School Run

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School run
Is no fun
Crying child
Try to be mild
In the car
Getting later
So many people
Do nothing to cater
Me first
You wait
Milling around at the gate
Daughter searching
For her pals
Sees them
Runs
Little wave
Safely done
Then my son
‘I don’t want to!’
Take a moment
Out he comes
In the playground
Climbing frame
Changes the game
A kiss on the run
From my bun
His smiling face
Saving grace
Hard slog
Right old flog
It gone done
Not much fun
Ho hum
Tomorrow is another one

Veni, Vidi, Amici

As I get on in life, I get to spend time with some interesting, clever people. But they can come with sizeable egos. And that can translate into ‘High Status Behaviours’.

That’s not necessarily a problem. ‘Happy High Status’ is feeling good enough about yourself that you can feel relaxed and good about the success and contribution of others. But not everyone manages to keep the ‘Happy’ in High Status.

The alternative is less attractive – being so concerned with your own status that you need everyone else to recognise it. Or worse, to knock down others to assert it. I wonder if there’s a Greek term for that? Narcissism is one.

But whatever you call it, loneliness seems to me to be an inevitable by-product. I think dominant High Status behaviours are completely missing the point of life.

For Aristotle, that central point is to attract and nurture better friends. Friends care for our virtue and excellence, as we care for theirs. The best of friends are the means and end of it all.

But, as Aristotle said:

No one loves the man whom he fears.

He who hath many friends hath none.

No one would choose a friendless existence on condition of having all the other things in the world.

So why do smart, successful, powerful people sometimes behave in ways that seem to get in the way of true friendship?

Seeking power, wealth and acolytes has always been a primal driver. And on the face of it, it helps not to be too sentimental. But an instrumental view of others – that they are means to your end, hammers useful only as long as there is a nail – is missing the point I feel. As Aristotle also said:

My best friend is the man who in wishing me well wishes it for my sake.

Friendship of this type is earned, nurtured and freely given, not bought, demanded or taken. About the best thing in life, I reckon, is true Aristotelian friendship.

A contented ego is a prerequisite, but a conceited, instrumental or selfish one just gets in the way. Friendship, not conquest, is the purpose of the good life.

The Eaves

Cycling to work every day I get a regular soaking. Decent waterproofs help. But there are days, when looking out of the kitchen window, I don’t fancy it much. A number of years ago in the book ‘Angry White Pyjamas’ I read a quote from the Hagakure – the Japanese Book of the Samurai. It advised stepping out from the eaves:

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.

I was reminded of this, in the week, by Montaigne’s similar write-up on the Roman Legions:

Their military discipline was much ruder than ours, and accordingly produced much greater effects. The jeer that was given a Lacedaemonian soldier is marvellously pat to this purpose, who, in an expedition of war, was reproached for having been seen under the roof of a house: they were so inured to hardship that, let the weather be what it would, it was a shame to be seen under any other cover than the roof of heaven. We should not march our people very far at that rate.

I don’t mind being rained on, but I’ve often thought I’d last about five minutes on a proper Roman or Medieval battlefield. Some glum milling about before, and then probably a spirited moment of excessive unavoidable bravery early doors followed by a sharp death. That sounds about my fate. I can only assume my forebears were quick to procreate, as I don’t reckon we’d have lasted long.

But my other pet theory is we were scouts and messengers. Sharp eyed endurance runners with a precise tongue. Who knows. The Hagakure is admirably clear on the matter: ‘Bravery and cowardice are not things which can be conjectured in times of peace. They are in different categories.’

Some Hagakure quotes are positively Aristotelian, take:

‘Intelligence is nothing more than discussing things with others. Limitless wisdom comes of this.’

But like Aristotle, with his theories on biles and humours – and posture, character and beards – not everything in the Hagakure is to modern tastes. As ‘Angry White Pyjamas’ also highlighted:

When one departs for the front, he should carry rice in a bag. His underwear should be made from the skin of a badger. This way he will not have lice. In a long campaign, lice are troublesome.

I’ll step out from the eaves in GoreTex and Lycra, but I draw the line at the skin of a badger.

