Do you ever catch yourself wondering if the best is yet to come or if it’s finished? I ask that particularly in terms of achievements and experiences. Do we finish with our most remarkable experiences when we’re young? Do I still have anything left in me to break the surface, or is it humdrum from now on in? December sees the birth of my first baby – sure to be a special moment. But professionally, is it just about getting the pension, paying off the mortgage and getting the girls through university now? Am I ever going to make waves again?
Entering my final week in Dubai, it’s a good time to reflect on my experiences here. What I find when I think about the very best times and the things which will bring a warm glow long after I leave is that they never had anything to do with possessions or having significant amounts of money. And yet, on a daily basis in Dubai you’re told just the opposite – lots of money buys the most luxury and the most satisfying experiences. Deep down we kind of know this is a lie, and so advertisers cleverly seek to associate the expensive luxury thing with the feelings of satisfaction that come from things that are normally free. It’s a point I tried to make a few months back here.
Dubai has some very very rich people. My wife has made friends with a few through her English classes – when you scratch the surface there’s a hotch potch of unhappy wives, unsatisfied husbands, split families. Some are happy, some are sad – but whether the homes have ten bedrooms and gold taps or not has little to do with it.
When were the best times? Jogging through the streets for three hours, playing football with friends in the cooler months, eating a simple meal at 4am, watching the sun go down while camping in the mountains, enjoying a cheap curry with my mum and dad in Deira, lying on the grass on a June evening in JLT with my wife and the girls. A marketeer could take any one of those moments and make it into an advert (with more attractive actors) for a watch, a family insurance plan, a deodorant, an item of clothing – and then claim that the joy and satisfaction of that moment was due to the product we owned or were wearing. As if the source of the feelings came from a logo.
And so, at my best, I’m indifferent to the food we’re eating, or the style of music, or whether they’re serving alcohol or not. The key question is – is this a good time spent with good people? I need to push myself to emphasize this more and sometimes I miss golden opportunities. Last night after midnight following a late evening meal, I took a taxi home rather than walking 200m Jules and Jim style along the promenade with two of my best friends here. I usually pride myself in calling these better.
The final thing is that activities – ‘doing stuff’ – is often a key part of good times. There’s only so much eating and talking you can take, and these things rarely get epic. In my new posting, I hope to do more stuff – whether it’s hiking or surfing, or volleyball or photography.
I was in Heathrow airport a few weeks ago waiting for a flight. A strange thought entered my head: why not do some push-ups? You’ll think the idea ridiculous, but it’s an interesting thought experiment. If you’re not into sport, then you could substitute the idea with: ‘why not talk to a random person or complement someone on something they’re wearing?’ Doing a little exercise before going in the plane would do me good – the long-term benefits would be useful. There would be no cost, especially as we all had plenty of time on our hands waiting 30 minutes to board the plane. Sometimes you’ve run out of podcasts and you’re too tired to read. Often we find ourselves in situations where the preferred option (though almost certainly the least beneficial) is to do nothing with a part of our oh so precious lives.
The fair answer I think is that we all carry around unwritten rules in our head about how to behave. It’s like we impose rules on our lives which have the same force as if something was actually illegal. Second to that, we care that people might think we’re doing something ridiculous even though we don’t know anyone around us and no-one knows us, and we’ll never see them ever again.
I’m not quite prepared to do such things, but as a related theme, I do hope to find little 1-2 minute gaps in my day where you can do a few of these good habits. And then of course, if you’re a writer, you can be a little more outrageous and get good material.
Yes, there’s a baby on the way. And yet, apparently oblivious, I’m already preparing my goals, objectives and targets for 2015. And, in that annual resolutions document (that as ever runs to a couple+ pages) there’s nothing about the baby (though with a wink, it was one of the objectives for this year, successfully ticked off of course).
Common experience would predict that once you have a new born, all life outside of work grinds to a halt, ambitions cease, and life becomes about the baby and little else. As has been remarked here before, people with children who are seen as successes, generally have very supportive wives and serious problems with their children.
So, should I scrap objectives for the next twenty years and just concentrate on being a great Dad? For the time being, I’m going to try and soldier on. A few things give me hope – first, I’ll be in Africa where home help is easy and affordable. Getting baby sitters is rarely a problem on the continent, especially for a beautiful caramel-skinned baby. Secondly, my wife doesn’t work outside the home, and is extremely hard working in the home. I need to be conscious of making sure I’m around and helping out (and there’ll be plenty of time for the baby), while at the same time finding space to continue with goals. My thoughts for 2015 are to concentrate efforts on five key objectives – Church, writing life, getting super fit, improving photo/video skills and being a good friend. And much will hinge on getting a couple of hours set-up each morning before work to work on these. I’m moving country at the end of next week, which gives me the final quarter of the year to try to bed down new habits and routines in Freetown.
My best friend in Dubai said to me yesterday: « I think you’re spending too much money on electronics », later adding something along the lines of, but in most other areas you’re pretty sensible with money.
What to make of this? Firstly, it’s not often that we have people close enough who can make such remarks. How often do we not say such honest things to our friends? It’s more common not have people who know us well enough to be able to make such comments.
