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Movies, money and morals

Last night I watched the movie “Going in Style”. Three pensioners, learning that their pension fund is to be dissolved and their homes repossessed, decide to rob a bank. The bank they choose is the one overseeing the end of the pension scheme. They are frightfully ethical about the whole thing – they only want to take as much as the pension fund owed them; they share the spoils with their community and they load their guns with blanks so that nobody can get hurt. Our elderly crooks take the time to remind children not to rob banks. There is no moral ambiguity.

I guess movies that promote lawlessness and make heroes of criminals are not new, but I was intrigued by what “Going in Style” says about society and the particular point we are at.

The movie is billed as a comedy and has some funny bits, but it deals with such a serious matter, how greed destroys lives, that it’s hard to laugh. The idea that the hard-working average Joe deserves something better than abandonment late in life is easy to get behind. The nice people, who look out for each other, are easy to sympathise with.

The faceless Bank, beautifully represented by a lavishly gilded old-fashioned banking hall, is given a concrete identity in the form of an employee who sells mortgages without being too explicit about the terms and consequences. This character is thoroughly unlikeable – uncaring, self-centred, cowardly and not in control of himself. He is easy to dislike.

It’s a movie of our time.

I don’t want to give away the ending, but sadly, it offers us no way out of the place we find ourselves in. While the movie helps us to deal with our sense of outrage and the wrongness of the world as we temporarily enjoy cheering on the protagonists, after the lights are up and we go back to contemplating the bills, bank robbery is clearly not the answer for most people. So I woke up this morning feeling despondent.

Mostly, I found myself thinking about bank employees.

If I were a bank employee, at the level of the guy who sells mortgages, I’d feel a bit cheated by the portrayal of my colleague in the movie. Bank employees at the lower level are just as much victims of the system. They are ordinary people who need a job, take what they can get, and do the bidding of corporate greed in order to keep the job. I have spoken to terrified bank employees who can’t engage in honest conversations about the bank’s products or procedures, for fear of putting a foot out of line. The average bank employee is not a decision-maker; they are simply carrying out the decisions of others.

So, what about those others? At some level, there have to be people who are making decisions. Those decisions are made based on what is best for the business and that generally equates to maximising profits or returns for shareholders, with some concern for long-term viability. Having risen through the ranks, these are people who buy into the idea that some should be quite a lot wealthier than others, and that it’s OK to have an executive earning 300 times what a cleaner earns because that executive is “worth more”. (Which makes me picture one of those moral choice dilemmas: you have the choice of saving the life of one executive or 300 cleaners, which do you pick?)

If I were a bank employee at the executive level, who earns the kind of money that makes ordinary people hate you, or even if I were at a lower level where I make the decisions on how the mortgage terms will work because I hope one day to be at the executive level, I’d be worried. The movie makes it quite clear that laws and property rights are not going to be respected for much longer because such laws support an immoral system. It’s reached the point where ordinary, nice, hard-working people who care about their families and community want to break the law. (Takes me back to the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa…)

Last week I watched Dr Zhivago, a movie that ought to be required viewing for all well-paid executives. The scenes of the wealthy family subsisting in one room of their previously glorious mansion while the other rooms are allocated as living space to the poor has to strike fear into the heart of every overpaid CEO. The scary thing is that even an average middle-class South African like me, who gave up the corporate salary about 15 years ago for an academic one, is still fabulously wealthy by comparison. I write this in my own private study, a luxury I have at home along with my own art studio, all the while picturing how the homeless people who sleep on the pavement along my route to the university could use this space. So, never mind the bank executives, what am I doing to avoid the revolution?

How do we hold on to some moral sense? How do we decide how to act? Where the hell do you start, when the system is just so complex? I’ve been giving these questions a lot of thought, as have many ordinary, decent people that I know.

Here is what I have come up with so far:

1) I don’t think fear should be our motivation to act. I believe there are really only two big motivations in life: Fear and Love. Things tend to work out better when we act out of love, rather than fear. Perhaps we need to act sooner and not leave things too late.

2) It’s really hard to conceive of an alternative to our current economic system, given the complexities of how it all works, but perhaps we can just try to make it more humane wherever we can. One way in which it could be more humane is to have a smaller gap between the highest and lowest paid in any company.

3) I’ve started to think about my money as a system of voting. Each rand I spend is a vote for the company I spend it at. That means it’s a vote for how that company behaves. If I want a better world I need to vote for companies that behave in ways that I approve of and not spend money at companies whose behaviour is immoral. Each vote means more of what I vote for and less of what I don’t vote for.

