Horizon at Sandy Point

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Lessons from school

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school
It's a wonder I can think at all...

Paul Simon is so right about what is proposed as learning in high school. So many of us so convinced of the idea that high school is the cornerstone for a lifelong career and the pathway to success in the world.

On reflection, what are the real lessons of high school?

Certainly, for those of us who entered high schools in the heady post independence days with "the nation's future in our schoolbags," it was a time of equal access and opportunity based on the meritocracy of the "common entrance exam." In classrooms across the nation, each teen was in an arena to discover his or her particular place in the state called Trinidad and Tobago. We discovered ourselves, Indo-, Sino-, Afro-, Euro- each a pedigreed or pothound Trini.

We discovered ourselves doubly at the end of the sixties. At the dawn of an age of questions and awareness (being hip), the hippie mentality infecting young people everywhere, precipitating or aligning movements to empower disenfranchised groups, blacks in America, women, minorities, we knew ourselves as citizens of the world.

It was not a process that took place inside the classroom, but certainly inside the school walls. The domain of a strong (frequently tyrannical) individual whose calling it was to shape moral citizens through a system of discipline and reward (always based on achievement). And so each school was its own kingdom or nation state in which you could lead or follow, speak out (on "wall news" and the public PA system) or choose a different position (in art, music, sport). Compete fiercely or sidestep competition.

Within this structure, we made friendships that last a lifetime. We found common ground with persons of other backgrounds, other religions, other points of view. And yes, while many of us did learn useful subject matter, perhaps we also learned how to learn. So many of us ended up in places far from where we were thought to be strong (mathematics to communications; chemistry to art; history to music).

In hindsight, "high school" can be wherever you happen to be in the hormone-pumping teenage years. Much better if where you are is a place of safety, a place for exploration, an environment that is nurturing and supportive, and understands individual progress. Best of all if it is always possible to retreat from this place of adventure, to rest in a place called home.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Find your inner guru

It is concluded that challenges around communication at the office manifest as general mistrust of senior management, and result in staff satisfaction surveys that never rise above 50%. For three successive surveys, the results have been pretty much the same, half-half satisfied-dissatisfied.
This has frustrated the president of the company who is the kind of person who would like to leave a legacy. In his previous job, he turned around  attitudes to safety. It was this achievement that was his calling card for the present situation. Now, he is taking on communication in a scientific way, engineering a solution.

First he found a guru. Modern gurus are not born, they are made, usually self-created. They have the ability to self-reflect in such a way that they crystallise a paradigm that is easily demonstrated - through some self-evident truths. Learn and apply the system and you become a follower. The more followers the greater confirmation of the guru's worth. Amy Chua is becoming a modern guru for "tiger mothers," who demonstrate love through discipline. (You can read her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Is it possible to be a tiger mother if you are not Chinese or Chinese descended?) Robin Sharma is a "success coach" making the case for leadership. Be the leader in your own life, he says, be responsible for the only attribute that you have absolute responsibility over - your attitude. (Here's a place to start:

Of course, one of the greatest gurus of all time told us simply: love your neighbour as yourself; and treat others as you would want to be treated. As a guide to a way of living, it is foundation stone for harmony in societies, countries, and how we live upon the earth.

So yes, a guru was found to help observe current practice, provide some common templates and a pathway to productive conversations. Needless to say, the method to permeate the organisation requires many sessions and training trainers. There is no dwelling on the unwritten code that must be foundational for any communication system to work: respect, trust, the common agenda of the organisation. One hopes that practice will so prevail, that attitudes will follow. 

There are common themes among all gurus. These are worth paying attention to. The most important is mastery of self. Be responsible for your own heart and mind. Control your own thoughts, words and actions. Shape your own attitude with respect for others. Lead by example, without expectation.

By today's standards, however, success is more often judged by how many others you influence or control. Not everyone can be a guru. But there are surely enough candidates. And whatever the issue, you can find the expert who has a theory, a procedure, and a way to make a living from selling lessons. Guru-dom has become a career.

The lesson for today is this: be your own guru. The greatest challenge in your life will be to know yourself; the greatest satisfaction to know that you are creating your best life.

"Most people believe the mind to be a mirror, more or less accurately reflecting the world outside them, not realizing on the contrary that the mind is itself the principal element of creation." (Tagore)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dogs we have known

A dog - or two or three - has always been part of our family. The guard dog called Tiger was let loose around our shop in Woodbrook every night, and we were not allowed into the yard when she was roaming. When we moved to the farm, in addition to the mutts - pedigreed Trini pothounds - my father acquired two Dobermans which we kids named Pepsi and Dixi. Yes, they were black and effervescent. There was Patch, the German Shepherd, and my favourite in that era, a fawn brown Trini mix with large doe eyes that we called Wiley - because she was wild (with seven acres of farm who wouldn't be!)

