Best Laid Plans

If you do not believe in the workings of a thing called fate (which can be tempted), I suggest you figure out a watertight plan and then see what happens to it. Yes, last Sunday’s grand designs rather fell apart this week as both Mr Litlove and I suffered physical setbacks. In all fairness, we had already suffered them when I was typing my last post but we didn’t realise how much trouble they would cause.

The previous week, Mr Litlove had pinched a nerve lifting weights at the gym but he hadn’t thought too much about it and continued as normal. That Sunday morning he had gone out on the river for rowing races, and after a long, cold sit in the damp at the bottom of the reach, he had really hurt himself during the race. The previous week, I had written half of an article on Nobel prize winner, Patrick Modiano, for the lovely Numero Cinq magazine, and then, although I was a little tired on the Saturday, I had gone out to tea with some friends. On Sunday morning I woke with a cold sore and a strangely bloodshot eye. Funnily enough, the same thing had happened to the same eye just after Christmas, but it had calmed down okay on that occasion. I wasn’t really worried, but I made an appointment with my optician just to be reassured, I’d hoped.

It was Mr Litlove who was really suffering. He couldn’t find any position that was comfortable for long and was just hanging on in there until his Tuesday lunchtime appointment with the physio. Tuesday morning we went our separate ways. I knew I was in trouble when the optician started being very kind to me and taking photos of my eyeball. I had inflammatory cells in my eye – they show as just a small white line within the circumference of my iris – and he didn’t understand why. He was going to refer me but after checking with a colleague decided to monitor me instead. The problem wasn’t with my eyesight, but with my health. ‘You must be run down,’ he said. I protested that I couldn’t possibly be as I hadn’t done anything. ‘You’ve got that,’ he said, pointing at my cold sore. ‘And you wouldn’t have it if you weren’t run down.’ I thought I might as well tackle the worst. ‘It’s not that you suspect a brain tumour but don’t want to tell me?’ I asked him. He laughed and said no. ‘You’re just… interesting… at the moment,’ he said. ‘Think of it like that.’

Interesting was what I’d hoped to be about Patrick Modiano; this was very much the wrong kind of interesting. The fact it was so small but obviously a problem was bothering me too. I felt like I’d maybe got a layer of semtex in my brain and this was the first tiny harbinger. I got home and started looking things up on the internet. It was an autoimmune issue, the sensible and accredited website told me. It could indicate – in rare cases – awful things, or something common like arthritis, and it was also a symptom of the herpes virus. I stopped reading there. I thought that would suffice as an explanation, but the situation had triggered my anxiety and I was having a hard time getting it back under control. Then Mr Litlove came in, having been put on the rack by the physio, and he was in awful pain. Somehow we staggered through the day; me nursing an urgent anxiety, him nursing his agonised shoulder. That night neither of us could sleep. I found myself downstairs at 3.30 am nibbling at a (somewhat stale) oatcake to combat the nausea of fatigue, anxiety and low blood sugar while Mr Litlove thrashed about upstairs trying to find a way to lie down that wasn’t painful. At one point, he told me the next morning, he had knelt on the mattress and put his head face down on the pillow, like he was praying to Mecca, and he’d actually lost some time that way; he must have dropped off, that most awkward position being the most comfortable he’d found.

Well, things have improved since then. The optician rang me to say he had done some research and was sure my eye problem was a symptom of chronic fatigue. This was good news in that I could remain with only one big health issue; but it was frustrating how little I’d done to bring it on, after all those autumn months of rest. Mr Litlove managed to get his special painkillers from the doctors and they helped, as did a period of prolonged inactivity. He is moving much easier now, and my eye looks a lot better, just a ghost of a mark that only someone searching obsessively could see.

A couple of days ago we went to do our supermarket trip together, thinking to prop each other up. It was as well I was there as Mr Litlove was quite quickly in pain again (standing, he was only comfortable with his hands on his head, as if he were being taken into police custody); we shopped quickly and came home. It is strange for me to watch Mr Litlove when he is ill. It reminds me that my own cluster of anxieties are not from cowardice or feebleness as I so often fear, but from the experience of chronic illness. ‘Think about how you felt today,’ I urged him, ‘and you can see how I might feel, when every time I go out, I run the risk of feeling bad. If this dragged on for months and years, do you understand how you might come to feel limited? How you might worry about doing anything?’ Chronic fatigue can be a lonely business sometimes, and I so wanted him just to hold this moment and understand, but he only smiled at me as sympathetically as he could, and I knew he didn’t see it at all.

AdamSmithThe real casualty of the past week has been our creative projects. They sit abandoned again. But what kept coming back to my mind was a brilliant book I finished shortly after Christmas, Katrine Marcal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? In it she argues persuasively against the existence of ‘economic man’, the model citizen for all model-based economics. For economic man, everything is a choice; he is rational, selfish, motivated by greed, has little in the way of ethics and wants only to be as rich as possible. He is a ‘bodiless, sexless, profit-seeking individual without family or context.’ So no one resembles economic man, apart from bankers and a few under-5’s, Marcal argues. Back in the 1930s, Maynard Keynes thought that economic man modelled the way we would have to behave for a while, to get past the great depressions of that era, but that once we’d eradicated poverty, we could give up such unnatural behaviour and return to loving art, working and earning less, and spending time with those we loved. What happened instead was Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Regan and neo-liberalism. With the result that, although people do not naturally resemble economic man, this ideology reorganised society in order to force us all to behave like him. The market became all-important, the way we understood and arranged all our interactions – even those like healthcare and education, that were in radical opposition to the way the market functions.

