Who pays the ferryman when disaster strikes at sea?

The series was about a former soldier who returns to Crete to take stock after his boatbuilding business is bought out. It’s thirty years since he fought alongside the local resistance (andartes) during the Second World War, and he finds the ghosts of the past waiting for him and a cast of people who wish him ill.

The ‘ferryman’ in the title refers to Charon, the Ferryman of Greek mythology who carried the souls of the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron to the underworld, Hades. The fee for the journey was a single coin—the custom was to place a low-value place coin in or on the mouth of the deceased so they could pay Charon’s fee. Charon served Hades, the god of the dead and king of the underworld, who judged the souls entering his domain, deciding where they would spend eternity depending on how they lived. As well as the dead, Charon gets into all sorts of trouble with Hades by ferrying legendary heroes such as Hercules, Orpheus, and Odysseus to and from the underworld, which is supposed to be closed to the living. 

This somewhat macabre train of thought and the question Who Pays the Ferryman?, which still haunts me, got me thinking about disaster at sea and two very different examples that happened back-to-back last year, one playing out in Greece’s maritime territory, where Charon might have been lurking, waiting for his fees. It’s hard to believe these tragedies happened nearly a year ago, and I’m sure I won’t be the only writer to comment on their anniversaries.

Disaster at Sea #1: The Adriana

On June 14, Adriana, a rust bucket of a fishing trawler, left Tobruk, Libya, heading for Italy stuffed to the gunnels with about 750 assorted Pakistani, Syrian, Egyptian and Palestinian people seeking a better life in Europe. Its journey ended in an infamous and possibly preventable disaster at sea. As I’m sure you’ll remember, three days out of Tobruk, the dangerously overcrowded ship became stranded in Greek fishing waters with minimal power. Ultimately, as people panicked and rocked the unstable boat, Adriana capsized and sank in the middle of the night of June 18. Only 104 of the 750 men, women and children on board were found alive, making it one of the worst sinkings the Mediterranean has ever experienced. 

“Everyone knew the migrant ship was doomed. No one helped. Satellite imagery, sealed court documents and interviews with survivors suggest that hundreds of deaths were preventable.”

Martine Stevis-Gridneff and Koram Schoumali, New York Times (July 1, 2023)

Adriana’s story of disaster at sea is a harrowing one of neglect, brutality and lethal inaction. When it capsized, there was only one Greek Coast Guard ship to act as a witness. According to Stevis-Gridneff and Schoumali, passengers, some of whom had talked to humanitarian workers by phone, “waited and waited for help that never came.” Officials watched and listened for 13 hours via sonar, radio and telephone on ships and aircraft … and did nothing other than to instruct two nearby vessels to offer food and water and despatch the Coast Guard vessel to play a waiting brief. This small ship couldn’t have saved everyone on board, even if it had instructions to intervene. The whole thing was complicated further by Adriana’s captain refusing help—he and his crew would likely have only been paid on arrival in Italy. 

Who pays the Ferryman?

The reluctance to get involved by the Greek authorities in this unfolding catastrophe and with so many others experienced by European nations is that smugglers pack the boats, holding our hope for the desperate passengers who accept the conditions and pay money they’ve scraped together to get on what can only be described as ‘death boats’. Some of Adriana’s ‘passengers’ spent $4K plus for their place; the collective total was around $3.5m. The smugglers rely on European marine authorities to rescue people if things go wrong. The maritime authorities are hesitant to intervene and go to the rescue if, by doing so, they encourage the smugglers to despatch more people on ever less substantial ships. It’s a chilling, vicious cycle. 

Nine Egyptian survivors from the Adriana were arrested and charged with smuggling and causing the sinking. From sworn testimonies and interviews, survivors said that many of the nine brutalised and extorted passengers—another $50 could get you a relatively ‘safe’ spot on deck. 

Disaster at sea #2: The Titan

Then, on June 18, the second disaster at sea hit our news feeds just as Adriana was heading into crisis. The submersible craft Titan set off on a journey to the bottom of the ocean for a once-in-a-lifetime dive to see the wreck of the Titanic resting in Stygian darkness more than three kilometres (two miles) below the surface. Forty-five minutes into the two-hour dive, the support boat on the surface lost contact with the Titan. After a massive search operation during which seemingly the entire world held its breath, hoping against hope for a happy ending, wreckage from the Titan was discovered on the North Atlantic seabed near the Titanic. This confirmed that the submersible had suffered a “catastrophic implosion”, severing communications with the mother ship, and instantly killing the five people on board.

“It was perhaps the very unlikeliness of that outcome (rescue) that increased the appetite to see it realised”. 

The Guardian Newspaper

The Titan’s plight gripped the world as it unfolded in real-time via round-the-clock news stories. It somewhat took the oxygen from the coverage of Adriana’s investigation. But why did one eclipse the other so strongly? After all, they were both disasters in progress, with people in peril as the world looked on. Why did the Titan pull so much harder at people’s heartstrings and attention?

For starters, there was the absolute horror of the thing. I remember being appalled as I thought about those poor people spending their last hours crammed in the claustrophobic interior of a craft the size of a minivan, knowing communications were down and there was only so much oxygen to sustain them through to rescue. They were on a trajectory towards the ocean floor where the sub would have to withstand pressure 400 times greater than at sea level, which it could only do for a limited time. We agonised with their loved ones. We didn’t know until six days into the search when hope had all but been extinguished anyway, that the implosion had spared them that fate. 

The people involved were a source of voyeuristic fascination. The five were two wealthy businesspeople and one of their sons, a French explorer, veteran of 30 similar dives, and the CEO of Titan’s operator OceanGate. The price of a seat for this fatal dive was a cool quarter of a million dollars. The sheer bravura of the dive, combined with a price few of us could afford, only increased the fascination.

Who pays the Ferryman?

The stakes were raised by celebrity filmmaker (Titanic, among others) and deep-sea explorer James Cameron and several other marine dive experts criticising the owners for their lack of safety protocols and testing in their quest to move quickly and ‘disrupt’ what they saw as an over-cautious sector. 

The Titan tragedy continues to dog the submersible industry. According to Patrick Lahey, an expert builder of and advocate for submersibles (who repeatedly warned a friend who was one of the passengers not to make the dive), order books remain full. Still, questions abound—given the amount of regulation that governs watercraft, how could the tragedy have happened? It might now be a little harder for operators like OceanGate to bend the rules … you’d have to hope.

It seems not All disasters at sea are equal

The Titan disaster was a thoroughly first-world tragedy, whereas the Adriana was only a boat full of human flotsam shining an unwanted mirror at us, and we mostly turned the other way and went with the better and more immediately horrifying drama playing out. The Adriana had one small Greek Coast Guard boat to witness its end; the sea search for Titan had five well-equipped marine search vessels and significant air support. The Titan’s passengers had agency and choice, however badly it played out for them. Adriana’s victims were desperate and prepared to risk everything for a better life. 

However you view it, no one should die in either circumstance—both of these disasters at sea could arguably have been prevented. But the reality is that refugee boats are very far outside most people’s comfort zones. In contrast, Titan’s unfolding story was familiar from disaster movies and other real-life catastrophes in which we’ve got similarly caught up. One example is the “Houston we have a problem” near-disaster for the Apollo 13 Space Shuttle. It had similar dynamics with a small number of people trapped in a malfunctioning ‘tin can’, but Apollo’s crew still had open communications with Ground Control, who were able to help the astronauts do a patch job and get the shuttle back to Earth with no loss of life. 

We were appalled, shocked and saddened with Titan, but we understood the rules. It was happening to people like us who had choices and for whom the dive was a wealthy person’s quest to boldly go where few had gone before. With Adriana, we were appalled but didn’t understand the rules—it was an alien situation to us, happening to a boatload of seemingly alien people with few choices left. I truly do wonder who pays the ferryman for such people. Or was it just another disaster at sea that was easier to close our eyes to?

Illustration Copyright

The illustration of Charon the Ferryman from Goethe is by Luise Duttenhofer (1776-1829). It is in the public domain in any country or area, including New Zealand, where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/01/world/europe/greece-migrant-ship.html

You have the attention span of a goldfish!

Devastating insult or statement of fact? According to “the science”, having the attention span of a goldfish would, until recently, have meant you could only manage to focus on something for around eight seconds. That much? is my first thought. My second is, how on earth can they tell with goldfish?

It’s easy with humans. After all, you kind of get the idea—there’s nothing like the affirming glow of watching someone’s eyes glaze over as they zone out listening to your latest rant. You don’t have to be the empath of the century to discern that you’ve lost them. Even if they’re polite and conditioned to look mildly interested, the twitching mouse hand or the occasional furtive but longing glance at their mobile or the look over your shoulder to find someone more interesting speaks volumes.

