Cold Start

I’m certainly not a morning person. Like a British Leyland car of the 1970s (of which we had a few) I start reluctantly with several turns of the key, a lot of choke and a deep shudder. My son is a bit the same, newer bodywork, same starter-motor.

Not so my daughter. She is, in the manner of modern connected devices, ‘always on’. I honestly think I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of occasions I’ve seen her wake-up in the morning. I’m usually conked out and woken by her pretty bright eyes staring in my face at 6.30am, herself having already been awake and busy for at least half an hour.

Unusual then to catch her waking, as I did this morning. Back from camping (again) yesterday she was clearly in need of a slightly longer beauty sleep. I was woken by my son and we went to find her. There she was, sprawled elegantly across her bunk bed, tresses scattered across the pillow – fast asleep. But only for a moment.

Sensing motion in her vicinity, her eyes blinked wide open. She immediately sat bolt upright and, without pausing for a breath, began talking instantly. “It’s (her friend) Uma’s birthday today, now we’re exactly the same age!” she chimed. And the babbling brook of her, temporarily interrupted, stream of consciousness immediately began to flow again. Spectacular.

I can but marvel at how her morning workings can be so different from mine. She, precision clockwork, me an Austin Maxi. Another day begins.

Man’s Best Friend

Unprecedentedly, I’m home alone this weekend. I’ve cooked some tasty meals, listened to some absorbing cricket, cleaned the fish tank, sunk a few beers, watched some great films, done some washing, tidied up, been late to bed, lied in. And now I’m out for a walk.

It’s a lovely sunny day. But it’s a solitary business walking without a child. No-one to hassle me for sweets or ice cream. No scooters, wobbling bikes, tripping up, tears, bruises or grumbles about being bored… And so my mind wanders to my erstwhile furry companion.

Poor old Mr Tumnus. His ashes in a box and his spirit in the sky in a red jacket, lapping powerfully just behind an electric bunny. I miss the old boy today. My kids have more than replaced him. But when they get older and need me less, I think I’ll need another hound to accompany me. Around about my 50th birthday I reckon. Watch this space.

The Undiscovered Continent

I discovered a poem I liked by Emily Dickinson in a poetry anthology. Her words seemed fresh, direct and unaffected. So I looked to see whether she was still writing. A surprise then to see she wrote the words in 1862.

I asked my partner who knows more about literature than me. ‘She’s American, I think’ she said. Transpires she is, from Massachusetts. Reclusive and introverted, Emily lived through letters. But, as with many writers throughout history, it only became evident how much she’d written after her death. Thousands of poems.

She lived much of her later life in what she called the ‘undiscovered continent’ of the mind and soul. She seemed to think of it as an almost a physical place you can inhabit and explore.

This set me thinking – puttering through slow traffic today – of Socrates. He thought everything could be discovered by earnest dialogue and reason – the answers are all there to be found in our heads if we are rigourous and vigourous enough.

Or Berkeley the ‘idealist’ philosopher, who argued that everything we see, touch and feel is ‘mind’ not matter. Then there are contemporary philosophers, who tease undergraduates with solipsism, asking ‘Are we sure it’s not all in our heads’.

The ‘undiscovered continent’ of the mind is a tempting destination. But it’s attractions need to be treated with care. Life is enriched by real world observation and experience and is best explored with friends.

A reclusive life might find order. But the beauty and brutality of nature, the intense experiences of life and the fickle gods of chance are in the material world. The ‘undiscovered continent’ is a place I like to visit, but isn’t a place to live I feel.

Here’s the line from Emily Dickinson which drew me to her and her poetry.

I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose, more numerous of windows – superior for doors.

Poetry in Motion

A few weeks ago, newly enamoured of poetry, I wrote a short ditty to capture what I think increasingly drives my life. It came out quite easily so I guessed it might be quite close. But then I forgot about it. Sat in traffic in the rain today, the last two lines came back to me unbidden. It has clearly lodged in my subconscious. So here it is:

Pay attention to life with bright eyes and keen ears.
Helped by poets and thinkers, refine hopes; master fears.

