No shade in the shadow of the cross

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The withering trees at Glenorchy

It struck me over the weekend as I was sitting on a rigid and stained plastic chair, with lunch properly passed and the afternoon lull setting in with a roar, which is to say it struck me on the head like a frisbee tossed from my blind spot.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of motivation in recent weeks, about just how powerful it really is and how much more effective the human race would be if it came packaged with an on/off switch and a joystick to point it towards where you want it to go. But alas, motivation behaves more like a herd of wild horses – unsaddled, uncontrollable with the unbridled power to clear new paths or destroy strong existing structures.

Secular dogma would state that the lucky among us are the ones whom our motivation and ambition have decided to flirt with each other. Oh, to feel like you are barrelling towards your desires like the Falcon in lightspeed. The rest of us mortals have to contend instead with an existence where our ambition is more likened to an unloved and underappreciated wife who is trying mostly in vain to rouse her sluggish couch potato husband, motivation, on to his feet.

The intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy is the popular discussion when it comes to motivation. As card-carrying citizens of the human race, we have always been sold the spiel that while we need both to an extent, intrinsic motivation is probably the more stable, mature and balanced brother of the two. In more recent times, as we move excitedly towards increasing individualism, we have all but damned extrinsic motivation to hell as the horned and tailed sibling who is looking to strike you when you are at your weakest.

But yet the basis of most religion is quite the opposite. The concept of an all-knowing, all powerful God has always represented an anti-thesis against our conclusions regarding the intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy. If anything, religion encourages us to be more extrinsic with our motivation, by trusting God, because intrinsically we are flawed beings. It probably makes sense that people should make themselves the central protagonist of their philosophical short films, while religion would seek to put God as theirs.

But I realised over the weekend that logic dictates that our motivation to do something has to be anchored towards the most unshakable thing in our universe, because that’s the only way to ensure the sustainability of our efforts in reaching our goals. Man believes itself to be the most unshakable thing, therefore it suggests that motivation should come from within. Perhaps that’s why no matter what culture or ethnicity, there always seems to be a quest to find God. That immovable standard of morality that anchors our beliefs and motivates us towards goodness. Because deep, deep down inside we know that if we anchored it on ourselves, it would be led to ruins by the fickleness and weak-mindedness of men.

 

You know what I mean

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I slotted Springsteen’s 2010 Darkness outtake set The Promise just behind Born to Run on my CD shelf. I had taken it out for a spin over the weekend.

The mistake is understandable given the context, and I realised it as soon as as the flap side  nestled into the back board of the shelf. For a brief fraction of a second there, I keyed in control + z in my head.

The option to ‘undo your last action’ can be a faithful companion when you are threading uncertainly through the treacherous fields of spreadsheet formulas. It’s the bonanza ‘get out of jail’ card that enables you to exist within the space just slightly behind an actual decision. The breath just before you place your money where your words comfortably reside.

For that moment I did not require a clunky time machine to undo my very recent error. It would be far too much fanfare for something relatively insignificant. What I needed was a quick shortcut, one that wouldn’t rouse too much attention. A two-step fix that would undo what was obviously a silly mistake.

But of course there was no such cockadoodle. No technological fairy dust to whisk me out of my predicament. So I dragged it out like a big boy and slotted it near the back of my Springsteen section.

We enjoy dealing in broad strokes when it comes to sifting through ideals. After all, why settle for a star when you can have galaxies? I can understand the sentiment.  The attraction of a time machine to the average person is not simply that it offers the ability for one to explore the past, but the opportunity for one to alter the past so that it improves our present and consequentially, our future. After all, the benefit of hindsight can be tragic and there are many sins of the distant past that many of us would love nothing better than to right, if we had the ability to travel back in time. On a fundamental level, it’s just geeky lingo for ‘not having to deal with consequences’.

But I have no such grand desires. I have formed an uneasy partnership with my past, in that I don’t knowingly rouse it and it basically just leaves me alone. I can rest comfortably with that idea for probably the rest of my days. So no, I do not need a grand piece of imaginary technology like a time machine. Instead what I really want is the simple ability to undo my last action. Just two keys, not the whole keyboard. To undo that slip of a hand that resulted in a bag of broken eggs, that last piece of fritter I should not have eaten or that white lie that I know I should not have told the moment it left my mouth. Nothing premeditated, just those almost-involuntary muscle slips that you want to quickly mop up and pretend like it never occurred in the first place.