And then human beings became understood as ‘human capital’. Adam Smith first uses the term: ‘People’s education, skills, talents and competencies can, according to Smith, be seen as a form of capital.’ We can be equated to machines, run like businesses, Marcal explains: ‘every person has been transformed into an entrepreneur in the business of selling themselves… Your life is your small business and the capital is, in this case, you.’ So we bear the full responsibility for the outcome of our lives, good or bad, and every decision we make – to do our coursework, to whiten our teeth, to buy a pair of shoes, becomes an investment that may or may not come off. If we think of ourselves as just a piece of human capital, rather than an individual, then we all become very equal, ridiculously equal. ‘The man who waits for his fake documents outside the airport at Dakar,’ Marcal writes is just ‘like the CEO who stretches his legs out in his aeroplane seat to catch a few hours’ sleep before his next meeting on the other side of eight hours in business class.’ The raw material is the same, neo-liberalism tells us: the CEO has just done better with his.

This is complete nonsense, of course, harmful, upsetting nonsense that confuses the kind of equality we need in society with the exact-sameness of two pieces of factory-produced machinery. And yet I was so struck when reading this that I do think this way when it comes to myself. I was a child of the Thatcher era, and I do think I should function just like any other person, that if I invest a certain amount of time in myself, I should be able to produce what I decide needs to be produced. Neo-liberalism changed what it means to be human, Marcal argues, and I do look at myself as an abstract proposition, not as a human who should put the body first because being human is about being in a body before it’s about anything else. Yet what I experience, over and over, is that this new idea of being human breaks down hopelessly when it comes to misfortune and to creativity. (Also when it comes to motherhood, but that’s a post for another day.) In other words, in matters that concern healthcare and education, the two most important institutions in human life to which the most wrong has been done by market-driven economics.

Except perhaps the idea of being human, which should never have been moved away from the immediacy of our lived reality. If Mr Litlove and I want to enjoy our very different life, if we want to create in a way that interests us (not just to pander to some commercial ideal that we care for not at all) because we want to live a simple life that is about a much deeper, richer sense of purpose than earning as much money as possible, we need to think about ourselves very differently too.


19 thoughts on “Best Laid Plans

  1. I can’t believe you’ve managed to write such a detailed, thoughtful post when feeling rough.
    I injured myself very very slightly over the summer when I first ramped up the exercise routines. I have to say that since reading your blog, I do think about how it must feel to be limited by fear of issues arising if you are not 100% fit and able to respond robustly to one’s surroundings. I thought about it a lot over the summer and I was not even that injured – one niggling weakness in my back that came on with running.
    I keep meaning to write a post about Everything Passes, which you introduced me to. That was a wonderful book.
    Hope you feel better soon.

  2. Best Laid Plans indeed. So sorry to read about Mr Litlove’s pain, and your continuing (I was going to say battle – but that’s not a helpful word) struggle with your own health. I hope you both begin to feel better soon, and I know you’ll be a comfort to each other regardless. It was not until I was single again with my daughter that I began to even think about my own health in any meaningful way – should have done it sooner but am trying to do little things to add up to a better whole.

  3. Your final paragraph sums up half of what you need. I think, quite strongly, that you will also need to get those people you interact with (as partners, parents, child, friends, professionally) to start to see you both in a very different way too. That’s a different challenge and one that perhaps you haven’t yet started upon.

    P x

  4. I’ve had this book with its wonderfully eye-catching title on my horizon for a while now. Time to put it on my list, I think. I do hope both of you will continue to recover. It’s hard enough when one of you is unwell but when both are laid low life becomes a trudge, particularly when one of you is interrupting the other’s sleep.

  5. poor youze guys. I have been playing nurse, a job that mrs c is not really cut out for, over the christmas period. That and the rain is very very down getting so glad the two of you are doing better.

  6. You poor things! What a misery for you both! I hope you are being extra kind to yourselves and having fancy tea and things — I always find that slightly special groceries go a long way towards making me feel like a proper human again when I am ailing. Hugs!

  7. Best laid plans indeed. I learnt a long time ago that there was simply no point. Fate always drops a thunderbolt in your path. My sympathies to you both, but at the moment especially to Mr Litlove as I have a problem with a trapped nerve caused by a misplaced pelvis bone and I know just what he’s going through.

  8. Oh dear, I do hope you both continue to recover – how awful, and having these things to contend with at the same time makes it worse. I’m amazed you managed to get this post together. Let’s hope the world and the weather take a turn for the better soon and that you both start to improve. Sending you love and positive vibes!