4) Since I don’t set executive salaries, what I can do is make choices about where I spend my money (and time). To make informed choices I can use public information about executive salaries and, assuming a lowest salary of, say, R10 000 a month (since I don’t have information at that end), I can calculate the ratio. This is how I learned that some banks have their CEOs earning 300 times what the cleaner earns. At the very least I should not be contributing to companies that do that. I can’t imagine a world in which I’d save the life of one executive over that of 300 cleaners.

5) One does not always have a choice, especially when it comes to banking in South Africa, but one can try to vote appropriately as much as possible. Perhaps if people shared information about companies, making these decisions would become easier. It might also create pressure for companies to reduce executive salaries and for executives to be embarrassed rather than proud of their earning power. Where choices are limited there may just be gaps in the market for new companies to fill.

6) We’ll have to work out other measures too that matter to the way we vote – like how well companies treat their employees or the environmental impact of companies.

7) I need to give more thought to where my money is invested. I am indirectly a shareholder in companies that embarrass me and I benefit from their pursuit of profit. Can I use my position to change the way these companies behave, or do I need to invest in other companies? That’s a tricky one that will take more thought.

That’s as far as I’ve got. I’d love to hear how other ordinary, nice people deal with the moral dilemma of living in one of the most unequal countries on earth.

 

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Why I was never a soccer mom

This week I listened to a freelance single mom telling how much of her time goes into watching her son play sport. I think she’s crazy to sit at school sporting events when she could be working or creating. So, in case there are other overworked mothers out there, here is my argument. It may work for you.

I get that kids want to feel that you care about the things they care about and that they love to be able to turn to the stands and say “Did you see me, Mom?” After all we do all sorts of things to make our kids happy, many of which are less than thrilling. So, if you have nothing better to do, and you feel inclined to be nice, it makes sense to go along.

BUT, if you do have better things to do (and a feelance, single mom generally does), then its dishonest to go along and pretend to care. It also sets up a relationship which is one-sided and does not give your kids the chance to see you as a human being with your own aspirations and time challenges. I think having an honest and equitable relationship with your kids is important and has long-term benefits.

But being a mom, especially a single mom, comes with all sorts of guilt. What does a “good” mom do? How much can I look after my own interests without becoming a “bad” mom? So, in order to be clear about what to do, my rule of thumb was always to ask myself: “Would I do this for a good friend?”

If I had a good friend who cared especially about ballroom dancing, for example, something I have no interest in, I would want to be encouraging and supportive, share their joy in doing it and their accomplishments. That means that I would want to ask them about it, listen to their stories, sympathise when things go wrong and encourage them to try for the next competition. But I would do that over coffee, or at a dinner to celebrate a great success. I might go along to an extra special showcase event just to humour my friend, but I wouldn’t want to sit through the competitions and I certainly would not be at the practices. Nor would my friend expect me to.

So if I had a soccer-mad son, and I don’t care for soccer at all, I would want to ask about soccer, listen to the stories, sympathise with the problems and encourage him to try for the team. But I would do that in the afternoon over milk-shakes and brownies. I would take him out for a special celebration dinner after a big match, but I would make it clear that soccer is just not my thing. I would rather spend time with him doing something we can both enjoy together, and when he’s playing soccer, my time could be better spent writing that novel.

I always wanted to end up being really good friends with my son. For that to happen I wanted to cultivate a relationship in which he respected and cared about my needs as much as I respected and cared about his. For this to happen, he needed to know me, including knowing that I really don’t care for soccer. Pretending to care is simply dishonest and denies your kid the chance to get to know you as a human being and not just as Mom. Kids are smart. It’s quite possible to explain that you love him without having to love every activity that he gets involved with.

Allowing your kids space to enjoy activities on their own also cultivates independence and they get to figure out what they like and don’t like unencumbered by a watching parent. You want them to be intrinsically motivated, to enjoy the sport because of the joy of running or winning or being part of a team, and not because of the approval they get when they look to the stands to see you clapping.

Set them free, and set yourself free too. Tell them what you like and don’t like. Negotiate around what fun things you both like and time to do those together. Then leave soccer practice to the soccer moms and go and write that novel.

 

Imagine a world without borders

Although I am a South Africa, born and bred, with a South African passport, I usually travel on a British/EU passport, a happy consequence of my first marriage. I hadn’t thought much about this incredible privilege, until I had to help an elderly relative to apply for a visa to visit the UK. It took about 12 hours in total of trawling web sites, completing the application and collecting the documents, and a further 4 hour wait at the processing centre in Sandton.

After that experience, I was inspired to go looking for information about which passports are the most useful for travel. I found this great article on atlasandboots.com that ranks passports by the number of countries that each one gets you visa-free access to (or where you can pick up a visa on arrival).

The list set me thinking.

