Men (and Women) of Iron

©2012 Edward C. Lunnon

Monday 23 April 2012: 5 years 7 months on … Game CBD

Sometimes, even a man made of iron has feet of clay, and stumbles and falls. After all, we are all only human!

This past Sunday was the annual London Marathon. It’s of no particular significance to me other than that Londres is my favourite city in the entire world, and my surname resulted from the colloquial pronunciation of the City’s name by my Londoner forefathers.

 It was also the annual Spec-Savers IRONMAN ® South Africa competition held here in Nelson Mandela Bay. The athletes swim 3,8km in the Indian Ocean, then cycle 180 km in and around the Port Elizabeth countryside and top it all off with a marathon run, 42km along the streets of the city!

The triathlon starts at 07h00 on Sunday and the winners do it all in some eight and a half hours. The cut-off time for the rest of the masses is at midnight.  If one completes the challenge within the allotted seventeen hours, you earn the right to call yourself an IRONMAN ®!  

I remember being one of just a few people at Hobie Beach watching the very first IRONMAN ® contest in 2005. Lindsay Brown, who got me to run my first Knysna half-marathon in 2000 with him, and who had been the MD of Spec-Savers, was participating in the event.

But around this event has now sprung up a mushroom patch of other supporting events – Iron Girl (on Friday) and IRONKIDS® and the Vodacom Corporate Triathlon Challenge powered by AlgoaFM (held on Saturday) – and thousands of participants, volunteers, workers and spectators.

Of particular significance to me was the Corporate Challenge. It is also a triathlon, but just 10% of the distances of the IRONMAN® contest are involved. Either one, two or three people may complete the three disciplines.

Together with two other people who also have neurological illnesses like me, we were entering for this competition. Unfortunately, the interest in the race this year was so great that the organisers had to cut off the entries at 1500 people, and we fell on the wrong side of the cut-off point.

And, maybe a good thing, too!

The disease has been taking its toll and the last few weeks, I think, has seen more deterioration than in the preceding five years!

My body feels like a pot of stew simmering away on the stove. As you see little craters and movement appearing in the surface of the stew, just so do the muscles twitch and spasm in different areas all over my body. My left leg appears to have a short-circuit somewhere: it works and then stops – losing all its power. My left arm is difficult to lift beyond waist height. My mind is all over the place.

I have been laid low for the first time since becoming ill. No Stellenbosch for me this weekend (to see Grey First XV beat Paul Roos) and no beachfront to experience all the Ironman excitement. I have been confined to the house and to my room most of the time, and I have to guard against becoming a total recluse! This iron man also has feet of clay!

But don’t let me feel sorry for myself.

We were planning to participate in the Corporate Challenge to raise awareness of neurological illnesses. Yvonne Anderson has been extremely helpful in doing work with handicapped people and she arranged for me to see some people on Wednesday.

I met with Msimeselo Boltina, a young black guy from Lusikisiki in what was the former Transkei Homeland. He is some twenty-eight years old, confined to a wheelchair, cannot talk and has been (most probably mis-) diagnosed with arthritis! If we think we are hard done by poor medical infrastructure and support, then he (and so many others) really has a massive challenge.

Put into the equation a young psychology student, Callyn Bowler – ironically her father Keith Bowler is one of the main organisers of the IRONMAN® SA contest. In her boyfriend’s mother, she has been exposed to the ravages of motor neurone disease and has felt moved to assist people in this area who have the disease. She has researched the internet and with the information gleaned there, wishes to start a support group for MND patients in the Eastern Cape.

It really would be great to see her vision come to fruition in Nelson Mandela Bay.

Besides the symptoms of one’s illness that one has to contend with, it is often the isolation, the sheer loneliness and the lack of (especially) medical support that frightens one the most in dealing with this affliction.

I am fortunate to have – and I will always be indebted to – Port Elizabeth’s St Francis Hospice for their comfort and support. Especially Sr Gill le Roux, Sr Janice Malkinson and Isaac Ruben need to be thanked for their weekly visits – and Jenny Nickall – for all they do for me, and just for being there!

The Hospice Palliative Care Association of South Africa celebrates 25 years this year, and if ever there is a deserving association that needs your support, then here is one.

Please support them because, let me assure you, that when you have a loved one who experiences a terminal illness, Hospice will definitely be there to support you!

Throughout our country, they promote quality in life, dignity in death and support in bereavement for all people living with life-threatening illness, and also for members of their family.

“Celebrate Partnerships” with them.

