Tag Archives: choices

Tools for being human, part eight: Owning my age

pigs head

My age was a defining characteristic right from the start. Actually, probably before the start, measured really from the moment of conception. Once I was freed of the womb, it was a scale against  which my progress was judged. “Oh, so he isn’t crawling yet? Never mind, maybe he can be a conservative.”

It soon became part of the way I defined myself. “My name is Regan, I can draw an airplane and tie my shoe laces and I am four-and-three-quarters”. It became a ranking system in social situations. The five-year-olds got the toy rifles, those under five made do with sticks or finger-pointing. Though I did learn to draw that Remington two-finger pretty damn quick.

It was age-division that was my first experience of segregation. Specifically the great adult-child divide. At celebrations us children got a lower table, fewer items of cutlery, and higher sugar-content foods. The adults had the taller tables, more complicated social rules, and decisions to make on who would have to drive. I also learnt that certain behaviour, activities and ideologies were restricted to each side. Alcohol, untruths and high-impact cursing were strictly for “the adults”. Imagination, playtime and brutal honesty were the domain of children.

And yet my memories of childhood are largely of sunlight and adventure. I didn’t undergo any of the maturity summoning transformations that some of my peers had to face. My parents never divorced, I didn’t have to raise my siblings, I was neither abused nor abandoned. I got to be a very thorough eight year old, building fortresses from cushions, mown-grass, and imagination. I was a competent ten-year old, earning my scars by playing games of “policemen versus protestors”, riding my BMX off cliffs, and hurling adult-branded curses at bullies. And I became well-versed in the dark arts of teenageism. Blushing around girls, arguing with Dad about the length of my hair, and replacing judicious portions of my parent’s darker spirits with tea.

When I look at a photo of myself on my 21st birthday, I realise that I largely matched society’s age-expectations. I had a peer-inherited (and media enhanced) disregard for authority. I had long hair, and a tattoo with an ungracious story. I left university classes early to play bass guitar in a metal band named Shocker. And I had a Rainman-like ability to calculate the best alcohol-by-volume-by-price in a bottle store. Yip, 94% age-appropriate.

Social pressure remained relentless, if not always overt. I understood that by the age of thirty I should have been married, with a house, and maybe a child on the way. I rebelled. It wasn’t until thirty-one I had a wife and a house. And horses. I had a good, steady job that paid well, but I’d demoted fantasy and imagination, replaced some of my dreams with wants. As a result there was a tension within me, a pull between society’s expectations, and my buried needs. At thirty-three, I imploded. House, home, relationship, job. I didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with the aftermath. So I boarded a plane.

For the next few years I put myself in situations where I lived, worked and danced with people ten years younger than me. People who labelled their hopes as certainties rather than impracticalities. People who looked for their options on a wide horizon rather than down a narrow tunnel. Ok, some of them pissed in the laundry, shat in the shower or offered loud advice from places of ignorance. But by now I knew that age was no antidote to foolishness. I started to realise that elucidation had to be earned, not granted. So I paid attention to my surroundings.

One of the greatest things about immersing yourself in an unfamiliar community, is that you have a chance of developing empathy, appreciation, understanding. Ageing is an opportunity through which we can build comprehension through experience. What it is like to sit in your first maths lesson. What it means to be afraid of the dark. What it means to be struggling with teenage ideas around gender. Imagine what we might gain if had to live through a range of ethnicities? Or if over our lifetime we gradually shifted gender? What insights and understanding might we draw?

And yet such opportunities might well be squandered. At thirty I believed that the people I could best relate to, were those of my own age. I thought that we’d been born at the best possible time, and that we shared things no other age could understand. Hair metal, misogyny, The Goonies. Besides, society frowns at the idea of inter-age mingling. It represents it as insidious, or inappropriate, or sad. At thirty-three I began to undo my prejudice. As a consequence I spent the next ten years learning my most consequential lessons in humility, creativity, and the development of wisdom, from yoofs.

One of those world-shakers was my girlfriend for much of that time. She taught me the importance of honesty, and honour. Of forgiveness.The difference in our ages wasn’t a problem until a biological alarm shifted her world. Fortunately she’d also taught me enough about self-reflection to avoid immolation, and so I began hosting couch surfers in order to fill a number of voids. And I was surprised to find that one of the most spontaneous, creative and inspirational was a woman just a little older than me. She had endless stories, she’d made beer for years, and she lived in Boulder, Colorado. Like Mork and Mindy (kids my age will get it…). I booked another flight.

She introduced me to a range of wonderful people, people who at forty, or fifty, or sixty, who still had an eye on the horizon. People who didn’t let their age dictate who they should be. People who rather than giving up on their dreams, had chased them down, and then found new ones. And since then I keep finding older-aged heroes.

Ageism is a powerful prejudice, one which build barriers and promotes ignorance. Our societies should promote kinship, not division. And as with anything societal, it is up to me to be part of any change.

