2020: Delve Deeper

One of the biggest disappointments of 2019 for me was interviewing at a company across town and failing to land a job there. It was a company I had admired for some time, the role itself was to be the team leader for a small group of technical specialists overseeing a North sea portfolio and the pay was better; an added incentive. The interview itself started off well I thought but somewhere around three-quarters of the way through, it delved into territory I wasn’t overly familiar with. Part of it was a failure of preparation; I hadn’t taken the time to get intimately familiar with the company’s portfolio and thus prepare for any potential curveballs. The more I mulled over the disappointment, and let time do its thing, the clearer it became to me that this had ultimately been a failure of depth. I knew enough about my subject, had built a reputation in my locality and knew enough about the company to give the perception of competence and suitability on the surface. It was when the screws were turned and the veneer was stripped back, that a lack of depth – somewhat dodgy foundations if you like – proved my undoing.

In the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, Jesus tells a story of two folks who build houses, one on the sands and the other on rock. When the winds, rains and storms come, the house on the sand – without depth – falls flat whilst the one on the rock survives. The parable’s primary purpose is to exhort listeners to hear and do the words of Christ. There is however a wider principle at play here I believe, everything worth its salt will be tested, the only ones which survive are those which have depth and are inherently resilient. It is an idea not too dissimilar to ones raised by Nassim Taleb in Skin In The Game when it comes to assessing the credibility of others.

All of the above is why my focus for 2020 is Delve Deeper. To delve is to reach inside hidden spaces and search for and extricate something. Implicit in this is the expending of energy, which has opportunity costs. For this to not be an exercise in futility therefore, these hidden spaces have to contain something of value which is the focus of the search. For 2020 the search will be for deep knowledge in the various domains across which my life intersects. The wider objective is not knowledge for knowledge sake, it is using that knowledge to build systems and routines that can stand the tests and ravages of time and life and can deliver lasting value in my various interactions. It is not a focus I expect to be fully developed and understood in 2020 alone but one that might just guide me through the 2020s (coincidentally my forties).

For all its warts, 2019 wasn’t the worst of years, not least because the biggest disappointment of 2019 is mitigated by a work opportunity at the end of Q1 this year to look forward to. That said, being intentional and tracking a host of data points over the course of the year helped identify a number of life domains which are good areas to kick off this process of delving deeper with. 2019 was the year I finally managed to put words to the feeling of spiritual malaise I have wrestled with over the past few years, spiritual homelessness. My finances are another area where I need to build a level of robustness in. Several big projects over the last decade, and a few failed (Nigerian) investments, meant I haven’t derived as much value as I could from my earnings over the past year. That is something that needs to change, particularly given I am now ten years closer to retiring. The third domain I believe needs focus in the near term is my relationships. Most of the past decade was spent insulating myself from people, focusing on myself sometimes to the detriment of real-world relationships and friendships. In continuance of one of my themes from last year, engaging the friends and people in my life better is something that needs focus this year.

How does this translate into real-world action? Three main behaviours to change/implement:

  • Question my answers: My existing outcomes in the domains I have identified for focus are the result of years of learning (both positive and negative) and ingrained habits. Real change can only begin by identifying what those underlying answers are, questioning them and then looking to arrive at better answers, iteratively. I started a Codex Vitae, a book of life, inspired by Buster Benson. This is something I hope to return to again and keep updated over the course of the year.
  • Build Systems: Two of the books which influenced me the most in 2019 (James Clear’s Atomic Habits and Drew Dyck’s Your Future Self Will Thank You) highlighted the criticality of systems (things broken down into repeatable, routine activities) for effecting change. As knowledge from digging deeper comes to the fore, the focus would be to break down any required actions into daily routines to ensure they get properly embedded into my life going forward.
  • Implement a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle: One of the changes implemented in 2019 was to build a dashboard which tracked my performance against a few key metrics in each life domain. Its usefulness became abundantly clearer as I pulled my year-end review together. I plan to implement this fully in 2020, incorporating a weekly review process into the system to ensure learnings and opportunities to tweak things are picked up as early as I can.

To a Year of Delving Deeper then! Happy New Year friends and readers.

