Monday, December 15, 2014

Life After Work

About 7 months ago  I left the organisation I had worked with for 25 years. I turned 60 two months later. Until late last year (2013) I had assumed I would continue working in that job until around 65. But things moved rapidly and 6 months later I was unemployed. I chose to leave. I did not retire. Between jobs as they say. And I learnt a great deal very quickly about myself and life.

Initially, for a brief time, the freedom of being unattached was intoxicating. The intoxication was slowly replaced with a far more sober reality that took me a few months to work through. What follows is in no sense of regret. I'm glad I left my job. But realisation #1 was I MISSED THAT JOB! In truth this was no great surprise. I had often told people I had one of the best jobs of anyone I knew. But it had reached a point where I could no longer work for my employer with a clear conscience.

Realisation #2 - my world shrunk. I had a reasonably high profile job that meant that I was in contact with a lot of people in the average week - via email, phone, or face to face conversations or meetings. I'd guess around 50-80 people each week. When I stopped working I had contact with less than 10 people a week. My job was also quite mobile. I would routinely visit several locations a week across the whole city. In the weeks after I quit my job this often was reduced to 'the shops' , and nothing else. Many many fewer people and many fewer locations. My world had shrunk quite drastically.

Realisation #3 - hobbies were no longer hobbies! I have never had a problem filling in my time. Throughout my working life I had to squeeze in music, gardening, travelling, sport, theatre, writing, walking, photography, technology. ....Mostly I did manage to fit these extra-curricular activities into a busy and full life. Now subtract the job. You'd think I'd be rapt to have all this extra time to enjoy these other pastimes. And initially I did. But you see, like I said, I hadn't  retired. I wanted to keep working - I just wasn't sure what it was I wanted to do. So something unexpected happened to my hobbies. They stopped being something I did in my spare time, and became the things I did! And, consequently I began to see each one of them as a potential job, or at least a money earning activity. So... I should practice this guitar piece more, or I should take this more seriously, or I spend so much time doing this I need to work out how to turn it into a part time job, etc. Nothing was purely for pleasure anymore. Things I had enjoyed doing for decades whenever I could fit them in had become weighed down with a sense of responsibility. Quite sad, and all in my own head I realise, but that's what happened.

Realisation #4 (and perhaps the most important of them all) - I had become a creature governed by the recurring rhythms of terms and semesters and holidays - all with their own annual reliability. Always a few weeks holidays at the same times each year. But one always worked in May. I worked in education, and really had no idea how much I had become a creature of its annual cycles. I have always worked hard. But there was always a break just 10 weeks away even if you didn't take it. But psychologically it was there and you could take it if you wanted or needed it. Go  away for a couple of weeks at the end of September if you wanted. And you knew when these breaks were years ahead so you could plan to travel at a set time. Or again, if you felt like making a snap last minute decision to go somewhere there was no stressing about when you might go - that was already decided for you by the pre-ordained holiday dates. But now you're between jobs. What if you decided to take a week off or  book a flight to somewhere and someone offers you work at that time?

The longest break you get in the education world is 5, maybe 6 weeks. (Yes I know much longer than most get but that's another story...). So about  6-8 weeks after I left my job I was ready to work again. 25 years of conditioning had unknowingly  turned  me into this creature who needed to work because I'd had a 6 week break.

Realisation #5 - my identity was intimately connected with my job. I began to feel like I didn't matter so much; that I was less significant than before. I wanted to work and couldn't. I looked longingly at people who had jobs - any job - and thought how lucky they were! I wasn't as important to myself anymore either because I was getting no validation from others that I was doing something worthwhile for them. No pats on the back; no requests to help out with various tasks; to address a meeting; to join a team for a temporary project. Very few people were asking me to do anything. There was no expectation that I would do anything. So all  the  motivation to keep abreast of current practice, look for work, maintain contacts with your persona l learning network had to come from within. Only intrinsic motivation was left to keep you moving. All those people you saw in the average week of your working life had moved on and no longer required your assistance.

