Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Health and/or wellness

The woman in the seat next to me is clad entirely in blue. Wide-legged denim pants, a loose denim jacket with white stitching, blue and white striped shirt, blue earrings. A blue handbag tucked between her feet. Only the scarlet nails make a daring bid for chromatic freedom, buoys in a harbour, a patriotic flourish. She is absentmindedly using the flight safety card as a fan. Suddenly, as though reacting to some inner shoulder-tap, she opens it, glancing up the aisle at the flight attendants. She dutifully scans the panels of faceless figures whizzing blithely down inflatable slides. She lingers for a while on the life raft deployment instructions, eyebrows raised slightly in feigned interest. One more furtive look up the aisle, and she snaps it shut again, fluttering it once more in front of her face.
Whew,’ she says. ‘They gonna turn the air on, or what?’

Her husband, sitting on her other side, is absorbed in the SkyMall magazine and doesn’t respond. She puts down the card, picks up her smartphone, holds it in her left hand. She licks her right index finger and starts swiping, effortfully, through blurry photographs of a small girl in pigtails, leaving smears on the screen.
‘She getting’ so big,’ she smiles.
‘Mmm hmm,’ says her husband, attention caught by the fully automated Grillbot, which is the easy, fun way to clean your grill.

She puts down the phone and dives for the magazine in the seat back pocket, like a gannet. She sits back and leafs through it rapidly. Struck by the full-colour ad on page 97, she informs her husband that she wants to go to the Bubba Gump shrimp restaurant the next time they’re in town.

‘The what? Bubblegum?’
‘Bubba Gump. From the movie. Run, Forrest, ruuuun. Oh, you know.’
He regards her blankly.
She changes tack. ‘Look, they got spicy lobster,’ she says. She jabs the advert. He obediently peers at the cartoon image of the smiling shrimp, pinned underneath her nail like a specimen.
‘Mmm.’ He’s interested. ‘Crab cakes look good too,’ he says, over his half-moon glasses.

The attendant arrives, teeth so white they’re almost blue, offering complimentary snacks. My neighbour asks for cookies and peanuts for the two of them. The flight attendant doles out the appropriate foil packages and glides out of view, snack box held majestically aloft beside her left ear, as though she were bearing, not a cardboard box with a few packets of crisps slumped insolently in the corners, but a silver platter bedecked with dates, figs, and the head of John the Baptist.

The woman opens her cookies, peers into the package suspiciously. Eats one.
‘I shoulda got the crackers,’ she says. ‘Honey. I shoulda got the crackers.’
Her husband, already having eaten most of his cookies, stops mid-chew. He swallows apologetically. ‘I guess we’ll know for the way home,’ he says.

They eat the rest of their cookies despondently.

When I next look up, she’s reading an ad for a health and wellness centre. Center. Not just health, but wellness too. Health and wellness must be distinct, though possibly overlapping, concepts. Can one be healthy, without being well? Well, but not healthy?

In Ireland, yes. ‘Well,’ stated in a flat, accusatory tone and accompanied by a nod and an eyebrow flash, means ‘Hello, how do you do?’ in parts of Munster and Leinster. No inferences about a party’s health are made on the basis of a reply in the affirmative. The more ecphonetic ‘Jaysus, are you well?’, delivered with a disbelieving lip-curl, approximates to ‘Some combination of aspects of your demeanour, utterances and conduct, present or immediately past, leads me to doubt your actual or potential capacity for rational thought.’

Yerra, she’s not well at all. But she’s not gawking or anything, like. She’s just not well in the head.

Health and wellness. Maybe it’s like rest and relaxation. Rock ‘n roll. Make ‘n do. Ant ‘n Dec. The two terms have the same referent, in contexts where they are used together, as a unified phrase. But the phenomenon in question sounds more robust when there are two concepts invoked to describe it, however interdefined they may be. Two feet, or the appearance of two feet, at least, planted squarely on the ground.

And perhaps their conjunction serves some other purpose, each term supplying something of what the other lacks to the emergent healthcare Gestalt.

