Friday, October 24, 2008

The office Christmas party

Cartoon Fergus Lynch

I am not gregarious by nature.
I work best on a one-to-one basis or in small groups. Put me in a room full of people – even those I know well – and I feel overawed and withdraw into myself.
Alcohol has a similar effect on me. Whereas it tends to break down people’s inhibitions and loosens the screws at the back of the tongue, I tend to get progressively quieter the more I consume.
All in all, I am not the best person to ask to a Christmas party.
This does not deter them however from asking me. I am sure they feel they are doing me a great favour by cajoling me into going and they do not take my protestations that “I would sooner be trampled underfoot by rampaging oxen” seriously.
In Dante’s Divine Comedy – a right barrel of laughs if ever there was one – the author takes a trip to Hell, remarking on the different degrees of tortures prepared for sinners according to their depravity on earth. I was surprised to find no mention in the odyssey of the wretched beings forced to attend an office Christmas party in perpetuity as a punishment for their worldly wrongdoings.
It is a long time now since I ran out of excuses. There are only so many uncles that need to be buried just before Christmas. It is unlikely that my ears would need syringing three Christmases on the trot. Missing the bus and not being able to find a matching pair of socks are excuses that have both been viewed dimly in the past.
Nowadays I just go, on the proviso that I’m determined not to have a good time.
As a professional curmudgeon, I think the thing that horrifies me most about the Christmas party is the camaraderie on show. It may well be a time for peace on earth and goodwill to all men but I find it hard to reconcile the manager who is unapproachable and dismissive for fifty weeks of the year with the New Age reveller who keeps slapping you on the shoulder and telling you to call him Tom.
I think it is an order thing. I know where I stand with this particular individual and react accordingly. However when the lines become blurred and Mr. Burns suddenly metamorphosises into Ned Flanders, life assumes an unreal quality that I find deeply disturbing.
I am at an age now where, to the younger staff members’ disbelief, I do not equate pouring copious amounts of alcohol down my throat in record time with enjoying myself. I watch my less restrained co-workers gleefully pronounce that they are “going to get locked” and hark back to the good old days when I would do the same. Nowadays I know that the following day will be a complete wash out if I follow suit and do not judge the cost to be worthwhile. In short, my hair is not long enough to let down any more.
And then there is the girl – it normally is a girl – who spends the evening taking photographs of everybody and getting other people to take photographs of her. These photographs are then passed around the canteen the following day to those poor souls who were unfortunate enough not to attend. “There’s me and Sheila with a drink.” “There’s me, Sheila and Donal with a drink.” “There’s Donal and me with a drink.”
“It looks like you had a brilliant time,” I remark on these occasions, wondering whether she actually did anything at the party apart from taking photos of various permutations of fellow workers with bottles of drink.
Of course, the one big advantage of being a miserable old sod and observing, rather than participating in, the general mayhem, is that you never get that cringing feeling when you wake up the following day and remember what you said to that girl that you never really noticed before but who had scrubbed up pretty well last night. There can be few tortures currently in use by CIA that are more dreadful than the period between waking up after a Christmas party at which you’ve made a complete ass of yourself and the sheepish and crestfallen entry back into the workplace. During that time, all possible options from emigration to resignation invade your head, for you know that everyone will be talking about you and your lurid antics and what little respect you ever had will be lying on the floor along with the pine needles and bits of tinsel.
Of course, it’s never quite as bad as you feared as most of your co-workers will have been too intoxicated themselves to have noticed your little indiscretions.
Except for me, that is. That’s when I come into my own.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Reaping nature’s windfall

Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum, which to me seems a strange thing to get het up about. Labels that stick into the back of your neck, umbrellas that turn inside out when you look at them sideways, the hit record “Dancing on the ceiling” – these are all subjects that I could wax vehement on for hours. Vacuums, I have no particularly strong feelings about either way, which shows that, in this regard at least, I am not really “at one” with nature.
Where my thinking does coincide with that of nature is in our joint abhorrence of waste. At least I assume that nature abhors waste, though I’ve never actually heard her mentioning this fact personally. Bushes grow berries, bird eat berries and spit out the seeds in disgust, young birds grow, new berry bushes grow – it is all what Elton John was rabbiting on about in “The Circle of Life.” Nothing in nature, it seems, should be wasted.
I got to considering this fact the other week whilst striding down to Dunnes in Ongar to see if they had any Werther’s Originals, for which I have developed a sudden and unaccounted for craving, despite the sudden onset of the recession. I found myself pondering the now nearly-naked young trees that lined the Littlepace Distributor Road and the vast array of brown and yellow leaves that adorned the pathway.
Leaves. Millions of them. If I were Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” I would have counted them but I’m not, so I didn’t. Just lying there on the road, the path and the black strip that we assume is the cycle path. Never mind what becomes of the broken-hearted – what becomes of all the leaves that nature annually discards at this time of year? Where do they all go to? They don’t gradually decompose and enrich the tarmac, that’s for sure.
I assume of course that in the great circle of life in years gone by, this latter scenario would indeed be the case, when the leaves would rot into the soil, forming compost and so on. But nowadays, it just seems such a waste for these leaves to fall on stony ground, like in the parable. Nature doesn’t seem to be adapting very quickly to the new blanket of tarmac that has smothered our landscape.
When you come to think of it, though, discarded leaves have very few uses apart from the aforementioned composting, which is disappointing, because a leaf is a thing of beauty in itself. When you hold it up to the light and view the veins and the colours and the shapes, it is a work of art that cannot be reproduced by the hand of man – it is natural art, like the Giants Causeway or bobbly sheep’s droppings in Connemara.
The only good thing you can do with leaves is to shuffle through them, when they have drifted up against a wall, or maybe kick them in great quantities around the street. The problem with this is that there is not much money in it. My Uncle Balthazar did this for a living for five years before his wife left him.
As a young man in a bedsit in Ranelagh, I gave 99% of my wages to my landlord and Arthur Guinness and had very little left for luxuries like food. One day I did indeed try to make a homemade soup out of leaves that I picked up in the street. Let us say it was not a complete success and I was obliged to stay within sprinting distance of the toilet for a week afterwards.
Similarly, though striking examples of natural beauty, the leaves do not make good wallpaper. I tried it once on the wall of the kitchen when my wife was away at her sister’s and though it initially looked very striking, as the leaves dried and became wrinkled, the effect deteriorated. In the end, it just looked like a load of leaves stuck on a wall. And be warned, its murder trying to match up the pattern.
I have tried to think up a way of gainfully using all these leaves but the only thing that I can think of is that we should abandon the Euro and adopt the Leaf as our unit of currency. I realise that my grasp of how world currencies work rivals that of Idi Amin (“The country’s broke? Then we’ll print more money”) but there would be enormous benefits if we were to follow the Green Pound through to its natural conclusion.
Firstly, it would encourage people to plant more trees, which would help to counterbalance the effect of all those greenhouses that are heating up the sun. If you are literally being paid to go green, then that can only be beneficial to the health of the world. More trees equals more carbon dioxide equals more ozone layer or something like that, so we could save the world and get rich doing it. Of course, we would need to enlighten the populace on the difference between deciduous and evergreen and which of them would provide a regular source of income.
Secondly it would get rid of banks and their constant ripping us off. There would be no need to keep our leaves in financial institutions as there would be more than enough to go around for everyone. Just go out into the street if you’re getting a bit short. It would also be a fallacy for parents to admonish their profligate offspring with the words, “Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know.”
Of course, we would have to tighten up our customs and excise operation to stop people smuggling large quantities of leaves into the country and devaluing our currency. We could employ sniffer giraffes at docks and airports, though naturally you’d have to slip them the occasional five leaf note to keep them happy.
Back gardens in our leafy suburbs would become veritable jungles of shrubs and small trees as we all wait for the autumnal windfall. Farmers would employ Securicor to collect their harvest, though doubtless they would still demand subsidies from the government for doing so. Medical costs would plummet as whole families would get fit by going on long forest walks with big sacks.
But of course, all this will probably only happen in a post-apocalyptic society when the few survivors emerge from bomb shelters and gaze around at the devastation outside. It will be like the dove returning to the ark with a leaf in its mouth or maybe the coast of Greenland being discovered by Leaf Eriksson.
Come on, Brian! You know it makes sense.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The joy of strimming

