Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Midway to where? Cogito ergo sum.

My wife says that she learns a lot about what I do from my blog. Now, frankly, I'm not absolutely sure if that is a comment that is a criticism or a compliment. However, being generally of a positive disposition, I will take it to be more the latter than the former. By extension, it also reveals many of my thoughts, and because of its nature, I attempt to do more explaining than is often possible.

The blog contains few if any basic untruths, so in that sense can be useful. I say that I try to be transparent, and in trying to be so what I like to do is bind people into a story because down the road they help validate it, in the sense of confirming, and helping keep consistent notions of what occurred. The blog has become part of that binding in that those involved in stories can see themselves and hopefully agree on how they are seen and what they have seen, or agree on what they have said and how it's retold.

I've had several discussions in the past few months with acquaintances who also write, about the value of recording current events. We don't agree on this, but not in any violent way. But I hold to my notion that the value of recording current events comes from those early impressions being close to how one feels at the moment and how things appear at the given moment. Time changes all, they say, and that means it also changes what we recall and feel about an event. Many stories, when retold, get transformed. They usually make the hero more heroic and the villain more dastardly. They often have the principal changed. Many people, and it may be more true of couples, often replace themselves as the principal in a story: "I did..." soon replaces the real "We did..." or even "You did...".If you don't believe me, think hard about some events and try to remember the various retellings of the story. But, all of this is digression.

Yesterday I made several discoveries.

My wife and I had a pretty vigorous 'debate'--not for the first time, we did not really have a meeting of minds. What was very different this time was the presence of one of the children. Poor love, she arrived to have lunch with us in one of the glitzier malls in Virginia and found herself in the role of 'referee'. She did a fine job, I have to say. Well, that does not surprise me much. She is in fact a qualified soccer referee, having taken some steps in the "join them if you cannot beat them" way, because her Dad is also a qualified referee. That link did allow us to make some nice parallel arguments about what it means to deal with people where you really know the rules while they do not but do have some strong, but wrong, beliefs about what the rules are supposed to be.

My first daughter also gave me good confirmation of a belief I have held for years; she would make a good mediator. Now, she and I have discussed whether or not she needs to become a lawyer to do this and therefore if she needs to go to law school. I am still not convinced that law school is best but it may be the route she has to take to make the journey.

I've thought a lot about relationships over the past year. The thoughts are rarely limited to small personal relationships, and have extended to larger relationships, such as are found in organizations. Whether such reflections are because I am going through some midlife transition I cannot say. (I do not like the word 'crisis', which to me connotes negative rather than neutral or positive events.) I've thought about such things most of my life, but I guess time and circumstances have given me more chance to do so over the past year.

I am not a psychologist, and really am very wary of a lot of potboiler diagnoses. I tend to think that they make people lazy by not really looking at what is going on simply because they see elements that fit some general description. I am particularly leery of such 'diagnoses' when trotted out to explain many or any situation, without there being much analysis going on that looks at the many causes and effects on people's behaviour. One often sees symptoms that need to be related to the right causes to make the right conclusion. Taking a physical example, shivering, can be caused by many things: cold, fear, exhilaration, physical disease, and several other conditions. So, to deal with it properly you need to know its cause. If you always go to fear as the cause, because say that is the condition you have seen the most, then you have misdiagnosed, and you will mistreat the 'patient'.

But back to my thoughts. One set of definitions I found about midlife transition (see Psychology Today), states:

Midlife transition can include:

  • Discontentment or boredom with life or with the lifestyle (including people and things) that have provided fulfillment for a long time
  • Feeling restless and wanting to do something completely different
  • Questioning decisions made years earlier and the meaning of life
  • Confusion about who you are or where your life is going
Such conditions are supposedly brought on my major life changes, such as divorce or the death of a parent. Well, I was divorced about 10 years ago, and I lost my mother nearly 5 years ago.