The Year of Living Intentionally – Revisited

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2019 was my Year of Living Intentionally; the central idea being to stop living life on the huff but instead to define a plan and live by it. Five key themes came out from that period of reflection; Learn, Prepare, Engage, Diversify and Measure, with fifteen discrete actions identified across those themes. The screenshot above is of the dashboard that tracked the key metrics from the year. All told, a few great ones, several meh ones and a few epic fails. Data apart, I think the big benefit from this for the year is the visibility of my performance. I now need to build a practice of regular assessments and reviews to enable the Act-Check portion of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.

Those fifteen things? Here’s a more detailed assessment of where I ended up.

  1. Complete my Dataquest Data Scientist path whilst studying for 5 hours a week. [Miss, started but not completed, need to decide how Data Science and ML intersect with my current and future life paths and update my Materials & Corrosion Roadmap to suit]
  2. Spend 5 hours per week studying Materials, Corrosion, Inspection and Welding related topics [Hit, Progressed in Q3, culminating in getting a Welding related certification]
  3. Identify and complete a creative non-fiction writing course [Miss – not progressed, have however registered for one commencing in February 2020]
  4. Developing a daily practice of prayer and bible study [Hit. A few ups and downs but generally managed in the end. 263 completions for the year!]
  5. Save at least 10% of net monthly earnings [Hit, although several unplanned for projects meant this was used up by the end of the year]
  6. Reduce weight to 80 kg [Epic fail, ended the year at 96kg]
  7. Run 3x a week (>20km overall) [Meh, great in the summer, terrible in the winter months]
  8. Improve average sleep to >6.5 hours per day [Hit, improved overall sleep particularly in Q3 & Q4, thanks to restricting coffee to a maximum of 1 cup per day]
  9. Relocate to the Greater London Area. [Miss, not for lack of effort though. I did learn this year that desires sometimes require real-world opportunity which can be outside our control]
  10. Read 25 books, covering Creative Non-Fiction, Fiction, Popular science, The Church Fathers/ Church History, Personal Development [Neither Hit nor Miss, ended up having read 15 books which was an increase from last year but below target. I learned in Q3 that scheduling an hour each day was the key to getting to read more.]
  11. Speak to my father weekly [Hit, managed to speak to my father every week this year which is a first for me as far as I can remember. Next focus is to attempt to turn that into deeper, more meaningful conversations]
  12. Speak to my siblings monthly (one each week), in-laws once a quarter [More hit than miss, a WhatsApp group helped as did scheduling monthly follows up as required]
  13. Write to my sponsored (Compassion) children at least once a quarter also[Meh, managed two letters, although I did add a second compassion kid in Q1.]
  14. Meet up with one close friend each month [Hit. U Square’s Handmade Burger Co store became my go-to place this year with meet-ups with A, O and I being highlights from a conscious decision to engage the people in my life better this year]
  15. Earn >£1,000 from a side gig by year-end [Miss, didn’t progress this actively over the course of the year although I did get a tax refund for just under £500 for my charitable giving over the course of the year]

The Year in Reading 2019

It’s that time of the year again where I reflect on my reading over the course of the year. It wasn’t the most productive year of reading proper books (the web has cannibalised that for good for me I’m afraid) but a late spurt in November and December brought some redemption. For a more wide-ranging review of the year in books, check out the coverage at The Millions here. My previous attempts are linked here.

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I have Justin Brierley to thank for turning me on to N.T. (Tom) Wright, his (Justin’s) two excellent podcasts – Unbelievable and Ask NT Wright growing into staples in my weekly media consumption, as well as becoming important voices in my ongoing journey of evolving faith. Thanks to this I had N.T. Wright’s Paul: A Biography in my hands as 2018 became 2019, its weight something that I found both comforting and grounding. A lot of the ideas in the book are ones that have been reiterated on the Ask N.T. Wright podcast – Paul’s Christianity as an expansion on and culmination of his Judaism rather than a tearing up and beginning again, the focus of his ministry as being the establishment of a new way of doing community to bring heaven to earth rather than a desire to insulate oneself from the real world and hope to be taken away to name a few – as such it is a book I intend to revisit again, this time with pen, paper and time.

