2015 Reading

In addition to completing Moon Walking with Einstein, The Pioneer Detectives and significantly denting my copy of The Best American Essays 2014, my 2015 reading has consisted of loads of longform, which I am curating via Pocket. Below are a few of the more interesting pieces that caught my eye this month:

1. Learning to Drive – Adam Gopnik (The New Yorker): What we learn when we learn to drive?

… Driving a car more like walking on a sidewalk, [is] full of recognitions and hand waving and early avoidance, tamping down the sudden shocks that the combustion engine is heir to…

I saw that driving was in another way civilization itself: self-organizing, self-controlling, a pattern of agreement and coalition made at high speed and, on the whole, successfully. “Just signal and slide over,” Arturo would urge me on the highway, and, as I signalled, other cars—other drivers—actually let me slide over!

2. Writing Your Way To Happiness – Tara Parker-Pope (The New York Times) : The benefits of expressive writing?

Like Siri, I have numerous explanations for why I don’t find time for exercise. But once I started writing down my thoughts, I began to discover that by shifting priorities, I am able to make time for exercise.

“When you get to that confrontation of truth with what matters to you, it creates the greatest opportunity for change”.

3. Selma was a Spiritual Endeavour for Me -Alissa Wilkinson and Morgan Lee (Christianity Today): David Oyelowo on playing Dr King in Oscar nominated (best picture) Selma:

.. every film I do can be edifying, can be something that points toward I believe to be true: I’m not one to shy away from darkness in movies, as long as there is light. As long as the light overwhelms the darkness, then you’ll find me in the midst of that story. That’s what I aspire to do because I know it to be true in my own life. I don’t think I’ve done a film that doesn’t demonstrate that—the darkness being overwhelmed by the light.

4. The Secret Life of Passwords – Ian Urbina (The New York Times) : Keepsake passwords;

…ritualize a daily encounter with personal memories that often have no place else to be recalled. We engage with them more frequently and more actively than we do, say, with the framed photo on our desk. “You lose that ritual,” [Miah said,] “you lose an intimacy with yourself.”

5. The Little Bug That Could – Michael Frankel (Medium): On travelling across the continental US in a Volkswagen Beetle to welcome a grandchild;

The Bug and I rolled into the Tampa Bay area still under waves of thunder­storms, alternating downpours with steamy sunshine. You could almost see the recently dropped rain rising off the pavement as steam. The grand tour of the union was coming to an end. We covered seventeen states in 6,000 miles. The top was down for 5,300 of those miles — a new personal-all-time-best. I consumed seventy-five cups of coffee on the road, almost all of them McDonald’s secret, piping-hot recipe. I averaged eighty miles per cup. The longest dry run between McDonald’s restaurants was 258 miles from Fallon to Eli, Nevada on Route 50. Along with the coffee, I ate six dozen granola bars and countless pretzels.

Of Rust, and Metaphors

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Amidst the hurly burly that was the last quarter of 2014 at work – not helped by the unease set off by sliding oil prices, and questions around the future viability of North Sea oil and gas given lifting costs and taxes – the crazy gang team at work made time out to head across town for a day to reflect on how we’d performed through the year and agree objectives for the 2015. For what it’s worth it was good craic, much better than I expected given the strong personalities within the team, and the sense of simmering conflict, even though it was a tad too reliant on woozy, zen-ish things like sitting in a circle and taking time out to reflect in silence.

 As we huddled around the sandwich tables chewing away on sandwiches and bacon rolls and sipping coffees, we were offered a question for reflection, one we would expatiate on later over the course of the morning. The question was to come up with a movie or a song that best described how we felt about our day job. The responses were as interesting as they were varied, ranging from It’s a Hard Knock Life from the musical Annie to Ocean Rain by Echo and the Bunny Men, indicative of the general sense of being overwhelmed by fighting fires and being under appreciated across the group. I might have over thought it a bit – my repertoire of movies isn’t exactly exhaustive – before I eventually settled for Raid on Entebbe.

