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Thursday, 26 July 2012

Under the Knife, Over the Moon.

When I was nine years old, I stood at the business end and watched a baby being born. My mum was acting as birthing partner to a friend, and - being my mum - had decided that it would be "educational" for me to watch. Unsurprisingly, I remember the whole experience vividly. I particularly remember that there was a lot of waiting about, and then a LOT of screaming, and then some poo. I definitely remember the poo.


A picture of a moses basket, in place of a picture of poo.

I also remember the head crowning, and seeing the baby's shock of black hair emerge, and the mother crying as she held her new daughter in her arms, both of them naked. These are memories that will stay with me forever. What I don't remember is feeling much in the way of emotion. I was curious, but there was no horror, or fear, or happiness. It wasn't my mummy screaming, and it wasn't a new sibling for me, so, frankly, I was a pretty cool customer about the whole thing.

Twenty-one years later my friend Lisha asked me if I would be her birthing partner. I am godmother to Lisha's (almost) five-year-old son Enlai and was, I think, the first person to know that Lisha was pregnant with a much wanted second child. We bumped into each other in the reception area of our workplace and she sneaked something out of her pocket and showed it to me under cover of her raincoat. It took a second for me to realise that it was a positive pregnancy test.

Enlai didn't come into this world easily. Lisha tried for a natural birth over and over again, but in the end they had to perform an emergency C-section. She was drugged to the eyeballs and pretty distressed by the whole experience. So I knew, when she asked me to be there with her this time, that she was trusting me to be strong and calm for her, whatever happened. Needless to say I was honoured, and more than a little scared.


After some toing and froing as to whether to attempt a natural birth again, a friend of Lisha's suffered a serious prolapse during natural labour, comprehensively deciding the question. Elective C-section it was. I was glad. The elective surgery meant that we would have a time and date scheduled for the birth, allowing Lisha to be fully prepared, and saving me from being rudely awoken at some evil hour of the morning. It also saved me from the poo. So, you know, wins all round. But I confess that I also felt it would, in some way, be less of an experience. Having been at the business end of a natural birth, surely a Cesarean was going to seem cold and clinical?




On Tuesday, July 24th, 2012, I was up at the crack of dawn. I met Lisha at her flat and we walked the sunny half hour to St Mary's Hospital in Paddington. Not only did Fleming discover penicillin there, but it was the birth place of Prince William, so we were already in auspicious company. On the walk we chatted about the office and Enlai, and worked up a good appetite for breakfast. This was unfortunate since Lisha was nil-by-mouth and there was no way I was going to tuck into my picnic with her sitting there watching me with those big, hungry brown eyes. Surely that would have been an instant birthing partner fail?


Upon arrival, we were shown to a waiting area, where we encountered a couple with approximately one hundred pieces of matching Louis Vuitton luggage. OK, perhaps I'm exaggerating, but it was a lot of fancy luggage. I wonder what they thought of us, firstly being two women (are they lesbians? Is the pregnant one a surrogate?) and secondly with our raggle-taggle selection of bags and cases. Our dignity was preserved solely by the fact that Lisha had had the presence of mind to apply some make-up, and that - in a rare moment of pampering - she'd had her toe nails painted scarlet.


Lisha's pedicure saves the day
Lisha was third on the morning's list, meaning we had a long wait ahead of us. Mrs Louis Vuitton was going first. Debbie, the midwife, took Lisha through a whole heap of paperwork (Lisha's notes, drug form, anaesthetist form, allergy form, consent form, form form form) and then left us. Several other members of staff popped by over the next couple of hours, to check things over, and to tell us that we still had a while to wait. I must say now that the staff were universally friendly and helpful. Some of them did look momentarily confused when they asked me who I was and I replied with a deadpan "the father", but I think they knew I was joking. I have heard horror stories about surly midwives and uncommunicative doctors, but I am happy to say that we encountered none of these.


We did, however, encounter a good dose of boredom and increasing hunger. I gave Lisha a massage, no doubt adding further fuel to the rumour that we were lovers, and we commenced a game of Scrabble on the ipad. About an hour and a half after she was wheeled out, Mrs Louis Vuitton was wheeled back in to the recovery room, a look of pure elation on her face. "Ten years ago" she said to the midwife, "I thought I'd be dead by now. But here I am, holding my baby." Her words were so heartfelt I could almost forgive the suitcases. No matter how tacky someone's choice in luggage, they may have suffered all sorts of things that you have no clue about. We then found out that Mr. Louis Vuitton had fainted during his wife's initial injection, which gave us a good giggle and further warmed us to the pair of them. It transpired that they'd been convinced that they were having a boy and had prepared accordingly. The midwife kindly provided a book of baby names, which seemed to entertain them even more than their new daughter.


