Trying to balance the year that was

The year is almost over and it’s that time again of frantic shopping and binge merriment, of meeting people you haven’t seen since, well, last Christmas; a time of false camaraderie, of debt accumulation, of non•ending festive music, of crowds in malls and elevated blood pressure levels drowned out by copious quantities of eggnog and other spirits. Amidst this madness, I try to take stock each year of where we have come as a species and where we seem to be headed.

In 2011, the world rocked for a second time on the consequences of fiscal irresponsibility, with Western Europe descending into its deepest economic crisis since WWII. Even the mighty BRIC nations are beginning to feel the slowdown in this connected world. The stock market behaved like a manic depressive. In another part of the world, the rocking was physical, when a giant earthquake/tsunami devastated Japan and reduced real estate prices near any nuclear facility in the world to a fraction of their former glory (we weren’t immune even in our small town by a lake in Canada, ringed by nuclear plants). In the Middle East, dictators fell like nine pins, ousted by a populace drunk on freedom but with no plans for ordered democracy and growth. Equally directionless, mobs stormed Wall Street and other financial centres to occupy public parks and achieve nothing but to register their protest; they left after being ingloriously ejected for causing civil disturbances, trailing broken reputations and human detritus in their wake. The workplace began to look more like a Dickensian workhouse, replete with exploited labour, Scrooge•like capitalists and hyper•specialization reducing humans to robots. Traditional news organizations wrestled with scandals over phone spying, and leaked documents from corporations and governments were being dumped on the internet for public entertainment. The traditional publishing industry cracked wide open with online retailers grabbing bigger pieces of the pie. Oh my, what upheaval!

Are we nearing the end of days, as the pessimists and evangelists constantly remind us? Have we mismanaged all iterations of human progress and dragged ourselves down into the mud from whence we came? Is the dystopian picture in my novel After the Flood coming true?

Then I tried to look on the brighter side. Africa made a comeback after decades of war, drought, pestilence, genocide and famine to clinch the top spot for growth over the next decade. The PIIGS (the second I is for Italy) of Europe realized that taxes, if paid, collected and spent wisely, do make sense and provide for a better standard of living. Citizen journalism came of age when the quality of articles continued to improve, diversify and outpace content from traditional channels (my journalist friends will disagree with me here) and social media actually led to the fall of corrupt governments. Authors reclaimed ground by embracing direct publishing models and sticking it to gatekeepers. And our troops came home for Christmas after removing themselves from that absurd theatre war in Afghanistan. Small credits to balance this ledger from its sharp tilt towards the right.

Merry Christmas everyone! Now that you have read this, do return to your Christmas busyness, it helps keep the bogeyman at bay. And please remember to raise an extra glass for global enlightenment in 2012.

I’m going shopping!

War and Peace – the eternal cycle

I wrote a Christmas story about the Magi a few years ago, which was published this year, and in which I portrayed these three men (before they attained wisdom) fighting a perennial war among themselves somewhere in ancient Persia, until, exhausted with the effort, they see a star in the west (east, for us) and chase after it, hoping that it would bring them peace.

Since that magical star reputedly appeared eons ago, and despite our three wise guys’ desire never to fight again, there have been other wars, and there will be more wars, until the world itself boils over.

So why do we fight? Is war a congenital human condition, the outcome of our struggle for competitive advantage? The result of greed? Do protracted periods of peace, lead us to a sense of lack, a desire for more, and thus to war? Conversely, do periods of war eventually cause us to wear out and say, “That’s it!” and seek a bit of peace? Is there a constant need for a high and a corresponding low to give us form and definition?

