The impossibility of saying anything even remotely comprehensible…… by Michael-Eric Schwaabe

One of my favourite pastimes and one that I had significant opportunities for indulging in as a younger man, was sitting round a table nursing a pint of beer (real ale please) and solving all the world’s problems in conversation with one or two good friends. We usually had everything solved by the third pint, which in turn, opened the way for a celebratory fourth thus reaching my upper limit, especially if I wanted to function well enough to navigate back home. Which describes a particular conceit of mine; in that the world’s problems are solvable. This was an odd thing to be doing and perhaps a greater reflection of the cultural privilege that a white Western man enjoys – although I could not have framed it in quite that way at the time. The conversations were usually between men and, since they only rarely extended to include women, they beg the question (which I could blissfully disregard at the time, although the alcohol-based mental lubrication may have helped somewhat): how are you going to solve anything if fifty per cent of humanity isn’t even represented? Or even, as was definitely the case for this young man in his twenties, I really didn’t control very much at all and actually still don’t. It’s not like I could set global transport policies, or make State planning decisions, or initiate a comprehensive waste recycling scheme – to mention just a few.

That’s not to say that nothing good has come of this particular pastime – on the contrary, some problems did get solved as a direct result. But many fewer than the number and grandeur of those mental palaces I constructed. Worse still, my ability to effectively capture the problem in words seems to be failing. Every time I try to nail something down the issue either slips through my metaphors or my preamble becomes so overly top-heavy that I’ve lost my audience before we can really get started. As there’s less beer involved too, this may underlie part of the difficulty. These days it’s usually my wife who will cut me off leaving just my progeny who occasionally has the patience to put up with her father when he goes off on one of his overbearing rants. But the problem remains – defining issues has become considerably more difficult for me. The thought builds, I try to speak, and in that precise moment a multitude of other issues occur to me demanding my urgent attention, all of which have a direct bearing on the relevance of the issue, and I then feel the need to systematically explore each one. Little wonder perhaps that my family’s switch from good natured tolerance to extreme exasperation sits on a hairpin trigger. Worse still is when I try to write, because most of the time, the effort involved in setting thoughts on paper (computer screen nowadays), it’s like swimming uphill through a sea of mental treacle.

Why are words so damn difficult? Each word is a box inside of which sits the idea of what it is you want to say. Except it’s not really your idea. A “cup of tea” clearly means a mug-shaped vessel made of some kind of porcelain containing about 250ml of recently poured boiling water over brown tea leaves, usually held in a porous paper sachet or bag, with about 30ml of added cold milk. Except it doesn’t, to people who don’t like milk in their tea, or who prefer green tea, or insist on a cup and saucer, or it might even mean a cup filled with tea leaves. Ultimately, you won’t know what the other person understands unless you ask, and if you have to ask about every little thing then life can become quite exhausting. So most people prefer to rely on a form of shorthand and assume that their “cup of tea” is exactly what they imagine it to be. How easy it is to be fooled into a false sense of security, as anybody who has ever had the experience of being asked for “hot tea” by an American. Of course it’s hot, dammit, otherwise it wouldn’t be tea! All this confusion arises from three little words. What these words, these boxes surrounding ideas, these forms of mental shorthand really represent is a social construct – a “cup of tea” is like this because, well because everybody else around me who is like me thinks that this, and only this, is a cup of tea.

This social construct is my identity, and the brilliant thing is that I have many which express themselves in all the different roles I assume every day, as a parent, a husband, a friend, at work or while playing around. Here’s the rub – certain identities carry consequences, whether I like them or not, and I may not even be consciously aware of them. Things such as national origin, religious affiliation, as well as gender, ethnicity, degree of privilege, all define the boundaries – that is – the outer limits of what I’m prepared to accept that each word box will surround. And this has a real bearing on solving all the world’s problems, even when lubricated by my favourite beer. For example, I tend to assume that governments are benign structures mandated to help improve their citizens’ lives. Clearly, most governments are neither benign, nor do their officers feel in any way compelled to act in accordance with enacting or enforcing fundamental human rights principles. So, sitting in the pub, enjoyable though that may be and the odd exception aside, is not the most direct route to solving the world’s problems.