But fish? Unless I’m missing something, their eyes are perpetually glassy and lacking focus. Maybe some earth-shattering metaphysical thinking is going on as they swim, seemingly purposelessly, from one side of their bowls to another. Perhaps we judge harshly, and they’re living the fish dream. Enjoying the little joy things like that witty sunken treasure chest or shipwreck you thoughtfully placed to enrich their existence. Maybe they, like humans, aspire to smell the roses and rise above the limitations of the daily grind. For goldfish, rather than roses, think the aesthetic and olfactory glory of a bunch of weird sounding aquatic plants—Moneywort, Hornwort, Rotala Rotundifolia, Pygmy Chain Sword, Hygrophilia Polysparma and Cryptocorne Wendttii are among the most popular. They seem more like ingredients the witches in Macbeth might have been familiar with than joy bringing plants. Each to their own. 

In any case, according to Forbes Magazine, in 2015, the internet was awash with shock and horror about claims that the attention span of the average human had plummeted to eight seconds–about the same as that of a goldfish—and that it was getting shorter  There were even suggestions that big sporting events be condensed to accommodate this downward dog of a trend. “Well, bugger me sideways!” scandalised people everywhere exclaimed (when shock saw off good taste and horror provoked strong reactions). “That’s appalling! How have we sunk so low? Can’t we rewind to the Halcyon Days of pre everything smart and get back to being smart ourselves?” 

More recently, this supposition has been pretty roundly debunked. It turns out that we both—humans and goldfish—can do better than the eight-second average that only a few years ago shocked and horrified so many. Phew. That’s all right then. Let’s face it: eight seconds is mind-bogglingly unimpressive. Eight seconds pass faster than you can spell Mississippi. (Remember how we were taught to time stuff absent as kids by saying one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four, five, etc, ad infinitum to count time for stuff like games and races where timing mattered and we didn’t have mobile phones with inbuilt timers).

But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we will. Even thoug we are able to focus on one topic beyond eight seconds doesn’t always mean we will. Off-hand, I can think of several examples where my attention span slumps to significantly less than eight seconds. I generally give up well before the eight-second mark when searching streaming services for something new to watch, and pick up my Kindle instead. There’s just so much choice. I want to watch stuff as a leisure activity, not something that feels like so much more work. As you will have read in my previous blog, assembling flat pack furniture is another example where I need the dogged determination of a terrier after a rat that’s gone to ground to push beyond any seconds of focus.

All joking apart, I have the 2015 understanding of a goldfish’s attention span when it comes to stuff I don’t care about and an infinite capacity to focus on the stuff I do. Whatever the extended span of a goldfish is now said to be, it’s not like they use it to read books or put together flat-packed furniture! There’s no one-size-fits-all on attention spans, and stupid scientific research trying to average it out is … er … stupid … in my humble opinion. But it does seem as if attention spans have shortened and continue to shrink.

I can cut people slack and believe we pay attention when we want or need to. Perhaps that’s generous, and I should be more worried about the overall plummet in our device-induced vacuousness. But my worry is declining attention seems to walk hand-in-hand with the infinitely scarier knowledge that in places like the UK, as many as 50% of the population don’t read books. That’s don’t, not necessarily, can’t. FIFTY PER CENT!!!! Most people can read. Reading is still taught at schools. They just choose not to. 

I read this in the Times Newspaper this week and nearly wrote an email to the editor expressing my shock and horror until I realised that would make me one of those grumpy older people always harping on about an infinitely better state back in the day. But I can muster pretty impressive howls of outrage at the loss to humanity when people consign the greatest thinkers of the past to the too-hard basket because they no longer have the inclination or stamina to cope with anything more than a meme, lurid headline or the latest TikTok sensation. Oops, straying into the grumpy olds again.  

In our defense, lack of attention is not entirely our choice. We have a conscious aspect that supports focus and a subconscious one that keeps chucking other things on our periphery into the mix. We’re conditioned to scan for trouble so we can trigger the fight, flight reflexes that linger on from our more primal pasts. Now, it’s more like scanning the horizone for shiny new things to fixate over and take flight from the borning task at hand, but there is at least some justification for our fickleness of attention.

Achieving deep focus is a question of practice. It’s not something that just comes naturally to most of us. It’s a layered and nuanced skill built over time and effort, but we can’t be in that zone every minute of every day. There’s nothing wrong with bursts of limited attention. I went to my town’s annual fair yesterday and sifted around in a drift of people enjoying the day and relishing the enticing wafts of all sorts of yumminess from the food carts. I drifted and sifted without any particular focus, idly scanning the stalls for the shiny thing that would draw me in and get my attention. You can’t always give everything full focus—we need enjoyable and non-challenging downtime like that.

Coming back to the point, if goldfish have been proven to have attention spans longer than eight seconds, the old insult no longer holds true. We need something new and worse. What about substituting the humble gnat? Gnats have an attention span of zero—that’s nil, nada, zip, diddly squat—because gnats have no memory. Again, I wonder how on earth THEY know this, but THEY likely do, so I’ll take THEIR word for it. Whatever. Next time you’re tempted to accuse someone of having the attention span of a goldfish, think again. If you want a genuinely desiccating insult, it doesn’t get much better than comparing them to a gant. It’s a winner on two counts. Much worse than a goldfish and, unless you’re a serious gnatofile or gnatologist, they’re also ugly little suckers!

Serendipity rewards the prepared

When’s the last time you thought I just had one of the best days of my life? It’s easy when we look back to overload the scales with the things we’re not proud of or might do differently. Things that have caused us distress, harm or sorrow. Missed opportunities. Resolutions that didn’t make it to the end of January. The self-pitying seduction of the might-have-been is powerful.  

Everyone around me was weary in the run-up to the holidays this year. Not unhappy, just a bit over it. By it, I mean 2023. There seemed to be a sort of collective consciousness willing the year away—a profound desire to close the door behind us on a confused, conflicted and curiously flat year and move on to the undoubted sunlit uplands[1] of 2024. 

Human psychology is an interesting beast. Nothing changes with a new year. The seasons come and go; time moves inexorably on. A year is simply a construct designed to enable us to plan, record and be productive. There’s no alchemy about it. But the transition from one to the next has a symbolic importance that’s hard to ignore. It offers a valuable ‘moment’ for reflection and re-calibration. A holiday-induced pause (for those lucky enough to have them) to take stock and re-set, sometimes even take the extreme option of reverting to factory settings. 

Ringing in the new with a resolution or two is as engrained in humans as chewing slippers is in puppies. The Babylonians were the first people recorded as celebrating each new year through a twelve-day festival, Akitu, marking the start of the spring planting season. Akitu included making resolutions to their gods, like loyalty to the king, paying debts and giving stuff they’d borrowed back to their rightful owners. You’d have to think they might also have included the usual suspects. Stop killing so many ‘fatted calves’ so they could shed a few sheckles (Babylonian kilos). Spend more quality time with the family. Read a few of those papyrus scrolls gathering dust in the study. Re-gild and polish the chariot and get back into the racing circuit. 

New Year’s resolutions have been around since Adam was a boy. While they undoubtedly are an excellent option for some, I don’t go big on them because I’m a planner and a natural goal-setter. I enjoy the reflective time over the holidays, the headspace to go deep. I also like the feeling of optimism that is triggered by a New Year, which reinforces my commitment to pushing further.

But whether you’re a resolver or not, planning and resolutions only take you so far. Sticking rigidly to the programme shuts down the random twists and turns that become our tales of the unexpected. Those thrilling, surprising convergences when a heap of seemingly unrelated stuff coalesces as if by magic and makes something incredible happen. The times when you are looking for one thing and find something else entirely along the way. Being open to the unexpected.

At the end of October, I published a professional book—Brands with Moxie: Eight Steps to A Winning Brand. I was beyond delighted as this was the culmination of two years of commitment and hard work, which, at times, felt like a black hole sucking every fibre of my being into its relentless vacuum. It certainly hoovered up all my spare time. But it finally got done, and when the first copies arrived, I felt as proud as any new parent of my creation. I then, not unpredictably, got sick—or maybe I was just exhausted—and had some enforced time to ponder life’s big questions. This episode of navel-gazing confirmed what I’d always known. I want to write. More than anything. It’s my thing. I have a lot to say. I like entertaining people. I’m an essayist at heart. But the bonus was that I realised I had most of the content for another book comprising a non-fiction collection of opinion pieces in the style of and named after this blog—Never Succumb to Beige and Other Rules for a Colourful Life. It’s opinion meets autobiography meets history in a tongue-and-cheek way. It draws heavily on my not-uncolourful life experiences. I then worked like a demented being to finish it before the end of the year. 

This somewhat accidental book triggered a sequence of serendipity that makes me smile as I write. Serendipity is, of course, the beneficial occurrences and developments that happen by chance. Or, as American crime writer Lawrence Block said, “Serendipity is when you look for something, find something else, and realise that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for”.  

I decided early on to go the ‘indie publisher’ route and quickly realised success with the brand book would need coalitions of the able and willing. In this mindset, I amazingly unearthed a printer I didn’t know about in my own backyard with a business division supporting indies like me. I set up a meeting to discuss my brand book, but decided to also show the person I met my Beige manuscript. Her response blew me away—she loved it and thought it had broad appeal. She was also a fountain of knowledge about book publishing. From this one contact, others have flowed. I now have an editor and a top publicist who has agreed to work with me towards an April/May launch. I’ve also found new, like-minded people prepared to swop insights and discoveries. The happy dance goes on and on. 

