Hooked on the Social Media Drug

I remember when social media sites were first set up. They invited us to join for free, to exchange messages, pictures and other snapshots of our lives with friends scattered far and wide over the planet. When I signed up for Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads, I thought this was an excellent way of keeping in touch with the people I had met in the many corners of the world where I had lived or travelled to. I even started contributing original content for free in order to keep the channel alive—we all did. And we saw the means of promoting ourselves and our occupations (especially for self-employed ones among us like artists, writers and musicians) without falling prey to big corporate costs for such promotion, costs that hitherto had shut us out of traditional media.

Then something started to happen. Venture capitalists and other funding sources started reeling in the endless supply of funds to these social media sites, saying “Grow up boys, and pay your rent, now.” So, the Social Media sites started to take on advertizing to supplement their income. Their promise to advertisers: a captive audience that could be segmented in a myriad of different ways with sophisticated algorithms, and fed advertisements based on taste, geography, budget etc., at the click of a button and at a relatively low cost. They left the traditional media in the dust when it came to reach, relevance and cost.

Then something else started to happen. Bad guys cottoned onto how effective social media could be if they could infiltrate it with their own messaging that could help influence the outcome of public opinion and policy, national elections, and human behaviour. Very soon we saw people meeting at parties and retreating to their handhelds, people talking across the table via Messenger, pornography becoming a staple with no age barrier and differentiated only by which brand one consumed, and wild card politicians being elected to office thanks to third party influencers in social media.

When the regulators started to grumble about how powerful the tech companies were becoming and began applying retail tax laws to them just as they did for bricks and mortar operators, and threatened further regulation, the tech companies decided to put on a good corporate citizen face and capitalize further on the situation. They came back promising the following to: (1) favour personal content over promotional content for users in order to “restore the platform to its original intent.” (2) restrict promotional content to paid advertizing only, thereby getting more revenue from those independent artists, writers and musicians who previously promoted to friends and followers without having to pay for advertizing; there was no mention of how frequently this revamped paid advertizing would be hoisted upon the user base—i.e. more often than before, or less often? (3) hint that advertizing rates would increase because viewership was expected to drop due to #1 above. The bottom line from these changes: prices are going up, effectiveness is going down; advertisers and users lose, social media platform wins!

My old guru used to say, “Beware when they come and offer sweets outside the school gates. The candy could be laced with drugs, and you will become an addict very quickly.” That analogy is true here too. We were sucked in with the promise of becoming famous for free. Now it’s payback time and the fledgling social media company start-ups, that we helped grow into large corporations, have got us by the short and curlies, and we are hooked without any means of disengaging. We haven’t learnt much have we? My old guru must be turning in his grave.

A Self-Directed Literary Tour of Ireland

Someone told me that I would find inspiration to finish my new collection of short stories if I went to Ireland. So I did, spending three days in Dublin, a day in Belfast, and a week at a writer’s retreat, Anam Cara, on the Beara Peninsula of County Cork. Apart from doing the tourist thing and drinking a lot of beer and Irish whiskey, I finished the last three stories in my collection in six straight days. Ireland is indeed a literary place.

Dublin, formerly the second largest city in the United Kingdom, is really a compact place; at least, all the things I wanted to see were in walking distance: the national museums (free entry!); Trinity College, home of the Book of Kells; the writers’ museums (including Joyce’s); the monuments to literary figures (including Joyce’s—they like this guy a lot even though he fled the country and wrote his masterpieces overseas); the infamous General Post Office where a bunch of amateur artists and leftists barricaded themselves and launched the abortive Easter Uprising of 1916, got cannoned in return by the well-oiled British Army, but paved the way for Irish Independence in 1922 after six more years of violence; and the pubs, of course. There were other museums too that were interesting and inebriating: the Irish Whiskey museum where you learn that the stuff made by those “other guys” across the water, and called Scotch, is not the real McCoy; the 7-storey Guinness Museum where you get to sample the “good stuff” on the top floor, the Altitude Bar, where you have to wait two minutes for the sediment in your drink to settle—two minutes well worth the wait, for the resulting chocolaty beer is flawless.

At night, I joined a literary pub-crawl, where two actors entertained us with extracts and performances from the works of Irish literary greats such as Beckett, Yeates, Behan, Stoker (yes, Dracula was invented by an Irishman), and Joyce, of course. Performances took place inside pubs, outside them, on street corners, in the grounds of Trinity College where many of the literary greats had been educated (except Joyce, of course—he was an alumnus of the University College of Dublin), opposite the statue of Molly Malone (a side story: a very inebriated local stepped out of a neighbouring pub and proceeded to give me the history of amorous Molly while the two actors were delivering lines from Joyce!), and ending up at the Davy Byrnes pub for our last drink and performance of the day, the pub that was most visited by none other than, you guessed it—Joyce, of course!

