Monday, October 11, 2010

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

"Most of us only have a dozen or so interesting moments in our lives, the rest is filler" by Nick van der Leek

My goal, when I started my university career, was to have a boring life. Boring is probably the wrong word. 'Textbook' is probably better. In the days of LA Law and The Practice I wanted to be a professional, I wanted to have colleagues that looked like Lara Flynn Boyle and I've always been good at arguing. The problem was, I also had a conscience, and it's been my gift or my curse always to listen to it. By conscience I don't necessarily refer to a sense of moral zeitgeist, more a gut feel about what is happening in the world.

I ditched law after a year because I suspected I would be to sincere and to honest to be a good shark. And Apartheid South Africa and even Post Apartheid South Africa didn't seem the kind of place where an honest appreciation of truth, justice and the Seffrican would get you very far. I may have been wrong. I've paid lawyers around R12000 a day for their services. It takes me 3 or 4 articles in major magazines to earn that sort of moolah, and months of to-ing and fro-ing before payday.


I also studied economics, and while some may disparage it as a phantom job [similar to weather reporting, or preaching] I have found it invaluable in the insights it has given to me. In the same way that I ditched law, I also turned my back on banking. Something seemed wrong to me about a financial system where you charge people interest for the benefit of making loans, where credit makes the world go round. In short, I had a hunch that this house of credit cards, derivatives and debt-based wealth [if that makes any sense] wasn't going to last.
I may have been wrong on that count too. It's lasted long enough to make a lot of money, and I've seen friends that I've studied with grow exceedingly wealthy.


I also studied advertising, and although the creative aspect of this career inspired me, I found the people who work at these agencies ultra-shallow. Where will you find a more worldly person than in an advertising agency? Where people suck up to each other on the basis of the brand they're sucking up to. Steve is on the Coke account, so let's all suck Steve's dick. Excuse the crassness, but that is exactly what it involves. If people like you in advertising, you're confident, if they don't, you're arrogant. If you're good at what you do, the adworld sucks you in and spits out Mike Lipkin. I could see myself becoming him, and I guess I just wasn't interesting in being that worldly. Being creative is one thing; doing it in absolute service to the selling of stuff so consumers can consume...well that wasn't my thing.

The Poor Life

As you can imagine, I had a hard time finding anything that was worth doing. And being somewhat anti-establishment, somewhat anti-money, didn't make me rich. For me a job has always been more than a job. It is a statement of mission, of who we say we are. Because what we do is who we are. I didn't like what my job said about me.

Which is how I eventually came to be doing what I am doing now.  Although I am not a lawyer, or a banker, I still get to call myself a professional.  I sometimes stay in the swankiest places around; but equally, I enjoy roughing it in some of the most God forsaken places.  I explore, I discover, and then I share these discoveries. I write and photograph on my travels, I interview people.  Sometimes, often, without going anywhere, perhaps whilst running or watching the sun burning through the lightblue blanket of Monday morning sky, I will have an idea, and I will sell these - hopefully lucid thoughts - to editors who might be so overloaded and suffering from ADD and information overload that such lucidity may be in high demand.

I sell some of my coverage to magazines, or websites, or newspapers. Sometimes individuals or companies hire me to do private work for them. This may be photography, or writing, or both. A big part of my job is reflection. I look at what I see, and I reflect it back in photographs and words. I seem to have a talent at this; people seem to be appreciative of my work and as long as they are I can continue doing it.

Money makes the world go round [only it doesn't really]

The world being the way that it is, based on money, I have to earn some in order to survive. Which means occasionally I do work that I don't feel inclined to do. But on average, I'm able to tell the stories that interest and inspire me. It gives me a freedom to live unconfined by office space or trapped in timetables. I do have deadlines, but I tend to create them myself.

It is interesting to observe that many of my reservations related to the world are coming home to roost. Look out the Douglas Coupland post below this one [or click here].He talks about a few things I have suspected for some time, and I expect you have too. Things are getting worse. The middle class is disappearing. Being an individual in the future will become harder, but being alone will become easier. Expect less. But above all, this idea interested me:

It will become harder to view your life as “a story”
. Coupland reckons: The way we define our sense of self will continue to morph via new ways of socializing. The notion of your life needing to be a story will seem slightly corny and dated. Your life becomes however many friends you have online.

Since time immemorial 'Story' has grounded human beings, given us a sense of place, and context, value and meaning. Families have stories.  Cultures have stories.  Nations have stories. The Bible is a good example of a story that people use to infuse meaning into their everyday lives. Believe it or not, but you have a story, a narrative, that explains you to yourself, and the world. These thoughts and ideas clothe and represent you. Without your memories, and the way you 'frame' and interpret these pictures, you would not be who you are, and your sense of belonging would be very different.

In the end, we live one life. Probably, most of us will remember about a dozen interesting moments in our lives. We may look back on very occasions that we awoke through the mutual malaise of conspirational consumption, distraction and entertainment, and ever did something that was a credit to ourselves, or even better, our species. The herd mentality is good when the herd is good, but human beings have departed that road some time ago. The herd today is greedy and overweight, heads filled with noise, hearts filled with wanting things we don't want. We can only begin to move away from this selfishness when we begin to still the noise. We when can stop and see a bird on the side of the road, listen to its song and know its name. Without a connection to nature, nothing much matters, and we begin to lose our sense of place in the world. It is our separation from nature, its silence, and its goodness, that impoverishes and fragments us.

The answer is to move closer to the plants and animals, and to spend enough time in this journey to rediscover our own inner narratives, so that we begin to piece together a narrative that makes sense for everyone. Things are going to get worse, and the bad news is we're in this together. But, potentially, this can also be the good news.

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