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Looking back, Reflecting

Recently, I was looking back at a 2014 Medium post of mine reflecting upon 2013. In it I wrote: “In 2014 I hope to spend less time on the web. I will certainly keep writing and posting the results to this platform and other outlets that have given me the opportunity to express my opinions, but it feels like a good idea to retreat from the constant white noise.” When I wrote that I never considered that it would become a reality. I discovered that mindfulness is always in reach. You just have to want it.

I had also never even considered that by the end of January 2014 I would have moved on from North to join Beats Music, then seven months later become an Apple employee under Apple’s acquisition of Beats Electronics. None of this was planned; networks, a passion for solving the music and technology issues, and long-term relationships had a cumulative effect that I embraced with gratitude. So here I am.

Coincidentally, in one of those serendipitous moments that I love, I came across a Medium article in a collection called A Year of Wednesdays by Leah Reich, that includes this:

“What I failed to understand was what it meant to do something because you love it. Not because you think it will get you something because you think it will allow you to fit in, or because you want success and you’re pretty sure that’s how you’ll find it. Simply for love, simply because you would no matter what.”

I can embrace that. What Leah had come to understand is something I have expressed too: Make your work an extension of your hobbies.

In a strange way, my career moves imposed mindfulness. Posting only to my own website and here on Medium while keeping my insights to the personal and semi-personal, helped expand my thinking. Inwardly basically — no more worrying about social media or the future of advertising and branding for instance. I no longer have to attend every argument that I’m invited to (a phrase I’ve borrowed from W. E. B. DuBois,) about the future of the recorded music industry. I also now have good reason to turn down requests to speak in public; all of the above is very freeing. (If I’m right, it appears that I only gave two interviews in 2014: One with Andrew Dubber and one with Brian Libby.) A consequence of that freedom meant that I have read more books in 2014 than the previous two years. (Oddly, for me anyway, I found myself enjoying some science fiction novels. Two in particular: The Martian and The Book of Strange New Things.) Perhaps I subconsciously wanted to leave the planet? The more I read the more I’d like to think that I’m getting better at writing. (I’ll let you the reader be the judge of that. It’s an ongoing process.)

In retrospect 2014 appeared to bring us all ‘interesting times’ —a year that I felt lacked harmony or peace. Beyond the personal, on a global scale, 2014 seemed convulsive. Many readers may know that the phrase “May we/you live in interesting times” is a curse, not a blessing. It was purported to be a Chinese saying, perhaps coined by Confucius. That appears to not be the case as you can see here. What you will find there is a section of a speech delivered in Cape Town in 1966 by Robert Kennedy saying… “There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.” He was right about danger and uncertainty just wrong about the origin of the phrase. (It’s also worth noting Kennedy’s optimism in that last sentence; the sixties turned out to be a time of major disharmony in the USA and Asia.)

When I dwell upon the year behind us it feels like time out of mind. Beyond full reach. Endless. I remember a year of conflict: US national politics, inequality, low-paid workers struggling for a minimum wage, the police killings of unarmed black men, the rise of ISIS and Ebola; Putin’s madness in annexing the Crimea now tempered by sanctions and the collapse of the price of oil — yet, as Paul Krugman points out — Putin still has nukes; there was the mysterious loss of Malaysia flight 370 and the downing over the Ukraine of Malaysia Flight 17. There were also unexpected hurricanes and snowstorms showing the effects of climate change, an effect that has hosts of deniers. And there were new, mysterious viruses. There was more, much more. Yet memory is suspect. Our minds have a habit of filling in the blanks. Somewhere a rose was blooming in a sea of manure; I never saw it, or maybe chose not to. Paul Krugman looked back and found many roses, in his particular line of work anyway.

On a personal note, I’ve been considering mortality. In April of last year, I made another trip to the Lake District, the area of Northwest England where I grew up. I’d traveled there a few times in recent years as my father slipped toward the end of his life. It was good to spend time with him. He died in July and it took until November for me to find a way to write about his passing.

Nothing conjures up the past like death. When one has death on their mind, in my case my father’s, it is a good time to confront one’s own inevitable demise. If the true human condition is cognitive dissonance, something I believe, then we have to work hard to confront that dissonance. My father’s particular dissonance, when initially diagnosed with his lung cancer, was to blame his illness on the fact that he had been a house painter his whole life. He appeared to disregard the fact that his small-cell lung cancer was the result of smoking cigarettes, something he had done for decades. (Large-cell lung cancer, if caught early, can be curable. It is not necessarily caused by smoking.)

I believe that if we are not careful we all fall into the dissonance-trap of expecting science and medicine to save us when we have taken everything to the extreme. By that, I mean not exercising, over-eating, smoking and drinking, for instance. Eating junk food until you get diabetes and maybe lose a leg to amputation if you don’t change your eating habits, is not the best strategy for longevity. All things in moderation is a wonderful mantra unless you are a nihilist. I am not pontificating here, I am not innocent of doing harm to my body.

At the onset of the dissolution of the body, that morbid cellular collapse renders the flesh into a state that at first may be described as parched and dehydrated, stretched taut, sometimes loose, now only a skin container shrink-wrapping the skeleton, whose final task is to hold in non-functioning organs until decomposition takes over; this is when humans resort to war metaphors; a heroic battle with…, he/she fought courageously until the end, he/she succumbed after a long struggle, etcetera. I don’t want to demean the dead or dying but those phrases are usually found in obituaries written by family and friends of the deceased. The deceased, or pre-deceased, rarely mention these battle metaphors. Yes, those afflicted with a life-ending disease may tell their doctors, their families or oncologists, that they intend to fight the disease, and of course that is an admirable stance to take as outcomes will differ in all cases, yet it is not a war; cancer, in particular, is an insidious disease often caused by a simple glitch in our DNA.

All wars are the end result of failed diplomacy between states. Death is the result of corporeal failure. If we were to accept the inevitability of death, we may then find solace more easily.

Everyone’s death is unique. After the initial round of chemotherapy and radiation, my father entered a phase of partial remission and lived for nine years after he’d initially been given six months to live. When his cancer returned he simply folded his hand. Enough was enough. He was determined not to lie on the “mattress grave of pain” as the philosopher Sidney Hook described the lot of those clinging desperately to life. If I recall correctly, my brother told me that the last words he heard from our father were: “This is no way to live.” I wonder if my father realized just how true his final words were?

His was not a battle. It was not even surrender; in the end it was acceptance. And, finally, an end to dissonance.

May we not live in interesting times.

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