Stripping, (TV) Binges and Thinking About Thinking

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By some unexpected twist of fate, I found myself heading into Central London on the hottest day of the year, a fairly tropical 37 degrees Celsius, and that for the first time since last December. The destination was the Nigeria High Commission on Northumberland Avenue, the plan to get my expired Nigerian passport renewed. To get here I had had to jump through several tortuous loops, not helped by the fact that my trips down to England are scheduled months in advance with impromptu trips being aggressively minimised due to the costs. My takeaway from my dealings with the appointment’s system was that the (re)scheduling system could be significantly improved  – first, you sign up via a third party web service, pay the booking fees and then get randomly assigned a date, one you can only change to a more suitable one by emailing back and forth, no less than six in my case – which meant in addition to the heat I very much had my mind prepared for a terrible experience which could potentially take the whole day. It might have been my low expectations, but the experience was far less stressful than I expected, sans the slow pace at which things trundled along from picking a ticket to getting called for an initial review and then submitting my biometric details. If there was a silver lining, it was that the slow pace of things – and the very many other Nigerians there for similar purposes – increased the likelihood of running into people I had not seen in a long time; 20 plus years and two kids in one case. That the most unsettling thing from all of that was wondering what the scrawny lad I ended up sitting across from on the tube from Charing Cross to Waterloo was up – to whilst reading from 2nd Corinthians 1 in a huge bible – is a miracle of sorts (events at the High Commission didn’t leave me mentally drained as they have in the past) or perhaps only the symptom of my low expectations.

A lot of my free time over the past month has been spent catching up on TV which, admittedly, is hardly the stuff of living intentionally  Be that as it may, all that TV watching did manage to throw up something to relish. The movie was The Upside, a comedic look at the relationship between a wealthy quadriplegic (played by Bryan Cranston) and his ex-convict Life Assistant (played by Kevin Hart) with the sub-text of his relationship with his devoted assistant who it would appear hs feelings for him (played by Nicole Kidman). In one of the surprise birthday scenes, the opera assembled for a private performance began to sing a tune which I thought was very familiar. My first thought – borne out by events in the end – was that I had heard it on an episode of Rhiannon Giddens’ Aria Code. one of my favourite podcasts from earlier in the year. It was indeed, a portion of the Queen of The Night Aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. The downside was that it led me down a YouTube rabbit hole which swallowed up the rest of that Saturday.

The one book I managed to finish in July, Alan Jacobs’ How To Think, is increasingly beginning to seem like an inspired choice not least for how often my Twitter timeline has tottered on the edge of a complete meltdown over the past few weeks. Existing online as I do at the intersection of being Nigerian (with all its spiritual, cultural and political baggage) and being an active seeker of intellectual complexity at times my Twitter feed has seemed like a frothing mess of controversial tweets and retweets, 140 character takes and counter takes and the occasional link to a think piece published so soon after the event it seeks to analyse that any claim to thoroughness could only be wishful at best. Many a time, I have started typing a furious response to a tweet only to catch myself mid tweet, sigh and walk away. I would like to think that the overriding driver behind my choice to not add to the noise has been noble but the longer I think about it, the more I see that most times it has been due to a fear of sorts – that the views I am about to share might get ripped to shreds by the collective wisdom of the frothing masses – or at other times fatigue from all the digesting and engagement I am having to do. A recurring thread in the book is how our perspectives, views and memberships colour our understanding of facts and (naturally?) drive us towards thinking in herds.  Social Media and its engagement algorithms drive us further into the depths of our herds, our Inner Rings (to borrow from CS Lewis) and our echo chambers. The final chapter ends with an offering of 12 ideas – a thinking person’s checklist – which are well worth a read. A few key ones for me not in as many words: Take 5 minutes, value learning over debating, eschew virtue signalling, gravitate towards communities that can handle disagreements with equanimity, assess your repugnances and be brave, one I can certainly use more of I suspect.

