Arresting the Thief of Time

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Time is a volley of arrows, piercing the outer perimeters of creation. Time is a river, flowing into the cosmic ocean, carrying all in its variable current. Time is the fourth dimension, the space within the up, down, and across. Time is an illusion, a conscious burden carried only by humans at the expense of all other animals. Time is passing. It has been eight months since I saw my father and my brother, who are this moment flying in a Qantas Tardis to be reunited with me. In losing three hours of their lives to be three hours ahead, I gain priceless hours with them, hours felled by time’s arrow, drowned by time’s river, or otherwise never existed in the big cosmic cover-up.

Seeing my brother and father again in but a few hours from now has made me reflect on the passing of time. By the time they wheel those trolleys through the arrivals gate tonight it will be eight months since we were last in each other’s presence. That adds up to a lot of water under different bridges. They in their kingdom prone to flooding, their river was a torrent. Me in this sheikhdom of ephemeral rains, mine was nothing followed by a trickle, a torrent, a trickle, then nothing. Time’s perfect bell curve.

Looking back on it, August seemed to evaporate in a blistering heatwave. September melted onto the end, producing two months in a Swedish sauna with the door jammed closed from the outside. October came and went, punctured as it was by a road trip to a baked layer cake of jutting rock called the Musandam Peninsula. While hardly an odyssey of Homeric proportions, that event at least laid down a temporal marker. The flag fluttering at some indeterminate point on life’s course bore a message for posterity. On it was written,

…October 2015, camping in the fjords and on the high plateau of the Musandam, Sultanate of Oman….

While everyone else was wilting on the Arabian Peninsula, we temperate-seeking individuals were shivering cold next to a fire at 5,000 feet above the heat, above the bullshit expat culture, above even the song of the adhan – that quilt of Quranic verse patched together from the voice of more mosques than you can possibly imagine. Jumping from islet to islet with pointed fingers on an archipelago of stars in a night sky of purest black, their names were the only glint of gold of that Islamic age, gone as the time since I last saw my dear father and brother. They were the only reminders that we had cast ourselves out of the lands of our birth. There’s Deneb, the tail, and Aldebaran, the follower of the cluster Pleiades. And there rising on the eastern elliptic, over Jebel Harem (the mountain of the women) Orion the hunter. The rhinestone buckle on his belt, put there by the great astronomers of Abbasid Baghdad, they called Alnitak, the belt. And there above it, just as the donkey starts to bray somewhere far or near – who can tell – the burning coals of Betelgeuse and Bellatrix. Not everyone can claim to have that experience marking time on their short course to oblivion.

Winter eased gently in and before long the temperature was summer everywhere else that was not the Sahara, or the Australian Outback, or Death Valley. While Europe took a drenching and the US got snowed under in more ways than one, we were sitting on the balcony disbelieving ourselves that this was not too bad after all.

December came and with it new horizons. From the yellow to the green. To Angkor, founded into the world’s largest city, then lost into the jungle, then found again by a French archaeologist armed only with a machete and a vague idea, now lost again in a sense to tourist hordes. Eye-popping Pattaya where bottles disappear into the unlikeliest of quarters. Myanmar followed. Last chance to see an old curiosity before globalisation rehashes it into another mass-produced trinket worth hanging a cut-price label on.

January saw a return to the desert. The rains had fallen, the humidity crashed, and suddenly we could all see clearly again. The dust and the grime had been cleansed from the windows of our apartments and our minds. Now we could see just how many tankers lay anchored offshore. The mountains were no longer a mirage, but that was about as far as clarity got. Time continued to obfuscate judgment, to defy youthful hopes. Still the doubts weighed heavily on the lingering notion that though time was passing quicker than ever, our sense of alacrity was not quite up to speed. While it was being stretched and pulled asunder, turning days into weeks, I was feeling as lugubrious as I had ever felt. While it was being compressed and choked, turning months into minutes, I was feeling manic helplessness on a runaway train. I lumbered and lurched like a bi-polar dog on a leash he can’t decide is short or extendable.

The pathos bit hard. Time called time on me for a while. These were what some referred to as the mid-term blues, and others the dog days. I preferred to compare them to neither blue nor dogs. Blue for me is that break in the clouds we from the overcast north consider heaven sent. And dogs are friends you need to consider indispensable when the alternative is talking to the wall.

The mood recession of early 2016 didn’t quite become a full-blown depression. It was salvaged by a stern recovery brought about through a surge in consumer confidence. Once again, investors were willing to risk on return, and time’s borrowers were willing to chance it on a reasonable APR. The confidence came in knowing that all who comprehend the weird passing of time both borrow from it and invest into it. Knowing that made dealing with time’s funny fluid dynamics easier.

