On Language, and Aspiration

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In the opening chapter of his autobiography, Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez explores his introduction to the English language, and the strain his commitment to mastering it places on his relationship with his parents. Being Mexican immigrants to America in the 1970’s, their primary language of intimacy and engagement is Spanish, their efforts in English being halting and deeply accented, even though his mother is an excellent speller of words. The emotion most stirred in those early days – when he as the up and coming scholarship boy gets to be out and about with them – is one of embarrassment and perhaps frustration at their limitations. For him, as with most people looking to escape the limitations of a certain kind of background, aspiration is a keen motivator, one that drives him to seek to immerse himself in knowledge and books, and take up the manners, airs and graces of the class and culture he looks up to.

Language, particularly where there is one which dominates the economic, political and cultural landscape in a given society, is often the most visible marker of class, and the ‘easiest’ target for those who would aspire to those heights. There is a sense in which English – for now at least until China takes over the world – remains such a language for many people around the world. This was brought home to me quite forcibly by the gaggle of people I met at my water survival course a week ago. In spite of our varying nations of origin, Nigeria (in my case), Spain, France and the token Englishman, fluency in English – at least to such an extent where one could understand and be understood – was clearly a highly prized asset.

Beyond fluency, accents also serve as differentiators, often because we as people thin-slice others, drawing inferences from our first impressions a significant proportion of which is influenced by how they sound. As an example, more often than not if presented with a Glaswegian accent, my first instinct would be to ensure my wallet is well tucked away out of sight. Received pronunciation portrays an element of class and polish,  English spoken with a South Texas drawl immediately makes me think of a gun-slinging, cowboy boot wearing, oil patch veteran. On the other hand, if Barry Glendenning were female, his accent would have me hot under the collar. Clearly different strokes for different folks. In fact, one of the more interesting telephone interviews I have had was for a job in Newcastle a few years ago, ending with the interviewer asking me what part of the world I was from because he couldn’t place my (edited, and some would say contrived) accent.

I suspect that our Nigerian OAPs are on to something here, given how contrived their accents allegedly are. Given their need to differentiate themselves from what is a crowded market place, perhaps selling an aspirational accent to us is merely one more trick in their toolboxes…

With Grace

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I have been (re) reading Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace, the central idea of which is that the church has gone the way of the world in dealing with people who are different; with judgement and disdain rather than grace. For a book from 1997, it does not by any means feel dated, somehow remaining current not least for the issues it tackles; issued which defined the late Nineties but still continue to define our current epoch than anything else – homosexuality and the moral failings of people in leadership, temporal and spiritual.

Only a few short weeks – barely a month – separates us from the landmark decision made by the US Supreme Court in ruling that same sex couples can marry nationwide. The 5-4 decision was perhaps indicative of how closely fought the battle was – each of the dissenting judges wrote an opinion. Christian America has not taken the ‘affront’ lying down with a range of responses from declaring the decision the final sin that will bring an apocalytic judgement on America to a few more nuanced – and blatantly fence-sitting responses from the likes of Brian Houston and TD Jakes amongst others.

There are no simple solutions or answers to the conundrum the church faces. On the one hand, gay activists have become a lot more militant, keen to take on the supposedly disciminatory message of the traditional evangelical position of an active homosexual lifestyle as being sinful. The church has often had to respond from a defensive position, one in which it has been forced to attempt to distance itself from the discriminatory labels activitist throw about. Others more biblically knowledgeable and aware than I am have widely differing positions on the subject, but in my lay man’s head I cannot think of any context in which Romans 1: 21-26 is not a damning indictment of the homosexual lifestyle, as a punishment for turning away from God. The science, on the other hand, suggests – not quite conclusively perhaps – that nature, and genetics, play a part in sexual orientation. If that is true, then roundly vilifying LGBTQ folk is akin to racism, an equivalence quite a number of activists for gay rights have often made.

One of the more emotive chapters in Yancey’s book is the one in which he talks about his friend Mel White, and the fall out of his coming out. In the space of a short time, he went from being a celebrated evangelical icon to being a pariah. That his coming out meant the end of a long term marriage in which children were involved can’t have helped, but the vast majority of people he had been associated with – he ghost wrote for a number of high profile evangelicals – ended up shunning him, and distancing themselves from him.