A desire to evolve a productivity system that works for me drew me to a number of books on the subject of habits and behaviour change. Drew Dyck’s Your Future Self Will Thank You, a more ‘spiritual’ take on the subject and James Clear’s Atomic Habits both boiled down to the same ideas, ie that change happens in the (small, daily) details and no amount of posturing and signalling of intent will lead to change. Only by building systems and routines will our larger goals be actualised. These were themes also reinforced to some extent by the other book in a similar genre I read this year, Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck.

Rediscovering my local library had the unintended consequence of enabling me to reacquaint myself with Zadie Smith via three books this year. I found Grand Union a difficult read, one that I was unable to get fully into (which given how much of a fanboy I tell myself I am was surprising). Thankfully, The Embassy of Cambodia and Feel Free brought redemption which suggests to me that it was the problem was the short story format of Grand Union not Zadie’s preternatural brilliance.

Besides Zadie Smith’s Grand Union, the only other piece of fiction I read was Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38Seconds in This Strange World, which I found fascinating both for its subject – the hidden lives of people on the outskirts of society – and its narrative perspective, the final memories that course through a brain in the final throes of death.

One of my goals for the year was to become proficient with Python, for which I couldn’t think of a better project than to apply machine learning techniques to predict the outcome of football matches. The Numbers Game and Football Hackers were two books I read along the way to aid my understanding of the current state of play of football stats. Though great reads, they were unable to help me towards my expected outcome. Real life didn’t help either, which leaves me still far away from developing that killer algorithm.

Alongside machine learning, Chaos Theory was an interest which bubbled to the fore for me this year. James Gleick’s Chaos: The Making of A Science was my attempt to wrap my head around the basics of the subject. A good if sometimes dense read, it left me fascinated enough by the subject to listen to several hours worth of Steven Strogatz lectures on YouTube. Alan Jacob’s How To Think and Nassim Taleb’s Skin In The Game, read at different times during the year, also challenged me mentally, particularly given my love-hate relationship with Twitter.

Questions for Ada, I’m Lying But I’m Telling The Truth and the 2018 iteration of the Best American Essays made up the rest of my 2019 reading and precipitated one uncomfortable conversation on a flight to Heathrow. If there is any value to reading, it should be in its real world impacts, on the basis of the uncomfortable conversations and soul searching my year of reading spawned, it has been a good year of sorts.

Life In A Song (Or Two)

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The data is in, Planetshakers were both my artiste of the year and of the decade if Spotify’s number-crunching can be believed. Compared to 2018, I listened to 36% less music, although I suspect that had more to do with listening to a lot more podcasts than I did last year (thanks to switching to an Android phone and Pocket Casts), streaming more radio and the occasional YouTube binge.  What would be fantastic would be a service that aggregated my listening across all these platforms and thus enabled me to delve deeper into the underlying trends to my listening.

One positive from spreading my music listening across all these platforms is the cross-fertilisation that occurs between them. Several times over the course of the year, I’d hear a song on Air1 then pop into Spotify and descend into a rabbit hole for several hours, discovering a new favourite in the process. YouTube was also a useful source of inspiration for Spotify streaming; chief of which has to be finding Osby Berry (and Cross Worship) as well as People and Songs.  Even podcasts chipped in,  Malcolm Gladwell’s Broken Records turning me on to Pentatonix (and in turn Naturally Seven) and Rhiannon Gidden’s Aria Code bringing the Queen of The Night aria to my attention. That cross-fertilisation is something I could use more of, particularly as it leads to discovering more music I might like. That discovery market just might be the next frontier for a streaming service to crack and get me to hand over my money.

A warning of sorts, this list is decidedly Christian as is a lot of my music listening. Here goes then, 10 of the songs which defined my year.