Most of the present city seems to have been built in Georgian & Victorian times. Whole blocks of brown Georgian townhouses have been converted into offices, schools or hotels, their spacious interiors divided and subdivided to remind us how much of a premium we pay for city centre space today. This was my one grouse about this city—the hotel rooms were too small; my 5-storey Georgian hotel provided me a room big enough for my bed only, there was no air conditioning and no elevator. Compare that to days of old when a single family occupied this entire townhouse, with the entertaining of guests taking place on the second floor, the adult bedrooms located on the third floor, the kids housed on the fourth floor, and the servants relegated to the basement.

Driving the two hours from Dublin to Belfast, along Dorset Street that runs point to point between one city hall and the other, I suddenly realized the implications of Brexit: to properly implement this continental divorce, a wall will have to spring up between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, something the Irish on both sides will never spring for, now that all Irish-born (North and South) can apply for a Republic of Ireland passport, and because their Good Friday agreement overrides the EU deal and provides for open borders between the two Irelands. But there were noticeable changes as I headed from the EU (Irish Republic) into Britain (Northern Ireland): the currency changed from Euros to Pounds Sterling and the road signs changed from kilometres into miles. And Union Jacks sprang up in a panic like totems aimed at keeping those dirty Irish peasants out of Britain. And there WAS a wall: between the Catholic (aka Nationalist) and Protestant (aka Loyalist) sections of Belfast, a graffiti-covered, 20-foot high wall that ran 400 metres (see, even I am confused now by measures as I am getting Imperial and Metric mixed up in this bifurcated nation!) with a gate that closed at 10.30 p.m. each night, keeping the two solitudes apart even to this day.

Belfast is still an uneasy city. The elegant Europa Hotel is pointed out as the most bombed hotel in Europe (33 times), a wall (another wall) of murals runs through two streets in the Catholic section and is dedicated to depicting revolutionary struggles around the world, and a very biased Nationalist museum showcases the atrocities committed by the British on the young IRA revolutionaries during the troubles that ran for 40 years following the first outbreak in County Derry in 1968. The British strategy of “divide and conquer” that worked so well in all its colonies is alive and well, in this its oldest conquest, heading towards the 800-year mark of colonial occupation. Some statistics I picked up: 23% of the population of Northern Ireland still receive counselling for trauma experienced during the troubles, and 67% of the working population is in public service—the Irish Republic couldn’t afford to have the Northerners join them with such a bloated bureaucracy. But the Titanic Museum, and its companion, Titanic Studios (where certain parts of the Game of Thrones television series are shot), were doing a thriving tourist business, and it was a good sign, although like Auschwitz, the museum was profiting from the ultimate sacrifice made by others a long time ago.

On our return, we stopped at a nondescript gravestone in County Down which had the single word “Patrick” inscribed on it, and I was educated on the fact that there had never been snakes in Ireland, and that you really had to have good luck to find a four-leaf clover because this national plant comprises of only three leaves.

And then it was onward into the countryside by train, on board the well-run, bi-lingual (Gaelic and English) Irish Rail that was comfortable, efficient and on time. The landscape was one of rolling hills all the way, reminding me of my own Northumberland County in Ontario. There were subtle differences however: the absence of evergreens (unless deliberately planted) due to the milder, wetter climate, and 84% of the fields were reserved for cattle and sheep farming (another statistic I picked up). And everything was a brilliant, luminous green.

The city of Cork is a university city (Queen Victoria apparently wanted to break the stranglehold Dublin had on education and opened universities in Cork, Galway and Belfast), and a port and administrative city; a rather dull place after you exit the city core which is two long streets, one modern and the other rustic. But like Dublin, it is a city with a lot of young people.

My driver, who does an early morning run into Cork and a late afternoon, two-hour return to the Beara Peninsula, spending the time in-between watching soccer newscasts in a friendly pub, met me and took my luggage, leaving me free to explore the city for a couple of hours. As it was between lunch and dinner serving times in the restaurants and pubs, I found that most patrons, men and women, had a pint instead of their afternoon tea.

When we set out at 6.30 p.m. there were two other passengers with me, a thinly used coach service, but an essential one, as it is the only transportation link between my destination and this principal city of the largest county in Ireland. In the failing light, we passed patches of rock and spruce bog interspersed between rolling farmland, villages that hugged the road where pubs outnumbered shops, and old castles that sat in ruins amidst farms—I later discovered that these structures were not all castles, but mills, granaries and other pastoral buildings of a bygone age, allowed to decay as replacements sprang up nearby.

Anam Cara is a five-acre refuge replete with farm, waterfall, river and labyrinth, and over a dozen little nooks with a bench to sit and write, dream or meditate. The property overlooks Coulagh Bay from where the clouds move in rapidly, sometimes to stay and drench us with rain, sometime to blow by. Fortunately, during my week’s stay, the rain stayed only for a day and the weather got progressively brighter and warmer. My gracious host, Sue, an editor and doyen of the arts in the community, ensured that all meals, rooms and amenities were to my satisfaction, and I was free to meander the grounds, walk down into the village of Eiries (voted tidiest town in Cork), pop into a pub en-route, or head down all the way to the tip of the bay to spot whales and dolphins if they cared to come near to shore (I saw none, unfortunately). Looking inland with my back to the wind, I was welcomed by the sight of clusters of little villages nestled in the range of green hills that swept the peninsula. And I was free to write. And write I did, enforcing a gruelling (for me) five-hour schedule per day.
The company at mealtimes was stimulating: the cook was a short story writer, the other domestic helper belonged to a local writers’ group, and artists of all kinds kept dropping in. I gathered that the damp climate, centuries of colonial rule, deep religious roots, and the fierce spirit of independence and self-reliance had forged a literary sensibility that most locals bore and respected in others. It was indeed a great place to write in, a place where a writer could belong instead of being on the periphery.