Embroider each minute and day of my years
with friendship and love and knowledge and ideas.

And the main credits are: for line 1) Montaigne and Aristotle; line 2) Aristotle, Kay, Csikszentmihalyi, Nietzsche, Homer, Armitage, Aquinas, McCabe, Socrates, Stoics, Sceptics; line 3) Me latterly; and line 4) Aristotle, Aquinas, my Friends in Contemplation, my family, reading, writing, work.

I’m not sure I’ll get a poster on the subway for these lines of rhyme, but they are pretty much where Eudaimonia lies for me I think.

Tragedies

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Simon Armitage’s updating of The Odyssey this week – a rattling good read, in my view. Our hero Odysseus, helped by Athene – and in spite of Poseidon and the only sometimes benign neglect of Zeus – overcomes a decade of trials and torments to return to the arms of his long-suffering Penelope.

Serendipitously, I also heard a Philosophy Bites about Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche argued Greek Tragedies were the perfect human and artistic response to the balance of ‘Dionysian’ chaos and ‘Apollonian’ order in life. The world is chaos and disorder (fickle gods) but humans can briefly rise above that to create pockets and moments of order (depending on the goodwill of the gods).

This tension of chaos and order, it is suggested, energises, drives virtue, excellence and courage and guards us against hubris and vanity. For Nietzsche, tragedies and myths enriched and invigorated Athenian culture, fuelling its dynamism, optimism and creativity – a latter day ‘Yes we can’ despite all evidence to the contrary.

I think he’s onto something. Planet Earth is an extraordinarily delicate life-boat in a cosmos of nothingness occasionally punctuated by ice, fire and crushing gravity. And our world wasn’t always so benign. On hols in France – watching an improbably large stork fly overhead – I was reminded of massive raptors bouyed by high levels of atmospheric oxygen, avoiding the constant vulcanism and raging forest fires which were the Carboniferous era. Pretty Dionysian. As The Odyssey teaches we can be heroic and stoic, but we are mere mortals against primal forces.

Enter Socrates – everything can be learned, mastered and understood by unrelenting reasoned debate and dialogue. The human mind can penetrate the deepest mysteries and bring order to nature’s chaos. And indeed we can to some degree – with a bit of observation and Aristotle’s scientific method thrown in. But like Odysseus, Achilles or Icarus we can all be raised up and brought low by the fates, with only chaos and chance as explanations.

For Nietzsche the pre-Socratic Greeks had it right. Tragedy and myths were the spiritual batteries of their culture – their way of coping with an unpredictable and inhospitable mother nature. But they could, through luck, bravery and virtue, enjoy moments of truimph and joy. Art lifted their spirits and their culture.

But then along came Socrates who badgered us into believing the world was rational. I like the Socratic method – stepping outside your own beliefs to examine them and debate them with others – but not his unintended consequence. Nietzsche accuses Socrates of killing art with reason and, with it, art’s ability to help us live with and laugh in the face of chaos.

I’ve cited Armitage’s Odysseus three times at work this week. It helped me and others understand and deal with our workplace fates and some all too human failings. It made us reflect, laugh a bit and cope better. Art imitating life or life imitating art? Either way, stepping outside our local tragedies to reflect on ancient ones seemed to help.

Obituary

We had another big leaving do at work this week. Hard to do justice to over 30 years (by my rough estimate 8,000 or so working days) of a person’s working life in 15 minutes of speeches, but it felt a bit flat all told.

A friend of mine I spoke to at the event, put me onto the ‘QI Book of the Dead’ before Christmas. Several dozen great men and women, of all times and places, types and backgrounds. From Ghengis Khan to Henry Ford, Florence Nightingale to Emma, Lady Hamilton (left). They are a remarkable bunch. It’s an easy and enjoyable read. I won’t spoil its many surprises here. But three things stood out for me:

1) You absolutely can’t write your own epitaph

2) Many of the most famous and powerful people died in disgrace, despair or destitution – but often didn’t care so much about it in the end.

