C5: BELLIGERENT AVOCADOS, AGGRESSIVE SPINACH, AND HUMBLE PIE

First published: 11 Jan 2017

My Grandfather on my mother’s side could be neatly encapsulated by the description belligerent. The word covers a multitude of sins including aggressive, argumentative, quarrelsome, loud-mouthed, stroppy, confrontational, spoiling for a fight, and cantankerous. Every one of those would fit at some point or other.

The origin of his cantankerousness could be reasonably traced back to shell-shock caused by grievous injuries and associated experiences during World War I. However, my characteristics throw a spanner in the works. I can be cantankerous. The question arises, therefore; is it coincidental – highly unlikely; is it an inherited trait, part of his make-up passed down from his forefathers and onto me – if it is, then his wasn’t caused by his experiences during WWI, the tendency was always there; was his developed cantankerousness encoded into his DNA during WWI and then subsequently passed to me? That last one poses a lot of additional questions which would fuel a shed-load of PhD studies.

The cute, superficial approach of nature or nature or nature and nurture of development have both been pretty much debunked as too simplified, and the way of most thinking now is based on genes (nature) interacting with nurture and having mutually influential effects; in other words genes alter the environment and the environment alters genes. Both in real time. David Shenk has some good stuff, very well explained in his book The Genius in All of Us (Anchor, 2011).

Whatever the source of my trait I do, indeed, exhibit cantankerousness, but I prefer belligerence. I can be a real pig at it. Sometimes it gets in the way and other times it can be useful. The trick is using it as a plan or as a strategy.

Strategy is a hugely overused word across all aspects of business and is largely misunderstood. Everyone uses it as a synonym for planning, but it’s not. Planning is about methodology and systems whereas strategy is about processes and emphasis. Cutting through all the corporate bullshit promoted by Harvard Business Review and its lesser copycat surrogates and wannabe clones, we can define planning as about performance and strategy about results.

Twenty-four years ago The Economist declared, “Nobody really knows what strategy is…” Many authors cite The Economist’s unequivocal statement but then use thousands of words doing little more than unequivocally proving they are not the one to prove The Economist wrong! Most authors need to subscribe to the maxim attributed variously to Ernest Rutherford, Albert Einstein, or Richard Feynman, with slight variations in the recipient of the explanation, “If you can’t explain it to a barmaid you don’t understand it.” Swimming coaches fall into the same trap, using overcomplicating obscuration all the time. They also use multi-syllabic terminology.

As an aside I love pithy quotes: here’s a beaut I just found from Rutherford – he’s the guy who first split the atom – “If your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment.” Love that one. It’s true.

Anyway, back to strategy.

What, exactly, does strategy mean? Even the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary confuse strategy and management when outlining their organization: “the Chief Executive … chairs the Group Strategy Committee … in charge of the day-to-day management …

Without a satisfactory definition, discussion of strategy descends into the murky quagmire inhabited by most authors with participants reduced to quivering, mumbling, frustrated and confused wrecks. The problem is linguistics. Strategy is a noun, in other words, a ‘thing’, but is variously used or modified as a noun, verb, adverb or adjective and is often misused as such. When most writers use it as an adjective – strategic planning, strategic learning, strategic thinking – it describes why anyone plans, learns or thinks, but they should use it as an adverb to describe how – planning, learning, thinking strategically. This confusion is the origin providing the solid basis for The Economist’s depressing statement.

Planning and strategy, like the pairing of leadership and management, are inter-related but are not synonymous. Strategy is not a synonym or a substitute for planning even though there can be situations where it is part of the planning process if no competitors indulge in it. Put simply, planning is about performance, strategy is about results. Lawrence Freedman comes close when he says strategy allows the planning to exhibit its product and “is most dramatically used when facing a stronger opponent” (Strategy: A History. OUP, 2013).

Where are we going with this and what has it got to do with cancer and fractured necks. Well, one neck and two fractures.

Yesterday was stitch removal day: twelve for the surgery to my neck and seven in the associated incision on my butt where they harvested pelvic bone for the graft into my cervical vertebrae. My head is now held steady by my ass. Very appropriate.

I had three specialists to see so I planned for efficiency: the first one, an orthopedic guy about the severe and debilitating pain in my left knee which had almost deep-sixed my discharge a few days ago. I thought it was a form of arthritis and it had come on quite suddenly making it impossible to put any weight on my left leg. I literally couldn’t walk at all. Over the space of 24 hours, the pain diminished but discharge was touch and go until the last minute. The arthritis specialist only deals with two patients each morning and his diary was full but the secretary kindly offered 7.45 am before he officially started. Yes, please.