And then it was time to return home. This article only covers a smattering of the things I witnessed and experienced in Ireland, and my visit also covered but a smattering of places in this dynamic country steeped in a rich history, soon slated to be the only English speaking one in the EU should Brexit proceed. It certainly is on the cards for another visit, something I rarely do. But a destination that appeals to me for a repeat is a special one, and Ireland is special

Are there Non-Starving Writers?

Are there non-starving writers? Yes, there are. The old cliché of the “starving writer” needs to be dusted off. There are all kinds of writers these days, and only a few of them are starving. Who are these “other types” and what shapes and sizes do they come in? Okay, let me have a go. First, let’s eliminate the well-heeled ones, those who hit the jackpot with one book and caught the eyes of good promoters; they became brands, feeding themselves and their supporters handsomely, and they will make money even if their next book is a telephone directory. Let’s instead look at the rest of the field and try to categorize them (and this is by no means a comprehensive list):

1) Those who published a book to critical acclaim that subsequently earned them a job as a creative writing professor in an institution of tertiary learning, from which they will never depart lest they become the stereotype of the starving writer.
2) Those who had books published, none of which made any significant money, but who then leveraged the title of “published writer” and cobbled together several adjacent jobs to earn a living: i.e. publisher, editor, bookshop owner, ghost writer, commercial writer, advertizing copy writer etc.
3) The celebrity from another field of endeavour (musician, politician, businessperson, athlete) who decides to write her memoir and is suddenly a bestselling author (e.g. Hillary Clinton).
4) The expert consultant who decides to write a “how to book” to increase his profile and sells his book in conjunction with his consulting and speaking gigs.
5) The retired person, who having had a full career in a non-publishing field has decided to turn his or her experiences into fiction or non-fiction. This person is usually armed with a pension earned elsewhere and is writing for the joy of the experience, fettered only by years of political correctness that runs counter to the incisive words of the writer.
6) The wannabe (notice I don’t even call this person a starving writer) who is enamoured by the lives of famous writers, and believes that he (or she) can be the same. These types tend to exit this hobby after some time if they do not hit the jackpot, or they hang onto the prestigious title of “writer” but retire their sparse output. This wannabe probably goes on to be gainfully employed elsewhere, finally making money, enough to forget about that crazy detour he (or she) once took into writing for a brief and idealistic while.

None of the above are starving.

However, one thing is certain: quality of output is ever-more in demand today while quantity of output is inexhaustible, and finding good nuggets is becoming a harder job. Hence publishers have agents, and agents have sub-agents, and sub-agents have student interns, and the gate-keeping chain is lengthening with the risk that good work may get rejected too early in the pipeline by the inexperienced or the unenthusiastic. Amidst this avalanche of content the serious writer needs to dig deep, develop her networks and place her work calculatingly and judiciously. Often, as is the case, the lottery may still not be won, and the writer’s best work may wither on the vine, or shine only briefly because the constantly shifting celebrity lights would have moved onto a newer brand.

But hope is a good notion to cling to and is needed by all of the above categories of writer; it’s the fuel that keeps the writer’s engine chugging in the belief that one day he will “arrive,” in the land of the “well-heeled.” Yes, there may not be a lot of starving authors these days, but there are a lot of optimistic and hopeful ones.

Dulling of the Senses to Violence

There used to be a time when the faintest whiff of violence or social disorder would send people into a panic: schools would shut down, airports close, tourist facilities dry up, travel agents go out of business, and red alerts seal off national borders. Today all that is ho-hum, business caries on as usual; let’s just mourn the dead, make speeches to gain political capital, arrest a few people (if they haven’t killed themselves already), let loose emotions on social media, then pick up the pieces, and carry on. The lingering signs of tragedy would only be that of decaying flowers on a site where blood had recently been spilled.

I remember the disruption following 9/11. Even the economy went into recession, leading to two regional wars in the Middle East and the excuse for one of the largest government spending sprees focussed on anti-terrorism, with oil and commercial contract grabs on the side to compensate the spenders. They said the world changed on that occasion, and it did. Canadians needed passports to travel to the USA for the first time, deadlier terrorist organizations emerged making the Taliban look like boy scouts, countries like Iraq and Afghanistan became dysfunctional and still are, and the Arab Springs blossomed, leading to more dysfunction in those areas and to floods of refugees pouring in through cracks in foreign borders that once protected the western world and kept the poor at home.