Although this happened quickly, it’s not as accidental as it seems. I have been writing for years, but not in a particularly joined-up way. I’ve ghosted a book on sales success, co-written a column—Sects in the City—reviewing business networking events and how to get the most out of them and clocked up several other decent notches on my writer’s headboard. But I’ve always seen writing as a ‘side hustle’. While I don’t intend to give up my day job any time soon, I’ve now got a way to elevate writing and content production to a central role in my business practice, and I have at least two other books ready to roll after Beige.

I’ve wished on many stars over the years but often struggled with the self-belief to reach up and grab one. Serendipity walks hand in hand with risk and trust. Without taking risks, you won’t grow; you don’t take risks without trust. Without either, the beautiful possibilities of the unimaginable remain in the wings, and you risk missing out on all sorts of good things. When I look back, the highlights are often the unplanned events and people that seem to have landed in my path out of the blue. Luck, you might say. Maybe. But serendipity has also been described as intention unmasked. I like that concept. This most recent demonstration of serendipity in my life is a long-standing intention finally unmasked. 

It’s also said that serendipity rewards the prepared. A bit like fortune favouring the bold. Fate is more likely to step in when you’ve already put yourself in its path. I was prepared for my brand book to be the change I wanted to see, and it’s doing everything I envisaged, particularly as the foundation for a new direction for my business. I was rewarded with so very much more.

So, I’m excited about what the New Year will bring. I’m moving forward with optimism and confidence in my plans. But I hope there will also be serendipitous twists and turns I haven’t planned for. Like the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, I’m keeping some room in my heart for the unimaginable.

Best wishes for a 2024 journey that includes surprise, serendipity and adventure.


[1] Winston Churchill used the phrase “sunlit uplands” in his “their finest hour” speech delivered in the House of Commons on 18 June 1940, a month after he took over as Prime Minister leading an all-party coalition sketching a picture of an idealised or longed-for future time of happiness, prosperity, good fortune, etc.

Who will COP the flack if our leaders can’t agree?

With Cop26 underway, how do you feel? I’m a bit jittery — it’s so important, and I find myself moving from upbeat optimism to pessimistic defeatism in the space of a nano-second. After all, what are the odds that this Conference of Parties will ultimately achieve more than exhaling a lot of hot air? 

And yet they must, while the rest of us sit it out, holding our collective breath. The alternative is unthinkable. We, humans, are an increasingly fractious and divergent bunch. We squabble over which statues and people to cancel, ‘doing a Nero’ and fiddling while our world burns. Imagine how much worse these divisions will become if we don’t pull our heads in and find the global will to grasp the nettle and get ourselves off the horns of the climate dilemma.

It’s so easy to get disillusioned and question the point of individual action. And yet, every day, so many people and organisations demonstrate that we all can make a difference. We all do what we can as individuals, families, communities. But we need more. We need our global leaders to liberate the genie in the lamp and pull at least one giant rabbit from their magic hats. Where are Harry Potter and his “Expelliarmus” spell when we need them?

Wouldn’t it be nice if some high wizard could just wave their wand, utter the magic words, and hey presto, all the bad stuff like Covid and Climate Change, war, famine, and aggro of any sort are sealed back into the contemporary Pandora’s box we opened through our carelessness. So far, so good though — it does look like there are a few wins coming through. I’m keeping my fingers well crossed that hope triumphs over experience this time.

What if the winner didn’t take it all?

In the middle of last year, I joined SheEO — a global network of “radically generous women building a $1B perpetual fund working on the world’s to-do list.” Basically, we’re a bunch of women who want to invest in making the world, and our prospects within it, a better place by supporting each other and sharing capital, resources and connections to do it. 

Founded in 2015 in Canada, SheEO is now active in four other regions (NZ, US, Australia and UK) with 7,000 investors who have supported 107 ventures with more than $7m of capital. As Canadian founder Vicki Saunders says, “To get to the new solutions for the world’s most pressing social issues; we need to shed our ‘winner takes all culture’ that has resulted in 5 men having the same wealth as half the planet! 51% of the population are women. Yet, we receive 2.2% of the capital. This is statistically impossible without massive bias designed into our systems and structures.”

I love everything about being part of this fantastic network; the shared spirit of radical generosity; the scope of the founders’ vision; the wide variety of women involved – all ages, races and cultures are welcome; the feeling of being part of something that is making things happen, not just a gabfest. I’ve been a member of a fair few networks in my lifetime, but never one that has so wholly fulfilled its promise. We are genuinely a community of support where people with something to give offer it, and people who need something feel free to ask. 

I’m what’s known as an “Activator”. Activators invest a fixed amount each year which goes into our own region’s pool of money. This pool supports emerging female entrepreneurs launching or growing businesses that create the socially and environmentally sustainable models of the future. Selected entrepreneurs receive 0% loans. Repaid loans — to date, there has been a 95%  repayment rate — are paid forward, augmenting the available pool of money. Funded businesses get coaching and development support. Most of all, they get access to a global community of women who support them as customers, advisors, connectors and fans. 

What’s great is that everything is on our terms. You can be as involved as you want to be. Ventures are free to build their companies according to their values. Activators support when and how they can, including being involved in selecting companies receiving loans. Everyone commits to showing up with radical generosity to bring out the best in each other.

I just saw the breakdown of ages of the entrepreneurs in my New Zealand region who have received funding and was thrilled to see nearly 28% of them are women over 50. It’s heartwarming to see increasing numbers of women shrugging off the cloak of invisibility that age seems to drape over our shoulders, leaving us marginalised and without a voice. I co-founded a tech start-up at 51 and cannot for the life of me see why more of us don’t give it a go. For sure, it’s risky and exhausting, but also exhilarating and most definitely character building. As George Eliot so famously said, “it’s never too late to be who you might have been.”

Not everyone is cut out to take this sort of leap, particularly at a life stage when the prudent are squirrelling away maximum quantities of nutritious nuts to see them through their retirement season. But the world is changing rapidly, and establishing a business for good is one way to make your mark on how the changes roll out. Unlike so many things these days, I believe this is binary: we change for good or bad. The choice is ours — by embracing radical generosity and supporting the people who can and want to make it a change for good, we can get beyond all the inequities that exist. With a spirit of radical generosity, we can cut across tribal boundaries, hates and discriminatory mindsets and ignore the fake news and conspiracies.With radical generosity as a philosophy, they become irrelevant and we can break the winner-takes-it-all model. With radical generosity, we can stop fixating on past mistakes and concentrate on building bridges, negotiating with each other kindly and creating meaningful communities of mutual support with a shared vision of the world we want to see. 

Thanks to Saba.com for the header image.

The surprising seductiveness of slow

I nearly wrote a letter last weekend. What? Yes … an honest to God, old fashioned paper-based communication intended for distribution by snail. In the event, I didn’t. The digital habits of a fair chunk of my lifetime got in the way and I sent an email instead.

The impulse was triggered by reading that a lot of teenagers, missing their mates during the lockdown, re-discovered the joy of sending and receiving hand-written notes. In the isolation of their homes, apparently many found letters to be more intimate and emotionally connecting than texting, ‘social’ media posting and similar. Thinking about it unlocked the ghost of letters past that’s clearly still lurking inside me, and the memory of how much I used to enjoy getting mail. This chain reaction concluded in my close encounter with a blank page. 

The article transported me back to the heart-lifting discovery of a hand-written letter nestling seductively in one’s letterbox. Then the ritual of finding the right place to read it; a secluded place under a tree, curled up in a big squishy chair in front of a roaring fire, or even a sweet scented, candlelit bath. The setting depended on the relationship with the sender — family, friend, lover, admirer — and the season. There was always that gorgeous moment of holding back, of prolonging the anticipation before finally ripping into the letter. Often there would be a quick scan of the contents for anything scary or sensational, before settling into a leisurely read through.

Good letters take time to craft. The best are intimate and personal. From soul to soul. As the words gather momentum they open avenues to the unburdening of our hopes and fears, loves and hates, joys and sorrows and the feeling of connection as we share the minutiae of our days. There’s something about the flow of a pen over paper that is missing altogether from keyboard bashing. Lacking a delete button, there was a need for precision and coherence of thought. Although the growing pile of screwed up paper as errors or uncertain confidences were cast aside spoke volumes on that score. There was an almost hedonistic pleasure in the first the first stroke of a fountain pen on a blank sheet of high quality paper. Or the challenge of writing in tiny letters to pack as much as possible onto those impossibly small pre-paid airmail letters that you folded up and licked the tabs on the edge which stuck it all together. You were lucky if you managed to do this without acquiring a paper cut on your tongue. ‘Nanny state’ would probably have something to say about that these days.

