It's getting on for the end of the year.
It's been an odd year in many ways, and almost none of it has made it on to the web. That's a good thing, of course. One should never splatter one's dirty linen in public, and I'm not about to do it now. But there's something that I can mention, and I'm delighted to do it here now.
Despite the illness, the awfulness of work, the stuff I'm not even going to hint at - despite being accused of some fairly awful things by one of my colleagues, and not being certain if the accusations weren't justified, despite wondering what on earth I was doing with - well pretty much everything - on a couple of occasions.
I think most of it's behind me. I think almost all of it's behind me. The health stuff, the work stuff, the other stuff. All behind me. Well, pretty much.
So I'll take this opportunity to wish myself a happy new year.
In this day and age, it's odd that I feel that I have to compliment good service.
Gone are the days of "the customer is always right". It's been replaced by the RyanAirHeads and the EasyNothing mentality of "you get what you pay for". I can kind of sympathise. I've handled a lot of complaints.
Earlier this year we had a big one. A real doozy. I almost resigned over it. But I discovered today that the guy who complained was so happy with how his complaint was handled that he wants to become a repeat customer. This is a good thing, really it is.
Complaint handling in the internet age is weird, though. My company still has some human faces out there, but most of the time you're complaining to a mailbox. No emotional response, just a flat acknoweldgement. But even with us, I don't talk to the person doing the complaining - I talk to the person that he complained to. In some ways, this is a good thing. I'm pretty busy, but I am also not a real people person, and the more someone complains the less inclined I am to help them. A good reason, simply stated, always gets a more generous payout from me. A whinger gets what they deserve, and no more.
Which brings me to the little surprise I've had recently. I purchased a little something from a famous internet retailer. A present, to be sent to an address in the UK. And last night, at 9pm, I filled in their online form to say that it hadn't arrived. Not their fault, obviously. Well, maybe, but not necessarily.
I got the confirmation immediately - so far so good. An hour later, I got a mail asking me to confirm a couple of points.
Today they've re-shipped the item. It's all been very painless, and let's face it, it could have been handled by a computer, and probably was.
Somewhere along the line though, be it when they were programming the computer, reading a screen in Bangalore, or filling in a form wrong somewhere, instead of posting it by the usual cheapest bidder route, it's been posted special delivery next day service. All of this - the wrapping, the gift, the postage, and the extra upgrade for the princely sum of no additional money. How good is that?
Who knows if it will get there? Well, tomorrow, I'll know. I'll be tracking it on line. It means that the Christmas present that I ordered first now stands a fighting chance of being there in time for Christmas. It's turned a negative experience into one that's actually delighted me.
Oh my goodness it's annoying.
Something electrical is buzzing. Every so often. The first time was for a few seconds - enough to wake me up. The next few times it's been for just a fraction of a second - enough to stop me from getting back to sleep.
I can't work out what it is. I can't work out which room it's coming from. It might even be outside. It's three o'clock in the morning.
And I can't find the ear plugs.
You're probably in Edinburgh
You know where we live
You wonder when we're going to come and see you again
Your name probably begins with A
I wish I could read your handwriting.
I'll admit to a plethora of self doubt around the whole Charity Crockpot Toilet Gift thing.
Having now been through the whole process from both sides, I think I've got it wrong. Slightly.
Giving to charity is a good thing. Giving a specific gift to charity is a great feeling, and much more pleasurable for the donor than being thwacked in the face with a clipboard. It may not be as good for their revenue stream, but nonetheless at the end of the day, the charity gets the money and up to 20% of it goes to a good cause, possibly even more.
Giving a gift like that, instead of throwing money away on some of the incredible junk that people give at Christmas is definitely preferable. I'd much rather have received a small picture of a chamber pot or a fork handle than a big tub of cookie dough. After all, cookie dough is pretty easy to make yourself. And a big tub of it is just a temptation if you're a fat bloke. Oh look, I'm digressing.
So, it's good for the charity, good for the world wide world of the world, and good for the giver. And in some circumstances, good for the recipient. But not always.
A bit of spin might help. The message on the card I gave was along the lines of "I bought you half a turnip but gave it to someone who needed it more..." and that's not quite the right sentiment. If I won a million quid in a raffle, but they gave the money to someone else, I might be a little upset. Eventually, I might get over it. But with a charity gift, the message needs work. It's closer to "I could have bought you something that was a bit rubbish and would have left you disappointed. My present was never going to make a significant difference to your life, but this way at least someone's life is significantly improved. I thought you'd like that."