When it wasn’t spinning out of control, it was juddering to a halt. Confounding all who try to swim against it, sweeping away those who go with it, time bit me hardest here in a land where there are no seasons, no discernible way of measuring the metrics of time. Yet through it all, I can rise above it here and now and let it be known that you might have placed much temporal distance between my brother, my father and me, but you, Old Father Time, never managed to diminish the love I have for them. You may have even done me a favour by revealing a better, kinder and more gentler version of yourself to us over the coming days.

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Supervolcanic Blackhole

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What in the world is going on in this world? While it spins around without much sign of slowing down, the little self-appointed beings it spawned from a soup of mitochondrial DNA in some primordial rock pool gear up for the end of days in a dizzying headf**k of joyless Jihadism, treeless technoscape and future uncertain.

How did we come to be in the state we are in today? They say that when the Lake Toba supervolcano erupted on the island of Sumatra 76,000 years ago, our numbers crashed to a mere handful. Those few good men and women, hardy hunter-gatherers in tribes unswayed by a little thing called disaster, survived a die back under epic skies choked with a change in chemistry. So how did we go from a few thousand living under the ward rules of Matron Nature – she of the curfew who ordered ‘Lights off ’ by 7pm – to fourteen billion feet and galloping? To use the parlance of the new age: W.T.F.?

It’s all down to the night lights. You cannot go practically overnight from tallow candles and oil lamps that barely bite into the darkness to an interconnected grid that delivers so much generated light to so many planetary places that the earth is inviting an invasion of the body snatchers. We are sleepless in everywhere but Seattle. Hello, universe? Can you see me now?

The lights are on, alright, but nobody upon nobody is home. Well, actually, there are so many of us home we’re positively busting down the door. In those hearts that self-combust in a mass suicide pyre, that’s where we are. It’s the absence of mind that is cause for concern. Social and political psychiatrists prepare to deploy….

Brussels bombed under the watchful nose of the EU/UN/NATO and any other shady acronym you can fit together. Does this bring new gag fodder to a generation of comedians hungry for explosive material? Three men walk into an airport…. Boom, boom. The time bomb is ticking until another atrocity is committed by young radicals seeking redemption, but not the kind that either Jesus or Bob Marley advocated. Dressed for dystopia like the Village People in the their figure-hugging vests, when it goes off – and you’ll know about it when it does – their redemption will send shock waves through the immediate vicinity. When the pieces are gathered up for a religious burial, the flesh&bone collectors will know at least they’ve been honest in their cause, for those martyrs will be wearing their hearts quite literally on their sleeves. Not that their sleeves will be attached at the elbow.

Why did the Toba supervolcano leave a few of us as a human seed bank? It’s all wrong. Since when did martyrs feel the need to make martyrs of those standing next to them when they never even stopped first to introduce themselves? And to call them nihilists. At least if they believed in nothing, as true nihilists do, they wouldn’t bother getting out of bed to take up arms and bomb belts in the cause of making a good impression on God (like He hasn’t enough sorting to do as it is).

A black man about to leave a White House who has done more to decorate the walls wise than any other since the president in the wheelchair who taught the world to get on its feet again. Oh, yes, that White House, HQ of our last, best hope. Its Oval Office draws all manner of term-appointed residents, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Any schmuck with money  can run for the Oval Office but it takes a special kind of schmuck to throw his hat into the Republican Party ring, thus leaving the hair on his head quite as ridiculous as the man himself. With Obama exiting stage left, the next to enter stage right might be a different kind of player, specifically the type that would mate with his offspring if only she wasn’t so inconveniently chipped off the old block. Then again, America can’t have lost the plot to the extent of letting in a juggler-cum-clown with incest in his balls, surely?

Brexit, schmexit. Dominoes topple, Brexit onto Frexit, Frexit onto Tragix. Rome sacked by itself. When finally we Europeans, for the most part, are getting along like a tribe on fire, we toy with the idea of tearing apart the family. And why? Because, Daddy EU Commissioner, you’re cramping my style. We’re through. I need to find myself, my lost identity. Deep down I’ve always hated you. With you bearing down my neck I’ll never achieve the…self-actualization…I so deserve. I’ll expect a favourable settlement, of course. Forget Tolstoy. He can’t help you now. It’s Freud’s narcissism of minor differences we need turn to, all over again. That’s what’s fuelling it. Narcissism, and history’s habit of repeating on itself. 476AD, 1618AD, 1914AD, 2016AD, 1812 Overture. Those among us who don’t think a well-timed terrorist atrocity won’t be the tail that wags the dog in the referendum stakes. Lest we forget, lest we forget.