The model of Grace Yancey espouses is one in which although we accept a difference in opinion and theology, rather than roundly treating others with disdain and responding with defensiveness, or even going on the attack, we treat them graciously, as people carrying the Imago Dei first and foremost and thus deserving of love and respect rather than as adversaries primarily.There are no guarantees the battle will be won by Grace – at least it will guarantee that we get the chance to speak and be listened to.

We, like the best and the worst of the earth, are sinners saved by Grace. Unless we never forget that, we will be sucked into the trap of Gracelessness.

**Update**
Since I originally wrote this, I have since read Walter Kirn’s excellent essay on Mormonism (Confessions of an ex-Mormon in which from his perspective as an ex-Mormon he somehow hits the nail on the head on what church is perhaps is (or should be) really about:

God doesn’t work in mysterious ways at all, but by enlisting assistants on the ground. Sometimes the stories don’t work, or they stop working. Forget about them; find others. Revise. Refocus. A church is the people in it, and their errors. The errors they make while striving to get things right.

Well said, Walter!!!

The Longform Wrap #3

A few of the more interesting pieces I stumbled on on the web during March… Enjoy

1. On Spock – Gukira: Leonard Nimoy died, and amidst the outpouring of grief and the eulogies, I found I related most with this piece by Gukira who said it better than I ever could

I do not have a single Spock moment—an image or narrative that stays with me. Unlike those who know how to write about TV and movies, I cannot recall a single episode, at least not by name. When I was younger, when I first encountered Spock in Nairobi, in reruns from the 80s, I encountered him as gesture: as the arched eyebrow, as the grip that caused others to faint, as the Vulcan mind meld.

2. Marissa Mayer has completed Step One – Stephen Levy (Medium): On the Marissa Mayer effect at Yahoo;

She found Yahoo, despite its persistently huge audience, a sclerotic artifact of the desktop era, overly dependent on fading display ads, short of engineering talent and absolutely nowhere in mobile. And now the company is back on track. There are hundreds of new engineers, and an energized culture. Last year it reaped over a billion dollars of revenue in mobile ads — a business that didn’t exist at Yahoo when Mayer arrived. It bought Tumblr, which has 460 million users and is growing faster than Instagram. Yahoo has also built a system that allows app developers — the royalty of the new mobile age — to popularize and monetize their products. Meanwhile, Yahoo apps have won Apple Design Awards for two years running, and the company boasts over 500 million mobile users.

3.Valentine (Why There Would Be No Quiet Revolution Without My Husband) – Susan Cain (LinkedIn): From the Author of Quiet, a moving tribute in our post modern world of how much difference a supportive partner can still make.

I, in contrast, had written a poem. OK, a few poems. They were mostly about my love life, and they were clearly insignificant compared to Ken’s work in the world. Still, one evening I gathered my courage and handed him a sheaf of them, biting my nails as I anticipated his response. It came the next day, in an e-mail with big, 48 point letters: “Holy Shit. Keep writing. Drop Everything. Write. WRITE WOMAN, WRITE.” He wasn’t kidding about the “drop everything” part. This was not the bland encouragement of the experienced guy with a big book being kind to the young girlfriend and her poems. He wanted me to sacrifice for the craft of writing – and he, as my supportive partner, was prepared to do the same. He meant every word of that e-mail. I would find out just how deeply he meant it in the years to come.

4. As migrants we leave home in search of a future, but we lose the past – Gary Younge (The Guardian): Another emotive piece on the immigrant life (other pertinent reads – Finding a home in the apocalypse; Always Returning).

Migration involves loss. Even when you’re privileged, as I am, and move of your own free will, as I did, you feel it. Migrants, almost by definition, move with the future in mind. But their journeys inevitably involve excising part of their past. It’s not workers who emigrate but people. And whenever they move they leave part of themselves behind. Efforts to reclaim that which has been lost result in something more than nostalgia but, if you’re lucky, less than exile. And the losses keep coming. Funerals, christenings, graduations and weddings missed – milestones you couldn’t make because your life is elsewhere.

5: DC Talk and the influence of faith fortifying songs – Trevin Wax (The Gospel Coalition): Fascinating trip down memory lane to growing up in CCM in the 90’s and the pervasive influence of DC Talk which continues to this day in the solo career of TobyMac and the ‘takeovers’; Kevin Max as frontman for Audio Adrenaline and Michael Tait for the Newsboys, other iconic CCM players from that time.

