Friday, August 16, 2013

Wisdom takes flight

WP_20130816_010It’s finally been a really good day, after two unnecessarily hard months, after struggle on too many fronts for much longer than that.  ‘Miss having someone to share it with, but it’s a good feeling, finally.

The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Recent reading (and Bubble Tea)

WP_20130814_006I’ve been on the road all week: London, Southampton, Poole and  Cambridge, angels and hospitals, critics and friends.  It’s meant a bit more windshield time than usual, some time browsing reading in outer offices waiting for appointments to arrive.  ‘Taken in the right spirit, it’s better than it sounds.

What have I learned?

That US web sites host more porn than any other country.  Followed, of course, by the Dutch with 187 million red-light pages.   Yes,that’s ten for every inhabitant.

Alicia Framis work - 1That Arnhem is hosting a “Fashion as Art” show, featuring works by Alicia Framis and others.  Details on the Museum voor moderne kunst site, of course.

That a Swiss saleswoman refused to show Oprah an   expensive handbag because she didn’t think someone overweight and black could afford it.  The article notes that upscale shops often assess potential customers with simple rules: As long as she is also carrying an expensive handbag or accompanied by a man who looks like he has means….  I’m dumbfounded that this still goes on.  In Europe.

The FT reports on the further deterioration of the Dutch housing market.  Austerity measures sap consumer confidence, household spending falls, and house prices follow.  They are currently down 21% from 2008, and 30% of all mortgages are under water.

A bunch of stories have appeared about my 5-2 diet, originally on BBC Horizon. It’s been rebranded “The Two-Day Diet” and has spawned a guide, website, and cookbook. I’m not sure why: you simply eat normally and then you don’t.  There is no cookbook (but then there would be nothing to sell…).

Lifehacker and NPR have both featured it, but my favorite bit came from the Telegraph: My children force-fed me to stop my mood swings from the 5-2 diet”.

Although I don’t blame the diet, I’m still not sleeping great: up every two hours and restless.  ‘Lifestyle is healthier than two months ago: I’m respecting the work day’s boundaries, a few hours morning and evening for a swim, errands and chores, variety in the kitchen and container pots.

Thyme has been a struggle though.

WP_20130811_004I can’t explain why: the books say it’s a matter of strong sun and dry soil, but mine still turns thready and dies back within a week.  The rosemary and parsley are fine in the same container, and there’s no stopping the basil and mint.

WP_20130816_007One forum suggested that the problem could be the source: there’s a difference between thyme pots for cooking and thyme for growing.  The garden store confirmed and put me on the right track: a hardier variety grown a bit more mature.

Same, to a lesser extent, with rosemary.

WP_20130815_004Then there was the Bubble Tea experience.  University of Southampton, a very Japanese corner of the Student Union.  Partly a coconut-milk and fruit smoothie concoction, but infused with little membrane-y flavour-balls.  ‘Hard to describe, but tasty and interesting.  It just needs some carbonation for a hot day to make it perfect.WP_20130815_003


And I am trademarking the name “Smiles, Hugs, and LPTs” for a band I want to assemble.  Don’t ask…

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

One year on

A friend sent me two pictures to mark the one-year passage of  life.  It’s deeply instructive, as she noted.

photo July 2013In 2013, I look aged and defeated in this view from Barrington.  The bookshelves hold possessions remaining and the smile is forced. My face is lined, my weight was under 11 stone.  I remember being torn between rebuilding or surrendering my plans for a full and happy life.

photo July 2014 - Copy (2)In 2014, I remember the hiking along the seashore, the breeze in my hair and the future in view.  I felt relaxed and content, my weight back to 11 stone 8, and my confidence in hand.

There are still bad days and long nights, hurt and sadness if I let my guard down.  I credit close friends and mij w.wezen with curbing my impulses and putting my feet onto a forward path,  feel well along towards a better alternative.

And hopefully never to end up as the expat at the end of the bar, the white-haired quiet one that nobody can recall when or how he arrived.

DSC08729 (1118x1300)Or the solitary septuagenarian strolling a boardwalk alone in Bournemouth.

DSC08732 (1226x1300)

Feeding the wolf

ListenA friend has been trying to lead me towards a different way of listening to difficult truths.  You can’t be so judgmental, she insists (although I’m not). You need to be open to hearing her perspective without disagreeing with it.  The Shrink and Sage similarly weigh in against “the habit of being overly critical, quick to jump to conclusions, rigid in one’s assessments, reluctant to examine one’s point of view.”

I failed our first run at it, challenging me about whether an effort to build a life with someone I cared deeply for was, in fact, doomed from the start, and caused entirely by my actions and choices.  The ensuing argument reverberated for weeks. 

