Tuesday, May 19, 2009

As cool as a cucumber. Or how to ruin Monday night

What is Monday night without doing something silly? Like decapitating your thumb while slicing a non-descript cucumber.

What began as an idea of feeding V leftover pizza and eating cucumber and yogurt myself to avoid doing anything but slumming in front of the TV went horribly wrong at 8pm last Monday. I bought these amazing new knives recently and in forgetting every chef rule and years of practice of tucking my fingers under while I hold something to cut I chopped straight into the top of my left thumb. It was not a particularly deep or big cut but the flap of skin looked menacing enough with the blood flow refusing to stop. With no visible clotting happening and two cotton pads quickly soaking through it became apparent that a trip to the A&E was in order. So we got into a cab and toodled off to the nearest A&E. Thankfully there was nothing of great interest on any of cable TV’s 999 channels.

We’ve only had one previous experience with the A&E in our area – it was not great but hey that is what ‘free’ healthcare is like. This time we went in and got behind about 6 other people in line for the reception/ triage, amidst a room full of people waiting to be seen. 15 minutes later we were at the counter and beside being asked stupid statistical questions like how did you arrive here (by foot, bus, private transport, taxi, cycle etc; to which I am always tempted to say helicopter) we were given a yellow form and asked to wait. After a while we got called in and a doctor in a suit from one of two rooms off the main room asked the details of the injury, like a registrar. He gave my thumb a cursory look and was instantly quite dismissive saying there was nothing to worry about and that a few stitches and tetanus shot might be needed. Then he asked us to go back and wait.

15 minutes later we got called into the other room by a doctor in proper scrubs who after making me flex my thumb and declaring it not as deeply injured as it looked, cleaned it and applied some surgical glue and steri-strips to seal it shut. Then saying he was going to dress and needed to get the materials to do so, he disappeared. Half an hour later a nurse who finished plastering a broken wrist in the next cubicle while majorly flirting with the patient appeared and deftly dressed my thumb in multiple layers of gauze and tape in under 2 minutes. By this time (2 hours into our stay here) some serious traumas were beginning to arrive, foul mouthed and clearly drunk. It took 3 healthcare professionals 2 hours to sort out my tiny mishap - and people wonder why the system doesn’t work! Our work done we took a cab home where I proceeded to eat the uncut cucumber and yogurt before turning in for the night.

Three interesting incidents from the A&E:
1. Two young Bangladeshi boys are in line to get to the reception windows before us. With the buzz cuts, hooded jackets and track pants and giant shoes they are just pandering to the stereotype. The conversation between them in a mixed Bangladeshi and British accent is amusing to say the least. One of them is telling the other how he scammed £2,500 from somebody he was involved with in an accident by claiming he had got whiplash. His friend was eagerly quizzing on him on how to go about perpetrating said scam. WonderBoy was offering advice on how to fake whiplash and the number of his very good lawyer. When they reached the window it was for both of them to report injuries, as one was limping and the other was complaining about his hand. No way of telling if this was another scam.

2. While I was waiting for the disappearing doctor to come back with some plaster (a bank of which was on the wall facing me) a young boy limped in shouting and screaming and followed by his friends. A male nurse was trying to clean his leg wound and all the boy could do was yell and shout about wanting a scar, how nobody ever look at his legs, how the bad bad nurse was hurting him and how much he wanted a cigarette. His slightly schizophrenic girlfriend kept wandering in an out alternately saying things like ’sorry baby, do you want me to hold your hand’ (in her best crooney voice) and ‘stop behaving like a baby, they pushed you the front of the line man, ahead of all the other people, suck it up’ (in her best shouting voice). Imagine that conversation with a lot of bad language thrown in and you will get most of the picture.

3. And just as the nurse appeared to dress my finger a very drunk and emaciated man was brought in on a gurney by paramedics. While he was being transferred to one of the beds in a cubicle by the very kind paramedic, she told him his stuff was at the foot of the bed and asked him if he wanted anything else before she left him in the ER’s capable hands. He growled, ‘yes, can I have a beer please?’. To which she, without blinking an eyelid, replied, ‘No darling, someone will bring you a cuppa tea shortly. Now won’t that be nice?’

Such is a big real life ER – I have huge respect for paramedics, doctors and nurses who walk these halls each day and night, trying to help people who come to them for emergency care. Of course speeding up looking after smaller insignificant injuries i.e. being seen by and attended to by one instead of three people, in one shot instead of over 2 hours, would probably make everyone’s life a bit easier. But I am sure there is method in their madness.

Thumb is healing well and as off this Saturday I have a fully functioning left hand – which means I am back to the chopping board for some home- cooked grub. Much as I enjoyed eating takeaway all week I am glad for the simplicity of not fighting over the menu anymore.