  9. Like everyone else I offer my sympathies, in the hope it may help a little. I know about that back pain as does my wife who narrowly escaped surgery a few years back. To compare your condition to it seems perfectly reasonable. I hope you are both improving by the day.
    I look forward to your views of Patrick Modiano. I see there is a new translation coming out called ‘After the Circus’, but in accepting your handshake to the pact of not buying books for a time, I see the only one in the libraries I use is ‘The Secret Warrant’, so I’ll have to hope you don’t tempt me to anything else!
    The Marcal book seems interesting. I have long held the position that any theory about man, such as this economic man one, is always a distortion. However subtle, and most are not, they set us in a single construct-mesh where we can move in very limited and predefined ways. This is why the arts are important and the multiplicity of readings they generate is a bulwark against simplification. Each reading is a reduction of sorts, but unlike theories it is not the same reduction. Of course we are always tempted to some kind of simplification, the desire to enter a simpler life as you put it in your final paragraph. The hope is to escape what is seen as an over-complex existence, by shedding superficial concerns. It has a long history, the desert mystics and hermits, given a boost in the non-religious world by the Romantic poets, whose spell is still cast over us in many ways. I wonder if the complexity we seek to escape is not really inside us in the way we perceive things out there, how we are seduced to value things. I don’t know. Sorry to ramble.

  10. Oh, Victoria, I’m so sorry to read of this! I was kind of jazzed for you when I heard of your plans. And now this, for both of you. Add my voice to those praising this excellent post, especially for the way you wove together the themes of both your and Mr. Litlove’s bodily issues with the body of economic theories.

    Hang in there. You’re a reader: I’m concerned about your eye!

  11. What a trying week you’ve had…I do hope you and Mr Lit Love are well on the road to recovery now. Wishing you all the very best over the days and weeks ahead.

    PS I’m looking forward to hearing more about your Patrick Modiano article – do let us know when it goes live.

  12. I had something similar happen with my eyes…it turned out to be an allergic reaction to my contacts combined with dry eyes…it is expected to take months to heal. I have great empathy for you – eye problems are terribly scary, especially when our great loves are reading and writing! I am hoping for a healing winter for you and Mr. Litlove – you both deserve the time and space to pursue your passions with uninterrupted focus!

  13. Poor you and Mr. Litlove! I hope you are both back on the road to feeling better. It’s hard enough when one person is not well but when both are feeling poorly at the same time just getting dressed in the morning seems like an Olympic gold medal performance!

    The Marcal book sounds great! Bookman and I have been operating on a different way of life for a while and we are both quite happy about it. I was given the opportunity last week to take a job that would bring a large salary increase at the same time it took away a significant amount of my vacations and holidays. Bookman and I both agreed that my time and happiness was worth a lot more than a bigger salary. Nonetheless, I had a brief feeling that somehow I was making the wrong choice, that I was supposed to want that job and there was something wrong with me for not wanting it. Even after working hard to not be THAT kind of person, going against what the culture expects was hard. All that to say I wish you and Mr Litlove all the best in thinking about yourselves differently!

  14. The ways in which the book intersected with your and Mr. Litlove’s experiences of not being able to function like automata was quite interesting–and I hope you are both entirely mended soon.

    I sat and thought for a while about the idea of human capital, and came to the conclusion that this is exactly how I think of myself and my own life, but for me, it’s been immensely liberating and useful. It’s allowed me to delegate more effectively, when I weigh what I *could* be doing against the hour I would otherwise spend running errands. It’s allowed me to put a firm dollar value on my time, which has been an economic and personal benefit to me, as it made clear the value of using delivery services…if my personal capital is worth X, and the delivery service is 1/4th of X, then clearly, it’s a better use of my capital (time being money) not to do certain things myself. Monetizing/quantifying myself in this way has increased my leisure time, and decreased my stress.

    I can absolutely see that it could be a dangerous way to think, and I’m not advocating reducing people to effort in should equal predictable result, and if it doesn’t, the person is a failure. Absolutely not. I do think that shifting the concept slightly to really look at what one’s time is worth can be a highly useful exercise, though.

  15. A friend of mine had an elderly relative who “enjoyed ill health” and I’ve been feeling that way since being sidelined by a cosmetic dentistry problem and a badly sprained ankle. I haven’t been in terrible pain and I’ve been able to see, so I’m catching up on reading, and that’s kind of pleasant, if I can make myself feel patient about it. This post makes me feel quite lucky in comparison. I hope you’re both feeling better.

  16. Wow–talk about misery loving company! A matched set you two are! Maybe trying to be sympathetic towards your other half means you feel less of your own pain? Naw, probably not. I try very hard not ever to look up symptoms online as I have a very Active Imagination and just end up making myself worry and create an even bigger problem than I have. On to the next post to see how you are both faring–hopefully better! 🙂

  17. I hope by now things have improved for both of you. I have a lot of respect for people who try to take their lives in a very different direction and aim for that richer purpose. That takes strength of mind and courage. Which is even more difficult When physically you are not in the right place. But they are speed bumps not obstacles and when your recent issues are resolved, I’m sure you’ll be able to get back on course.

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