The second question, is whether of course the comment is true? It’s certainly worth reflecting on. I have bought a number of gadgets in the past few weeks. Let’s go through the list:
– a digital SLR camera with lens, plus iphone 4
– a Samsung S4 for my daughter
– a Sony camcorder
– and now, an expensive lens for my camera
That seems like a lot. But let me try and justify things. The first items were ordered by a friend in Abidjan who has already paid me for them through my Ivorian account. So, although my credit card took a blow, there’s no money lost and no addition to my stock of possessions. Item two, is a family promise that on graduating from school, you get a smartphone and a laptop. The latter still needs to be bought. Item three was something cheapish, but I think important for filming the start of life for my up-coming baby daughter. For me, such memories are precious, especially as I’ll probably miss out on a fair bit over the coming months because I won’t be with my wife.
The latter is the most expensive item on the list – a top of the range Canon prime lens for my digital SLR. To justify this purchase, I’ll say that camera enthusiasts are generally big spenders and love the latest gismos. For my part, I’ve had three SLRs, all in the Rebel range since 2004. I’ve sold a lot of photo and video work through these cameras and definitely recuperated my investments. I’ve generally not bought lenses, or just cheapish ones. For the last two years, the only lens on my camera has been the $200 40mm pancake lens, which gives decent images and has a very low form factor. I have the cheapest tripod imaginable. But it’s time to take my photos to another level, and I was inspired by this set of photos, many of which were taken with the lens I’ve just bought (24mm, 1.4). I’m well aware of the danger of thinking that gadgets make the photographer, but I really believe this lens will help me capture a different range of images in my new job.
In general, is the charge true? Many people might reply: who cares as long as you can afford it? For me though, I hope it’s a key value in my life to be modest, even austere, and not to waste money in the good times and so get used to a standard of living that I have to make too many sacrifices to maintain throughout my life. That seems like a loss of freedom to me. My happiness and productivity have never been linked to how much money I’ve earned.
So, am I (or have a become) a gadget lover? I used to pride myself for having the cheapest Nokia phone possible while in Abidjan. Have I lost the plot and become corrupted?
Looking around my apartment gives a few different answers. On the positive side first, I have an electric guitar – second hand, cheap and being sold tomorrow for close to what I initially paid for it. I have this work laptop, which is my main computer – nothing fancy, no cost, and going back to my employer in two weeks. I listen to music on an ipod shuffle – cheap and practical. Headphones are cheap.
On neutral ground is a Swatch watch – more expensive than a time piece needs to be, but hardly breaking the bank. There’s a Kindle as well – the cheapest ‘tablet’ you can get, and nothing more than a reader. I don’t think it qualifies as extravagant, even if it is another gadget.
On the negative side, in front of me I have a 42 inch 3D television with blu-ray player and a (basic) cable network package. Seems extravagant, especially as apart from the occasional film, I don’t actually watch television. This was really a concession to my wife – she didn’t actually ask for it, but in my mind, it would be a symbol for her of us being comfortable in Dubai. I guess it does qualify as wasteful, though I hope to get a good price for it when I sell. It was about the only thing I didn’t buy second hand for the flat. I could easily live without a television, but we can’t force our own values and interests on other people including our partners.
Then there’s my phone – I have just one (well, I use my old Nokia when I travel) and it’s a Samsung Galaxy S3 with a cracked screen. Is it cutting edge? No. Is it an expensive, sophisticated phone? Yes. Is is well used? Yes daily, as a reader, social media tool and camera. I could happily keep this phone for many years to come, and I certainly don’t see the need for a bigger screen, better resolution or finer camera. I don’t feel guilty about this luxury. I also don’t have a contract – I just top up when I need to, and I’d guess I’ve spent no more than 300 aed on phone credit this year.
I have a GPS sports watch (a gift from the above mentioned friend), which tracks my running and was an incredible asset during my marathon.
Finally, and most worryingly, there’s an iMac sitting on the table, almost never used. It’s definitely the worst purchase I made in Dubai. In its defence, I think its time has yet to come, and it still retains value. When I leave Dubai, it will be the only computer I have on me, and everyone needs a computer. It is in some ways crucial for my 2015 goals in multimedia work. But I regret not buying the laptop version, and buying something that I haven’t made greater use of.
Is there a conclusion to this? It’s clear I have quite a few electronic gadgets, many of which are rather sophisticated. There’s something that doesn’t quite fit there for someone who claims to value ideas of modesty, austerity and the simple life. There are definite warning flags. Then again, with few exceptions, these gadgets are well-used and bring a lot to my life in terms of achieving goals, productivity and enjoyment. I get the point though, that I need to be careful. As a great man said: « Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions. »
A wider issue, for which I don’t have an answer to, is how to install values in your family. If your daughter feels a state-of-the-art smartphone is a key reward and sign of parental love, what should you do?