Sorry planet — I know how wasteful and unnecessary this feels now in this device-laden era where resources are diminishing as fast as pack ice in the Arctic and the tyranny of air miles is never far from our minds. But email just doesn’t hack it as a substitute for a neatly tied bundle of letters from a loved one or a box full of the most memorable greetings cards. I still have swags of each. Even if you print emails, they just don’t have the same bang for buck. 

I’m a bit worn out by life in the ‘fast lane’. Living through the lockdown has seemingly awakened a sleeping dragon in many of us — the surprising seductiveness of slow. A nostalgia for bygone pleasures: the allure of a trip to a library; being literally lost in a good book; sitting down with friends and family over a leisurely and carefully crafted meal rather than shovelling in some hastily acquired takeaway or ‘dashboard dining’ option. Most of all, there’s all too little of the ultimate luxury; reflective time, something that is considered to be essential to our health and wellbeing.

This morning, I woke up with the poem Leisure by W H Davies rattling around in my head. Although I learned this ‘by heart’ at primary school, it’s meaning pretty much passed me by as a ten-year-old, but it resonates strongly now. I’m sure my teacher would have been highly gratified! The poem was published in 1911. In the opening lines, the poet asks, “What is this life, if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” The thrust of the poem is that the hectic pace of modern life has a detrimental effect on the human spirit because there’s no time to appreciate the glory of the natural world around us. (Read Poem).

Willian Henry Davies was a Welsh poet and writer who grew up in a highly dysfunctional (though not poor), family. He dropped out and spent a significant part of his early life as a homeless drifter on both sides of the Atlantic. The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, published in 1908, is about Davies’ life in the US between 1893 and 1899. Apparently, he crossed the Atlantic at least seven times during this period, working his passage on cattle ships, then travelling through many of the states, sometimes begging, sometimes taking seasonal work, often spending any savings on drinking binges with fellow travellers. They didn’t teach us this in school by the way — we might have paid more attention if we’d know a bit more about his colourful life. It would likely have seemed pretty romantic to the impressionable kids we were. Davies became one of the most popular poets of his time by drawing on his observations about life’s hardships, the ways in which the human condition is reflected in nature, his tramping adventures and the characters he met. 

It has to be said, I lust after ‘slow’ until I remember what life was like without the convenience of Google as an information source, without which Mr. Davies would have remained an enigma to me. In all seriousness, I wouldn’t go back to the pre-Internet/digital era. There’s just too much that is genuinely better about now. But I do hope that we can hold on to some of the specialness of slow as we move on through this pandemic. To have time to see and enjoy the moment, to revel in our lives and in nature and the endless possibilities on offer. To take the time to share our dreams and disappointments with loved ones by whatever means are to hand, snail or otherwise. To have the luxury to simply stand and stare and understand how infinitely precious it all is … and how easily lost.

Laugh kookaburra, laugh

I love Australia. OK, so I don’t love everything about the place. Notably, I don’t love its political landscape and some of its harsher worldviews and policies. But then again, that could be said for a lot of places these days. In my book, they also have one of the worst national anthems. It’s hard to imagine the heart beating faster singing Advance Australia Fair, but each to their own — and it seems to work for the locals if the expressions on the faces of their sports teams while it’s performed are anything to go by. As anthem’s go, it’s hard to beat the line, “Our home is girt by sea”. But then I guess that was the sort of drivel churned out back in the day when such things were written. At least it only runs to one verse unlike many others including my own homeland’s “God Save” with its six verses of out-dated empirical triumphalism.

Anyway, back to ‘Stralia. It has an energy and feel all of its own. If you haven’t been there yet, add it to your bucket list. What? Australia’s borders are closed? When they re-open you’ll need to mortgage your house to fly anywhere? You might get flight-shamed anyway, so what’s the point? OK, so you may not be able to go there any time soon but you can always binge watch David Attenborough’s back catalogue which is full of advanced Australia flora and fauna. No reason why bucket list activities can’t go online like everything else these days.

I reckon I must have been a ‘twitcher’ in a previous life because I get so much joy from watching birds. One highlight of my various Outback Oddysey’s was staying in a remote camp about 500kms east of Darwin that boasted a resident pair of kookaburra’s. I’d never seen one before. This ‘laughing’ kingfisher has become a household name, not only through Girl Guide campfire round — Kukarburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree — but also as the stock sound effect used to represent the Australian bush, especially in older movies. Unlike many kingfishers, they’re not closely associated with water and rarely eat fish, although they have been known to snack on stolen goldfish from garden ponds. Treats like mice, snakes, insects, small reptiles, even the chicks of other birds are more to their carnivorous liking.

The last time I was in Oz was at the beginning of this year in late January when I went sailing with some friends in Pittwater, a tidal estuary just north of Sydney. When I arrived in Sydney at the start of the trip, the impact of the bushfires that had been blazing through the summer was everywhere. In the ash coating many cars, the smell in the air and the haze hanging over the city. Even out on the water the acrid tang of smoke was palpable in places, and we sailed past a new fire ignited by a dramatic overnight electric storm. It felt voyeuristic to be so close to the beginning of another fire outbreak… and yet, we couldn’t tear our eyes away.

One day, our intrepid crew of seven moored at a spectacular and remote waterside restaurant for lunch. Among our fellow diners were three pairs of kookaburras — the restaurant staff had been feeding them. It was a heart-warming sight at a time when the full implications of the ecological and wildlife disaster that had been unfolding were becoming apparent. We were charmed and privileged by their company. At about the same time a haunting photo of a kukaburra overlooking a fire-devasted wasteland featured prominently in the media and burnt itself on our retinas. It was a stark reminder of how fast the sands of time are running out.

The bush fires were declared contained in mid-February and over in early March. More than one-fifth of the country’s eucalypt forests were burned at un-calculable cost to the ecosystems they support. I was heartened to read recently that the burnt trees are beginning to show signs of recovery with small leafy branches sprouting from the blackened trunks. Apparently eucalypts sprout tufts of “emergency foliage” after wildfire while their leaves re-grow. This provides a boost of photosynthesis until their canopy leaves grow back. They need this break in order to fully recover. But, as fires become more frequent, it’s thought even fire-adapted tree species won’t get the break they need.  The merry merry king of the bush must be struggling to find something to laugh about in these times.

The irony of that holiday was that it happened as the threat of coronavirus was casting its shadow around the world. At that point, the global nature of the virus was still only conjecture — we’d seen the impact on Wuhan and it was beginning to hit Europe — it wasn’t certain we would be affected. Looking back, that time BC seems like some strange parallel universe. We all knew there were ‘issues’, but many of us started the year with the optimism born of all the increased activism in 2019.

It felt like 2020 was going to be THE year when things finally changed. Australia burning, awful though it was, highlighted a lot of inconvenient and unavoidable truths. Who could have been un-moved by the harrowing, post-apocalyptic scenes of people being evacuated from fire encircled beaches and the dreadful toll on the animal population and the ecosystem.

On the last day of the trip, we had a leisurely lunch before we all went our separate ways. More out a sense of curiosity than anything else, we started googling what the powers of the Directors General of Health in NZ and Aus were in the event coronavirus  decided to pay the Southern Hemisphere a visit. Draconian was the answer, as we were about to find out when both countries went into lockdown a few weeks later.

In five short months, so much has changed. But through it all, a common thread has been our human capacity to be resilient, create, innovate and adapt to even the most challenging of circumstances. The sheer scale and quality of creativity we saw during lockdown was a testament to this. Tying the two threads of this story together, I was delighted recently by the coverage of a 15-foot-tall sculpture of a kookaburra created by Farvardin Daliri (see header image).

I’m sure you saw the video of it being towed round ‘hood’ in Brisbane, cackling away thanks to an embedded sounds system. The video went viral, and was picked up by newsrooms around the world. It seems, Daliri had started the project during the Christmas break, but was stymied by the scale. Lockdown gave him time and the motivation to complete it as a way of cheering people up.

28oz-kookaburra-1-superJumbo-v2

The kookaburra installation was intended for an arts festival, the Townsville Cultural Fest. It’s one of a series of grand scale art. Other works include a 15-foot-tall koala, a 200-foot-long carpet snake and a 33-foot-long crocodile. “When something is big, it imposes itself on you. It becomes undeniable,” Daliri has said about his creations.

I guess, it doesn’t get much bigger than the Australian bush fires last summer or the coronavirus. They have truly imposed themselves on us and it must be becoming undeniable to even the most recidivist deniers that a lot of things in our world are broken. If we could use the creativity and innovative thinking we pulled out of our collective hats and apply this to the problems, how hard could it be?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May we not live in interesting times

I’m sure you know the expression “may you live in interesting times”. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the Chinese Curse’. On the surface, it seems to be a positive wish, it’s typically used ironically with the “interesting” bit referring to moments when there is disorder and conflict rather than peace and stability. I should point out here that the cultural appropriation appears to be … er … not cultural … as there is apparently no known equivalent translation in Chinese.

Anyway, I’d say we’re certainly living in interesting times. In fact, you could likely put up an argument these are the most interesting times ever. In the proverbial sense, it doesn’t get much more interesting than the prospect of cataclysmic climate change that we’re facing, not to mention the seismic shifts going on in politics around the world.

