Looking back

I’ve had a rough year, health wise. I’ll write about it at some point. Consequently I’ve had lots (too much?) of time to think, and as is human nature I’ve looked backwards a fair bit, so excuse the nostalgia.

I’m not sure what prompted it, but I got thinking about my college days. College in the English sense (further education, 16-18yrs) as opposed to university. My first run at university was abortive, so college took on particular meaning for me as it would become the closest I got to the 3yr university experience.

I’d been at a rural grammar school in East Yorkshire for 3 years. I absolutely despised it. It made me miserable, shattered my self-confidence, and I struggled academically. I had been in and out of schools my entire childhood due to frequent relocation around various parts of the world; I was already behind when I started secondary education and the truly shitty school environment only made things worse. My GCSE performance was predictably poor. I hated school, I didn’t want it, and it apparently didn’t want me – I was not invited to continue on to A-level study.

I moved to the city of York in summer 1990. I was to attend York Sixth Form College, but as my GCSE results were poor I had to complete a foundation year, which would mean I’d be there for three years in all, assuming I continued on to A-level; not everybody did, as there was a technical college (vocational) down the road that was also on the foundation year pipeline. Some people simply went straight into employment, with no continuing education.

The college was located on the southern edge of the city, next to the green belt. There was little beyond it but fields and the motorway. It had been operating as an FE college for 5 years, prior to which it had been a secondary school. It had around 900 students (the number surprised me. I would have guessed less than half that) and in hindsight with the benefit of years of FE/HE experience from the inside the college was small, utilitarian, and dated even by 1990 standards. And yet, it was more than the sum of its parts.

YSFC from Tadcaster Road, 2005
Front of the College, photographed 2005 by Neil Turner. Source

I had a lot of questions; and I was quite apprehensive. It was the first state institution I’d been to since primary school. I told myself I was worried I wouldn’t fit in, but the fear was deeper than that; would I even survive? It’s stupid and laughable now but having been in private educated for previous 8 years I picked up some completely stupid stereotypes about what to expect from state schooling. I considered it perfectly likely that on hearing my accent I’d probably get beaten up. I had an intake interview with the college principal and he seemed so kind and welcoming. Honestly, the fact he wasn’t a complete arsehole already put him ahead of much of my grammar school staff experience. It was a decent start. “See you in September!”.

I needn’t have worried about anything. My first year had some difficulties; I’d been relatively sheltered and I faced a period of shrugging a lot of that baggage off; I had to relearn who I was, loosen up a little bit, but the environment was simply amazing to me. You were treated like an adult; you could dress how you liked (within reason…) and were encouraged to be an individual. The teachers were fantastic, even though I didn’t quite recognise it at the time. The students came from everywhere, but predominantly secondary schools within York itself. A fair few of them knew one another, but generally making friends was pretty easy. The biggest eye opener was nobody gave a shit where I was from. I think I’d totally forgotten about my old school by the end of the first term. I felt like a different person. I grew my hair out, had a few illicit beers (sometimes during lunch!) and generally had a blast.

Academically I did better, but not much better. Just good enough. I was absolutely distracted by a new found social happiness and was for better or worse not worried about the future. I progressed onto A-levels, grew my hair even more, joined a band (We were shit. That wasn’t our name, but might as well have been) and just kept going. I had lost a few friends after foundation year. Some went onto apprenticeships or ‘The Tech’ down the road, but this wasn’t an impediment at college, largely due to the fundamental layout of the place.

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Floor Plan. From Yorkstories blog

The building featured a large room named the ‘social area’. It was really the focal point of the block. It wasn’t huge, less than 100ft long and about half as wide, and was open plan, with moveable bench seating. They were beige and pink, as I remember. Before classes started in the morning and during lunch, it was absolutely rammed. Because of this, boundaries really broke down; it didn’t matter much what year you were in, or what you were studying, you could get to know people. There were certainly cliques, but everyone pretty much got along. It amused me how that room could change in character dependent on the phase of the timetable. During free periods it occasionally took on a monastic quality with just a handful of people in it. It wasn’t anywhere near large enough for the entire student cohort at one time, so people spilled out into the corridors and the canteen, but generally the social area or the immediate vicinity was where it was at.

Time continued its march and in June ’93 I completed my A-levels with fairly average results. A decade later after some epic fannying about, and in a different part of the country, I would end up working at an FE college. I never really made much of a connection before, but thinking about it, just being in that kind of environment felt right to me, and I’ve been working in education ever since.

