Before You Call Me By This Name

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #186:

**

Before you call me by this name
and shrink the sum of all my days
down to this facade, this still-life
of sepia pixels flickering like daylight
disappearing before the force of dusk;

Before you place the burdens of
history around my neck, till
it begins to break beneath the weight
of expectation, you must know
that this name is one of a myriad,
each bequeathed by the ones
who came before, a prayer
that we might see, the small lights
in our being.

500 Leagues under the Sun

Photo by Kenza Benaouda on Unsplash

**

Of the things that still irk me, more than a year into my Arabian Odyssey, the sheer inefficiencies which seem baked into the system stand out for particular ire. Case in point: this past week to spend ten minutes picking up a letter from my employer and then delivering it at a government office fifteen kilometres away, I had to drive 250+kilometres. To my mind, it is something that can and should dare I say, be managed via an online portal but I found to my pain that this was not the case. It is no wonder then that in the short space of over a month I have driven just shy of three thousand kilometres, mainly between my outpost in the middle of nowhere, work (twice), the big city next door (multiple times) and the occasional trip to the provincial capital for some government thing or the other twice too.

One of those trips put into context why choosing not to buy a 4×4 wasn’t the brightest of ideas. Having taken a wrong turn off a certain road, I found to my chagrin that it soon dissolved into desert sands and nothing more. It was in trying to turn off it into the other side of the road to retrace my steps that trouble struck. My puny rear wheel drive, 1.6L engine, subcompact got mired in the sands which had accumulated on that section of unused roads. Several attempts only managed to get me firmly stuck with no seeming route to recovery. It didn’t help that I had left L and S at home with a view to dashing into the next town to grab some supplies and then return. My salvation came in the shape of two men who spotted me whilst driving their pick up truck across the sand on the other side of the road. After some frantic hand waving on my part to attract their attention, they came to a stop across the divider of the road as we tried to communicate my predicament. My Arabic is nonexistent as was their English but the one word we could both understand was ‘Help?’, to wish I nodded frantically. They promptly disappeared for a bit in a cloud of sand only to reappear at the bend where the road turned to sand. The younger of the two was dressed in full regalia, thobe and head gear included whilst his older companion had threadbare jeans and a denim shirt rolled up at the sleeves. Ten or so minutes afterwards, I finally came unstuck thanks to the younger getting into my car and proceeding to attempt to reverse out of the rut i had sunk into whilst his companion and I pushed. Not in a very long time, and I suspect/hope not in a long time in the future, have I felt such relief at seeing a stranger’s face.

Driving out here was one of the things I dreaded the most, given the stories of texting drivers and general disregard for other road users which were drummed into us during our orientation. Bar a couple of near misses where tailgaters have almost forced me off the road at 120km/hr, nothing much of note has happened. That, and the sense of habituation which has made the 60km trek to the next town feel normal are things to be thankful for.

At the Centre of Things

Image Source: The Guardian

**

Every waking minute of the past few weeks it seems has been filled with some nursery rhyme or the other, so much so that deep in my less wakeful moments, I have caught myself humming along to some tune or another. Chief of them has to be the ten in a bed one where a particularly bossy kid shoos off the others who end up in a pile beside the bed nursing various bumps and scrapes. Sometimes it has felt like there are an infinite number of ways this can happen, although the mathematics suggest that there is only one way to do that, if that particular order is maintained. All of this is long way to say that L is very much at the centre of things with sleep, if I can go out for a run in the morning and other such mundane things very much dependent on what state she wakes up in.

I would like to think that being the well adjusted, finely tuned primate that I am makes me the very epitome of a caring parent but the truth is that there are days when all I want with every fibre of my being is to ignore whatever plea for help is emanating from her crib and get some extra precious minutes of sleep, particularly on work days. Most days I don’t yield to my internal lazy boy but what I will admit is that I have begun to look forward to my forty-minute commute to work on the bus. That has begun to feel like an island of sanity, keeping the chaos of home away from the madness of work. Small mercies.

42: Rethink

Rodin’s Le Penseur. Image from the US National Gallery of Art

**

When I set about thinking about the year of being forty, it seemed a no-brainer that it would be centred around delving deeper. The premise was that as the worst kind of failure is one of depth, actively looking to ensure I had depth in all critical aspects of my life was key as I came into my decade of being forty something. As to why I think failures of depth are the most critical, I think that both the one who fails and the one who is failed are left with the lingering after taste of what might have been. For one, the chance of a lifetime disappears before it even begins. For the other the time and energy expended/ invested ends up being for nothing. Both face the opportunity costs, lost irretrievably. For the year of being forty-one, rebuild better was the key, given COVID and how it had intervened specifically in my life with regards to a new job.

From the vantage point of the present looking back, it seems clear that delving deeper, and rebuilding better took on lives of their own, evolving into a full blown rethink, with no facet of life – from faith, through family and friendships through to work – being exempt from this interrogation. There is a sense in which rethinking follows naturally from delving deeper. For when done right, delving deeper can expose the scaffolding on which our beliefs and behaviours are hung, laying bare the inconsistencies and incongruities there. If intellectual honesty and/or integrity are worth anything to us, we cannot ignore those, hence we rethink. Truly rebuilding on the other hand requires firm and sure foundations, which is how all three themes are linked.

Of all the things that have been touched so far by my rethinking, I get the sense that faith and work are the most likely to be significantly impacted in the near term. I have always considered myself a prodigal not least because my notions of identity – both spiritual and familial – are conflicted. What has changed in that regard is I think I am finally at a place where I am comfortable calling myself a lapsed Pentecostal. I am by no means ready – or willing – to chuck it all out; the things that tether me to that space still maintain their grip, however tenuous they may be. I have however found that paring faith down to the essentials has led me to a framework of a three legged stool of sorts: right beliefs, right practice and right passions, an articulation I am grateful to Preston Sprinkle for.