History repeating itself first as tragedy, second as farce. It really is. If it wasn’t so farcical it would be tragic. Humanity busy making mountains of PVC garbage out of molehills of common sense, common sense that reads: you cannot keep trashing the house and still expect the landlord to renew your lease. Baby green turtles garrotted by a plastic ring from a six-pack tossed away in Botany Bay, washed up in Valparaiso, Chile. 100,000,000 sea creatures killed by plastic and chemical effluent each year. Primary forest culled to make way for palm oil to make the food that makes industry penny-wise and fat consumers pound foolish.

There’s one born every minute, but is this the best moment in history to be living? You cannot be looking up at the stars in the galactic medium when half the world is nose down in Samsung’s Galaxy at the stars of the social medium. We’re looking at someone else looking at someone else looking at someone else; mocking, pitying, ridiculing them, never a kind word spoken in jest. There are more filmmakers than there are films worth filming. There is real loving to be had but it’s always the guy next door who’s the one getting it. At least the Band plays on with Bob Dylan doing the freewheelin’. There has to be some redemption in that, still none that our Jihadi Joes would ever appreciate.

What in the world is going on in a world going off? And what would our proto-parents, who survived the Toba supervolcano of 76,000BC, make of it?

 

 

 

A Time to Plant

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There’s not much pollen rattling the air out there. Not even heat convection can excite the molecules. The ear strains to hear the drumbeat of hooves clomp in a rising crescendo. While not an avid race goer, I’m sure it’s not like this when geldings go galloping on English turf.

A plume of the finest sand kicked up by the softest, broadest pads of all two-toed animals envelops the herd in a dust bubble. Little else competes with their approach other than the owner relaying orders to the jockey from the comfort of an all-terrain vehicle crawling alongside the track on a highway laid specially for the moving spectator.

Tall, lean dromedaries lope along on sand in teams of six. On legs taller than a man, their stride is almost exaggerated. Wearing fawn and cavalry blue Shalwar Kameez, the trainers mounted front and rear look Pakistani. Or possibly Afghani, continuing a proud tradition that began with the Afghani camel drivers who were brought to Australia in the 19th century to penetrate deep into the Outback. Nimble little stalwarts riding bareback, these trainers crouch in the brace position on the hind slope of the animal’s hump. Any more bumping and grinding and they will slip down its steep gradient and onto a painful dumping on the coccyx. Yet, few if any do.

Seeing that today’s camel jockey is a race day robot, these trainers fall short of being silicon enough to see action on the furlongs. He’s on it most of the week, because through his nurturing abilities the trainer avoids obsolescence. There to groom the dashing dromedary in a pampering exercise regime, his loving care shows in the health and well-being of this most venerated of beasts.

Camels are coated in colourful blankets with bundles for humps, great long legs made for striding and necks bowed for pipping other necks to the post. If the age of oil and the fame of the sheikhdom cities that flowed from the wells had not already put the rest of the world conveniently in the iconic frame of the Bedouin in his white robes sailing his ship of the desert, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that what they were witnessing on that track was a George Lucas re-imagining of a horse race. Weird, prehensile lips flapping at the end of impossibly outstretched necks in this all-encompassing sandscape that glares more powerfully than any bank of studio lights ever could, Lucas’ planet Tatooine was obviously a borrowed creation. A crushing reality check for anyone who remembers being a kid in 1977 when Star Wars first hit the screens.

To suck the marrow out of life first you need to splinter a few bones. If that means extending the love and attention that organic compounds have long denied the desert, then so be it. They say nothing good can come from nothing, that no good thing can grow in a desert. But they didn’t reckon for creations that don’t need a steady supply of rainwater: like memories, experience and the trickery of light on red satin snow as the sun makes its descent. There’s shrubbery in planting on these margins of life. While not a religious man, I am a devout worshipper of 60’s psychedelic rock. Here’s the book of Ecclesiastes doing The Byrds, Turn, Turn, Turn:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.

The spectre of winter can fall on places never touched by frost. This lull in the long summer gives pause to plant. In the desert of our day-to-day we plant for a tomorrow when we may uproot, the day when finally we emerge from the sea of sand with what gift of experience the Bedouin in their majlis send us away with. From dust we come, into dust we shall return. But not before we glow a little, out there in the dancing dust and singing sands where natives come for the day to relearn the custom of being at ease with their former selves in the company of the animals to whom they owe their everything; where incomers visit just to feel alive.