Realisation #6 - I was not as self-contained as I thought I was. I needed the company and recognition of others to keep me performing. I'd had it for so long I had ceased to recognise its importance in my life. I thought I was driving myself along kind of under my own steam and that was far from the whole story!

Realisation #7 -no matter what you say people will consider you  'retired.' And assume you are loving all the extra spare time and having a ball. But (back to realisation #5) I only enjoy spare time if I've worked really hard and feel like I've earned it. But it won't a matter a toss to others - they will consider you retired.

Realisation #8. Actually this is more of an assumption than a realisation, and it may not be entirely accurate. I assume that people who plan to retire, and who have known for some time when they will stop working, would not go through all the angst that I have experienced  these last 7 months. They would be planning what they  were going to do and anticipating with great pleasure a time when they can realise their post work dreams. When post work life is upon you suddenly it is an entirely different ball game. I now have a greater appreciation for what those who are suddenly made unemployed must feel.


I have found bits and pieces of part time work that I am enjoying and this has helped me establish a new rhythm of life. I accept that I have to make things happen on my own, and that I can't rely on the inbuilt supports (people, activities, projects) that a long term job provides. And I am now feeling like I'm ready to take on something new - whatever it may be.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Joan Armatrading in Adelaide

Apologies for the blur. I was interrupted by 'security' as I was taking
the shot (no pix allowed) and was not allowed to reshoot.

Joan Armatrading
The Gov, Sun Dec 7

Joan Armatrading burst on to the music scene in the mid seventies as a black woman who didn't sound like a typical black singer. She had a unique sense of melody and phrasing that was all her own. Born in the West Indies, she moved to Birmingham in the UK at the age of 7. I, like millions of others, was smitten by her self-titled breakthrough album in 1976, and after her performance at The Gov here in Adelaide, I'm still smitten.

Her music crosses an extraordinary range of styles - folk, pop, rock, blues, jazz - and while she is equally at home in all of them, she doesn't actually belong in any of them. Joan Armatrading is one of those rare artists who simply sounds like herself. Whatever style she is experimenting with, she dances on the edges of it. So you get her interpretation of blues; her interpretation of jazz. Except perhaps for rock. When she veers down the rock path she, surprisingly, is a classic rocker. A couple of guitar solos sounded quite Hendrix-esque. And then she's just as likely to follow that up with a soft melodic ballad on piano.

Armatrading took us through a representative sample of a musical canon that spans four decades. There were plenty of her best known numbers - Me Myself I, Drop the Pilot, Love and Affection, All the Way from America - and a selection of songs from her more recent forays into jazz and blues influenced offerings.

From the outset she was gracious and witty. I loved the way she paused at the conclusion of each song long enough to allow us to show our appreciation, and for us to see her smile warmly in enjoyment of the moment. Quite endearing.

Midway through her performance we were treated to a slide show of her career highlights - musical and personal. It felt like we were in her lounge room at home sharing precious memories. It was a nice touch.

Several songs featured pre-recorded parts to fill out the sound. At times this worked really well. It allowed her to play nifty jazz lead parts on songs like Stepping Out, and have us enjoy the brass embellishment on the classic Love and Affection. She told us she's played this song in every concert she's ever played, and you can see why. It is indeed a classic. ("Sing me another love song but this time with a little dedication.") On other songs like the reggae influenced Rosie I found the extra overlay intrusive.

Drop the Pilot was very funky, and Me Myself I once again revealed Joan the rocker. She finished with the gentle Willow, and invited the audience to join in. We all sent ourselves home singing in unison as Joan sat, smiling again, at the keyboard.

It was a privilege to finally see Joan Armatrading in person. She's still pushing boundaries and her voice still sounds as rich and mellifluous as it ever did. Like 'massage for the brain' someone commented. Swapping seamlessly between electric guitar, piano and her trademark 12 string Ovation, she generously shared forty years of original music and few were disappointed. Most in fact were rapt.