Anyway, mother number two, who wasn't as yet in the recovery room, was waiting for her partner to arrive at the hospital, so Lisha was next. Hooray! We were both delighted at being unexpectedly bumped up the schedule. "Lunch soon, thank God" said Lisha. Good to know we had our priorities straight.


So, here comes the first of my firsts for the day. I got to put on scrubs. Please see below for an awesome picture of awesomeness, where I totally look like a DOCTOR. I was deeply happy with this unexpected event, as I'd been predicting a plastic outfit of some kind, which wouldn't have been nearly as cool.




Lisha did not look quite as snazzy in her bottom-exposing gown, though the disposable hat did lend her the look of The Girl with a Pearl Earring.



We were now in theatre. The anaesthesiologist's assistant asked me if I was going to faint like Mr LV, and I said no. At which moment my legs got very shaky and I started to feel a bit dizzy. "Cold and clinical" suddenly felt very, very real. It dawned on me for the first time that I was in an operating room about to accompany my friend through a serious and potentially dangerous operation. To diffuse my nerves I switched on the camera and started snapping. Which made everything feel a lot better. Here's Lisha waiting for her epidural, looking very cute, very brave, and very small. Please note the glimpse of sexy embolism stockings in this season's must-have forest green.


The anaesthesiologist's name was Mo, and he explained extremely clearly that putting in the epidural was 90% position, 10% skill. This meant that it was down to Lisha to arch her back "like an angry cat" and be incredibly still whilst he inserted an incredibly long, thin needle between two of her vertebrae. If it were to fail, they'd have to try either above or below the original area. Lisha was given some pain medication through the cannula already inserted into her hand, and a very cold spray to clean and numb her back. Nonetheless, I saw the size of the needle, and the length of the very thin tube that was inserted afterwards. Lisha didn't move a muscle. "Cold and clinical" was already a million times more of an experience than I had been expecting, and my respect for my friend soared as I watched her breathe through her anxiety, pain and nausea.

Goya's angry cats, ready for their epidurals...
Next there was a slight wait as the medical staff prepped themselves for the operation, and the epidural took effect. A fabric screen was erected just below Lisha's chest, so that all either of us could see were the heads of the doctors and nurses bustling around her stomach. Mo and his assistant stayed up at the head end, administering various different things via the cannula as the procedure begun. Lisha gripped my fingers pretty hard when a buzzing noise indicated that her lady garden was being shaved. I resisted the urge to make a joke about vajazzles. Lisha did not.

As we doctors call it, 'knife to skin' happened at 11.09. For the next ten-odd minutes, Mo kept us distracted by talking about films and superheroes. At 11.22 the doctors told me to get ready with my camera. I had a moment of anxiety thinking that the camera might suddenly fail me, and then the blue screen was suddenly dropped and there was a baby emerging from Lisha's body. I tell you now that only once before in my life have I experienced the sudden, uncontrollable, prolonged rush of adrenaline that hit me at that moment. This was how it felt:


I'm not ashamed to say that I was gasping for breath, my heart thudding in my chest, tears welling in my eyes as that baby was born. It was the feeling of a lifetime, beautiful and overwhelming. The halogen bulbs shone down on him as he came into the world, lighting his path. I am so honoured to have been there, and to have captured the moment forever.

7lbs 12 oz

Alas, there is no picture of Doctor Jojo cutting the umbilical chord, but I assure you that I did cut it, and it felt like wet leather and spurted some very red blood. Nice.


What else can I tell you about this amazing experience? There are lots of things, like how we returned to recovery to hear Mr and Mrs Louis Vuitton still trying to decide between the names Elizabeth, Phoebe, Daisy or Adriana. Or how it was still a good couple of hours before Lisha got her much deserved lunch of a cheese and pickle sandwich and a hot chocolate. I could talk about the fact that the baby barely cried and took to the breast like a duck to water, and how Lisha and I eventually resumed our game of Scrabble. I could tell you about the insanely annoying new mother up on the maternity ward, who spoke loudly on the phone for at least three hours solid, sometimes on speaker. I could tell you about the first meeting between Enlai and his new baby brother, which was full of tenderness and care, because that's just how Enlai is. I could tell you how I changed the baby's first nappy (there was poo after all, you see), and narrowly avoided being baptised in wee. I could tell you how I felt as I held his little innocent body in my arms, or how I watched Lisha fall in love before my very eyes. I could write for hours, and in fact, I already have. It's three in the morning and I've lived the journey again from my sofa. I suspect I will relive it many more times over the years, as I watch the brothers grow and fight and play and laugh.

I wrote a poem for Enlai's christening, and I hope that one day inspiration will strike and I will be able to write one for his brother. But for now, Lumen Esperanzo Rooney, this is your poem:

Let there be light. 