Upon arrival at a mere health centre, you flinch, shielding your eyes from the flickering strip-lights with a forearm, as trolleys rocket past, screeching around corners two-wheeled, white-knuckled interns streaming from them like ribbons from a kite. You stumble backwards, out of the way, only to have your clothes yanked from your person by an unseen assailant. You stand dumb, arms obediently raised; you are a biddable, preposterously-large child; there are no lollipops.

A gown is crammed uncomfortably over your head. The cartilage of your ears bounces back up, surprised, embarrassed, furtive. The gown stands disdainfully off your skin, like a Chinese lantern. There is a cold draft: lowering your arms, you discover that your bare arse is exposed to the elements; but before you can do anything about it you are seized, manhandled onto a trolley, and portions of your viscera are fed, squidgily, through a writhing set of plastic tentacles, to some ravenous, seething, bleeping machine.

Quivering now, rheumy-eyed, you are shouted at by a doctor concealed behind a clipboard, before being pummeled for no obvious reason by an unspeaking orderly with the neck of a Soviet weightlifter, who proceeds to give you a violent enema, a clean bill of health, an invoice and a ballpoint pen advertising the latest Newspeak drug; an elevator-plunge of nausea when you see the bottom line; you swallow, say nothing. Sign here please ma’am. Your hand trembles, you have to grasp the pen in your fist like a crayon, you steady it with your other hand; you sign, two-handed; you are stirring a pot of paint with a stick; Jesus Christ, how did it come to this. A scrub-clad arm with a finger on the end of it is extended. Exit that way. Your clothes are in the dumpster in the parking lot. Have a nice day.

You stagger outside, knock-kneed, propelled by the stinging slap of the swing doors that lands reproachfully on your shivering, naked buttocks. You wail at the skies, tears and mucus streaming down your crumpled face; but your health is, at least, assured.

Wellness, on the other hand, sidles up to you like a pervy uncle at a barbecue, proffering terrycloth bathrobes, dog-eared magazines and close-up images of raindrops quivering at the tips of leaves. The smell of lavender. Wellness sounds like the rainforest. Or, rather, it sounds like what somebody who has never been to the rainforest before imagines that a rainforest might sound like, if it were sampled clumsily, doused in reverb, and then played on loop through a 1990s Panasonic ghettoblaster with a dented speaker cone: running water and rustling foliage, the occasional authenticating squawk, and intermittent buzzings of decidedly inorganic origin. Poorly-spelled treatments are advertised on signs printed in Papyrus typeface.

It’s hard to know what one can reasonably expect as an outcome of a stint in a wellness clinic, but the avowed goal, at least, is one’s ‘holistic wellbeing’. This is still a rather nebulous concept, but it appears to involve, somehow, smiling women with closed eyes, having their temples massaged next to orchids. Another component of holistic wellness makes reference in some way – again, the precise relation in question is not clear – to a naked woman lying face down in a Japanese pagoda with pebbles on her back. It is unclear whether I will, by virtue of a wellness treatment, find myself miraculously transported to Japan, my clothes having vanished in the teleportation process, conscious of the inevitable display of sideboob, with a heap of stones weighing me down like a foxed sheaf of scrap paper. Nobody seems to know. Wellness makes no promises – or, at least, no specific ones.

Wellness is not practical. It offers no diagnoses, no prescriptions, no machines, no real reassurance. Your best hope is that you will be patronized into rude health. But it serves a purpose, nonetheless. It cushions the corners of the steely clinic, dimming its fluorescent lights, burying its tumult under a polite avalanche of white noise, safely sheathing its scalpel edge.

And at least the enemas are consensual in a health and wellness centre.

My neighbour shifts in her seat, sighs. She rummages hopefully in her handbag, comes up short. Her husband looks up from the SkyMall magazine.

‘I sure could do with somethin’ salty now,’ she says.
‘We shoulda got the crackers,’ he intones, morosely.

