Cinderella

Most people wish to live a meaningful life. And it is up to each individual to define meaningful. Some find meaning in providing and caring for their loved ones, some need a career to find accomplishment, some crave a fortune, others require a creative outlet or wish to take part in charitable causes, many look for self-development, self discovery.

It is a personal choice.

Some people wish to put their personal meaningfulness ‘out there’. They are the public philanthropists, patrons and benefactors. People with high profiles who organise charity events and auctions, who start funds and organisations.

Let’s face it, we all do what we can. Some in private, some publicly. So whatever it is, good on you.

Personally, I am not a celebrity or royalty watcher. I read a headline, a caption under a picture, but that’s as far as I go. Yet some glitzy, society events cannot be avoided. Filmfestivals, balls, races, society weddings; events that used to be high society, ‘what is she wearing’ and ‘who is dating who’ affairs. The stuff dreams are made of. The smart set at its best. But over the years, a change has happened and morality has little by little seeped through the seams.

The last closing ceremony at Cannes, after Asia Argento’s speech, had everything from a plea to a confession to a court room drama, with a severe warning attached to boot. And as for the last royal wedding. Unavoidable and prominent, obtrusively so.

Yes I watched. I saw the dress. I saw the kiss. May they live happily ever after.

There is however an aftermath to this ‘after’. Something that, again, has a tinge of morality. A touch of neediness. A desire for relevance. Because for modern royal couples, being royal is not enough and they too look for meaningfulness, beyond cutting ribbons and attending cocktail parties.

Natalie-and-James-rebel-without-a-cause-30488603-454-362

Rebels without a cause? Neither, nor. Rather, sympathetic, fashionable conformists with a license to self-proclaimed relevance, found in environmental causes, sports events, animal welfare and other voguish missions du jour.

If, for some, being royal is not enough, for others, being rich is not enough either. Which leads me to Bill Gates. Now whether you endorse his causes or not, here is a man who puts his money where his mouth is. Who does not preach, who does not ask. A man who pursues a goal and takes action. Who leads by example. All in all, a good man to have as a billionaire.

The hunger, poverty and misery of the world will not be alleviated by attaching a pretty face. A visit by a Holly or Bollywood celeb does not turn a refugee camp into a five-star accommodation. And feminism does not need a Cinderella.

 

 

The Birds and The Babies

A few weeks ago a couple of birds made their nest on our balcony. It was an amazing experience to watch the two, busying themselves at building the future home for their pending offspring. To and fro they flew and fluttered, bringing back twigs and leaves and other necessary building material. The nest was built in no time and before we knew it, Mrs. Bird had laid her eggs. Three small, blue coloured chalky eggs. Two of which we were able to capture on camera.

eggs

I had little hope for the budding family. Flying predators, the neighbour’s cat, not to mention the va-et-vient at our apartment. And the nest, installed on the branches of a former houseplant now relegated to a corner of the balcony, seemed suddenly too precariously inadequate and shakily unstable to hold a family of three.

But then, on Monday, it happened. All was still, Mr. Bird remained absent, Mrs. Bird sat alert and motionless and the chicks hatched.

And just like with a royal birth, we had to wait till the next day for a foto-op.

nest.

A coincidence. A sign. An intense moment of happiness.

Royal watcher or not, the news of Kate Middleton’s third baby was unavoidable. And royal or not, like everybody else, I am happy all went well for mother and child. Judging from the pictures, it all went very well. Amazingly well. Exceptionally well. Almost unnaturally well.

As the royal mother, father and child emerged from the hospital, awaited by hordes of people, shouting and cheering and applauding, cameras and smartphones clicking and snapping, I was caught between a feeling of pity and incredulity. On the one hand there she stood, poor Kate, freshly out of labour, yet perfectly coiffed and made up, dressed in a meticulously ironed dress that did not come out of an overnight bag that had been, for days, sitting at the base of a staircase only to be hastily thrown into a car. Instead, Kate was the object of carefully orchestrated teamwork. As always, Kate did what she had to do.

Throughout the history of mankind, giving birth has been a dangerous affair for both mother and child, and in many countries, it still is. Yet, as we are more and more able to manage and limit the risks of childbirth, giving birth is no longer considered a medical emergency and pregnancies have become natural, holistic, spiritual journeys, embraced by mothers and fathers alike. A bit like Kate and Co.