Only in fewer words. Obviously. Sell it. Make the recipient feel that they've not lost out on anything. Remember when you were five. There's anticipation associated with a gift. You want to rip open the paper, and at the end of it you've got something you didn't have before. If you're going to shatter that anticipation, then sell it better. After all, you're not five years old any more.
If you are five years old, and you are reading this, then please run up to your mummy and say "bottoms!" at the top of your voice. That'll annoy her.
It's nearly that time of year again, and so I thought I would present the truth about charity Christmas presents. You know the ones that you get that look like cards.
On the outside is a picture of a lovely cow.
On the inside is a message that says "Isn't rampant commercialism awful. Auntie Doreen has made a gift of three cows and a chicken to a village on your behalf. Oh, and a toilet.
Now that's nice. It's great if you're a villager and you need the toilet, for instance. No more waiting, hurrah.
But in most cases, it's not actually a present. The card shouldn't read "on your behalf". It should read "instead of sending you anything."
Now don't get me wrong. I'm all in favour of people giving cows, chickens and toilets to those in need. But there is no way that the card with the cow is a gift to me. It's a gift from Auntie Doreen to the village. I've bought her a DVD of Dieux du Stade that will keep her happy for hours. She's given me... nothing. And a card that rubs my nose in the fact.
Now, Christmas is a time of many unwanted gifts, and the charity present at least has the advantage of being recyclable, and there's nothing wrong with saying to people that you don't want gifts and you'd rather they made a charitable gift instead, but if you've gone to the trouble of thinking about people, getting them something that they at best love, and at worst enjoy, then there's nothing that takes the wind out of your sails more than getting back the card with the picture of the airbrushed cow. It's like Santa has come back down the chimney and sucked all the joy out of giving.
It's not about the gift. Gifts don't have to be big, or expensive. They're really just the pretext to get together, to show each other that you still think about each other. Charity Christmas presents break that down. I suppose they're part of the modern malaise that is the breakdown of the family.
On the other hand, they do show awareness of something bigger, and that's only to be commended. And it's what I'm going to give the recipient of my Secret Santa present in the office this year.
It was a great dream. MacDonald Brothers. Spit-roasting. Don't look that up if you don't know what it means. And then I woke up.
In a similar way, my relaxing life over the last three weeks is about to be brutally shattered by a cruel and sudden return to work. But what has my extended period of illness taught me? What have I learned? And, most importantly, how am I?
I have learned what it's like to be on oxygen. I've learned that I can sleep a full night sitting up. I've learned that I'm allergic to something, but I haven't learned what. I've learned that I actually like going to work, but that I could happily spend all my days at home. And I could probably work from home.
I have learned that I need to breathe in order to stay alive. I can sleep in a room with three other people without worrying about farting. I have learned that I get woken up if there's someone urinating in a bottle in the opposite corner of the room. I have learned that sitting in bed all day is not as good as it sounds when you are eight. I am sufficiently versatile to be able to give blood before or after breakfast.
I have learned that a hospital can be friendly, can be caring, even comforting - but that there's no place like home.
Back to work tomorrow. I was looking forward to it two days ago, but now I think I just might leave it another day. Or two.
On Monday, I was released from hospital. During this time I had a huge range of diagnoses, from pleurisy to anaemia to pneumonia; I had problems with a variable number of lungs (it ended up with two); I had developed a condition that I didn't have before I went in; and I had been promised a range of treatments from cutting me open from behind, and from in front, and sticking a tube down my throat for a bit of a rummage. In the end, my final diagnosis was:
A really nasty sniffle.
And so I was sent out from my nice private ward, down to the Discharge Lounge.
The Discharge Lounge was the most depressing place in the entire hospital. It looked like a waiting room. It felt like a waiting room. I was spoken to pretty much as soon as I arrived, and then again two hours later.
In that time, night had fallen. Four people had succumbed to the effects of Polonium 210, and the government of the Philippines had changed. Twice. And what had happened in the Departure Lounge?
A sick woman had moaned for an hour. An old guy had arrived and then claimed to have been waiting for six hours. A fat bloke had offered me three coffees. I had eaten a custard cream. And a junior doctor had filled in three forms. That's an average of one word a minute.
I would have been sarcastic, but frankly I was too tired. I went out in to the rain, in to a taxi, and rolled home to a nice cup of tea and a long overdue hug, before an enforced period of happy convalescence.
There's an easy routine to hospital.
They wake you up at quarter past six to take your blood pressure, temperature and so on. Then they make you go back to sleep and wake you up again at eight for breakfast and bloodtaking. Sometimes they let you have breakfast first, sometimes it's blood first. When I went in, I didn't have any white blood cells, so that's what they were looking for.
