By Degrees: Lessons from My Decade of Being Thirty Something

The year I turned thirty, I was a student battling to put finishing touches to my master’s degree dissertation and pondering what the future had in store for me. That the success or failure of that year, and the year before that, came down to that singular task was the result of an unanticipated turn of events which turned what was a leave of absence to return to full-time study into having to leave my Nigerian job. Grad school, my response to the year before that, had made sense in my head largely because it seemed a low risk, given there was a reasonably high likelihood of returning. I, as it would turn out was ultimately mistaken.

For the first few months after, I was certain I would be up and running in no time – there was still the path to a post-study visa and I was certain my previous experience of pretending to know about rust at an oil major would be more than enough to get my foot in the door at any number of similar companies. A conversation with my Uncle C during this period comes to mind in which, talking post-study plans, I quoted a salary expectation which in hindsight was wildly optimistic. Months later, with comparatively few responses to the various applications I had sent out, and my expectations a lot more realistic as a result, bitterly cold mornings at train stations waiting for connections between Newcastle and the ‘Deen were the sum of my life, broken only by the pleasures of BBM chats with O and F that helped the time pass. Thankfully, things would eventually improve, culminating in a successful interview in the middle of winter and a relocation to the ‘Deen in time to return to full-time work by the first week of January of the next year.

Ten years down the road, it feels – at first glance – that I am in the same space again; wrestling with a desire for more seething beneath the surface and wondering what the big gains of the last ten years have been.The longer I look though, the clearer it becomes to me that the sense of being stuck and stale is the glass half empty version of events. The glass half full version is that there have been lessons learned and victories won over the past ten years. For one, now and again I stumble into conversations with the workmates I left behind back in ’09. These conversations typically segue into catching up on who has left the company (or been pushed out) or which high-flier has earned a move to Houston. Whilst on the level of financial gain and success I have most definitely been left behind by them, the one silver lining tends to be that I have had grown into more positions of authority and influence than they have. I won’t presume to imagine I have done as well as I could have but was is undeniable is that I have grown from the ultra reserved, tentative person that I was then into a more confident person thanks to the various work situations I have been thrown in. That is one of the lessons I have learned from the past ten years – only by letting go and stretching can one grow. It helps if the letting go is by choice of course.

My default setting, no thanks I suspect to growing up a Nigerian PK, is an intensely private one, the general sense whilst growing up that what happened in the house should be kept in the house; keeping up appearances and what not. Allied to that has been a strong sense of independence – if striving to do things by myself for myself counts as independence. Several times over the past ten years, people have come through for me and surprised me. A., who several times has insisted I spend my Lagos nights at his rather than in a hotel even on one occasion he was out of town, O who dropped everything to offer support when H passed and others too many to enumerate have been high points, underscoring for me a lesson that has been difficult to learn, it is OK to lean on people. I can only hope that I can be as a good a friend to others as these and more have been to me.

In the aftermath of H’s passing, and several times over the intervening years, it has felt like grief has acquired a life of its own festering deep within. There have also been several seasons of heartbreak occasioned by unrequited love amongst other things. My memories of the immediate aftermath of these events – thankfully now dim and distant – are of being brought low and unable to properly function. Time though has worked its magic and in the main whilst the memories still linger, the pain and hurt from them have faded into acceptance. That is something I try to remind myself of in the aftermath of disappointment, time usually brings healing in its wings.

My Myers-Briggs type is INTJ – if unlike Adam Grant you don’t think it’s hogwash – which perhaps explains my occasional bouts with analysis paralysis. Seemingly big decisions have often left me crippled with indecision from weighing all the pros and cons to minute levels of detail. A few come to mind from the past ten years – the Azerbaijan question, my Bachelor’s Conundrum to list a few – but with benefit of hindsight, in most of the instances, the individual decision would have made little difference in the end; sometimes the process of deciding is more important than the decision itself.

For all the high points from work there have been low spots too; not least the sense I have had more recently of being left behind. I suppose spending 8 years in the same building will do that to you, particularly when it feels like remuneration hasn’t been the greatest. A reticence to toot my own horn at times has contributed to this I suspect, as has my work visa-related restrictions which were only fully lifted in January of 2017. What key inflection points in my career over the past ten years there are have occurred because I have taken the bull by the horns turning offers from elsewhere into significant upgrades or being very clear about what direction I want my career to go next. Learning to sell myself better is something I suspect I will continue to struggle with but struggle I will until I gain ascendancy.