Natural or not, most deliveries still take place in hospitals but is is now a common, i.e. cost cutting practice to send mother and baby home after barely a day or two. A bit like Kate and Co.

Or not.

Because this is where the carefully orchestrated teamwork comes in. And we are not talking about mums and mothers in law. For no matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to pull off a Kate. And in that sense, poor Kate who can’t do either right or wrong or please everybody, has done a lot of new mothers a disservice. The pretence of effortless perfection.

tweety

Scarves and Ham Sandwiches

I was made blatantly aware that the scarf I had placed on my head against the nagging March cold did not make me look like Jacky Onassis when the man behind the counter of the coffee shop pointed out to me that the sandwich I had chosen for my on the go lunch contained ham. Granted, I have dark eyes and impeccable eyebrows and I pride myself on flawless make-up. Also, I am visibly of mixed descent, an enigmatic detail I gladly exploit on official papers, looking for the ‘other’ box to tick. But the bartender that day had a specific ‘other’ in mind.

Surely he meant no harm. If anything, he presented himself as a kind, engaged, well-informed individual who knew how to put two and two together.

covered head + pork = no no

The episode left me amused but also slightly irritated. Which it perhaps should not have. But the fact that it did, made me think.

Mainstream thinking has been taken hostage by political correctness to such an extent it has become increasingly difficult to voice an opinion. Our demand for consideration to each and everybody’s sensitivities, proclivities, background, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, general preference and current situation has made it impossible to construe a phrase that does not risk being dissected and eventually dismissed and rejected. Our words and ideas have become a battleground of pseudo-ideologies, based on fears of exclusion and an inflated desire for inclusion. At the slightest hint of divergence from common and, especially, popular convention, conceptual, theoretical, notional, and ideological lines of argumentation are overthrown and discarded, deemed and hence judged intolerant, bigoted and biased. Not to mention dangerous, racist, and discriminatory.

This tendency is not limited to contemporary, political or societal issues but extends its influences to the domains of history, art and literature. Self-proclaimed specialists too easily pop up, ready to discredit past accomplishments without factual insight or situational consideration. And in their wake, their iconoclastic acolytes vent their anger, triggered by frustration and a need to define an umbrella identity of which they are the main proponents.

To Kill a Mockingbird, an exercise in outdated racism and social inequality. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (whose Rochester locks his mentally ill wife in the attic) a sample of disability abuse. Moby Dick, a white man looking for his white whale. Heart of Darkness a prime illustration of imperialism and colonialism. The list goes on.

The argument that there are contemporary, sometimes even more relevant masterpieces being written and developed as we speak is valid but not comprehensive and even if Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a captivating story on slavery and family, even if Beatriz Williams brings the roaring twenties to life with female buoyancy, Conrad and Fitzgerald are an intricate part of their accounts. Then and now are intrinsically linked. And if bygone scholars and politicians are now more famous for the skeletons in their closets, it should be their actual failures and accomplishments we excavate and analyze, recognizing and ranking their resonance into the present.

If everything is a cultural convenience, if everything is explained as a subjective attribute, everything becomes relative and if everything is relative, anything goes. Right and wrong, both undefinable, fly out of the window as each and every opinion and belief system, flawed or not, minority or majority based, inclusive or exclusive, converts into a generalized, so-called political correct value system, advocated by all, defined by nobody. But well-meant does not always cut it and giving in to our sensitivities and utopian wishes does not necessarily arm us against the ‘isms’ we wish to, should, set out to fight. The risks are clear.

There is a fine line between having respect for and paying lip service to and sometimes, an idea or belief must prevail over an emotional statement or attachment. Sometimes it is good to stand up and say ‘no’ to a current wave. Sometimes following the crowd just isn’t the optimal strategy.

The leap from my sandwich to politically correctness is not an obvious one and I should not take an act of kindness and concern as a pretext to extrapolate onto a critique on current thinking. Sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich, a headscarf a headscarf.

Or as Jovanotti says,
A forza di essere molto informato so poco di tutti
e dimentico di
guardarti negli occhi, sbloccare I miei blocchi
alzare il volume e pensare che si
Oh si
La mia ragazza è magica …

Tolerance and Judgment

After years of being judged for being judgmental I stumbled upon this phrase by Norman Doidge in his foreword to Jordan Peterson’s ’12 Rules for Life’.