 If you feel moved to show your support, simply sms the word HOSPICE to 40772 (R20/sms) and show that you care. (You can visit the webpage for more information.)

IRONically, the word LIFE is made up of two parts LI and FE. Li is the chemical symbol for Lithium and Fe the symbol for IRON.

Lithium is a silver-white metal and under standard conditions is the lightest and least dense solid element that can float on water. It is soft enough to be cut with a knife. The nuclei of lithium verge on instability and the metal is highly reactive and flammable.

When cut open, it exhibits a metallic lustre, but contact with moist air corrodes the surface quickly to a dull silvery gray and then black tarnish.

Pure Iron (Fe) is also soft, but may be significantly hardened and strengthened by impurities from the smelting process – up to 1000 times harder in the form of steel.

Isn’t that LIFE? Soft as we may be as human beings, we are also very unstable and highly reactive. And we are hardened by the challenges and impurities that life throws at us. But at our core, we are still soft and we can exhibit lustre by showing that we do care.

Africans talk about UBUNTU: we are because of them! So as we celebrate being men of iron, let’s also show that we do have some lithium in us, too!

*(Interestingly, lithium salts have proved to be useful as a mood-stabilising drug due to neurological effects of the ion in the human body.)


Hold on to What You’ve Got

©2012 Edward C. Lunnon

Tuesday 17 April 2012: 5 years 7 months on … Advantage CBD

Last Sunday was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the HMS Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean on 15 April 1912. Some 1514 people lost their lives while 710 were saved.

I went to see the 3D version of the movie TITANIC on Sunday evening.

The movie is a dramatised version of the actual events – a mixture of fact and fiction – but is set against the background of actual events and on a set which is, I suppose, as close to the actual ship as one could come today. I have read that in the 3D version even the positions of the stars in the night sky were altered to ensure absolute accuracy of the positioning of the stars on that fateful night!

It leaves the idea in one’s mind that that is what happened and it is difficult to separate the fact from the fiction. I guess the one thing that definitely wasn’t there was Celine Dion singing her version of My Heart Will Go On!

But what was there on that historic night and what lessons can we learn from this disaster?

Please read the blog that I wrote some two years ago entitled “It was a Pleasure Playing with you tonight “.

I said there that hitting the iceberg is like being told you have a terminal illness. The time between the hitting of the iceberg and the sinking of the ship is that time that I live now; the time between the diagnosis of the illness and dying. Different people use that time differently – I said that I would continue partying till the end!

In reality, in the case of the Titanic, there were just more than two and a half hours from the “hit” (at 11h40pm) and the “sink” (at 02h20am).

I was told that I had 5 years, between “hit” and “sink”!

Right now, I am 7 months over that limit.

But it becomes more and more difficult to “continue partying”!

In the movie (and I guess in reality on that fateful night in 1912), the passengers react in disbelief to the news.  In the initial stages, some move to the lifeboats, some stay behind, some party, some drink, some continue sleeping. But as the horror of the spectacle becomes a reality, the more urgency, the more rush, the more uncertainty and the more fear sets in.

 People had to make decisions. Do they go in a lifeboat or do they stay on the sinking ship? Do they hold on to a railing or do they jump into the sea? If they jump, when is the best time to jump? What will happen if they just hold on and go down with the ship?

And all the time, the situation becomes more and more difficult and terrifying. They hold on to whatever is known to them and they cling on to their loved ones – making promises of meeting up “on the other side” when all this horror is over!

Sometimes, as when the stern of the ship breaks off and settles just for a little, it seems like things will get better … maybe it’ll be safe after all?

But, after that brief respite, that part, too, starts sinking and the inevitable must happen. All is in vain … no matter how hard you’ve tried, no matter how hard you’ve hung on, no matter to what lengths you’ve gone to make yourself more comfortable or to prevent your demise.

If you are not in a lifeboat, you are doomed to death!

In life, there are just so many lifeboats. We all know that our lifeboats run out. Eventually, we sink!

But what do we do in those days and moments before we sink?

Who or what do we cling onto? When, if ever, do we let go?

What do we do when the horror of the disease becomes a reality, when the uncertainty and the fear sets in, when the floor starts tilting underneath us, when we just can’t hold on any longer.

I read an article in the newspaper (Weekend Post 10 March 2012) about an “Eastern Cape expat prepares for death with dignity in the US”.

It tells of Dr Peter Goodwin originally from Queenstown, South Africa (some 300km northeast from Port Elizabeth) who now lives in Oregon in the United States.