In this sense, my last couple of months could also be described as “interesting”. I’ve been to three conferences focussed on sustainability and social justice issues, joined 40,000 others who marched to our Parliament building in Wellington’s Climate Strike, learned a useful new word,  Zweckpessimismus, and sung in a big production of Carl Orff’s immortal and highly bawdy Carmina Burana. You might struggle to see the connections, but ‘bear with’ …

With the exception of singing Carmina, which was tremendous, the common denominator linking the other threads was how easy it would be to get cynical and lose hope in the face of all the issues. For sure, the various conferences dished up some inspiring instances of people who clearly give a lot of damns doing amazing things, they also underscored a few home truths. While a lot of it was stuff I already knew, such as the awful state of our oceans with all that plastic choking the life out of everything in them and the shame of places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it’s still shocking to listen to researchers who’ve seen these horrors up close and personal and measured the impact. I knew it was bad, but the scale is staggering. And that’s just the oceans!

I was a bit depressed at the end of this run of events, wondering if it really is possible for us to get the lid back on the Pandora’s Box we’ve opened. Wondering why so many people are still in denial that it actually exists, let alone has been opened? Then I came across the concept of Zweckpessimismus which helped me understand why so many of us seem transfixed like  deer in the headlights, unable to pull their heads out of the sand.

Zweckpessimismus is one of those complicated German compounds which translates as something like pessimism on purpose. In other words, the attitude of expecting the worst in order to feel relief when the worst doesn’t happen. This is undoubtedly one way of coping in a very uncertain world, but it seems like the sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that we should avoid like the plague.  Surely, we should be going hard out for the opposite — what can go right will go right?

Zweckpessimists, with their doomsday thinking are actually dangerous in these super-intersting times when we need hope and optimism above everything else. While it might be a wonderful feeling when you have expected the worst and it doesn’t happen, it is pushing out a form of negative energy that infects others with alarm and fear. Instead, let’s pool all the good vibes we can call forth to create an unstoppable wave of positivity to inspire our Simian ingenuity and creativity to find solutions. Perhaps then, the tipping point we seem to be reaching, will skew in the direction of a world we would like to see. Let’s opt for uninteresting times and be bored in perpetuity by the serenity of global peace and ecological abundance rather than the dystopian alternative that is the other option.

Coming back to performing Carmina Burana. It was a true celebration of what people can achieve in harmony.  Without blowing my own trumpet (both puns intended), it was a great night. Close to 2,000 people — audience and all the performers — left the concert on a high. This high — a palpable energy buzzing around the auditorium connecting us all — stayed with me long after the strains of the music were done. I hope that is true for others who were there. If we could always feel this way, how amazing would our lives be? Imagine the transformation that would follow if every Zweckpessimist out there expected the best instead of the worst. Someone should coin a word for that!

 

Counterfeit World?

Haven’t written a post for some time. When I turned 60 in March I came over all introspective and had an unaccountable urge to start writing my auto-biography. This was all going quite well until I got into a funk about how much of my life and times I actually want to share … honestly … and so I ‘pivoted’ (the moniker the start-up community apply to a whopping change of direction) and am now a funk-free zone.

However, today I read an article that actually made me get my blog groove back on. The article was about the fact that for several years, a number of the (credible) scientific community around the world have been testing the possibility that we are part of a simulated world. Oh great, another fear to be factored into the growing list. To be sure, this is not at all a new concept. In the seventies, I can remember reading sci-fi books like Counterfeit World (or Simulacron-3 as it was published, for some unaccountable reason, in some places) written by Daniel F Galouye in 1964.

Counterfeit World featured a total environment simulator created by a scientist to advance market research by reducing the need for opinion polls. The world’s  inhabitants are unaware they are only electronic impulses in a computer. As the story unfolds, the protagonist progressively grasps that his world is likely not “real” and struggles with inchoate madness brought on by this realisation. Well, you would wouldn’t you? Things get pretty nasty before they get better as the ‘gods’ controlling his  ‘world’ try to keep the lid on their unravelling experiment. I wonder if this fab little book provided inspiration for the spine-chilling gold standard for simulated worlds, The Matrix (1999)?

While I don’t actually believe that we are part of a simulated world, the fact remains that computer simulation has become a norm, even if we aren’t yet capable of creating actual populated worlds. As the article points out, since the 90s, computer simulations have been set up to try to get answers to Big Questions.  Questions like “What causes war?”, “How will climate change affect global migration?” and “Which political systems are most stable?” Does anyone else wish someone would answer the biggest question “How do I win Lotto?  … and please, I want more than the standard “Buy a ticket”.

As things stand though, computers aren’t really up to the job of mimicking the extraordinary complexity of our world. Or, at least, not very well. Anyone hear the “yet” hovering at the end of this sentence. I’m open to believing that someday they might be. That it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they could achieve a state of sophistication where they could create simulations of people in computer code who are to all intents and purposes just like you and me in the way they think and behave. Scary shit huh? But there are people out there — and not just ANY old people, people with the sort of credentials that give them a seat at the table  — who think this may already have happened, that we actually are living in a computer simulation created by a more advanced civilisations.

As far back as 2003, the philosopher Nick Bostrom suggested that if you can believe that we might one day be running many simulations from an anthropological point of view to better understand our ancestors and the history of our civilisation, it is logical that we are living in one of them right now. And why would that be? According to Bostrom, “If people eventually develop simulation technology — no matter how long that takes — and if they’re interested in creating simulations of their ancestors, then simulated people with experiences just like ours will vastly outnumber un-simulated people.”

This would mean that our current world could then just be one of many because any anthropologist historian wishing to get beyond The Age of Empires as a way of understanding the rise and fall of civilisations will make many simulations involving millions or even billions of people to assess all the possible scenarios. As tainted genius Elon Musk sees it, “the odds that we are NOT simulations are one in billions.”

While this sounds like so much more conspiracy bollocks, since 2012, at least some members of the scientific community have been testing Bostrom’s thinking, including a bunch of physicists at the University of Washington. I’m no conspiracy theorist and I’m too lazy to try and decode how they are going about the testing — and why bother? After all, if we are living in a simulation or controlled experiment, ignorance has to be bliss.

The sinister aspect to testing whether we are indeed a simulation and actually proving that we are, is that if we knew for sure we are living in our own counterfeit world, we would become pointless to our controllers and they would likely end the experiment. It’s like when new drugs are tested for efficacy. It’s important that the patients involved don’t actually now whether they’re on the drug or taking a placebo. If they find out, the trial loses its point and will be cancelled. As Green calls it, a ‘simulation shutdown’ would occur and then what would become of us.? I’d say, whatever the truth, let sleeping dogs lie!

Wag the (alien) dog?

I just read a wonderful hypothesis outlining a genius way of mitigating the threat of global warming. The hypothesis is that we need to invent a new and super-scary existential threat — like aliens threatening to annihilate the world if we don’t instantly come up with a convincing plan for drastically cutting emissions. Think about it for a moment, it’s a perfect concept!

The central tenet of this inspired piece of thinking is that we need a total “re-imagining” of the world political order. That business as usual just won’t cut it if we are to do enough, quickly enough. While that’s not exactly visionary — I could have come up with that bit — I wouldn’t in my wildest dreams have imagined inventing a threat from some green-minded ETs to get us fully focussed on the important stuff.  As far as I am aware, this let’s pretend it’s aliensthat are causing all the problems thing is genuine blue sky thinking by NY Times OpEd writer Farhad Manjoo.

But why on earth (pun intended) would we do that?  Well, according to the marvellously creative Mr. Manjoo, our current reality of fake news, alternative facts and outright, barefaced lying opens the door to bending the truth for the greater good. Let’s face it, playing ‘let’s pretend’ for something of paramount importance would be a refreshing take on the now seemingly acceptable art of the untruth.

In Manjoo’s Wag the Dog scenario (by the way if you haven’t seen this marvellous Hoffman/De Niro black comedy about a spin doctor and a Hollywood producer who fabricate a war to distract voters from a presidential sex scandal, you really should — it’s hilarious) the threat of an alien invasion is the lever to get humanity off its collective arse and working together to save it’s collective bacon. Imagine if you will, the world receives a tweet from the alien leader “We will boil your planet alive. Only a carefully designed plan for cutting and capturing emissions will save you now, suckers!” It might be a bit of a stretch that said alien leader has such a good command of the English vernacular. Maybe she was equipped with one of those Babel Fish so useful to travellers in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? You know the ones, when played in your ear, these clever fish will live there and translate any form of language for you. Yup, I believe everything I read.

All joking aside, we humans have always been stellar at responding to external threats. We’re not so flash at changing our own behaviours, particularly if it means trading off some of our comforts and taking decisions that will hit our wallets. But seeing off a threat from potentially “murderous aliens” to save the planet might just galvanise us.As Manjoo says, “Even for people who do believe in global warming, pretending that aliens are attacking the earth accomplishes a neat mental trick. It helps to frame the scope of the threat — civilizational, planet-encompassing — while also suggesting how we might respond: immediately, collectively and for as long as it takes.”