Thank you, Lisha and Lumen, for sharing this birthday with me.

Six down, twenty-four to go...

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Jab Jab Cross: My first taste of MMA



 MMA (mixed martial arts) does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a combination of many different martial art forms, though has now been distilled to predominantly Brazilian Ju-Jitsu and Muay Thai kickboxing, with a little bit of wrestling thrown in for good measure. It is enormously popular in Brazil, for obvious reasons, and also in the USA. It is now the world's fastest growing sport, and over the past five or so years has dramatically increased its profile in the UK. My partner Justin has been a fan for quite some time, and pays for ESPN solely for the purpose of spending long Sunday mornings watching grown men make each other bleed. But it is only recently that he has started doing MMA training. In a bid to get fit and defend himself against the terrifying teens of the Caledonian Road, he found himself an MMA clinic in Islington, and a trainer called Jacek Toczydlowski.

Justin regularly comes home grazed, bruised and extremely sore, so I was pretty dubious when he challenged me to have a go at MMA for my 30@Thirty. I dithered and put it off a few times. My triathlon training taught me to deal with being sore, but I wasn't so keen on the bruised and grazed bit, or on the part where you end up with your head buried in someone else's sweaty parts. But then I remembered that part of the aim of 30@Thirty is just to say yes a bit more often. This might not be as meaningful as giving blood, but it is something I've never done before, and something that Justin genuinely enjoys. Plus it's always a good thing for me to find new and interesting ways of keeping fit, as I'm pretty hopeless when it comes to going to the gym.

So, on a rainy Saturday afternoon we betake ourselves to a little alleyway off Upper St in North London. Jacek (known to those of us whose Polish pronunciation could use some work as Jack) is waiting, a reassuringly (not) large and fresh bruise over his left eye. An excellent beginning. He tells us that he had spent the previous two hours trying, without much success, to train a stag-do who had decided that an MMA session was a good way to kick-off a weekend of drunken debauchery. Well, it takes all sorts...

The session starts with skipping. I'm a girl, so, you know, I've done a far amount of skipping in my time. But this skipping involves alternating between normal pace, high knees and sprinting, and about 45 seconds into my hour of training I have already turned a delightful cranberry colour. When Jack tells us to drop the ropes I am briefly overjoyed. Alas, the skipping makes way for combinations of press-ups and burpees. Ugh. I hate burpees. Then we go back to skipping. I swear the big digital timer in the corner needs to be verified by a horologist. Its seconds last at least double the normal amount.


Next Jack points to a pile of dumbbells. I look fruitlessly for something ladylike around the 1k mark, but it's 2k minimum. I am sad. The instruction to shadow box fills me with dread. I've never boxed in my life, and am instantly aware that I must look nothing short of ridiculous. I would have been a lot more comfortable doing an on-the-spot interpretative dance routine on the theme of despair. The shadow boxing lasts approximately four hours, as far as I can tell, and also involves the dreaded sprint. The 2k weights are not my friends, and I really struggle to keep my arms up, let alone devise any kind of credible combination. I came in here determined to prove my mettle, but I feel uncharacteristically uncoordinated, and weak as a kitten. Things are not going well. That being said, there is no doubt that this warm-up gets you sweating and works pretty much every part of the body, as well as setting the heart racing. I can already tell that I've pushed myself harder than I usually do in a hour at the gym, and we've barely even started.


Jack wraps my hands and finds me some boxing gloves. We step into the ring. I'd never imagined myself slipping through the ropes of a boxing ring, and I have to say that there's something special about the feeling. You're crossing the threshold into a different space, a space where there's no room for doubt, or for feeling stupid. If you're in the ring, you'd better mean business.

Over the following three minutes Jack instructs me on various combinations of jabs, crosses, kicks and knees. With each addition to the combination he gives me a pointer, never overwhelming me with too much information, but seeking to improve my performance with every strike. The floor is soft and springy and I find myself inclined to bounce around like a nervous kangaroo. In my head I know that this is a pointless expense of energy and probably looks damned silly, but somehow I can't seem to stop myself. Apparently most novice girls do this. I wonder why.



I confess that I hugely enjoy myself in the boxing ring. Jack knows just how to encourage without ever being patronising, so that when he tells me that I have a good left kick I believe him and feel pretty pleased about it. There are a lot of things to remember. Keep your hands up to protect your face, extend the punches, pull back with the opposite shoulder, drive with the hips and for pity's sake STOP BOUNCING. I manage most of these with varying degrees of success. Except the bouncing one. That is apparently going to be a difficult habit to shift.