Font of Knowledge

I owe Steve Jobs a good deal. From early dial-up internet on my original Aqua iBook to blogging with an iPhone and iPad. Despite liberating £1000s from my wallet over the years, I am eternally grateful to him. He has opened up a world of new possibilities, knowledge and ideas to me and many millions more.

Poor guy looks like he’s on his last legs though. Emaciated and gaunt, bowing to the inevitable he stood down as Apple CEO the other day. If I were a betting man I’d reckon cancer will have him within 6 months.

A famously hot tempered perfectionist, I wonder how much cancer has changed him. Diagnosed some 6-7 years ago, reading his 2005 Stanford Commencement address – made to a hall of eager freshmen – he had a pretty ‘nailed on’ philosophy well before the ‘Big C’ properly got hold of him. Like David Servan-Schreiber, cancer will extinguish him but it didn’t beat him.

He calls life’s rich pattern ‘connecting the dots’. I think of it as a ‘Nile delta’ of possibilities. Either way, it’s a fact that life often makes sense looking backwards. But the tributaries down which we flow through life are serendipitous, random and unfathomable. Once you’ve noticed your route though, it all looks pre-ordained.

I quoted Jobs’ example of calligraphy (below) the other day. He created, from random events, the font-rich world we take for granted on every electronic device. Imagine if he’d taken technical drawing instead. It could all have been very different.

The moral I draw? Don’t waste time trying to plan life, live it. Think more about today than next year. Don’t sweat the small stuff. And finally, even the big things in life generally happen by accident, it’s how you respond and what you do next that matters.

Here’s a piece of his Stanford address:

I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Blake’s Proverbs

William Blakes’ Proverbs of Hell are a bit like Jenny Holzer’s Truisms – some you get some you don’t, some resonate some clang. Still thinking about some of the things which I think constitute the good life, four of his proverbs capture something:

When thou seest an Eagle thou sees a portion of Genius, lift up thy head!

What is now proved was once only imagin’d

One thought fills immensity

The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship

Why these four? First I’ve noticed that ‘noticing’ enriches life immensely. One simple trick I’ve stumbled upon is to look up. It generally lifts the spirits. Today I looked up, sat in slow traffic, and saw a beautiful Victorian clock and frontage high above an otherwise grim discount store. There is a little spray of golden flowers and thistles on top of Big Ben which glints in the sun when I cycle past in a morning. I’ve noticed most old buildings have something special adorning their top storey. Look up and there’s light, clouds, planes, Eagles – you get the picture.

Second I’m reading the Greek myths at the moment and it is staggering, as with ancient philosophy and science, how much we knew then of people and their foibles, but how little we knew of science and how the world works. We all carry today an amazing storehouse of knowledge and ideas just because of the era we live in. It would have amazed the ancients.

How lucky we are. But despite all that knowledge there is still so much to learn and discover that one thought can still fill immensity. I learned yesterday we’ve only just discovered that dogs like cats don’t ladle water when they slop it up, they form a tube with their tongues and draw it up though pressure – it takes three laps to create a column of water in the dog’s tongue which connects water to mouth. Amazing. Not sure our old dog ever mastered it given the soggy mess he always made on the kitchen floor.

Finally friends. Aristotle triages them into three types: transactional, fun and friends in contemplation. The third are the very best, but, as I once heard Desmond Tutu say, there is no human without other humans – friends and other people are our human web.

Look up, imagine, think and talk with friends – four principles which, I think, work just as well today as in Aristotle or Blake’s days.

Kisses

As my other half left the house for work one morning this week, my daughter was a bit sad.

My daughter and son were perched with me on the back of the sofa. My partner waved to us through the bay window – in the nice way she often does. She waved through the first pane coming out of the door. She waved through the roses as she passed in front of the central sash. Finally, she turned back for a final wave through the third pane, as she disappeared out of view down the hill. But my daughter still looked sad.

I said to her ‘Your kisses will have reached her’. She shook her head and held her hands apart like my Grandad sized a fish and said ‘They can only travel this far’. I said ‘Much further if you blow them’. She still looked sad. ‘Only about as far as the bookcase to the wall’ she said.