Of all the faith-based monikers kicking about, I suspect charismatic – with all its trappings – would probably have best described me ten years ago. These days, I self classify as a recovering prodigal, my attempt to describe the evolution in my beliefs on the big issues such as faith, origins and the fate of humanity. Given what we know about the age of the earth, the likelihood of there being a single Adam and all, I have increasingly found it difficult to hold on to a young earth, literal interpretation of Genesis and by extension the doctrine of original sin. Dark matter and dark energy however suggest to me that there remains a huge gap in our understanding of the workings of the Universe, a gap which means that I can completely discount the spiritual dimension with any degree of intellectual honesty. It is perhaps a poorly articulated God of The Gaps argument, but in conjunction with the subjective evidence of the answers to prayers I still get (or the coincidences that occur when I pray), I have to say I still believe, however tenuous that might yet be.

As I write this now with the emotions of the big day now long past – and all the cake and doughnuts well and truly digested – it very much feels like a time in which to draw a line in the sand and begin again, something I suspect I have been too eager to do many times in the past. Much as it was back in ’09, the question of how the next ten years will shape up is front and centre in my mind. What is incontrovertible though is that time marches on, and whether by action or inaction, every passing second is a step in a sequence of movements that will result either in a masterpiece or a very well polished turd. That is the way of the world.

On Life, and A Song…

For the WordPress Discover Challenge Prompt: Song

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as-for-my-house_

1995 was an interesting time to be young and Christian. DC Talk, The Newsboys and Audio Adrenaline were at various stages in their evolution from being the niche interest of church youth groups to becoming recognisable by mainstream music lovers. Seemingly out of the blue, Christian Contemporary Music was on its way to acquiring a sort of coolness that the work of the likes of Larry Norman and Rich Mullins had deserved but somehow never achieved.  In my corner of the world, Hosanna Music‘s body of work was the rave, a slew of live worship albums including a couple recorded in post apartheid South Africa (Tom Inglis’ We Are One and Lionel Petersen’s Rejoice Africa) building on a collection that included several offerings from the likes of of Ron Kenoly, Don Moen, Bob Fitts and Randy Rothwell.

At the time we lived in a little, four bed house on the corner of 3rd and 12th streets, one of a number of identikit pre-fabricated buildings in what passed for the University Senior Staff Quarters at the time. These, meant as temporary housing at the time the University was founded, had taken on an unplanned permanence, dried up funds meaning that the grand plans for a permanent site across town for both University and staff housing were scaled down significantly.

On a personal level it was a time of great change, one that would see me take the School Leaving Certificate Exam a year early and pack in my secondary school education. That meant that as the year wrapped up I found myself with loads of time on my hands, some free cash and little to prevent me from walking into town from time to time to browse the shelves at any number of music shops in the city centre. Crucially, I was at an age where my on-off friendship with Di began to take on an element of seriousness, at least in my mind.

DC Talk and the Newsboys notwithstanding, it turns out that the defining song from that era for me is a lesser known song, One Love, from the Rick and Cathy Riso album As For My House. My memories – and I recognise that memory can be a fickle thing  – are of playing the song over and over on my Walkman until sleep took me away. I was sure at the time – and I told anyone who cared to listen – that like Rick and Cathy I would sing my wedding vows to whoever had the fortune (or misfortune some would say) of agreeing to marry me.

Years later, with the prospect of actually marrying someone a lot realer than it was back in those days, the song remains a favourite of mine, albeit one that serves as a reminder of The-One-Who-Got-Away. As for singing my wedding vows, common sense – and the biology of a cracked voice – suggest that that is now a non-starter.

On Life, and a Song

The end of the day
Remember the days
When we were close to the edge
And we’ll wonder
How we made it through the night
The end of the day
Remember the way
We stayed so close till the end
We’ll remember it was me and you

I have been listening a lot to the Lighthouse Family again, not for any particular reason beyond the fact that scrolling through my music collection a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled on ‘High’ their song from 1998 and got sucked down the proverbial rabbit hole that is YouTube. A few hours later, I was left with a slew of memories from two seasons of my life, and memory lanes I hadn’t been down in a while.