One of the unforeseen consequences of global warming that doesn’t seem to appear anywhere in the Kyoto agreement is the fact that people’s lawns now grow in the winter. Whereas before, you could safely pack the lawnmower away at the end of September and know that you wouldn’t have to clap eyes on the damned thing again before April, these days the sprouting jungle both back and front is a constant nagging reminder during the winter months that you really should get the finger out.
Being a traditionalist when it suits me, I put even the vaguest thoughts of lawn cutting out of my head and make up spurious excuses why a trip to the shed to retrieve the lawn mower should be shunned. The ground will be too wet, I maintain. The grass needs to grow and breathe for a while without being ruthlessly scythed down every couple of weeks. I feel a twinge in my back.
It was therefore with great satisfaction last week that I cut the grass for the final time in 2008. Due to the inclement weather and a bout of sheer laziness, it had not been done for a month previously and, despite the fact that it hadn’t rained for five days – surely some sort of national record – the ground still resembled Strangford Lough at high tide.
But I persevered, squelching through the mashed grass and finally finding a use for the brown bin which had been put out empty for the recycling people the last few times.
Finally I took the strimmer – which had come free when we purchased the lawnmower eight years ago – and proceeded to laboriously unravel the flex which had somehow become tightly woven around the body of the strimmer like a thin python asphyxiating a sausage dog.
The strimmer.
Surely this model of modern technology has to be the most useless invention ever devised by man? Is there anybody in history who has managed to cut five yards of edging without the bit of cord snapping off?
Sure enough, as I began, I knew that a particularly sturdy looking dandelion three yards away was going to cause problems. There was no escape. We had to go into battle. I whispered a few words of encouragement into where I imagined the strimmer’s ear should be, shouted “Death or glory!” at the top of my voice, startling a jackdaw on my cotonaster, and ploughed into the fray.
It was all over before it began. The green cord was no match for the soft juicy flesh of dandelion stalk and, after the all too familiar “zip” and the change in tone of the strimmer, the two inch green strip went sailing into the hebe further down the herbaceous border, as we fancifully call the few miserable plants straddling the lawn. (My garden is littered with two inch green strips of strimmer cord. One day, I am going to go around collecting them all and construct an astro turf football pitch out back)
I uttered the word that is worse than “feck” and turned the strimmer upside down, tutting impatiently while the rotating bit of plastic slowed to such an extent that it wouldn’t take the skin off my fingers. As I removed the cap, the tightly wound coil of cord sprung out at me like a joke toy and I sighed and commenced re-winding.
It was then that I glanced up. Declan, my neighbour from two doors down, was similarly engaged. As was the man with the white van further up the street. And the man with the dog further down. It seemed that a good fifty per cent of the street was at that moment engaged in trying to thread the required two inches of green strimmer thread through the tiny hole in the base and a blue haze hung malcontentedly over the estate as expletives punctuated the afternoon balm.
Suddenly I realised what a brilliant marketing ploy it had been to hand out a free strimmer with every lawnmower. Yes, it would have cost the company millions but they would have made a tidy profit in the intervening period with all the spools of strimming thread sold to disgruntled lawn cutters who saw the cost as a necessary extra.
Now we like to think of ourselves as a modern society at the cutting edge of the technological revolution sweeping the globe. I work for Intel and their level of expertise is so great that I have no idea what they produce. We can split atoms, whether for profit or simply for amusement, and we have devised machines that can actually tell you that you have just taken a wrong turning and I told you to turn left at that petrol station, you dumbkopf.
Would it be possible, I meekly enquire of our budding inventors and teams of research scientists nervously wondering if they are the next for the dole queue – would it be possible for someone to come up with a strimmer cord that didn’t actually break in hand to hand combat with a thistle or a daisy or a dock leaf? One that flashed brightly like a scimitar in the hands of a crowing Mongol, scything down all that stood up to it?
Maybe – and I am no scientist, so I am open to correction – the material used in the strimmer cord is not up to the job? Perhaps if tungsten steel were used instead, or at least something that didn’t give up the ghost when confronted by something thin and botanical?
Naturally there would need to be limits. We wouldn’t want one that knocked down your garden fence when you tried to decimate the sprouting grass springing joyously up against it or sliced through the breeze block that your shed is standing on but surely there must be some happy medium?
Personally, and I realise that I am abandoning all my principles of snapping up free gifts, I would be happy to pay a modest amount of my hard earned cash for a strimmer if I didn’t have to perform a cycle of running repairs on every circuit of the lawn.
Anyway, all you budding inventors out there, you have until next April.