  1. Do It Again (Elevation Collective feat Travis Greene & Kierra Sheard): This was one of those songs I loved so much three versions of it made its way onto my Songs for the Dark Places playlist. This version was my favourite one, honourable mention for the Cross Worship/Osby Berry version too.
  2. Made A Way (Travis Greene): Although an older song, this was one that came to my attention first in 2018. It will forever be inextricably linked to A’s rendition of this in my Aberdeen church from what was a deeply fraught place for her.
  3. So Will I (Osby Berry): One of those songs I stumbled upon on YouTube, it ended up becoming a portal to discovering other music including Victoria Tunde. Another one of those songs I ended up liking more than the original.
  4. Control (Tenth Avenue North):  Church hopping earlier this year brought us to Welcome Church in Woking during their Why I Follow Jesus series and a message by Pete Hewlett which took in open-heart surgery amongst other things. This was one of the songs he had on repeat in those dark days, which brought it back to mind for me and on repeat several times during my year.
  5. YHWH (The Sound of My Breathing)[Donald Lawrence and The Tri-City Singers feat Jekalyn Carr]: Another one which made its way on to my dark places playlist.

Lights, Lines, December

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It’s that time of the year again in which light, or more correctly it’s absence, defines everything out here; the wet, cold, barely light mornings morphing into grey overcast afternoons which in turn become dark evenings just in time for the trek back home. I, like everyone else out here, am finding that I have little energy to be out and about, the lure of spending time indoors, bar dragging myself out to church and back, proving too strong. The lethargy extends to my running, as it has for each of the last three years according to Strava, the 30km I clocked in November being a far cry from the 100km+ highs of the summer months. From the comfort of my duvet, I wonder how folk out here survived back in the day. I suppose that is why there is a rich tradition of the literature of immigrants, those who bear the shadow of elsewhere  – to borrow a turn of phrase from Elif Shafak’s  10 minutes 38 seconds in This Strange World.

The opportunity to catch up on reading is one of the silver linings from this season of being a couch potato. Over the past month, I have managed to get through Zadie Smith’s Grand Union (which at the risk of sacrilege I didn’t like) and the afore-mentioned Elif Shafak book. I am also halfway through Nassim Taleb’s Skin in The Game. Interestingly, all three books are ones I borrowed from my local library, thanks to it being a relatively short brisk lunchtime walk away.  The other silver lining to the dark evenings is that they are a good backdrop to the other lights, the reds, whites and green lights stretched across the streets celebrating the upcoming Christmas season. Given how grey everything is out here, colour is a sight for one’s sore eyes.

Kicking off the Christmas Silly Season and a difficult conversation of sorts

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Over the past few weeks, temperatures have slowly crept lower and lower, dipping below zero on occasion and leaving the city centre sidewalks crunchy and slippery underfoot at times. The leaves that the trees – once leafy and full but now stark against the light of the reluctant mornings – shed haven’t helped the state of affairs, trapping moisture which turns into treacherous ice once the temperatures dip below zero. All of that, and being this side of Halloween, means that it is the beginning of the Christmas Party silly season.  This year, I have just the two to attend, a far cry from the halcyon days of $100 oil. I suppose this belt-tightening regime can only be a good thing, given it underscores a more prudent, sustainability-focused outlook for the industry. Tight belts or not, there is a certain bluntness which alcohol engenders, that is one of the things I am looking forward to witnessing.

Speaking of uninhibited truth-telling, I had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) of sitting next to a somewhat inebriated gentleman a few days ago on one of my recent flights down south. Very clearly in the mood for a natter – in spite of the fact I had headphones on and had a book in hand – he proceeded to interrogate me for most of the flight, all whilst being apologetic about intruding on me. Questions about where my parents were originally from ( I am visibly black), if I had been subjected to racism in the past, Brexit and what I did for work were a few of the potential banana skins our conversation navigated. A few years ago, I might have taken umbrage at his line of conversation but I am learning that context is everything. In this case, it turned out that his wife is a black South African.  It also turned out that the book I had in hand, Bassey Ikpi’s I’m telling the truth but I’m lying, had played a part in encouraging him to engage, particularly the essay I was on provocatively titled ‘Becoming A Liar’. Slippery grounds apart, our conversation eventually turned to mental illness, which is part of the focus of the book. Given the stigma around mental health issues, particularly amongst men, I suppose anything that prompts conversations about it is a good thing. Silver linings then I guess.