Friday, 9 May 2014

The Baseball Hat

Chicago Midway, waiting at the gate. The man across from me wears baggy American dad jeans and a pair of trekking runners. He has a trim, greying beard, peers at his magazine through sober reading glasses. The outdoorsy type. He wears a baseball cap that says ‘Annual PTA Father’s Club Golf Outing,’ which is a lot to fit on a baseball cap. At least they didn’t spell out Parent Teacher Association in its entirety.
It’s a strangely cryptic message. I read it, first, as ‘golf club outing’, since that is the way those words usually succeed each other, in my lexical environment. But then, I realize that it wouldn’t make sense for golf clubs to be sent on their own outing, and for their owners to wear the commemorative hat.
Maybe it’s Club Golf. The Oregonian fathers could be off for a merry day of engaging in Club Golf, whatever that might be. A variant on mini golf, perhaps. Or ‘Club Golf’ could be something more specific, and somehow unintuitive, like a club sandwich. Golf with added bacon.
Come to think of it, the placement of the apostrophe indicates that there is only one father in the club. It’s this guy. The only dad in the Oregon PTA. Of course he deserves an annual Golf Outing.
But he doesn’t look like the golfing type. More of a hill-walker, I’d bet. I doubt he’d organize a trip all by himself. He must have been dragged along by the other dads, who are as enthusiastic about golf as they are careless with apostrophes. Father’s Club – those belong together. Then, there’s a golf outing, to which the component fathers of the club are being treated. But I still find it odd that the PTA has a separate sub-group for the fathers. Does the PTA also have a teachers’ organization? A mothers’ group? Seems like they’re missing the point of the A, if so.
Or maybe this is the group that fathered the PTA itself. The august body, from which sprang the Oregon PTA, fully formed and glorious, like Athena from the head of Zeus.
Golf outing is ambiguous too, however. It could be an organized excursion to a golf club, but of course it would have been silly to include a second ‘club’ on the baseball hat. Annual Oregon PTA Father’s Club Golf Club Outing. They would have needed a ten-gallon hat for that. Alternatively, it could indicate the annual ceremonial ‘outing’, on a golf course, or some, if not all of the PTA fathers. In which case, I could see why they wouldn’t want to invite the teachers, or the wives for that matter. Though the reasoning behind the commemorative baseball hat now becomes opaque.
I think the most straightforward explanation is that the Oregonian fathers have formed their own PTA guerrilla splinter group, and have taken it upon themselves to organize a group excursion to a golf course, to compensate them for the year of unending toil on behalf of their offspring. Being an enthusiastic, albeit somewhat unimaginative, bunch, they have commissioned a singularly unwieldy baseball hat to commemorate the event. And the Oregonian fathers – or at least, this Oregonian father – continue to wear their grammatically complicated baseball hats with pride, in honour of the debauched, drug-addled, gin-soaked orgy that was this year’s Annual Oregon PTA Father’s Club Golf Outing.

It's not like they'd remember it otherwise.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Human Again

