Sunday, February 15, 2009

One of the nice things about blogs is that you can remark on books you are reading without having to even pretend it's anything like a real review. So you can pick out odd little points of interest, and make completely petty digs, as the accident will.

Recently, I've been reading Austerity Britain 1945-1951 by David Kynaston. It got an excellent review in Atlantic Monthly. The book is the first part of a social history of Britain which will eventually cover 1945-1979. Although it does make reference to Big History, most of it draws on personal accounts such as diaries and memoirs and the records made by Mass Observation. Quite a few of the sources are from biographies of well-known people, and their names are simply dropped into the narrative without explaining who they are. It's just assumed that you know enough to British culture to understand. My favourite example of this is in a section talking about the role of high street banks around 1950, which contains this remark:
George Mainwaring, that pillar-of-the-community bank manager at Walmington-on-Sea by now approaching retirement, would no doubt have nodded sagely.
The thing which is wonderful about this is that it doesn't explain who George Mainwaring it. Almost anyone of my age, plus or minus 20 or more years, instantly know that he is a fictional character from a sitcom, Dad's Army. It was made in the 1960s and 70s, but set during the second world war, and Captain Mainwaring was stuffy and opinionated bank manager. So this remark reinforces the tone of the quotation that preceded it because you've seen that program so many time that you can instantly picture him expressing his opinions. Without this explanation, the reader will probably skip this sentence and move on, no harm done. If Kynaston had stopped to explain, his book would have been a leaden mess, and probably twice as long as it is.

When I was checking this, I noticed a wonderfully gnomic line a paragraph later, in which some aphorisms from a stockbroker are quoted as illustrations of his gentlemanly code: "shoes have laces", "motor cars are black", "jelly is not officer food". Funny, I always though it was. Well, not the green jelly, but other kinds.

Scarlett Thomas's novel The End Of Mr. Y is my other current read. It's a book which is almost good, but spoilt by too many long lumps of philosophical explanations, usually in the form of little lectures from one character to another. Well, most of the main characters are supposed to be PhD student or academics, so I suppose it's not all that unrealistic. These discourses are interesting, but there's only so many of them you can hope to get away with in a novel, and N for this novel is greater than so. It's as if the book wants to bend your mind, but can't quite decide in which direction. If the author is anything like the protagonist, then she's a fan of Derrida, and though I have never read any Derrida, language log has given me all the fuel I need to have an irrational contempt for his thought. And, I'm sorry, but the only legitimate reaction to a sentence like Monday morning, and the sky is the colour of sad weddings is a long and loud farty noise.

An update. When I wrote this I hadn't quite finished The End Of Mr Y. Now I have, and (without giving away the ending), I think the author should be ashamed of herself. She uses a twist which belongs to 1950s pulp sf stories, as was hokey even then.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Love On Four Paws

This week Ellen and I withdrew from Love on 4 Paws, an organization we've been volunteering with for the last 15 months. We were taking our dog, Dylan, to hospitals to do animal assisted therapy, which mostly means visiting patients to cheer them up and give them a brief break from the tedium and stress of being in hospital. The organization is run with careful and constructive discipline by a woman called Suni and her team leaders and coaches. Before you start, the dog passes a "canine good citizen" test and is checked out to see how he reacts in various situations, such as having a lot of people milling round making noise. For the handlers, there's a lot more training in the hospital procedures and the legal requirements.

The first hospital you visit is Shriner's hospital for children (all the locations are in LA). Shriner's is a relatively easy environment to work in, but even so the first few visits were hard work: as well as looking after the dog and setting him up to interact with the patients, there are many hospital protocols to follow. Mostly they are to do with hygiene, such as washing your hands on entering a room, but there are others too. For example, you usually take a picture of the patient with the dog using a Polaroid camera. Occasionally, one picture doesn't come out well, and so you take another, and then you have to remember to hand them all to the patient, or destroy the extra ones, as taking the picture away would break the HIPAA confidentiality rules.

The big step comes when you move to Children's Hospital of LA. Whereas Shriner's is mostly orthopaedic and clinic patients, CHLA has many patients who are very sick with cancer or other serious illnesses. As well as making it a more highly charged environment emotionally, it means the protocols you have to follow are much stricter: no entering certain rooms where a patient is in isolation, wash hands on entry, wipe patient's hands, put an extra sheet on the bed before the dog gets up, wipe patient's hands afterwards, fold up the sheet from the corners inwards... At the end of the first few visits, we were totally wrung out. I also kept making mistakes such as leaving my bag of supplies behind in one patient's room after the visit, then having to try to figure out which room I had last visited to go back and get it. Over time, it got easier, though. In the middle of 2008, we also started visiting St John's, a hospital for adults. The visits are of a different sort there: you tend to spend longer with each patient and see fewer of them. Sometimes in CHLA, the visit is really just a quick snuggle with the dog, a picture, and move on.

With all the training that we as handlers do, there is no training for the dog. Over time, Dylan worked out what he was supposed to do, and for a while seemed to consider it his job. But in the last few weeks, he was getting more and more reluctant to do the visits and at the end was scarcely engaging with the patients. We had said from the start that if we thought he didn't want to do the visiting, we would stop. He seemed to telling us that he didn't want to be there any more, and after a visit to St John's last weekend, we made the decision to stop visiting and leave the organization.

I feel sad about this. It's easy to think that your work matters or that by giving to a charity or participating in a campaigning group that you are changing the world. It's a different thing when you have this direct personal involvement. I saw situations where having a visit from the dog got through to someone who was in distress and pain, and provided them with a moment of respite or happiness. When that happens for a child, it also often helps the parent, a moment of normality in a turbulent time. The medical staff sometimes benefit from a minute or two with dog as well. Even the man who runs the valet parking at one of the hospitals was always happy to see Dylan.

Dylan is quite a shy dog. When he decided he is your friend, he loves you wholeheartedly, but it takes a long time to get there. Other dogs I saw had a temperament that was better suited. Think of your archetypal golden retriever who loves everyone, for example. Calmness is another quality that works well, and that is something that Dylan has once the shyness is out of the way. I saw many skillful handlers too, who have some magic that creates just the right interaction between the dog and the patient.

I'll miss the friends I made in LO4P, and I'll remember the way that at CHLA we all ended by gathering in a ward that had a sun-trap glass roof, resting for a moment after the work we'd done, before setting off on the "dog parade", all the dogs and handlers leaving the ward together.