3) Most of the thinkers we revere today were completely ignored in their own lifetimes.

It summed up for me to: enjoy the day, follow your passions, have fun, and, if any of it is remembered, it probably won’t be what you expected. I think I’ll let go of my obituary, it won’t be me who writes it – either in work or life.

Personas

I’ve had several prompts recently to think about multiple personas. I’ve got a few different ones, and I was wondering the other morning whether this is good, bad or inevitable. First the prompts – and they are an eclectic bunch 1) Kierkegaard 2) venn diagrams and voluntary redundancy 3) the Portuguese writer Pessoa 4) the iPad 5) a Civil Servant I admire 6) cufflinks 7) a theory of very old age 8) a friend at work

Basically my question to myself as I walked into the office was: “Would I be happier if I was exactly the same person at work as I am at home?” My conclusion is not yet, but maybe one day. Here’s a veritable magpies nest of ideas in support of that thesis:

1) I am almost certainly in Kierkegaard’s ‘Ethical’ stage of life. Kierkegaard defines three stages of life in ‘Stages on life’s way‘: the Aesthetic, the Ethical and the Religious. He writes:

The aesthetic sphere is the sphere of immediacy, the ethical the sphere of requirement (and this requirement is so infinite that the individual always goes bankrupt), the religious the sphere of fulfilment.

In the ethical phase of life we seek to find ourselves in the jobs and roles we hold: father, manager, dog owner, minor pillar of the local community. Each of these roles requires things of us. To be the ‘ideal form’ of any of these roles is hard – to achieve the ideal in all simultaneously is impossible – hence Kierkegaard’s infinite requirement and inevitable bankruptcy. Thus, as I read him, we either reduce the number of roles (Kierkegaard I note spurned his true love to focus on writing) or we face varying degrees of falling short and dissatisfaction, until we give up trying please everyone and find solace in a one to one with God.

2) I’ve written about the salutary experience of seeing senior people leaving my organisation and realising the organisation defines their identity more than anything else in their lives. I conclude it is not wise to find one’s identity in a single role – especially one as fickle as a salaried job.

3) I read this week that Pessoa seemed to be a pretty uninteresting chap until a large chest of papers was discovered after his death with myriad texts written in myriad different identities – his heteronyms as he called them.

4) I don’t take my iPad to work. Partly, given they are still considered ostentatious, to avoid the ‘jeering’, which Epictetus invites us to brace ourselves for when attempting any self improvement. The prime reason though is it has pictures of my kids, my private thoughts and Apps which reveal my passions, idiosyncrasies and neuroses. It’s me and that’s my business not my work’s business.

5) The UK Civil Service distorted me as a person. It made me introverted, glum and bleak. A Civil Servant I admire always keeps his glass half full, despite the burden of being substantially responsible for the criminal justice system. I talked to him about trying blogging the other day – I blog at work too – and then immediately stopped myself. There’s no way he could blog in his job. He’d be leaked, misconstrued and pilloried in the press within hours if he wrote anything interesting. The ‘ideal type’ of the true Civil Servant cannot be entirely candid. The ‘ethical phase’ of his life requires great patience and careful manoeuvring to serve his higher purpose.

6) My daughter chose some heart shaped cufflinks for me for Christmas. I felt bad because I thought they were inappropriate for work. I asked a friend, he agreed. I asked another. He said: “Wear them, it’s who you are”. I wore them to our Management Board this week. Nothing bad happened.

7) My mother-in-law says that, in her experience of others, beyond 90 years of age people become the very essence of themselves. She had a friend who worked in fashion who beyond 90 became interested only in the appearance of others. A friend at work told me a relative who had been a spy became absorbed in a deeply secret mission in her final years. Neither was doolally, both simply became the essence of their prime persona in very old age.

8) A close friend advised me to be ‘me’ first and derive my work persona from the true ‘me’.