Sitting in a majli twirling ceremonial sticks, or standing in line in a dance ritual launching antique rifles into the air, then crouching back down on their haunches to rest against cushions and look on motionless and indifferent at the comings and goings of others, not their own, those Bedouin eyes fix watchful over their true love, the only thing capable of upstaging them in their domain: Jamal (camel to you and me).

There has to be a reason for these chance encounters. We’ll glance back over the shoulders of time one day and there he’ll be, resplendent in rags.

Tolstoy?

we’ll entreat him.

What did it mean to be there all that time ago? Why this boy of all people?

And he’ll answer, dressed head to toe in his scruffy greatcoat, worldly belongings stuffed into a haversack that makes him camel in all but name. He’ll answer:

Where was this? Who was there?’

It was a desert, and it was me. I was there. I was there.

And he’ll say, Then that’s what it meant. There’s your answer.

And we’ll entreat him again.

Why me? Me of all people?

And he’ll consider the question, but this time answer with less patience.

Why not you? Did you think you were the only one not meant to be in places you never thought you’d be? Does a tree have a choice in where it puts down roots? No! Only if and when.

So Tolstoy, did it mean something in the long run? To have been there?

If it didn’t you wouldn’t be asking me this question years later. Now leave me be. It’s a long way back on foot to the village from here and I have beet seeds to plant before it’s too late.

 

 

 

 

The Stuff of Life

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“Oh Tolstoy, where to look in this great world of ours?”

“Start by knowing what it is you seek.”

“I don’t know what it is I seek.”

“If you don’t know what you seek, how will you find it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then stop bothering me.”

 

 

Just when it felt safe to go overboard on the Mastercard, a leviathan rises from the inky depths and takes you whole. Okay, we’re talking more juniper than Jonah, more green oasis than white whale. Nevertheless, a leviathan’s a leviathan. It’s bigger and smarter than your average bear.

Being devoured by mother nature is a death most noble. Shoppers take note, being swallowed by another kind of creature from the deep – the 14,000-space underground car park – might not be. To be spared an eternity of roaming formless under the roof of air-cooled consumerist paradise with your keys jangling does strike fear into the heart of those in our rank and file averse to retail.

Some claim the real leviathan of this day and age is the super-mall, but that’s cobblers. Hardly of biblical proportions for our new age Jonah to repent inside the belly of Victoria’s Secret only to be regurgitated three days later wearing stockings and a diaphanous bra. Malls might be built with a passing reference to the oasis in mind, but try as they might to be the last refuge of life, they don’t quite throb with the same pulse. Unlike the perennially resourceful oasis with its magical ecology, the resilience of the super-mall to creeping desertification and oil’s extinction remains in doubt. No, the thing that devours you in a place like this is the very same thing that holds out some hope amid the hopelessness of the dust and the dunes: the plants that survive. Nothing else comes close.

Oases loom in the Western mind for being frail as they are foolhardy, but one or two are much more than mere outposts consisting of a few raggedy palms beside a receding pool of water only a camel would drink. In fact, one in particular is a leviathan, come from the depths of the water table to commandeer an area of 3,000 acres. The super oasis of Al Ain is a climate-controlled paradise the likes of which Dubai Mall could only dream of. Functioning beautifully by means of an ancient system of irrigation veins, known in Arabic as Aflaj, this oasis has to be seen to be believed. The channels and water margins that run and run with artesian water through 5,000 years of Man ensure the prosperity is ongoing on two counts: by enriching the dozens of varieties of endemic flora with life-affirming water, as well as gifting the visitor with a labyrinth of paths that spread like loving fingers between those iconic trees.

Cut to the tree that keeps fruiting in soil good for nothing: the mall. In terms of variety, climate control, and insulation from these harsh and enveloping climes, the super-mall offers a good juxtaposition with the oasis. Providing tepid relief from scorching sands, from day one the mall seems the only option. One look inside and any old fool can feel the birth of a newish religion underway. A Gulf tourist destination par excellence, the mall is where multitudes forget there’s a world outside that is not overtly pretty. Whereas out there the climate screams F#&k You!, indoors it has no such free reign to wreak heatstroke havoc. The difference means that never have the wide open spaces felt so alone, so unwanted. As for the malls, demand is high. To describe them as an event, a day out at the beach, would not be far-fetched.

Having already integrated reef aquariums, ski slopes, ice rinks, waterfalls and rainforest recordings into the sensory experience, indoor dunes might be the next step. Verisimilitude is a powerful tool for retail industrialists. Turning the outside inside tricks the mind into oozing endorphins normally triggered by oneness with the great outdoors. Bringing in the sand will be cost-effective, too. It’s not as if there’s not enough to go round. Why enjoy nature for free when you can pay for it?