They say that dogs take their personalities from their owners. While that may be partly true - owners must be held to account for dogs that are trained to exhibit certain behaviours - I've always found that dogs are like children, and treated well, given space and affection, become in their relatively short lives - seven to 15 years is the average - members of the family. Their special qualities are unconditional love, loyalty and friendship. They ask for little more than consistency - food, water, regular attention - and never judge you. Bear in mind as well that certain dog traits can be mitigated but are never bred out of the animal.
We got Grace full grown - she was so happy to have room to run, after living in a box all day.

Jet, for instance, a black Labrador mix, was our perfect companion. He was patient with us, knew how to walk or wait without a leash, but could never resist wanting to "play with the ducks." Even after he had to spend a day with two of his victims around his neck, the safest route was to make sure that the fence between him and the ducks was always intact. He loved water and would swim far out in the rough Blanchisseuse waves to retrieve a coconut or branch. But stay out of his way in the water, his powerful paws would certainly take you under. Once, walking along a country road, he made a beeline for what looked like a large puddle. He rolled around like a hog in mud, and came back reeking of cow dung. Lucky for us, there was river nearby to dunk him.
Choir of Oka's puppies
Then there was the ironically named Mutt, a pedigreed Doberman that stood waist high, his head at chest level. Gentle as a nanny, he would take my wrist in his mouth, stand behind me when strangers approached; or put his forepaws on the five-foot wall to peer at the neighbours. New years' fireworks however sent him to the floor, shaking and whimpering, his head between his forepaws. Loving Mutt with jowls like a judge once fell into a well, and must have treaded water all day before we found him. When we finally got him out, he had an altercation with Jet that my hand got between. A dog bite stings like fire. My howling stopped their fight! 
It takes real skill to pick up two sticks, without using hands!
Today, there's Yoda - named for her ears. She was found in a drain, discarded like rubbish, in water that she could barely keep her head out of. She delivered three litters of perfect puppies in the bush - we always had to go into the garden to find them - which she protected fiercely. She's an old lady now, deaf we think, still loving, and teaching us - like Yoda - how little it takes to satisfy her needs, how grateful she is.

Humans - having dominion over all the earth - must learn to live well with all creatures. And taking care of a dog - or two or three - has many lessons for those who pay attention.
A comfortable place to rest after a schoolday

Friday, May 13, 2011

Lost at sea

 My father’s first powerboat was an 18 foot Glastron built by a man named Lee. We named it C Ghym -  from the initials of our names, and pronounced Jim for the youngest of us. C Ghym was small and fast. There was no bigger thrill than to sit on her bow and bounce over waves - turning choppy in the late evening – on the way back to the Yacht Club from Scotland Bay. 

Dad entered C Ghym in the Production Class of the annual Great Race which went from Trinidad to Grenada in those days. He won trophies, but the stories were the real prizes. The one that stuck with me was the return to Trinidad in driving rain, losing sight of the flotilla of returning boats. I believe my mother and Jimmy were with him that time, huddled under towels, water whipping their faces as they headed into the wind, until the patrol boat came back to find them. Were there life vests? A radio? Emergency supplies?

"The sea have no branch," my father used to say, a warning when - as kids - we would venture too far from shore on our holidays at the beach. He himself felt no fear in his boat. After the C Ghym, there was Cannon, an unsinkable Bowen 24-foot fibreglass hull and inboard engines. This is the boat that carried him towards Venezuela in late 1983. 

It started out as the usual Saturday fishing lime. His partner was supposed to bring a battery to start the inboards. Ranji and his friend Kenny were the crew. Even though they had said they would be back before dark, I waited past eight before contacting the Club where a fete was in progress. It was probably the only time I ever looked at an entire Best Village Queen Show on local television. When, after 11, the person at the Yacht Club kept insisting that Mr Wongchong was at the bar, I asked to speak with him - it was my uncle! He was despatched to check whether Cannon was back in its shed. No, the cars were still there. 

Raising an alarm at midnight raised only eyebrows at the Coast Guard. "Ma'am,  the fellas must be liming in a bay somewhere," I was told with a wink and a smile. That night a few powerboat buddies did go out, but even the full moon could not light every hidden bay. And by that time, they were halfway to Grenada on a rising tide. 

Minutes crawled into Sunday. Without sleep, I worried that the three-month child in my womb would be born without father or grandfather, but didn't give up hope. We hired a light airplane and my sister's husband and a friend went up to search from the sky. The Coast Guard was searching Trinidad's territorial waters; as were other boat owners. My husband's brother arrived. Everyone worrying, making a plan to send the light airplane up again when daylight returned.

It was past nine on Sunday night when Kenny's girlfriend called to say that the lost had been found and were at the Coast Guard station in Chaguaramas, towed there by a Venezuelan pirogue.