Sometime in the morning, you might get a doctor. You might get four. You might get drugs, you might not. Anyway, you're not supposed to go water-ski-ing, in case the doctor comes around.
You get asked what you want for lunch. It may or may not be the same as what you get. Then take your blood pressure again. You start watching Countdown. The chap opposite you starts watching the Discovery Channel, at a volume that's slightly too loud, so you can't hear Countdown. But you don't turn the volume up, because you don't want to get in to that sort of war, not when you're poorly.
Tea is about five thirty. Maybe you get more pills, maybe you get another doctor, maybe you get wheeled down for a Cat scan, but you definitely get your blood pressure taken because they absolutely love getting your blood taken. You might get a bit of chat from Wincy Michaels, the attractive Indian Staff nurse, or perhaps it's her identical twin sister, Nincy Michaels, the slightly less attractive Indian Staff nurse. Or maybe the boring taxi driver in the bed opposite will try to persuade you that he thinks that you and Leona off X Factor would make a really nice couple. It's an exciting and random time.
Then - if you're lucky - you get a visitor. More fruit to add to the collection, a copy of a Cork newspaper, a change of socks. Company's really nice, even if there's nothing to catch up on. "What did you do today?" "Well, mainly I lay around and had my blood pressure taken." "How was that?" "Up a bit after they told me they were going to put a tap in my chest to drain the fluid out of my lungs, but down again, when they said they were going to reinflate my lungs by pulling down sharply on the red toggle. What did you do?" "Nothing."
About half past ten, you get bored with watching telly with the sound turned down so as not to wake the octagenarians who are - in any case - doped up to the eyeballs and have been asleep since six o'clock like well-behaved one-year-olds, and you decide to fall asleep. So you do.
Half an hour later you are woken up. They take your blood pressure. And that's it. Nothing disturbs your sleep except for the familiar sound of Thomas across the way emptying his bladder sluggishly into a bottle.
Familiar, simple routine.
Thursday morning, I'm still woozy. I've just been taken off oxygen - more on that story later - and I am a bit light-headed. And there's a nun in the room.
As you may have guessed, a midget, nonagenarian nun.
For a second, I think I'm hallucinating. And then she comes over to talk to us. I'm still wearing the clothes from the night before at this point - I've not had a chance to change. Chinos and a smock-thing that closes at the back. My shoulders are exposed in a 90s pop-star kind of way. And there's a nun inching towards me.
"I'd offer you communion," she said. "But you'll be on a fast."
"First I've heard of it."
"But you're clearly dressed for theatre."
"I wouldn't be seen dead in the theatre dressed like this."
I then politely declined communion on the grounds that I am an ungodly philistine, watched as she did the thirty-second blessing of the host and forced it down joint-pain man and failing-kidney man and rolled off to the next ward.
Mr Twinky looked at me. "I wouldn't be seen dead in the theatre dressed like this?" he repeated. "You are so going to hell."
Let's start with the basics. I'm not well. That's why I went to see the doctor, and that's why I went to see him again a week later to say "Oi, I'm still in a chunkload of pain here, what are you going to do about it, eh?"
And he, of course said "keep taking the tablets". Doubled up my dose, gave me some painkillers, sent me on my way. He did, however, send me off for an X Ray, just as a precaution. So the next day we trundled off to the local hospital for an X Ray, sat around for an hour waiting for results, and then trundled home again when they refused to tell us the results. That should have rung alarm bells, but it didn't.
I was actually feeling quite a lot better - I'd had a good night's sleep and felt really rested. I did some work. And then I got the call from the doctor saying that he was referring me to the Emergency room and I should get there as soon as possible. Fair enough, thought I. I've obviously got something that can be best resolved by spending five hours in a room full of alcoholics and drug users. I thought I might be some time. I took a book.
I was seen fairly quickly. I had my blood pressure and pulse taken. They did an Electrocardiogram. They left me lying on a bed for an hour while they took some blood and talked about me behind my back. And then they wheeled me in to a cupboard and left me there for a while.
Somewhere, there was a doctor. He spent some time with us. He gave me a local anaesthetic, pushed a needle in to my back and pulled out 15ml of fluid. It took longer than he'd expected. We then got wheeled around a bit more. There was another X Ray. Someone told me I hadn't been tagged. I didn't realise until about five hours after I got to the hospital that I wasn't going to be coming out again on the same day. And that would roughly be when the panic started.
I didn't panic much, but I did panic. I was worried about what would happen to me, about how Mr Twinky would cope, and about what the well-dressed gentleman wears in a public ward these days. I was wheeled through corridors of impotence, not knowing where I was going, what was coming next, or what on earth was actually wrong with me...