Today we have a new sport: lone gunmen, bombers or truck drivers who can do as much damage collectively than those 19 men who orchestrated 9/11. By October I had lost count of the number of mass shootings in the US for this year alone (mass shooting defined as more than 4 people killed per attack) – Google reminded me: 273, by the 274th day of the year; and if you cut off the “mass” and extend that to just shootings, that number exceeds 46,000. And around the world, bombers, knifers and truck drivers are taking out civilians willy nilly. How can you police everyone on the street, anyone of whom could be a deranged killer? Is the person in the subway seat next to you a mass-murderer?

Others—gun-lobby supporting politicians, for instance—try to capitalize on the carnage and say that this mayhem is the price we pay for freedom. What freedom? The freedom to carry anachronistic guns in a developed society? These politicians advocate that everyone should have a gun (so that their sponsors can sell more guns) as a deterrent to any madcap shooter firing at random. But the proliferation of guns has only seen the proliferation of the number of shootings. Welcome to the Wild, Wild West(ern World)!

This total loss of control, or rather the surrendering of control by the masses, is what leads to the “I don’t care anymore” attitude and this attitude may eventually, and ironically, weaken the mass-murder’s hold on us. When everyone just picks up, dusts off, and carries on, it will be the killer who will be asking himself, “Why the hell am I doing this? The only person getting hurt is me. These people just don’t give a shit.” We may be seeing that already: Las Vegas resumed its 24/7 -365 days per year party just two days after the worst mass shooting in recent US history.

I am reluctantly looking forward to this dulling of the senses to reduce the violence, since nothing else has worked. All other forms of anti-gun lobbying, demonstrations and protests have not shaken the resolve of the gun manufacturers, their clients, and their political toadies. When bullets keep bouncing off people’s emotional hides, making no dents, that’s when the neutralizing will happen. But what does that say of what we will have become? An insensitive world. And what will the bad guys go in search of next? Something more shocking, something to cut beneath our thickening skins and continue to raise the age old attention-seeking cry: “Look at me!”

What if Goodreads, Amazon and Facebook went out of business?

Hard to imagine, but what if these behemoths of data went belly up? Sure, a few banks might fail, a few cities go bankrupt, perhaps even a few countries; a whole bunch of employees would be made redundant, and that vast treasure trove of data would be on the auction block.

It’s the data that I am concerned about. Between these three entities, all the information on me has been stored, mined, and exploited. They ran a fairly good privacy model while in business, but what if the new buyers at the auction are from Russia or China or North Korea or some Middle Eastern kingdom anxious to acquire western assets at bargain basement prices? I remember the time Yahoo was hacked and e-mails went from “me” to the whole world selling them Viagra, Costume Jewellery and asking them to click on links to spurious spyware. Luckily Yahoo, under its new management, decided to take sterner measures to protect its members’ privacy, two years later.

Data is the new gold, like oil once was. Knowledge is power. And we plebes gave up our power willingly in order to have free publicity and extend our reach to places we could never reach on our own for free, which in the past would have required lots of money for publicists and traditional media advertizing. If these guys go bust,
Armageddon will be nigh.

So what can we do? Here are a few options:
(a) Pray! That always works.
(b) Hope that western governments will declare these companies NATO assets in case of a stock meltdown, or declare them “Banks” (after all, they bank data) and add them to the “too big to fail” category of the economy.
(c) Buy shares in these companies, especially if and when their stock price tanks, in the hope of a rebound and the making of millionaires of all of us.
(d) Delete our data and go back to those days when no-one knew who or where the heck we were, and no-one really cared (we wonder if anyone really cares today, despite us keeping them posted of our every life event, meal, and bowel movement).
(e) Shrug and carry on as before, comforted by the premise that whoever gets their hands on our data will continue to make us famous or infamous, and both of these states will attract attention in these attention-deficit times.
(f) Build tighter spam filters for the barrage of nuisance e-mail that is bound to head our way.
(g) Get ready to lose all your friends and followers in social media when they have been inundated by spurious email from YOU.

Ah, well – it’s a good problem to ponder, or a scary nightmare to wake up from.

Private Prisons & Private Medicine

I was reflecting on these industries that reside south of the border that are constantly threatening to move north like a fleeing refugee, and wondered whether they aren’t built on the most oxymoronic of business models.
Let’s take private prisons first. The aim of society is to produce as few felons as possible, and where they sadly and inevitably manifest themselves, to incarcerate and rehabilitate them for life on the outside as quickly as possible. Therefore the KPI (key performance indicator) should be 0% prison population for a society to be judged as progressive and successful. Well, the private business model is based in growth in customers and consumption.

Therefore, in the prison case, we need more prisoners, and each year that population must grow to attract shareholders. The private model is based on increasing prices (costs to the taxpayer) to meet profit targets. And if demand declines due to increased progress of that society, then more criminals must be created in the interest of demand stimulation. I have often wondered whether private prisons are sponsors of street gangs, prostitution and drug trafficking – hell, you gotta feed that demand pipeline!