York, March 2007

I’d been visiting my dad who had recently moved North again. We’d taken a trip into York on a rainy Saturday. It had been my first visit in about 8 years. He asked me if I wanted to go out along Tadcaster road, “go past the college” as he put it. Sure, why not. I already felt a bit subdued by the grey weather, and that odd feeling of knowing a place but not knowing anybody in it anymore.

It was gone. Completely gone. A huge, modern building was in its place. I was surprised to feel really quite emotional about it.

When I got back home I looked it up, emotion giving way to professional curiousity. It was a brand-new campus opening that September. In 1999 the College and Tech had merged. In 2005 the complex as I knew it was demolished to make way for the new buildings.

Demolition under way in 2005
Demolition underway in late 2005. By Neil Turner. Source

It looks fantastic, and was quite necessary. I was sad to see the old building go with all those beautiful memories, but the college most definitely needed more space, not to mention the potential purpose-built facilities offer for teaching. The original college could only deliver so much given its origins as a modest school.

I wonder if it has a social area?

Google and a rose tint

York Sixth Form College existed largely before the digital epoch, and definitely before social media/web 2.0 (sorry) took off. There’s depressingly few photos of the place as I knew it. I have some envy for students nowadays as they have a glut of images to look back on when nostalgia descends.

I found a few on Flickr (which I’ve already posted), and some unlikely sources: Writer and journalist Sophie Heawood popped up from a Google search; I immediately recognised a photo she had posted in an article as being the bike shed/smoking area (the official one, anyway…). Those Portakabins in the background were ostensibly temporary. I suspect they remained to the bitter end. Anyway, It’s a good read, and if my arithmetic is right based on what she wrote, I may have been there during her first year. It’s a small world. A friend was also, er, kind enough to share one of me. Christ.

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Askham Bar Park’n’Ride, 1993ish. Oh dear.

Of course, not everybody feels the same way. My best friend from college was very cool on the whole experience, and I suspect he thinks I’m mad for being remotely nostalgic about it. For most others I would think university superceded it in terms of sheer living experience. For me it was pretty special, and while I don’t wish to sound like I’m living in the past, it’s a beautiful place to visit once in a while.

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Why Scoobi Is Probably Doomed, In One Picture

A Fish Out of Water

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Utter madness.

I give it a very short amount of time before these are getting pushed over or vandalised by irate drivers. They’re all over the East End of the City, occupying car parking spaces. If you’ve travelled to London, Paris, Madrid or anywhere with a true multi-modal transport network you’d think this was absolutely absurd. Why don’t they use dedicated parking, or those nooks and crannies that so many cities have? Well, this is Pittsburgh.

Not Hotdog

Scoobi, in their own words:

Scoobi is a mobile application based on-demand mobility service for individuals in need of rides to their preferred destination by way of an electric scooter.

Translated, somebody has secured VC funding for a fleet of battery-powered scooters in a season-bound city that it is a textbook example of the primacy of the automobile.

I cannot think of a worse place to try this, apart from perhaps Antarctica. Somewhere with the cultural and legislative foundations like California, despite being worse for just about everything else, gets it right when it comes to two wheels. PA is still stuck in a time when two wheels means you’re either broke, a hooligan, or a dentist playing Easy Rider on a $30k Harley. Scoobi, for what it’s worth, is a great idea on paper. However, this progressive, environmentally friendly platform is in a city whose culture is heavily, but not totally (more on this later) dominated by the car. For example, here is an excerpt from the PA Driver’s Handbook:

A motorcycle is a full-size vehicle with the same privileges as any vehicle on the roadway.

Yes, dear reader. You read that correctly. And yes, these are considered motorcycles. Just roll that around in your head for a moment; savour the utter madness.

A motorcycle is a full-size vehicle
A motorcycle is a full-size vehicle
A motorcycle is a full-size vehicle
A motorcycle is a full-size vehicle
A motorcycle is a full-size vehicle
A motorcycle is a full-size vehicle

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This removes the inherent advantages of a powered bike at a stroke. You can’t filter or lane-split; you are limited precisely to the same freedom as a car well over four times your size. There is zero dedicated infrastructure around the city for scooters and motorcycles. What could be a burgeoning market for deliveries and efficient commuting is stymied by totally backward legislation. Instead you wait in traffic and park as if you are a car.

The result? Individual scooters and motorcycles using a full car parking space, which – if you are familiar with Pittsburgh drivers antipathy to anything that isn’t a car – is not going to have a happy ending. Why use one? What you are you gaining?