Specialists 2 and 3 were cancer and neurology respectively. I plugged them in at 9.00 am and 10.00 am so I had buffer zones in case of delays or complications; the morning was looking like a beautiful thing.

The drive usually takes around a full hour and I wanted to be sure I was ahead of the game so I left the apartment at 6.30. A good version of sod’s law kicked in and we arrived at 7.10. Not a problem, better early than late. Reception staff perkily perked up at 7.30 and I found my way through the rabbit warren of the buildings to report at the local admin station at 7.35 for my 7.45 appointment.

7.40.

7.45.

7.50.

7.55 … I guess these guys are allowed to be late. They’re special. They rule the hospitals.

8.00.

8.05 … by 8.35 I was getting pissed off. My Master plan was in danger of imploding at the first step. If this appointment ate into the scheduled time of the second one (9.00) then I may miss my slot and that would, in turn, affect my 10.00 consultation.

I must have looked edgy because I was asked to sit in a consultation office. As we moved through the corridors I passed the Consultant examining a woman on a bed who had strange looking feet – almost a delicate hint of gangrene; mildly yellowy-black staining but without the fetid smell of decaying and necrotic tissue. She was perfectly and perfectly whiningly lucid so in no way was it an emergency. I sat in the office.

8.40.

8.45.

8.50 … that’s it. I’d had enough. Belligerence kicked in. Thank God, I hear you saying; at last, we got back to that. I walked out, past the admin desk and stalked off to the next appointment.

It’s quite amusing to see the reaction of table staff when you react to slow service in a restaurant by walking out because the bill is late to arrive. Same here. The admin guy hot-footed it after me and implored me to return. I refused and explained why. He phoned specialist #2 and then told me it was OK if I was a little late and that I should do the knee stuff first. We return to the consultation office and, da-dah, the specialist arrived immediately.

He was a really nice guy. We discuss the problem which had cured itself in the interim and was now non-existent except for the possibility of a future return. We settle on some form of arthritic gout characterized by little, green crystals which is a nice picture. I can imagine those making pretty patterns in my blood stream like the kaleidoscope things you had when you were a kid. Shake it up and look down the tube and marvel at the different colors and shapes. So, no treatment there, move to appointment #2.

Potentially this was the most sensitive, somber, grim, solemn, or uplifting conversation of the morning. This one was to receive the naughty or nice verdict about the tumor. ‘Nice’ meant it was benign and could simply be blasted into oblivion. ‘Nice’ meant it had acted like a cuckoo chick, demanding more space than readily available, and resulting in it ‘merely’ fracturing my spine. Nice indeed, but much nicer than the naughty alternatives.

The possibilities of naughty spanned a localized cancer and one which was hell-bent on world domination.

Localized meant it would keep growing unless killed, but it wouldn’t spread to other parts of my organism. Treatment for this would likely be radiation therapy (highly focused light-sabres!), either in one big blast or a series of thirty or so small ones. World domination, however, meant it would potentially spread through the vascular system or the lymphatic system to other organs and other tissues. Sir Isaac Newton almost cracked the solution – action and reaction are equal and opposite, but war doesn’t have equal as its goal; it demands that you win. Stalemate or equilibrium is not allowed. Like with like is not enough, you have to be more brutal than the opposition. That was Hitler’s problem when he blitzed London in 1940. The attacks were inconclusive and, contrarily, served to galvanize the power and emotions of the British peoples. Contrast this with the USA bombing Hiroshima, a civilian target just like London. The Japanese went into shocked but temporarily stunned defense mode. 72 hours later Nagasaki was bombed; will-power and emotional-response-ability were destroyed; no retaliatory counter-attacks were possible Surrender was immediate.

Hitler’s approach was not strong enough. Germany used force, whereas the USA used violence. Violence is an over-use of force. Hitler was not nasty enough. The USA ‘got the result’.

If the enemy wants world domination then bring it on. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgical removal, thermo-nuclear warheads, handbags at dawn, snakes on a plane, whatever it takes.

That’s what we were supposed to discuss. No such luck.