And it could work! All you have to do is consider the hysteria that broke out in the US on October 30, 1938, when a 62-minute radio dramatisationof The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells (confusingly produced and narrated by Orson Welles) was broadcast. Apparently even people who had never heard Welles reading the HG Wells story about invading Martians wielding deadly heat-rays later claimed to have been terrified. Welles used simulated on-the-scene radio reports ostensibly by the military and air force about aliens advancing on New York City to pep up the story. According to popular myth, thousands of New Yorkers fled their homes in panic, with swarms of terrified citizens crowding the streets in different American cities to catch a glimpse of a “real space battle”. While this over-reaction has lately been outed as largely urban myth it’s not hard to imagine something similar happening in our current reality. I’m thinking about the arsenals of special effects available to film makers that could achieve genuine mass hysteria and harness it for good. Sadly, it’s also totally imaginable that we could harness it for worse, but let’s give humanity the benefit of the doubt here and assume we’d do the right thing.

OK so this is just fantasy, but it’s the most engaging solution I’ve read so far. Let’s face it, if we hit or exceed two degrees further warming, the scale of potential devastation will be catastrophic. This is not something even progressive governments can tackle in isolation, however well-meaning. Mitigating climate change is no longer just one item on a governmental ‘to do’ list. If we don’t act now, it will become the only thing that matters a damn. The build a wall thinking, the isolationist ‘dwarfs are for dwarfs’ ignorance imaged in C S Lewis’s Narnia finale The Last Battleunderpinning MAGA and, slightly differently, BREXIT, will be patent nonsense in the face of what is to come. Go aliens — pretend or otherwise — save us from ourselves.

P.S. Farhad Manjoo’s articleis entertaining and (by my way of thinking) totally on the money if you have a few minutes to spare.

Statements of the bleeding obvious #201: Nice doctors really do make a difference!

It’s amazing how many times what’s billed as breakthrough new research really just confirms what we already understand from experience. Stuff like the fact that singing is good for us and can prolong our lives. That dogs and other animals lift the spirits of long-term hospital patients … as well as mostly everyone else. That laughter is infectious. That lovesickness is a genuine state.

OK, so we’re in an era where it’s possible and considered desirable to research esoteric and non-fundamental subjects. I’m cool with that — non-fundamental subjects like these actually make a lot of difference to our daily lives bringing cheer and happiness, often in dark times. So providing evidence that they really do achieve what  we intuitively feel they do is fab … even if the headlines they provoke seem more like statements of the bleeding obvious than radical insights into the  human psyche.

It most definitely is good to know that singing regularly could prolong my life — I do enough of it after all. It’s a bonus to know that, as well as the immediate buzz from   opening your larynx and letting rip, it’s a gift that keeps on giving in the all-of-life context. Also great to know empirically that my love of animals — near obsession it has to be said — is healthy. That bringing animals into hospitals is genuinely therapeutic and can bring comfort to people in pain or despair. Who hasn’t ever listened to a friend break out into a great belly laugh and  been been compelled to laugh too? Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone … so true. And love sickness? Well, it’s been a while since Apollo fired an arrow into my tender  heart and catalysed all the turbulent symptoms I described in an earlier blog You Make Me Sick! But I haven’t forgotten the visceralality of it all — there’s no question in my mind, it’s a lurg just as debilitating as a fluey cold.

At the weekend, I read another about one of these completely unsurprising research findings. Can A Nice Doctor Make Treatments More Effective? Well dear reader, if you were in any doubt on this count, according to new research by Stamford University in the US, having a doctor who is warm and reassuring actually improves your health. REALLY? Who knew? Most of us I would have thought. I found this astonishing non-news in weekly round up of good news from the New York Times. It’s full of great stories and I love it.

Last week comes Romeo the Sehuencas water frog to my inbox. Romeo is a very rare creature. He was thought to be the last of his type. No Juliet to be found anywhere, let alone on ‘yonder balcony’. Day after endless day, sad Romeo croaked out “Juliet, Juliet, wherefore art thou Juliet?” from his home in a Bolivian museum. Actually what he said was, “ribbet, ribbet, ribbet …” but where’s the poetry in that? Cutting to the chase, biologists had pretty much given up their search in the remote and inaccessible areas of Bolivia where said Juliet might have been found. Then behold! There she was. Juliet the miracle frog — a potential mate for our lonesome hero. Being the only two Sequencas water frogs in existence, it was set to be a fine romance and I’d love to be able to say, “and they both lived happily ever after”. But even for a frog with only one possible mate, the chemistry still has to be right. Imagine the pressure! Without mincing words, would you be prepared to shag some random stranger to preserve our species? Fine if it’s George Clooney.  Not so fine if … well, the list is endless. But then again, unlike Romeo, no one I know is faced with the decision to take one for the future of our species and it’s easy to be precious when we’re in no imminent danger of extinction … unless we keep  messing with our natural habitat that is. All joking aside, a lot is riding on our precious frog prince. Let’s hope the chemistry is there and they soon start producing copious numbers of wee froglets to perpetrate their froggy line.

But back to nice doctors. Apparently the simple things a doctor says to you can have an impact on your health outcomes. Even a brief reassurance can relieve symptoms faster. The reassurance is more efficacious when it’s said in a kindly manner rather than barked out as a “you’ll be fine” afterthought when you leave the surgery. You can’t quite get away from the fact that the doctor has to be skilled and competent as well as nice. However, most of us have been on the receiving end of one of those grumpy types whose you mistake me for someone who cares demeanour is more likely to cause you to lose the will to live altogether than get well. Their cool indifference renders you as articulate as … well .. a frog .. when you try to describe the pain that was giving you hell until it magically disappeared nano-seconds after you made the appointment..

Anyway, the conclusion of the research was that doctors who don’t connect with their patients my risk undermining a treatment’s success. Apparently doctor-patient rapport is much more than the sum of it’s feel good parts. It’s a important aspect of medical care that significantly affects a patient’s physical health. Are you kidding me? It really does feel like a statement of the bleeding obvious that someone who is kind and sympathetic as well as good at their job is likely to achieve a better result.

The article ended by questioning what this means in the brave new world of artificial intelligence. AI opens the possibility of not having to go to the doctor for minor health issues. If interacting with a human being and hearing words of encouragement is part of the cure, this begs the wider question of whether our increasing isolation is actively bad for our health. As the opportunities and need for actually connecting with a fellow human in many aspects of our lives become progressively fewer, what collateral damage are we setting ourselves up for. Romeo the frog couldn’t help his plight. We can, and yet we continue to write people out of the script of our lives. When us humans humans actually get together face-to-face is, we open up the possibility for  laughter and  love. For conviviality and banter. We get to share the good and help each other through the bad times. You don’t need to be a Stamford luminary  to recognise that gentle and kind connections with other people — Doctors and the rest — are seriously good for our health and unkind, cruel ones are not. Comforting to know this is now “proven by scientists”.

 

She started it!

A couple of weeks ago I joined a panel discussion after the screening in Wellington of the documentary She Started It as part of NZ Tech Week 2018. The film’s been around for a while but it remains an insightful production that is pretty much a ‘must see’ for women in the tech startup scene. I thought it a riveting piece of journalism covering a range of scenarios that are uncomfortably familiar having co-founded one myself. I was grateful to the organisers Xero because it made me look at my own journey in a whole new light.

She Started It takes a film camera inside the lives of five young female entrepreneurs over a two-year period as they go through the set pieces that are fundamental to any ambitious founder — pitching to Angel and VC investors, building teams and finding ways of getting their products to market. Some of them succeeded, some failed. The film captures their reactions to unfolding circumstances — the tears as well as  the laughter. It’s  an intimate, sometimes verging on voyeuristic invitation to walk a mile in their shoes.

The real power of the documentary lies in not shying away from the soul shrinking tough times when other people don’t get your vision and you are quite literally living on the smell of an oily rag. She Started It doesn’t pull any punches about the sheer grit it takes to get a new product off the ground. I was glad the directors weren’t tempted to sugar coat the message. It’s said that 99% of new business fail — even the best ideas, from the most determined, visionary and capable people are not guaranteed to make it. Caveat ‘wantrepreneur’ huh?!

As a secondary theme, directors Nora Poggi and Insiyah Saeed explored the nitty problem of female under representation in entrepreneurship, and the gender-based issues women entrepreneurs have to overcome. That too struck a strong chord with my own experiences. A co-founder of my business was told by a key player in NZ’s investment community not to bother even trying because she couldn’t make it as a woman in tech! When we started pitching the angel networks in NZ eight years ago, there were hardly ever any women in the room, investors or founders, and I believe from the bottom of my soul we would have raised more money initially if we had different chromosomes.