This time I did better.  Knowing how I would feel about the topic we planned to discuss, how I would react to things that might be said,  I put it off until we could have a face-to-face conversation.  In sensitive areas, I recognized the autonomic signs in my gut, throat, and chest that signaled trouble, took deep breaths and stepped Connnectback from the emotion, cleared my mind and held my tongue. 

Her tale was difficult to hear, hurt for what was said, but I didn’t devolve into anger, sadness, or self-pity.  I didn’t question, control, or manipulate the story, listened openly and without judgment.  I did react twice, to  distortions or selective lies, but otherwise was proud of myself for keeping on a better path.

A day later, though, a wolf long-banished returned.

It was late at night, I was tired and stressed from the day’s work.  And there was a sudden and overwhelming emotion that welled up from my gut and enveloped me; tears started to run freely.  Like the morning’s breakdown in July, it was an uncontrollable physical reaction to intense emotional release.  Both frightened and embarrassed, I phoned a friend for help.  Together, we regained my stability and equilibrium.

griefWhat happened?  Setting aside the content of what I heard, was there something about the form and context of the conversation?  

On reflection, I believe i have separated what from how:

  • I listened openly and non-judgmentally, neither interrupting with questions nor trying to steer, control, or spin the story. But later there many questions, likely many more subconscious ones, as I took in what was said. And, alone in the dark, answers could only be imagined, guessed at, and nobody could help me to resolve them.

There still has to be an opportunity to clarify and react together: simply listening and storing away is not good, alone.

  • I was hearing the story indirectly, only the recollected spoken words.  They were most likely framed to another audience and purpose,  to my dutch friend and not to me.  Additionally, the original words were being transcribed from english to dutch to english, further filtered through inevitable cultural, professional, and personal biases.  This is, at best, impoverished and misleading communication.  80% of communication is unspoken prosody, transmitted through the vocal melody, rhythmic flow, facial expressions and body language of the person telling their story.   Absent this, spoken words are grey and ambiguous, perhaps conveying nothing at all and only fit to stir up fears and fantasies.

Communication has to be direct and complete: words alone are very incomplete and invite reinterpretation.

  • The circumstances imposed on me have cut me off from any knowledge or contact.  I’ve been repeatedly told that details were none of my business and i was forbidden from reaching out to fix things.  But, asymmetrically, I had now been wholly opened for inspection.  She held a detailed walk-through of my life, my children and parents, my work,  residences,  friends, and travel, any questions,  then discussion, for hours.   I do feel violated by both the intrusion and the commentary.

Sharing information must be reciprocal; collecting information secretly while concealing yourself is cowardly and transgressive.

  • Their meeting was secretly arranged with a purpose.  Whether to balance perceptions or to motivate actions, her purpose has a moral dimension: what is said or why fits into a clear right or wrong intention.  It is impossible to listen to lies presented as facts, 'objective' assertions about events that I know from personal experience are false, without judging. I cannot, as a human being, understand what is untrue, sympathize with what is selfish and hurtful, accept nor forgive what is vengeful and destructive, ever.

Open listening cannot equate to open acceptance: assimilation and accommodation must be in balance,  mediated by judgment.

So,  then, does forcing myself to listen openly and non-judgmentally help or hinder understanding, communication and healing?

The Shrink observes:

Making judgments is an essential part of what it means to be human. It seems vitally important to be able to assess what comes our way, discriminating between what is valuable and what should be avoided.  Unexamined judgments, however, are more likely to propel us towards unwise action. So it’s not a question of avoiding value judgments but of becoming aware of what they are and scrutinising them as much as possible, being open and questioning, challenging our immediate interpretations with plausible alternatives.

While the Sage reflects:

The desire to avoid judgment has some well-intentioned motivations. No one has infallible access to moral truth and there is more than one good way to live. But that does not mean that no one has any moral insight and that there aren’t many wrong ways to live.  Value judgments should be accompanied by caution and humility, but the uncritical stance of “anything goes” has gone.

So if there are difficulties with Open Listening without judgment, and if making the one you feedValue Judgments matters, then what are the good and bad ways to do so? 

In this, I am reminded of a Cherokee parable, right.

Making the correct decision really does come down to making a conscious choice.

A choice of which wolf I shall feed.

On forgiveness

forgivenessWe must be judgmental when there is something to be judged.

The past six months have been difficult, no secret to those who know me best.  No doubt, lots of the problems are of my own making.  But several severe jolts come from people closest to me, people who have simply, suddenly, gone bad in both words and deeds.  They have planned and schemed, deliberately and opportunistically, ending in ruthless and personal incidents.