Real endorsement on a calorie-counting website: "‘I can honestly say that finding this website has been the best thing to happen to me in my life’ – Maggie Bailey" (name has been changed).
‘Tell us how much this website means to you, Maggie. In your own words,’ says an oleaginous daytime TV presenter with a loud tie. He sets his face to ‘earnest’.
Maggie dabs at the corner of her eye with a handkerchief. ‘Well, Bob,’ she says, brokenly, ‘my life just felt empty, you know?’
LIFE FELT EMPTY, says a caption under her face.
‘Mmm.’ Bob moves his head in an ellipse, somewhere between a nod and a shake. Leans toward her slightly.
‘I mean, I felt like I was – nothing,’ she continues. ‘Nothing seemed to matter.’
‘You must have felt something, Maggie. How about your wedding day?’
‘Nothing, Bob.’
‘Your children? How about your dog?’
‘No, Bob. I felt nothing.’ She sobs. ‘I was a shell, an emotionless, unfeeling shell.’
MAGGIE: I WAS A SHELL, says a caption, flashed on the screen.
‘Is it because' – here he turns to the camera - 'you were fat?’
Back to Maggie. Silence. She sniffs, dabs again with the handkerchief.
‘It was, Bob. It was.’
Close up to concerned figure in the audience, shaking head in silent sympathy.
A still image of a slightly more rotund Maggie is shown on the screen. FAT, it says.
‘We feel for you, Maggie. We really do. But tell us about what changed.’
A smile wavers under the tears. She puts her handkerchief down in her lap.
‘I found caloriecount.com, Bob.’ The smile becomes radiant.
‘You did?’ Knowing glance to the camera. ‘Tell us about it, Maggie. Take your time.’
‘Well, I remember it like it was yesterday. My husband had just gone outside to shoot some chickens. My children – well, those who were left anyway – were wrestling in the yard. I turned on my computer, checking my eBay auction. I was bidding on a deep fat fryer and an AK-47 at the time. And then, as if by magic, there it was.’
Concerned audience member is now smiling rapturously.
Bob grins. ‘There it was.’ Shakes head at camera, avuncular now. ‘How about that.’
‘Oh Bob, it was magical.’ Maggie clasps her hands in reverence. ‘I had this sense that everything was going to be different. I started counting calories with their online guide, trying some of their handy recipes, and after just a few months, oh Bob…’      
‘What happened after a few weeks, Maggie?’
‘I wasn’t fat any more.’
Spontaneous applause. Somebody cheers. She looks around in gratitude.
‘That website was the best thing that ever happened to me, in my whole life,’ she says. 
‘Of course it was.’ Bob nods, magnanimous, lets the audience have its moment. ‘Of course it was, Maggie. Tell us about it.’
‘Oh it changed everything, Bob. I began to love and esteem others. My IQ shot up by fifty points. I started to behave in accordance with moral codes. And all because of calorie-count.com.’
HUMAN AGAIN, says the caption.
‘Well, that’s an incredible story, Maggie. Thank you for sharing.’
He turns back to the camera, resets face to ‘informative but supportive’. A scrolling marquee appears on the bottom of the screen, advertising the website.
‘To all you folks at home who are struggling, just like Maggie was, log on to caloriecount.com today. You don’t have to settle, folks. Live the life you were meant to live.’
His wife joins him on stage. Stands mutely, smiling vacantly. They clasp hands as the credits roll.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

'I Don't Get It'