(Also published on The Clothesline)

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Susan Greenfield Rings The Alarm Bells Again

Baroness Susan Greenfield has been giving talks on the dangers associated with Internet technology for some years now. I have worked in the field of educational technology for the last 15 years and often read her reports on her research and subsequent disparaging grand conclusions about technology so I admit that I probably went to hear her recent address at the University of South Australia with a degree of bias. Nevertheless I wanted to hear her for myself and make up my own mind.

In broad sweep I actually agree with much of what she had to day. Like her, I am concerned about how mobile and Internet technologies may be rewiring our brains, and redefining us as a species. I get no joy, and a degree of angst, when I see a 20 something person buried in the screen of their phone and not once look up to see what might be happening outside the train window during a 45 minute journey through superb scenery.

My problem is how she reaches her conclusions. There was fleeting reference to articles and research whose titles contain words like 'brain', 'technology', 'growth', etc but zero discussion about these works. Instead, in the talk I attended, she was openly dismissive about whatever gains new technology may have brought us. Pandering to the prejudice of the crowd, she went for cheap shots: Twitter - "why would anyone want to know about what your cat is doing?" I have never seen that kind of trite message on my Twitter feed because my feed is cultivated. I carefully select who I follow. She would know that thousands use Twitter as an intelligent means of exchange but she chose to ignore that fact for the sake of her sensationalist and simplistic argument. Another chestnut - how could anyone think that social media connections could be as rich as face to face contact in the same room? Here she is being ignorant or devious, and I suspect it's the latter. I suspect she, like me and countless others, has enjoyed a degree of freedom as a result of being a disembodied entity on the Net. Very early in my days on the Net I became aware of a liberation I felt to express ideas when no one knew if I was young or old, academic or truck driver, physically disabled or deliciously attractive. I was a brain without all the clutter that physical presence brings and my ideas were judged as just that - ideas. Not a product of the casing they came in.

Yes Internet and mobile technology is changing us - no one disputes this. It does rewire our brains. But by the same token, as Greenfield would agree, the moment we decide for example to go off the Net and learn a new language or play a new instrument our brain changes again. Brain changes are not permanent. Our brain will happily accommodate whatever we choose to pursue - right though to old age.

Another writer who has bridged this same territory is Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows - What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. Carr also came in for plenty of flack from the technology community  for his provocative questioning of the value of technology, but at least Carr was not sensationalising his case, or demeaning those who lived by the Internet. All Carr was suggesting is that we need to debate this issue of what's happening to us as a result of our (near) addiction to the new technologies. No argument from me there, and I think really that is all Greenfield ultimately wants to see happen as well. But her pandering to ignorant prejudice is unhelpful and merely reinforces the opinions of those who don't understand the advantages of new technology.

To be fair though Greenfield in the main was talking about children. Baby Boomers like myself can delve deeply into the new world of technology, then stand back and compare the process with other previous means of processing and distributing knowledge - books, writing on paper, face to face discussions. We can evaluate the benefit of the new against the old. Children don't have this affordance. Very young children only know the world of screens and multiple distraction. And older children may not have known a time when reflection, time alone, thinking absent-mindedly, daydreaming, and reading silently for long periods were normal occurrences, and crucial determinants of our mental and emotional health.

I keep thinking that educators need to have these discussions with their students - children and adults -  as part of a digital literacy program. Have them compare reading print text with screen text and evaluate the difference. Have them multitask as they research a topic and then try reading one or two books or articles on the same topic and compare the two experiences. (I have referred to this elsewhere as horizontal versus vertical learning.) We are the first generation in human history that can actually observe the changes that are happening to us as we adopt new technology. Neuroscience has advanced to the point that we can almost measure these changes in real time. So rather than sound the clarion calls of alarm as Susan Greenfield likes to do, let's collectively engage in an exploration of how we're changing, and be aware and mindful about it.

Greenfield's style earned her a near thunderous ovation from the non-believers, but she was preaching to the choir. And it isn't very helpful in encouraging dialogue between opposing factions of this new technology dilemma. She seems more interested in polarising opinion and selling books. If you want to read a book asking intelligent questions about how technology may be changing us, read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows instead.


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