Based on the 1976 rescue of the passengers and crew of Air France flight AF-139 from Tel Aviv following its hijack by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, it chronicled the difficult deliberations involved in reaching a decision to sanction a commando operation in Entebbe, Uganda, 2500 miles and several hostile countries away. In the end, although largely a success, Yonatan Netanyahu, and 3 hostages ended up dead; a fourth hostage was murdered, ostensibly on Idi Amin’s orders, having been sent to the hospital due to illness. Certainly not Africa’s brightest hour by all accounts.

Looking back, I suspect I went for Raid on Entebbe largely because my role over the last few years has increasingly felt more like that of a commando than a rust geek, putting out fires rather than pontificating over their remote and immediate causes. Ultimately, it has been about managing risk  – identifying, quantifying, evaluating and mitigating the risk to the environment, people and the business from the interactions of materials and the internal and external service environments we put them in. In an ideal world, I’d replace every bit of leaking pipe with 25Cr or Titanium, significantly reducing the probability (in most cases) of a repeat failure. The reality though is that the cost of doing that on a large scale would be entirely prohibitive; which is where I earn my bacon, pretending to find finding non-obvious solutions to corrosion and materials problems which represent value for money – the best bang for the buck within reason.

Sadly, or thankfully, Rust never sleeps, likewise I have to keep trying…

Reflecting on the Scottish Referendum: A Call to Social Justice

A few months ago, people across the length and breadth of the nation of Scotland went to the polls to answer the question, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” At stake was the very future of the United Kingdom, and Scotland’s place in it. On one hand, the governing Scottish National Party staked its reputation on a ‘Yes’ vote, alongside the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialists under the aegis of Yes Scotland, whilst Scottish Labour, the Scottish Conservative Party, and the Scottish Liberal  Democrats took a pro-Union Stance under the Better Together banner.

As the vote count came to an end on the morning of September 19th in victory for the Better Together campaign, what became clear was that the keenly contested campaign had revealed deep fissures in the very fabric of the Nation. The romance of nationalism and the historical antecedents notwithstanding (Scotland as a distinct entity has existed in some shape or form since about 840 AD and 2014 was the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn which saw the English army defeated by the forces of King of Scots Robert the Bruce), economic considerations, fair and equitable distribution of wealth and protecting access to the NHS in the face of the (real or imagined) threat of its privatisation featured strongly as a subject of contention.

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The HAVES vs HAVE NOTS narrative seemed supported by analysis of the voting patterns which showed strong correlations between greater unemployment and support for independence, and age above retirement with support for staying with the Union (perhaps due to concerns over pensions).

The immediate aftermath involved clashes between Unionists and independence supporters. As recently as October, a pro – independence rally in Glasgow still managed to attract over 6,000 people, perhaps indicative that even the passage of time has done little to soothe the sense of grievance a significant proportion of the nation still feels.

The challenge going forward therefore is one of reconciliation; recreating a sense of togetherness and genuine belief in all and sundry that the nation belongs equally to everyone – rich, poor, old, young and old alike. That sense can only be fostered by delivering on the sound bites trundled out by both sides of the campaign, mainly a fairer, more productive, empowered Scotland.

There is an economic argument for a fairer, more egalitarian Scotland. Equal opportunities and lower unemployment will deliver greater productivity, and enable more people contribute to the state in the form of taxes, rather than constitute a drain the system.

There will also be benefits, purely from the perspective of enlightened self-interest. It stands to reason that crime, social delinquency and violence are likely to drop as more people are gainfully employed. Those who are not, if they have access to the opportunities to improve and are catered for the interim will also see less of an incentive to crime.

The arguments for social justice go beyond secular and economic ones; there is also a biblical imperative. Passages like Deuteronomy 15:11 –  For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’, being a case in point.

Time and time again, the call to ‘do good and seek justice (Isaiah 1:17), not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor (Zech 7:9,10), defend the rights of the poor and needy (Prov 31:8,9), to do justice and love kindness (Micah 6:8) and protect the resident alien, the fatherless and the widow (Jeremiah 22:3) are repeated throughout the Old Testament. When Israel failed to heed this call, they were punished severely by God (Amos 5:11-15, Ezekiel 16:49,50).