It’s 5am in the airport. I’m first through security. Fluorescent lights crackle and fizz into bilious life. A cleaner trundles dolefully across the lino floor, trailing a mop and bucket. Daytime TV theme tune music, all saxophones and claves, oozes out of some speaker somewhere, as the hordes behind me struggle back into shoes, suck in bellies and do up belts, as though post-coitally.
I survey my food options, which are limited. It’s a choice between Dunkin’ Donuts and a café whose name I don’t recognise. I select the café, on the basis that it is not Dunkin’ Donuts. I anticipate that many of my fellow travellers, many of whom are wearing Boston Marathon Finisher t-shirts, will make the same decision. There’s nobody else in there yet, so I go right to the top of the queue to order. I squint at the wall-mounted menu, stared at with disapproval by the waiting phalanx of bleary-eyed sandwich makers.
The menu proudly announces the speciality of the house: the ‘squagel’. A large variety of these squagels is on offer, in various savoury and sweet configurations. A squagel is, one of the sandwich drones intones flatly, ‘like a bagel, but square’. I wonder if the shape is thought to impart some characteristic qualitative aspect to the gustatory experience. If so, perhaps one can access, through taste, the property of squareness, long thought to be a property confined to the spatial senses of sight and touch. Or it could be that the concept of ‘square’, activated by visual experience, cognitively penetrates the gustatory experience of the baked good. I choose not to conduct empirical tests of this set of hypotheses, deciding, after some deliberation, to eschew the squagel in favour of oatmeal. A drone hands it to me, wordlessly. It comes in a reassuringly round container.
Dimly concerned by the fact that I have just not only verbally, but also internally, referred to porridge as ‘oatmeal’, I proceed to the coffee counter to face my next challenge. I ask for a coffee that contains two shots of espresso and a small amount of hot water, in their smallest take-away cup. The barista frowns, before barking something like ‘Venti grande Americano tall filter coffee with room to go espresso creamer?’ Frightened, and unwilling to admit to the extent of my incomprehension, I nod furiously, and am, after a minute or so, presented with an enormous cup of lukewarm bilge. It’s too early to have an argument about it. Resigned, I retreat to the seating area.
Just next door to the squagel outlet, the entire baggage security line has reformed, airside, at Dunkin’ Donuts.
I sit down to eat my breakfast. A family occupies the table next to me. Dad, mom, a boy of around ten and his grandmother. The dad is telling jokes.
‘So, a horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says, “why the long face?”’
There is silence at the table.
The dad looks around at his family. ‘Because horses have long faces,’ he explains.
The boy regards his father warily, looks at his grandmother for help. ‘I don’t get it,’ he mutters.
‘Well,’ says grandma, ‘saying somebody has a long face is a way of saying they’re upset. You know, maybe they’re angry about something, or sad. So it kind of looks like they have a long face. Like this.’ She contorts her face into an exaggerated masque of woe.
‘Right,’ dad chimes in. ‘So, asking someone, “why the long face”, is like saying, what happened? Everything okay?’
The boy frowns, considering the matter. ‘But why is the horse sad?’
‘Well, I don’t know,’ says the dad. ‘I mean, wait, no, the horse isn’t sad. Probably. Like, the horse actually has a long face, because he’s a horse, but you know, maybe the bartender thinks he’s sad about something too, or something. Because he has a long face.’
The boy is motionless, breakfast forgotten, as he stares at his father in mute incomprehension.
‘And that’s why it’s funny,’ says the dad, doubtfully.
‘Oh.’ The boy shakes his head. He takes a slurp of his Coke.
‘Okay, I got another one,’ says the dad. ‘This bear walks into a bar, and goes, can I have…’
He stops, dramatically. His son narrows his eyes. The mom licks her index finger and turns the page in her magazine. Dad looks at them all archly.
‘Can I have… a beer?’ he continues. ‘And the bartender goes, “why the big pause?”’
More silence. The kid pushes his straw around in the ice cubes at the bottom of his drink, looks down at the table, despondent.
‘Oh, come on,’ says the dad. ‘He’s a bear. Big paws!’ He tucks his chin into his neck, widens his eyes, lowers his brow. Waves his hands around in front of his face. ‘Big paws,’ he booms. ‘Get it?’
Mom checks her watch. ‘We should really get moving, you guys. They’re boarding soon.’
‘All right, one more.’ Mom and son exchange a look.
‘A piece of string walks into a bar. Goes up to the bartender, but the bartender says, hey, we don’t serve your kind around here. So the piece of string leaves. Goes outside, ties himself into a knot, goes back in. The bartender says, wait a minute, aren’t you the guy that was in here a minute ago? And the piece of string goes, “no, I’m afraid not.”’
A brief moment of silence. The dad is frozen in anticipation, leaning toward his son slightly. His face begins to fall. And then, the child explodes with laughter. Coke sprays from various facial orifices in a bubbling fountain of mirth. Grandma dabs her front with a napkin, beaming.
‘A frayed knot!’ The child is still giggling, looking at his father with an expression of considerable relief. ‘That’s really funny, Dad.’
‘Well, finally,’ says the dad. ‘Jeez. I was beginning to think I wasn’t funny.’

The mom puts her palm flat down on her magazine. Frowns at her husband.
‘Wait, what?’ she says. ‘I don’t get it.’