Yeah just that. I’ve never been comfortable about dreaming ‘too big’ anyway …

   

Small children in the background

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The town of Mossburn

Our rickety-sounding campervan barrelled down clear windy roads, gorging on kilometers as we made haste. Around us, nature was constantly purring an aria, primary blue skies venturing uncharacteristically downwards to meet frosty snowcapped mountains standing on the shoulders of spring-bloomed green fields. At times, it felt like the weather controls were left to the whims and fancies of a five-year old. I could be in a t-shirt standing next to someone in a down. Everything appeared possible and permissible.

It’s very easy to get lost in the gorgeousness of Te Waipounamu. To be literally transported to a place where industrial progress skipped a turn, where nature picked up arms and fought back. It’s a place that defies and denies the more capitalistic tenets of civilization. As our reliable bacon-odored transport continued to gorge on the open road barrelling from one holiday park to the next, we found ourselves zipping pass quaint little towns with pretty names, Geraldine, Fairlie and others with more cumbersome ones (Twizel). Some of these towns offer barely anything by way of township, a church that sits about 50, a garage that tends to only trucks and tractors, a snugged convenience store, a school if you’re lucky, etc.

As we zipped pass more and more towns, I find myself being increasingly fascinated by the seemingly randomness of thought that went to designing some of these towns. Some had fishing tackle shops but no signs of a petrol kiosk. Others had art galleries that also offered a cup of espresso and free range eggs but with no school in sight. My thoughts race back and forth, unable to satisfyingly resolve this conundrum of haphazardness. Perhaps each township is formed out of the chosen vocation of its inhabitants. Yeah, that must be it.

But that can’t be it, can it? Doesn’t the need of the many outweigh the desires of the few. Surely the community would benefit more from a small grocery store than an art gallery. Are businesses assigned based on needs? Are they legislated, and more importantly, how are they managed from a community level? I was drawn in, and fascinated with the nuts and bolts. Not just the political process of it, but also how it relates to ‘me and my neighbor living next to me’?

The obvious questions to ask are ‘why questions’ – Why can’t we carve out simpler existences like that for ourselves? Why was I born into a community that encourages the rat race? Why wasn’t I born in say, Mossburn, where the hills whistle choruses around me?

But yet, I find myself drawn towards the ‘hows’. How does one eke out an existence in a town like that? Where ‘choices’, something we demand unconsciously in cosmopolitan cities, are rendered meaningless by the fact that there is only one convenience store to buy your milk from, one school to send your kids to and one church to say your weekend prayers to God in. Does the 20-something manning the gas station on a chilly and lonely Saturday evening lock up at midnight, walk back to his home behind the station and repeats the same routine the next day? The things I have come to expect in my often bustling surroundings such as variety and diversity were turned on their collective heads. Perhaps it is just a case of wanting something I never had.

Perhaps.

I had a short conversation with the caretaker for the Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo. She lives about an hour’s drive up the main road. Every morning she wakes up, dresses and makes that scenic hour-long drive to the church, where she tends to tourists decked in bright fluorescent jackets, looking to take the perfect selfie with one of God’s more lovely homes in the background. She does it with a patient smile and informs each of them that ‘service is at 4pm later today’. At the end of the day, she packs up and makes that same drive back to her home where she probably would make her family a warm dinner as they look to fend off the chilly spring night winds before resuming the same routine the next day, “Oh you’re looking to climb Mt Cook. I would suggest you give that a skip today cause it should be raining up there.” Oh, how … “I did not see it this morning.”

For just a moment there, I greatly, greatly desired what she had.

Like something worth remembering

mixtape7Can we realistically make our Mondays feel like Fridays? I spoke with someone recently who remarked that people at his workplace are actually glad they are back in the office after a long holiday. It’s apparently a relief. But for a lot of us, our relationship with work is at best on an ‘agree to disagree’ ceasefire. At passable, it’s a monster under the bed we’ve since learned to ignore. Many people have long forsaken the pursuit of that career utopia, to make work feel like a party that you get paid to do.

But let’s assume I have not given up on that pursuit, that I want to still latch on to the coattails of that thing I am passionate about and to soar into eternal career bliss – what is that one drug for me? I’ve actually not given it much thought before. I’ve answered ‘writing’ in recent times, but that’s me being frustratingly pragmatic and unimaginative. After all, out of all the things in this world that I love doing, writing is probably the most logically marketable. But let’s for the sake of resolution-less conversation chuck logic out the door for a bit and think blue skies and a blank sheet of paper – what is that one drug for me? The one thing that would make my Mondays feel like Fridays?

