Monday 20 May 2013

K. : Happy Birthday

Dear K.,

Happy Birthday!

This is an odd way to express that, isn’t it?  I could’ve send a postcard or email.  But I’ve had it in my head to write you letters for your birthday for some time now – well, for less than a year, of course – because you’re my goddaughter.  To be honest I’ve always been a little bewildered by what your parents expected of me when they asked me to take on the role.  Yes, I can look it up; I did look it up.  Classically and religiously, I’m supposed to teach you the Christian Lord’s Prayer and be a guide through life.  Me, a guide through life?  Are you laughing?  I suppose that’s a little less strange than teaching you a prayer.

I remember when I was a teenager, all green-limbed and red-faced unlike you, and your mom asked me to be your godparent.  I remember her and I giggled about it (whether to break the tension of a serious moment, or because it actually was hilarious that I had been picked, I don’t know).  I remember two things about your baptism: how you wouldn’t stop crying, and how embarrassed I was that I, your godparent, couldn’t make you stop.  In fact, I think you cried even more when I tried to hold you.  You never really liked me, did you?

I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to do then, and I’m afraid I’m not much more advanced now, thirteen and a half years later.  But I did know at the time – right when I was your age – that it was important, honourable, and even with the religion aside, somehow sacred.  I am just as honoured and humbled today, if not more so, as I was when your mom asked me, in no small part because of how well you’ve ‘turned out’. 

But let’s toss these opening obfuscations away: we’ve still got that pesky guidance bit, don’t we?  So now what the hell am I supposed to say?

Moderation.  The ancient Greeks preached this one quite a lot.  It’s possible that all guidelines or advice or correction can fit into the Doctrine of the Mean, so I’d be remiss or at best half-finished in my epistle of advice if it wasn’t included.  It is simple in principle but perhaps impossible in execution.  Essentially: find the middle ground in all things.  Nourish the solution between the extremes.  Eat healthy, but still enjoy your food.  Spend time with your friends but don’t forget yourself.  Be patient, but know when to move.  Learn not just broadly, but deeply.  Get some sun, but don’t get burned.  Make waves, but don’t sink any ships.  Be ambitious, but don’t lose yourself in money or power.  Balance openness and decisiveness, justice and mercy, work and play, knowing and not knowing, the old and the new.  I think human beings are naturally attracted to excess, and naturally healthy in balance.  Without the tug and pull of radical ideas or whimsical fantasies, what would we all be?  Boring, most likely, or bloodless.  The trick of moderation, perhaps, is to go far, and then to return – to not become stuck.  Don’t hold the pendulum at one end, but let it swing.

Read Kafka.  I could’ve just said, Read; but given that I’ve named you ‘K.’ in this letter, I couldn’t help but make the connection.  Read The Trial or The Castle and you’ll know what I mean.  Love, loss, fear, dreaming, friendship, bewilderment, bureaucracy, memory, and the machinery of the modern world: it’s all in his writing.  And best of all, it’s never quite complete.  Some readers hate this, but I think it’s liberating: you have to do a little work, fill in the pieces, make assumptions, posit solutions, and so forth.  You might not like Kafka, or not yet.  His writing is old-fashioned, long-winded, and takes some practice.  But the deeper advice still stands: read.  The power of the written word, which places you in direct conversation with the writer, is one of the greatest achievements of our species.

While driving, assume everyone else is an idiot; while not, assume the opposite.  My mom gave me the first half to this, and I’ve idealistically added part two.  You can’t control the actions of others, especially not from a steel box on wheels going 120 km/h, so don’t try.  Instead of shouting or honking, assume the other guy doesn’t know what he’s doing; so when he cuts you off, or turns too widely, or tailgates you all aswerve, you won’t be surprised, and you’ll have created a safe and open space for him to be a complete loser.  Likewise for any dangerous situation involving other people who might very well be damn stupid.  On the other hand, when you’re not under the threat of traffic and lane-changing, remember that everyone knows something you don’t, has been somewhere you haven’t, and might help you when you can’t help yourself.  They say if you assume the worst you’ll never be disappointed.  But if you assume the best, you might just discover it.

Listen.  This is a continuation of the last one.  Don’t judge or dismiss, even when someone has gone out of their way to be judged or dismissed; because if you listen, even your enemies can teach you how to defeat them.  I was once in a pub in Brighton, south of London, when a local heard my accent and figured I’d be the right set of ears for his bigotry.  He started saying that “Hitler got it right”, “the Arabs want everyone to be Muslim terrorists,” and a bunch of other ignorant bile.  I could’ve walked away, and I could’ve put up a fight.  Instead, I listened, and asked questions, and listened, and asked questions, and listened, and asked questions.  Eventually, despite the few drinks he’d had, his face sank, his shoulders slumped, and he had nothing more to say.  He was twisted in his own fears and lies and false logic, and was eventually dumbfounded by himself.  I did barely anything at all, expended almost no energy, and still, ignorance won the battle against itself.  In chess, novices stick to their pieces, their calculations, their plans; they can win when their opponent does the same.  But the really good players are always playing on both sides of the board, in the mind of the other, sympathising and learning and listening; their opponents will always reveal how they may be beaten.  But you don’t have to take this advice so aggressively: everyone’s got a story.  Everyone’s got a thing that’ll wow you or thrill you or make you laugh or cry.  And listening doesn’t just give you the chance to hear the story, it gives them the chance to tell it.  My mom gave me this advice too.

Exercise.  This has nothing to do with how you look, and everything to do with how you feel.  It might not be important yet, because you’re moving all the time.  But later on, you’ll feel cranky or frustrated or tired and won’t know why.  Your body wants to move; and not just move, it wants to be challenged, so that it may learn and grow.  Let me get technical.  Television and the internet, 3D films and omnipresent advertising, mobile phones and, soon enough, online eyewear – these are all vehicles for delivering to you the widest possible variety of the most intense possible stimuli, with the greatest possible results (buy more stuff, visit more sites, go to more movies, etc.).  This sounds great, but your body isn’t thinking about fantasy worlds and caramel chocolate bars.  It’s thinking, as its ancestors did hundreds of thousands of years ago: fight or flight.  Every time your body thinks fight or flight, it essentially boosts itself with chemicals, like adrenaline.  Adrenaline is there for you to sprint away from a lion or rush with your spear against a boar.  It’s there to help you move.  If you don’t move, it gets stuck in your body, and forms reservoirs of tension.  So when you get excited by a film or music video or a clothing sale, or if you’re driving through bad traffic and assuming everyone else is an idiot, you will most likely be sitting, and the adrenaline will go nowhere.  You need to move; maybe not then, but soon; maybe even move when you have no good reason to.  The same is true with caramel chocolate bars and all other sweets: your brain thinks it’s fruit, and has been trained by the same thousands of years of evolution to get as much as possible, as fruit used to be scarce.  It’s part of why we can get so moody: too much sugar, not enough good stuff, sends us for a loop.  And it’s part of why obesity rates are so high, and getting higher, around the world: we’re just following our instincts and the paths of least resistance.  So we need to train ourselves.  The mind works in the same way.  Watch the ice cream, exercise your body and your brain, and you’ll wonder why you ever let yourself get so twisted up in the first place.

Framing.  When taking photos, always remember to frame it just right. 

Now, after my chunks of unsolicited advice to you, I have to ask: got any for me?  Yeah, yeah, I’m already seeing your first line: follow your own advice…  I’m trying!  In the meantime, happy birthday, good luck, have a great one, and all that jazz.  You deserve it.

Your honoured and bewildered godparent,