It seems clear that the passports of wealthy and powerful countries are the best to travel on, while the poorer or less powerful your country is, the lower in the ranking it tends to appear. So one can’t help concluding that passports and visas and all the border control efforts are about letting rich and powerful people travel freely, while restricting the movement of poor and powerless people – kind of like the old apartheid dompas. The dompas, as a symbol of the inequities of apartheid, became the focus of protest and discontent, culminating in the Sharpeville massacre, the year before I was born.

As I sat in the visa processing centre, looking at all the people patiently waiting in one queue after the next, I wondered what makes people so compliant in this process? What makes so many sane adults, all with better things to do with their time, give up 4 or 5 hours to sit and shuffle from chair to chair in order to obtain that piece of paper that will allow them access, just temporarily, to the rarefied air of England? I’m more used to seeing my countrymen and women out in the streets with placards, toyi-toying over their grievances.

Since one is required to switch off cellphones in the processing centre, so no email, no social media, I amused myself by imagining a world movement in which people resisted this humiliation and degradation in the same way that South Africans resisted the dompas back in the 50s. I imagined people arriving en-mass at borders to march across them. I imagined public burning of passports. I imagined the soldiers deployed to mow down the invaders and the TV footage. Would the world be as outraged by these massacres as they were by Sharpeville? And if not, why not?

We live in a world where the rich minority are entitled to live in protected enclaves, shutting out the poor majority who might mess up their pretty places. How is this different from apartheid?

I’d like to see countries ranked in terms of how many places they demand visas from. That would give us a clear idea of which countries are the most exclusive and least willing to share their special corners of the world.

Remember John Lennon?

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do…

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

Ode to a Highveld Autumn

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It’s autumn here. Driving around Johannesburg I am distracted by the dance of leaves across the road, or pirouetting down from the trees that line the streets.

I’m not a fan of autumn, since it heralds cold weather. I’m a spring person mostly – I like hope and fresh greens and soft blue skies of spring. Autumn’s sky is a colder, deeper, more steely blue.

Of course Keats springs to mind with his “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, but there is nothing misty about the mornings here. Autumn heralds the start of dry days and dry skin.

So I’ve had to compose my own Ode to a Highveld Autumn. This is how it goes:

 

Ode to a Highveld Autumn

by Judy Backhouse

Air and light are sharper, colder,

Sky blue deepens like drying paint.

Leaves accumulate, men sweep.

Dust. Skin starts to itch

as soft summer evaporates.

The experience of beauty

I finally got around to reading Huxley’s The Doors of Perception after finding a copy at a booksale last week. In the same volume was Heaven and Hell, described as a sequel. I was particularly struck by this passage, quoted in Heaven and Hell:

“I was sitting on the seashore, half listening to a friend arguing violently about something which merely bored me. Unconsciously to myself, I looked at a film of sand I had picked up on my hand, when I suddenly saw the exquisite beauty of every little grain of it; instead of being dull I saw that each particle was made up on a perfect geometrical pattern, with sharp angles, from each of which a brilliant shaft of light was reflected, while each tiny crystal shone like a rainbow…. The rays crossed and recrossed, making exquisite patterns of such beauty that they left me breathless…. Then, suddenly, my consciousness was lighted up from within and I saw in a vivid way how the whole universe was made up of particles of material which, no matter how dull and lifeless they might seem, were nevertheless filled with this intense and vital beauty. For a second or two the whole world appeared as a blaze of glory. When it died down, it left me with something I have never forgotten and which constantly reminds me of the beauty locked up in every minute speck of material around us.”

It turns out the title “Heaven and Hell” is totally misleading. The book (or essay, rather – it’s very short) is an exploration of how people have sought transcendant beauty, including glowing colour and shiny surfaces, in religeous artefacts and through art.

Huxley reflects on how little beauty was available in only the recent past. He was writing in 1956, as we were about to be plunged into a glut of beauty and wonder in the form of brilliant colour and new materials, culminating in having all the treasures of the world easily accessible online.

It’s interesting to be reminded of how rich the world we inhabit is in colour, texture and design. Is it all too much? I think not, since the kind of direct and immersive experience of beauty that this passage is describing is still available and still as refreshing when we experience it.

 

Better things and happiness

This week we opened Better, our space for creative makers. It was exhilarating.

At lunch with my son, Andrew, at My Bread and Butter in Parkview, we were comparing notes on writing and bemoaning the loneliness of solitary work. “If only there was a place where people doing solitary creative work could get together – like having a pub to go to – where you could meet others who would understand the challenges of what you do and why you do it.”

That was in July 2016. This week we opened Better.