During the 1990’s he campaigned for what is now known as the “Oregon Death with Dignity Act” which was enacted in 1997. He was one of the few doctors willing to speak publicly in favour of the controversial proposal which allows a patient with a terminal illness the right to administer a drug that will cause his/her death.

During the campaign to bring the act to the ballot, Goodwin said publicly that were he to receive a terminal diagnosis: “I don’t want to go out with a whimper. I want to say goodbye to my wife and kids with dignity. And I would end it. Damn right.”

Ironically, Peter Goodwin, who practised family medicine for more than 50 years, was diagnosed approximately the same time as I was – six years ago – with the same illness that I have – corticalbasal ganglionic degeneration.

He resorted to the internet (like I have) to learn about this rare, progressive brain disorder that robs you of movement. There is no treatment and no cure, and his prognosis: six to eight years.

Today, he has been told that he has less than six months. So sometime soon, when he feels the time has come to let go and the disease permitting, the doctor’s failing hands will perform a final task:  to bring a glass to his lips and administer the drug that will cause his death.  This is the right that he fought for years to establish.

Goodwin calls this right his most significant legacy. Besides the right to obtain aid in dying, he says, the law’s passage spurred medicine to focus attention on the needs of the dying, with more palliative care and hospice. In 2010 under the Death with Dignity law, 65 people died, the highest number since enactment.

Dr Goodwin reflects about his life of standing face to face with death … of others, and of his own.

“We just haven’t come to terms with the fact that we’re all going to die, and to make concessions to that, is really giving up hope. On the contrary, when at death’s door, the situation needs thought, it doesn’t need hope. It needs planning, it doesn’t need hope. Hope is too ephemeral at that time.”

Terminally ill patients say they would know when the time would come to exercise their right. Goodwin says that he can already see the window closing and, therefore, he has obtained the drugs to end his life.

“Life is unfair!” he thinks, but he has a prescription to offer to treat that condition:

“Be fulfilled. Be happy with yourself. Recognize achievements and be proud of them. Then go on to further achievements. Know what you want to do and do it. Be happy. Know good friends. Be in love.”

So, what do you, the readers, think?

Just how long should a terminally ill patient hold on? Is it wrong to let go? Is it wrong to give up hope? Is it wrong to hasten the fact that we are all going to die?

Was it wrong for some of the Titanic passengers to jump into that icy cold water, or to let go of the railings, or to decide not to make use of a lifeboat?

In the 3D version of the movie, as the stern of Titanic lifts to almost 90 degrees and then quickly sinks into the dark depths, the viewer gets the impression that you are right there holding onto the back railing of the ship together with Rose and Jack, staring down at the cold, black sea way down below you.

Should one hold onto the railings until the bitter end … whilst there is still some glimmer of hope? Or do you give up hope, and jump?


The Four R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmetic and Rugby

©2012 Edward C. Lunnon

Tuesday 10 April 2012: 5 years 7 months on … Advantage CBD

The CBD not only affects me physically. Yes, slowly it paralyses my body and renders me unable to write, but even more alarming is the manner in which it is affecting my ability to do arithmetic and my ability to read. The very things that I spent twelve years at school learning to do are now being ‘unlearnt’!

This past Easter Weekend was a quiet one and we stayed at home, the first time in many years that we have not gone away for the long weekend.

There was more than enough Super 15 rugby and international cricket on TV to watch, and more than enough newspapers to get through. Because it becomes more difficult to read large volumes at a time, I tend to read just a few pages and then leave the rest. Resultantly, the newspapers (two a day – The Herald and The Times) pile up around the house. I was adamant that I would get rid of the backlog this weekend!

The first article I read dealt with a government investigation into health and educational services in the Eastern Cape. Needless to say, both are in a shocking state and frankly, the services are almost non-existent! Then there was an article by the Rector of the Free State University, Prof Jonathan Jansen, in which he corroborated the statement of Mamphela Ramphele, ex-Rector of the University of Cape Town that education was better under apartheid than it is today!

He highlights seven major mistakes* made in education in the last twenty years, and goes on to conclude his article by saying “through a combination of legacy, neglect and bad policy decisions, our educational institutions are indeed in a worse state than before.”

“Scholastic achievement is worse than ever, from literacy and numeracy in the foundation years to the disastrous National Senior Certificate results in Grade 12.”

But then continuing through the newspapers, I read about the Easter Rugby Festivals taking place around the country: the tens of thousands of people who have been attending the matches, the millions of rands being spent on the sport, the numbers of people dedicated to and involved in the sport, the numbers of children (yes, children) who have tested positive for banned and illegal stimulant substances …

Am I reading correctly? Is my disease confusing me this much?