So this is my understanding: fixing anything requires us to understand that everything is a social construct that has been collectively invented by people who share the same identity. So if something is broken, or a problem, a big part of understanding the issue is understanding where the boundaries of our word boxes have been set. Commonly referred to as the paradigm, but that is only a particular word box which contains the idea of a commonly understood idea (I hope you begin to understand why I often feel like I’m swimming uphill through a sea of treacle).

When you are in the forest you can’t see the wood for the trees – what is required is a different perspective. And that means seeking out those who have a different identity, persuading them to share their understanding and taking the time to learn.

Anybody fancy a beer?

 

Michael in his own words:
For several years, my day job was largely (though not entirely) based on my skills in both the English and French languages – which I found highly amusing as these were, PE aside, the things I was worst in at school. The skills of caring, attention to detail, and customer focus I need for my current day job were essentially acquired through the example given to me by my parents, and most significantly my mother. Married with one lovely child, I live in London. I used to ride motorcycles, but development work and a Masters got in the way, leading to the occasional blog at: http://www.conversareblog.net/.

I aspire to do so again.

 

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Pecking order by Prianka

The hierarchy of secondary school. Or, as I like to call it, the stupidity of teenage children.

Growing up, we always look at ‘high school’ as the years you will succeed, go to prom with a handsome boyfriend and go to exciting parties.

At least, that’s what movies like High School Musical and Mean Girls teach us.

Actually, it is the opposite. It is the time where you learn that standing out may not be a good thing, despite your parents saying so. You learn, that putting your hand up in lessons isn’t cool by the standards of the popular people. You learn, that having opinions gets you bullied.

I learned this the hard way.

I learned this from getting weird looks after doing something remotely ‘different’. I learned this, by getting laughed at after putting my hand up too much. I learned this, after having views in RE(Religious Education) that deemed me the opinionated feminist girl amongst the boys.

But the popular girls, they somehow got it right. On the first day of school, they all stuck together, like a pack of wolves. But all white. Coloured people aren’t cool, I guess?

The stereotypes aren’t like, ‘the goths’, ‘the nerds’, or the ‘drama club’. It goes in two ways. Those who are cool, and those who aren’t.

I fall amongst the latter.

I have gone through school, being terrified of the popular boys and girls. Only last week, none of my friends were in my DT(Design Technology) lesson, and no one sat with me. I was alone at a whole table by myself. This led to me running out of the classroom in tears, because I felt like I wasn’t worth sitting with.

The popular girls have the ideal secondary school experience, with the boyfriend, the prom, and the parties.

The rest of us are left clinging to each other, trying to keep our confidence from crumbling, and trying to ignore the obvious fact that we aren’t loved or cared about by our peers.

After a while, we manage to not let it affect us too much. But there are moments when we still crave to be popular and be invited to parties.

Sometimes, I wonder where these people will be in 10 years. Will they be successful? Will they have huge families? Will they still be popular? Or will these years be their prime, and will they slowly fall and reduce to nothing?

The truth is, we don’t know. We don’t know what will happen in the future. A lot of our teenage years go towards trying to figure out what our future will be. From choosing our GCSE subjects at 14, and then doing the actual exams at 16.

But I can’t judge all of the popular people by the same yardstick. The time I ran out of my DT lesson, one of them came after me and invited me to sit with her.

Maybe I just have to get to know them, and I will like them better. But that won’t change the fact that they have ignored me for so many years.

The idea of leaving secondary school is exciting for me. Meeting new people, and finding my place in the world.

Until then, I am caught in the grasps of the hierarchy of social lives and popularity.

 

 

Hi! I am Prianka and I am 13 years old. If you remember that article from a while ago, I was the one who asked where the smoked salmon was in the middle of the fish market in Pondicherry. I love Shawn Mendes and llamas and I hope to become an actress one day. And an author. I hope you enjoyed my thought piece.

Just a number

When I was just a chit of a girl, I thought life ended at 40. You were meant to have done it all by then: Career, travel, marriage, babies, hobbies, accomplishments. I mean 40 was Old. Surely, life’s trajectory would start to power down. Right?