The Exception that is BikePGH

BikePGH are little short of amazing. They have done an amazing job in cycling advocacy, and it’s fair to say they’ve successfully challenged the dominance of the car, at least in the city limits. Pittsburgh now has some dedicated bike lanes, and a growing cycling culture. It’s helped by some unusual unspoken privileges granted to cyclists; namely filtering and being able to sensibly roll some intersections; consequently cyclists that have overcome the fierce topography of Pittsburgh can get around more efficiently than anything else.

Realistically, powered bikes need their own version of BikePGH, or the roads will never be opened up in a manner which makes them truly practical. I can’t help but think Scoobi has put the proverbial cart before the horse.

Sight

9th May, 2018
Maker:L,Date:2017-9-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y
My Ninja 300 with Shane’s KTM 1290 Superduke, hours before I realised something was going very wrong with my vision.

I’d had a great couple of weeks. I’d just got back from visiting my Dad in Spain, along with my sister and beautiful niece (whom I had never met).

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My sister and niece in Salobrena, Spain.
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Yours truly in the hills of the Valle De Lecrin, Spain.

Spain had really inspired me this visit, and I dreamed of being able to take a bike to some of those pristine roads in Andalucia. Maybe next time.

A couple of weeks back home had seen the unusually long winter finally give way to rising temperatures, and the longer day allowed riding with friends after work again. I met my friend Shane for a short ride out and meal afterwards to see in the new riding season. During the ride I became aware of something in my left eye; what looked like a large vitreous floater; the kind of ghostly web that one sees occasionally, but much larger. Later on, in the pub, it came and went. I recall thinking that in a certain light it looked as if someone dressed in black was standing in my periphal vision. Due to a sense of optimism and well-entrenched morbid fear of hospitals and doctors, I thought I’d sleep on it and see how it was the next day. I wasn’t especially worried at this point.

Well, you’ve got some blood in there.

I awoke the next morning, and as soon as I sat upright that ghostly floater had turned an inky, impenetrable black. If you imagine your vision simplified as a rectangle, the bottom left-hand quarter was completely gone, replaced by a shapeless dark void.

Obviously this warranted a trip to the ER, which fortunately was just up the road. After handing over $100 (my ‘copay’) I was seen almost immediately. I described the symptoms and had to place a towel across my eyes, sit in the dark for ten minutes, and await the retinal scanner.

This machine, about the size of a coffee percolator, whirs and clicks as it locates your eye, then takes a picture. The ER doctor, a genial, middle-aged man looked at the images and said “Well, you’ve got some blood in there.” He suspected a ruptured blood vessel but was emphatic that he couldn’t say for sure. “We see about two per week. It’s common. Just not to you.” Fair enough, this was the ER, they were not going to be able to do much more. I needed to see a specialist at an eye centre as soon as possible, which as far as the ER were concerned meant the next day. There was no immediate urgency at this point; just a kind of calm hurry.

I called my local eye centre and was greeted by a receptionist with all the enthusiasm of someone that wished you were already dead. She told me they were full the next day, she’d have to ring around and would call me back (narrator: She didn’t call back). In the end I decided to call again and this time got someone useful that booked me in at a location the other side of town the next morning.

Sewickley, PA. 11th May, 1100hrs

Oh, that sounds like a retinal detachment. I hope not.

By this time, it had got worse. If I had to describe it in percentage terms, I’d estimate that around half the vision in the left eye was gone. I was scared, my family was scared, and I was starting to feel the onset of some panic. what could be wrong with me? Was it just my eye, or was something else happening?

The triage nurse was efficient, funny, and had a bedside manner that definitely needed a bit of work. She was also, as it turns out, right on the money. As I described my symptoms and she established what I could and couldn’t see by moving her hand around my field of vision, she casually uttered “Oh, that sounds like a retinal detachment. I hope not.” I could have lived without hearing the last sentence, but in hindsight (ho ho ho) I suspect she was referring to the fact this would not be a quick fix, rather than a gloomy prognosis. I was then left in the waiting room for an hour to ruminate (in an extremely anxious state, as you might expect) on what I’d been told. My eyes had some drops to dilate them, so I strained to read my phone (battery: 20%) to try and figure out just how much shit I was in, all the while sending nearly unintelligible text messages to my wife waiting outside with the kids.

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Here’s Google’s card about retinal detachment, also featuring an image of an attractive woman in an art gallery, if you like that sort of thing.