1990’s CCM, for all the faults of its corny creativity (many of which are even more glaring and obvious as time goes by), was successful in one key sense. It gave me and my generation a different narrative. It was a sub-culture, yes, but no matter much some may sneer, it was a culture, and cultures are formative. Twenty years later, it’s the element of “fortifying faith” in so many dcTalk songs that has stuck with me. And for that, I’m grateful.

Bits, Bobs and Writing Elsewhere…

Firmly mired in the middle of my February read, Ted Thompson’s debut novel The Land of Steady Habits, no thanks to a gruelling schedule at work with criminal deadlines, although I did manage to complete a profile of Selma star David Oyelowo for the church newsletter I occasionally write in. What intrigued me about that in the first place was how open he has been about his faith through out his career from theatre to Hollywood. Fascinating read, if I say so myself. Other than that most of my February reading was web based longform, a few of the more interesting ones being highlighted below:

1. Biblical Reasons to Doubt the Creation Days were 24-hour periods – Justin Taylor (The Gospel Coalition): Interesting read, particularly coming from someone firmly ensconced in the camp of biblical inerrancy, key quote:

Contrary to what is often implied or claimed by young-earth creationists, the Bible nowhere directly teaches the age of the earth. Rather, it is a deduction from a combination of beliefs, such as (1) Genesis 1:1 is not the actual act of creation but rather a summary of or title over Genesis 1:2-2:3; (2) the creation week of Genesis 1:2-2:3 is referring to the act of creation itself; (3) each “day” (Heb. yom) of the creation week is referring to an 24-hour period of time (reinforced by the statement in Exodus 20:11); (4) an old-earth geology would necessarily entail macroevolution, hominids, and animal death before the Fall—each of which contradicts what Scripture tells us; and (5) the approximate age of the earth can be reconstructed backward from the genealogical time-markers in Genesis.

2. Ten Years of Google Maps, from Slashdot to Ground Truth – Liz Gannes (<Re/code>): Google Maps, ubiquitous as it now is, is only Ten Years old. Liz Gannes charts its origin story from birth to the pervasive product it now is. And the quest for innovation is not sated yet, by any means.

The early history of Google Maps ends there. Most of the seminal Google Maps team members have moved on, but to a person they recall working on Maps as the most fulfilling and successful project of their careers. They still take it personally when they hear of bugs in the product or complaints about misguided redesigns.

Today, Geo is one of Google’s main product divisions. Ground Truth remains an ongoing project, and Google developed tools to keep its maps updated through direct user contributions. The division continues to be acquisitive, buying Zagat and Waze and Skybox in recent years. Street View has mapped the Grand Canyon and the canals of Venice. And Google’s maps have laid the groundwork for its most ambitious project yet — self-driving cars.

3. Why I’m Still A Catholic – Nicole Callahan (Salon): Reflecting on remaining Catholic in spite of disagreements with doctrine and how defining herself as Catholic somehow feels like a crucial part of her heritage.

Despite my disagreements, my weaknesses, my failures as a member of the Catholic Church, I can’t do anything but remain in it, though I’ve long since abandoned any pretense of being a great Catholic. Like all American Catholics, I flout and complain about and struggle to comprehend Church teaching; I emphasize the things I find easy to agree with, and minimize those that bother me. But while I am a bad Catholic, and I know it, I am also a practicing one. I have figured out that I’m just the kind who stays.

Though I can understand all the reasons why other people lapse and leave, I can’t seem to manage unbelief. Nor can I turn my back on the church that still gives me a home, a place to belong, when I so often feel that I don’t truly belong anywhere else. This might make my faith sound like a “crutch.” It very well might be. At times I feel that I cannot function, cannot stay on my feet, without it.

4. What does your selfie say about you – The Next Web:

Selfies also allow us to exert a greater level of control over how others perceive us online, and this is a major appeal. Thanks to front facing camera phones, we can take countless photos of ourselves until we have an image that depicts us exactly the way we want – an image that we’re happy to share with the online world. Interestingly, recent research suggests that this “selective self presentation” may actually enhance our self-esteem and boost our confidence.