I first ‘met’ High in the days before I went away to University, when mindless TV was anathema, and TV watching – if huddled around our old Black & White National Panasonic TV with my parents and siblings could be termed ‘watching’ – was restricted to the news; Sunday evenings and Frank Olize’s Newsline being the most memorable of those times. Two adverts from that season of life seem engrained in my memory – the St Moritz one with High as the sound track and that seminal Joy soap one where blokes spilled papers from their briefcases, tripped themselves up and swooned under the influence of the inner beauty unleashed by that soap (didn’t work for me by the way, thanks false advertising!).

Given my restricted TV time, my contact with High was limited to the snippets I picked up from that commercial. It would be a few years later, that I would ‘meet’ the rest of the song. One infernal Benin afternoon, whilst hitching a ride from the University gate to our Faculty in a friend’s beat up Corolla and sandwiched between four other people in the back seat, High came up on his cassette player. My initial reaction was one of disbelief then elation, as though I’d just met a long lost relative. I ended up borrowing the tape that evening, and after I had held on to it for over a month, my friend offered to ‘dub’ a copy for me – that was the only way he was going to get the tape off me in a usable state. Something about the lyrics of the song succinctly captured the season of life I was in – Engineering Maths, over crowded drawing rooms and lecture theatres and the Thursday bête noire that was Engineering Drawing sure felt like a dark December I needed rescuing from.

Much later I would learn about the duo and their Newcastle connections and then go on to ingest all their material I could lay hands on – even Tunde Baiyewu‘s solo material after the split from Paul Tucker. The key ingredients which got me hooked on to their music remain things which I look out for – easy listening, engaging lyrics and the silky smooth vocals. I suspect they’re one of the duos I’d think seriously about buying tickets to go see live, if they ever got back together or went on tour.

Someday, it’ll all be over…

That’s a sentiment I could use remembering in my current season of life…

 

On Loving, and (Not) Marrying…

I-DO-Marriage-Series

[Source]

When I was seventeen, I was sure that I would be married by the time I turned twenty-seven. I knew the date, Saturday the 7th of July 2007, who she would be and the song we would say our vows to. That year was my first away from home at University in a different city, one in which I cut my teeth creating a budget, spending money as I chose and defending my results to my father at the end of each month – all very responsible and grown up – or at least so I thought. There was no real science – or thought for that matter – to the timing, merely a wild stab in the dark. Ten years seemed far enough into the future to feel like forever, and my big Uncle F who seemed to embody adulthood perfectly turned twenty seven that year, or maybe thirty. Reality, I would later find out, was far more intention and hard slog than hit, hope and wishful thinking.

***

Thursday nights at Union Square, with the milling masses of people camped out at the various eating places and shops, are perhaps the clearest confirmation of what I learned as a seventeen year old, that we as a species are wired for love and loving. If you believe the 2013 predictions, Britons splurged nearly £1bn for Valentine’s Day, with the average spend just under £120. Across the world, Japanese, Thais, Indonesians and Taiwanese splurged a tad more, the equivalent of £173 on average. A 2015 survey in America by the National Retail Federation, projected a total spend in excess of $18.9bn (£12.2bn). Valentine’s Day therefore does continue to capture the imagination as The Day to be romantic, one on which we indulge ourselves and our love interests.

That we are now busier, and more stressed out, than at any other time in the history of our species seems to have done little to dampen our enthusiasm for love. We have in the main co-opted technology to our cause. By almost every measure (size, revenue, number of service providers at least), online dating is big business – £2bn and growing; the most astonishing statistic perhaps being that one in five relationships now starts online. Social media perhaps also has had a part to play; conflating time and space into a continuum in which separation is defined by a few mouse clicks or bursts of data from any one of a plethora of messaging apps bobbing around the ether via our ubiquitous wingmen, our cell phones and tablets, rather than by physical distance .

In spite of all the love and loving we seem to gravitate towards, marriage as an institution appears to be in decline. We as a species are waiting longer to marry, and when we do, there are fewer marriages, and more divorces, across Europe. Across the pond in America, the situation is as dire, the headline number being a thirty per cent reduction in the marriage rate per 1000 between 1990 and 2011.  Clearly, between hooking up and marrying there lies some sort of bottleneck, a rate limiter that constrains conversion from romantic connections into marriage.

