Your life as a novel

They say that we are born alone and that we die alone. Though there may be many gathered around us at these two seminal events, we are the ones being born and who are doing the dying, the rest are spectators. And between these two bookends of life lie the many people whom we encounter along the journey, people who motivate, inspire, discourage and disparage—heroes and villains. Your life is like a novel and the people in it are characters. I’ve tried to categorize these people:

 Motivators: Children, spouses, extended family – those you have to struggle to give life to, to protect, inspire and discipline, to teach and mentor until some are ready to take their places in the world and others to regain their lost places in it. They give you a reason to get up in the morning, for their lives depend on you – they give you purpose. Many of them remain with you throughout your life and grow old with you, some leaving this plane before your own exit bell sounds.

Inspirers: Teachers, friends, bosses (good ones), colleagues (good ones), parents (good ones), writers, philosophers. They acknowledge your efforts but keep the bar raised that much higher so that you continue to stretch and grow. Many of these people come into your life for short but intense periods during which their lessons are vivid, and register.

Discouragers: Those with whom you form non-productive relationships, those who make you lesser then you are or are capable of becoming. And yet, they too teach you the lesson about whom to associate with and whom to avoid. Their passage through your life teaches you what not to become. They sharpen your disassociation skills. They last for as long as you tolerate their company.

Disparagers: These are the ones who fear you, your enemies, and those who see in you the person they have failed to become. They criticize and censure, diminish and deride your achievements. And yet they give you a taste for the negative side of success and teach you about what happens when one person’s star casts a shadow over everyone else. Disparagers do not leave until they are satiated with venting their venom on you. They are hard to shake off and multiply the more successful you become.

So there you have it. In many instances, these characters are like the hands you are dealt with in a game of chance. As the Holiday Season visits us again, and it comes the time for that annual stock taking of our lives, I thought I would revisit my life’s scrapbook, my personal novel, and take stock of the characters still in play, some newly arrived, some enduring for ages, others desired but not yet in sight. I’m sure you will be able to identify a whole bunch of people who came into your life as well at some point or other, who fall into these four camps. Though there may be good guys and bad guys in this cast, they all have one thing in common: they are teachers, and they make your life what it is.

And so we embrace them all, thanking them for their presence, and settle down to playing our game of chance, and to writing our personal novel of life.

A Writer’s Repeating Themes

I have been writing a blog for over five years, so I took the time to pause and review what I had written. I have written over 180 articles, averaging three a month, on a variety of subjects, all of which I thought were quite original and topical at the time. But when I re•read them, some key themes kept appearing and re•appearing. My articles seemed to fall into the following broad categories:

1)      The Writing Life, its rewards and travails

2)      Politics & Society, especially an exploration of the parts that do not work

3)      Business Life, its necessity and its incompleteness

4)      Travel

5)      Social Media, its opportunities and pitfalls

6)      Life Stages

So, that’s it really. One hundred and eighty articles circling around six themes. I could have written six large essays, one on each of the topics, and have had my say, packed my pen, and gone fishing. Instead, I circled around pet peeves, unearthing new material and coming at them from different angles each time, a veritable dog with a bone, or six of them.

Is this what most writers do? Exorcise their ghosts by repeatedly confronting them, or do they stand on a platform and make their point until people turn a blind eye and a deaf ear? Dickens returned to the nemesis of his childhood, the workhouse, time and time again; Twain sailed the Mississippi back and forth; Hemingway confronted death not only in the afternoon but everywhere and all the time until the last instant of his life; Lawrence was trapped in the sex act; and Joyce walked the streets of Dublin even when he no longer lived there.

This question went through my mind as I pored over my 180 articles, thinking of the time and effort that had gone into writing them. I know that thousands of readers have read them, if I can trust the tracking meters on all the sites I had them posted on. But did anyone change their life as a result of these articles? Did anyone even say, “Ah, ha!” That, I will never know. All I know is that my life stayed in balance for having written them, perhaps it even changed for the better, when I realized that I could not change the world but could change myself and accept the unchangeable.