5. An Ode to the Aux Cord – Eric Hulting (Medium):

Few things exemplify that [instant gratification] more than the AUX cord. Literally any song that exists on your phone or the internet is within your reach once you get in your car. It’s cathartic, spiritual even, to have that level of free will over what you listen to. Last road trip I took, I listened to something like 100 different songs from like 50 different albums

2015 Reading #1

In addition to completing Moon Walking with Einstein, The Pioneer Detectives and significantly denting my copy of The Best American Essays 2014, my 2015 reading has consisted of loads of longform, which I am curating via Pocket. Below are a few of the more interesting pieces that caught my eye this month:

1. Learning to Drive – Adam Gopnik (The New Yorker): What we learn when we learn to drive?

… Driving a car more like walking on a sidewalk, [is] full of recognitions and hand waving and early avoidance, tamping down the sudden shocks that the combustion engine is heir to…

I saw that driving was in another way civilization itself: self-organizing, self-controlling, a pattern of agreement and coalition made at high speed and, on the whole, successfully. “Just signal and slide over,” Arturo would urge me on the highway, and, as I signalled, other cars—other drivers—actually let me slide over!

2. Writing Your Way To Happiness – Tara Parker-Pope (The New York Times) : The benefits of expressive writing?

Like Siri, I have numerous explanations for why I don’t find time for exercise. But once I started writing down my thoughts, I began to discover that by shifting priorities, I am able to make time for exercise.

“When you get to that confrontation of truth with what matters to you, it creates the greatest opportunity for change”.

3. Selma was a Spiritual Endeavour for Me -Alissa Wilkinson and Morgan Lee (Christianity Today): David Oyelowo on playing Dr King in Oscar nominated (best picture) Selma:

.. every film I do can be edifying, can be something that points toward I believe to be true: I’m not one to shy away from darkness in movies, as long as there is light. As long as the light overwhelms the darkness, then you’ll find me in the midst of that story. That’s what I aspire to do because I know it to be true in my own life. I don’t think I’ve done a film that doesn’t demonstrate that—the darkness being overwhelmed by the light.

4. The Secret Life of Passwords – Ian Urbina (The New York Times) : Keepsake passwords;

…ritualize a daily encounter with personal memories that often have no place else to be recalled. We engage with them more frequently and more actively than we do, say, with the framed photo on our desk. “You lose that ritual,” [Miah said,] “you lose an intimacy with yourself.”

5. The Little Bug That Could – Michael Frankel (Medium): On travelling across the continental US in a Volkswagen Beetle to welcome a grandchild;

The Bug and I rolled into the Tampa Bay area still under waves of thunder­storms, alternating downpours with steamy sunshine. You could almost see the recently dropped rain rising off the pavement as steam. The grand tour of the union was coming to an end. We covered seventeen states in 6,000 miles. The top was down for 5,300 of those miles — a new personal-all-time-best. I consumed seventy-five cups of coffee on the road, almost all of them McDonald’s secret, piping-hot recipe. I averaged eighty miles per cup. The longest dry run between McDonald’s restaurants was 258 miles from Fallon to Eli, Nevada on Route 50. Along with the coffee, I ate six dozen granola bars and countless pretzels.

2014 Reading – The January Wrap

Between Albert Camus’ The Outsider and Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, my 2014 reading has gotten off to a solid, if unspectacular start, both these books seeming to occupy opposite extremes of the emotional engagement continuum.

In The Outsider, two excellent summaries of which can be found here and here,  Albert Camus’ protagonist, Meursault, is defined by his (lack of) emotional reaction  to the death of his mother; My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know – he says,  and the subsequent problems that causes for him when he ends up getting sucked into a conflict that was never his to begin with, but which ends in murder.

Post conviction, as he awaits execution, the themes of detachment and a refusal to show emotion – refusing to plead self defence, or to pretend  to feel more pain at the death of his mother continue, factors which the prosecution uses to portray him as a callous, deadened, premeditated murderer. After an intense confrontation with the prison chaplain, his final thoughts with respect to his impending death are to hope that there will be many spectators on the day of his execution and that they would greet him with cries of hatred.

In contrast, Soueif‘s book- which she started out writing as a ‘tawdry romance’-  is a maelstrom of emotion – two love stories, three women and two cross cultural liaisons separated by a hundred years of Egyptian nation building.

Anna, the English widow, goes to Egypt in an attempt to rebuild her life after losing her husband to the ravages of a mind destroyed by the excesses of the British Empire in Sudan. There, having being kidnapped, she ends up becoming friends with Layla, whose brother a leading nationalist, Sharif al-Baroudi, she eventually marries leading to repercussions and distrust  from both sides of the Empire-Nationalist divide in the Egypt of the day.

The catalyst for discovering the story is a trunk Isabel, a divorced American journalist, is left by her mother, and a burgeoning love affair with an Egyptian conductor – Omar in New York. His suggestion that she take the trunk to Egypt to get help translating some of the papers written in Arabic brings woman #3 into the equation, Omar’s sister Amal.

