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.

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.

A different kind of the middle of nowhere

Image Source: Wikipedia


Nursing a double espresso in the Air France lounge at Charles De Gaulle, it’s the first time in a week that I get the chance to be by myself and reflect on what has been a whirlwind week. From being up at 5.00 am two Sundays ago (to catch an early flight westward from Heathrow to Abidjan via Paris), multiple flying stops to a number of offshore assets and then to this stop on the way back to normalcy, it has felt like a blur of perpetual motion. It has also, much against my natural bent, been a time spent overwhelmingly in the company of others -  work colleagues, fellow travellers and the odd hustler looking to make a quick buck amongst others. With each change of location – Heathrow, Paris, Abidjan and offshore – there has been a progressive browning of my surroundings, one that means that by the time I arrive at the work site I am lost in a sea of similar faces. Not since my last job in this part of the world at the back end of 2008 have I found myself in this sort of surroundings; not in the minority but one face in a sea of similar faces.

Stepping out of the airport terminal, the humidity hits like a bed sheet heavy with water might if flapped about by a strong wind, along with the million indecipherable smells – smoke from cooked food, the linger of car exhaust fumes, dried sweat – the minutiae of life which might be from any city along this West African coast. The airport itself is not significantly different from one I am more familiar with – Murtala Mohammed International – with its milling masses of people; particularly the hustlers who sidle up to you, somewhat conspiratorially offering up various taxi and money changing services and a Burger King. Like that other airport, this one is also named for an African strong man.

The days start early and end late, involving a variety of boat transfers including the frog, a walk to work solution and the odd clamber up boat landings via ladders. My two slight concerns turn out to be unfounded – the heat isn’t overly oppressive and I find enough familiar food to subsist on. One can hardly go wrong with eggs, bacon and sausages or rice and fried plantains for that matter (and EVERYTHING tastes infinitely better with a dash of chilli sauce).  Somehow, I get cast in the role of the Africa expert – asked to weigh in everything from food choices to social mores.

Nights are spent trying to get to sleep whilst being swayed by the swells rocking the accommodation vessel we’re on. Fairly recently the beds have been doubled up to increase capacity, which is how three of us get a room with two beds. I volunteer to take one of the top bunk beds, given I have less of a frame to squeeze in than the others.

Being out and about brings back memories of another life, being the young local engineer learning the ropes and then chomping at the bit to take on more responsibilities. In the stories I tell myself of that time, I wrestle with the tension between wanting to do more but feeling like the real decision making power was elsewhere, which is one of the reasons I upped sticks and left in the end. With the benefit of the distance of a few years since then, it is clear that structural problems notwithstanding, my youthful headiness played a part in whatever grievances I carry from that time.  I can’t help but wonder if these younger engineers feel any different, and if the various players in this space have the global reach and structure to truly develop these minds into ‘world class’ engineers. This is the first of many trips westwards and south I suspect. I am curious to see how this pans out.

A Sense of An Ending?

 

Spread out in various states of recline around a long table in the inner room of the Indian restaurant we have gathered in, I imagine we cast a scene not too dissimilar to the last supper. Not only are we thirteen (ignoring for a moment that S is barely 9 months old), it is a last supper of sorts, pulled together to celebrate the two J’s, in these their final days up here before they up sticks and move to study not too far off from ground zero in America’s bible belt. That we’ve plopped for Indian cuisine is perhaps a slight oddity given all thirteen of us have African roots. I suspect it is more indicative of the paucity of suitable eating options than adventure, which is why phones come out when it is time to order; google comes to the rescue. All that drags out the ordering process, which has a knock on effect on when we get our food.

When dinner finally arrives, we break out into leisurely conversations, in which it transpires that the two J’s are not the only ones on the verge of leaving. R is off in about a month’s time, O has his feet on two continents already, A’s entrepreneurial life is very much in full flow, two other youngsters are on the cusp of going away to University, and I am one job opening away from upping sticks myself. Even those who do not have active moves planned suggest in conversation that they would consider a move outside of town, all of which feeds the sense that a lot of change is afoot, and that the group is tottering on the edge of significant change, particularly over the next few months.

With the benefit of a few days to reflect over the events and feelings of the day, I find myself wondering what about these particular set of circumstances make the sense of change deeply personal. It is not like the group has stayed the same over the past few years I have been part of it. As recently as three or so months ago there was a significant departure, which make my initial guess that it is the sheer number of moves in a relatively small time scale that  has largely engendered this feeling. Other possible reasons might be the relative importance of some of the people on the move this time, the season of life I am in, or just a plain, unexplained increased sensitivity to all of this.

Change they say is inevitable but on this occasion I feel like I am being dragged kicking and screaming towards it.

Coming Up For Air


Photo by Zen Photographer on Unsplash


Eat-sleep-work-walk; wash-rinse-repeat. This just about sums up the past six weeks for me, travel down south being one of the few brights spots in an otherwise humdrum existence. In that state the days blur into each other – the weekend when it comes offering scant relief – before being quickly subsumed by a new Monday morning and the start of a new cycle of drudgery.  It is that time of the year when the final reports from last year are being reviewed and finishing touches made to the detailed plans for the new year’s work so there is little scope for escape.