Wrong.

Now, I find myself on the other side of 40, and laugh at my infantile vision of the future. Sure, I’ve done the career, travel, marriage, babies and hobbies thing. But accomplishments. That I’m only just getting started on.

There is a lot going for youth. For one thing, you have time on your side. There is an expanse of a lifetime waiting to be discovered, to be explored and enjoyed. Also, all your faculties are pretty much intact. You can still hear and see, and soak up knowledge and information like a sponge. Your memory hasn’t taken a beating yet. Your hair is thick, your skin is supple and your body is limber. You are admired by men of all ages. Your personality is not set in stone, and your innocence still shines through attractively. Yes, youth is a valuable currency indeed.

What youth doesn’t have on its side are wisdom and experience.

It’s been oft repeated that “Youth is wasted on the young”. I’d like to think that youth is just a rehearsal for the main event. Can you imagine a world where age and maturity had no standing whatsoever? Where youth and naiveté governed everything? Where everyone was put out to pasture at 40? Shudder!

I remember when aged 18 and supremely confident of my intelligence and looks, I’d joined a Foreign Language course. Amongst the predominantly youthful class, one person stood out. He was a pensioner over 60. Our initial surprise was soon overtaken by his charisma, his enthusiasm and his desire to learn. Needless to say, he was a star pupil. I learned then that age was no bar to scholarship or edification.

Even as I set about living my life: finding a job I loved, a man I loved and discovering through the years, the joys of parenthood, I realised how facile my initial timeline had been. I had been trying to condense my life within parentheses, when true living had commas and exclamation marks and paragraphs that ebbed and flowed and sometimes crashed into one another.

Whilst all those initial milestones of my imagining were secured, it was the lesser moments, the ellipses of my living that made the story of my life a rich and colourful one. I realised that no matter how old I got, I could still carry on learning and exploring. I could still diversify. I could still re create and re imagine myself. I could be student and mentor. I could inspire and be inspired. I could marvel at the accomplishments of a 20 year old just as I could at a 50 year old’s. The only limits were the ones that I imposed upon myself.

With that in mind, I choose to live my life with gusto. My manifesto is to try and experience everything (within reason). I pursue my hobbies with the same passion that I give to my career. I try and be a good partner, a good parent and a good friend.
My mantra is to live life to the fullest. If I fail, I pick myself up, dust myself off and try again. What’s the worst that can happen? I will fail again. So what?

When that full stop comes, as it inevitably will, I want the book of my life to be a worthwhile read.

 

Paradise Lost?

In Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, Satan postulates that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven”. Interestingly, I’ve come across a completely opposite mindset lately.

On my travels across India in the last few months, I had occasion to speak to a lot of people about the changing political landscape. There were very many valid concerns about the rise of radicalism and right wing rhetoric, about callous and unthinking laws being put into motion to the detriment of the common man, about the lack of infra structure to support the rapid expansion of metropolitan cities and/or small towns, and a general fearfulness and dread that democracy, such as it is, was being eroded by an authoritarian government.

However, what shocked and saddened me was the stance of a particular generation. This is the generation that was born shortly after India gained its Independence from the British. This is the generation who was too young to remember what it was like in the days of the Raj, but old enough to have enjoyed the remaining benefits of a disciplined governance and a healthy infra structure. Their stance is paradoxical to Satan/Lucifer’s. They truly believe that as Indians we were better off being ruled by the British. That we are a corrupt and morally bankrupt nation with a slavish mentality. That, like chaotic teenagers on the loose, we will end up destroying India. That, under the British, there was cohesion and rule of law and a principled superintendence.

Of course there was. The British saw the Empire as an extension of Britain. They plundered while they ruled. But they also built the railways and the schools and the courts, and everything was tickety-boo. For them.

Winston Churchill, that great hero who led Britain to victory in World War 2, once said, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” His antediluvian statements can be dismissed as the thought process of the time. Of a culmination of the Imperialism practiced by many European nations, with the justification of subjugating, colonising and ultimately benefitting the savage natives of the East and of Africa.