(…) That emphasis on tolerance is so paramount that for many people one of the worst character flaws a person can have is to be ‘judgmental’.

I have not read Peterson’s book, yet. I have of course seen Cathy Newman’s failed career grandstanding Channel 4 interview with him, as well as a few of his YouTube posts, but I can’t comment on ’12 Rules’ and as for Peterson, well, to paraphrase what others have said before me, he is a fierce critic of current authoritarian thinking be it identity politics or postmodernism, and a strong advocate of free speech. And, oh yes, the left hates him. Which means the media hates him, which means you will never know what he really says unless you read his book. Which is what I am going to do.

But back to the foreword, for that’s how far I got. And keeping in mind this is but one phrase. One. But it hit a nerve.

Tolerance and judgment. Having an open mind, being opinionated. A semantic game for some, a serious struggle for others. For a while now, it feels to me as if any intolerance streak is unacceptable and deserves to be severely chastised. By the same token, judgment calls are often seen as antiquated signs of bias and narrow-mindedness. Surely all opinions matter? Surely all sensitivities need to be considered? Surely there is no room for refusal and hierarchy in a setting marked by respect and due regard? Where then is there room to voice one’s opinion? How can we expound our opinions, beliefs and arguments through a prescribed, carefully measured use of ‘should/could it be/perhaps/conceivably?

My judgmental side has often, if not continuously, been the subject of my inner dialogue. But my tolerance hasn’t. Which is what Doidge’s phrase now makes me question.

Let us look at that inner dialogue, or should I say, that verbal freight train that rushes through my brain at every waking moment? Endless, recurrent thought and ideas, fears and desires, that take over my mind, going round and round in an eternal loop. But it does not have to be this way. There are remedies. Sleeping tablets, professional therapy sessions, self-help books and videos and, my remedy of choice, meditation.

Meditation means many things to many people. For some it means asceticism. Others see meditation as a form of relaxation, a chance to zonk out. Some take a moment of meditation to think things through and to order their thoughts. I would define meditation as an exercise in training the mind, with the quality of mindfulness.

Meditation and mindfulness, in their current revival, have been newly defined and packaged. The quiet hall with its buddha statue, a small flower arrangement, the whiff of incense are no more. The lotus position is no longer required and even the closed eyes are now replaced by a soft gaze. Meditation is a craze, mindfulness its trusted acolyte.

People, schools and companies worldwide are riding the M&M wave. The Dalai Lama’s quote ‘If every eight year old in the world is taught meditation we will we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation’ presents many with a good reason to make mindfulness a part of school’s national curriculum. Do they have a point?

Whereas mediation is a practice, mindfulness is a state. In order to be mindful, one needs to attain a level of awareness. It is not enough to state that mindfulness requires ‘being in’ and ‘accepting’ the present. Mindfulness requires a framework. If, as is the case nowadays. we remove meditation and mindfulness from its historical and religious context, we are left with a watered down version of a philosophical value system which risks leaving ancient principles of respect, acceptance, kindness and compassion – but to name a few – at the mercy of popular, generalized, over-simplified, tabloid-style interpretations of morality.

Not allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by thoughts and emotions does not equal striving to having no thoughts or emotions at all. In the same way, if aversions and preferences feed the illusory nature of our being, any moral stance still commands a certain level of assent and dissent. Which is where our judgment comes in. Never blind, never based on prejudice or untruths, never with the intent to hurt, blame or dominate, any expression of judgment calls for a comprehensive and considerate reflection. The more we learn, the better we understand, the more virtuous our choices will be, the better we will approach the boundaries of tolerance and acceptance.

Re-directing our inner dialogue and allowing for a different kind of questioning of ourselves, others, things, situations, decisions and policies, and, re-evaluating our tolerance levels, might be misconstrued as a call for parochialism and bigotry. I would merely like to not board my train and challenge my forbearance.

Call me judgmental….

