put off by pretty steep delivery charges as well as horror stories from people I know who've tried it, but the effect of what I suspect is quite keen competition in the market has resulted in a 24-hour turnaround process with some midweek timeslots of only £1 for the delivery.  So my first order arrived yesterday afternoon, complete and with no weird substitutions, and dead on time - well, two or three minutes early, actually.

The other side-effect of my 'convalescence' has been that I wasn't able to go to my Italian classes this week or last.  Which prompted me to think some more about the question of whether I really wanted to continue with them.  The clincher is/was that in contrast to my enthusiasm four years ago I wasn't really enjoying them much anymore - which in turn raised the question of what the point was of continuing with something you don't like and don't actually have to do.  I began to realize that I'd fallen into the trap of re-enrolling for another year just because it was there rather than because there was anything (such as an eventual qualification) specifically in view at the end of it.  While it's arguably not altogether wise to take decisions under the influence of feeling in pain and generally under the weather, I emailed the tutor to say I'd decided not to carry on.

Thinking back to the debacle which marked the end of my first attempt to learn Italian and which I wrote about in my last entry, I'm not about to give up a second time.  If I've learned anything at all from that, it's that opportunities now are way in excess of what existed then and it's simply a question of re-focusing on what it is that I'm ultimately trying to achieve, and seeking the best way of doing it.  I'm not sure whether I've written about this or not, but as my studies have progressed I made tentative enquiries about doing an A level.  The University, perhaps understandably, made it clear when I asked that I was on my own with that as far as they were concerned so I put it on the proverbial back burner. 

I've on the other hand been fortunate enough to stay in touch with a small group of fellow-students from when we had our Intermediate level classes together and we used to meet up for practice during the long summer holidays.  They started having private tuition and have agreed for me to join them when I'm up and running again, which will give me the opportunity to consolidate what I've learned so far and look at finding an A level course to do in the autumn.

While I'll always regret what slipped away from me the first time all those years ago, I'm determined to do everything I possibly can to make up for it now. 

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Of ghosts and skeletons....

So it's Hallowe'en once again: the time of ghosts and skeletons, one of which I let out of its cupboard exactly five years ago this week.  The relevance of all this will hopefully become clear at the end of the story, so keep reading!

I've written and reminisced quite a lot over the last five years about my schooldays: they were happy times, the memory of which I've grown to treasure.  The culmination, back then, was that at the tender age of 17 I left school and went off one October's day down to Exeter to take up a place at Exeter University.  I was overjoyed at getting the grades I needed (two As and a C against an acceptance requiring two Bs), and full of optimism and plans for the future.  I'd always been young for my age, shy, timid and slow to make friends: whether I ignored that warning sign, didn't think it mattered or simply thought na├»vely that it was magically somehow going to change I can't say.  But the constant round of partying, socializing and clubbing which is traditionally supposed to mark a Fresher's first experience of University just didn't happen for me.  I don't think any of my classmates from school had gone to Exeter too, so I didn't know anyone, and on the course we were split into different groups for different seminars and tutorials and so on.

The inevitable and predictable result was that after only a very short space of time I was lonely and homesick.  To make matters worse, two or three of the compulsory initial modules covered classical literature and drama, the very things I'd hated most about doing French A level at school.  I'd take copious notes in the lectures, but otherwise it was simply going in one ear and out of the other.  I'd re-read my notes in my room in the evenings and they wouldn't mean anything: it simply wouldn't sink in.  The rest of the time I whiled away listening to the radio or sometimes records, interspersed with an occasional trip to the communal TV lounge, hoping no-one else wanted to watch something else on one of the other channels.  On Thursday nights there was a "formal" Hall Dinner in the evening, so we all gathered together, dressed up in our suits and gowns, to watch as much as we could of "Top of the Pops" just before the dinner started!

The worst time was the weekend when there were no classes.  Saturdays I generally used to go into town for a spot of "retail therapy".  Most weeks it was just window shopping as although my parents had given me access to a savings account they'd started for me as a small child, it was only supposed to be for buying books and emergency essentials!  Sundays were especially awful.  I couldn't go home for the weekends - it was a four or five hour train journey each way even supposing I'd had the money for the return fare, and I think I managed it once in the whole term.  There was a payphone downstairs in the entrance hall, but this was in the days long before mobile phones, when "trunk" calls were prohibitively expensive.  So that just left letters and I wrote home as often as I could, eagerly checking my pigeon-hole each morning for a reply from home.  Somewhat peversely, in the light of what I've just written, I gave no inkling of how unhappy I was: I suppose I just didn't want to worry anyone.

Eventually Christmas came, and back home in all the excitement and festivities marking the occasion, I got a respite from my worries.  Returning in the New Year, I somehow hoped things would get better and I secretly resolved to try harder to make it all work.  If anything, it got worse.  The long dark nights and cold dismal days of winter and early spring did nothing to lift my low spirits.  I started to get lethargic and lose what little remaining interest I still had in the course - I couldn't settle down and I found myself struggling to keep my head above water with the work.  That said, it wasn't all bad: I was thrilled to hear that in my Italian language classes, which I'd started from scratch, was really enjoying, and which had been the main reason for my choosing Exeter in the first place, we were already up to an O level standard!  And I remember too the weekly trip up the hill on the other side of town on a Friday afternoon to where the Language Laboratory was situated, for the bizarre highlight of the week - a session listening to our own choice of current French pop songs, decyphering the lyrics and singing along karaoke-style!

