Friday, March 30, 2007

Wax lyrical

I'm not, and never have been, great at small talk. At first it was an age and experience thing; I couldn't understand why people were prepared to engage in such banalities for the sake of politeness. My brain works quite quickly, constructing complex topic trees with tenuous, awkward links that sometimes I can't even articulate.

I was being too literal; small talk is supposed to be boring and inoffensive. After all, if you have no history, no reference points with people, you have to talk about the weather, the roads, about 'what an interesting flower arrangement that is, so unusual, mmm'.

I can have rich and meaningful conversations with my friends; so I'm more comfortable with the idea that I will sometimes have to talk small with people. For this, I've adopted a simple strategy; questions, questions, questions. Keep asking questions, if you do stumble across a subject of common relevance, investigate a little and then move onto other questions.

"So where are you from?"
"I love Brighton, it's one of the places I would like to live. Have you always lived there?"
"No. I used to live in Manchester"
"Manchester to Brighton is a long way, why the big change?"
"I changed jobs."
"Wow, changing jobs is a big deal, travelling from one end of the country to another to do it is something else. Were you brought up in Manchester?"


Yesterday, as part of a work thing I was sitting with a Brazilian/Italian woman (and a Kenyan/Pakisani and a German). She was very interesting and talked a lot about the differences between Brazil and Britain. She was very easy going and loved talking so the small-talk was a doddle.

However it was quite a long event, so we were able to race through and exhaust heaps of subjects. It was far from boring, in fact it bordered on enjoyable. We talked food, culture, travel, weather, politics, inevitably got onto the subject of football; which is good for me. Eventually I pretty much knew all there was to know about Brazil and the differences with Britain. We'd also talked about business, so that box had been ticked. I still needed something. I scoured my brain for things I know about Brazil and Brazilians.

Hmm, Brazilians? What do I know about Brazilians?

Luckily, the other thing age and experience has given me is a degree of control, I had this empty pot of Brazilian conversation topics in my head with just the subject of radical bikini line waxing techniques left. I mentally slammed the lid shut on the pot, but for the rest of the evening I could hear it jumping around like a conversational Gollum banging about and asking to be freed "ASK ABOUT VAGINAS, ASK ABOUT VAGINAS". Every time there was a lull in the conversation I could hear it. V-A-G-I-N-A.

I turned to the German and talked about organisation and efficiency. I could have talked about sausages, but sausages on my right and vaginas on my left would have taken me to dark synergistic places I should never investigate in polite company.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Have a heart

I don't think I've mentioned this before, but Millie has a heart condition. A small hole which means regular trips to the hospital for a check up. There's no particular reason why I haven't mentioned it; it's not a taboo subject, people have less problems, but people have more. It's not a minor issue; there are six levels of intensity with this sort of thing and Millie's is at least level four. However, it has no effect on our day to day life, so you just get on with it, don't you?

We've been quite lucky, Millie was born in the John Radcliffe in Oxford, it has a world class cardiology unit so when they heard the murmur, they referred her instantly. Quite often hospitals don't even check, a lot of babies have heart murmurs when they're young which simply go away, and most places don't have the resources to chase every case down. The referral lead to a scan, the scan lead to regular appointments with a paediatric cardiologist.

The consultant we see is brilliant; in fact, a little Google reveals he's a pioneer in the field. He was the first heart surgeon in the world to fix a heart defect without the use of major surgery (it's all done with little pipes and tubes). Aside from his obvious cleverness, one of his talents is the ability to communicate clearly, warmly and professionally all at the same time. He's evidently compassionate, but he never steps out of his professional role. Quite simply he tells you what he's looking for, what he's going to do, what he's found and what he foresees in the future based on what he's found. He never promises things he can't deliver.

He also told us that if a Health Visitor came round to lock the doors, close the windows and 'crawl around the house like a leopard on the prowl'. The man is a genius.

Each appointment follows pretty much the same process. Being as good as he is, he always has a foreign student doctor with him. On Tuesday we had Dr Woo - so close to being a time traveller, yet so far, shame. Our doctor does his bit, allows the student to examine Millie then asks a couple of questions about what they've found. The student examines, agrees that they can hear the thrill. Then the doctor asks for a diagnosis.