And as far as the ER goes all I can add is that a George Clooney lookalike would have made the 2 hour stay way easier! Why are all the cute doctors/ nurses only ever on TV shows?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Friendship V: Friends vs. Acquaintances – the endgame

Oh so long that you might need some coffee (to stay awake) and a comfortable chair (in case you don't manage to).

In the hectic pace of life in London, there are hardly enough hours to fight the transport system, do a full day’s work, go home to cook and tidy (many forms: laundry, ironing, dusting, vaccuming etc.), prepare for the next day and maintain full blossom friendships. What meager time of each evening is left after an exhausting day is usually spent watching television, reading and unwinding from the trauma of an adrenaline paced rush. Socialising is for the weekends unless it is well planned for and similarly executed in a timely fashion during the working week. The weekends are filled with errands and ‘me’ time and ‘us’ time and larger scale socialising – all before mentally clocking on for a new work week. In short, friendship maintenance and acquaintance developing take skill and patience and committment.

The key reason in writing this post is to examine the difference between acquaintances and friends. In 2009 (and for some years before this) there has been the massive influx of people in one’s life thanks in no small part to technology – so where earlier you would have called to wish someone a very happy birthday late at night from the one phone booth near your house VERY QUICKLY because it cost an arm and a leg, now you have the option of sending a free e-card, skyping them, leaving a message on their Facebook, e-mailing and having a gift delivered direct to their doorstep at very little extra cost. Where in college I lost touch with all but a few close friends thanks to these long distance phone calls and the vagaries of the postal service today everyone is out to be friends with everyone else and their brother, distance be damned. This often makes things difficult and confusing, for all parties concerned.

Sadly I am an old fashioned girl. Or is that just plain old I wonder? To me there is a marked difference in friendships and acquaintance-ships and in my world these are two distinct things. I find that often in my interactions with people this is where the confusion lies. Friendships in adulthood are harder to come by, gauge and access with any modicum of sense because of the way we form habits and interests that become more settled and staid as time goes on. Things don't click like they used to. There is a level of apprehension and thinking 'is this worth pursuing' if the click is not instant. On the other hand it is still easy to make acquaintances – we said hi at a party, small talked about the weather, your kid, how cool you think living in Wembley is – and lo and behold we part acquaintances. I would then never describe you as my friend. This is the bulk of our adult social interactions and the examples are endless. People you meet at work and then decide to go for a drink with, people at blog meets, picnics and parties, friends of friends of friends. Mostly you meet, are introduced by the common denominator, exchange pleasantries, swap life histories, look for the things, people and places that you might have in common.

Sometimes you come up trumps and there is a an instant connection and you just know that you will exchange mobile phone numbers at the end of the evening, at which point you will not only give them your real number but you will also make an effort to meet for lunch, introduce your partners to each other and possibly make plans for a movie. This is not the norm but the exception. Unless you are a very friendly person (i.e. not me) who makes friends with everybody, want them ALL to come to your house, share childhood photographs with, see each other every weekend and make one giant group - in which case we clearly have nothing in common and you shouldn't even be reading this.

But most often the introduction, swap stories stage will remain just that, the extent of how much information you will swap. Because in yours and/or the other persons mind it is clear to see or muddy as hell as to where this might go. There is no potential and no matter how hard you try you can see that you will not be friends in the true sense of the word. Sometimes you give it a second and third try, you mix and mingle whether out of politeness or to genuinely give it a shot but unless something magically appears between you it is unlikely that a long and lasting friendship, that keystone to adult life, will appear.

Being a friend, even as an adult, is about sharing confidences and enjoying each other’s company in a more uninhibited way than say a formal relationship with a colleague. It's about sharing common interests, laughing at the same things and connecting. Most of this is not a learnt behaviour or response. Mostly, but especially the connection, has to come naturally, because anything forced will not thrive but make each of the people more resentful and untrusting of each other and jeopardise other future relationships. Sometimes things click, other times they don’t. Thankfully the world is a big open accepting space and if one friendship doesn’t work out to ones satisfaction you don’t need to crawl under a rock to be forgotten. You just get back out there and try, try again.

Some people are loners and don’t need the adult interaction with anyone but their partners and their 4.5 friends from chaddhi-hood. But time and distance from bedrock friends of yore necessitates some socialisation - how likely is it that you and all your college friends will stay in the same city throughout your careers in this fast moving world? Else an adult life in a faraway place (or any place really) would be impossibly lonely to bear. I like to think that with age comes wisdom and the finesse to maintain ones dignity in the face of forming friendships. Alas this is not always the case. It is, as I am learning, a trained response. To have the grace to accept ones shortfalls and the understanding of what the difference is between friend and acquaintance. Which is not to say acquaintances are a bad thing – in fact it’s quite nice to, once in a while, have a slew of people with whom random non-meaningful, yet colourful conversation can take place. Checking about health, children, movies watched, opinions, cultural interests – these are all things that might widen our understanding and view of the world. But they are distinct from the influences of friendship where the conversations impact how we think and behave. And no matter how many advances you or I make, in some cases you will never go beyond the veneer of acquaintance-ship into the warmth of friendship.