How can it be that in a country where educational institutions are in a worse state and where the levels of literacy and numeracy are declining rapidly, the facilities and money spent on a sport like rugby are increasing all the time?

What is the purpose of these “Rugby Festivals”?

Is it to raise much-needed funds to improve our educational infrastructure (in which case, how much are we raising?), is it to market our schools (in which case, what is the target market and what and who do we attract to the institutions), is it to teach our children the lessons of life (in which case why do they have to abandon a game where parents from two elite schools were engaged in a running brawl, and do only the elite few benefit from these lessons – what about the rest of the thousands of our children?)

Is it simply to entertain or to address our human basic needs to be the best, to win at all costs and to be number one – the modern-day version of the ancient Roman festivals of gladiators and lions?

How can we justify the amounts spent at school level on hospitality and hotels, marquees and martinis, steaks and shrimps, support staff for First Rugby XV’s the same size as smaller international teams and rugby budgets running into millions, when we cannot produce sufficient teachers to educate our children, mathematicians, accountants and scientists to crunch our numbers, medical personnel to doctor our population and engineers to build our roads and bridges?

How can we justify a rugby department in a high school with a rugby director, a head coach, a backs’ coach, a forwards’ coach, a physiotherapist, a dietician and a fitness trainer for a group of twenty players who may never play the game again after school, when we only have two neurologists in a city of two million people with many thousands who have neurological illnesses of some sort or another?     

We wonder why the use of steroids is ever-increasing (and some would say rampant in certain pockets of the country) when the intense pressure of schoolboy rugby is, according to the experts, damaging schoolboys’ personalities, their immature skeletons, their muscles and ligaments and their expectations (and sometimes that of their parents).

Yes, as the Sunday Times put it, “pressure is cooking game for schoolboys”.

Surely, schoolboy sport is ultimately just that. Yet, what these Festivals around the country serve to unwittingly perpetuate is to suggest that the schoolboy game is more important than it is.

I doubt  that you’d get any of the country’s educators, academy scouts and TV producers at these festivals to agree with you!

If you have ever been to Rome, you will have witnessed and marvelled at the Coliseum and the other remaining monuments and reminders to the Rise and Fall of the Great Roman Empire.

“Nero fiddled”, they say, “while Rome burnt”.

Will our ruined stadia and rugby poles, one day, be our monuments and reminders, that we played rugby whilst our country cried out in need?

(* Outcomes-based education, voluntary severance packages offered to teachers, closing of teacher training colleges, irrational mergers of universities, merger of universities and technikons, neglect of mother-tongue education and no basic legally enforceable minimum education standards)

 (with thanks to Luke Alfred for his article “Pressure is cooking game for schoolboys” in the Sunday Times 8 April 2012)



Teach Your Children Well

©2012 Edward C. Lunnon

Monday 2 April 2012: 5 years 7 months on … Deuce

As a first year teacher in 1984, I was responsible for introducing that new phenomenon “Computer Studies” into the High Schools of Port Elizabeth. Pupils were selected from all the (white!) schools of Port Elizabeth on the basis of obtaining an A in maths and science. My computer “laboratory” in G5 at Grey High consisted of 3 terminals connected to the Cape Provincial Administration Mainframe in Cape Town and an Apple 11 “Personal Computer” – our PC, we called it. (nowadays, my Blackberry cellphone in my pocket has far more processing and memory capacity than that entire lab!).

Be that as it may, G5 could be the subject of an entire book on its own!

Having “soft” music playing in the background was always an essential part of my teaching, and a song by Crosby Stills Nash and Young was a favourite of mine and many a class – Teach Your Children Well!

 Over the last few weeks, I have found myself thinking about that line several times – and the Circle of Life.

Life, generally, consists of three main phases:

Give or take a few years, approximately the first twenty years of one’s life is spent in the learning and preparation phase: learning to walk, learning to talk, going to school, going to university, learning about life …

 One’s parents and teachers play an all-important role in this part of one’s life.

They prepare one for the next forty years or so. During that phase, whilst the learning should not stop but only move into a background position, it’s the execution phase of the preparation phase that takes place.

It’s during this second phase that some rise to the highest levels and some sink to the lowest. All experience that which life throws at them – the good, the bad and the ugly – and it’s how one deals with each experience that determines one’s “success” or not of living life.