Yet, by admitting that we were better off as a colony, aren’t we also admitting to being those very repugnant savages that Britain chose to bring to heel?

India had a rich and varied cultural history much before she was colonised. There was education, tradition, art forms and healthy trade. There was also casteism, infighting and poverty. It wasn’t perfect. Nothing ever is. What over two hundred years of colonisation did was try and make India into a pale facsimile of Britain. And that is the vision that some choose to cling to, to this day.

While I am not in agreement with the myth of the puritanical Hindu land where aeroplanes and surgery were invented in whatever century B.C., neither do I agree that India should have stayed under the British Raj. Whatever great muddle the country is in now, it is it’s OWN muddle. One that the free thinkers, the activists and the common public, will help unravel in due course.

70 years of Independence may not have necessarily evened the playing field for everyone. Yet, as a relatively nascent nation rebuilding itself, India hasn’t done too badly. Every nation carries the burden of its History. What it chooses to do with it, is entirely to its own discretion.

Chosen servitude is voluntary abdication of responsibility. It is a cop out of magnificent proportions. Can anyone be happy being enslaved? As Thucydides, the ancient Athenian historian once said, “The secret to happiness is freedom…And the secret to freedom is courage.”

 

Overthinker

There’s this lady that works at the Reception of my gym who really doesn’t like me. She has never been overtly rude to me, but every time I approach her, her face turns stony, her gaze glacial and her tone borderline obnoxious. I would think that perhaps that’s just her personality, except that I have seen her laughing with and being nice to other people. So, what is it about me that sets her teeth on edge?

I’m not a rude person. If anything, I am extra polite. Being in the service industry, I can’t help but be nice to people. It’s a default mechanism. Every so often however, I come up against people who take a dislike to me. Some, like the aforementioned woman, I have minimal dealings with. Others, who after a certain amount of time spent in my company, find that they truly cannot abide me. My overriding fear at times like these is: am I horrible person?

Now, I know that I am not a horrible person. I am just an ordinary woman living an ordinary life, and in the course of this life, just as I accumulate people who love me or like me, I am equally likely to accumulate those who don’t. Yet, with a writer’s predisposition to analyse everything, I’m truly perplexed when these instances crop up.

I examine my behaviour. I go over words, actions, expressions; tooth combing them to see how I may have caused offence. In short, I over think everything. Then I swing the other way, trying to feel blasé, as though none of this bothers me, when in reality, it does. It’s exhausting.

I wish I could be that person who lives and thrives, irrespective of others’ opinions of her. I wish these tiny slights or major snubs didn’t dent my self esteem and send me into a spiral of self examination. I wish I had the ability to not take everything to heart.

Yet, without any of this over-sensitivity, would I be the writer I am?

Perhaps that is the trade off.

 

Bloodline

Every nation has its Achilles heel. If in America, everything big and shiny and new is aways seen as an improvement, then in Britain royalty and any connection to it confers an automatic superiority over lesser mortals. I’m sure such like must exist everywhere. But in India, there is a fascination with dynasties. In the absence of royalty, we have lineages.

I grew up in India. I grew up in a household that had supported the Congress party. Up until the time I could think for myself, my allegiance lay in the same place as my family’s. Later, as the party fell apart, and a certain family name became inextricably linked with it, I started to wonder why, as Indians, we placed such importance on a bloodline. Did having the same genes make you necessarily better at the same thing as your forefathers?

A recent row that erupted in the Hindi film industry, also known as Bollywood, was over nepotism. That ubiquitous practice of promoting family regardless of talent or merit. Bollywood is rife with it. Millions of rupees are ploughed into projects with star sons or star daughters. So rarely do they bring any returns. And yet, riding on the coat tails of their ancestry, these talentless no hopers survive and thrive. If an outsider happens to question this practice, they are mocked at, shunned and publicly humiliated. Then life carries on, pretty much the same as before.

Be it the Gandhis in politics, or the Kapoors and the Bachchans (amongst many others) in films, there is an automatic presumption of accession. Yet, what if nature does not provide that which nurture wishes to promote?