Of Cross roads…

Image Source:  Lachlan Donald on Unsplash

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Lately, I have been thinking a lot about crossroads  – the metaphorical kind of course – points in one’s life where decisions with the potential to change the trajectory of one’s life are foisted upon one.  The triggers for this latest bout of thinking are varied but the one common thread is a sense of dissatisfaction which has simmered below the surface for most of the year. Turning forty is certainly part of that, particularly as in its immediate aftermath, it felt like I had reached the top of a mountain only to find there was nothing to be seen there. There is also the desire to head down south for good for family reasons, which perhaps has declared open season on everything I have done for work over the past fifteen-ish years. In the rarefied atmosphere in which my thought experiments exist,  everything is an option: from a complete pivot away from oil and gas into something more tech-related, through a less severe move away from being the (siloed) technical specialist I have spent the past few years evolving into becoming more of a generalist to a gap year, travelling the world.

10 years ago if you asked me, I would have sworn off getting into the world of managing people and the (in my opinion) the murky world of office politics but I am finding my revulsion for that less iron-clad than it once was. Truth is when it all comes down to the brass tacks, the things which drive my decisions are the things which drive us all: family, financial security, flexibility and opportunities to get ahead not some rose-tinted version of reality.

Of course, desires are one thing, but they only materialise when desire meets real-world opportunity. Time is also a factor, which is where I find myself now with irons in the fire taking however long they will take whilst I ponder what viable options remain.  The option to cut ties and sail off into a different vista is one my friends M and O have taken over the past few months, as have a steady stream of people in my wider cycle. If all goes to plan, I may not be far behind them. Fingers crossed.

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.

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.

Wet Weather Problems, Twittering about Tea and Loving at First Write

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All it takes is an extended patch of wet and cold weather for things to descend into chaos on these islands, this latest batch of snow, heavy winds and cold weather culminating in flight cancellations and severe weather warnings amongst others. For the most part, I manage to survive – extra warm clothing, walking gingerly to and from work in the wet slush and almost continuous heating being the sum of the adjustments I have to make. It is at the weekend when the rooster comes home to roost in a manner of speaking. Having turned up at the airport for my 8.20pm flight down to Heathrow, delays till almost 11 pm are announced until at a few minutes before midnight we are advised the flight has been cancelled. Remarkably, everyone who should be on our flight is remarkably sanguine about it all,  helped I suspect by the sense that the weather ‘gods’ have been at it again. Between the final announcement of delays and the flight being cancelled, we find (from Flight radar) that the ‘plane designated to carry us away to London has made several attempts to land at the ‘Deen but has failed due to fog rolling in. They eventually get diverted to Glasgow whilst we make an orderly line at the front desk to get our flights rebooked. I move my flight by a week and then head home, not before I find out that the woman in front of me in the queue has family in the same area of Surrey that I’m headed to, and very much like me, she makes this trip every two weeks so. Joking about being four-day spouses, does have a ring of truth to it though. For me, it offers evidence that this thing – having a foot in two different countries – isn’t exactly impossible to maintain, mild weather-induced irritation notwithstanding.

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I have to thank this tweet, and the replies it spawned, for helping most of that time pass. Growing up in my other country, meals were all about being three ‘square’ meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tea – and apples amongst other things – were alien constructs I first came across in the various Enid Blyton books I scrounged off my more exposed friends. As I became older, tea became synonymous with instant cream milk (usually the Peak brand) and Bournvita (a chocolate drink) and on the odd occasion a cup of Lipton tea. Reading the replies and comments thus brought back memories of my first few years up here, particularly offshore and the contact with people from across the spectrum of UK regions it brought my way and brought more than a few chuckles to me too. A silver lining to all that waiting I would like to think.

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Elsewhere, I have been slowly catching up with the first season of Aria Code, Rhiannon Giddens’ deep dive into a number of the most famous arias along with interviews with singers and capped off with the full aria from the Met Opera. The penultimate episode from this first season features the “Letter Aria” from Jules Massenet’s Werther, which opens with Charlotte at home on Christmas Eve, rereading letters that she has received from Werther an ex-lover she has sent away to be focused on her marriage to her husband. One of the themes explored in this episode of Aria code is the subject of long-distance love, a theme lived and explored by one of the show’s guests Peter Bognanni (after briefly meeting his wife, they fell and grew in love over email before eventually marrying) in his book Things I’m Seeing Without You. Well worth a listen if Opera is your bag, or if like me you have good memories from having made friends and loving over significant distances.