At this point you see the student's mind racing; is it a trick question? Surely he wouldn't be asking if there was nothing wrong? Or would he? This conundrum is mixed with the underlying ambition of the doctor; I mean, they don't get into the job to examine people with nothing wrong with them. They're praying for something big. Like an eager private in a war zone; for all the peacekeeping rhetoric, they just want to blow the bloody commie to hell.

The good doctor finally pushes for an answer; "so what would you diagnose doctor?" and the student goes for broke with a wildly inaccurate and totally over the top; something like... "immediate open heart surgery?".

No. He says blankly. And corrects them; stop looking for excuses to cut people open, look at the patient, she's growing, she's pink, she's healthy. Send her home and book another appointment for the next check-up. Which is all terribly disappointing for the student who's already sharpening her scalpel.

On Monday he told us that Millie didn't need to come back for a year. We are happy.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

How to be good

I try to be good, I do. For the last couple of years I've been going to the gym to keep fit; it's worked, I'm over a stone lighter, look better, feel better. However, to do this, I've been getting up at 6.30am at least three times a week. I also want to be a good, attentive, fully involved father; I want to spend time with Millie and help get her ready in the morning. When she wakes up in the middle of the night I want to help settle her. I also want to be good at work; productive, hard working; I want people to think that I've put in a shift. I don't want them to think I'm one of those senior managers who make money for old rope.

I also want to make my contribution to saving the planet. When Millie was born our weekly rubbish doubled overnight. We're now voracious recyclers; all food goes in the compost, plastics, tins and papers go out fortnightly. Cardboard - which isn't picked up by the council - is put in a bag and taken to the recycling centre. I also want to have a nice house; clean, tidy and stylish. I want to buy fresh, organic food from local producers. I want to use public transport.

So, Millie wakes up in the night which makes me tired. Getting up at 6.30am for the gym becomes really hard. When I do manage it, I sacrifice the opportunity to get her ready in the morning. I could go at 7.30; which means going in a bit later, which is fine because it fits in with our flexible working policy. But people who come in late; particularly managers; are frowned upon, regardless of the policy. Even if I get in at 9.30 it means I have to work later, which again means missing Millie's bedtime. I would like to take the train to work, but it means getting in at 7.15 (ridiculously early and missing the gym) or 9.45am - which is frowned on and means having to leave late at night.

When I get home, we give Millie a bath, put her to bed, wash her bottles, and then eat. The temptation, especially at weekends, is to get a takeaway, most of the time we don't, we cook proper food, but we don't have time to go to a famers' market and we do have a broadband connection. This means much as I loath it; a Tesco online order is terribly convenient. Even when we cook, rather than scooping the waste into the bin we look to recycle. The recycling boxes are in the garden, on a cold dark night you don't really want to venture outside. So the tins and waste food are left ready to be put out when time and energy allows, which obviously makes the house a bit of a mess.

It's just not possible to be fitter, healthier, more productive all at the same time. All the same, I wouldn't go as far as saying I was a pig in a cage on antibiotics.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Unfinished sympathy

I've been suffering from stress this week; something I told our deputy chief exec whose response was that 'we're all busy'. I'm not bleating about it; I'm recognising it. It manifests itself as an aching across my back and shoulders and a strange tense feeling in my chest.

I figure the first thing to do is to recognise it for what it is, hence the reason I'm happy to tell anyone that I'm stressed. I also don't expect anyone to accommodate me; everyone is busy and suffering their own traumas, but I figure these things are better out than in. There's a strange lethargy which tempts me to retreat into myself and not talk to anyone. But that doesn't seem the right thing to do.

The next thing is to try and recognise why it's happening. I have one project at work that's going badly. I know I've done everything I'm supposed to do on it, but the results aren't coming through like they used to. Being a marketeer it's often the case that when anything goes badly the answer given by non-marketeers is that we need 'more marketing'. And I know this is the simple criticism that will be exacted upon me when this thing is finally laid to rest. They actually mean we need more promotion; as the marketing spectrum is broader than leaflets and a sharp line in puns. In this case, the product has probably run its course and so I'm presiding over its slow and painful death.

Secondly, I run a very effective department on a very small team. But the team can no longer move forward because the rest of the organisation cannot accommodate our requirements. New products are being delayed, leaving us to work with the aforementioned turkeys. I try not to do others' jobs but I have an expectation of what they need to deliver. As they're not delivering, I'm left is stasis, which is causing me stress.