My synthesis from these prompts is this:

I have lived through my ‘Aesthetic stage’ and pursued beauty, booze and hedonism. I am now firmly in my ‘Ethical stage’. I have chosen to take on many roles: life partner, dog owner, father, director, volunteer, committee man, ascetic, philosopher and I am seeking fulfilment by chasing the ‘ideal’ in each. At times the demands and circumstances of one jostles the others. And some roles don’t fit me or mess up the others – being a Senior Civil Servant did. But mostly, despite Kierkegaard’s warning, their requirements are being met. I am not yet bankrupted by their demands and thanks to Aristotle and others I’m optimistic I can keep to a modest overdraft in meeting the needs of most of my ecosystem most of the time.

I suspect, at this stage of my life, seeking to fulfil all these roles is an essential part of finding my own essence. None of these entirely define the person I am or will become, some will fit me more or less well. If any of them excessively distort or damage the others I need to redefine the ‘terms of trade’ or stop doing it. Let them all get out of hand and I’ll dip into fatigue or get ill. Let one get too far out of step and dominate, and the others will suffer. Cordon off a secret role and some of what I’m about will disappear into a Pessoan private trunk. And that would be bad, because Kierkegaard advises that the guiding light in the ‘Ethical Stage’ is honesty and transparency.

So who am I? At the moment I am my multiple personas. The essence will be revealed in time, but for now I am simply the sum of my roles, no more no less. And given how important some of those roles are to me, I think that feels fine for now.

Today

I heard Simon Armitage read his poem ‘Knowing what we know now’ on the Today Programme on Radio 4 on Wednesday. It features an Elf who makes the offer of turning the clock back to a man who is 44 – exactly half-way to the end of his life. It has a twist in its tale which I didn’t welcome but it certainly set me thinking. 

As I’ve written before it’s increasingly likely that I’m at, or close to, what Armitage’s elf calls the ‘tipping point’ – the half way mark. On Saturday morning in an unconnected thought I put it to myself, what am I going to do that will be memorable today? Cue 3 year old. I spent 3 hours doing 3 miles and 3 parks on a scooter with my son. We had great fun on what could otherwise have been a grey day. I love that boy.

Pondering it this evening, I thought to myself; what would be different if I counted life more often in days, not halves or years? Tapping 365 into a calculator, I realised that in the last year or so I’ve passed the milestone of living over 15,000 days. It’s a bit like when all the 9s turn over on another 10,000 on your car milage. That’s a lot of days. And since I reckon I have a reasonable hope of living another 15,000 that’s a lot of great days if I make them so.

And this reminded me of Seneca’s: ‘On the shortness of life‘. At the start he gently criticises Aristotle for bemoaning that nature has given man such a short span of life, for our many and great achievements, when animals have so long for so little. Seneca disagrees:

‘It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste so much of it.’

I listened to a very experienced and senior person describe his career on Friday. He had many thought-provoking things to say. But the one that stuck the most for me was a comparatively obvious one; you’ll spend more time working than doing anything else so make sure you do something you enjoy. He used the word ‘fun’ all the time to describe his work – great, enormous, tremendous… fun. Not a word I use anywhere near enough describe my working life.

And that is the thing I’ve been thinking about this weekend: enjoyment, fun and spontaneity. Thinking I’m half way to death makes me sombre and cerebral. Thinking I’ve got another 40 years, and probably another 20 odd of work, makes me think about my career and mortgage and school fees. Thinking I’ve got another 15,000 days makes me think about today – what’s going to be today’s highlight, what’s going to be today’s memory, what’s going to be today’s fun. 

As Seneca has it, the philosopher makes his life long by recollecting the past, using the present and anticipating the future. The most important of these for me though is remembering to have fun – today. 

Time

In this age of austerity, a lot of people are leaving my organisation through voluntary redundancy. Voluntary redundancy can be quite a good way to part company, but inevitably for some when the moment of farewell comes it is hard. Different people deal with it in different ways. Some have a knees up, some have and make speeches. Some slip away quietly, others have a go at the ‘leadership’ which includes me.