As the film played out, the story that caught me most was that of Thuy Trurong who had made her mark in her native Vietnam founding and running a chain of frozen yoghurt outlets. This intrepid twenty-eight-year-old Vietnamese woman moved herself and her team from Vietnam to Silicon Valley at a week’s notice to join the iconic 500startups program. Her company at the time, GreenGar, produced mobile apps including Whiteboard, a collaborative drawing application. Whiteboard achieved over nine million downloads in its first four years, was used by school students in more than 100 countries and achieved profits greater than a million US. Despite its seeming success, the team failed to bring in the capital required to scale it and the writing was on the wall. Ultimately, she had to go back to Vietnam and compose, “the hardest email I’ve ever written” to GreenGar’s loyal base telling them they were closing down. It was incredibly poignant, and I was drawn into her disappointment, but also her steely determination not to be ground down by the experience as she started thinking about her next venture.

Facing that terrible, gut-wrenching moment when you have to accept that the thing you’ve poured your lifeblood into is just not working is horrible. Really and truly and viscerally horrible. My sister and I launched a satirical magazine in the early 2000s. It was written for women like us who were looking for an alternative to the usual drivel dished up by the ‘glossy’ mags and it sent up the whole genre of outrageous cosmetic claims and superficial crap that they peddle. We called it SHREW Magazine. Conceptualizing and researching it and building the stratospheric business plan which depicted a worldwide SHREW membership spending whopping amounts in our SHREW Shop. It was the most fun I’ve had in my career.

Throughout, we worked like demented beings — I think was writing something like 25,000 published words a month — and my sister and insanely talented (sometimes just plain insane) friend were cranking out idiotic spoof ads and other glorious send ups from our crew of invented and totally outrageous Op Ed contributors. I remember editorial meetings when we were quite literally crying with laughter as we brainstormed things like how you would create the graphic representation of You Really Are What You Eat and Drink. OK, I know, you had to be there. But for us, it was glorious and funny, and we were on the mission we seemed to have been born for with our combined skill set and slightly offbeat take on the world. Of course, we crammed way too much content into each edition, so we would have likely burnt out if money wasn’t a factor, but the inspiration and ideas flowed like ‘Bolly’ in an episode of Ab Fab, and the joy of creation fueled the energy to keep the frenetic pace up.

The day the boxes of our first edition arrived and we were able to see our posters in our stockists’ windows was beyond exciting. And the launch party?  Well, that was a night I will never forget. We expected people to be mildly amused but were totally floored after we handed out copies to our guests when the entire theater (we had the party on stage at an opera house) went silent as people started to read … then the laughter erupted, and we knew we’d created something incredible. It wasn’t just us founders who loved it. Our printers raved, the team at the distributor said they couldn’t wait to get at the next edition when it arrived from the printer, and our readers and subscribers … laughed on cue.

So, what went wrong? For a start, our timing was poor. I strongly believe that timing is everything and we were a couple of years too early with our offer. Thinking about it, we also could have been a decade too late. Either way, our timing sucked and the wrong time is the wrong time!  If we’d launched even a couple of years later, we’d have created it as an online product and then been able to amp it up through the emerging social channels like Facebook. To us, SHREW was as much a club as a magazine. It would have been incredibly effective in an online environment where we could, with a bit of additional investment, have created the SHREW World that lived in our heads. Taking it online would also have made it a tech startup at a time when angel funding for such things was starting to be available … even on occasion for female founders!

Lacking this scenario, it came into being as a MOFO of a full colour 60-page magazine.   We relied on hard-hitting content to and the club-like atmosphere to speak for itself and quickly build a cult following. We believed we could achieve the Holy Grail of the publishing world —  a rapidly growing, loyal subscriber base that would remove the need for us to sell our souls to get advertising dollars that might have compromised our editorial freedom to tell it like we saw it. The issue here of course was lack of working capital to promote the bejesus out of our magazine. Not much point having a genius product no one knows about!

This wasn’t quite as random as it sounded. There have been some great publications that have worked on a model like ours. Most of the memorable ones have been primarily targeted at … er … men. And what’s wrong with us women that we’re so spot-welded to celebrity gossip, superficiality and the outrageous claims of pseudo-science? Anyway, we emulated iconic and commercially successful alternative publications like Private Eye and Viz in the UK. We even approached the publishers of Viz to seek backing as we figured our SHREW Magazine would be a perfect stable-mate. They pretty much laughed at us saying women would never go for it. Depressing though that was, it didn’t in any way damp our enthusiasm because we passionately believed there were like minded others out there who wanted something different, if only we could find them. As it turned out, we weren’t delusional in thinking this, we just couldn’t get to enough of them, quickly enough. The monthly print costs were unsustainable and, after five incredible editions — we had the sixth finished ready to roll — we had no choice but to call time because we had run out of runway.

People in the startup community talk glibly about the virtues of the ‘fast fail’. While it’s logical and eminently sensible to remove the life support when the condition is clearly terminal, it completely trivializes the emotional impact of doing it. Like Thuy,  pulling the plug on GreenGar, closing our magazine was one of the hardest things any of us ever had to do. We did revisit the concept a few years later and try to take it online but the moment had passed. We were no longer the same people who’d tapped into the sparking, pacy narrative of the original — it was a mistake to exhume the corpse because the magic our earlier selves had conjured up had died with it.

In common with the women in the film, I seem to have some deep-rooted and obsessive need to bring new ideas to the world or to forge my own destiny. I’m not sure which. Maybe both. Since the magazine venture, I’ve been co-founder of two tech startups.  One wasn’t commercially successful, but spawned the other . Eight years on, the jury’s still out on this one.

The truth is that most entrepreneurs don’t find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow even after ‘serial’ attempts. The Big Buck outcomes we read so much about, which entice and tantalize and keep you in the game busting stupid hours, sucking up shitloads of stress and sleepless nights are rare. Statistically, most of us are lucky if we make any more than we might had done if we’d stayed in regular jobs, likely less.

So why do we keep on keeping on? I believe it’s not uncommon for successful entrepreneurs to became so hooked on the adrenalin of growing a global business that they resort to gambling as a substitute when they exit their ventures. I understand that. Making something that’s never existed before is one hell of a blast. That burst of creative energy it takes to get it off the ground delivers a better high than any substance I’ve tried. Better even than the endorphins from a good work out. It has to, to make up for the frequent times along the way when you stare into the abyss wondering if you’re really prepared to lose not just one shirt, but your whole wardrobe.

The stakes are most definitely high, but the compulsion to see your dream start come alive holds an allure it’s hard to describe. Of course, if you do achieve the big pay out you’re a visionary and completely vindicated in taking the risks. If you don’t make it … well … you can always sell your soul and resort to dressing it up as a fast fail!

 

Watch She Started It

Cover Image from Are Female Entrepreneurs Set Up to Fail — great article and worth a read.

You make me sick!

If a Martian landed anywhere in the Western World this minute, he or she could be forgiven for believing that “love is all there is”. Bombarded by headlines full of “luvved-up” celeb couples, best-seller lists heaving with love-stories and radio-station play lists top-heavy with “love is in the air” lyrics, the hapless alien could be forgiven for not noticing much else. Love’s young — or not so young these days given the prevailing divorce rate — dream is all around us and we can’t seem to get enough of it. To our Martian, it could well seem as if love really does make this world go round. It is after all, the age-old human obsession. As some wag once said, ‘that old devil called love — if I could find him I’d probably kill him’.

I can just about remember the feeling … you look innocently into a stranger’s eyes, fall hopelessly in love and, in a heartbeat, your life is no longer your own. It’s like you’ve been flattened by a runaway train. One minute you’re your own person, happily putting one foot serenely in front of the other, emotionally un-encumbered and working on a satisfying life plan. The next you’re a quivering mass of lust-infused, hormone-driven confusion, carrying on like some tragic heroine in a third rate bodice-ripper. A force of nature has taken over your life, dominating every waking moment (and most of the sleeping ones too), striding around the windmills of your mind like a colossus on speed.

But is love good for us? According to an article I read recently, apparently the jury’s out. For sure, we talk about “lovesickness”, but this is generally tongue in cheek when we’re taking the piss out of stricken friends or rellies who are moping around and sighing a lot. However, there appears to be growing recognition from the medicine and science that it actually isn’t a joke. As with so many other human afflictions, this isn’t exactly news. If you asked any self-respecting medieval person, they’d be astonished at our cavalier attitude. To be honest they’d also be astonished at Disney’s take on Princesses!

Prior to the 18th century and as far back as written records were kept, lovesickness was accepted as a genuine, common and sometimes fatal condition, on a par with any other self-respecting mental illness. Medieval doctors thought that it was a disorder of the mind and body similar to melancholia, and their training typically included checking for symptoms of love such as the patient’s pulse quickening at the mention of the loved-one’s name. Apparently, obsession was the principle symptom and cause. Treatments varied; baths, good food and wine and sleep were all considered efficacious. Distractions such as as business and sports and games which could take the mind off the obsession were also thought to be worth a go. “Therapeutic sexual intercourse” was the ultimate remedy! But wait, there’s more. If there was no-one in the get-your-leg-over frame, paying for your therapeutic sex was recommended.