Elsewhere a social justice component is explicitly commanded as part of true and acceptable worship – knowing the rights of the poor (Proverbs 29:7), letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry and homeless (Isaiah 58:12) as well as visiting the orphan and the widow (James 1:27).

Jesus himself, after being tempted and returning to Galilee in the power of the Holy Spirit chose to reveal himself in the Synagogue in his home town of Nazareth by reading from the passage in Isaiah which spoke of his mission to proclaim the good news and set at liberty those who were oppressed (Luke 4; 18, 19). Beyond that, he also highlighted acts of kindness as one of the things we will be judged by at his return (Matthew 25:31-46). The Apostles also weighed in in their writings – John enjoined us to love not in word but in deed (1 John 3:17,18), Paul in distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality (Romans 12:13) and James to treat all without partiality (James 2:1-4)

The danger of all this is to end up flying the flag of social justice, for its own sake alone, as an end in itself or as an opportunity to ship sounds bites, hog the limelight and portray ourselves as good citizens. However as Christians, everything we do on earth occurs within a context – that of being Jesus’ hands and feet on earth, utilising the resources, skills and time that he has given us to further His kingdom. In these days in which the popular narrative is one of the death of the church and its increasing irrelevance, being champions of social change, in our communities – our next door mission fields – may well be one way that the tide can be turned, providing a door of opportunity to ‘do all for the Glory of God’.

***

Originally written for my Church Newsletter, reproduced here for archival purposes. 

Wrapping up the Christmas Party Silly Season

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Each year, my Christmas party silly season kicks off earlier than the last – this time on the 24th of November – the venue being the soon to close Marcliffe set in the lush woodlands of the Royal Deeside. We are there at the behest of the black and minority ethnic engineering association, for an evening of music, dance, networking and speeches to celebrate the fabulous year they have had of making engineering sexy to BME kids across the ‘shire. My initial response of excitement when news of the gala breaks segues into one of trepidation as the day draws near, the black tie dress code nothing like my far more typical jeans and t-shirt fare. On the day, just before leaving my house, I find out that I have somehow failed to spot the one key fact, arrivals being scheduled for 6.30pm, not the 7pm I have planned for, cue a rushed final phase of preparation and a quick hop into my old banger for the drive across town. I arrive almost forty five minutes late, thanks to a wrong turn and some traffic down Great Western road. In the end, it turns out I really shouldn’t have been that worried, people are still arriving at 8.30pm, african time I guess. The event itself goes well – overly posh food aside – I get to prance and pose for pictures with a few old chums, and a wide range of people; current students, professionals across a range of Engineering professions and a number of industry stalwarts. By the time I sneak off at 11.30pm, there is no doubt in my mind it has been a thoroughly engaging evening.

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The Friday afterwards, I am at the Stage Door off Rosemount for a far less formal event, invited out by the team I work with at the motherlode, work being used very loosely here given how little face time I actually get with them. Plan is to kick things off with drinks at 5pm and then a set meal for 6pm. By the time I arrive at five minutes to six, my crowd is no where to be seen, still loading up on the brew. The first few people begin to show up at five past six, with very nearly a full complement by six-thirty by which time I am ravenous. D somehow ends up lost with a dead battery across town, which provides plenty of comic relief material. Meal done and dusted at very nearly 8.30pm, the younger crowd – and quite a few older ones too – decide they want to hit a couple of pubs to wrap up. Seeing as my day started at 5.45am, I am in no state to join in and plead tiredness, to quite a few raised eyebrows. The small silver lining is that on my way out, I get hit on by a somewhat  attractive woman – never mind she was a bit woozy, clearly having had way too much to drink.

***

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Gig number three is the Young Adult’s group party at D’s. It turns out a damp squib of sorts, the turnout being far less than I recall for a long while. I suspect it being sandwiched between preparations for our show piece holiday event, the Christmas Carol service amongst others, and a slew of stalwarts who have elected to take an early Christmas are to blame. Plus side is I get to take away several packs of rice, gizzdodo and pepper soup when I leave at just past 10.30pm on the day

***

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For the 15th and 16th I am away in Manchester, swotting for  – and then writing – my final exam of the year. Having had to work full pelt on a number of emerging issues at work right up to the day before impacted my ability to create time to study, so understandably I find the exam itself iffy. I help myself to one of the works omelettes at Frankie and Benny’s to help myself forget, just before hopping on to the tram for Piccadilly gardens. Fortuitously, at Cornbrook, I find out that the tram line extension to the airport is now in place, and hop on to that, halving my journey – and leaving a few friends and family cross at me – in the process.