I want to leave this with two prime examples from my life - to explain how even technology trumps this very human of relationships:
1. Evil evil Facebook: I am no fan. Before I could say ‘Jack Sprat jumped on a mat’ I had nearly 300 ‘friends’ on it – and to be honest I pursued only about 20 of those to become my friends. This is not because I am so popular – it is because everyone wants to be everyone’s friend and use it in a totally different way than I do. I use no applications; I have no interest in taking the multitudes of tests to see who my top film stars are or what kind of flower I am; I don’t get throwing of animals and food at my brother and my birthday calendar is a book that lives on my kitchen sideboard. I use it to put up random pictures (with no given regularity) and share what book I am reading at that moment – nothing deep, insightful or meaningful. I have ‘friends’ on it who are people I barely talked to in school, distant relatives, people I haven’t seen in 20 years, people I will never ever bump into on the street, friends of friends who remember me from the common friends 20th birthday party. All kinds of people, who are lovely no doubt, but not really my friends. These are mainly acquaintances. With friends and some acquaintances I stay in touch via the odd email, the phone and in person. So in one fell swoop, a few weeks ago, I deleted about half my ‘friends’ from Facebook. I feel lighter and I have no remorse. Because the people I kept on are still not all my ‘friends’ but they are people in whose lives I am vaguely and genuinely interested in following (loosely) and this is the easiest way to stay in touch without having to delve deeper.
2. But to illustrate that I am not a Luddite who believes that too much technology is a bad thing let me tell you about my friend Pretty. She used to write a blog which I loved reading. We met on a whim, for coffee, on a dark winters evening on the steps of the Bank of England. She claimed to have few friends being new to London and I was feeling a particular friend shaped hole in my life as well at that point. Long story short we exchanged e-mails for a bit and decided to meet. From the instant we met I think we both knew we’d be friends. We sat in Starbucks far longer that planned that evening and over coffee and laughter arranged to meet with our spouses very soon. I could tell then, immediately in fact, that we’d be pukka friends. And I think over the years we have become and we are just that - friends. But she stopped writing. Which is a crying shame because her writing though usually brief was always insightful, tinged with humour and good cheer. She claims she doesn’t need the blog to vent into an abyss anymore. What she forgets is what the abyss throws up is unexpected treasure (um, me?), sound commentary/ advice/ viewpoints from independent third parties (um, you?) and the odd stalker (which could be fun, no?). Nothing I say will convince her to start again – thank goodness we became friends before she stopped. If it weren’t for our blogs we’d never have met. So for some things I am grateful to technology.

Life is full of treasure and friends can be found in so many avenues in this big bright world that it is a shame not to try and to be closed to the idea of new friends as we grow old. I give full marks to extroverts like my mother who is surrounded by acquaintances and friends constantly. And while I realise that I am not at all like her and have real friends far and few between as opposed to her many many, like her I understand that there is a difference between the two, what loyalty in friendship means, what the power of being an acquaintance is and appreciate both friends and acquaintances for what they bring to the table.

Once you learn how to make the distinction and set your sights accordingly life can be wonderful and fulfilling with people who fill it meaningfully and with people who entertainingly live in its fringes. Whichever you are or whomever you choose to be, remember that life is never lonely if you have a friend. And being a good friend can be an entirely fulfilling way to get through life.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Friendships IV: Mentor and Mentee

Not everyone has one and not everyone needs one but mentors can be an important part of one’s adult life. Beside the very formal way of being assigned a mentor by your work place (to boost efficiency, show you the ropes, be able to whinge to in confidence blah blah blah) I think there is plenty of opportunity to find mentors in life. Not like a life coach (whose job descriptions I don’t fully understand although as a career it sounds intriguing), instead a person from your area of work to be more like a sounding board.

Mentors are not people who start out being your friends, but often, given time and opportunity they can also turn into friends. But this is not essential by any means. It is important to be very distinct in this relationship because while you can sob on a friends shoulder about anything under the sun including adult acne, burnt dinner, crap movie, the job of a mentor is more focused on helping you find a solution to a problem, guide your career, be a sounding board and generally share the wisdom of their experience with you for something a bit more serious than where to get takeaway from. I also think that it should flow in that way – Mentor to friend, not friend to mentor – and this is because as friends you have a much more informal relationship and becoming a mentor is possibly harder and could be taken less seriously and jeopardise the friendship. Whereas starting out as a mentor and turning into friend is a whole different ballgame – one where the mentor is connecting with you on a more formal level, for a more specific issue, without the easy banter of friendship, and therefore is more likely to have a serious view and opinions on your problem/ situation. This then can (but not always) form the solid platform for a friendship to rest on.