The drifters' adventure is a story by itself. Who brought the half dead battery? The anchor didn't hold when the engine wouldn't start, but dragged at the end of hundreds of feet of line, acting as a drag as they drifted north to Grenada in the deep; and then turned south in the current running off Venezuela. The fish they caught was put to dry - stinking up the boat. Using the hood as a sail to slow the drag of the current and to be visible. Going a hair's breath away from the prow of a big tanker. Waving t-shirts to catch the attention of other boaters - who waved back. The Venezuelan fishing boat coming straight to them, turning at the last minute, and only by chance someone in the back spotted the desperate crew.

What they saying, Dad asked. You hungry? You thirsty? Say yes, say yes, tell them to tie us on. And so they were towed to the Venezuelan coastal village, Guiria, where my father went ashore, bought rice, and arranged for another boat to bring them back to Trinidad. Such are the mishaps that make adventures.  

Friday, May 6, 2011

Conversations with Pat 2

Pat Bishop says that "real work is self-directed, independent activity, conducted alone or in concert with others, in the service of community need and community wholeness." In other words, it's more than a "job" with the objective of the "pay day" which allows us to be consumers in an increasingly distorted and gluttonous economic system.

What is work?

Peter Minshall used to say "my work is my prayer." Not that he was religious, but what he purported to do in his life was (quoting Federico Garcia Lorca) "drawn from the well of the people," offered back "in a cup of beauty so that they may drink - and in drinking understand themselves."

For most of us, the reality is neither as poetic as Minshall nor as pristine as Bishop. Truth often lies somewhere else beyond the gloss of literature or art. Notice that neither mentions the need for survival, sustainability, satisfaction or self-fulfilment though one suspects that those are the intended by-products. Many of us find ourselves doing many things in order to make a living, not all of it creative, indeed much of it in service of something else that accrues from the "payday."

Some of my most intense and satisfying work was  in the newspaper and for the Carnival magazine. Long hours - observing, interviewing, channeling the society - for a few inches of type! These were products of collective work, in service of community need and wholeness, regardless of whether the community cared or not! But it was work that barely kept my growing family in food, entertainment, gas bills or higher education. My father who had single-handedly built a business as a farmer, without the support of an education system, fared far better. It was entirely his legacy that allowed me to own a house of my own; and to appreciate the "work" that others do to feed the people.

So yes, what of work? The work that I do now sends my children to university in other parts of the world, and I daresay supports the community at a higher level. In the perverse way of the "pay day," this work has assured survival and has been frequently frustrating, occasionally fulfilling and maybe sustainable.

The challenge for me, hopefully not too little nor too late, continues to be (as John Fowles ends his treatise, The Aristos): "To accept one's limited freedom, to accept one's isolation, to accept this responsibility, to learn one's particular powers, and then with them to humanize the whole; that is the best for this situation."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Night of Awards

Natural selection might have genetically encoded choices of mate material, and descending through generations determined who and which characteristics survived. And so entrained the long route to bigger, stronger, faster - and the survival of species.  Then Eve ate the apple (figuratively speaking), and humans crossed the threshold into self-consciousness and the virtual world of morals, ethics and social responsibility. I would like to say "and the rest is history" but not quite.

At what point did we start favouring individuals for specific qualities or traits? Was it when Cain killed Abel - that we decided that the victim/ younger brother was gentler and kinder, and so mourned his loss? (And thereafter determined that fratricide was a "sin" since it deprived the family/ species of traits that though not dominant or "useful" should nevertheless be safeguarded.) At what point did Hinduism - for example - determine that some humans were born "untouchable" and others Brahmin, craftsman, or warrior, or any other caste?

By whatever route, or innate or genetic tendency, humans now have an ingrained predisposition to choose who they like or dislike, with elaborate justifications or selection criteria depending on the environment, community, tribe, or country. In the most artificial of human groupings - among them corporations, associations, trade unions, schools and universities - we learn to differentiate the tendencies or performance modes that ensure not just the survival but the sustainability of the cause or group.

In these groups, the selection process is codified and and driven by sets of rules or policy based on precedent. Recognition and reward are built into systems that may begin with financial remuneration, but extend to all manner of incentives including the "pat on the back," awards ceremonies and ritualised CEO's/ Oscar/ Emmy/ Guild events. Such awards frequently include in their criteria, creativity or innovation, or thinking "outside the box" thereby engendering the seeds of their own demise.

And so, to such a night: a great hall with banners and decoration; music and multi-media; a feast to feed a multitude; and everyone in garb and ornamentation unsuitable for anything but strutting and preening. And the awards go to ...all those selected to be present in the room? And the top awards to ... those who performed their jobs well, impressed with good presentations and reports, those who have been encultured to support the primary concept.

Let's just say it was an Awards Ceremony that will be judged on the ceremony - unfortunately for whoever may be held responsible for the glitches. Few will remember the winning projects. More memorable the mistakes and malapropisms - non-productive time management?

Next time, can we think - as the feature speaker proposed - of what's inter-generational, integral or holistic, innovative (even disruptively so)?

George Bernard Shaw: "Every person who has mastered a profession is a skeptic concerning it."