Probably making mixtapes   

Nothing greases the gears more for me than sinking my teeth into a juicy-themed mixtape. I got into the art when I was 21, about the time I started driving. Radio was going through a lean phase in the early 2000s over here so I made tapes to drive to. They started rather unobtrusively, just batches of songs I loved. Then I started weaving in themes, from 80s hair rock to contemporary indie. It was an actual labor of love then. To get 60 minutes on a tape, you actually had to slave in front of a deck for 60 minutes. Blood must have blood. There were no shortcuts.

These days, the art is less of an art. The dawn of digital music took a lot of the gleam out of the activity. Dragging 60 minutes of music takes less than 60 seconds. Blood no longer needs blood. Which is probably why I still periodically make physical mixes of my favorite songs. I recognise there are more efficient ways to do that but I do it because I still enjoy the process, not just the outcome. I enjoy taking my records out, ripping the tracks I want, creating folders for them, labeling the tracks the way you prefer, etc. Ticking a few boxers on Deezer just doesn’t quite give me the same buzz.

I hosted a no frills 90s party in 2015 as a themed party/house-warming do. I tasked myself with creating a party playlist of 90s essentials. It was a month-long labor of intensive research and compilation. I ended up with over 10-hours of music for a 3 hour party. So I created a 90s mix disc as a party favor. I had so much fun doing it that I am almost tempted to throw together an 80s-themed follow-up just so I can compile another mix. I already feel quite excited about the prospect of doing that just thinking about it. I could go from Depeche Mode to Bananarama. It would be a riot.

Yeah, that would be my drug. If I could make a career out of constructing music playlists, work would probably not feel like work anymore to me and being back at work would certainly feel like a relief if I was away for too long. Until I figure out how to do that, I shall shake hands with that monster under my bed and try my best to ignore its occasionally distracting grunts.

 

I hope time doesn’t change him

I think it was Betty Davis who said old age is not for sissies. But it was Tolstoy who said the biggest surprise in a man’s life is old age. Old age sneaks up on you, and the next thing you know you’re asking yourself, I’m asking myself, why can’t an old man act his real age? How is it possible for me to still be involved in the carnal aspects of the human comedy? Because, in my head, nothing has changed … Elegy, 2008

Long weekends have a way of breeding a complacency concerning the time I have at my disposal, mainly that I have a lot of it when nothing could be further away from the truth. It’s like being given a whole box of Jaga Pokkuru potato snacks. It’s a hedonistic pleasure party until you’re down to the last pack. Then you start appreciating the abundance you had at the start, right about the time when it’s too late. It’s south side of the human condition, the firestarter for most human-related tragedies. The idea that no matter how far we see ourselves away from mortality’s line, still we end up being sucked into its gnarly jaws. The commodity that’s tradable is merely more time.

I watched 499 minutes worth of films over the weekend. I rarely watch films with an agenda in mind, treating them more like thought massages, a less strenous activity for my restless mind to indulge in just to rejuvenate. But there was a unifying theme to the movies I picked out over the weekend – fear. All good drama evidently requires a fear  component, the threat of losing something, for the tale to be really worth the yarn.

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But among the more obvious fear totems on display, the one that struck the closest eerie chord to my soul was not the 4,000 pound shark. That totem is easily banishable. I merely need to stay on land and it becomes completely irrelevant. I think we sometimes forget that many of our fears are temporary, and more importantly, self-inflicted. That back-breaking mortgage that’s been keeping you up at night was really not inflicted by the heavens, no matter how you may feel that it was.

Mortality, or a fear associated with it, is not something we can simply ‘stay in land’ to avoid. We’ve built an existence around managing its eventual appearance but it finds even the best of us, the most athletic, physically attractive or financially secure. Perhaps it’s the common line that God created to at least bring the entire species, from the strong to the weak, to the table occasionally for a conversation.

I am not afraid of growing old. I have accepted that my knees are no longer able to endure a leap from the top of my front gate when I forget my keys. I’ve found a way around that, just carry a spare in my wallet. That’s not the eerie chord that the film struck in me. Instead it is the fear that I am not growing old in commesurate to my age. Like David Kepesh in the film, it sometimes feels like ‘in my head, nothing has changed’.