The analysis didn’t give a definitive diagnosis of the type of cancer involved in the tumor so we still don’t have a clear direction of world war three or a relatively minor skirmish of the radiation therapy type. There was a possibility that the cancers had started lower in my body than the tumor, say in the gastrointestinal tract, and then snuck their sneaky claws into a cozy and comfortable space between my C1 vertebrae and my spinal cord. Dr. Manish suggested that I agree to send the tissue samples to another hospital for a ‘second opinion’. I instantly agree but it will add three or four days to the diagnosis timetable. Can’t be helped and it’s better to be more, rather than less, certain.

During appointment #2, Consultant #3 arrives. #2 and #3 are the guys who led the two surgical teams while I was in theater. They are great. I look on them as friends. They care. We banter away, do the mundane neurological tests – squeeze hands, squeeze eyes, follow a light, walk on my heels and on my toes, stand with eyes closed, hammer response to knees and elbows etc. – and then change offices for the real physical part of the morning.

This is Dr. Vevek. He always looks at me quizzically as though he’s trying to work out just what the hell makes me tick, whereas Dr. Manish simply smiles like a bemused Uncle watching a distracted puppy spin circles while chasing its own tail. Today’s big thing is to remove the stitches. This is a bigger delight to me than it would normally be because it means I can wash my hair. The last time I washed my hair was Christmas Eve, 17 days ago. I wash my hair every day. I like the feel of shiny, squeaky-clean hair, so the hair-wash break after the fracture diagnosis and the ban since the surgery has driven me mad – not allowed to get the scar site wet.

The scar has healed wonderfully well. Incredibly neat work. 12 stitches mean no short line but it doesn’t look as if it will be a public distraction when I’m strutting my stuff on the Bali beaches. The 12 give up their respective roles with no arguments. Everything is good. Likewise the other seven stitches in my hip where the donor bone was harvested. He also sorts out the two fall-induced scars on my leg which are now well on the way to normality. In one short period I am transformed from an advert for walking-wounded to a cunningly disguised, smooth-skinned picture of health and vitality. It’s all relative of course.

I have to collect the tissues for transportation to the other hospital but I also need sustenance. My original morning’s plan included the buffer time where I could grab a bite and a caffeine fix, but that was derailed so I am now hungry. I woke at 5.30 am, I skipped breakfast in anticipation of eating mid-morning, and it’s now 11.00 am. The cafeteria menu is all Indian gobbledegook. I know it’s going to be all vegetarian because I’ve endured seven days of all-veggie and no alcohol. The soup of the day is not available until noon so I order French fries and a latte. That’s what I order. What I get is latte, because there are apparently no French fries in the city of Mumbai. Soluble solution: double the usual amount of sugar and hope that substitutes.

By around 11.30 I find the tissue collection department. It’s not easy because of the rabbit-warren cloning of the hospital buildings. Some are reconstructed ‘heritage’ buildings, some are new, and the result is a marvelous mix of character and purpose, but it is really difficult to navigate. The department is on floor 3 but payment of the deposit, for the glass slides and paraffin blocks etc., has to be done on floor 1. I troddle down to floor 1, pay and return to floor 3. It is 11.45 and I am greeted with, “You will come back at four this afternoon to collect the samples?”

Beligerence returns. Son of belligerence. Belligerence II. Belligerence, the sequel.

How about ‘No!’”

Blank stare.

No. Do it now!”

Four this afternoon’ becomes 11.51 am. Beligerence works. Plans are good but strategy gets the result.

I descend through the maze of corridors, the lifts, and the doorways, collect some print-outs of reports and I am in the car by noon. “First, food; second hospital wherever; thirdly swimming pool.”

Off we go, me desperately searching for a suitable cafe, my driver absently looking for the same. Mumbai is a strange place in many ways. You can drive for a long time and not pass any eateries at all. Which is what we did. For an hour, arriving at the other, ‘second opinion’ hospital around 1.00 pm. The delivery desk is on floor 2. Guess what? The payment for the analysis has to be done on floor 3. Same old, same old. Floor 3 presents an obnoxious queue jumper and a lot of helpful and reasonable people. I tend to be larger and taller than many Indian people (except the cricketers) so I inhibit the obnoxious guy by looking as though I might throw him out of the window. I pay and return to floor 2 to collect my documents.

Food is now becoming a matter of urgency rather than convenience. I spy a cafe, The Rolling Pin. It looks modern, neat, clean and enticing. “Latte for starters right now please?” The menu is … vegetarian. Heart sinks; I’d been looking forward to sinking my incisors into flesh, but I rationalize by telling myself that most of the population look healthy. So a health approach is what I take. Or not. For one of the few times in my life, I need copious amounts of sugar so I go for a buttermilk pancake with honey and blueberry compote, spread with Belgium chocolate, topped with banana, and accompanied by ice-cream. Yummy.