Their behavior has been truly and repeatedly appalling.

How should I make sense of these events, come to terms with the people, put things into perspective, make good choices, and move on in life?  It’s hard: the first feeling is always to fix it or to get even.  Both are wrong.  They have spilled their issues publicly in ways that are impossible to respond to, and my reputation suffered from distorted truths and fabricated versions of reality already. Escalation confirms suspicion; isolation feeds resentment.

In truth, these people have taken something of deep value away from me, stole and destroyed things integral to me out of me.  I know it every time I get that tight feeling in my chest, recognize the cold feeling climbing from my stomach, or succumb to slow despair, sudden tears, or a flash of frustration.

Healing has to start with connection. weeks of talks and tears, with close friends who know me and who I trust. They can ask the insightful questions, listen to the deep pains, put an arm around during the darkest days.  They have talked me off of several cliffs, and I’m grateful.

I realized that I really needed to bring  life to a full stop, look hard at what happened, talk through what part I played in causing it.  I am deeply reflecting on what I should have done differently, need to change for my future.  I’m starting to understand the underlying context and causes.  I know that I’ve failed at simple matters: color-blind selfishness or tone-deaf communications, too many tasks or too little commitment.  Other causes are much more complex.  But errors of omission and commission, my own attitudes and behaviours, are a necessary first stop. 

I admit the first blame; I take my responsibility. It’s not the same as saying that I am wholly to blame, but it means that I have to face up to my part in triggering subsequent events. 

Then, where I have made mistakes, I sincerely apologize, I try to repair the damage, and I make sure that my errors don’t recur. I admit the real, human impacts caused by my actions, and the emotional pain that resulted. I make amends; I seek forgiveness.

And in return, I would expect to get at least an acknowledgement: affirming our human connection and happier times, admitting some reciprocal responsibility for their role in the situation, and some apology for the impacts of their actions.  Even if there is no future, people will want to make peace with the past: a simple ‘thank you, I’m sorry too’ is enough.  But it must be direct and sincere: passing an indirect message through mutual friends and colleagues is meaningless.

But if the response is 1) I am good :: you are bad, 2) I did what I had to do, and 3) I’m not responsible for unintended consequences, then that is seriously wrong.

People who externalize, publicize, escalate, and perpetuate their own hurt cross the line from simply exhibiting bad bahaviour to becoming truly bad people.

When they cross that line, what is the right way for me to deal with that?  Fight it out with them or turn the other cheek, repeatedly?  Lose confidence in my judgment of people or question my ability to have successful interactions and relationships?   Take the high road that I may someday look back on with pride, or the low road that simply lets me sleep at night?

There is also the public audience to consider.  There is always something to be said for defying expectations and being seen to behave well in the face of mean-spirited provocation.  And sometimes silence is the best reply: simply banish those who betrayed you.

A pressing question remains, though:  Do I, Should I, or Can I, forgive them if they have no regret for what they have done?  People insist that I will, and that I must, in every case.

I know that I have a choice, repeated every day.  I can demonize them and succumb to a general sense of failure with outsized frustration and anger, or I can work consciously to frame events  in a more balanced way and look to a constructive future.

Choosing a  compassionate, empathic human response is what I always strive for.  Not blind acceptance or foolish actions, but just to come to quiet understanding and perhaps even some sympathy for why they felt that they must do the things they have done.  In the end, I need to heal and to forgive myself in order to go on with life, apart.

The only people deserving of unconditional forgiveness are our children, often our parents, and a spouse or partner so long as they are still committed to me.  Ex’s and close friends, people we think we know and trust who then betray that gift, are least worthy without regret; colleagues and strangers who me may not really know can be difficult to judge and easier to forgive.

I can only forgive someone who shows regret.

It will not come to me otherwise.

My neighbors never apologized, never made amends.  It just became impossible to get past broken trust, deliberate betrayal, repeated provocations, and vengeful pain from people who don’t care about their actions or effects.  They’re deeply toxic, and, in the end, I simply left the village and a business without good-bye’s.  Maybe I’ll feel guilty about that decision some day, but none are worthy of conciliatory words or forgiving gestures today.

In the absence of simple human consideration, I can only move on.  But without giving forgiveness,  I’m sorry.  But acceptance lags understanding, sympathy, and action.

And I know that it means that I will always carry a bitter ember in my soul from them that always burns, one that can never heal. 

People will forget what you said.

People will forget what you did.

But people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou

Forgiving bad people

forgive 1I cannot forgive deeply hurtful acts willfully committed by others onto those close to them.