***

One possible explanation for this apparent disconnect is, at least in the West, that marriage, or more specifically living together, can carry an economic penalty. The rise of the welfare state, and its ever increasing generosity, means that at least in some scenarios, it makes more economic sense to preserve separateness in the eyes of the law, as opposed to tying up and losing benefits in the process. This factor perhaps impacts more strongly on persons more likely to need welfare due to lower earnings but it is an effect reproduced in the US also, as identified by research conducted by Heritage..

Beyond the economic disincentive, there are also a number of perception issues within the wider culture. One of such is that marriage is inherently limiting, succinctly captured by The Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz in the The Vartabedian Conundrum Episode:

 “There’s a whole buffet of women out there, and you’re just standing in the corner, eating the same deviled egg over and over again”. 

Another perception problem might be that marrying is increasingly being seen as an addendum to life, something to be progressed only after several other more critical things have been checked off. True, marrying for the heck of it, without proper preparation or thought as to how to deal with the responsibilities that come in its wake, is somewhere between foolhardy and irresponsible, but the delay trap can sometimes be self perpetuating for no real benefit. Delaying marriage to focus on getting an education, work and other critical life skills for successful adult life does correlate with lower divorce rates as research in the US by the National Marriage Project concludes. There are costs associated with this though, particularly to do with enjoying the freedoms of the single life a little too much at times. The same report concludes:

Twenty somethings who are unmarried, especially singles, are significantly more likely to drink to excess, to be depressed, and to report lower levels of satisfaction with their lives, compared to married twenty somethings” 

A third societal influence is perhaps the rise of the personality cult when it manifests itself in an overly explicit focus on looking out for oneself only. Only the best will suffice, the narrative suggests,  as such the guy or girl next door can only ever be a barely passable 5.5 whilst we are rip roaring 10s on the desirability scale. Whatever glamorous attractions they had disappear forever once you’ve heard them fart five times in a row after far too much cheese or seen them wake up looking like ‘crap’. 

Increasingly relaxed societal norms around cohabiting also contribute, I suspect. With relational needs – often sex, but also the emotional support and commitment an intimate relationship provides – no longer limited to the context of marriage, there is also less of an incentive to ‘buy the cow’ in a sense, seeing as the milk is often available for free. 

***

I would be hard pressed to describe what my seventeen year old self felt as love. There was a certain element of excitement, and perhaps delirious joy, associated with what I felt, or thought I felt, but the cold hard evidence suggests that that in itself is never sufficient. Paul’s seminal chapter on love paints a picture that majors on the focus, work and intentionality that sharing life in the real world requires rather than the warm fuzzy feelings we as a species associate with love and loving.  What cannot be in serious dispute on the other hand though is that a sense of duty alone, without the buzz and excitement, seems like a consignment to purgatory at best, or a living hell at worst. Where the balance is is a question I am still unable to answer. Eight years and counting after my Big Virtual Wedding which was not, it is clear that I am still none the wiser, having cycled through a few of these phases myself. Perhaps the chaps at Wait But Why put it most succinctly:

Marriage isn’t the honeymoon in Thailand—it’s day four of vacation #56 that you take together. Marriage is not celebrating the closing of the deal on the first house—it’s having dinner in that house for the 4,386th time. And it’s certainly not Valentine’s Day. Marriage is Forgettable Wednesday. Together.

On Crime and Punishment

pankere_

[Source]

When my father would tan my hide – which was often in the years between turning twelve and escaping to University when I turned seventeen – he would send one of the many cousins who lived with us to fetch his preferred instrument, a lean, mean pankere, roll up his sleeves and matter-of-factly deliver a canning of epic proportions.  The speed with which the instrument materialised time and time again – in spite of my best efforts – had me convinced that my cousins took a certain perverse, gleeful joy in seeing my bum tanned. Any number of infractions could have been the trigger for one of those in those days – taking apart his treasured gramophone for the heck of it (and not being able to put it back together again a la Humpty Dumpty), sneaking off to ‘dessert’, the patch of red earth where endless games of football took place – and young men where introduced to cigarettes and girls if you believed my mother, and once resorting to my fists to settle an altercation with E, the sharp mouthed imp who seemed to delight in getting under my skin. Early on, the tears flowed in copious amounts, until I mastered the act of tensing my buttocks just enough to mitigate the pain, the odd faint moan escaping my gritted teeth the only concession I allowed myself. Custom and practice dictated that, upon completion, I would have to say thanks and then sit through a debriefing session where my failings would be analysed, and alternate behavioural practices highlighted. In retrospect, the canning – intense as it was – was never truly the worst outcome. Infinitely worse was being left to stew in silent contemplation, particularly where my failings had occurred outside the confines of the house on 39th; my sense of guilt being complicated by the uncertainty around how much, if any, my father knew of my misdemeanours.