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I’m into work the next day, back to the hurly burly that has been December, getting just enough done to show up with an element of credibility to a meeting on the 18th. That turns out to be the last credible bit of work I do on the day as it’s also the day for our traditional christmas lunch as an Operations Team. Drinks start off at 12 – I have a gin and tonic to get myself into the groove (number 10 I reckon) – followed by a set lunch. I have chicken soup as a starter, Turkey as the main and cheese cake for dessert. Beyond the food which is typically passable, the highlight usually is the raffle, and the opportunity for expressing the typically acerbic Scottish variant of British humour it provides. At lunch I end up next to one of the bigger wigs; as we chat it turns out he does have a proper engineering background – a technical PhD as opposed to an MBA – and I get to gush a bit too much on rust and my future plans – to my chagrin in retrospect, blame the gin and tonic. We all have a good laugh, helped along by a free bar. For my ten pound investment in the raffle I win a bottle of whisky.

***

I toy with not attending the church’s tech team meet up on the 19th – yet another late day at work and meetings nearly putting paid to my participation –  but a few sternly worded comments from F give me the kick up the back side I require. I miss the bowling though, arriving just in time to sit in for dinner. Venue is the Frankie and Benny’s close to my house, a brisk walk and the nip in the air clear my head sufficiently enough to not be a grump of epic proportions. Loads of meat balls, and great conversation later, it’s a proper Friday evening of chilling and friendly banter – a fitting end to the week and a slew of christmas gigs for the year.

***

One of the more head scratching – and truth be told happy – things that happens to me does on the 24th. I catch the 727 at mid day to the airport, enroute Heathrow for a catch up with B. At the security screening desk it turns out there are more security folk than fliers, the irony of which is not lost on us travellers. For good measure, no thanks to forgetting to remove my watch, I get the enhanced pat down, and my phone swabbed, which in the end ends up being fortuitous as it delays me enough for a certain portly gentleman to slide up to me. Quite the cheerful bloke, he says the one thing we have all noticed but haven’t vocalised, about the security team out numbering flyers. On a whim, he offers to buy me a beer. When I decline, and upon being pressed by him, I accept a coffee instead. At the bar, he flirts so charmingly with the bar tender she is beetroot red by the time we grab our drinks and head off to a table. In a different life, and a different skin he might have been my friend S, from under grad. In the thirty minutes we spend together, we manage to drag four other people into our happy bubble, get to swap war stories about our various professions and he gets snogged by one of the guys, all very love actually-esque.

London goes by quickly; hanging with B, food (loads of), dish washing and meat chopping duties as assigned, and yet another Xmas party number – a far more family friendly, lower key event than the lot I’ve been dragged through up here in Aberdeen – help the time pass quickly enough until I am being sped all the way to Heathrow to catch my flight back to my version of civilisation.

Year End Review – 2014

General
2014 was an emotional wringer of a year, perhaps the most difficult one I’ve ever had, thanks in part to losing H, and O, but also because of difficult transitions at work. All in all, it’s been a largely forgettable year, with spots of delirious joy in between. Here, in each of the seven focus areas undergirding the life plan are a little bit more detailed thoughts on how my 2014 went with a (R)ed, (A)mber or (G)reen indicator.