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Sunday Matinée

Forty-five minutes to go.
Permed grey heads, immobile though their bearers move, shrubs in a frosty garden. Bald patches, risen bravely above the tree-line. Brassy halos of fuzz radiating from the orange-tinted scalps they barely conceal. Obedient blonde bobs, tucked behind one ear. Poker straight platinum waterfalls, tossed over shoulders. Grey ponytails, protruding from vaguely arty-looking middle-aged men with inventive facial hair.
Shoes shuffle in the direction of the auditorium. Wingtips. Oxfords. Sensible black leather sandals with low heels and small peep-toes, barely-black feet safely encased within. Bulging insteps and a cane, moving slowly, one-two-three. A pair of strappy gold stilettos stomps past, followed nervously by tottering red platforms. An unrepentant pair of trainers squelches doggedly in pursuit.
Tweed blazers. Double-breasted jackets with brassy buttons. Twin-sets. Some jaunty bow-ties, sported with panache by jolly octogenarians. The occasional daring of a bolo tie. Some of the more adventurous grey perms wear diaphanous dresses with multiple hemlines, which give the ladies in question the appearance of having been swathed in an array of expensive tablecloths. One across the shoulder, one around the midriff, there, are you quite covered, we’ll add one more, here, like so. Such an interesting effect. Hold it in place with an interesting brooch. And let’s drape an interesting silk scarf over the top – more draping, yes! – drape it interestingly over your shoulder, there; the more garish the better, and of course it must have an ethnic print.
Thirty minutes til curtain-up. The café is doing a roaring trade. A middle-aged couple eats lunch in silence. They don’t look at each other. Her lipsticked maw devours a chicken and pesto panini, putting me suddenly, horribly, in mind of Goya’s Saturn. The man forks pasta furiously into his mouth, moustache wobbling as he chews. He checks his watch. Twenty-five minutes to go.
The gift store is heaving with men in sports jackets and slacks, in that voluminous, American golfing-dad cut. Waistbands slant crotch-wards beneath prodigious paunches; sharp trouser-creases slump, defeated, on tasseled loafers. Mobile phone cases on belts, keys jingling in pockets. They butt through the merchandise like tug-boats, moving slowly, nosing their way cautiously around the opera DVDs. One has berthed himself beside the sale rack, unmoors himself again, points his prow at the cash register. Another holds a ‘Rheingold’ t-shirt up to his front speculatively, returns it to the rail, hunts for a larger size.
Twenty minutes to go. A worried-looking woman in a mid-calf-length floral dress hovers by the ‘Music for children’ section. Seizes ‘Baby Needs Bach’, in a last-ditch attempt to rescue her grandchildren from their steady decline – oh, she’s sure of it; the amount of television those toddlers watch is a scandal; they even have their own iPads – into the ignominious pits of philistinism. ‘For grandparents who refuse to leave all their hard-earned cash to uncultured swine’, it could be subtitled, but isn’t. Baby Needs Beethoven, as well, according to another title on display.
I check, but it seems that Baby Doesn’t Need Schoenberg.
Fifteen minutes to go. Wine glasses are drained. I am borne to my seat on a tide of murmuring punters, up endless flights of stairs, up, up again, all the way up, to the very back of the auditorium, the nose-bleed seats, where the paupers squint at the stage. We are passers-by gazing longingly into a softly-lit restaurant from a cold winter street. I look at my neighbour’s binoculars with envy, peer down at the orchestra. Is that a man or a woman? I am seated in the very last row, brick at my back, horrifying emptiness in front. Pasted to the wall of a grain silo, I am helpless, held in place by trumpet blasts and the grace of God.
The orchestra swirls in its pre-curtain cacophony. The crowd scurries up and down steps, rhubarbing excitedly, shuffling into their appointed seats, step-stop, step-stop. Here comes another. Do I stand or can I sit? I’ll sit. I can’t set a precedent of standing up every time someone comes along: what am I, some kind of athlete? I’ll just do the awkward thing with my knees that everyone does in theatres, pull them as far in to the left as I possibly can, it’s a bit uncomfortable. No, damn it, it’s no use, he’ll never fit, the space is too small, he’ll have to squat over me, his arse will be in my face, he’ll end up sitting in my lap, I’ll have to get up, but he’s very close now, I’m surely going to end up touching him if I get up, oh God, but there’s nothing for it only to rise, unfortunate pelvic thrust as the seat folds up behind me, I put my hand on the seat back for support, I wonder if this is some kind of yoga pose, he shuffles past, there goes his rump, TOMMY HILFIGER in scrolling marquee, oh Jesus, must not touch it by accident, I look away determinedly, rapt at the sight of the exit sign, step-stop, sorry, excuse me, step-stop, and he’s gone. Thank Christ. I sit down again.
The lights dim. The crowd falls silent. Showtime. 