Now let’s take private medicine. The same healthy demand pipeline is necessary. What is more, we need repeat customers and long term customers to provide for some form of stability to the base. We must never totally cure a customer in case he doesn’t come back. He should be left in a chronic state of dependency on pharmaceutical drugs. And if a supplemental market can be created for secondary drugs that alleviate the side effects of the primary drug, all the better. I know one patient who is on six drugs to counteract one medical condition: one for the primary condition and five for the side effects and the side effects of the side effects of the first drug. Barriers to entry must be created with patents so that drugs can be exploited for maximum profitability. Integrated and alternative forms of preventative medicine should be shut out for they inhibit demand or create demand elsewhere. Product obsolescence must be built in so that drugs can be supplanted with stronger drugs. Viruses become stronger over time they say and therefore the drugs must increase in potency robbing patients of their natural immunity, reducing them to being ever more dependent on pharmaceuticals. I wonder whether private medical providers are secret sponsors of smoking – hell, you gotta feed that demand pipeline!

I’m sure the public versions of prisons and medicare have created their own bloated bureaucracies leading to the accusation that governments would be better suited sticking to passing legislation and getting out of operations. But the public funding tool can also be used to make these institutions better, by allocating to real needs and re-allocating from the bloat, and by holding administrators to measurable and actionable goals. The public version still comes ahead because it is based on zero profit and on the allocation of scarce resources towards the welfare of the community rather than on maximising profits for a small group of shareholders.

And then I reflect on our southern cousins and wonder why the majority of them still don’t get it? Is it because they have never had it before so they are scared of change? Have scheming politicians, minions of the private sector, scared them silly with the “failed” experiments in other countries that have led to long wait times for service, conveniently ignoring the fact that back at home, for some, there is no service at all when it comes to medicare? And in the case of private penal systems, that law enforcement forces rely on fines and penalties to keep their budgets balanced? That despite this privatization, they still have the highest per capita prison population and the highest cost of medicare?

This is a conundrum that I do not have an answer for. Perhaps the path to enlightenment lies in gradual evolution at the state level, until someone hits on a magic bullet that everyone latches on to and the revolution happens. Until then, we wait, and hope like hell that these two systems get stuck at the border and never creep north.

Drones for Company

I’m getting ready for when drones will dot the sky and obliterate the little sunshine we have these days. It’s a magical time to be alive, also a nightmarish one.

Just think to when the technology has been perfected so that drones can transport goods and deliver them safely to consumers. The big trucks will become fewer on our highways, highways will stop being expanded to the relief of municipal planners, for everything will be travelling in the vacant airspace between the tops of our heads and the lowest lane of current commercial air traffic (we hope!) But this will require new air traffic control rules for currently vacant space: safe flying corridors, stacking, flight plan approval, drone traffic controllers, licensing of operators, certification of equipment. Also, some new taxes could be imposed! And the birds will go extinct as they will be dodging drones and even colliding with them.

Will I have the right to request that drones don’t fly over my house and pollute me with their droning sound? What happens if a drone malfunctions and falls on my roof, or heaven’s forbid, falls on me?! Who pays? What happens if a drone is kidnapped by a Smart Technical Operator (STO) who cracks it’s code, and what happens if this STO is a terrorist? What happens if a drone is used to spy on me? Would I have to keep the windows in my house closed and the curtains drawn all the time in case a particularly pesky “fly” keeps buzzing outside threatening to come indoors through any crack? What happens if a delivery drone shows up when I am not home; would it jettison my goods in the rain on my doorstep and fly away? What happens when bad weather prevails, would these fragile aircraft be grounded, and what would that do the logistics business?

Would kids on summer break have drone wars in the park? Or go drone hunting to brag to their buddies, “Hey, I bagged two today, One was even the neighbour’s drone!” Would there be drone air shows? How big could they become before they start carrying the odd passenger and encroach on existing civil aviation?

A brave new world with a brave new set of issues to resolve. I’m sure we will get there eventually and solve this one as surely as we are going to solve driver-less cars. Talking of cars, would the early drone operatives create barriers to entry and try to milk the market by keeping drone prices high, just like the battery operated car operatives tried to do and left it a bit too late only to got run over by the electric car and the fast-approaching driver-less car?

Well, we shall wait and keep this one in perspective as it evolves.

Mixing Genres in Fiction

I have always felt boxed in by the definition of “genre” when it comes to writing fiction. Why be bound by the rules of a craft when that craft itself is in a state of evolution, and where tomorrow’s rules may be today’s exploratory scribbling?

When I sat down to compile my new short story collection, Crossing Limbo, I drew from stories written over the last ten years, written with long time intervals between each piece. Therefore, the stories didn’t resemble each other. When I wrote each piece I hadn’t the intention that they would ever become part of a collection, which usually requires a common theme and genre. I guess I had been scanning too many book stores which had “mystery stories,” “YA” and “fairy tales,” categorizing the shelves, and reading copious quantities of Alfred Hitchcock’s terror magazines to draw the conclusion that stories accrete to specific genres. I wrote my pieces whenever something had intrigued me at the time, and I selected the appropriate voice and genre that gave my subject matter the greatest expression.