It was a quiet opening. We decided that throwing a party would just bring people who enjoyed a party, and that was not necessarily who we wanted. Rather we wanted excellent humans, including those who are thoughtful, optimistic, kind and creative. We particularly wanted to ferret out those more solitary types who enjoy working alone, who understand the creative process, who are trying to make freelance or portfolio lives work for themselves, and who might “get” why we made this place.

It seems to have worked. We met some awesome people during the week; inspired people with their own visions for creative work; warm, friendly people who listened and shared their stories and information; imaginative people with ideas for how to live better, and how they want Better to work for them; hopeful and positive people.

It was wonderful to hear people say how lovely the space is, and to be thanked for making it. But the ultimate compliment was being told that we had managed to make Better unthreatening. This is what we really wanted; a warm, cosy space that people can feel at home in; better than the coffee shops that most freelancers resort to.

I create for the joy of creating, but creating Better has taken that joy to another level, seeing how others respond to what we have made. It really has been an exhilarating week.

This is the first time I’ve run my own business. (I’ve been involved in running many businesses that were not my own.) There have been anxious moments as I’ve watched the money flow out with the knowledge that it is going to take some months to reverse the direction of flow.

Vishen Lakhiani in The Code of the Extraordinary Mind makes an arguement for setting goals, but using them to increase your current state of happiness without being attached to the outcome; to focus on the experiences that you get along the way to your goal. I thought it a somewhat odd idea – why set a goal and not be attached to it? But this week has made it clearer to me. Although I really want this venture to succeed and will work hard at it, if it doesn’t, it will still have been worth all the money and the effort for the experiences of the past week.

Book review: Making is Connecting

I came across Making is Connecting by David Gauntlett by accident. I was in the Wits Education Library looking for a copy of Scott’s Institutions and Organizations, and this book was on the next shelf. The title caught my eye because I am in the process of setting up Better, a space for creative makers. The book is subtitled: the social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0 and it was this subtitle that intruiged me because I really want Better to be a place for people to play with crafts and technology as well as writing and art and things that people more often think of as creative.

David Gauntlett, it turns out, is an academic, a Professor of Creativity and Design at the University of Westminster. I am grateful to him for showing me that academics can publish interesting books which combine evidence and good argument, but are not dry and boring. I have come across few such books and I aspire to writing them. Here I was thinking that I might have to leave academia to do so, but apparently I don’t. Thanks, David.

The thing I like the most about this book is the attempt to define creativity as something with an emotional dimension. Traditionally studies of creativity look at the emergence of something new – novel ideas or physical artefacts or processes. They focus on how such things emerge or on the characteristics of the people who make them emerge, which leads to the limiting belief that there are creative people and, consequently, people who are not creative.

But David is interested in what he calls everyday creativity. His short definition is: “a process which brings together at least one active human mind, and the material or digital world, in the activity of making something which is novel in that context, and is a process which evokes a feeling of joy” (p76 in the paperback version).

As an example he cites Star Wars Uncut, a full-length remake of Star Wars in which each 15 second clip has been recreated by volunteers. This movie features an amazing outpouring of inventiveness as each volunteer has made use of the materials and people in their vicinity. The clips feature toys and models, individuals acting, and drawings animated in various ways. But what comes through clearly in the movie is the sheer exuberance of people having fun putting it together.

I am an artist and for me the pleasure I get in standing back and contemplating a finished work is that joy, that deep satisfaction at having translated an idea in my head into a visual artefact. So I found his definition resonated very well with my own experience of creativity.

While creating gives an individual the experience of joy, as well as of being heard and having an impact on the world (even a small one), making alone is not enough. David goes on to discuss happiness and social capital and the importance of human connectedness, making the argument that shared creative projects contribute to human happiness. More importantly, shared creative projects create a “disorganized (or, rather, lightly self-organized) cloud of creative links which can bind people together” (p.224), creating common goals that build social capital and lead, ultimately, to a better connected world.

He argues that the kind of people who engage in such everyday creative projects present a challenge to business as they reject the role of consumer in favour of being producers. They “want to make their own stuff” (p.224). He proposes future scenarios of a world where the value of everyday creativity has been realised. For example he suggests an education system that focuses on learning through creative making which encourages exploration, investigation and experiment within a social space. He goes on to suggest that such an education system would produce a populace inclined to take the initiative to find creative solutions to social and political problems on the local scale, with others. It’s an enticing vision.

The book was published in 2011, so it took me a while to find it, but I think it will be interesting to see how these ideas gain traction. It is difficult to assess whether people are getting more interested in creative pursuits, particularly when the measures are crude. For example one can find media reports of increased economic activity in the “creative industries” in the UK, but this definition of creative industry is a narrow one. More promising are reports of increasing sales of craft materials in the US and online. I am creating Better because I really believe that the world will be a better place if people spend time making things together and I want to make that possible. David’s book has added more substance to my belief.