Selfish and cowardly, destructive and vengeful, how can I forgive those who have no regret, remorse, empathy, or accountability for what they have done?   What forgiveness is due those who offer no human word of explanation, sympathy or solace, commit terrible premeditated acts for which they take no responsibility?  Indeed,  the have deliberately tried to destroy my reputation,  kill my business,  and force me out of the country. 

I was, as some have observed,  naive: i didn't know that anyone I cared about and trusted could ever be capable of something like this.

And now, those same people preach forgiveness.

What good is done by forgiving bad people (as opposed to good people lapsing into bad behaviour)?

I can rationalize that in showing their true nature, I am free of them, saved from years of needless suffering trying to change them.  I’ve been given a chance, an involuntary choice, to move ahead with a better life.  Forgiveness as forgetting.

There are others who counsel that as emotion fades, I will come to understand, get perspective, and to have some sympathy for the other’s situation.  That I will come to accept, perhaps be able to forgive the person, if not their acts.  Forgiveness as closure.

Counselors remind me to take and stay on the high road, remember my audience and preserve my self-respect.  Let bad acts stand for themselves, delegitimize themselves, In the end, the world is just and karmic balance will prevail.  Forgiveness releases others.

These views are, however, mistaken.

There are acts which transcend bad behaviour.  They simply are, in duration and form, a result of character traits, not situational aberrations.  They are toxic products spawned of bad, not flawed, people.

Their acts are not, in any sense,  beneficial or 'good' : they are purely, existentially bad.  And I was unfortunate enough to be taken in by one of them.

Trying to find some good in bad people is misguided:  Life is too short,  too filled with wonder and opportunity, to linger in co-dependent hopelessness. Trying to impose good interpretations onto selfish, stupid, angry, deceptive, thoughtless and vengeful actions is wrong.  Evil cannot lead to good.

Rationalizing the behaviour of bad people only softens the boundaries and reinforces their power to do bad things.  It gives an unjustified  purchase for understanding, sympathy, acceptance and forgiveness to take root and sprout vulnerable shoots. Bad people have no legitimate claim to forgiveness.

Why didn’t I see it sooner?  Am I so stupid?   Did I hope too much?  Was I blinded by the best times, duped by excuses,  seduced by the Dream?  And,  always, unanswerable, why.

Sadly, good people are taken in by bad ones. 

In the end, i can acknowledge my wrongs,  make sincere amends to the innocents that i hurt, change my ways, and perhaps forgive my imperfections.

I cannot, will not, forgive bad people the hurt they intentionally and continuingly inflict on kind and good people around them.

Editorial: My 18-month day

Olive groveThis is an unusual day in the chronicles of Random Walks, mainly because its not a day at all.

In late June 2013, a year of increasingly difficult personal and business challenges finally came to a single point of crisis.  The event profoundly affected everything:  its consequences and emotions still hurt and challenge me every day.  Friends and professionals say that they always will, that I need to learn to learn to live with the changes and damages done to myself and my life.

But they also say that, like a physical illness, time will bring healing and some measure of peace.  18 months is the oft-cited recovery period, offered by friends and colleagues who’ve suffered loss on this scale in their professional or personal lives.

I’ve chosen August 14, 2013, somewhat arbitrarily, as the grove that I will visit to post my thoughts and, hopefully, mark my progress during my journey back.

These six entries will be spaced every three hours through the day, in sequence,  beginning at 2 am.  In the real world, though,  approximately three months will have passed between each essay.

These are necessary and honest personal reflections of my most difficult times and thoughts.  They have no other purpose.

Please leave them in solitude, as you may find them.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Acrid Tuesday

WP_20130813_003 (1200x1097)I was finishing a conference call with the US, pleasingly complete at 5 pm, when the apartment began to fill with smoke.

‘first thought was for my Crackling Pork Shoulder that went into the oven at 249C earlier.  I needed to turn the heat down to  190C at the half-hour, and I was a few minutes late:  the supporting onion halves might be charring.

But the smoke alarm was silent and the densest smoke was billowing brown outside.

I ran out the front and down a few doors, over a low brick wall into the yard fronting a modest ranch house.  I could already hear the crackling behind the house, and rounded the corner to find the garden ablaze, nobody tending.

I ran door to door right, left, center: nobody home anywhere.  A Shepreth man dropped his dog walk and came running across the cricket field, but neither of us had a phone to call the Brigade.  ‘back to the yard to find the flames licking up a 25-foot shrub towards the trees and house.  A wizened lady stood next to the blaze with a limp hose, water dribbling out.

‘You okay there?” asked the man; I said Excuse me and took the hose away, playing it up the burning shrub.