Therefore, when I wanted to write about greed, I thought I would make the narrator a dog who is observing this weakness in humans; when I wanted to portray an Arab Spring, I put myself in the shoes of the bad dictator to understand his take on the approaching “bad season”; when I wanted to check out the seductive world of swingers, I had an inexperienced housewife naively enter the club to experience its shock impact; when I wanted to explore predation on the internet, I created a fictional chat line; when I wanted to write about disadvantaged immigrants, I chose the voice of one who had fallen on the wrong side of the track through no fault of his own; when I thought “ romance,” I thought how neat would it be to explore this ephemeral state with two candidates at extreme ends of the game of love: a tantric sex instructor and a sexless corporate executive. You can see where this is going… Before long, I had a mixed bag of stories that included the genres of magic realism, suspense, crime, erotica, romance and everything else that I could lump under the broad umbrella of “literary fiction.” Who was going to buy this?

Then I said to myself, had I written a novel, I wouldn’t have been able to cover such a broad expanse of human experience without writing the next War & Peace. With short stories, I could get in deep and get out quickly and move onto the next, and readers would take that as par for the course. Besides, in these speeded-up times, the short story is supposed to be the replacement to the novel, just as the 140-byte Twitter line is supposed to replace the 420-byte Facebook post. Neither of these things have happened yet, but we are told to anticipate them. So I pitched my collection with this “deep and quick” angle in view and my publisher bought it. The editor added that even though the genres varied, the theme was consistent: dark literature about people traversing their personal limbo towards redemption. I hadn’t thought of that!

So I have this cocktail of a book coming out shortly, and I am hoping that readers will appreciate the different genres, although I suspect that some form of selection will take place and the audience will divide and gravitate to different stories based on individual taste. However, I am hoping that bibliophiles, who devour everything, will find a smorgasbord in this collection instead of just Indian Curry, Japanese Sushi, or Italian Pasta, and that it will satisfy their diverse tastes. And I look forward, somewhat in trepidation, to the reaction afterwards from all camps. Any book, once released, takes a life of its own. All the writer can do is reflect on the hours of engagement he had with it, akin to raising a child, and wishing it well when it leaves the nest.

Hey man, it’s Cayman!

This is a place that has long been on my bucket list, and I finally went. I went with my wife not as a fat-cat tourist to soak up the artificial and luxurious world of Seven-Mile beach north of George Town, but to rent an apartment in the more modest settlement of Bodden Town (formerly the capital), drive a small rental car to get us around, and eat in local restaurants, even cook food purchased from a supermarket occasionally, and occasionally – yes, occasionally – splurge on a meal in a tourist restaurant that set us back many meals in Canada.

Is this an expensive place? Yes! With a currency that gobbles up US$1.22 to each CI$, my Canadian$ was chump change. Add to that the high import taxes that makes food, drink and gas expensive, and you are looking at twice (or thrice) the price compared to an all-inclusive Cuban vacation. What do you get in return? A relatively quiet holiday devoid of mass tourism (except when the mega cruise ships dump their passengers by the tender-load in the narrow streets of George Town for the day), high quality accommodation, great snorkeling and dive facilities, good food, clean streets, the absence of poverty and crime, and a country that has hit the jackpot with its open financial services offering to the world. There are more registered companies here than people: 100,000 companies vs. 60,000 residents plus 20,000 expatriates. Tracks of land outside George Town are being sold for luxury villas and condominiums, and plenty of beachfront property is still available. The development is now spreading inward from the coast as subdivisions are opening up to cater to every type of pocket book, and one wonders when the fragile ecosystems of these islands would be adversely affected.

The island of Grand Cayman, where all the action seems to be taking place, along with sister islands Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are low lying (highest point 72 feet above sea level) limestone outcrops along the Cayman Ridge that falls off into the deep Cayman Trench (which at 25,000 feet is second only to the Mariana Trench in the Pacific), the dividing line between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates. As ocean levels have fallen and risen with each expanding and contracting ice age, the Caymans have either had more land than at present or been completely submerged for several years. The islands are protected by coral reefs all around them that provide calm beaches and the opportunity for snorkeling and underwater sightseeing to observe the bountiful marine life feeding off the reefs. A tip: wear protective beach footwear if you are swimming in shallow water, for the ocean bottom is covered in corral, seaweed and shells and can be a bit rough on bare feet. For the less adventurous who prefer not to snorkel or scuba dive, there is the Atlantis Submarine ride that takes you down 100 feet below sea level to inspect the marine world hugging the wall of the Cayman Ridge.