So, I've recognised it and possibly identified why it's happening; the next thing is to do something about it. I've tried to relax and rest when I can, but it doesn't seem to do much good. Then, on Thursday, I was walking down the stairs and the next thing I knew I was slumped at the bottom. For the first time since I was a small child I'd fallen down the stairs. I'd cut my arm, had a big carpet burn up my back and appear to have broken a toe. The feelings of stress, however, have gone.

"Good job you weren't holding Millie" people say sympathetically.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

...And now for the quiz

Training is not exactly in the fabric of our company. We're small, not that it should be an excuse and every year there is a training budget - usually based on 1985 prices - but it's always removed when the going gets tough.

Sometimes, however, we're required to do something because it's all legal-like. This week we had to learn something about the Data Protection Act. Being a relatively new Act, for once we were treated to a relatively new training video, or, in fact, DVD.

Old fashioned training videos followed a similar format. Comedy legend, usually John Cleese, would introduce the subject in a slightly pompous headmaster style. This would put us at our ease, but inform us that it was a subject to be considered seriously, one of those 'if we all work hard we'll have a lot of fun' things bosses are keen on.

There would be vignettes of an over acting hapless fool demonstrating how not to do the thing the video is about. There's usually a rather plain secretary who roles her eyes at the idiocy, quietly getting on with her work and correcting his mistakes. This is because she is a woman and therefore sensible, obviously. Then once the vignette is finished a graphic of the blatantly obvious learning points are read out by said comedy legend.

It seems that training videos have moved on. Rather than hand holding through the key learning points, it's a half-hour wobbly camera production in the style of The Office. For this particular video it was a training film about the Data Protection Act of people on a training course about the Data Protection Act. There were no graphics with learning points; it was all supposed to have gone in by osmosis. The Office's genius is not in what is being said, but how it's being said. The dialogue is not necessarily funny, but it's transformed by the situation it's in - the pettiness, the childishness in a supposedly serious and adult situation. In a training film it loses some of its impact if you're encouraged to ignore the dialogue. In the end you learn nothing apart from the fact that Stewpot from Grange Hill is now acting in training films.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

That's the sound of violence

We live in a fractured society; we know this because David Cameron says so and he is Everyman. The recent spate of gangland shootings has lead to accusations that we've become a lawless society. This is nonsense, of course, violent gangs have been around since year dot. A vast majority of people in this country never see a gun let alone get killed by one. There are problems to be addressed, but we're not quite in the wild west despite what people tell you.

On Friday shortly after going to bed I heard a massive row going on outside. I got up and looked out the window. There was a group standing in the middle of the street having a massive shouting match - chavs, hoodies and, conveniently for the purposes of this story, one girl dressed predominantly in white (who we'll call 'White') and one in black (or 'Black').

Black was lead screamer; though everyone seemed to be involved. White was on the phone, which antagonised Black who side stepped the group and headed for White with the war cry - "So watcha gonna do nah? Call the facking cops you slag" - really, she did.

Black got to White, who seemed generally unaware of her oncoming assailant. Black swung a massive roundhouse forearm smash to White's head knocking her off balance. As White fell to the ground Black instinctively swung a knee and caught White in the head on the way down.

I closed the curtain just as Black and all the others ran off leaving White sitting in the road. It was like watching Britain's Worst ASBOs on widescreen high definition TV. Part of me felt we should go out and help, or phone the police, or more sensibily; go back to bed and hope nobody saw me.

My reaction to the fight caused Emma to get up and head downstairs, presumably to get a decent view of what was going on. I scratched around to know what to do next - then I heard more talking; perhaps the gang were back - perhaps they'd seen me and decided that they had to remove a witness. They couldn't be coming for me, could they?

I looked out the window (OK, I peeped out from behind the curtain). There was another group of chavs and hoodies; White was still in the road. With her was chav A, chav B, hoodie A, chav C, hoodie B, women in pyjamas, chav D and hoodie C.

Emma, barefooted and in her pyjamas, decided to go out to help. It turned out she had no idea how the girl had managed to end in the middle of the road was worried about her being hit by a car. Eventually she came in, thankfully having not been shot by a vicious gun toting gang. I asked her what would have happened if it had got out of hand. Simple, apparently, she would have come back inside. Not that this would have, possibly, indicated where she lived. Apparently that was alright, because I was inside should anything have happened. Oh yeah, me big brave man.

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