Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Christmas Alone

A few years ago I had to spend Christmas alone. I say “I had to,” but I mean that a series of events within and out of my control conspired in such a way that it came about I was spending Christmas alone.

I had just started a new engineering contract in a northern city in England far from home, home being the shores of Portsmouth on the southern sea front of England at the time. My new contract was as an electronic engineer with a manufacturer of medical devices such as MRI scanners, ultrasound scanners, and life support machines such as ventilators and heart-lung monitors. Our company not only designed, manufactured, and installed the machines, but also provided second-line support. Given the nature of their use, at least one engineer had to be in the labs or on call at all times to provide support and troubleshoot the devices should a problem arise at a client site. Being new to the company, I wanted to impress my very good looking boss. Also being Buddhist and having no kids I thought it would be a great Christmas gift to give my Christian colleagues to let them go home to their kids on Christmas Eve.

I was also about a year into my current relationship. I had tactfully avoided going to my boyfriend’s house for Christmas the year before by telling him it was too early to meet the parents, but it was getting difficult to do that again this year. The poor guy had missed spending the previous holidays with his family to stay and celebrate Christmas with me. This was the only excuse I had to send him home for Christmas on his own. It wasn’t so much the parents, but the sisters, man. Parents were adorable, but I was terrified of sisters-in-law. I was highly skeptical of Steig Larsson’s interpretation in his books (The Millennium Trilogy) of some fathers as daughter killers for I think fathers are dear creatures who, even when they were rapists and serial killers of other women, when it came to their own daughters they were driven by the same protective instincts as mother hens. However, there was something definitely Freudian and incestuous about sisters-in-law’s relationships with one’s boyfriend or husband. I vividly remembered how the two sisters-in-law had tortured me in my first relationship. I was a “gold digger” who had stolen their brothers’ monthly pay that had rightfully come to them as presents. I had stolen his time which he had been spending babysitting their little ones. I had cooked wrong, hadn’t cleaned enough, had folded the bathroom towels wrong, and so went my list of errors. I had been deemed a bad engineer for having to go to a third interview to meet the MD to secure a job, having already completed technical, phone, and first face-to-face interviews. (Multi stage interviews like this were a common practice in Engineering by the way.) All this had led to fights in the bedroom with my then husband.

Experiences with subsequent boyfriends’ sisters after the divorce had been almost as bad, and this one had three. So you could say I jumped at the chance of sending my cutie home for Christmas alone, explaining that my boss had asked me to work over Christmas.

Christmas day in the lab was itself uneventful and I came home at six in the evening to a microwave dinner in my new flat. It was a crisp clear night at 10ºC (50ºF) and I decided I was going to take the 25 minute walk into the city to stretch my legs and see if anything interesting was going on. I only had to have my phone with me to be on call and I took my laptop with mobile broadband in a backpack, just to be prepared in case an urgent support call were to come through. As I was taking the brisk walk into town, it occurred to me that I had never been in a city at Christmas; I had always been at home around a warm fire or at a nice big party surrounded by friends and relatives. This was going to be a novel experience, which was a good thing, I told myself.

I could not understand how the city could be so deserted at 7 in the evening. With shops normally open till 9 this place was always buzzing like a beehive as far as I knew. Not a soul was in sight; not a shop open for sales. It felt surreal. I had grabbed a couple of bottles of beer on my way out of the flat which I proceeded to enjoy all alone on my favourite bench in front of the mall, watching the stars. I walked the deserted, but well lit streets and pavements for a while before the beers started to take effect and I desperately needed the loo.

I walked over to the public toilets which, to my alarm, were closed and locked! I walked over to some of the familiar pubs, and I walked the crowded market street in the desperate hope of finding some place open, to no avail. Then it occurred to me that I was all alone and no one was there to see me if I were to choose one of the many islands of bushes. I contemplated the big patch of bushes separating the cinema from the car park, complaining of God’s sex discrimination at how badly designed we were for this. The city that seemed so deserted suddenly felt like it was thronging with crowds. I knew this was irrational, but the city was a place where millions of people roamed, and I felt that now that they were safe and happy in nice warm homes, their guardian angels were roaming the city all alone just like me.

I headed over to the park where there were several overgrown patches of land out of the immediate site of any roaming guardian angels and carefully picked a patch of overgrown bushes with an enclave nicely hidden away. After a minute or two, I was happily on my way once again to enjoy the city centre without discomfort.

Not so soon. No sooner I had made my way out of the bushes than I felt a stinging sensation. With my hand I could feel my back patched with stinging, itchy, swollen spots. I had had contact with poison ivy or stinging nettle, or I had been stung by some creature whose lazy nest of winter hibernation I had rudely disturbed. Soon my back was covered with patches of swollen blotches which were spreading gradually but surely. It was time to panic because I was someone who was allergic to many unpredictable things. Some years ago I had suddenly broken out in a rash of blotches in my gym. The rash had spread fast all over my body and in the end I had been taken to the A&E with my tongue swollen and wheezing from the respiratory tract being blocked by the swelling. It had turned out that I had been having an allergic reaction to Olbas oil that the friend I was working out with had released into the steam in the sauna; and the oil had accidentally spilled onto the clothes I had worn after the workout. The blotches were spreading over my back and upper thighs now. The situation could get serious very rapidly.

I quickly dialled several taxi companies, intending to take a taxi to the nearest Accident and Emergency ward, picking the numbers from the yellow pages app on my iPhone. I had made about 10 calls, all of which went unanswered, before I realized that none of the taxi companies were working on Christmas Eve either. The blotches were spreading up my back and down my legs now. I called 911 and the operator put me through to someone who advised me to describe clearly where I was and then to remain there and wait for them.