So that’s it, I concluded: I was not writing for an audience, I was writing for my own therapy and survival. These themes were important to me and still are; that’s why I keep returning to them time and time again. And in rereading them, I have come to appreciate them even more. The issues I have been absorbed with are unsolvable and need to be confronted in their many guises. The more aggressive minded may join political organizations, non•profit organizations and/or service clubs to deal with matters that are important to them, matters that will prevail long after the activists have shuffled off this mortal coil. But like them, the writer too shows his activism by continuing to write about those unsolvable issues that matter most to him. The act of confronting them is the sign of never giving up. To give up is to die.

Okay, back to the grind. What shall I write about next? Should it be on the writing life, or politics and society, or business life….?

 

Trying to imagine life without social media

I tried to recall life without social media. Wasn’t it just a few years ago when I walked around without a portable device strapped to my waist, a device willing to announce my every grunt, burp and fart to the external world, if I only let it?

Without social media, my concentration would improve, that much I am sure. I would not be constantly interrupting my daily chores to go check that infernal device for the latest chat or inspirational message. My self esteem would mature for I would not have those “likes” to prop me up but would have to “like” myself instead. I could spend many hours with just me and my thoughts and reap the inspiration that comes from a stilled mind. I would not suffer from “too much information,” a syndrome that makes you skim the surface of everything, just to cope, and miss some of the major issues in the process. I will get to talk to people instead of sending them written messages even when they are in the next room. Friendships will be few but more lasting and not something to be activated and deactivated with the push of a button.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be “famous but poor” anymore. Instead, I would be “unknown and still poor.” I wouldn’t get to play closet politician anymore for my audience will have disappeared. I’ll have to stand up in my little room and declaim, to myself. Or join a political party and schmooze my way to the top over a number of years, not in mere days that it took me in the social media world. I would not have a test market for my writing. I would not be connected to the pulse of my peers, forever unplugged from their thoughts, drives, fetishes and joys. I would not be let into their living rooms, introduced to their families, invited as a virtual guest to their parties, or exposed to their embarrassing moments when they suffered mental or wardrobe malfunction and decided to share (or bare) all via the instant photos uploaded to my “stream.” Yes, I would have to kiss goodbye to my voyeuristic but engaged life.

Someone recently told me that “there is no going back.” We seem to have crossed a threshold into a new pattern of social behaviour that is irreversible. And I am not sure we are unique in that respect. Did people go back on their old habits when new inventions collided with their social lives in the past: the telephone, the TV, the car, the supermarket, the microwave, and canned food? Digitization and sharing has now replaced the communal life of the village where everybody knows everything about everyone else. Even the anonymity of cities—something I used to love to escape to occasionally—is breaking down under the new rules of conduct, where city dwellers cooped up in glass towers and matchbox condos, ostensibly isolated, are connecting with each other like never before.

Okay, so there is no going back, we are the social media generation, suck it up and get on with it. But there needs to be some “information firewall behaviour” called for; the confidence to switch on and off when needed, without the pressure to be “always on” in order to be relevant, despite Facebook and Twitter sending you those “How are you doing?” messages when you are minding your own business, or Klout warning you that your score is dropping because you have been silent for awhile. Taking social media•less vacations is a good idea, and retreats from “always on” to just read a book is also good for the soul. And most importantly, selfishly carving out time for contemplation and meditation is paramount.

Okay, now that I’ve got that off my chest, where did leave my Blackberry…? There really is no going back, is there?

Presidents for Life

Presidents for Life (PFL) are in the news these days, and last week it was Hosni Mubarak’s turn. Let’s see, we have had out share of the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega and others, all lifers, until destiny caught up with them.