In contrast to the stripped-down nature of the surrounds, the investment cartels that bankroll £niverses have brought an entire rainforest of emporia under one roof. We’re talking a biodiversity, non-biodegradable hotspot. In a desert ecology where one needs to find the devil to find the detail, retail is diversity incarnate: Japanese aesthetics, German kraftsmanship, French panache, English tailoring, Swiss horologists, Fifth Avenue pizzazz. The old souq within the new souq adds a Arabesque centrepiece.

In the Dubai Mall, money spinning mother lode of revenue, New York vies with Paris. Three stories of Galeries Lafayette rise like Optimus Prime on the Westside while on the Eastside Bloomingdales retrofits itself into Megatron. This clash of titans creates such a sandstorm of public interest that it’s hard for the much-maligned desert ecology to get a look in. The best the dunes can do, by comparison, is to let the buggies score them with aimless tread marks. But appearances can be deceiving, none moreso than the good old mirage, so elusive we had to raid another language to describe it. For eons it formed from shimmering lakes and slinking, buckling palms. These days the mirage in these oil sheikhdoms is the mall. The thirst-maddening quest for the real oasis, it turns out, is worth the wait.

If you look hard enough you’ll find it. From the Monaco-size principality that is the mall’s basement car park head south as the camel blows. Keep the great rust desert in the corner of your right eye. Don’t venture in now. At the Hotel Rub Al-Khali you can check in but you can’t check out.  Seven days hard travelling and you’re there in the cradle of civilisation from where Moses sailed his reed basket. The Al Ain oasis truly is a champagne supernova in the sand.

 

“To the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”

 

 

 

What Is The Sound Of One Head Banging (Against a Wall)?

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 ‘But, Sir, what do you mean by that? What is critical analysis?’

 

‘I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not collecting disconnected scraps of information from Wikipedia because they sound good, then passing them off as your own beside a nice Google image of said subject matter.” (Editor’s note: that method is best kept for blogs).

 

Silence in the room. The unique silence that settles on the faces of bemusement and detachment.

No further questions.

 

When you analyse it, being the teacher can at times be almost as futile as the teaching itself. Promoting doubt in a room full of certainty is releasing the dove that barely gets off the ground before coming home to roost. Faced with the unwinnable war, the only defence left is to call up to the box the worst simile one can think of.

Call forth the witness…

‘Using language we can all understand, explain to the jury what it’s like to engineer learning through the introduction of abstract concepts, more commonly referred to as analysis?’

‘Well, it’s rather like sticking an SD memory card into a film camera. Spools, not slots, yeah? Or even like wiring an onboard computer system into the dashboard of a ’55 Karmann Ghia. Dials, not screens, if you catch my drift.’

‘Thank you, Mr Simile. The prosecution has no further questions.’

 

No doubt there are worst similes, but are there worse-equipped learners? Across the globe on isolated chairs, millions. Within a purely cultural context, it is harder to find a more disingenuous bunch than those from lands who do not like voicing doubts, who know fine well their elders are their betters and that truth is knowing what you like and liking what you know. Knowledge as fixed inheritance is the way to see it. Perhaps it pays not to think too deeply. In most of the world it pays neither to offer too much commentary nor court too much controversy. After all, who wants the emerge black and blue from the scrum of free thoughts? Or worse still, not emerge at all (from that place behind the sun).

 

When you are raised on rice, wisdom is not to sift through the grains with a fine tooth comb. When you are hatched on rock hot enough to fry eggs, flying too close to the sun can send you into an early tailspin. But what has egg-fried rice to do with analytical awareness? Diet is the the answer. Diets of learning are just as telling as the calorie diets we usually think of. Strictly-speaking, a diet is anything ingested and not all that is ingested is digested. Not all that glitters turns to shit either. Protein thinking leaves the learner lean and hungry, primed to hunt down and disembowel the mythical beasts in their canon of knowledge. But monounsaturated fats leave them flaccid, helpless to kill those mythic sloths that refuse to shift their lazy asses. That’s a narrative shorn of happiness. Recall happiness? That thing the Dalai Lama called the be all and end all? More to come on the marriage of knowing and being.