Civilisation and The Sopranos

Sopranos_titlescreen

My addiction started with the Sopranos. It was indeed Tony who singlehandedly pulled me into the realm of binge watching. And I haven’t stopped since. So far I have binged my way through Dexter, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire, Sherlock, GoT, Fargo, House of Cards (until youknowwhat), Stranger Things, Sense8, Six Feet Under, Ray Donovan, Black Mirror, The Crown (I know), Godless, Mindhunter, The End of the Fucking World, but to name a few. And don’t get me started on culinary shows.

bourdain2

 

Binge watching is a relatively new development. I still consider it a luxury, not having to wait for a broadcaster to decide for me what I can watch, when and where. Like the joys of online shopping. Sorry Mr and Mrs Shopkeeper but your opening hours do not coincide with my retail therapy urges so in comes Mr. Bezos.

buy now

 

That being said, waiting and anticipating still now has its appeal. I am waiting right now for the much publicized new Civilisation series, to be aired by the BBC, next March. Not that I will see this in March, as I don’t have access to the BBC. So unless somebody puts it on YouTube, which is illegal and equals theft, despite it being Art with a capital A, I will have to wait for the box.

schama

Anyway. The new series, presented by Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga is a modern – don’t you hate that word?- take on Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation, A Personal View’ from 1969. I have the complete series, emphasis on ‘complete’. Four discs, eleven chapters, 663 minutes.

Try bingeing on that baby, baby!’

‘Civilisation’, a masterpiece at its time, now terribly outdated.

Clark

Visually antiquated and musically overburdened, the series has an old-fashioned, dare I say, stifled feel to it. Clearly, we, the viewers, have moved on. Bombarded as we are with images and colours, we need more. Speed, movement, flow. And then there is Clark, the over-confident, upper class, Western Burberry patrician who, offers us his ‘personal’ view on civilisation. How wonderful it must have been, living and working in an era that allowed for such liberties. For when Clark says ‘personal’, what he really means is selective, according to his preferences. Clark was allowed to focus on what, to him, mattered most. He could, singlehandedly, like Tony, dispensing with entire civilisations. Philosophers? Who needs them? Writers? No thank you. Enlightened and subversive thinkers? I don’t think so. The series, bizarrely, starts off in Ireland; Skellig Michael no less, the very same island where fifty years later Rey would face Luke Skywalker.

skellig

From there, through the very dark Middle Ages, Clark hobbles into the Gothic to gracefully slide into the Renaissance. Rome or Greece hardly mentioned. Vikings as seafaring rapists. Not one reference to Spain. Moors? Ah yes? Byzantium? Okay. But never Constantinople.

‘Civilisation.’ All that is singular and unique. In a world where woke was not a word yet.

Do not take me wrong. I appreciate Kenneth Clark and will be forever grateful for him, saving some eighteen hundred masterpieces from the National Gallery on the eve of the Second World War. But now, I believe, like John Berger in his 1972 ‘Ways of Seeing’, that it is high time for a new take on civilisation.

The new series is aptly named ‘Civilisations’, with the added ‘s’ a relief. But also a concern. How will the makers of the new series handle the political correctness standards of our time. Where will politeness, sensitivity and deference cross the embarrassing truths of history? How will Clark’s barbarians, savages and all those ‘others’ he barely mentions find their own, rightful place in an overview that, as Schama says, ‘gets us from the Ice Age to last week’. And how will Clark’s ‘Christian, predominantly white, Western’ man fare amidst the encounter between the world’s nations and cultures?

We will see. And eventually binge. Or not.

I like to extol the pleasures of binge watching. In truth, it is an addiction. Unlike the book you can’t put down, bingeing is a passive activity that takes us out of reality into a fantasy of gigantic proportions. Binge long enough and one gets convinced that behind that flat screen, there is actually a Westeros. And a neurotic, moody, anxious mob killer. I clearly remember how, upon hearing of the death of James Gandolfini, the first thing I thought was ‘Sh@#, now we’ll never have a sequel’. So much for commiseration. James had become Tony. All lines suddenly blurred.

Blurred also the lines when we talk about civilisation. For despite lectures and books and TV documentaries, nobody can exactly define what civilisation is. Clark maintained he knew what it was when he saw it, keeping his eyes turned to the Notre Dame in Paris. It is never that simple. Perhaps the true definition of civilisation lies beyond our grasp. Perhaps it is merely a word that only has meaning in its elasticity. Or perhaps we only know what civilisation is and means when we feel it is under threat, when we recognize its ephemeral qualities.