What makes these creatures? Western powers have to take some (dis)credit here. According to our rational thinking, it is better to have one’s interests protected overseas by one guy in power for a long time rather than by many people in power for short periods. Just drown the lone guy in money and power and he will guard the house better than those fledgling multi•party democracies that are constantly subject to the winds of change. For how inconvenient would it be if a democratically elected “people’s power” does not want to be subject to foreign exploitation or if it does not wish to export oil and minerals, or buy our goods to keep the western industrial machine chugging along? No, let’s keep that old PFL for as long as we can until local and global opinion swings so badly against him that he has to be eased into retirement in some desert palace (if he has been a good toady) or hung from the end of a noose (if he has been bad) Then let’s shrug and hope that the next guy in the seat can slowly amass power around him quickly and declare himself the new president for life. And while he’s at it, let’s give him some incentives to get there. I get the formula and the logic now.

And what of these guys’ track records? Their claim to fame is for being the best at providing the stability needed to foster a long period of sustained growth for their young nations. History has proved the opposite. Other than for a few examples to the contrary, the majority of PFLs have taken their countries to the dogs while amassing unimaginable personal wealth. And they often leave power vacuums in their wake for there are no good people left to take over—the good ones have either fled, immigrated, or been killed.

Can we enhance our reputations by helping these guys? On the one hand we say that we are trying to democratize “backward” nations, on the other hand we like keeping these despots in power just in case things get out of control. You can’t play both sides, guys. If you go for universal democracy then you’ve got to take what comes: let people in other lands choose to support you based on your values and track record for fair dealing, or boot you out for your duplicity.

I feel for the people in these nations. They bear unnecessary scars and they have to struggle for a basic right that we in the west take for granted. Only the top percentile of their citizenry have the ability, both financial and academic, to make it to the developed west on their own terms as immigrants, expatriates or investors. The rest have to search for freedom on home turf—they have no other choice. The evidence in the Middle East over the last few weeks has shown that the people are indeed keen, although not all may be ready.

I wonder if the UN could monitor the progress of the remaining PFL’s in the world and sound an alarm bell when each reaches his pinnacle effectiveness? When the bell tolls (and there might be quite a bit of overdue tolling to catch up on initially), Mr. PFL should hand over power to a groomed successor, or to the people if they are ready, erect a statue or name an airport in his name, then ride off into the sunset to a stable desert oasis and live happily ever after for having served western interests well. And if he does not comply or gets restless in retirement, well there are always alligators to be fed in places like Florida, if his own people do not ingloriously devour him, that is.

As for democracy, we could start with education in these evolving nations; teach them, open their eyes to the world and to the responsibilities of belonging to a democracy (for there are responsibilities, lest we forget) and let them decide. Democracy cannot be force•fed, it’s a journey. Let’s just give them the tools and then get out of the way, and eventually, “President for Life” may become an anachronism.

The Dead-ends in Life

When I think of the dead ends I have followed over the years and the amount of time I spent on walking those futile pathways, I must have wasted much of my life. Let me itemize a few of these duds that would not offend friends or family (the rest, you will have to imagine!):