I found my mentor at work quite by accident. Neither was she looking for someone to mentor and nor was I looking for a mentor. It just so happened that when faced with a career indecision I made a foray into checking with this person and thereafter it became natural without any mention of it that I could go to her with problems/ situations. She never had solutions for me as such, just a correlation to her experiences and a laying out of possible options more clearly and succinctly that my muddled brain could manage. Eventually, we voiced the fact that we had a mentor-mentee relationship and this made things easier; her more approachable and willing to share a larger chunk of her contacts and expertise and me more able to think through things rather than just making hasty, ill informed decisions.

Once she left my organisation we’d meet up once in a while and talk about my career vs. personal life balance amongst other things and she always had something interesting or useful to add to the equation.

Eventually we went from being mentor and mentee to also being friends. She still gives me good advice when I seek it but we also just go out for the odd meal, cup of coffee and chat. In an environment where there is so much hustle and bustle and focus on career and life balance having a mentor and friend has been an invaluable help. To be able to talk to someone in confidence and not have your idea knocked down cold or to be able to weigh up different options clearly and objectively or to be able to talk without judgment – these are the gifts that a mentor can give.

I know that not everyone needs one but with my change in career and city/ country it was amazingly useful to have this person on board. And over the years beside being a mentor she has also become my friend, age difference not withstanding. It is my opinion only that it is always better if you can find your own, approach them with the idea, be clear about what you want from the relationship rather than have one imposed on you because that becomes the first step in feeling forced to do something you don’t really want to.

What can I say? I got lucky.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Friendships III: The love of your life and a possible dilemma

After college (and a possible post graduation) comes the real, often bright lights of a harsh world. Filled with adulthood people, the ones you pick up along the way in your adult life – mentors and acquaintances and friends (and I will come back to these in another post) - from amidst work colleagues, your neighbours and random strangers at parties and other similar avenues. With luck, from among these, you will find a life partner, someone to share the everyday with, to set-up home with, to gasp at the proverbial rainbow with, to walk the walk with. Sometimes other people pick this person for you, sometimes you stumble upon them in the unlikeliest of places and friendships blossom into love, or your eyes meet across the room and in that instant it’s all over. Any old way you get there you work like hell to make that partnership be the epitome of a happy content exciting good life.

With this appears the first dilemma. You try and meld your friends and your just chosen life partners friends together. Sometimes you’ve moved to a new city and are at the mercy of all his friends/ social circles. Other times it’s the same city but suddenly you are taken up with endless ‘family’ affairs and all friendships take a back seat. Or it’s a new city and there is only family, nobody has friends and it’s like being at the kindergarten playground all over again, wondering whom to talk to, how to make friends etc. But usually, no matter where you landed up the initial being married stage includes loads of ‘us’ time, where the need for other people is low and goes unnoticed till a more stable daily routine of work and play makes its mark. This short season precludes anyone’s friends. After this initial honeymoon/ tourist-in-new-city phase it’s time for friends to meet the new partner. So dinners, get-togethers, movies, coffee, picnics – a number of ways in which friends of one spouse are introduced to the other. Sometimes they stick, and everybody gets along with everybody else. You form a wider group and with luck the fact that the husbands were friends becomes irrelevant. In fact you become such good friends with some of the others wives that you forget that introducing you is the only good work that the men did that year. Or your friend and her partner become such good friends of your husband that you have to cry out in disgust when they form the mutual admiration society and declare presidency of the random hindi movie music club. But all this takes time, luck and effort.

Of course this is not the par for the course for most of your friends or his friends. Some you just continue meeting once or twice a year as the inescapable social obligation requires. Others fall straight off the radar and appear as hungry voyeurs on Facebook. The ones you are keen to keep and he is keen to keep find ways to work into your routines - drinks after work, afternoon at the movies, a wander on Oxford Street, dinner at a new restaurant, email and texts to keep up to date on the news – various ways for various people. Mostly you try but don’t always form cliques and groups. You just drift in each other’s company, meet when time and weather and mood suit. Other social intrusions into limited free time include meeting the odd relatives that might live in your city or the occasional attempt to meet and cultivate new friendships as a couple with other couples you both think have potential (how pompous that sounds! But it’s true). You check them out as they do the same to you and inevitably some will find things in common and become friends while others will stonewall you (or you them) till you (or they) no longer try. For the ones you are desperate to keep the easy alternate is that you organise girls nights outs while the men have boy’s nights out. The tough alternate is giving in, losing most of your friends to the institution of marriage and since this is 2009, hopefully in your book, as in mine, that isn’t a choice.