Cricketers’ sons do not automatically become cricketers. Writers’ children don’t always write. Artists’ progeny may have no interest in art. So, why do parents or society see it fit to shoe horn people into professions they may have no natural ability or aptitude for?

There is no denying that amongst those that DO have the interest and the inclination, not forgetting the competence and faculty, ancestry can play an important role. Here, the foundation is laid and the environment is conducive to progress and excellence. Support, mentoring and an understanding of the profession can be invaluable. Nature and nurture can work in tandem.

Sadly, more often than not, its the chaff not the wheat that gets pushed to the forefront.

Perhaps it is time for us to abandon these idiosyncrasies, and celebrate talent, intelligence, courage and competence wherever it occurs. Perhaps it is time to relegate nepotism and favouritism to the rubbish heap where they belong.

Or perhaps, it is just time to get my head examined. Utopia, after all, exists only in the minds of the mentally challenged.

Ka-ching!

It’s been a long held belief to never ask a woman her age or a man his wage. Yet, only last week, BBC was forced to reveal the wages of their top earning presenters by the government. As expected, many interesting disparities emerged. However, what was even more startling was how uncomfortable this made most of us feel. Was it fair to these presenters to have the details of their earnings so publicly exposed? Was it fair to the rest of us? Who would this disclosure benefit?

Even as Jeremy Vine squirmed on air upon being questioned about his salary by an ex coal miner, and whether he thought he was deserving of it, the wage gap between the blue collar and the white collar was set out in no uncertain terms by this forced revelation by the Beeb. Did a presenter have more value than a coal miner? Did he risk his life and limb to put food on the table for his family?

Forget about presenters for a minute. Let’s look at footballers. A Premier League footballer makes more in a week than most of us do in a year. All for kicking a ball with flair. Why is it that movie stars, sports stars, models, pop stars and the like rake in the moolah while nurses, teachers, fire fighters, police officers struggle to make a decent wage? Do we, as a society, have the pecking order all wrong?

Of course it can be argued that ‘talent’ needs its own rewards. While anyone can do the more pedestrian jobs, there can only be one Cristiano Ronaldo, and he’s worth every dollar he gets. So also, there is only one Chris Evans and he presents the most popular slot on the most popular radio station, and therefore deserves every penny of his 2.2 million salary. It can also be argued that for most of these top earners, their shelf life isn’t that long, and therefore the adage of ‘make hay while the sun shines’ applies to them.

There is no denying that we all need a bit of sunshine in our lives. And by that I mean, the entertainment of our choice. For some of us it maybe watching sport, for others it maybe getting lost in music, or going to the movies or listening to the radio daily. We are happy to pay good money to be entertained. Yet, does this justify over inflated wages?

A study done some years ago revealed that Britons would rather talk about sex than income. Bedroom antics were more blithely revealed than earning figures, and that’s saying something. Talking about money is polite society’s last taboo. Why? Because talking about money is seen as tasteless. For those who are more privileged than others, on account of their backgrounds or professions, perhaps it sets off a few guilty twinges too. Who is to say?

BBC’s pay grades have not just revealed the glaring disparities between them and us, but also amongst them. Firstly the gender disparity. The highest earning female presenter happened to be number 8 on the list, and earned a fourth less than the highest earning male. The highest earning minorities presenters made even less. Could this be on account of being lesser talents? Or, is it because certain hierarchies are so entrenched in these institutions, that only a big reveal like this would shine a light on them?

What is crystal clear is that there is a massive imbalance in the way pay scales are structured. Whether these are presenters, sportsmen, entertainers or CEO’s of large corporations, it is grossly unfair that a section of society, however deserving, makes so much more than an equally deserving section that puts in the hard graft, and comes away with so little.

In Japan, the average CEO earns 16 times more than the average Japanese worker. In America, it is 319 times more. Fair?

So, whilst this pay reveal may have momentarily disrupted the cushy lives of these undoubtedly talented, but also undoubtedly lucky presenters, what it has unwittingly done is create a debate around the contentious issues of value, worth, disparity and discrimination. Let’s hope a redressal isn’t too far off.