Inland, the Mastic Trail takes you on a two-mile trek through wetlands and dry lands to observe the myriad of birds that have made Grand Cayman their domicile (50 species), or like us tourists, make it a stopover on their annual migrations between North and South America (400 species). The flora is equally interesting. I counted 30 varieties of trees, some also found in my native Sri Lanka: Indian Almond, Mango, Guava, Mahogany, Tamborine, Royal Palm and Calabash. Some plants have funny names like Headache Bush and Fever Grass (a.k.a. Lemongrass). The national tree is the Mastic Tree, after which the trail is named, and comes in two varieties: yellow and black. My guide politely advised me not to get too close to a majestic tree full of tiny apple-like fruit; it was a Manchanilla, an extremely toxic tree where even the raindrops falling off its leaves can burn one’s flesh. I looked up Manchinilla (also known as Manchineel) in Wikipedia and found that literature has used this tree quite liberally in the past, with references in Swiss Family Robinson and Madam Bovary among other classics. Given the various periods the islands have been underwater, the ground is covered in rugged and eroded limestone, with patches of red sand reputed to have blown over from volcanic eruptions in Africa. If you are uncomfortable or unfit to make the three-hour trek along the rugged Mastic Trail, then the Royal Botanical Gardens provides a similar overview, along with some large, endangered Blue Iguanas housed in captivity.

The Cayman’s share a history with Jamaica when for a long period they were an appendage of the larger Island. But when Jamaica decided to go independent in 1962, the Caymans chose to remain a protectorate of Britain. That decision to stay has proven to be a wise one, for the Cayman economy has grown since, and Jamaicans form the largest expatriate community, migrating to their smaller cousin for better job prospects. And Jerk Chicken is plentiful! Another point in common with Jamaica is the history of hurricanes that have swept the islands. Unlike Jamaica that has more land to weather the onslaught, the Cayman’s have taken harder tolls. Hurricane shelters ring the islands now and regular drills take place to prepare for the next Big One.

Despite its vulnerability to nature, from air and sea, this is a very restful place for a non-traditional break. I’m glad I did it this way without going for the packaged deal, where I got time to walk the deserted beach for miles daily, drive down to the expatriate Czech guy’s Jerk Chicken stand for a sandwich, or to the Caymanian woman’s shed on the beach for fried “catch of the day,” drink my booze bought from the local liquor store at either of those two establishments without paying corkage or having to buy drinks at inflated restaurant prices, drive off to one of many public beaches carved out from among the tourist and expatriate beachfront properties, and discover the peace to reflect and write, something that I need increasingly as I get older.

Of course, there is always an unforgettable experience on any trip. This time, it came after my wife and I stepped out of a fancy restaurant (one of those occasional splurges) that was built like a lighthouse and where the staff served you dressed in naval uniforms. I had left the lights of our rental car on (the silly things don’t knock off automatically when the engine is switched off like I am used to in Canada), and after out wining and dining, the car battery was dead. I stepped back into the restaurant for help but all the naval uniforms were busy, but a brown-skinned cook manning the pizza oven immediately smiled and said he would bring his car around with booster cables. Something in his accent made me raise my eyebrows. True to his word, he appeared in minutes in his car and got us started with one crank of the engine. I had to ask, so I boldly spoke in Sinhala and asked him whether he was from Sri Lanka. “Yes, sir!” came the beaming reply. I discovered that he was not the only Sri Lankan, there four of them in the restaurant, including the chef. “No wonder the food tasted so good, “ my wife quipped as we drove back to our apartment.

Hey man, this place may not be for every man, but it’s Cayman! And it worked for me.