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Be the Tree

The psychologist is tall, with cropped blonde hair. She’s in great nick for 59. I know she’s 59, because she told us her age, self deprecatingly, glancing coquettishly at the podium. She’s been blinking at us earnestly for an hour and a half. Blue eyes, fringed with mascara, little clumps at the ends of her eyelashes. She is trying to establish that we all have things in common, despite being so very different.
‘Who here has seen a Hollywood movie?’ she asks. ‘Who here has ever made a mistake? Who here likes to hang out with friends and have a good time? Show of hands, please, people.’
Some hands are raised, apologetically.
‘Well, look at that. Look how much we have in common, despite our various backgrounds.’
She wants to demonstrate a Principle. I can hear the capital P. I volunteer to be her assistant.
I walk to the front of the conference room. She smiles at me encouragingly, puts her hand on my arm. Encourages me to turn around, to face her.
‘Close your eyes,’ she says. ‘Be flexible. Loosen your body.’
I do an exaggerated body roll, wave my arms about wildly. The crowd titters.
A note of tension creeps into her voice. She laughs, dutifully. ‘Okay, get ready,’ she says. ‘I’m going to push you.’
She gives me an almighty shove. I stagger.
‘What happened, everyone?’ This is directed at the room.
‘She nearly fell,’ someone says.
‘That’s right, she nearly fell.’ She pauses, to let the import of this hit home. I’m pretty sure she’s blinking earnestly. Her voice turns back to me.
‘Now, be rigid,’ she says. ‘Lock your knees, tighten everything you have.’
‘Okay.’ I do a passable impression of somebody with rigor mortis.
She gives me another almighty shove. I stagger, again.
This is beginning to get old.
‘What happened, everyone?
‘She nearly fell,’ the crowd choruses obediently.
‘That’s right. She nearly fell.’
‘Now.’ Her voice is conspiratorial, hushed. A pregnant pause. ‘I want you to pretend to be a tree.’
‘A tree, did you say?’
‘That’s right. A tree.’
I sigh inwardly. ‘Well, okay. Sure.’
‘Where are you from?’ she asks me.
‘I’ve heard they have beautiful trees there.’
No shit. I don’t say that bit out loud.
‘Is there a beautiful tree near your home?’
‘There is, yeah.’ I decide to be a sport. ‘A few grand big ones, actually. A whole bunch of oak trees, and I think there might be a few ash trees as well…’
She cuts me off. I suspect she doesn’t really care about the trees near my home. ‘Be that tree,’ she says. She obviously wasn't listening when I said there were loads of them. 
Her arm is on my arm. Her voice is syrupy now, melodious. 
‘Plant your roots,’ she says. ‘What are your roots?’
I start to answer, but she beats me to it.
‘They’re your values. Your values are your roots. Just imagine them, hold them close to your heart.’
I’m beginning to be glad my eyes are closed.
‘And what are your arms?’
‘I don’t know, my branches?’
‘Exactly right. They’re your branches.’
I must be some kind of genius.
‘Now watch everyone. Jenny is being a tree. I’m going to push her again. Let’s watch what happens.’
The crowd watches, expectant.
She nudges me. It’s more of a friendly pat than anything. My shoulder moves, my feet don’t.
I open one eye, close it again; trees don’t have eyes.
‘See what happened, everyone? She didn’t fall.’ This last is delivered with hushed reverence. ‘She didn’t fall.’
The crowd mutters, obediently.
‘What about that.’
Everyone makes approving noises.
‘And I pushed her just as hard as before.’
I choose not counter this wildly inaccurate assertion, remaining silent, because I am a tree.
‘That’s because she has roots. She has roots, planted in the earth. And we all need to be more like trees.’
She pauses, to let this sink in.
‘We all have roots. If we are too flexible, or if we are too rigid, what do we do?’
‘We fall,’ choruses the crowd. Somebody coughs.
‘We fall. That’s right, we fall. You can sit down, Jenny.’
I sit down, filled with a sense of my own treehood.
She looks relieved.
‘Now I want everyone to grab a partner, and do what Jenny and I just demonstrated. Feel your roots. Feel them. Hold them close to your hearts.’ She has made a fist, and is pounding her breastbone. More earnest blinking ensues.
Sixty adults spend five minutes pretending to be trees and pushing each other on the shoulder. I spend the time goodnaturedly shoving a tiny Ukrainian girl around the place.

She takes it in good spirit.