But, I have 'suffered' most of these conditions almost every day of my life, more so when I was young than in my later years. I was 'discontented' that I did not make it to international level as an athlete, or play full time for a professional football club. But I am very content with all the championships I won and records I set on the track and the people who tried to get me to the highest level. I really loved playing soccer in different countries--much of Europe, in Malawi, in Mexico (altitude sickness, apart), in the USA, in the Caribbean. I loved being on the university team, being coached by a former professional, and getting the chance to show how good I was against professional club teams in representative games every week for five years. I made it as a 'semi-professional' player in England and Wales, having chosen to work at another skill that could withstand time (academics) instead of one that was really of short duration (sporting prowess). I taught a great bunch of girls to 'be all they could be' on a soccer field, and most of them were able to move on and play varsity at high school and some now play at varsity level at university. I was taught how to play squash by a former world champion; cutting your teeth under the close guidance of the best in the world is as good a start as you can have. I went as high as I could and hope that I helped others get higher than they would have. None of that is meant to be pompous. But if being content means sounding immodest then that's one of life's constant conundrums.

I really believe that I am satisfied with my own sporting career, but the chapter yet to be written involves my youngest daughter, who may want to go into sports in some way and may look to me to be a good guide.

To deal with other 'discontentment' in earlier years I travelled a lot (Europe, Asia; backpacking; etc.), took bigger risks (moved country; changed wife; changed jobs), changed my looks (had an Afro; had hair straightened; grew a beard; wore elegant, expensive clothes, wore shabby or very cheap clothes, etc.).

I have never felt sure about the work path I took; I was not a child who wanted to be something and did almost everything possible to make that happen. My parents, typical of many in the Caribbean, wanted me to be 'somebody'. For them, that meant becoming a doctor or a lawyer, someone that people looked up to and possibly had 'stature' in society. I went along with the lawyer notion for a long time, and given a certain gift of the gab that was not too difficult. I never really took a shine to medicine, even though both parents and several relatives were in the medical field. In the end, I took the law route to the door of university, took classes for one day, then had cold feet. I went to enrol in the economics department. Yet, since graduation, I tried hard to not be an economist; I qualified as an urban planner. Then my first job? I was set to work as a transport economist. And after that I ended up working for more and more prestigious economics institutions--Bank of England, IMF. Was that fate? Unavoidable, no matter I tried?

As I've aged I have felt more assured about who I am: I guess I sound boring countering remarks that I am "English" just because I have a very strong English accent. I say that being born in a place counts for a lot (Jamaican), and it's where your heart is (Jamaican), not how your larynx operates (English mainly, Jamaican as needed, French quite often) that matters. I now take the comments as being ridiculous and have a hard time not being offensive in my defence: as I often ask, "If I speak in French do I suddenly become French?" That's one of those unthinking assumptions that can become burdensome.

I have a very clear idea about my sexual preferences: no man has ever excited me and no man approaching me has ever set me alight with fear because I thought he might kiss me passionately. I have been kissed by a man in those normal social situations that one finds in other cultures, and it has never appalled me. I have been excited by the closeness of many women, and I have avoided kissing many because I knew that the physical attraction was very strong so needed to be kept within bounds. My best friend, in terms of being able to share sentiments has always been a woman at different stages of my life. My longest relationship before I was married was a platonic relation with a girl/woman I knew from school days. I continue to have platonic relations, which are wonderful because they allow for honest discussion with the notion of sex put off the table. When I discuss topics of gender preference I cannot feel for homosexuals because I do not share their desires, but I also have no despise or fear of them.

I was convinced a long time ago that I was not a good bureaucrat: I could not play office politics and had difficulty with contorted talk. Much as I love language and its flexibility, I struggled with the way that it was nuanced in an institution--on reflection, I think that is more a reflection on its being used largely in the negative. Good words became negative assessments because they were not better words or superlatives, so 'adequate'= inadequate, 'good'= not good enough, 'prospects'=no prospects at all, etc. That, to me, smacked of pure dishonesty without courage. Glad to be out of that. It seemed clear to me that smiles were not the things they should be. It may be trite to say that how people interact in an organization is often an extension of how the institution really is, and vice versa: showing little regard within makes it near impossible to otherwise outside.