Back In Dubai – Part 2

Off the boat, we took a break at one of the many open-air restaurants that now dot the creek’s boardwalk, running from opposite the Carlton Tower up to the Radisson (formerly the Intercontinental). The coffee was excellent; just don’t ask for beer—alcohol is still quite a challenge and comes at a steep price within the larger hotels that serve it. And talking of the Radisson, a place I used to hang out once upon a time with visiting Air Lanka crew members who were friends, it now had a range of restaurants, the best being the fusion Emirati one that gave you a sense of how subsistence Bedouin food had been elevated to haute cuisine with money and imagination—we ate there twice during our brief stay and the food was excellent.
I walked into the bazaar area, where I had once lived after my time at the Carlton Tower, and my money, had run out, back in 1980. It had been a warren of narrow streets overflowing with single South Asian men, the working class who were unable to bring their families across, who, dressed in baggy pants and flowing kaftans, held hands and stood chatting, or were busily shopping, or who frequented the many restaurants in the vicinity to partake of masala, khorma, thaali and kababs, accompanied by pickles, onions and lassi, the local diet that my westernized stomach could no longer handle but which had been my staple food back then. In those days, the shops had been filled with electronics, accessories and appliances that every expatriate loaded up on to take back home—the raison d’être of living and working in Dubai, and for some, a side-line import-export business. Well, the shops, the electronics, accessories and appliances were still there, on a larger scale now, and the streets had become more orderly, but the restaurants had vanished—perhaps zoning had come in to separate merchandize from food. And the single men were still holding hands and thronging the place, especially as it was a Friday, the weekend.
My old apartment building, in the heart of the bazaar, where I had shared rooms with two other expatriates, had now been converted into a hotel and was looking in better repair then when I had lived there. I walked past the various offices that my brothers and I had worked in and they had all changed names, but their buildings were still standing—a way of life had vanished but trace-lines of the past still remained, like embers after the flame has died out.
Emerging from a side street, I fell upon Baniyas Square, once a signature destination, a park with the twin peaks of the Deira Tower on one side, the British Bank of the Middle East on the other, and a host of other bank towers lining the third side of the grassy catchment in the centre into which Al Makhtoum Road fell and circled after heading in from the direction of the airport. This was the place I used to drive first-time visitors directly upon their arrival, to show them the glittering lights and clean streets of the emirate, before spinning around and heading back to my apartment (the second and last apartment I lived in) beside the Deira Clock Tower. I wanted to give them a favourable first impression of Dubai, and that detour always helped. Well, today Baniyas Square was less well-illuminated (LED street lighting, I guess) and the buildings were a bit worn (they were 30 years older, I had to remind myself), the banks had been replaced by hotels—banks add stability, security and modernity, while hotels bring transients, clutter and sin, I’m told. I realized why some of my friends who still lived in Dubai did not come out to this place anymore: this was the old Dubai, this was the equivalent of the downtown Sands Hotel area in Las Vegas; everyone preferred the uptown Belagio, or in Dubai-speak, “the world’s biggest this and that” areas. And yet, as I walked around Baniyas Square, I recalled shopping here with my family, especially for clothes, as my son outgrew his once a month, a pastime we also indulged in as there wasn’t much to do in Dubai in those days, and popping into Baskin Robbins (lo and behold, it was still there!) for one of its 32 flavours at the end of those expeditions—fond thoughts to wrap myself in as I walked in this city-state that had undergone several incarnations since I left 30 years ago.
On our last day, I took a final walk along the creek at dusk, past the municipal building that now sported the pictures of the rulers of both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and I wondered whether the dual representation of power, that had never previously existed, had something to do with Abu Dhabi bailing out Dubai in the last financial crisis; I mean why had Burj Dubai suddenly changed names to Burj Khalifa? I concluded that I knew nothing about the labyrinthine world of Emirati politics just as I didn’t understand its society, and that is how it would remain—heck, I couldn’t even figure out why Americans had voted for Donald Trump!
On my walk, I met this lad bicycling towards me. He must have been in his early twenties. He promptly stopped alongside and said. “Sir, can you get me a job?”
I was taken aback by his directness. I explained that I was a visitor from Canada with no such powers of creating employment, even though I had once lived and worked in Dubai.
“Can you get me a job in Canada, then,” he asked, unfazed.
“I’m afraid, I can’t do that either. Do you have a job here?” Everyone usually had a job in Dubai, especially if they belonged to the migrant labour class.
“No, Sir. I’ve come here on a visit visa to look for a job.”
I found out that he was a nurse back in Pakistan, earning 20,000 Pakistani rupees per month, a wage slightly higher than the minimum.
“In Dubai I could earn ten times more, Sir.”
A familiar bell rang for me. I had also come to Dubai, a lifetime ago, at his age, to earn ten times more than what my home country had been paying me. Over seven years in the emirate, my tax-free “enhanced” salary had helped me raise a family, build a nest egg, immigrate to Canada and start a new life comfortably. His was not an unrealistic expectation.
“What’s stopping you from applying to the hospitals? I see a pharmacy on every street corner, there must be a lot of sick people here.”
“I need a special government nursing certificate, Sir. And for that, money has to change hands back home, many times, before I get it.”
“ I see.”
“And I don’t have that kind of money, Sir.”
I didn’t know what to tell him, except to wish him well and move on. The last glimpse I caught of the young man, before twilight got in the way, was of his swaying bike as he peddled it vigorously. His was a different world and a different time to mine, I guess. But he, like me, had gotten out of his world and come seeking, and I was sure that by some combination of determination, effort and luck he would land on his feet somewhere in this Emirate. I knew that he was not going back to Pakistan with his tail between his legs, that was for sure, he was not the type, not with that direct approach of his. I bet that even to get out here on this “exploratory” visit, money must have changed hands many times back home.
As I returned to the hotel to pack my bags, take a nap, and head out to the airport, I realized that many like that young man, like me once, had come to this place, built nest eggs and moved on to enrich other countries and themselves. And through it all, Dubai, like a faithful investment bank, has soldiered on, giving birth to these immigrants while gathering strength over the years despite the occasional financial slump, despite being surrounded by warring and hostile nations all around it, nations that seemed scared of touching this oasis in the desert and destroying the hope for humanity that somewhere in the world there was still a place to make a fresh start with no questions asked (and no answers given). Perhaps the rulers of those hostile nations regarded Dubai as their “out” in case things got bad at home. There were a lot of things that didn’t sit right here, they never have, but coming from the developing world as I did, I cannot deny that Dubai gave me the launching off push to the First World that my home country never did, and for that I am grateful.
I was also glad that I spent my time on this visit in the rustic part of town where everything had begun for me, in my Dubai, not in the artificial one that is splashed in the tour brochures.