Sometimes we fight wars in our misguided belief that we can thereby bring about peace. Some enlightened nations believe that they “know”; that theirs is the better way. This holier•than•thou approach has led to sticky situations in the last decade alone: Iraq and Afghanistan are notable examples, where no clear victor has been declared and the mess is still to be sorted out. And let’s not talk about Vietnam. Wasn’t it just under a hundred years ago when we put young men in smelly trenches to get their brains blown up in exchange for gaining a couple of feet of land at a time; land gained one day and lost the next in a counterattack when more brains were blown up? And if that was not enough, we were back at it just twenty years later, taking it up a few notches even, and leaving over 60 million dead in WWII. Was that enlightenment?

It seems to me that war and peace is a process of evolution towards the vision of enlightenment. We seem fated to go through cycles of war and peace, with occasional time•outs for stocktaking and reflection, when the real learning occurs. War and peace both contribute in an iterative way, leaving markers etched into our collective psyche that eventually may lead us—if visions can ever be realized—to the state of enlightenment: our one thousand years of peace as foretold in the good books of many religions. Nirvana. There are no shortcuts to this process for any nation it appears, and you can’t impose peace from above either; it has to come from within, just as the desire for war does. Perhaps Afghanistan and Iraq will get there, but on their own time•table, not ours.

But why only a thousand years of peace at the end of this bloody trail? Why not more, why not everlasting peace? Could it be because that during these thousand years we would have become fat and lazy, have taken peace for granted, and become restless and anxious to bash up our neighbours again in order to feel good? Will the thousand years have been just a pause before the re•commencement of another cycle of war and peace?

Wise Men, Magi, Three Kings, whatever you call yourselves, what did you learn from your trials? I have too many questions and am not interested in frankincense, myrrh and gold. What real gifts, in the way of answers, can you offer us this Christmas?

Reading Books In Flight

I was dismayed when I read the revised air travel baggage regulations soon after Christmas and realized that I could take a laptop on board but not a handbag containing my books. I love to read on flights, forsaking the movie, the chatting with my neighbour, or the drinking and eating, just to catch up on my reading. Flights give me overt permission to read, my favourite pastime. I am unable to work, socialize or sleep while flying – so I read.

But now, some incompetent wannabe terrorist, who could not even ignite the bomb he stored inside his pants, has started an unanticipated vendetta against bookworms. For a moment I thought that this was a conspiracy by the e•book publishers who were secretly trying to get us conditioned to reading books off our laptops. Or perhaps it was a plan by those airport bookstores (who were quickly exempted from the book ban within days of the failed Christmas Day bomb scare) wanting to peddle all the New York Times bestsellers to us (that’s all they seem to carry these days, except for perhaps magazines, newspapers and chewing gum).

Then I realized that this dumb•ass terrorist had succeeded after all, by scaring the pants off the rest of us while burning his own. Books, not bombs, lead to enlightenment and peace. Greg Mortenson, the man behind the “The Three Cups of Tea” project, promotes this theory through his singular mission to build schools for children in Pakistan and Afghanistan so that those countries’ future citizens will learn to extend the olive branch and not the Kalashnikov. Bombs only lead to more bombs, lobbed in both directions, until the warring factions are exhausted, their assets destroyed, and fear and suspicion has taken firm root, never to be dislodged for generations.

Therefore, I wondered whether I should write to all the airport security organizations around the world asking them to scrap their plans to buy those intrusive super X ray machines that they are planning to install in airports shortly. Let them give those machines to hospitals and medical clinics instead, so that they can be used to detect hidden tumours and other cancerous foreign bodies growing inside us, and help get us timely remediation. Instead, pass a law that requires every passenger in an aircraft seat to be reading a book while in flight! In fact, add “book tax” to the many taxes on airline tickets these days and give each passenger his pre•ordered book at the departure gate – after all, if advance seat selection is possible, why not advance book selection? It could be all part of your “booking.” Just think of it – the publishing industry would enter a new renaissance. Airplanes would become the universities of the future, forcibly educating the teeming masses hurtling through the skies.

And as for those terrorists – I’d like to see one of those guys, with his face glued to a book in a cramped aircraft seat, try to stuff a bomb up his ass and light the fuse!