So I choose to see age as a choice, not a curse. I can choose to age poorly. Choose a diet designed to challenge my heart and bowels rather than befriend them. Choose to define functional alcoholism my pointing to the one gunt in the pub that’s more pished than I am. Choose to tell myself that a sore back, a beer belly, and a mutually damaging relationship with a girlfriend I’ve taught myself to hate, are all symptoms of too many years, rather than my own poor choices.

Or I can choose to learn every day, to rewrite my prejudices through experience. Choose to summon the vigour and hope of my teens and wrap this around the compassion and care I’ve taken on in my forties. Choose to measure people by the depth of their hugs, the warmth of their smile, and their capacity for enjoyment, rather than the country of their birth, the number of candles on their cake, or their possession (or lack of) a Y-chromosome.

I choose to make (as much as possible) my own choices.

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On drawing all the grins we can from life

Cowboy

I guess not being in my thirties any more, I’ve begun spending time looking at how I can make what remains of my time on this colourful wee planet as “good” a time as possible. Good. Positive. Not complicated terms, not particularly poetic, but they’re the best expression for what I mean. I want to continue to chuckle, guffaw and grin, I want those who I enjoy spending time with to draw positivity from me, and I want to find someone I admire and respect to share my experiences.

I’ve spoken (typed) before about understanding what makes me “happy”, but I also think it’s important to draw joy from as many aspects of life as possible. I also believe I need to avoid counteracting this with too much stress about the past or the future. Life throws enough challenging events at us independent of our own fears and regrets. We don’t need to compound these with our own neuroses.

Some time ago I started with minimising the negatives. A good friend and probation officer (not mine…) once convinced me that there’s no point in having regrets. She explained that every choice we make, everything we’ve undergone, made us who we are today. She was able to help me cull my most significant regrets, or at least turn in them into something I could handle. I find that remorse keep me locked to the past, they’re a result of placing too much weight on a choice I once made, and failing to take what I’ve learnt and move on. I was (slightly) younger when this information was imparted, I was to a degree an idealist, and I had someone I cared for and shared with, that I thought would be with me forever. But over the years since then, particularly after discussing this with others, I’ve realised that this approach is far simpler if you’re happy with who you are, right now. If you’re convinced you’re in a shit place, and that you’ve put yourself there through your choices, this bouncy, positive ideal is a bit of a struggle. Maybe even offensive. So maybe we also need to look at ways to avoid collecting the regrets in the first place.

Each day we’re faced with choices. From whether to tell our second-best-friend that we believe their soon-to-be love bride is a terrifying, soul leaching mistake, to assessing whether flip-flops are appropriate footwear in Rattlesnake Canyon. Some of these decisions deserve serious consideration, but too often I’ve dumped too much energy on the simplest, most inconsequential decisions. How many online reviews do I read, agonising over which travel camera to buy? It’s a camera, bruv, not a double mastectomy. Rather than sweating the smaller stuff, I’ve realised I should be dedicating more time to the other end of my choices, the results. If I don’t learn from my choices, I’m Homer Simpson without Lisa or Marge. If I don’t pay attention to the outcomes, I’m unlikely to learn from the greatest tutor of all, experience. But just as importantly, if I examine the entrails of my choices, I can usually find something positive or constructive in even the worst seeming outcome. If I fail to pay attention, and determine only that I made a “wrong” choice, I miss the chance to grow from the experience. This was hugely important in moving beyond my last relationship, and something I failed to do when my marriage went tits up. And the only thing I readily think of when I consider my regret status, is that painful separation from my once wife, Claire. At least today.

The most recent area I’ve been considering, is how I might use my competencies in one area of my life, to improve another. Specifically, harnessing my ability to derive satisfaction from my work, whether it is chainsaw sculpting or working for the most evil Irish bar owner in Britain, in order to improve the areas in which I tend to flail. Like finding someone who wants to share the incredible experiences I’m going to continue to lift from life.

While I was picking up a range of coffee-making, dish cleaning and scone baking skills in Michaelhouse Cafe, I had an affable, passionate manager, Dean. He steered me from lagers towards real ales, and he introduced me to the idea of finding a whiskey that works for me. You might be thinking “top bloke, job done”, but he had one more trick up his occasionally philosophical sleeve. When I left the kitchen in Cambridge to return to New Zealand, he told me my approach to baking was like something from “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”. I had an idea that this meant I tried very hard to find joy in whatever it was that I ended up doing. It was only three years later when I read Robert Persig’s book. The author explores the way we can derive quality from life. Even if we’re faced with difficult or monotonous tasks, chores or jobs, it’s all down to our attitude. He uses his characters to give examples of two different ways we can leverage “quality” from life. The first is the “romantic”. These people focus on being “in the moment”, and care little for the workings of the things they experience. The other point of view is the “classical”, these people derive joy from understanding the mechanics of what they are doing, they attempt to understand all the intricacies of their experiences. Like with any good explanation of opposing ways to reach the same destination, Persig’s protagonist, Zen, decides the most worthwhile approach, the one most likely to result in the best quality of life, is a mix of the two approaches.