The contrast with The Outsider is stark. I had loads of favourite, intimate tender moments, my favourite passage being  the one in which having sent his first bride back to her parents, ostensibly to remove the weight of his family name being associated with them, his mother genuinely worried stops by to have a chat around helping him meet the need ‘which God has lawfully ordained for men’. He bows his head and delivers a response I would do well to share with my own mother when she gets antsy with me for not too dissimilar a reason:

 We are living in difficult times and it is not enough for a person to be interested in his home and his job – in his personal life. I need my partner to be someone to whom I can turn, confident of her sympathy, believing her when she tells me I’m in the wrong, strengthened when she tells me I’m in the right. I want to love, and be loved back.

Two other books round up my January reading – Warsanshire’s (who needs no introduction really) Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth and James Patterson’s Merry Christmas, Alex Cross, an airport impulse buy at Waterstones on my last jaunt to London.  All told, one month in, four books are done and dusted. Good progress given how 2013 went in books.

5 Tests of Compatibility

From my current read, Ben Young and Dr Sam Adams’ book – The One: A Realistic Guide to Choosing Your Soul Mate.

  1. Is there chemistry? Are you sexually/ physically attracted to your partner?
  2. Is your relationship natural? Do things flow naturally or are you spending a lot more time resolving issues than demonstrating a natural fit?
  3. Would this be a good friend? If the chemistry was removed, is it someone you’d want to be with, whose company you enjoy?
  4. Can you accept his or her personality as is? Could you spend the rest of your life with the person as they are?
  5. Would you want your kids to be like him or her? Could you envision a future in which your children turn out like him or her?

Oh and to pass the test, it must be ‘Yes’, 100%…

Small Change #2 – Get Your ZZZs

From the 52 Small Changes book:

Sleep is the best meditation

– Dalai Lama

Last week’s small change went fairly well – bar the odd day on which one coffee just didn’t sort me out. By the end of the week, I was reaching instinctively for my 600ml bottle of water to kick start my day, before anything else. The slightly harder challenge was staying off the cokes, which I did for the most part except for two days – along with a green leaf salad for Wednesday for lunch and on Friday afternoon during my monthly catch up with O. at Nandos. All told there has been noticeable improvement in the quantity of water (and green tea) I drink, which can’t be such a bad thing.

Sleep has never been my forte. For as long as I can remember, I have been a terrible sleeper. My fitbit data only buttresses that fact, which makes the timing of small change #2 particularly apt.

sleep_August

The Plan

  1. Buy blackout blinds for my room to eliminate outside sources of light
  2. Stream smooth jazz music primarily to create a sleepy ambience as sleep time draws near
  3. Adjust my sleep schedule – I currently wake up around about 5am regardless of when I go to bed. The idea is to try to go to bed by 10pm at the latest.
  4. Drink a cup of decaffeinated herbal tea to ease off into sleep.

Currently listening to: Forward Motion – Thousand Foot Krutch

 

Small Change #1 – Drink Up

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From the 52 Small Changes Book:

Water is the driving force of nature

– Leonardo Da Vinci

Or as Fela once famously sang, water no get enemy. 

Up until a month ago, Cokes were my default drink, in all its forms – diet, regular, zero and a few non conventional forms too [mixed with all sorts of other liquids], which is why this first small chnage will need some serious getting used to.

The Plan

  1. Replace coffees with green tea. Target is to scale back to one morning coffee each day at most.

  2. Buy a 1L stainless steel water bottle and keep it topped up at my desk through work.

  3. Straight off the bat, upon waking up, I will down a cup of water to kick start my day.

Simples 🙂

Currently listening to: You Are – Colton Dixon

Kicking off the3six5NG Project

 

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Sir Farouk does a far more eloquent job than I have ever managed of explaining what we’ve been trying to do for the past six weeks with #the3six5NG project – creating a crowd sourced diary of Nigerian perspectives from 365 people for 365 days. Inspired by the Len Kendall and Daniel Honigman created the3six5, we’d set out to create our own ‘local’ the3six5, for Nigeria and Nigerians.

I had the honour of kicking things off yesterday with a meditation of sorts on the interactions between birth, new beginnings and the perpetual motion machine that my life has evolved into over the last three years. Others have signed up to share a snippet of their world for all of March 2013. April is filling up.

Do stop by, have a read and get inspired to sign up to contribute your own perspective. You know you want to! 🙂