  1. Spiritual: AMBER
    • Improved attendance at church over 2013, primarily due to improved commitment to attending midweek church in Q3 and Q4.
    • Struggled, as I have for the past few years, with committing to a daily practice of prayer, worship and meditation. Big spurt, again in Q3/Q4 thanks to the NIV Men’s Devotional Bible.
    • Struggled with trying to make sense of loss all year, given H and O’s passing this year. I suspect this will be an ongoing one for the next few years at least.
  2. Physical & Health: AMBER
    • Kept physical activity levels up, averaged 6 miles per day through the year, slightly down from YE 2013
    • Marginally better sleep; more time in bed, less time awake, lower number of awakenings ~ 5.8 hours asleep from 6.5 hrs in bed on average, longest sleep was on the 15th of February. For the life of me, I can’t remember what might have trigged that ( I know I didn’t cry myself to sleep though, Val or no Val.. )
    • Lost gains from 2013 in weight loss, up 6kg from YE 2013 to ~ 90kg. Loads of Papa John’s, Nandos and KFC to blame without question.
    • Less control of blood pressure, inched upwards towards the end of the year, correlated with weight, and all those high salt content fast food.
    • Losing my memory – at least I think so.. It might just be old age, but…
  3. Career & Work: GREEN
    • New R&Rs defined with emphasis on a specialist Corrosion & Materials role and the required skill sets;
    • Issues across the patch created opportunities to leverage my skills in support of other assets
  4. Social & People: AMBER
    • Took a long hard look at things and realised the thing with K was heading no where; and then I met B
    • Lowlights for the year were teething problems with unlearning solitude and juggling my people commitments amidst all the work and personal issues that defined the year, something I have struggled with for a long time.
  5. Financial: RED
    • Failed to meet my 30% of net earnings target for the year, only achieved in 5 months of the year (January, March, May, November and December)
    • Managed to recover my pension funds – significant boost to the net worth; kicked off the process of retrieved my stranded UX5 pension also. Should receive feedback in the new year.
    • Overall, I spent more than I earned in 2014. Main spend drivers were helps and charity, purchases and OpEx with the excesses incurred here accounting for ~35% of overall 2014 spend.
    • Oil price and associated Naira value loss impacted contribution of Nigerian funds (fixed deposit and  stocks) to net worth (~£3k loss vs YE 2013)
  6. Mental & Personal Development: GREEN
    • Passed the API 571 exam (Advanced Corrosion & Materials) and received certification documents; waiting on the results from API 580 exam (Advanced Risk Based Inspection) in December;
    • Progressed the NACE Senior Corrosion Technologist Certification; waiting on final approval, hopefully in early 2015.
    • Managed to read 16 books from the 30 planned; a few key titles – Albert Camus’ The Outsider, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and John Green’s somewhat over praised The Fault in Our Stars
  7. Causes & Charity: GREEN
    • Wrote each of my sponsored children (Moises and RosieMarie) once each, sent a special gift to RosieMarie at Christmas (and her birthday which is early in 2015)
    • Helped family members out significantly over the course of the year; downside was this was a key contributor to poor financial performance.

Always Returning

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Whilst rustling through my documents at the weekend – I forget what prompted the decision to take on the Sisyphean task of rummaging through drawers filled with several years’ worth of papers of varying vintage – it struck me that it was now nearly five years to the day since I dragged myself, bags in tow, off the East Coast train from Newcastle to Aberdeen to begin a new life of sorts. Ditching my Nigerian job for grad school 18 months before meant that nostalgia – and twenty-something years’ worth of memories – counted for little; pragmatism was very much the defining consideration. In a sense, Newcastle, and then Aberdeen afterwards was about tearing everything up and starting afresh from scratch, pretty much the recovery from a self-imposed apocalypse. The driver for that decision was a sense of injustice at the Nigerian work environment; five years of being unaligned (being from the minority in a minority state didn’t help), a sense of having hit a glass ceiling and the desire to prove myself on a global sense all contributing.

I had a soft landing. Unlike some of my peers who had dependants and money issues to focus on, I had the good fortune of cashing in on my Nigerian stock market investments just before the big crash and did not require supplemental income from overnight stints at the Greggs warehouse across town, or tours of duty as a night club bouncer or a as a security guard to make ends meet. That coupled with my not inconsiderable experience acquired whilst working my way up the ranks at a global major in my discipline deluded me into thinking making the transition would be a cinch

The first few months of job hunting with little tangible success, bar the odd interview here and there, put a big dent in that super sized ego. What confidence that was left ebbed quickly with each dead end; being replaced by a hardened pragmatism as the reality that my Nigerian experience – global major player or not – was discounted out here began to sink in. With slightly lower expectations, fitting in and becoming one of the guys became the imperative, even when it meant ditching my very passable Nigerian accent for a (perceived) posher sounding imitation RP version, cobbled together from years of watching British sitcoms. My otherness was a perceived liability, one to be sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism.