 

Globalisation:- the conjurer of the weird (Ebola – where does it disappear to for so long when it’s not busy making eyeballs bleed?), the wonderful (Bob Dylan, 74 and still touring the world), and the worrisome (Jihadis with padded abdomens lurking in your midst as we speak) delivers the whole package. Through it, new ideas are vectored as virulently as communicable disease. Exotic notions of going from an ignorant to an articulate society are imported by air, cable and sea on the back of exotic foodstuffs imported by air and sea (Side note to Les ancien regimes: you cannot always have your cake and eat it.) That’s what happens to the local gazette when the village becomes the world and the world the village.

In regions outside the Anglosphere where obesity and type-2 diabetes go unchecked, diets were not always so rich in calories. Nor were they so rich in heuristics (learning through trial and error; self discovery), nor in critical thinking, nor in the free exchange of ideas, all of which amounted to a kind of open-source software of philosophy to trump the jealously-guarded source code of truth that old elites held so stubbornly to for so long.

Through all the Jamie Oliveresque frustration at trying to convince the turkey-twizzling recalcitrants to switch to a diet of kale, goji berries and organic salmon, there is an electrical dialogue going on across hemispheres of the brain, as well as the planet. Some talk of divergent thinking about what constitutes thinking as a clash of civilisations. It’s as if the redoubtable Saladin himself had returned to meet Richard the Lionheart in the sequel to the Third Crusade. The battle for hearts and minds is more subtle than that and not always fought on the same front.

East is East and West is West, but in the classroom the twain has and shall continue to meet. When we consider the so-called civilising mission of the imperial British and French of the 19th century, their missionaries were the teaching task force. Then, as before and since, with trade and military intervention went the transmission and diffusion of the seller’s ideas into the buyer; the ruler’s weltanschauung onto the unwitting and often unenthusiastic subject. Preaching was teaching and teaching was the crucible of cultures. The philosophy of free trade went in lockstep with the philosophy of free thought although both had a chaining effect, as Gandhi beautifully exemplified by showing that Indian philosophy was every bit as enlightened and more as that of the British Raj. When delving into the dynamics of what happens when Western ways of critical reflection, relativism and self-awareness come flush against Arab absolutism or Chinese Confucianism, when we place the individualist against the collectivist, only then does indoctrination/ enlightenment/transmission, whatever you choose to call it, become apparent as a process. The process is both two-way and convoluted. Thinking across cultures therefore reveals more sequences than an improvised dance troupe, and more patterns than a thick book of carpet samples.

Can an old dog be taught new tricks? Why would he want to? Banging one’s head against a blank wall because others don’t see your point of turning truth in on itself brings a smile on the faces of the politely detached. The smiles, for all we know, could be inane grins revealing the tensions of smuggling critical and reflective intellectual practice through the back door while operating a strict autocratic code at the front. That polite detachment, for all we know, could be the embarrassment-cum-denial of farting on public transport. Inscrutable as that look is, inscrutable as these exotic creatures are, the critical thinker in there says, this has got to be cognitive dissonance in its manifest form. Look, they are thrown by the confusion of holding opposing values of tradition and modernity as simultaneously true. On their gormless faces is the priceless visage of someone whose left and right hemisphere has been cleaved in half. Surely, their culture is anoxic. Where is the oxygen of free, unhindered thinking? Have wings will fly; have knuckles, will drag.

And then the thought arrives: what if the reason these heavenly creatures are so joyful, the reason they laugh and smile with such sense of abandon, is because they are the ones whom knowledge has set free? Unlike the critical analyst, plagued by doubts, chained to uncertainty, floating aimlessly outside the box, maybe it is they who rejoice in the security of the box, and in the certainty of a knowledge that is immutable and unchanging as the book itself. Who needs doubters when everyone knows that when a tree falls in a forest it makes the sound of millions of hands clapping. There is solace is knowing what you know.

What the halal is going on? The tables have turned.

Who has the cognitive dissonance now?

 

 

Three Guesses As To What Really Matters

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Suffering from another paroxysm of doubt – a bobbing on the big sea moment – Tolstoy seemed the natural choice of port for the Gen X refugee to find anchorage in. Let it be known not only common folk or mendicant monks seek to know what really matters. Kings, too, have tipped their crown in neediness of an answer to the big three – 1) When is the right time to do the right thing? 2) Whom is considered most worthy of being the beneficiary of that right thing? And, 3), what is that right thing to do in life above all other right things? If Christ could do it on a bike, and Hindus on their hands and knees around the Holy Mountain, then Arthurian types can go in search of answers, too, finding them planted in unlikely soil.

What is the right thing to do, when is the right moment to do it, and with whom should it be done? Are such questions that go to the heart of the matter to be considered existential conundrums unlike any other? Who can tell. At least, with Tolstoy we have an agony uncle worthy of trust. Let’s face it, rules are rules. Fables, myths and necromancy when they come, come packaged not into ones, not twos but threes.