And then my four year old son chimed in with his piping voice – and winning smile – and said confidently ‘A kiss can go all the way round the world’. We all smiled and felt better.

Truisms iv) Demos

Growing up in a safe, benign and predominantly urban country like the UK, means you miss out on a lot of the experiences which define life in other countries. We don’t really have natural disasters, extreme weather, earthquakes, civil war, endemic illness, extreme poverty, lawlessness, corruption, dictators, or sectarian governments. Very lucky us. We have comparatively big Government and we are comparatively happy with it.

But take a look around the world today – Egypt going from peaceful, hopeful mass demonstration to violent disorder, Australia bracing for a continent sized cyclone which would cover swathes of the USA and would obliterate the UK, France and Germany, Sudan seceeding from itself and the routine drip drip drip of deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq or any number of other countries you care to mention. Government or the lack of it has a hand or the responsibility in all of these.

I was reading to my daughter about Henry VIII and Tudor England this evening and explaining beheadings, religious persecutions and kingly philandering. I said people were poor, had few rights and had many arbitrary rules imposed upon them by church and state. I used the past tense but on reflection not much has changed in much of the world.

This makes me reflect on four of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms:

Abuse of power comes as no surprise

Government is a burden on the people

Grass roots agitation is the only hope

Imposing order is man’s vocation for chaos is hell

Number one, I fear, is a nailed on certainty. Even Platonic Philosopher Kings go bad without term limits. Chaos is a hot hell, but dictatorship is a cold one. I used to think Government was my friend, but having worked in it I’m not so sure. It’s more like HAL 9000 crossed with a particularly mindless golem – and that’s in a stable affluent parliamentary democracy not a kleptocracy, sectarian or police state. Grass roots agitation probably is the only hope for many. I’m lucky to live where I do, and a good five centuries after Henry VIII.

Truisms iii) Dry stonewalling

Here are seven of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms I increasingly agree with:

Fake or real indifference is a powerful personal weapon

Expressing anger is necessary

Emotional responses are as valuable as intellectual responses

Giving free rein to your emotions is an honest way to live

Hiding your emotions is despicable

Humor is a release

Playing it safe can cause a lot of damage in the long run

For much of the last decade ‘stonewalling’ was a personal favourite of mine on the home and work front. I now see it was a form of emotional distancing I used to manage my reaction to people and situations. 

At one level it worked, but it drained my energy and at times frustrated people. Sometimes people would get cross with me. This was a quick route to me completely shutting down and quietly brooding, or more rarely reacting with excessively sharp-tongued vitriol. 

I’m learning that staying in touch with your feelings – although it feels risky sometimes – is important. Following my feelings can make me feel a bit ‘unbounded’, impulsive, eclectic, even a bit inappropriate sometimes. But often ‘in the moment’ I now do what needs doing or say what needs saying. And I have more laughs, with people I don’t know, as well as those I do. 

Constantly controlling my emotions was tiring, it drained my batteries and potentially prepared me to be hurt or hurtful. Better to be in tune and ready to speak up and speak out, flash a smile or crack up laughing. Life’s too short not to feel it.

Truisms i) A little knowledge can go a long way?

Friends of ours have Jenny Holzer’s ‘Truisms’ on the wall in their loo. Every time I read it I find myself agreeing easily with the first few I alight on – and then violently disagreeing with the next one I look at. Is this what she was trying to do? This makes me wonder if I’ve stumbled across a candidate truism of my own:

It is better to disagree violently than silently.

In my youth I might have agreed. Now I’d say not.

This is another feature of Holzer’s Truisms, a number of them I would once have agreed with – but half a lifetime’s experience now makes me disagree. This makes me inclined to go through them 1) to decide if I agree or disagree 2) to see if I’ve changed since my youth 3) to see if I change my mind in the second half of my life.

Here’s number 1:

A little knowledge can go a long way

I agree. I think I always have. Better to be a polymath than a specialist. It’s good to know a lot about some things, but mostly the things I know a lot about I’m boring and dogmatic about. A whiff of evidence combined with the strong scent trail of intuition leads to good conversations, new insights and friends in contemplation.

A little knowledge does go a long way I’m inclined to think.