And it’s during this phase that one starts the preparation phase for the next generation – preparing one’s off-spring for taking over the circle of life; for taking over that baton in the relay of life that they, too, will run when the time comes for one to hand it over to them.

At approximately sixty years of age, the third phase of life is embarked upon – those twenty or so years in which one gets to “retire” from main-stream life. Some would call them the “Golden Years” and whilst for a few this may be so, many would experience silver, bronze or just plain tin and struggle years.  The success of these years is determined to a large extent by the health and wealth that is enjoyed during this time.

Some people never experience the seven score years and ten. Some never get to the Golden Age – they leave this world in the first preparation phase or during the second execution phase.  For whatever reason their life is cut short and they never get to experience the Circle of Life as it was intended. 

Yes – for a few, it’s a very large Circle; for most, a much smaller Circle that is experienced.

In some ways the Circle of Life is similar to having a meal: there’s all the preparation involved in obtaining and preparing the various required ingredients, and all the things that can and do and don’t go wrong; followed by the experience of sitting down and eating  and enjoying or not enjoying the meal; and then followed by the after-meal who for some entails the liqueurs and lighting  up the after-dinner cigars, whilst for others it’s the gathering and cleaning of the pots and pans and dishes!

During the last few weeks, I have experienced parts of the Circle of LIfe again.

A few weeks ago, (see the blog Cape of Stormers) I went back to the place of my Life’s preparation in the Hottentots-Holland Valley of the Western Cape. I stayed at my family home; visited my primary school, Hendrik Louw; my high school, Hottentots-Holland High; saw some of my family, old school and university mates and teachers; and even visited my Std Five teacher, Mr Peter Preuss in Cape Town.

Each of these has had an influence on whom and what I am today.

As a parent, and during Pera’s two-week trip to Italy, I have experienced just how our own two sons have been prepared for Life. We are truly blessed; and Pera needs to take the accolades for her role in preparing the boys in the kitchen and looking after themselves (and me!)

From buying the groceries, running the budget, preparing the meals and organising the house (and Charlie!) to looking after me, they have come out tops.  I am a grateful and proud father and I know that, whenever my Circle ends, they are well-prepared to handle the Storms of Life that they, too, will encounter.   

As a school teacher, I experienced this past weekend (and as I regularly do on an on-going basis) just how a teacher has an influence on other people’s off-spring in preparing them for life.

On Friday (and Saturday!) evening I attended a show of David Aldo (Abbate) at the Boardwalk’s Amphitheatre.

I taught David Aldo Abbate maths in the eighties and thought he would become an Einstein. Instead he has become an American-based alternative acoustic pop singer of note.

As a singer-songwriter David Aldo moved to Los Angeles 13 years ago, but he came home this past weekend only for the second time, performing with his daughter Sherri and pianist Brian Schimmel, to give his local fans a taste of his latest offering titled, Halfway to Memphis.

David’s compositions are aired on radio stations around the world and he has opened tours for music royalty such as Lionel Richie and, ironically, Crosby Stills and Nash in New York. He performed at the 2005 home wedding of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore.  Other A-listers he has performed for include Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump, Robbie Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Rob Stewart, Russel Crowe, Tom Selleck and Jennifer Aniston.

He has had four number one songs and was once voted best male vocalist in South Africa. He penned a song titled Madiba for Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday celebrations.

 My thanks to David for inviting me to his show but also for reminding me, yet again, in our discussions that despite our station in Life and despite the supposed glamour that some attain, the Circle of Life remains the same for all and the weather never remains constant.

At the end of Saturday evening’s show MC Alfie Jay announced that David’s maths teacher was in the audience and that maybe, in some small way, I had contributed to his wonderful sense of timing!

That set in motion many people who introduced themselves to me and thanked me for the weekly show that I do with Lance du Plessis on AlgoaFM.  I am amazed at and grateful for the growing number of people who listen to that programme.

Ironically, as my Circle of Life grows smaller, it actually becomes bigger.  I am so very humbled.

Yes, it’s my time for the after-dinner cigars. Bring on the liqueurs!

(For the record, March 2012 has shown the most regression in terms of my physical abilities. The paralysis has moved from my left hand up into my left upper-arm and shoulder, making it difficult to lift my left arm much above waist-height.  For the first time, I have started experiencing pain in my left shoulder. My left hamstring is painful and subject to many more spasms.  My left leg becomes weaker and I am more dependent now on the walking-stick and leg brace. My mind becomes cloudier and my short-term memory and concentration an ever-increasing problem. I experience on-going weariness.)