The rest of that second term passed in something of a blur, proving I daresay the truth of the common supposition about the mind blotting out memories of unpleasant things.  Be that as it may, the next thing I recollect is the morning when I was upstairs at home, in the last week of the Easter vacation, helping my mother make the beds.  I was absolutely bricking it - in the knowledge that we were due to have exams just a week or two into the new term, and I had never been less prepared for anything in my life.  The phrase "preoccupied with failure" doesn't do my confused feelings justice, but then at that moment my mother suddenly looked me straight in the eye and said: "Why don't you tell me what's wrong?"

I sat down on the bed, tears welling up in my eyes, and blurted it all out: it was as if a dam had burst.  I wish I could say I felt better afterwards but I didn't.  I felt an abject failure: I'd let my parents down, dashed their hopes and denied them the pride of getting their only son through University successfully.  If there's been a lower point in my life - before or since - then I can't think of what it might be.  But my mother simply sat down on the bed beside me and said gently: "Well, if you don't like it, don't go back."  My sense of relief was indescribable.

I don't remember what my father said at the news, from which I deduce that I must've left it to my mother to tell both him and my sister - quite probably something along the lines of "This is what we've decided...!"  She was on the other hand insistent that I had to go back down to collect my things in person a couple of days before the new term started - a sort of object lesson in cleaning up your own mess after you.  While I was dreading it, the process of de-registering or dis-enrolling or whatever the proper word is for it turned out to be pretty painless.  In fact the general reaction from all the tutors was: "But why didn't you say anything??"  I didn't know how to answer that then and I don't really know now.  The closest I can get is to say that there were so many things wrong that I just honestly didn't know where to start.

My father gave me the news that one of our neighbours, who was a college lecturer, had offered to talk me through the idea of enrolling on a local language course as a day student instead.  But, with all my hopes dashed, what little self-confidence I had in tatters, and my plans for the future in ruins, I said no.  I'd fallen at the first hurdle and I didn't want the consolation prize: I just wanted to draw a line under it all and move on to something completely different.  My father was a bit disappointed and I can now see why.  I'd be lying if I said that I hadn't occasionally wondered idly over the years whether I shouldn't perhaps have swallowed my pride and tried to salvage something more from the wreckage.

In the emotional aftermath which followed, the whole episode rapidly became something of a taboo subject at home, and those few friends and acquaintances who were 'in the know' soon picked up on the vibes that I didn't want to talk about it.  On one of the rare occasions when it was mentioned, my mother confided in me that she believed the problem stemmed from the time I was put up a year in Junior School, becoming thereafter always the youngest in the class, and thus going off to University a year before my time - and she said she wished that hadn't happened.  Perhaps she was right: my emotional immaturity certainly added to my problems although I have considerable doubt as to whether an extra year on its own would've made that much real difference, taking into account all the other factors at play.  Whatever the answer, as time wore on, there was less and less need for anyone to even know it had ever happened and thus my 'secret' had lain hidden for some four decades before I plucked up the courage to "confess" and write about it.

Re-reading what I've written so far, I'm glad I opened up about it all five years ago.  The catharsis then has served to put it all into some sort of proper perspective and I think that on the whole I can take a more benign view of the experience.  I do still feel sad, thinking back: I was after all desperately miserable and what should've been one of the happiest periods of my life ended up seeming like an unmitigated disaster.  I feel tinges of regret, as I have done from time to time over the years when something would suddenly or unexpectedly remind me, for something which was simply not destined to happen - and I don't think those will ever entirely leave me.

But it's been the wistfulness which was the legacy of my abandoning my study of Italian 45 years ago, with nothing to show for it, that acted as the catalyst behind my decision to enrol for weekly classes, taking up in 2010 from where I'd left off.  On the whole both enjoyable and productive, it nevertheless hasn't been all totally plain sailing. I'm no longer as sharp as I was back in 1966, my memory isn't as retentive and I don't spend enough time in between classes immersing myself in the language anywhere near enough to being halfway fluent.  This year, my fifth, will be my last (on this course, at least - the current Advanced 2 being the top level).  I was a little in two minds about carrying on to the end, in fact, the price tag of £320 for the course fees being one deterrent.  But it seemed a shame not to finally finish what I'd started, particularly as the Advanced levels are only run in alternate years.  

I'm finding it hard going: in fact after the first or second week, for the very first time I gave serious thought to dropping out, almost regretting my decision to re-enrol.  I struggle rather haltingly to contribute to oral discussions, I still cannot decipher recorded dialogue except by lucky guesswork, and the level of some of the reading texts we've been practising with has had some quite advanced vocabulary.  The interest level has varied and I daresay that's inevitable.  On the plus side, my reading is usually OK and I generally put the stress and intonation in the right places.  My grammatical work is on the whole spot-on, but I've yet to start either the first written assignment or prepare the presentation I have to do: I can't work up any real enthusiasm for either.  Somewhat unexpectedly, I was heartened to find at the end of this week's class, when we were talking amongst ourselves, that I'm by no means alone - I detected a noticeable feeling that this year's level is a big jump up from last year's and we wonder if the real problem is that we've just reached the natural ceiling of our ability?  Maybe I should confide discreetly in Laura, our tutor, who has always been both friendly and approachable?

But then as I sit here pondering upon the implications of that last paragraph I can suddenly hear echoing in the distant corners of my mind the plaintive, rather haunting cry of that poor lonely 17-year old from my past.  He's calling out to me :"Hey, Donny, you can do it!  Believe in yourself!  Don't give up on me now, you can do it, you know you can!"   I can't let him down a second time.