It’s only in relatively recent times that the concept of lovesickness lost its currently.  The advent of ‘scientific’ psychiatry blew a scientific raspberry at such a foolish notion, and lovesickness was chucked into the medical dumpster in the ‘enlightened’ age that followed. Nowadays the pendulum has swung again; an increasing body of credible research suggests that our ancestors did know a thing or two after all. The belief that many people cannot cope with the intensity of falling in love, or suffer severely from their love being unrequited is experiencing something of a Renaissance.

Symptoms are said to include mania (mood swings, higher than usual self-esteem, extravagant gift giving), depression (tearfulness, insomnia, loss of concentration), obsessive behaviour (preoccupation with checking text messages/emails) and psychologically created physical symptoms (upset stomach, change in appetite, insomnia, dizziness and confusion). A recent Italian research programme concluded that the drop in Serotonin levels in a lovesick person’s brain were similar to those found in people with serious health problems such as compulsive disorders or drug addictions. The good news is that sufferers are not deranged, just madly in love, and love is quite literally making them sick.

Of course, the burning question is what to do about it? The current cure of first resort is counselling. Doesn’t seem a very romantic solution for such a delicate problem. But don’t despair! Now that we know our ancestors weren’t entirely clueless about the illness, maybe we should take their remedies a little more seriously. I’d say long sleeps, bathing and chowing down copious medicinal doses of great food and wine would be a pretty good anti-dote to any sickness, love induced or not. In any case, if all else fails, there’s always the “therapeutic intercourse” option! Alternatively, just grab yourself some good old Love Potion Number 9.

Cover image Lovesick by Canadian artist Keight MacLean — buy here at Saatchi Art.

I feel pretty

I don’t know about you, but I’m a glass at least completely full kinda gal. My rose-tinted glasses perch pertly on my aquiline nose as I ignore inconvenient truths that don’t sit with my world view. This is particularly true when it comes to my own self-image. As I’ve got older, I’ve become adept at a sort of cat and mouse game with my credulity which allows me to accept the ageing process with, if not unbounded joy — who’d believe that? — with the sort of equanimity you’d expect from a seal lazing on the rocks in the sun. If that sounds like denial, yup, guilty as charged.

Seriously, it’s not like my inner person feels any different. It’s only the wrapper that’s showing signs of dishevelment. On the contrary the — whatever one calls it, inner goddess? — is mostly (I have my share of ‘bad hair’ days like everyone else) in good shape. She’s timeless and I see her as something like a cross between Virginia Woolf and Wonder Woman. A sort of ‘blue stocking’ superhero; clever, gorgeous and most definitely fresh from the fight. I’d say that’s not a bad combo to draw on at times of self-doubt and uncertainty. And she’s a great chick to party with when the good times roll. I admire flamboyance and flair in women. She’s all that … on speed!

Which brings me to my point. Over the last few years, I’ve had on-going conversations with women in my orbit about the whole invisibility thing that many women experience as they age. It saddens me to know that a wide variety of women think this is inevitable and there’s nothing they can do about it. “It is what it is,” they say. “It’s as certain as a cluster of Khardashians appearing the minute a red carpet is rolled out.” For sure there are exceptions — clearly there are an enormous number of middle-aged or older women in the public eye who can’t be said to be invisible. But even the most successful and famous women are likely to be fighting a rear-guard action against the impact and perception of age on their value as people and overall bankability as commercial prospects.

This acceptance of invisibility is something I take strong issue with because I don’t believe it is inevitable. I think it’s a received wisdom that many of us turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So why do we do this? Given how society rates, or more accurately under-rates women in pretty much every way imaginable and how ‘hot’ we are figures largely in which doors open for us. In this context, as our ‘pulling power’ diminishes with age it becomes progressively harder get over the bar of beauty stereotypes. This is particularly true as great swathes of people … er … men that would be … start to look through us or around us as if we have no further contribution make. It becomes all too easy to pull on the cape of invisibility rather than having to run the gauntlet of society’s preconceptions and stereotypes about middle aged and older women.

I have a wonderful collection of humorous greetings cards I put together in my early thirties. My group of close friends and I were going through that “all men are bastards, who needs one anyway?” disillusioned-with-love phase. Something of a contradiction as the one thing most of us wanted to have in our lives was the extremely illusive Mr. Right. At the time, most of us were divorced or had recently been spat out of a reasonably long-term relationship. We solaced each other by sourcing cards with such pithy philosophical statements as, If they can get one man up on the moon, why can’t they get them all up there? and You’re not alone honey, my shampoo lasts longer than my men. We’d fax them to each other for comfort — this was the era before e-mail forwards were endemic and scanners were still only found in Accident and Emergency Wards.

Recently, I re-discovered this collection whilst looking for something else. Flicking through them, one card jumped out at me as if it had a life of its own: Wrinkled wasn’t one of the things I wanted to be when I grew up. I have to say my brain responded to this statement as if it was a direct quote from Revelations. Of course, back in the day, the discovery of even one facial wrinkle was a drama which made headline events like the deconstruction of the Berlin Wall seem like a Teddy Bears’ Picnic. We were at the peak of our physical beauty, so it was all a bit of an affectation. But there is a real dichotomy in the aging process and an interesting review this week about the movie I Feel Pretty prompted some in depth navel-gazing. I haven’t seen this movie and I probably won’t on the basis of the reviews, but friends who have found it to be just what it says on the tin — a humorous, laugh-out-loud romp. The reviewer looked at it through a darker lens.

The central tenet of the movie is that looks don’t matter, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. No argument from me with that. That it’s lack of confidence that holds women back professionally and personally, not discrimination or how we look. That for today’s thoroughly modern Maleficent it’s all about feeling better, not looking better, although looking better is a likely bi-product. It’s this bit the reviewer was taking exception to and I’d have to agree because it seems as obvious as the balls on a tall dog (if you’ll forgive the crudity) that the pressures on women to appear thinner, younger and firmer have never been higher.

But the insidious thing is that it’s becoming taboo to acknowledge this — beauty standard denialism is gaining traction. This is said to be fuelled by cynical corporates re-packaging standard beauty lines as health and wellness products, blatantly ignoring the continued pressure on looks. Fine, if women really are embracing their inner beauty and only starve themselves, work out obsessively and fork out small fortunes on appearance enhancements because they want to and because it makes them feel a deeper sense of self-worth. Not so fine if they’re being duped. I’d say there’s a fast one being pulled here that we should start wising up. We may live in the ‘post truth’ world, but there are limits!

As BBC film critic, Will Gompertz observed, “The greatest shame is how the movie misses the chance to really skewer the serious issue it attempts to address, namely the debilitating and isolating mental health conditions such as body dysmorphia, low self-esteem, social anxiety, and depression, which are made significantly worse by the relentless objectification of women by the media and business. In fact, bafflingly, the film ends up pandering to exactly the same fascistic thinking that promotes the fallacy only people with a certain body type will be successful and admired.’

I’d say this is particularly true for older women. As things are going, there will come a time when, if we decide to age naturally, we risk being marginalized somewhere in our thirties and be fighting a war of attrition against increasing invisibility from there until we drop. Jobs and potential partners will be the sole preserve of our younger-looking contemporaries. And heaven help the less affluent as they age and can’t afford to join the young-old elite!

Despite the need to suspend disbelief and a serious question mark about its writer’s grasp on reality, I like the premise of I Feel Pretty. I believe strongly that, like Intel, most of the good stuff should be on the inside and that inner beauty, strength and resilience are the bedrock of happy, healthy lives. We most definitely should take care of ourselves because we want to and because it’s good for our health and wellbeing. Wonderful, if this also makes us feel pretty and helps us stay visible as we age … because we really are worth it.

A dystopia of demagogues?

Over a drink last night, a friend and I ended up talking about THAT MAN. Well, it’s pretty much inevitable really isn’t it? What would a meeting of friends in today’s world be without a little Trump-bashing?

Once we’d got the hand wringing over and there was no more air left to suck through our teeth as we exhausted our daily outrage quotas, we got into a much more interesting discussion. about the man’s curious penchant for the world’s current crop of “strong men”. Let’s call them, for the sake of argument, Trump’s Posse. And what a band of merry men they are to be sure. I’m thinking al Assad, Jung-un, Duterte, Jinping, Erdogan, el-Sissi and Uncle Vlad Putin and all. They’d likely make all the horrors of the world that Pandora unwittingly unleashed look benign!

As individuals, Trump’s Posse are are called many things. Some of the more polite moniker’s include dictator, autocrat, despot, occasionally even oligarch (I’ll leave you to ponder the long, long list of  less polite options). My own favourite is the deliciously arcane “demagogue” — a leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices and makes false claims and promises in order to gain power. Perhaps more Trump than Duterte, but that might be splitting human rights abuses.

But what to call them as a group my friend and I wondered? Surely they have enough commonality to merit a collective noun of their own we thought. After another glass (or two) of wine and much hilarity (if you don’t laugh you cry right?), we came up with what we thought were some crackers … a doomsday of despots … a deception of dictators … a dystopia of demagogues …  an abomination of autocrats … for some reason we got stuck in the semantic seduction of slick alliteration.

Any better ideas?