With work, the tensions are many. On the one hand there is the being an empiricist vs being a theorist, or to slightly rephrase it, being a generalist or a specialist. Moons ago I would have sworn being a specialist was the be all and end all, a nod perhaps to the niche specialty which has fed me all these years. I am however finding that there is a limit to how far an arcane subject, or esoteric knowledge, can take you in the real world. And what use is knowledge if it doesn’t translate into the real world? There is also the small matter of where my future direction lies. There is a ceiling to being a specialist, I feel with more scope for growth in being a generalist. To future-proof my career therefore, it seems to me that broadening rather than deepening is the way to go. Being out here was great for the first year, with all the trappings of the expat life. Now that that is behind me now, the reality of the question of direction now hits home. Is my future inextricably linked to oil? Or are any of the nascent interests grabbing my attention the future for me? I think I would like to have the freedom to work without borders. That and the cachet of the world of data are an attraction that grows increasingly stronger, if I can find a way to make my past years of experience useful in that domain.

L and S are a consideration that weighs heavy on my mind in this regard. The days when I was free as a bird to pack up sticks and take the risk of beginning again are gone I think. Family has its responsibilities and rewards which one cannot take lightly. Just how much that affects the calculus of the future still seems unclear, or perhaps still evolving, the final shape or form unknown at the moment.

Plenty to mull over then, with potentially wide-ranging consequences to decisions and directions. Bring on the year of rethinking. It feels like this will be some interesting ride around the sun!

Still Water…

For The Sunday Muse prompt #180:

**

We come to water
to be washed and be reborn,
this hand cupping the curvature
of the face, the other dipped,
drenched in the very fluid
from which we come, the space
between the fingers of that hand
filled with the water, straining
against the strictures
of the hand.

We come to water
to lose ourselves in the beauty
of the simple things, to see
the dirt of our days and the detritus
of the night loosen, dissolving
until we see ourselves pristine
whole again, the way we
have imagined in our dreams
a lip, an eye, lingering still
in the mirror of still water.

Homecoming…

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #179:

**
The scent of life and of living
hangs heavy on this place,
Here, where the weight
of memory and first things
lose themselves in the labyrinth
of the mind.

First step, first walk, first smile.
First  words – garbled beyond
recognition but finding
the connection between
the proffered body
and sustenance.

First leaving, first returning
then leaving – the first steps
of a  lonesome journey
to a far country, of seeking
the wily welcome of the open world
calling – siren-like – from beyond
the walls that time has built.

The days have their dangers
and the nights their flights of fancy
but in moments of respite and clarity
I find myself here. Home.
Always returning.

System of Systems

In the news this week on the BBC:

Abattoirs have about a week’s supply of gas. It’s a chain: We have constantly got pigs coming out of the breeding herd that need to go in homes. Those homes need to be emptied.

Stumbled on this on the news recently which got me thinking of a couple of my interests of late – systems, resilience and system of system approaches to identifying deep dependencies and potential unintended cascade failures of supply chains. What is a world in which rising gas prices potentially affect the availability of meat via several fertiliser farms having to shut down if not incredibly fragile. 

Becoming…

For The Sunday Muse #178:

**

In the wisps
of the smoke blown
in a moment
of recalcitrance
the man
he might yet be
lurks. The man
he now is
and the one
he once was
yielding in the moment
to the future
better one.
Becoming.

 

 

 

Leaving…

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #176:

**
When in the stillness
of the night, sleep
slips away, slowly –
my eyes heavy
with the weariness
of deferred respite –
I remember the road
from there to here,
how it turns
upon itself, snaking
this way and then that
and then disappears.

I remember that leaving
is for the living –
those who have learned
to gift the blessing
of forgiving
and forgetting
to the past.

Between Theorists and Empiricists

Image Source: Caleb Jones on Unsplash 

**

It seems to me that the central distinction in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest offering – Bomber Mafia – is that between theorists and empiricists. To boil it down to a binary choice is of course an oversimplification, but it is one that helps frame the difference between Hansell and Le May, the two figures from either camp who loom large in the book. At stake here, as it turns out, were the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians who met a fiery fate in the aftermath of extensive fire bombings, topped off by the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Hansell, we have the theorist who believed against the evidence – or bad luck – that precision bombing was the way to execute a war that limited deaths. Le May on the other hand comes across as an empiricist who allowed the evidence lead him down the paths it did, albeit with disastrous outcomes for those concerned.

Outcomes and motivations differ for the theorist and the empiricist. The theorist is wholly concerned with what might be  possible – subject to the constraints of his/her field (eg  Theoretical Physicists who come up with all sorts of currently unfalsifiable claims ) – as opposed to the empiricist or experimentalist who is concerned with finding evidence to prove or disprove the grand, elegant notions of the theorist.

If one accepts that the empiricist follows the evidence down a path that leads to a real world impact and desirable outcomes, there looms the question of what constitutes a good outcome. Is the loss of thousands of lives a good outcome if they are the lives of the enemy/ the other rather than ours? Is a good outcome measured in monetary terms, or is there a way to value non-physical outcomes? These are questions I do not think the theorist worries about too much, existing – at least to me – in that rarefied space of thought.

As I plod along, firmly ensconced in mid-career engineering, these distinctions are ones that weigh heavy on my mind, as they have the potential to inform what steps I take next. I am truly at a cross roads of sort  – the question being whether I follow the head into theory or the heart into real world applications.