Let’s binge on that for a while.

My Laptop and I

The laptop I write this on is old. Ancient. And now, I am told it is obsolete. Unpleasant messages are popping up on my screen on a daily basis, warning me the ‘server no longer supports this version of…’, that my files are no longer saved on a ‘something or other’. Also, I can no longer establish a connection between my phone and laptop, or my camera and laptop.

Granted, this laptop is nine years old. Yet he (yes, ‘he’) shows few, if any, signs of wear and tear. And he works perfectly well, thank you very much. At least, I think so. But others beg to differ. And it is getting harder and harder to argue with them.

 

flintstones computer

 

My laptop is a wonderful piece of equipment. Sleek, maybe a bit on the heavy side compared to more recent models, but trustworthy. He boasts no touch bars, and yes, he has an old fashioned Hard Disk Drive and a fan which over the years has turned a tad noisy. And sometimes he gets a bit hot. But despite these minor signs of gentle aging, he and I maintain an intimate relationship. We connect and interact on a daily basis. Letting him go would be similar to … a divorce – of sorts; instigated by others who claim I need to ‘upgrade’.

Despite being IT and computer un-savvy, I of course understand the rationale behind it all. But as a simple consumer, I feel duped. Again.

Imagine. I have just bought a new cashmere jumper I think would go perfectly well with my black jeans. Only, once at home, suddenly, my sweater objects, claiming it is not compatible with this version of last year’s jeans.

Or. Did you know mattresses have a sell-by date of eight years? So, all of a sudden, my memory foam’s in-built device protests and declares it no longer supports my … bedmate?

You see my point.

And then there is the question of recycling. I recycle, don’t we all? I too want there to be less waste, less plastic, less packaging and smarter solutions in the reuse and reprocessing of everything it is we use. But would it not be equally important to reduce the need to recycle and reuse by simply keeping our products (re: My Laptop) for a longer period of time? Think of it as a refill, Mr. Mac!

Computer-electronics-recycling-indianapolis-technology-recyclers-laptops

LEt’s face it, my laptop still has a good number of years in him. His hardware is sturdy. He is loved and cared for. Only his soft bits are being questioned.

babylaptop

 

January Jeremiad

blue

They have decided that tomorrow is Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year. We all know that ‘they’ like to decide for us. Only this time, they provide proof, in the shape of a formula. I won’t even try. Sometimes Wikipedia rules.

Meanwhile, tomorrow, Belgium, more precisely Flanders, sees the launch of a ‘No Nagging’ campaign. They have decided (they are busy) to have the ‘No Nagging’ campaign start on Blue Monday, which seems ominous enough. But worse, the campaign, encouraging people not to nag or complain in an effort to promote positivity, is set to last thirty days, ending on, you have guessed it, Valentine’s Day.

Scary.  For what could be more dangerous than the final release of a built up congestion on the most emotionally laden day of the year?

Furthermore, I object. To all of it, to the positivity dictate in particular.

Bear with me.

Our taste receptors identify five ‘tastes’ or ‘flavours’: sweet, salt, sour, bitter and the ever effusive umami. These flavours are complementary and when used in the right proportion, they enhance, counterbalance and strengthen their respective qualities. Achieve the perfect blend of these five elements and you have a dish, fit for a king. Likewise, our emotional range is wide and varied. Relief, guilt, anxiety, sadness, happiness, joy and excitement interact, intermingle, fuse and combine. One does not, should not, dominate the other. Neither precludes the other.

The real power lies in the mix.

Every day, I count my blessings. But while I acknowledge what I am grateful for, I also note life’s little frustrations and try and learn how to deal with them. Acceptance of imperfections and a will to improve , rather than denial and the need for a cosmetic, cheery version of what others define as ‘happiness’.

Happiness? The umami of life? The main ingredient of well-being? Or a link in the chain of self-imposed limitations, inevitably distancing ourselves from potential fulfillment.

As for Blue Monday, with the words of Khalil Gibran,

I would not exchange the sorrows of my heart
For the joys of the multitude
And I would not have the tears that sadness makes
To flow from my every part turn into laughter

I would that my life remain a tear and a smile

And there is always Tuesday ….