I’ve noticed though that some people – especially those who are nearly or over 60 and who have worked for 25 to 30 years for us – get quite frantic. This manifests itself as an incredible drive to get things ‘fixed’ before they leave. This can be their overall legacy, a last piece of work or sometimes just a detail they feel they can’t rest until they’ve sorted. It reminds me of the ‘nesting’ stuff we did before our first child was born – objectively you need to focus on the big change coming in your life, but instead you fuss about cot sheets, wallpaper and in our case finishing building the kitchen.

I was talking to a thoughtful and clever person at work about this today and I advanced my emergent theory of the ‘sands of time double whammy’. I believe our brains are Bayesian probability engines. Everything we do, see and think in some way gets incorporated into our brain so that we act and react based on a quasi-instinctive, but highly tuned estimation of the ‘thing to do’ in any situation based on the vast experience dataset we carry in our heads. So why the ‘double whammy’?

My theory (constructed in a thoroughly Bayesian fashion through a blend of unremembered facts, data, experience and sources) is that our perception of time over duration is relative – and related to how long we’ve been alive. My thesis is that the reason summer holidays seemed endless when I was little is bacause 6 weeks when you’ve only lived a few hundred weeks is a significant proportion of your total life. 6 weeks when you’ve lived several thousand weeks is much less – hence it feels like it passes faster.

Of course we could argue about the stimuli, as an adult you’re busier as a child you have days and days doing the same things. But it seems to me – and I’ve observed in others – as you age the passage of time accelerates. A Bayesian brain which logs everything is hardly going to ignore hard earned experience so new experiences and today must compete for salience with old and the many yesterdays.

That’s half the ‘whammy’. The other half is the ‘sands of time problem’. At 40 something I can still reassure myself I have a good chance of living as long again as I have lived so far. A good chance. But I know that’s becoming increasingly untenable. Within the next 5 years the odds of doubling my life so far will diminish rapidly.

So how will I feel when I am nearly 60, potentially leaving a life’s work, time running faster and faster and the end looming closer and closer? As I said to two different people today, come find me with a gun and shoot me if I’m still working flat out in an Executive job when I’m in my middle fifties.

Not that I’d be too old, just that my days will be racing away and the sands of my time pouring through my hourglass. If I’m still trying to please my boss, make my end of year targets and conjure up another organisation change I need to move on and get a life before the end of life gets me.

Mourning

It has been a sad week for me. We took our trusty hound to be put to sleep on Tuesday. A bad business. He really was on his last legs with a huge tumour on his side, but it’s a horrible thing to have to go and do and will haunt me for a long time.

What shocked me was feeling the life go out of him. I was holding his head and his breathing became shallower, his nostrils flared progressively less and the tension went from his neck. Then I let go and saw him twitch a little, his once powerful shoulders suddenly sunken and then expected him to turn his head to look at me – perhaps accusingly.

But instead his eyes were fixed ahead and his muzzle rested on the floor. My partner wanted to close his eyes, but couldn’t and I saw his lower eyelid livid red and starting to sag. And I realised he was definitively gone.

Entropy, whichever law of thermodynamics, blind watchmakers, all hadn’t prepared me to see the organising energy which is life simply disappear in front of my eyes. He went from faithful companion, pain in the ass, geriatric incontinent and once proud rosette and race winner to a heap of skin, bone, microbes and sagging eyelid.

Whatever else life is, it is the most extraordinary force. We all take it for granted and seldom actually see it disappear in front of us in modern life. It’s the first time I’ve actually been with a large living thing when it died. I dread being with a human at their end but recognise one day I likely will.

I was shocked and chastened by seeing the very end of a life – 6 stone in weight, 3.5 feet high, 6 feet sprawled, 45 mph cruising speed, a big powerful, dopey, loveable, furry, white socked, bad breathed, friendly to everyone, cat chasing, stair jumping, bed stealing, door greeting, under your feet getting, leaning on you when stroked, tiger striped ex-racing Greyhound.

He’s chasing bunnies again in his dreams and is at rest. It’s a stark reminder for me though of how fragile, precious and extraordinary simply being alive actually is. And I understand now, perhaps for the first time, what mourning means.