A left kick of champions. In my head, anyway.
Next it's downstairs to the MMA cage, where Jack demonstrates a double leg take-down. I derive some cruel pleasure from watching Justin being knocked over multiple times, especially since I am then given free rein to knock him down some more. Sweet revenge for all that
Over you go. Double leg take-down
housework... I also learn a selection of the things that can be done to your opponent once you have them on the floor, including a key lock and an arm-in-triangle. It's exceptionally technical stuff, and I develop a new level of respect for anyone who can do this at speed, with an opponent who is actually trying to fight them off. There's no doubt that this is not a sport for meat-heads. You have to be able to think fast, improvise, and train like a demon to develop the necessary skills, strength and endurance. I don't love the technical element, but I really do enjoy watching Jack throw Justin around the cage.

We end with a session of Ground n' Pound. I kneel at the end of an old punching bag and am told to land my choice of strikes, hammer fists and elbows on it for an uninterrupted two minutes, fast as I can. Justin encourages me to imagine the face of someone I dislike to add aggression to my attack. Now, I am generally a peaceful person, but some of you reading this may guess whose face I was imagining, and will, I am sure, forgive me for taking some pleasure in beating the living daylights out of him.

Who's this then?
Take that!
Next Jack threads a long strap around my waist and we repeat the two minute punch-a-thon, this time with him dragging me off balance, in order to simulate a battling opponent. Every time he succeeds in pulling me off the bag, I must fling myself back at it with as much vigour as I can manage. It is seriously difficult and seriously fun.

And then, we're done. The skipping feels like it happened hours before, and at the same time the session has absolutely flown. Jack gave me a fantastic taster of MMA, and I leave feeling like I've worked hard, both physically and mentally, and that I've learned a lot. I also feel like I'd like to come back, particularly to have another go in the boxing ring and see if I can't bring an end to the bouncing. Plus, well, I'm just not sure if that punching bag has learned its lesson...


Me and Jacek


Five down, twenty-five to go...


Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Interlude: 'Teeny Twitter Tales' Part 1




When I first had the idea for 30@Thirty, I knew that I was going to struggle with the whole blog publicity element. I've never been one for too much self promotion, and find it awkward asking my friends to do me favours. I knew that I had the potential to become quite boring with the blog, repeatedly asking people to like, comment, follow, retweet etc, and I didn't fancy the idea of becoming that irritating person that you have to block on facebook. Nonetheless, I was hooked on the plan, so knew I would have to get over it. I figured that my true friends would know me well enough not to mind, and to be as supportive as they could.

Still, I thought a bit of practice was in order, so I set myself a (supposedly) mini challenge. Every day, for one week, I would write and share a 'Teeny Twitter Tale'. i.e. A short story told in 140 characters or less. Three days in several of my friends were clamouring for more and, mightily encouraged, I decided to sign up for a full month. Thirty tales, thirty days in a row, no exceptions.



I had a blast doing the challenge, though my lovely and long-suffering boyfriend Justin definitely suffered my many nights of anguish on the sofa, ipad in hand, words just not coming. And once I'd had the idea for each story, getting it down to 140 characters could prove an agonising exercise in killing your darlings. Don't even get me started on the punctuation sacrifices that had to be made.

The whole thing was a great exercise in discipline, creativity and - as intended - self-promotion on social networking sites. The problem is that I'm kicking myself for not doing this after my birthday, thus actually making it one of my 30@Thirty. 'Dislike'. For posterity though I thought I'd share the teeny tweety tales here. Below you have the first ten, in the order they were written. Please like, share, RT, comment... Just kidding!


1. I met the spider en route to the bathroom. "You were very drunk last night" he said with a grin. "Shut up" I replied. "Spiders can't talk."

2. 30 years later we bumped into each other outside Mo's. My face burned when I recalled how we'd parted. He raised his hand. "Shall we dance?"

3. I let the fabric fall and they blinked at the gap where my leg had been. I held my breath. Finally, charcoal in hand, they started to draw.

4. I drove through the night, only to arrive moments too late. I wept, inconsolable. "She'd never forgive me for this." "Nonsense," she said.

5. Gathering seashells, I lost my way. Hours later I saw your car crawling by the beach. "I'm so sorry" I wept. "I like your shells" you said.

6. We moved in. That night the rain poured through cracks in the roof and we ate Chinese under a tarp in the bedroom. It was home, even then.

7. I slammed on the brakes. The fox's eyes gleamed in the headlights. Recognition dawned. "Hey, aren't you..." But, in a flash, he was gone.

8. Owl was having a crisis. The red fedora didn't work with the shoes he'd won on eBay. "I warned you" said Moon. "Piss off" said Owl.

9. I keep tripping over your damn things. Your shoes, your books, your phone charger. It's only after I curse you that I remember you're gone.

10. You wanted to build a fort. We built a fort and spent all day in it, playing 21 and eating fig rolls. I remember. That was a good day.