The midlife transition is supposed to be when small, nagging doubts may appear, with questions such as 'Is this all there is?' 'Am I a failure?'coming to the fore. Well, I'm pretty sure that there is more to come--I look at my children for affirmation of that and I look forward to each day as being a chance to deal with a new challenge. I'm not into 'headless chicken' activities, aka wasting energy, so sometimes I do a lot less than I used to, but I try to do things that make sense and make good use of limited time. I know that I am not a failure, nor is that the case for anyone close to me. My measures?

I managed to get jobs in places that are supposed to be hard to enter and very discerning about the quality of people they take, and managed to do more than stay in one position. Flexibility does not necessarily lead to fancier titles or bigger 'responsibilities', but it does mean feeling comfortable in most situations. Winter in bitterly cold, dark, post Soviet countries is really exciting. Think about dealing with the risk of being killed by falling icicles. Think about sitting in a bath of hot water to stay warm. Think about working on complex issues where you and your counterpart do not speak the same language. Thinking about drawing pictures to explain how to convert from a system of artificially low or fixed prices and five year production plans over 15 countries, to a system of adjustable prices and goods and services being produced in response to things other than a planning document. Think about sitting in offices for days on end seeing the person with whom you are due to meet walk back and forth and being told that the person is absent. Think of going to a black African country and being asked, "Did you see the IMF economist on the flight?", answering "Yes. It's me," then being greeted with, "Really? but you are black." Can't help that, my friend. Think about being huddled in a car with your aged father (on a holiday visit) with people throwing rocks at your car and placing burning tyres in your way and your Dad saying "I'm so glad I made this trip."

Other metrics? Three children who are well educated or on their way to being well educated. One may decide to go onto a totally different track and do medicine. That's a huge commitment, but it shows courage to not balk at challenges to get to where you want to be. One is deciding what next after graduation. That means that the glass for them is nowhere near full and they will seek to put more into it until they are satisfied. Think of a child who converses happily in at least two languages and is not yet six. Think of that same child having travelled already several times to five of the world's continents.

Other metrics? My wife is one of life's extremely capable people, who made one of her best choices when she met me :-). She managed to raise one child mainly on her own for some 10 years, hold down a career, took a chance on leaving her cozy island home to advance her career, had the courage to have another child in her 40s, went to Africa afterwards and continued as a mother of a baby and a volunteer, then project manager for the United Nations, and generally "organizer par excellence", often working in a foreign language. All of that reflects well on me as an enabler :-)

Coping with midlife transition apparently takes time and energy. But what doesn't? This is why I have problems and tend to think 'gobbledygook". But time and energy (both spending it well and saving it) are necessary parts of finding greater satisfaction in life. According to the experts, you can maintain an active sex life, keep fit and enjoy yourself as you mature. I have tried to stick to these things most of my life, as permitted by the law and my age. So, in that sense I have been taking 'treatment' for a long time. It always worked well so I have no intention to change.

I said to my first born yesterday that someone who claims to be a friend but seeks to disparage your other friends is not a true friend, but is someone competing for your friendship. True friends do not need to diminish anyone you have chosen as a friend. That to me is not very complicated. I just say "Watch out for people like that"; I cannot see how their motives can be called 'friendly' and they seem more like rivals or even enemies. When you cherish your family (who are to me at the top of the pile of friends) you should not tolerate them being diminished by others, even others within the extended family. There is a reason why you choose your friends, but think hard if you allow some of your friends to have a role in determining the worth of your other friends. Being in my 50s solidifies that view merely because I have seen it now for 5 decades that for merely four or three or two.

Life is one long transition: that is what growth should be. Whether it really takes a particular bad turn for the worse in the 40s is not something that convinces me.

I think today, from a cold wintery day in Washington DC, about the point in history where we stand, watching a great nation meet what could be cited as a midlife transition. The president-elect is 47. Nice to be in good company.

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