I do recognise that human maturity is not a biological condition but a product of our environment. Basically, we change when we have to. Presumably there is often a corelation between our age and the responsibilities we take on that often drives our need to mature according to society’s expectations. I don’t think I’ve had to ‘change’. No marriage or kids yet to remind me that the rules of life have changed dramatically. In my mind, I still see life governed by the same game rules as it did 10-years ago. It’s not that life has not slugged me down with a few right hooks. It has. But I’ve not adjusted my ring strategy. I’m still using the same ones that worked well for me when I was younger, and naturally it’s getting increasingly hard to put up a good fight, or better yet, win.

 

 

I know you are, but what am I?

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“What are you really good at?”

It’s one of those questions that from the onset can appear rather cliche but is actually rather cumbersome to answer. Well, it’s cumbersome for me to answer.

I have never been able to answer that question neatly. No thematically-sound ribbon and bow to cap off the package like ‘cricket’, ‘excel formulas’ or ‘wet t-shirt contests’. While others seem to build a consistent narrative around their interests, mine often feels like randomly torn bits of paper strewn haphazardly on the floor. ‘Naming kaiju species’ may score you geek points with an overgrown 90s latch key kid but most people would probably give you nervous smiles while ushering their kids quietly out the back door. And ‘lazing around and binge-watching TV shows’ is not really a skill, no matter how good you think you are at it (I’m really good). I was told recently that I am good at explaining concepts to people in a relatable way. But that’s still a few words too many compared to ‘cooking vegan meals’.

There appears to be no supporting infrastructures for the things I am interested enough to develop. I love writing, but I did not develop an interest in it because I used to read a lot. In fact, I only picked up reading nearly a decade after I started writing for publications. Yes, the horror. I love football, but not quite enough to head to a field and kick a ball myself. I played music for nearly 20 years, but had very little interest in hitting music stores unless I absolutely needed to.

Perhaps it has to do with just how fundamentally non-obsessive I am. I certainly retain an interest in many peculiar things but nothing quite enough to shape my existence. They are but stringy moments of unadulterated passion that never amounted to a season. Ironically, when I was a raging discontented teenager, I used to aspire towards being a balanced adult.

I may have taken that aspiration a little too seriously …

 

 

 

 

Don’t fight it, feel it …

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“We always employed people based on their personalities rather than their experience” – Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records

I’ve given fiction a bit of a rest these days. Not sure why, but I see interesting fiction books these days a little like stale coffee, a semblance of something I could’ve loved but have absolutely no interest to partake.

I’ve been pouring myself into memoirs, from the awful to the sublime, notable to the inane. I am currently 145 pages into the tell-all memoir of Alan McGee, the man who discovered Oasis and founded Creation Records. It’s an easy read, interesting only because of the context of the subject and what it means to me as a indie music fan growing up in the 90s.

But then on page 121 of my copy, in the midst of tales of drug hazes, tour debauchery and Kevin Shield’s ridiculous perfectionism, McGee weighs in on a bit of HR advice. That had me removing my snug-tee indie boy hat for a moment and putting on my HR one.

The concept is not new. Progressive companies have been discussing for years now about the relevancy of a curriculum vitae and how it can limit the potential of both employees in securing jobs they are truly passionate about; and employers in hiring a talent that is just waiting to be discovered.

The concept has always been appealing to me, but why? My mind shifts to the academic answers; because it gives a subtle fist towards outdated bureaucratic practices and of course, the ‘Can’t train an old dog new tricks’ rhetoric. There has to be fundamentally more than that. There is.

The main, I guess fallacy of ‘experience’ is that it immediately assumes that we willingly embody every bit of experience we’ve gathered. That is true to an extent but it very often negates the ‘how do we feel’ part.  A career path is not something you can scribble on a paper at 22 and assume it would define your work life for the next 38 years. Very often we have to experience some ‘career’ before we even know what we really want. Some people are lucky and find that at 22, others not so and find them at the smokey end of 39. We extend this concept to cars and to an extent, life partners but we ignore it when it comes to work. We shouldn’t.

‘Personality’ focuses on the ‘now’. On what is in front of you. It’s exciting, energetic and potentially revolutionary. It’s not what I had, it’s what I want. You can buy yourself a dictionary and be forever comforted by the notion that you have at least one grammatically reliable book on your shelf or you can take a punt on a saucy, possibly awful memoir and experience a left turn into the psyche of the unknown.

We must take that chance … all of us