Punishment as a consequence of crime or offending is primarily regulatory. By inflicting pain, discomfort or a penalty of some sort, punishment acts as a disincentive, conditioning the behaviour of the members of the collective towards what is ostensibly for their good, and more importantly, the greater good of the collective. In society, these limits of acceptable behaviour are codified in  rules, laws and regulations with the justice system providing the framework for deciding appropriate punishment.

In the home, the limits of acceptable behaviour are largely part of an unwritten social contract – parents have a duty of care to their offspring, and responsibility for passing on the body of knowledge of social mores, the elements of a worldview and core values which accrete over time into the culture that defines the specific religious, ethnic and social space within which the family operates. Offspring on their part implicitly trust what is being provided for them – at least at first – and agree to operate within the boundaries their parents set, however arbitrary these might seem. As the offspring age, and hopefully develop the mental capacity for interrogating their own spaces, they add to, delete from and modify the premises of the body of knowledge they have been handed, keeping it fluid, relevant and appropriate for being handed over to the generation they themselves will cater for.

Beyond the obvious regulatory objectives of punishment, there is a sense in which punishment is redemptive – that much I gleaned from the fall out in my heady teenage years. I suspect the redemption punishment brings is premised on two things – that the offender can come to terms with what they have done with a measure of contrition, and that the punishment exacted is somehow seen to be commensurate to the offence committed. In a sense, the offender has to be seen to have paid for the disruption before reintegration into the wider collective can take place – being able to contribute to the greater good of the collective is the upside to reintegration and rehabilitation.

In conversation over the weekend with a friend, the Ched Evans case came up. Following his release from prison after a rape conviction, his attempts to  get back into football have floundered, largely due to the public outcry, and the threat of the withdrawal of sponsorship from the various football clubs who have mooted the idea of re-signing him. I expressed the opinion during said conversation that punishment could be redemptive, and that in this case having been released from prison, he should be allowed to get on with his life, whatever shape or form that might take. I was quickly reminded – sternly I might add – of how the girl in question has had her own life overturned having to change her name and change location several times over the last five years after being outed on twitter. She is unlikely to ever be able to just get on with her life, which makes the premise of commensurate punishment somewhat difficult to achieve here.

Having said that – and I am not pretending that I even remotely understand the nuances of the case, and if he was/or was not innocent as he has maintained – surely the premise of punishment in the law is that having served his sentence, and being registered on the violent and sex offender register rehabilitation is in order? By no means am I suggesting that Ched Evans is the victim here; I am merely pondering how rehabilitation and reintegration square with his situation. It is a difficult conversation – particularly given his relative profile – and the fact that he maintains his innocence. I wonder though if any of the two or so people who still stop by these pages might deign to offer an opinion? Fire away if you do!!!

#148 – Homeward

For prompt 148 at the Magpie Tales, a repost.

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Andy Magee - homeward

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Though tears like a river course down like rain,
And your heart by cupid’s fiery barbs is rent.
Although your cracked voice breaks out in wails,
And hell with all its fury and fiends seem sent.
Be still, Stay strong, you’ll make it home.

Though fear like a cloak your mind enshrouds,
And rabid voices, your reasoning besiege.
Though Night descends, your dreams to hound,
And heart beats resonate to a symphony of rage.
Be still, Stay strong, you’ll make it home.

Tears will fall down, but they only last so long,
Fiery barbs in time, will lie as cold as ash.
Cracked voices soon will yield to flowing tongues,
And hell with all its fury will soon seem all too brash.
Your fears? They’ll fade away like the chimes of bells once rung,
The voices in your head will soon seem not so harsh.
The light will come, and night’s darkness leave unsung

With heart beats racing to a different dialogue,
You’ll finally see, you really made it home.