Dingin Doon

Photo by Thanun Buranapong on Unsplash

***
Bar a few days here and there it has been, as we say out here, dingin doon; read wet, cold and windy, emphasis on the wet part. That is is mid-June adds to the slight sense of gloominess that comes with it, a mood which I see replicated in the faces of the people I run into about town, in my view at least. All of that has left me with quite a lot more time on my hands than usual, which for better or for worse has ended up exploring various reddit rabbit holes,  chief of which have been the Thinkpad, ChromeOS and SurfaceLinux ones. They have provided the welcome of distraction of providing the inspiration for me trying to replace Windows on my old Thinkpad Tablet 10 with either Linux or ChromeOS. Both have been qualified fails – a debloated version of windows currently serves me passably on the device -but the ultimate goal would be to replace it with something zipper and functional, à la this attempt. I suspect the search will continue, albeit at a hopefully less time intensive pace.  In between all of this, I managed to fit in some time out with the guys from work, a decent enough evening the only black mark against it being the aforementioned bucket loads of rain.

Recently read or heard

My Year in Reading 2018

It is that time of the year when others – more (or better) read than I – share the highlights of their reading from the year. As with last year, I’ve commissioned myself -unbidden, besides perhaps a desire to record the key themes that drove and/or came out of my reading – to weigh in with the highlights of my own reading.So here goes.

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Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury was all the rage on the airwaves at the turn of the year, which is how I ended up grabbing a copy for myself and digging in. As I plodded through it, I found the mix of fly-on-the-wall behind the scenes reporting and qualified conjecture curiously engaging, drawn by the lurid details behind public events and happenings in what at the time had been a Trump presidency that seemingly lurched from one PR disaster to the other. A few themes ran through Fire and Fury – the Trump team being surprised by the election win and thus poorly prepared to lead, the hold of Stephen Bannon and the alt-Right and infighting amongst various factions of the administration. Despite strenuous denials at the time, the events of the year – multiple firings, leaks, indictments, evidence of Russian activities and prison sentences – would seem to give credence to the viewpoint of the book, more so as the year draws to an end.

After that maelstrom, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead seemed the perfect riposte given its subject which was life across (regular) America. Of the essays included, Upon This Rock resonated strongly, bringing back back memories of growing up within the Christian Youth subculture and bingeing on the music of its stars such as Relient K, DC Talk, Audi Adrenaline and Petra. Elsewhere in the collection of essays, there was reflection on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Darwin before Darwin (Constantine Samuel Rafinesque) and one of the more nuanced assessments of Michael Jackson – warts and all – I have read. This Christian subculture, amongst other things, also featured in Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, his description of growing up in South Africa including a reflection on the centrality of church in all its various guises. Other themes of interest touched on included the dysfunctional malehood of his step father, school and navigating the evolving racial landscape, all themes which have shaped is journey and his perspectives as he hosts The Daily Show.

Since reading Colm Tóibín’s 2014 essay, The Literature of Grief, at a time I was wrestling with my own grief and loss, each year I have returned to something related – sometimes tangentially – to his work. Last year was finally watching the movie Brooklyn, this year it was reading The Testament of Mary, a somewhat contrarian retelling of the latter part of Mary’s life as she jostles with the gospel writers who try to recast Jesus as the son of God, remarkably relevant to this age of fake news I suspect.

For new and emerging technology I read Soonish, a fly-by-the-seat-of-the pants look at upcoming technology with a focus on potentially transformative technology and the issues which need to be resolved to bring them to fruition. Quantum computing, rockets, scramjets, asteroid mining, fusion power and origami rooms all showed their heads in this wide ranging book. Jim Al-Kalili’s Quantum: A Guide For The Perplexed, was a fascinating review of the older scientific underpinnings of technology. His BBC podcast, The Life Scientific is one I have enjoyed over the years, and still do.

I found Austin Kleon from a retweet by Alan Jacobs, which led to my signing up to his weekly newsletter and reading his book, Steal Like an Artist. From the newsletter, I found Merlin Coverley’s The Art of Wandering, a reflection on the writer as a walker both in history and in modern times. It, the writer and/or his/her protagonist as a walker and observer, is a theme I have found myself drawn to over the years, influenced primarily by the works of the likes of WG Sebald and Teju Cole.

The two biographies I read this year; Jonathan Eig’s Ali: A Life and David Leeming’s James Baldwin, A Biography offered two perspectives on race relations in 1960/70’s America. Where Ali’s basis for fame was his brute strength -some would say his essential skill was the finesse with which he boxed- Baldwin’s was largely intellectual. The common thread in both their lives was dealing with the weight of their fame, and the expectation from all sides of the race debate – the establishment, white liberal America and the various Black empowerment factions to carry the flag for their various causes.Both biographies were deeply personal, making a strong effort to show the persons behind the huge reputations, full marks were achieved by both books in my opinion.