Do you sometimes look down at your body and think: ‘Which bit of you is going to let me down?’ For most of us, there’s a part of our body which fill finish us off. Perhaps the signs are already there if anyone bothered to look really closely – maybe right now there’s a little indicator that all is not as it should be with your bowels, that there’s a strange growth in your pancreas, that the prostate is swelling or that the heart is struggling just a fraction. It’s nothing for the time being, but in the coming decades things will get worse, and you’ll develop both an intimate knowledge of the particular ailing body part that’s plaguing you, and an amazement that you never quite appreciated the trouble-free functioning of that organ during your earlier life. Maybe you’re currently in total ignorance of the existence of what will eventually turn out to be the cause of the end of your existence on earth.
We can never truly appreciate things until they are gone. So, although we can try be conscious about the fact that running and jumping and swimming are far from the most ordinary and every day activities, in a short time, we will dream of such care-free movement. I praise my Creator for being fearfully and wonderfully made, and I’ll try and make the most of it while I can. What people twice my age would give just to kick a football around as I can now.
I’m definitely in a season of goodbyes. Before heading to CAR, the office held a moving leaving party for me (I found the balloons still there when I returned (some thought I wouldn’t), which I ended up taking down myself). While away, one colleague left. Yesterday, another left. I leave Dubai for good in two weeks. I still have my leaving ceremony from Bangui fresh in my mind. I also happened to stumble on the opening scenes of About Schmidt recently when it was shown on tv here, in which the Jack Nicholson character retires from his long career in white collar work.
My colleague yesterday said she didn’t want a present (who needs more stuff to fill suitcases?) but insisted on the leaving card. This is right – the expressions and photos in a good card are extremely precious. I like reducing my possessions as and when I can, but some objects – leaving cards included – are in a magical category that are worth keeping. I still have my first leaving card from when I left school in Salford, Manchester, aged eight.
The ceremonies around the day itself can frequently be a disappointment, something that’s brought out well in About Schmidt. When you’re full of the sadness of saying goodbye, it’s easy to feel that others aren’t treating the moment with the same seriousness. Words frequently fall short of the beauty of certain experiences. The great risk is that things fall flat, and you’re left thinking – is that really all they thought of me? Or, did it all just amount to that? Behind much of this is the fact that at the end of the day, few things we do are of lasting significance – we can put so many hours of our days, and stress over office tasks, that on reflection quickly lose their importance.
Twelve months ago I was getting serious about training for the Dubai marathon despite the intense summer humidity. Eight months ago I ran the race. Now I can barely run 4km.
So, how do things seem looking back? The thrill of completing the marathon was great, but I realise now that the things I most miss are the long morning training runs; heading out for three hours with a few podcasts lined up, and returning home at 8/9 in the morning just as the family were waking up. You felt like you’d won a battle with yourself before others had made the tea. The 42km of the marathon is lined by crowds cheering you on. The 32km you do a few weeks before is done completely alone, and often for large sections in the dark. Just running and running – it makes you feel powerful.
Some other reflections:
i) Heavy training doesn’t make you feel much fitter – most weeks you’ve got some niggle, or a slight injury, or general stiffness. Often you’re hobbling. You may be at peak fitness, but you don’t feel it.
ii) It’s no way to lose weight – I think I stayed at more or less the same level.
iii) I don’t feel it sucked up an inordinate amount of time, though on paper ten sessions a week is a lot of hours. I like doing most of my sport in the morning when others are sleeping, and since the race I try to do something every morning regardless of the marathon.
iv) The post-marathon fitness buzz is incredible – you feel (and know) that you’ll probably never be fitter. It does wonders for your football – you can run and run.
v) My perception is that you keep some underlying fitness for a while, but honestly my ability to run even a few kilometres at the speed I ran the marathon is extremely limited. Maybe it’s the lack of motivation. It’s a disappointment losing what you worked hard to gain.
After three months in the Central African Republic (CAR) without iTunes, the list of downloaded unheard podcasts is on the long side. On Thursday, i was working my way through the Point of View podcast series from the BBC, which in my mind is one of the best out there, especially when Wil Self is essay-ing. You get such a dense series of thoughts on a diverse range of topics.
Podcasts and other radio programmes are a good way for me to feel part of a community, even if it hardly qualifies as a real community (the conversation being rather one-way). I’m often struck by how Radio 4 news programmes can see people like Rousseau dropped into informal conversation, and everyone knows the point being made. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in physical company where Rousseau’s work is known, understood and referred to, while on high-brow radio it seems like the most normal thing. The other day I heard a new book on the Chinese political economy as something that ‘of course everyone has read’.
There is something creative about moving job, country and city. It’s like the start of a new year multiplied by a factor of twenty. Out comes the notepad for resolutions. During this month of goodbyes, you have so many opportunities to reflect on what was good, what was special, what was worth doing, and also where you should have done things differently. In short, it’s a time for resolutions, reflections, and sometimes regrets. My arrival in Dubai is in the not so distant past, so I still have a sense of how I felt on arrival, what I’d aimed to do, and how things worked out.
Moving around so much really helps you to auto-correct and be self-reflective. I certainly have quite a few ideas for my new life in Freetown; two years down the track it’s almost déjà vu, and when history repeats, we can seek to apply lessons learned. Perhaps it’s even a life reborn.