Food for Thought
Welcome to My Nightmare...
This is not an advice column about how to slow down, admire the flowers, smell the coffee etc, though that's probably a good idea every once in a while. It's just a reminder that sometimes it's worth paying a little attention to your surroundings and the people you are dealing with.
There are times when life moves very quickly indeed; blink, and you risk missing an important cue leading up to the next act in the drama, or a clue hinting at the moment that is about to go wrong. My editor at Star Magazine can certainly vouch for this, after my colleague Sharbari Ahmed's column "Writing the Wrong" was wrongly credited to my byline in last Friday's issue of the magazine! In the end, everything was sorted out successfully, but it gave all of us a couple of stressful days Sharbari, because the credit for her work accidentally went to me; me, because the idea that I would be writing such a controversial (or for that matter, any kind of) eulogy for Sharbari was a most unwelcome thought; and of course, as far as my editor was concerned, for all the obvious reasons.
Now just so that we understand each other, this is not an advice column about how to slow down, admire the flowers, smell the coffee etc, though that's probably a good idea every once in awhile. It's just a reminder that sometimes it's worth paying a little attention to your surroundings and the people you are dealing with. Most of us have an internal radar system that sends us "heads up" messages related to these matters, but all too often we allow other preoccupations to distract our attention away from these vital signals. And invariably, we pay a price for our inattention.
Several years ago, when I was studying in London, a friend came to visit from her university in the US. Eager to show her some of what my adopted city had to offer, we went on a whirlwind tour that included Leicester Square and the Trocadero. As we browsed through one of the souvenir shops in the Trocadero, Sabina paused in front of a glass shelf full of little china animals. I waited patiently as she examined a few before replacing them on the shelf.
Suddenly, as she reached out to place one of the animals back in its place, I saw to my disbelief that even before she had touched the shelf it somehow dropped downwards, plunging dozens of animal figures to their clamouring destruction. It all happened very quickly of course, but in the instant that I was watching it seemed as if the shelf and the animals fell in slow motion, as my friend's face stretched almost comically into an exaggerated expression of horror.
Of course, there was nothing comical about what happened next, since this involved nothing less than a financial disaster. A dozen of those overpriced little creatures cost more than my weekly living allowance as a student, and several dozen had already crashed to their doom. As the two of us stood in petrified silence, waiting for a heavy hand to land on our shoulders and demand compensation for the damage, nothing happened. For a minute or two, we stood there quietly, and our eyes met in the sudden hope that we could make a run for it. After all, it wasn't even our fault!
Then, as Sabina began whispering "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry..." over and over again, I decided to bite the bullet. Calling over one of the shop staff, I firmly told her that there was something wrong with the shelf and that it had fallen without either of us applying any pressure to it. My assertions were made against (and over) the background soundtrack of my friend muttering how sorry she was. She continued to do this even as I tried to nudge her to keep silent; she was simply in shock. Miraculously, the kind shop manager agreed that there must have been something wrong with the shelf, and after we had voluntarily helped dig through the rubble to identify survivors, we were allowed to leave the shop with our scant finances unmolested. Years later, I still avoid china shelves in souvenir shops like the plague. Commonsense, after all, dictates that prevention is on principle the best course of action.
But if that was an example of one situation where the outcome was not so easy to predict, there are certainly many others where it is all too predictable. A British friend of mine has an 18-year-old son who has recently decided to drop out of school. The youth welfare services have assisted him in finding a job, but the problem is getting him to keep it! Years of bad sleeping habits and a chronic habit of partying have combined to turn his sleep cycle upside down; so as you can imagine, the likelihood of him getting to work unassisted by 730 in the morning is roughly on par with the possibility of running into a unicorn in the supermarket (though I will admit that I live in hope on that one).
My friend is a physical therapist who works hard and needs her sleep, and after surviving a week where she'd had to get up by 6:30 AM most days in order to try and get her son to wake up, she was exhausted; on the two days when she didn't, he overslept. One of the days, despite her best efforts, he was late to work. And on three occasions she had to drive him to work to get him there in time. So when one of her patients kindly asked her how her son was doing, she couldn't resist venting some of her frustrations.
Needless to say, it didn't improve her state of mind to find out that her kind patient was in fact her son's boss! Her offspring had apparently known that his supervisor was a patient of his mother's, but "forgot" to mention it to her. My friend understandably holds him squarely responsible for what happened, but although blame-laying may feel good, it rarely helps. The good news is that by some miracle, her son is still employed (no thanks to his mother's impetuous candour or his own carelessness with vital information).
Finally, there are those situations where you have to take full responsibility for mess-ups because you literally have no one else to blame for your fate. Like a friend of mine who took a group of business associates out to dinner recently. Trying to make a good first impression, she was on her best behaviour. Until she found herself accidentally locked into the toilet. Given her claustrophobic tendencies, this was not good news, but she tried to keep calm nevertheless.
After initially attempting to attract attention by knocking on the door and calling out softly to anyone who might be nearby, she succumbed to panic and began shouting and banging on the door. This being Bangladesh, within about 10 seconds, a small crowd had gathered outside the door. To her utter embarrassment, she found that she had in fact been pulling the door, when it was designed to be opened as a result of being pushed! And as she finally stumbled out, it was to meet the shocked gaze of her new business associates, who'd had a ringside view of the commotion from their table nearby...
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