Thursday, 21 January 2016

On hard choices

A propos of nothing in particular.

My mother keeps her accounts in hand written double entry tables that would make medieval Venetian auditors weep. Her financial discipline is legendary (only a portion has come down to me). My mother's planner is similarly detailed, with colored blocks delimiting her time into discrete clusters. My mother is disciplined, strong willed, organised, and has been since she left her parent's house at 14 to go to a boarding school she was only able to attend because of her excellent grades.

At least five times in my mother's life, someone (her mother, her employer, her ex husband, her employer again, her landlords) has tried to take her livelihood away. Each time, my mother has doubled down on her organization and discipline. She has built a successful small business as a private tutor, and when necessary has expanded it to fill all available time so she could get money. She saves, she scrimps. She budgets her money and her time to the last penny and the last second. She doesn't give up, and so far, she has won every time.

I have learnt a lot from my mother's handling of tough choices, both from what she told me, and from being around for three of them. I have learnt to calculate compound interest, to track every penny, to scour sales. I have learnt patience. I have learnt to read the fine print, to check for myself, to ask questions. I have learnt the importance of rigor and discipline in getting anything done, and to never assume that things will sort themselves out.

I have also learnt other things. I have learnt never to trust what is not in writing. I have learnt never to put too much faith in the future. I have learnt that you should show up in court calm and collected in a sensible, freshly pressed suit you can barely afford to listen as your husband's lawyer explains that the house you both lived in and the education you both gave your children is too extravagant. I have learnt that you should not, under any circumstances, betray any emotion at this, though you may spend the next night raging into your pillow. I have learnt that when your employer looses track of ten years of your retirement contributions, they will tell you there is nothing to be done. I learnt that when you then spend two years tracking down pay slips from forty years ago, the lady handling the file that you have reconstructed will congratulate herself, and suggest that she really should come on a trip to London. I have learnt that you should say you would be glad to be her guide should she ever choose to do it.

I have learnt that knuckling down takes a toll. That going into crisis mode can become a habit. I have learnt your sleep can go to pot, and then your health. I have learnt that repeatedly getting screwed by people who are supposed to be looking out for you leaves deep wounds that stay fresh a very long time.

My mother never made us work as teenagers, and is always generous with her money. I have asked her why, and her reason is simple: no one was there to help her, and doing it on her own was hard. As she once observed to me when discussing her discipline and rigour "it might have been nice to know who I could have been if I hadn't had to be so disciplined and rigorous".

Mostly, what I have learnt from my mother is this. Tenacity, rigor, discipline, financial nous will help you in times of crisis, or when other people try to screw you over. But those efforts come at a cost, and one should not mistake the ability to endure adversity, with the adversity being a good thing. My mother is an amazing woman, but she would be the first to say that parts of her would have been better off without having to fight all these fights.

Pragmaticism is a necessity, but it is neither itself a virtue, nor a begetter of virtue. And tough choices, unavoidable as they may be, remain tough, and may leave us hard and hurt.

Monday, 11 January 2016


I came to David Bowie late in life. Growing up in the UK in the 90s', he'd already transitioned to Elder Statesmen of music stage. His classics were all pervasive, and as a cultural icon he was instantly recognisable, but like Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and the Beatles, an intimate knowledge of his work was not required as a teenager. It doesn't help that all his musical offerings were judged by the critics to be inferior to his heyday, dismissed as the restlessness of an artist growing irrelevant. Listening to Heathen today, I have to wonder how world changing his 70s work must have been for anyone to dismiss that album as sub par. From any other musician, it would have been exceptional.
It was through his greatest hits CD that I came to a deeper appreciation of Bowie, and a greater interest in his work and career. It turns out I have a liking for restlessly inventive musicians that has over the years lead me to dive through the discographies of the likes of Tori Amos and Bjork. But, of course, Bowie laid the ground work, the basic template for these artists. Both Amos and Bjork play with his interest in personas, syncretic music styles, and vocal acrobatics.
Bowie has become synonymous with his continuous reinvention of himself, which pre dates his famous retiring of Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy, after all, was his second or third persona. There's been a lot written about the personas trick, and it's mostly been viewed as device by which Bowie could continually reinvent his music, to anticipate changes and trends from glam rock to psychedelia to electro soul to straight up electro. But I think there's more to it than just that. At least since the Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane change, Bowie's re-iterating transformations have been part of his appeal. The .gif of Helen Green's illustrations of David Bowie's changing faces that has been going around highlights our fascination with his reinventions.
Such free wheeling transformation is fascinating because, well, most of us don't get to deliberately reinvent ourselves all that much. There are a few moments in life when change is accepted (puberty, going to university), but by and large, we're expected to settle into some sort of stability, or at least of smooth continuity. Try coming into work with changed hair and a completely new style to test this out. And larger changes are more traumatic.
And yet, on the other hand, change, as Bowie himself noted in one of his most famous songs, is inevitable. Sometimes, life forces us into situations in which we must re-invent ourselves, construct new personas. Entering or leaving a long term relationship, becoming a parent, becoming an orphan. Becoming old.. Such events require some degree of reinvention, because some of the modes of existence  from our previous forms are no longer adequate. We can approach these changes more or less consciously, or more or less explicitly. Sometimes, we are unaware that we are transforming, until we realise that we are no longer who we once were. The risk here is that we change, but our image of ourself does not, and so one day we are strangers to ourselves.
As he was mulling over his affair with Albertine, Marcel Proust's narrator in the remembrance of things past realised how difficult it was for the version of him that was no longer in love with Albertine to understand the past him that was, or even to accurately remember what that person felt like. Memory is an active process, not a passive replay of the past, and so our current selves will tend to overwrite our past selves, declare them less authentic, less true versions of us. We are constantly engaged in a revisionist Whig history of ourselves.
The process of 'coming out' that gays such as myself go through in our modern western societies is an example of this process of active re-invention. In the standard narrative, the version of us before the coming out is incomplete, untrue, a cypher of the true self. And yet, this narrative never allows the actual pre-coming out version of the self (or several versions, I can count at least three for myself) to speak their truth, their experience.
I started writing a diary when I was 18 for precisely that reason: I felt my memories becoming less reliable as my adolescence ended and adulthood began. I wanted to leave a record of myself to myself. And sometimes, those old entries are like reading the notes of stranger. Things that are now trivial loom large, and dead ends of thought and growth long abandoned and forgotten are suddenly pressing and current.
In David Bowie's continuous re-inventions, we see a performance of our own lives, our own transformations. We have our equivalents of the man who fell to earth, Aladdin Sane, and even the Thin White Duke in our own lives. What Bowie allowed us to see was that we could be conscious of this change, and perhaps shape it at key junctures.
Our lives are being and becoming, until we become no more.
RIP David Bowie