Girl Crush-ing… Hypothetically….

I think I have a crush.

…… And what is perhaps most disconcerting about the waxing and waning of this particular attraction is just how atypical its advent has been.  For one she is well and truly outside the +/- 2.5 year band that I once swore to live and die by… And perhaps most importantly, the sum of our interaction over the last one month, one week and six days has been fifteen emails, five phone calls and one handshake; hardly a compelling oeuvre for a bloke whose standard MO – bar the not exactly happily-ever-after spring misadventure from 2009 – has primarily been based on weighing pros and cons, extensive googling due diligence  and incremental engagement rather than a full on pursuit.

My friend Des seems to think there’s at least something to explore, but I suspect it might just be a case of cake cravings on her part (she’s called dibs already on providing the little bride)… Me the cynic thinks it’s more molehill than mountain and that lurking just beyond the edge of what little I know are revelations bound to kick this delirium into touch… Me the pragmatist agrees with Des, and thinks it would at least be useful practice, bringing me closer to the magic 12 number which supposedly is the ideal number of partners required to define our dating baseline.

Me the analytical, in the few quiet moments the cacophony in my head allows me, wonders if there’s some low risk, non-intrusive way of closing the knowledge gap and progressing the opportunity (which may or may not be there)… Or if a wild plunge isn’t the way to go here…… After all someone once said doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result was insanity….

Or not….

Certainly Uncertain….

A few days ago, mid way through a telephone conversation with one of the lads I used to work with in my UX5 days, the delectable lass who joined a few months before I was due to leave overheard our conversation and asked to speak with me.

Even back then, in those early days of 2008, I was the bloke with a 5 year rolling plan complete with milestones, leading and lagging indicators and a roadmap. Her question had an air of inevitability to it; it had to do with the current iteration of the plan. Sadly, I could not give her the reassurances she was seeking – namely that the plan was still on track, and that an invite – amongst other things – would be winging it’s way to her Nigerian post box in the not too distant future.

The one thing I could not have factored into those – admittedly bullish plans – was the uncertainty around a few of the critical outcomes on which the plan flew or sank. I couldn’t have known that what looked like a door temptingly left ajar was in fact a door on its way to slamming shut with my finger stuck between it and the door frame; or that what felt like nirvana two years later would spontaneously combust over one big thing.  The uncertainties have not somehow dissolved into thin air with time. Au contraire, they in all probability have somehow become greater. More important because the outcomes are now more critical than before, and also because the interdependencies are even more convoluted.

In an ideal world, I suppose one would be able to tell with a reasonable amount of certainty what certain outcomes would be, without having to resort to Bayesian techniques, or applying the relational equivalent of hit and hope. Or maybe,  like my mother insists, I am simply over thinking it – micromanaging my outcomes so much that I end up not doing anything or losing the sense of adventure and unpredictability that not having all those backup plans brings.

Or maybe not…..

A Question of Happiness

Between bites of peri-peri chicken and sips of Coke Zero, my friend Des asked me if I was happy. She – amongst all my long term friends – complains the least about my propensity to wall them off from the reality that is in my head, but from time to time she insists we meet to ‘catch up’. These meetings haven’t happened a lot recently – thanks to her juggling a return to full time employment with an energetic three year old, and travelling. Skipping merrily through town,  as she is wont to these days, she asked if I was up for a bite and a drink, which I accepted. We ordered the usual – a platter to share, bottomless drinks and sides of rice and settled in to talk about the minutiae of life, and all the quotidian pleasures we have enjoyed in the year so far. Then – out of the blue – she asked if I was happy. I suspect I managed to side track her question by rolling out my usual spiel about life being what it was – normal and mundane without anything out of the ordinary.

Mulling over that conversation again, I realised that on this one occasion, I had probably been as truthful as I possibly could. Most of the time life has either dealt me hands that have made me deliriously happy, or left me bogged down in the deep, dark depths of despair.

For the first time in a long time, though I know I am not deliriously happy there is a measure of contentment at how much progress has been made. Given the way the year’s panned out, I reckon that is enough to be thankful for…