Three the magic number: three wishes; three wise men; three wise monkeys; three fates, furies and graces; three the number of intelligence in the Kabbalah; the father, son and the holy ghost; Great Pyramids; the belt of Orion; three of a kind; three chances to put things right.

And so it came down to three questions that Tolstoy’s Certain King went to slay with allegorical brevity short as a cocktail stick. When he took his ruler of a faraway realm on his kingly quest, still he did so with a point, but not the kind that spears pitted olives. His was in mind. As De Troyes’ Fisher King was crippled with injury, Tolstoy’s Certain King (one presumes) of Slavic peasantry is crippled with that most chronic of conditions: indecision.

The analogies are rich as they are universal. Indecision is as injurious to the mind as a hurtling javelin is to the thigh. This moral maze, full of ankle-twisting turns, knows no bounds of credo or class. The ruler is expected to be judicious to the extent of having answers to the trickiest questions tucked into his hem. Nonetheless, it is to the furthest reaches of the forest, to the old and frail hermit living in a dacha-cum-shed, that he experiences a comedown of humbling proportions. As wisdom is the burden of the elite, so it is the gift of the obscure.

To the question of ‘what the right thing is to do’ (presumably this question extends beyond simple quandaries like Sainsbury’s car park is chock-a. Will anyone really notice if I park in the disabled space?), apparently hermetic sagacity comes down on the side of digging seed beds in pity of the old hermit shirker who claimed he was too buggered to do it for himself.

As to the question of when is the right time to do the right thing, like the old adage goes, there’s no time like the present. The when ends only when the present ends, which is never until it is stepped out from. Our king, now engaged in menial labours considered essential by Shaolin monks for attaining mindfulness, is now inadvertently digging his way to the answers he seeks by virtue of having rolled up his sleeves and working that hoe like such a demon that he stops noticing time and forgets what it is he wanted to know. Only when he stops to reflect does he realise that the right time to do the important things in life is lost when the mind is either running ahead or falling behind.

The when embedded within the what comes twice to the fable. The other most important time existing for the king in the quantum mechanics of the present moment (where either something’s nature is known but not its location or else its location but not its nature) is when he turns from market gardener to red cross medic and saves a man with a blinding bit of field dressing. Little does the king know that the man, consumed by vengeance, was out for his blood. But instead of regicide the stranger in the forest finds the king is stemming his own gushing blood in an act of compassion, for why the king does not know.

As to the question of who benefited from that right thing and that right moment, the knackered old hermit and the wounded wannabe assassin became the king’s most important task, the only thing that mattered. Just as your average Uncle Joe does not take up arms for a cause but for himself and those either side of him, so Tolstoy, through the hermit, avers that the most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows (in that very moment) whether he will ever again have dealings with anyone else.

The king has, quite unintentionally, received his true coronation. Mindfulness is the crown he wears. Presence is now in his heart, leading the hermit on to distill the essence of the good thing, which is to perform man’s sole purpose of being: doing good. Kant wrote the only unqualified, unconditional good was the good that arose from good will; goodness not to conform to norms of goodness, rather goodness for its own sake.

Our king left the protection of his realm asking three questions he thought should govern and guide a life in which he had grown dissatisfied, and for which he was deservedly awarded his Duke of Edinburgh. He left a substandard realm of irrelevance only to discover a sublime state of benevolence. He threw off his chain mail to don the saffron robe. And all because he was not afraid to invent himself in the mind of the writer whose own life needed questions answering, metaphysically-speaking. Ask Tolstoy and ye shall receive.

 

 

Gall Stones that Crack the Mirror Pool

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“It wasn’t until middle age that narcissists became depressed, because of their failed relationships.” So writes Zoe Williams in this morning’s guardian.com, quoting the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic. So how else could causation flow through these variables? Relationships failed because narcissists grew depressed and depression stemmed from hitting middle-age? Was it that relationships failed because depressives hit middle age and this aging process arose through being a narcissist? Or that it wasn’t until relationships failed that narcissists became middle-aged, and relationships failed because who the hell wants to cuddle up to a depressive? Where does narcissism begin and depression end? For that matter, where does middle-age end? In failed relationships? In depression? In a late blooming of narcissism? In a toxic brew? Most pertinent of all, where does middle-age begin? And have I left the solar system of youthful vigour and entered the Kuiper Belt of wrinkling despair?

“Don’t worry, son. You’re very much in the game. The solar wind has just died down a bit today. Take it from an old timer, you’re as young as the woman you feel.’