As a/an (armchair) Liverpool FC fan, John Barnes comes to mind as the most successful black footballer to have worn the Liverbird with distinction, it was fascinating to read of a black footballer from another time, Howard Gayle, who had the distinction of being the first black player to be part of the first team at Liverpool FC. He tells his story in 61 Minutes in Munich, which in addition to sharing his experience of coming on as a substitute against Bayern Munich in the 1981 European Cup final (the precursor to the UEFA Champions League) also delved into Liverpool – the city’s – slave trading legacy and the racism black footballers of that era had to deal with. Incredibly, in a year in which France won the World Cup, and a fairly diverse England team reached the Semi’s, racism in football is back on the front pages.

The Best American Essays collection has become a staple of my year. 2017’s version, edited by Leslie Jamison featured a number of noteworthy reads for me, Rachel Ghansah’s The Weight of Baldwin being one of the triggers for reading the fuller Baldwin biography this year. Jason Arment’s Two Shallow Graves, Emily Maloney’s The Cost of Living and Rachel Kushner’s We Are Orphans here were others I found noteworthy/ deeply personal for a various reasons.

The fate of book stores and libraries is a subject persons invested in them have strong opinions on, which was how I stumbled on to The Library Book, a collection of essays on the subject of libraries from famous names including amongst others Seth Godin, Stephen Fry and Zadie Smith.

In other reading, I finally managed to read Dinaw Mengestu’s highly praised The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Gabrielle Union’s We’re Going to Need More Wine (a much lighter read) and Skye Jethani’s What’s Wrong With Religion, another one I picked up from listening to his (and Phil Vischer’s) podcast.

3 Day Quote Challenge – 2

Image Source

Not all who wander are lost

For the second day of the challenge for which Mrs T nominated me, this J. R. R. Tolkien quote comes to mind. A line in a poem in the first volume of Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings,  it refers to the Rangers who although often considered vagabonds are actually protectors and bulwarks against evil in Middle Earth.

For me it speaks of hope, a reminder that despite times and seasons in which life conspires to rock my faith and unresolved questions bubble to the surface, I am not lost. Just wondering, pondering and finding my way home in the end.

The Year in Reading 2017

After many years of having thoroughly enjoyed the annual parade of opinions of books over at The Millions, I decided to have a go myself this year. Far from being a celebration of a year in which I read deeply and widely, it is a light reflection on all the things I managed to read this year. Enjoy!

Of the myriad of things I most deeply wanted to achieve this year, two loomed large in the personal development domain; to read more and write more, which was why I entered the year clutching my copy of Patty Dann‘s The Butterfly Hours close to my chest. In my head, writing more  – and by extension, better – required tools for tuning my craft, which was why this book, with its promise of personal memoir married to prompts, seemed the perfect fit. It helped that all nineteen reviews on Amazon were 5*. I did enjoy the book, albeit more an an example of easy reading memoir than a collection of prompts. I suspect that had a lot more to do with me than the book.  If it is any consolation, I returned to it several times over the course of the year, it along with Dinty Moore‘s Crafting The Personal Essay being fine examples of the sort of creative non-fiction I would like to churn out.

Next up was Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, which I finally finished at this third time of asking. On my two previous attempts, I had found myself bogged down in the tedious beginning, but ploughing through this time brought me to the delights of the end. What I never quite managed to suss out was just how autobiographical the novel was, given that like the Sais Taiye has dual Nigerian and Ghanian roots and is also a twin. So thoroughly did I enjoy this that I went hunting for her seminal essay from 2005, Bye Bye Babar. Well worth the read, if I say so myself.

The grudging, reluctant engagement with books which dogged my interactions with both books was something I found recurred over the course of the year. The list of unfinished books is extensive with Andrea Lucado’s English Lessons and Adam Gopnik’s At The Strangers’ Gate  being the more notable.  The books I did finish fell mainly into four main categories; ones I read as guides for my #100DaysOfCreating project (Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines and Robert Smartwood’s Hint Fiction), annual anthologies which have become regular fixtures on my reading list (such as the Jonathan Franzen edited 2016 edition of The Best American Essays), personal essay collections (such as David SedarisLet’s Explore Diabetes with Owls and Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things) and books inspired by media I consumed during the course of the year (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes a useful counterpoint to binge watching all five seasons of Elementary, and Walk On – Steve Stockman’s attempt at providing insights into the faith that underpins U2’s oeuvre).