1) Earning four academic degrees, none of which I have any recollection of putting to practical use, except on my ever changing resume. I use Microsoft Office applications more than any other, and these tools I taught myself
2) Trying several times to immigrate to the wrong country (whose name will remain unmentioned) and then, by freakish accidents, ending up in two places I never knew I would ever live in. Dubai in the 80’s was pile of sand attracting only labourers and housemaids; I ended up there for seven years, like Ulysses on Circe’s island seven times over, until I was panting to get out. I then landed in Toronto which had hitherto only been a name on those old paperbacks that claimed “this book is published simultaneously in New York, London, Toronto, Sydney & Auckland”; well, I thought, at least they read in Toronto—must be a nice place. And it was! Why did I take such a circuitous route?
3) Reading hundreds of books, many of which did not advance my understanding of this world one iota, especially the formulaic fiction that everyone was reading because these books were “so cool, and recommended”
4) Writing dozens of stories and novels, only a few which have seen the light of day. The others are making good doorstops or keeping the Post Office solvent with their to•ing and fro•ing
5) Sending out hundreds of job applications and attending dozens of “play•act” interviews only to find employment through the people I had known all along and hadn’t asked
6) Joining, forming, or playing in many music groups, all of which finally collapsed on their own success, leaving me holding onto my lonely guitar, back at square one
7) Pursuing the dot•com phenomenon. Oh, weren’t we champions of that promised new economy during those heady days of the new millennium, creating new business models by the day, taking inventions out of every basement crackpot and trying to find customers for them, and finally imploding when the banks and venture capitalists cut off their financial pipelines.
8) Rebounding to pursue this social networking thing now (Hello! Who’s out there? Are you listening? Do you even care? Do you wanna be my friend? No? THANK YOU!) No one knows where SN is heading, or how it will end. Will it be another dot•bomb?
9) Joining volunteer movements in order to make the world a better place. Instead, this planet has become worse. Oh, you egotistical sod, you were but a solitary spermlet in a sterile ejaculation that could never transform the elusive egg!

I could go on, but I would only end up depressed. A wise man once told me that Planet Earth is not a place for accomplishments but a place for learning hard lessons, often making one end up empty handed but spiritually enriched. If that were the case, I must be well on my way to earning a PhD in this joint soon. But I wonder if I will ever use that credential either?

Life’s a Stage, with a six-act play

Shakespeare had seven stages of life, but I have settled for six acts on one stage…

The First Act • Innocence– You are running free as a child, with images of past lives and guardian angels vivid in your mind; the imagination free, the strong spirit of enquiry to take those earlier experiences onto their next stages of evolution, the constant asking of “why not?” and the fear of being sanctioned by elders who keep admonishing you to “behave.”

The Second Act – Rebellion •Past lives forgotten, with this life becoming more important: the pleasures of manhood, awakened sexuality, the need to hunt and conquer, to rebel against those who keep saying “behave.” You pursue education in the schools of academe and experience in the school of life. The first job. Joining activist and protest groups; being dragged away by police at demonstrations and being proud of those badges of honour received. Determined to chart your own way and not repeat the mistakes of the previous generation.

The Third Act – Conformance – The career job. Marrying a beautiful spouse, raising a trophy family and joining the establishment. Becoming one of those very people who admonished you as a child and asked you to “behave”. Realizing that the only way to accumulate wealth is to play along and become organizational man. Do not challenge but be politically correct. The system has worked from time immemorial, so why change it? A house in the suburbs, a cottage, and money in the bank is as far as you can see. Not looking in the mirror anymore.

The Fourth Act – Collapse • Tired inside your soul for having compromised and given in, having the courage to finally look in the mirror and be horrified by whom you see. A time of nervous breakdown, marriage breakdown and career breakdown, and the first touches of mortality, all which remind you of time running out. Children leave, spouses leave, bosses leave, friends leave, but you are more comfortable with the pieces that you have left –because they belong only to you.

The Fifth Act – Renaissance – You join new protest groups that are more organized and goal oriented. You do work that inspires, write books, share your accumulated mistakes (wisdom), cultivate new and more intellectual friends; build relationships that have more longevity but less passion. You hit your stride with deliberate physical exercise, and with medications and diet to keep all systems fired. You calibrate and celebrate your achievements and document them for legacy. You reach out and understand empathy and compassion for the first time.

The Final Act – Curtain Call – Your hands cannot write anymore, your eyes falter and the hearing is suspect. You feebly try to admonish your adult children to let the grandchildren run free “Don’t repeat my mistakes.” You don’t hear them mumble “Silly duffer”. The angels have returned in flashbacks of fading memory; you even recognize dear friends among their ranks, ones who called it quits earlier because they had learned everything they needed to and released one of those fatal lurking illnesses in our bodies to end their act. You rise nobly, accounts settled, take a bow to those still in the audience and exit the stage—gracefully, if able.