“Let me illustrate, Dad. It’s almost as if I’m cruising through deep space billions of miles from Earth. There’s Neptune out my starboard porthole. Still, I’m not sharing the view, if you catch my drift.”

“You don’t have to paint elaborate pictures. Come out and say it, son. You mean you’re lonely?”

“Hell, yes. I don’t feel women these days. Haven’t sniffed an opportunity since I left Earth. Tell me, how old does that make me?”

“Look at you. You look great for your age, lad. What I would give to have looked that good when I was any age, far less the age you are now.”

“You’re trying to imply I’ve entered my middle years without actually giving it an ‘official’ title, aren’t you?”

“Don’t be soft. I’m sure you’ll find someone who’s, er, not like the others, and you’ll put all your troubles behind you and she’ll be the one who’ll go the distance. And I mean to Neptune and beyond. You’ve got time still, lad. Oodles of it.”

“What are you trying to say? That I’ve flunked every relationship because I’m in a funk I can’t free myself from? A bit too self-absorbed, eh? No room for others? That’s basically what you’re saying.”

“Well, son. Now you mention it, you’re your own worst enemy. A bit too caught up in yourself, at times.  Sorry to have to be the one to tell you, but you need to learn to consider others a bit more. Give a little to take a little. See ourselves as others see us.”

“You mean I’ve got narcissistic tendencies?”

“Well, hmm, narcissistic is a bit strong. It’s not like you’re always try to catch your reflection in shop windows or anything. When you’ve lived alone as long as you have, it’s not easy to give up all that self.”

“Your not really painting a rosy picture of me here, Dad. I can see my dating profile now: solitary, sociopathic type. Scores high for misanthropy, low for empathy – a real plus these days. Has the advantage of not often being wrong about anything. Loves watching people and animals suffer. Carries around a small vanity mirror for those times he forgets just how much of a catch he is. More boom than bust type of guy, although does love getting to the point(s) with women. Brilliant company by his own admission. A bit of a silver fox. Is aging so gracefully that he has been compared to Clooney, not once but twice. Age not an obstacle as his charisma is transcendent. Looking for a sexy twenty-something. Personality not such an issue as he will be doing most of the impressing. You thought the koh-i-noor diamond was one of a kind. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

That’ll go down a storm with the ladies. Tell me where I went wrong, Dad.”

“Well, I suppose we’ve all got to love something or someone, son. We’re only human, after all.”

Narcissists are by definition excessively preoccupied with protecting and aggrandizing the ego, and since the ego’s primary motive is the preservation of self, why not experience the inward tugging of the self-serving soul the closer one comes to their own eventual auto-destruction? So it stands the test of reason that it can never be too late to develop that life-saving proclivity for narcissism. And if narcissism got you feverish when you were younger, early middle age seems about the right time to let delusions of grandeur mellow into a warm mug of mindfulness, easy on the ego.

From the moment the toddler accepted it was not mum’s thirteenth paired rib bone, more a pivot around which the universe was spinning, is it not the case that narcissism cut a swathe through little Lord Fauntleroy’s life practically undetected? Vaunted self-importance ain’t the preserve of the selfie gen. We were over-inflating our tyres long before Mr Dunlop showed the wheel the way. The difference is, now narcissism has found an instant digital outlet for a population of smart phone-conscious lemmings where previously it needed developing in a darkroom. The difference is, now viral self-love drives extinction of countless species and the worst kind of  relationships are those we have with nature. It’ll be in our species’ middle years that the aftermath of the man-nature abusive relationship will be felt as a source of mass depression.

It is axiomatic that only at the onset of middle age do we fall into a slump. It explains a lot about personal midlife crisis and catharsis, the slow onset of rigor mortis, adoption of new creeds (Scientology and Kabbalism not exempted), and all that other life-begins-at-40 mantra. It explains how the coming-of-age personality can crash and burn (by descending into anguish, alcoholism, discontent, pill addiction, and other chemico-ontological pitfalls) only to subsequently emerge rebuilt, lightened and more philosophically lean from the experience.

For all those failed relationships staring back at you from the millpond of your mind, for all the remorse of not reacting with the soulful completeness of the post-you instead of that room full of mirrors from where the pre-you used to look out in confusion, bear in mind that the task of being one of billions of little living deities is not simple when advancing years makes peeing feel like breathing fire through the urethra, and the stiffness on waking like one’s bloodstream has been transfused with embalming fluid while they were sleeping.

There are more reasons in this world of ours to be insecure than there are to be narcissistic. To make an omelette worth being, one needs to find mirrors worth cracking. The 21st century narcissist really is walking on eggshells.