I had a late spurt of three books to thank for reaching fifteen books this year. All three were really good reads:  Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson’s We Have No Idea (a reminder that for all we know about quarks, leptons, and the material universe, the vast majority of what is around us is unknown), Dame Elizabeth Anionwu’s Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union (a deeply personal story of growing up mixed race in the United Kingdom of the 50’s and 60’s and eventually connecting with her Nigerian heritage) and Diego Torres‘s The Special One: The Secret World of Jose Mourinho (a no-holds barred look at the behind the scenes behaviour of Mourinho, particularly his Real Madrid sojourn and how super agent Jorge Mendes towered over his transfer dealings).

All told reading more widely  – and more consistently – has to be one of the objectives for the new year. Braced for the challenge.

Nine Fridays of Summer: Of Heat Waves, Vienna and A Perfect Month of Sorts

02_Travel

In what can only be incontrovertible evidence of Sod’s law, the air-conditioning at work chooses the worst week possible to break down in; a week of unseasonably warm August weather. Loads of meetings to attend, lunch time walks and endless cups of water help ensure that I don’t end up too listless; not that broken air-conditioning ranks high on the list of life threatening things humans have to deal with, or should be an excuse for reduced productivity.

Thankfully, that First World ordeal is mitigated by the fact that it is a 3.5 day work week for me; a half day tacked on to this week’s summer Friday meaning that by lunch time Thursday I am putting finishing touches to all the things I have been chased on during the week in preparation for heading out into the sunshine. What follows shortly is a brisk walk back home to grab my bag and then a quick dash to the airport for my flight to London. Not until I am settled into my seat, flying away to London, does the tiredness hit me, the low similar to what I imagine users of psychoactive substances must feel after the effects wear out.

London, I find, is not much better- heat wise at least; the hour and thirty minutes I spend to get to my hotel on the DLR and then the Underground the perfect illustration of all that is bad about heat waves – people in varying stages of undress, a heightened sense of smell and the feeling of being tightly packed.  When I think my ordeal has ended, I find I have somehow mixed Hounslow Central up with Heathrow Central, which adds another forty five minutes to my commute from airport to hotel. The front desk manager at the hotel does a magnificent job of defusing my frustrations, her wry smile when she announces I have not being the first to make that same mistake on the day notwithstanding. Food, sleep and a quick phone call are all I manage before sleep sucks me in.

The next morning passes in a blur, the highlights being making the airport shuttle bus with seconds to spare, whizzing through security and ending up on the flight to Vienna with only a few minutes to spare, very much by the skin of my teeth.

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01_Run

This has been as close to a perfect month as I have had all year. Thanks to continued pressure focused attention from the friends who keep me accountable, I managed to run three times each week this month, pushing the envelope each Sunday until by the last Sunday I was up to 5 km. Besides now being able to (barely) fit into my size 34 jeans which I was on the verge of giving away, the beautiful sunrises I catch each morning that I run make it all worthwhile.

The  intent is to keep these  runs going, slowly making up the distances until I am at 5 km for each run. 10 km three times a week has been mooted by said friends as a target for year end, I think that is more a next not-quite-a-milestone-birthday target though. Fingers crossed. The most important thing is to keep walking running I guess.

In books and reading, I finally managed to finish Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before as well as starting off on Faithfully Feminist, an anthology of essays on being feminist whilst maintaining spiritual practice within the context of the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I am only four essays in, but I suspect there will be a lot to both agree with and disagree with for me. The upside I guess is that I am reading, again.

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00_Vienna

As I write this, I am looking out from my hotel window onto the sun bathed train station across the road and an old church a name for which a search on google and google maps failed to turn up. In a round about way, this is the culmination of four years of pondering; Vienna as a destination first being mentioned to me by an Opera-loving, Birmingham-bred English man who I happened to share office space with offshore for two weeks in 2012.

It is still too early to form any strong opinions but I am already beginning to get a vague understanding for why Vienna is considered one of the more liveable cities out there. The rest of today is to rest and fine-tune my plans for the weekend.

After today, there is only one more Summer Friday left. Oh bummer!

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Currently listening to the Gil Joe single – Mayo