Then the bad news: it will take 20 minutes. I may die of sugar-deprivation in 20 minutes, so I do a complete pivot and really do go the health-kick: the ‘Green Goddess’, listed under sandwich and toast. This masterpiece comprises avocado, spinach and feta cheese on toasted ‘hand-crafted’, sourdough rye bread and served with house fries: “Five to ten minutes.”

It arrives in exactly ten minutes. The pancake could well have been too late. I sipped the way-too-hot coffee. Good coffee in India is inevitably served way-too-hot. Starbucks allegedly serve at around 145 degrees Celsius, but most Indian stuff must be near 180. That temperature scalds the beans and brings out an excessive bitterness. Whatever, strong hits of caffeine are what is needed and this delivers.

<Aside> I took a writing break to cook, eat and watch some of Trump’s press conference crap and the steely knives came back. Jeez, painful. Painful indeed. It’s mostly passed now and most of it is reasonably good and endurable, but, wow, that was painful. (/aside>

The Green Goddess beckons: I have a knife and fork so I spear a couple of fries, dip them in the mayonnaise and eat. A tad too much salt but pretty good anyway. Crispy and tasty. Hunger is the best sauce, eh? I turn to the multi-layered sandwich as I am approached by a senior-looking uniformed servant of The Rolling Pin.

“Good afternoon, Sir. Can I ask you if all your food is to your satisfaction?”

“Well, no, because I haven’t started eating it yet, as you can see.”

“Very well, Sir,” and he vanishes.

That lack of observation is indicative, characteristic and typical of everything I see in catering throughout India. Lack of effective management and staff training. I progress.

My neck brace is a magnificent contraption. An Aspen cervical collar which was specialist fitted in Canada and is, unfortunately, unavailable in India. It is a piece of surgical support which truly helped enable me to travel nursing a double fracture from Vancouver to Mumbai. However, it does restrict my jaw movement. That’s part of the deal. So, eating is more difficult than usual. I have to cut my food into small portions rather than bite and chew them. My toasted ‘hand-crafted’, sourdough rye bread is speared with my fork. Gooey avocado, spinach, and feta ooze out as the two layers of the plump, toasted bun are compressed. I position my knife, press and start to saw through. I press harder. And harder. Gooey mixtures slide across the table but I am undeterred. I saw and saw, rip and tear sideways, and eventually I produce a bisection of the toasted bun. I re-start and continue until I have enough Clive-sized, bite-pieces to offer a reasonable meal. The taste is terrific. Now and again, and once more, again, I encounter slices of avocado seed where the huge nut thing has been included in the slicing and dicing before the filling of the sandwich. Fortunately, my teeth survive.

I complete my feast. That is what is tasted like. Terrific. Except for the avocado nut. I waved over for the bill and asked for the manager to return. He pranced across and I asked him to identify the pieces of avocado nut. He was mortified. We agreed it was a problem that shouldn’t have occurred, but I assured him the sandwich design and construction was, indeed, top class. I then handed him the knife and suggested he try to slice through the substantial remaining piece of bun. He didn’t even try. He suggested that the knife was blunt because it wasn’t expected to be used.

Why give it to me, then?”

Miming, he demonstrated his words, “We expect you to pick it up and eat it [like a beefburger].”

I can’t do that because of my collar but, even if I could, how would I deal with the gooey filling spilling out across the table and my clothes?”

Let me deal with that, Sir.” He vanishes.

A new bill arrives with a complimentary Green Goddess sandwich. I am quite mortified: that wasn’t my purpose at all. I have been an avid student at the knee of the best restaurant complainers in history, but I wasn’t looking for a freebie. The sliced nut was one thing but the blunt knife was a restaurant-wide oversight which could have been solved overnight: simply give out sharp, appropriate knives. I advocate for being charged. The manager tells me I have found a problem and it is against company policy to charge me. I am both humbled and impressed. I am torn between being too embarrassed to return and being a passionate advocate of avocado. I opt for passion. I thoroughly recommend The Rolling Pin. Next time I’ll devote twenty minutes.

My bill is timed at 2.37 pm and extreme hunger may have played a part in my judgment, but I think I was not at all belligerent.

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