When the wait was over and I saw the ophthalmologist, she was absolutely brilliant, warm-mannered and confident enough to greatly reassure me, and confirmed the triage nurse’s suspicions: It was a retinal detachment. I had three small tears at 9,11, and 2 o’clock, the most common form, known as rhegmatogenous detachment. Why? Age and plain bad luck (National Eye Institute, 2009). It would require an operation, and the Dr. told me she would be calling around to find a surgeon, and that I was not to eat anything as the operation might be that day. It was at this point I realised this was fairly serious, but the nurse and doctor confidently assured me I would be fine.

Word came I was to head to UPMC Mercy for surgery immediately. My wife, cool as a cucumber under what must have been enormously stressful conditions with two children to look after, took me there straight away.

UPMC Mercy, 1445hrs

You’re sitting there, minding your own business, and your retina just decides to go and detach itself.

I’d been lucky. I’d never had surgery. First stop was pre-surgery testing, which would typically involve obtaining blood for analysis, but actually turned out to be nothing but verifying paperwork in my case. No blood work required. Then I was admitted which was a matter of bagging my clothes and belongings, donning a gown and letting the scrubs-wearing ninjas get me ready. The surgeon and the fellow assisting him (both absolutely brilliant guys) came to see me, and he introduced himself with a jovial “You’re sitting there, minding your own business, and your retina just decides to go and detach itself.” They both examined my eye and told me the plan: A sclerical buckle, and probably a vitrectomy, due to the number of tear sites. A sclerical buckle is a small band that is fixed around the circumference of the eye like a belt (hence the name), the purpose of which is to apply pressure and help reattach the retina. Due to the offset of one of the tears, it probably would not be sufficient on its own, so a vitrectomy would be required. This involves draining the vitreous; the gel-like liquid inside the eye which maintains the spherical shape. Two precision techniques, laser and cryopexy are used to bond the torn areas of the retina to the wall of the eye. A gas is then used to form a bubble temporarily replacing the vitreous (National Eye Institute, 2009).

The surgeon marked his initials just above my left eyebrow. He described this was necessary to mitigate what is considered a ‘never event’. I’ll let you guess what…

I’d lost track of time at this point. My pupils were profoundly dilated. My watch had been removed and I could no longer read the clock above the nurse’s station. I was wheeled off to the anaesthesia area to prepare for the op. After a chat with the anaesthetist and a great deal of questions I was rolled into the operating room. An oxygen mask went on, the IV was started, and shortly after that, the lights went out.

I came round with no pain, intense nausea, and a big old bandage over my left eye. I had my face in a horseshoe-shaped pillow; until my follow up appointment the next day it would be necessary to keep my head down so the vitreous gas bubble would maintain positive pressure against the retina (Retinadoctor, 2018). The nurses were fantastic; one of them put something in my IV to relieve the nausea and it stopped in a snap. I couldn’t quite read the clock so I wasn’t sure if it was 915pm or 245am. It was the former, thankfully. My wife and kids charged into the recovery room and I felt a lot better.

The nurses helped me into my clothes and I was on my way, almost 12 hours after the day had started.

Aftermath

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As I write this, it’s one week later. The follow up appointments revealed the surgery had been successful, now it was a matter of waiting for everything to heal. I feel pretty fortunate, as I never had much pain and the swelling (which was profoundly unpleasant) reduced rapidly. The vitreous gas bubble has shrunk as it is slowly absorbed and replaced by vitreous fluid; I can clearly see its circular shape in my eye. My sight isn’t quite there, it’s rather fuzzy, but it is improving, and it is all there. Best of all I have my peripheral vision back on the left side; I can drive again and I don’t feel dizzy anymore. There is a possibility of developing a cataract as a result of the vitrectomy (NCBI, 2014), which will require further surgery, but I’ll deal with that down the line. It beats being blind.

Some things fall into perspective at a time like this. One of them is, if you have a problem with your eye, don’t fuck about. I should have got it looked at immediately. It may not have changed the outcome, but it could have made things easier, and the extent of sight loss would not have been so great. I’m also fortunate to have such a great wife. We have no help, it’s just us and one or two friends. My wife looked after everything.

Life is short. One moment I was out having fun with a friend, suddenly I’m looking down the barrel of sight loss. Isn’t it amusing how many of these metaphors involve sight? I can tell you my sense of humour has had quite a workout in the last week.

I’m not dying (well, no faster than anyone else), I didn’t go blind, I’ll probably ride my bike this week. I’m pretty lucky, all told.

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