Two more neighbors arrived and surrounded the blazing garden,pointing out hot spots and suggesting where to stand for the best angles. WP_20130813_001 (1200x677) I crawled under the bushes and over the piles of sticks to get the worst of it. 

It took half an hour to reduce the fire to sodden ashes: Joy allowed that she had been trying to burn some papers and it had gotten beyond her.  She sweetly offered to make it up to me and asked if I drank. Her daughter came back from a dog walk to great surprise and to warn that the whole garden was built over a 10-foot deep cistern, generally unstable. 


In the end, the fire was out, nobody called the Brigade, Joy got some much-needed rest after all the excitement, and I WP_20130813_005 (1200x874)returned to the apartment, sooty and soaked, to check the remains off  my roast.

Which, in the  intervening 2 1/2 hours,  produced a superb Crackling, deep glossy gravy, and rich flavor that went perfectly with roast potatoes, spinach and Chilean Shiraz.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sunday reflections

WP_20130811_015There’s definitely an autumn tang in the air: crisp cool mornings, leaf-damp fogs, combines chewing through fields of wheat along the road to Royston.  My brother says  that there’s fresh snow in Colorado, just above the highest runs.  It’s Silverstarreally been a short summer, late to start and not enough breaks to restore the mind and spirit.

The FT asked about whether a retreat is better than a vacation, separating to focus on mental peace and well-being instead of connected physical relaxation and exploration.  The authors suggest using the silence to confront what is most real in the world, rather than turning your back on it.  But, for me, stillness awakes demons, and I wouldn’t try it without a companion to talk me through the shadows.

WP_20130811_004A few Sunday reading recommendations for expats:

Pirate Bay browser avoids censorship: I pay my TV license; I subscribe to NetFlix.  But if I want to download the Newsroom or Amazing race, watch 3 Days of the Condor or The Notebook, I have to pull a torrent file.  ISPs gave gotten very aggressive about blocking index sites like Pirate Bay; this utility helps.

Is Europe Still Worth the Schlep:  Has enough European culture already crossed the Atlantic to make a vacation irrelevant?  Superficially, yes, but there are yawning cultural and social differences that have to be experienced.  And castles and wines still don’t transport well…

House Hunting…Amsterdam:  What does $3m buy in the capital?  I’ve reached the age where photos of aspirational architecture is the new porn, and the slide set is lovely (although the rooms are surprisingly tight).  Alternatively, House Hunt…St. Maartens or Cambridge.

Britain is slamming its doors:  The barriers being erected against working expats grow by the day, and this FT essay gets a lot of it right.  12 months short of converting my Tier 1 to a permanence, the changing social climate leaves me wondering if it’s desirable any more.

WP_20130811_005My camera comes back from the shop tomorrow; I’ve missed pulling it out for a quick shot whenever light and motion catch my eye. 

Meanwhile, my Lumia 720 phone surprised me: the quality of the pictures has really been good.  They are sharp and vivid, twilight performance has been excellent.  Light balance is poor, it stops down to the  brightest part of the scene, overexposing sky and deepening shadows.  The aspect ratio is panoramic and the lens fogs easily, but those are minor considering the convenience. 

I can see where a phone camera might replace my pocket cam within another year,  even without a macro focus.

WP_20130811_007I’m still  broadening into cooking and container gardening: Leeks and Thyme are my current explorations. 

I put leeks in heavy erwtensoep, Dutch pea soup, but little else.  They are a staple in Wales, creamed leek and leak-and-potato dishes elsewhere.  I’ve got a good basic version going, but need to find the right spices to bring it alive.

Herbs are individuals.  Water and trimming that makes chives, basil, or mint happy is fatal to thyme, dill, and rosemary, who each like a full head of hair.  Thyme, in particular, is tricky, it insults easily and forgives slowly. Hopefully, with a better approach, it flourishes.

And, if wash hangs on the line overnight, is wet with heavy dew in the morning, should I let it dry or rewash it?

FB MessengerFacebook Messenger and Skype are messaging services that support SMS text and voice calls. Each  is cross platform, so I have copies on my phone, tablet, and computers. And each relays an indicator to friends that I am online or off.

But these programs run in the background, so as long as any device is on, I am on.  If I shut down one device, I’m probably still logged in on another, so friends think I’m around when I’m not.  I log in to find ‘chat heads’ asking why I don’t answer; every device in the house and car rings when a Skype call comes in.

It’s becoming socially problematic and impossible to manage. We have to get better state synchronization or I’ll have to start restricting apps to just one device.

clare 3And, last but never least, CamStent’s CFO, Clare Twemlow, finished the Mongol Derby successfully tied for third place!  Amazing Race, indeed: ‘can’t wait to see her pictures.