I sat on the park bench and waited, swollen and itching all over, for what seemed like an eon. I had never had to call the emergency services before and I suddenly realized that the emergency number in England was 999; I had remembered 911 from the 9-11 disaster in New York. I thought 999 was much more appropriate because 9 was the unluckiest number possible and it suitably represented a situation of maximum possible bad luck that one would have to be in, as I was, to call it. Number 1 was my lucky number (having been born on the 19th of the month which added up to 1) and the two 1’s diminished the bad luck representation of the leading 9. Anyway, it turned out, as I learned by chance, that 911 is also redirected to 999 in England in order to accommodate the accidental use of the American convention.

I had to go through the humiliating experience of explaining my misadventure while being examined and treated by the paramedics. They had in fact arrived within 7 minutes of my call though it had seemed much longer to me. I was later taken to the A&E where I was monitored until the blotches and swelling went down. The next morning I was able to take a taxi home to my flat.

The moral of the story is that, just as the City never sleeps, it is also never empty, even on Christmas Eve. If you do wrong things in it there are City Elves who will make you suffer.  Also your sisters-in-law will always get you somehow.

For stories of life and love in the world of high tech engineering look out for Jac Wright's upcoming series The Reckless Engineer.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Review: Deconstructing Harry

Spoiler alert:  This post contains spoilers on the film Deconstructing Harry by Woody Allen.

I am not one to buy films or TV programs as DVD’s or CD’s.  While I meticulously buy the books I read in paperback format, having decided to eliminate the expense of ever buying a hardcover if a paperback is available and being very reluctant to commit myself to electronic format that robs me of the pleasures of the feel of the cover and pages and also tires my sight, I have not extended the habit to proceed to acquiring film media.  I like to view my films either in a cinema, and those that I miss or omit as not deserving a visit to the big screen I borrow, preferably by mail order.  As of this writing I own a single series of TV programs – the full eight “Monk” series – in digital format on iTunes, and I own a single DVD of a somewhat obscure Woody Allen film titled “Deconstructing Harry” and I own it for the reason that, however obscure, it resonates with me so intensely.

I love Woody Allen movies with such vehemence that I do not hesitate to augment the old adage commonly used to describe his works, that “you either love them or hate them,” with my own addendum “if you hate them you are a tasteless fool,” at least with respect to his top ten ranked films amongst which Deconstructing Harry falls.  It is the main storyline that moves me so much.  The story is about a man who is does not function well in real life situations and who has ended up alone with a life that is somewhat of a mess.  One of his main failures is that he is a serial philanderer who is so weak that he ruins his relationships in deplorable ways, at times by resorting to prostitutes.  We also know that he has been thrown out of his university for some unknown mess up.  He messes up the relationship with his son also by inappropriate misguidance that he gives and by being a horrible role model that his mother is not willing to let him have contact with him.  The protagonist Harry Block, played by Woody Allen himself, is a writer and he uses his writing to express the anxieties and situation he experiences in real life, often conversing with the characters that actually come to life for him.  Woody Allen forms an allegory of his inability to function well in social situations and in real life, and his failures in relationships and social situations by the creation of the character of “the man who is out of focus” played adorably by Robin Williams.  He literally slides out of focus and cannot be seen clearly by his family, friends, or colleagues, and his children have to be fitted with glasses purely to see their dad.

We know, however, that the one thing he does well is writing.  He has won awards for his writing and his old university who kicked him out is now preparing to honour him with an honorary degree.  The main storyline is that he is preparing to go to his award ceremony, but he has no one to take with him.  He is desperate to take his son to the honorary ceremony that marks the one thing that he is proud of and is a success at, but his pleadings with his bitter ex-wife fail.

On his way home alone he runs into an acquaintance, Richard, who also strikes a chord in one because of his loneliness in the big city of New York.  Richard is so alone that he has no one who will come with him to hospital to check up on his heart which he is worried about, although what is so dysfunctional about him that he is so alone is not extrapolated.  He asks Harry to come with him to the health examination, and afterwards Harry invites him to accompany him to the award ceremony, which invitation Richard declines at the time.

Harry goes home alone and resorts to his old vice by hiring a prostitute, Cookie, and ends up inviting her to stay the night at his house and accompany him to the award ceremony the next day.

The next day, as they set off for the event, Richard turns up and wants to come although one is left to wonder whether this is because of gratitude or loneliness with a definite bias towards loneliness.  Cookie is dressed in a revealing pink two piece number that screams she is a prostitute with a definite bias towards loneliness.  On the way they decide to stop by Harry’s son’s school and forcibly take him from the woman picking up the child.  Harry turns up at the award ceremony with the police after him for kidnapping the child, with Richard dead in his back seat, and a prostitute dressed in pink work gear.  He literally slides out of focus in a panic at how badly he has handled the situation of a ceremony so important to him by “turning up with a dead body and a hooker”, and it is Cookie who takes charge and talks him into focus by returning his attention to the award he is about to receive for the writing he loves and is so good at.  The movie ends on the note of the man who is literally “out of focus” except when he is doing his work as a writer, the one thing he is successful at in his life.

This work resonates so intensely with me because I feel out of focus except when I am writing or working on my electronics as an engineer.  I should hasten to add I do not draw a parallel to Harry Block literally – i.e. I do not resort to prostitutes and such likes; but I feel socially anxious often and I function best through my work.

Posted on behalf of Jac Wright.

Jac Wright, Author, The Reckless Engineer
Woody Allen (Harry Block) has the Writers' Block.

Jac Wright, Author, The Reckless Engineer
Robin Williams is Out-of-Focus in Deconstructing Harry