The various iterations of the  Beast from the East have also had their say, ice and snow being so serious that for the first time in a while those who live in the sticks were permitted to work from home. Being a centre dweller, I managed to make it into work regardless, the main impact of all that snow and ice being to put paid to my practice of lunch time walking and my running. That at least is my excuse. The one upside has been the opportunity to load up on the reading – the small matter of six books being downed from the twenty five I plan on reading this year.

Away from proper books I have been doing a lot of web-based reading, which is how I stumbled onto Tom Chritchlow’s Small B- blogging post (via Om Malik’s link). Tom’s premise is that purposefully crafting content for a small deliberate audience provides more value to both the writer and the reader than the content market approach that larger networks seem to favour. It is a sentiment that has been kicking about in various forms in the networks I float about in, a piece on the ‘demise’ of the mommy blog and one by Ethan Zuckerman being the examples that come most readily to mind.  Although the Zuckerman post is a plug for gobo.social,  it raises a number of points which, in our very own Facebook inspired 1984 dystopia, are particularly relevant. For what it is worth, I believe I read and follow a number of solid small b-blogs; Caitlin Kelly’s Broadside Blog, Elizabeth Adams’ Cassandra Pages and the aforementioned Ethan Zuckerman’s My Heart Is In Accra all come to mind.

The Social Media as Big Brother narrative has most certainly come home to roost on Facebook’s porch,  Facebook’s dealings with Cambridge Analytical leading to investors voting with their money to the tune of $58billion and counting. That Facebook has been harvesting user call log and messaging data for quite a while only worsens the situation, discovered ironically as users have exited the service in response to the Cambridge Analytical findings. Amidst the hue and cry,  I found William Davies’ take in the London Review of Books more clear eyed than most. Whilst Facebook might currently be the most egregious example of the social-as-big-brother problem , it is one which is deeply intertwined with the very fabric of the internet. Unplugging might be a solution, except for the small matter of the fact that everyone – Amazon, Google, Free wifi on the London Underground and almost every single online media outlet (including the ones who have raised the hue and cry) all gather data on their users. That horse may have already bolted.

Loads to reflect on then – big and small over the last few weeks. For me, my love hate relationship with Facebook continues. How long this latest season of deactivation lasts remains to be seen.

The Diary: On Flights, Music and The Muddled Lives Of Heroes

Between work and visits to family, I travel quite a fair bit by air each year. Already though, 2017 is on course to be my most airborne yet – love-hate relationship with flying notwithstanding.  The thing with S has been a big part of that, more so over the last few weeks, five of the last six of which have been spent down south. In times like this, even I have to admit- however grudgingly – the usefulness of being able to just fly. I shudder to think of how many hours I would have spent on trains or coaches over the last few days if flying was not an option.

Coming up to Aberdeen on this last but one flight of the lot, the relatively seamless BA experience I have enjoyed over the last few months falls apart, my 9.00pm flight ending up being delayed by an hour. That turns out to be the least of my worries as upon arriving at Aberdeen we have to wait to disembark, and then spend over an hour at the taxi rank for a taxi home. The official reason for the delay with de-planing is that the hold is full and we have to stay on until it is emptied to prevent the plane from tipping over.  Ironic cheers greet the announcement, not helped I suspect by the tone with which the pilot relays the reason. By his own admission, it is the first time he has heard that used as a reason. All told, by the time I get home at 12.45am I am barely lucid. How I manage to make it into bed remains a mystery but somehow I do.

My trusty headphones – and music – have been indispensable companions on these jaunts. Most recently I have had Lecrae and Tori Kelly crooning into my ear, the song being the catchy I’ll find you tune. It is a song I stumble on on Spotify on one of those days on which I am mindlessly letting it decide what music I hear. My interest is piqued enough to put the song on repeat whilst I hunt down information on the song, from which I find out the video is in support of a children’s research hospital and comes from a place of pain for folk they know who were battling cancer at the time. Its themes – fighting through a difficult season but knowing there’s someone who’ll make the effort to support one are ones that are uplifting and comforting in their own way.

With the benefit of a clear head a few days later, the question of how much of a distinction there can be between spiritually uplifting stuff (read music, sermons etc) and the messengers who bring them to us comes to mind. A few years ago, the Hillsong song Healer was a firm favourite of mine, made all the more interesting by the back story – the writer of the song was apparently dying of cancer. That was later shown to be false which prompted a huge backlash and calls for the proceeds from the song to be returned and a number of the organisations which had provided him a platform moving to distance themselves from him. Lecrae himself has stirred controversy with comments he has made about not being a Christian rapper and his outspoken support of Black Lives Matter.  Eugene Peterson, creator of The Message paraphrase, also drew some flak for apparently shifting towards endorsing same-sex marriage, a position he had to clarify very quickly.

All told, there does seem to be a tendency with Christendom to throw the baby out with the bath water and immediately distance itself from folk who seemingly stray from the weathered centre ground of orthodoxy. Two views I have found helpful on this subject of what to do with the ‘muddled’ lives of highly visible messengers come from John Piper and Russell More in the aftermath of the Peterson shift that was not. Truth remains truth, human vessels are inherently flawed and their output should be read through the lens of the bible itself.