When I look at my approach to work, to performing tasks in order to make enough money to live, I can see my approach is a useful mix. When I was learning to bake, starting work at 6:30am on midwinter mornings, I biked to work through the snow with an ipod soundtrack accompanying my slips and falls. My fellow early starters and I used banter, “chef’s rants”, and cooking competitions to drag giggles from long hours of hard, hot work. I struggled towards the perfect complement winning scones, the most splendid  pizzas, the finest five grain loaves. And it was rare I had a bad work day.

But when I look at my attitude to relationships, I have always been a romantic. I am always trying to achieve better, more memorable moments, and I’m disappointed when I can’t contribute significantly to the happiness of the person I focus on. I have been entirely willing to set such things as “the children question” aside, so that I can just create incredible, beautiful, memorable events. I’ve run to the other side of the world for a chance of a life eternal with someone I barely know, ignoring the difficult questions, like whose family to spend Christmas with, differing opinions on the ideal temperature for beer, and the Northern Hemisphere inability to handle Vegemite. As a result of these ill-informed, spontaneous bursts of romance, I have had some incredible, passionate  relationships, but eventually they have had to end. I failed to address the mechanics, the framework. I rarely looked towards the inevitable frustrations, the tearful departures, believing passion and faith would be enough.

I know now I need to balance my romantic idealism, to engage with a woman (sorry lads) who doesn’t want things I can’t offer. I need to ensure I learn from my choices. And I will try to harbour no regrets. I’ll let you know how that all works out for me some time.

On fatalism versus taking control of your life

Glacial Exploration

I’ve always resisted the idea of fate, of pre-determination. For better or worse I like to think that I have a degree of control in my direction. Take a simple (hopefully universal) example. When I was in Northern Ireland, I frequently used a coin toss to help me make decisions. “Ho Hoooo!” some of you may cry, “That’s fate right there, boy!”, but wait a second. I’d toss the coin, and call tails. And I found that where I may have thought I wasn’t sure about which result I wanted, if the coin toss result felt wrong, then I’d make it “best two out of three”. It was the only way I sometimes found, to determine what my heart was trying to tell me.

I’m not sure what it is that enables/disables people to put their trust in some divine force or energy plotting a path for them through life. I can’t get away from the thought that it’s merely an excuse for not trying to make the right choices, and of course accepting the blame for when you choose poorly.

I have to admit though, that I haven’t always attacked my goals with enough gusto. In hindsight though, that was usually due to misunderstanding what it was I wanted. I was pretty keen on being a Rock God at around 19-21 (ok, maybe 19-35…), so I bought a guitar, learnt a few chords, and joined a band. Over that brief period of attempted musicianship, I put a degree of practice in, but it was the trappings that I was enthused about. There were so many things to master, and growing my hair took considerably less effort than endlessly practicing scales. I realised some time later, that the issue lay within hoping to be a Rock God, rather than wanting to be a musician. Yeah, you got me, I haven’t always been the conscientious, aspiring writer philosopher. I blame my hormones. Bless ’em.

What if we don’t aspire to lofty goals though, are some of us destined to merely support the ambitions of others? It is possible in societies with relatively low levels of poverty, high levels of employment, and a tendency to promote moderation, to amble your way through life. From high school, to the first office job that doesn’t decline you, to the first girl or boy that doesn’t laugh and point. From there it is so, so easy to impregnate the female in a romance free coitus. And then wheeeeee, you can shift the entire responsibility achieving anything significant on to your children. But as those little critters grow, they extract moral structure, a desire to improve, and belief in achieving their dreams from (amongst others) their parents. And so your hopes at living vicariously through your children’s fulfilment of your own unexpressed desires…it ebbs away before your eyes.

Ok, so that’s a pretty dreary interpretation of a life lived simply, but that’s what I see happening if too many of us decide to let the universe dictate. Without the struggle, without the strive towards goals more ambitious than mere existence and reproduction, we’re gradually reversing Darwinism. And unfortunately there are too many people happy to jump on the bandwagon, to profit from helping you eliminate any need to struggle. From drug companies pushing pacification by pill, to a media that too frequently seeks to entertain rather than inform, we’re at risk of being coerced towards mental neutrality, and being left with dwindling decision making powers.

Not this boy, and not those I admire. I need to actively live my life, to strive, struggle and fight my way to the things I believe matter. If we raise children, we owe it to them to provide them with role models who hold onto their own dreams, while inspiring others to discern their own. We can all achieve so much more if we realise we have the freedom, and the power, to make choices. If we meekly relinquish control of our existence, if we leave it in the hands of fate, I think we do ourselves a disservice.

I never made it to the stages of Glastonbury or Coachella as a guitarist, nor have I sold a painting for a Damien Hirst thrashing sum, but I don’t dedicate my failures to fate. We deserve the things we focus on, and struggle for. So understanding what sorts of things bring you happiness, should allow you to set goals that are positive for you, that improve you as a person. Unless of course the accumulation of capital at the expense of others ACTUALLY makes you happy. In which case I’ll happily close my eyes, whistle a tune, and let karma king-hit you in the balls.