In other news…

Woodlands - home from home

Who, apart from americans, asks you to bring a passport as ID for an event? Puts me right off. But am already gurning from the dress code. Gay Ragged Trousered activists like myself don’t like the idea of black tie and cocktail dresses. Pffft!

How i will avoid looking like the waiter, god only knows. What people don’t know about my family is that as kids, we lived this incredibly bizarre life between mild poverty and ridiculous luxury because my mum worked for the Danish Embassy in Sloane Square yet we lived as a single parent family in the east end of london. Our hand me downs came my mother’s rich workfriends whose diplomat kids shopped in Benetton and Lacoste.

My mum used to host dinner parties in the east end of london where we lived and for some reason that i didn’t question at the time, these people had fur coats. As people arrived it was our job to collect the coats and put them upstairs on my mum’s bed. A few months ago when i visited my mum in Copenhagen, she invited two of her oldest friends out to have a bite to eat with us. The lady was wearing a fur coat and i was compelled, against blind will, to touch that coat and to sniff it (whilst she wasn’t looking of course). Suddenly a flash of memory: me as a small child rolling about blissfully happy in a pile of fur coats on my mum’s bed.

As a ten year old if you asked me to lay the dinner table, in my mind i would be heading for silver cutlery, three glasses (one for water, one for white wine and one for red wine) and setting up a tray with champagne glasses, with champagne or cremant on chill ready for the first knock at the door signalling the start of the party. There would be fresh, crisp white linen towels in the bathroom and the bathroom, including the mirror, was gleaming clean. I won’t go into the detail of more cleaning as i am clearly getting way too excited.

The most fascinating thing for me was going through who would be sitting where at the dinner table. This was something my mum pored over for a long time, writing out and crossing out a table plan. Having carefully handwritten out the names with blue fountain pen onto handcrafted name cards in my best handwriting I would wait to put them out on the plates, as soon as her plan was complete.

She explained it to me one day. On a rectangular table you want to keep a flow of conversation going – to achieve this you need to put a very chatty ‘host’ in the middle of the table – but that host must reach out and connect with those sitting on either side next to her and across the table. If that host is a quiet, internal type – the left and right, top and bottom of that table will fail to connect and the guests will feel like they have been to two different parties. Equally if you put two charming people in the middle position and they only talk to one another your dinner party is equally screwed. So you need to know your guests but you also need to know who knows who – because some people will be more activated and animated when seated with someone they know and like. This paper describes mathematical models to figure out who to seat where at your wedding to ensure most people are happy. But the joy is in imagining all your friends and how to connect them to make a vibrant evening.

This can apply to the board room as much as it does to the dining table. The way to avoid the problem is to get a circular table rather than a rectangular table. But then my mum would not have had as much fun figuring it out and thinking about her friends and how they were or could potentially be connected.

I do think its really important how hosts welcome their guests – do they leave them to their own devices or do they introduce them to people they know. You quickly know where you stand in the social hierarchy when no-one introduces you to anyone. I’ll never forget going to some schmooze fest thing at a theatre opening with my mum (her friend was the director) – and my mum waltzes up to Alan Rickman and says ‘Rik Mayall, let me introduce my daughter, Erinma‘ to which he responded ‘Hello Erinma, what’s your passion (or something along those lines)?’ – ‘Cell suicide… dead cells‘ I then had a long conversation with Alan Rickman about apoptosis as my mum waltzed off looking for more people to introduce her daughter to.

Whilst I have a tendency to happily walk about and watch people at a gathering (or hide in the fur coats) my mum taught us to be interested in people. There is always something you can say to someone – i have watched her strike up conversations with complete strangers – and years later that stranger is suddenly a friend for life. Stories, stories, stories… our lives are full of them…

In other news I visited my older sister on the weekend. She is packing up and moving on from Edinburgh. I always like to be there at the beginning, middle and end of things. I was helping to pack up the kitchen and all her books and DVDs. I realise this is another way to get to know people or, in her case, to remember her and the things she loves and is interested in. It was fun discovering books we both loved and reading passages aloud to one another as well as hanging out in the wonderful and stylish home she created one last time, in all its danish-scottish glory. It was really funny helping my niece and nephew to pack up their bedrooms. They had a charity box and a going to the new home box for their toys. It was interesting that if they weren’t sure about whether to keep something or not they had to touch it to decide. This and something i noticed as i was walking down narrow stairs carrying a pile of books, made me wonder about the importance of touch in decision making. Usually i rely on my eyes to guide me down steps – but carrying lots of books i couldn’t see where i was placing my feet – and was a bit nervous about falling down the stairs. To avoid this i had to quicking switch my thinking to putting trust in my feet – and putting faith in them touching the step – each step was the same distance apart – my feet could find and could ‘know’ where the steps were. I just had to trust them – trust the thoughts of my body, one step at a time. I’ve always wanted to know what something looks like, to see it working, to get a sense of how it works – whereas some people, like to touch things, move around them, relationally in space.

Last week I was invited to respond to an ethics debate that followed a screening to school kids of Y Touring Theatre’s play, Stunted Trees, which explores the ethical dilemmas of brain scanning technology and what it might reveal about us as well as how it might benefit us. What fascinated me was that a quite vocal group of girls in the group said that rather than a brain scan telling them that they are acting bizarrely and out of character, they would rely on their friends to tell them that their behaviour was out of kilter. Part of the reason they used facebook inspite of its privacy issues was that it facilitated this possibility to know and relate to how your friends are doing. Maybe i am just a bit socially naive but i found this absolutely fascinating. Its another way of thinking about how IT can facilitate human resilience. It creates a way in which you can see – can touch another person virtually. It sheds light on understanding why kids that are bullied online might go so far as to take their own lives. If there is no distinction in their minds between face to face and virtual connection, the social isolation of being bullied online must feel immense.

And i wonder how this applies to me, if i do end up looking like the waiter at the passport party, being invisible and socially awkward to everyone – i have some options – i can mentally or maybe physically hide amongst the faux furs, or i can surf the internet for friends and inspiration to hold onto and make myself feel truly at home and truly welcome or i can seek out kindred strangers and hope for the best.

If i have one wish for tomorrow – please god let there be wifi at the passport party and if not wifi – a lot of kindly strangers!

Related other news:

A touching touch down: the power of collaboration

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