Between distance and time working together to conflate memory with imagination, and less pressure as some of the aspirations of those early years become either solid achievements or at least seem far more attainable than they once were, I am finding that that hard, pragmatic stance is slowly yielding, being replaced by a more nostalgic notion of home. This notion of home is one that I find seeks out sameness, emphasises commonality and seeks to build community; the difference between cringing inwardly at the overdressed Nigerian bloke on the 727 to the airport speaking loudly into his cell phone in Yoruba and smiling wistfully at the memory it teases out of the mental ether of my friend M and his (well-earned) reputation for classic Awe-bred razzness.

Two events last week reinforced the sense of a far more nostalgic perception of home for me. First off, at around mid-day on Wednesday, I got an external phone call at work. That happens fairly regularly on any given day except that on this occasion it was from a vendor I had only started using at work in the last few months. By the time the conversation safely navigated the terse, opening introductions – not helped by the fact that we both sounded a lot different from how we used to in the throes of 500 LT, and she had a Scottish surname these days – it turned out that my caller had spotted my name in an email she had been forwarded. After privately wrestling with the pros and cons of reaching out, she had decided to give me a call to confirm if I was the self-same person she’d known in the past. I was, it turned out she’d been a class mate of mine in under grad. We spent a fair few minutes catching up; who was where now, and who we had stayed in touch with or hadn’t. We agreed to catch up in person if we were ever in the same city over the next few months. Thinking over the conversation later, the sobering thought I couldn’t shake off was that with confirmation that she lived and worked a few hundred miles away from me, there were now only four or so people from the top ten finishing positions in my final year class still living and working in Nigeria. Clearly, tearing everything up and starting over isn’t something a lot of my peers are averse to.

Later, on Friday, whilst waiting for some hot water for a cup of tea, I ran into one of the cleaning lads. The sum of our conversations prior to the day was nodded greetings when our paths crossed. A little digging revealed that he was Nigerian, and was working part time with the service company that manages the facilities in the building I work at. Having just wrapped up a Masters degree, he was working part time to make a little cash whilst waiting on applications and interviews. Not a real surprise given that Nigerian students tend to drift to this city, oil capital of Europe. What was more than a little surprising was that he had also graduated from my Nigerian alma mater, and was from the area in which I had spent my own formative years. Our conversation naturally segued into our memories of studying at my previous department. The academic landscape has changed considerably over the intervening years – two deaths, a couple of lecturers who have been lured by the call of big bucks into oil, and a number of retirements – with a few of the young Graduate Assistants from my time blossoming into lynchpins of the departments. As to future plans, he was eyeing up a few PhD options across the globe, the current socio-political climate not being particularly geared towards easing the progress from studying to work in my corner of the world. When the subject of my previous experience came up, he seemed befuddled that I had decided to chuck it all in and start over. There it came out that for the right job, Nigeria would be his preferred destination. For him, nostalgia clearly won over pragmatism.

Implicit in both conversations was the sense that we are always returning, our current locations as homes in name only, dictated by the pragmatics of life rather than any overarching sense of love or attachment. Interestingly, even B – Scottish Husband notwithstanding – mooted the idea of returning to Nigeria in the (distant) future in an expatriate capacity to work for big oil.  Maybe for my children, without the hang ups of a past life, a past home and nuclear family in the motherland, the choice will be a lot more clear cut, but for me and my generation I suspect this battle between head and heart, between pragmatism and nostalgia is one we will have to get used to. In a sense, we are always returning.

Did We Do Any Learning – Savouring Memories

A few thoughts – with the benefit of a few months since losing H – on living and learning…

Life’s lessons are neither bleeding obvious nor palatable. All we possess for sure are the moments that we share with our friends and loved ones. The challenge is to enjoy and maximise the moments, not putting off the kind word, the lingering touch, or the act of kindness we know they deserve.

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