Sunday, 24 April 2016

Cząstki elementarne - book review

The book emerged out of anger; anger at spiritual powerlessness, metaphysical emptiness and omnipresent consumption, at easiness of liberalism and duplicity of religion; and above all at our inability to experience happiness.

The blurb of the book unfailingly hints at the ominous purport of it. Atomised is the second book of the author I have read and I would not have come across it, had it not been for the earlier reading of Uległość, probably the most famous novel of Mr Houellebecq, whose premiere coincided with attacks on Charlie Hebdo editorial office. I read “Submission” to catch up with several folks around who had been familiar with the book and somewhat moved by it. Slightly stirred up, yet not enchanted by the book, I voluntarily reached out for “Atomised”, released at the beginning of the twenty-first century, yet emanating with the same degree of glumness as the more famous work.

Looking at the evolution of Western societies, one can say they drift in the same direction since 1968 and things have not taken turn for a better since early 2000s. The book dwells on side effects of unfettered liberalism and individualism fought over in 1968 and spread blissfully across the lands west of the Iron Curtain. The society which holds dear independence of a single human being, inadvertently slackens off the human being’s relationships with other people. Lifting social norms and abandoning inhibitions in several realms of life, particularly sexual life, has deprived humans of the taste of the forbidden fruit. Whatever is come by without effort is let go without pain… Unrestrained consumption and abundance of goods weaned people off appreciating what they possess. Pursuit of one’s own happiness in isolation from other people led individuals to satisfaction with the they have achieved that cannot be shared with anyone…

The very book and pictures it paints go forward with the plot. It starts off with dejecting depiction of overwhelming nihilism, construed more broadly than just demise of values and authorities. The characters are unable to find sense in anything they do or whatever happens to them. The overpowering inability to draw pleasure from not only ordinary stuff but also the experiences which should be pleasurable arises from being shaped as insatiable by the culture of consumerism, but more importantly from too loose relationships with people. Were they closer and more valuable, finding sense in what people do would be far easier.

Then the novel goes on to turn into pornography several times more scandalising than infamous “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Brushing aside detailed descriptions of bodily entertainments, even if the author wishes to play with his own fantasies, the message put across through licentious scenes is that the very intercourse, especially in profusion and with accidental partners, no matter how exquisite, adds not much more value to a spirit than crass masturbation. Bad news for those seeking relief and pleasure in sexual life devoid of intimacy, as you move on, you begin to realise you go nowhere and lose sight of any contentment.

And as you read on towards the back cover, sadness is given off in such vast amounts that it takes over the reader. The tragic end is inevitable, as characters have taken the path leading to it several years earlier. The only question one should ask, is whether in circumstances imposed on by life and society surrounding them, they had the chance to arrange their lives differently.

The author incisively tears to pieces the attainments of post-1968 Western Societies, yet the blame must not be put on social framework, but on people who could not resist those direful norms and swam with the tide, as such choice was the most convenient. The decay of inter-human relationship is illustrated in the book on its every page. The pathology has its roots in barely non-existent bonds between parents and children. Thus children, not loved and cared for properly in their formative years, are incapable of building healthy relationships with other people as adults. Their contact with parents is lost and they learn about their deaths from strangers, then not shedding a single tear when parents are buried. They find no common ground with their siblings so they talk to one another only when they really need to. They cannot make more than shallow acquaintances, the one based rather on mutual benefits rather than care, devotion and spiritual intimacy. Their marriages are meant to break up, their contacts with children are meant to demise, they are bound to pass away in solitude. With such emotional disability, the society is bound to break down into atoms, each adrift without direction. One can only ask who designed the world in such way and who has power to change it.

Truth be told, I read the book in February, yet the right moment to review it ensued after last week’s not the most joyful note.

Yesterday morning, before setting off to the swimming pool, I signed in to facebook on my phone. The first news item from the feed was a (high-school) friend’s request to lend her a suitcase having dimensions of cabin luggage, as her new online-ordered one has not been delivered in time. My first thought was whether to ask her to come to pick up mine or jump into the car and bring the suitcase to her place some 20 kilometres away. And then a penny dropped!

Why the hell have I rushed to help her? Why do I always care the most? If I posted a similar appeal, would she even read it until the end? If I were in need, would she take the trouble to help me in any way, would she sacrifice her time and energy for me? After all we have not seen for a few years and it is uncertain whether we will meet soon, so why? For the sake of clarity – I have not even got in touch with her.

So what drove my behaviour? I googled the phrase “Why do I always care the most” and the English-language Internet responded to me most probably I suffer from inferiority complex and in such way seek people’s approval. Loads of nonsense! I have come up with two other reasons. Firstly, I take pleasure in helping people, watching they are happier or better off because of my deeds – this is commendable in essence, yet without reciprocity, with time a good-doer loses heart. Secondly, I simply seek company…

For the end, two questions which I have at the back of my head me since last Sunday:
1. Should I turn on my the birthday reminder on facebook?
2. Should I do something about the 10-years-after-graduation reunion or let things drift, because given reaction of former classmates, there is no use in meeting up?

Sunday, 17 April 2016

It takes two...

…unless you choose to go it alone, or there’s no other way but go to it alone…

A personal plea.

8 June 2015. I called my friend to wish her all the best on her birthday. Beforehand I noticed facebook did not remind me of her anniversary. I broached the topic in a conversation. She told me she had removed the date from her profile to get fewer, yet only sincere wishes and urged me to do the same. I followed her advice.

11 December 2015. The day I ran a reality check. I could do without several hollow birthday wishes posted on the wall, yet I expected a single-digit number people to remember about my anniversary, just because I had always remembered, without aid of technical remainders, about their birthdays. The outcome was kind of brutal – no one, except for my parents remembered, virtually no one. Had it not been for a fantastic party I attended in the evening, my memory of my 28th birthday would have been bitter, yet I strive to remember mostly the good things, yet those worse not always can be filtered out.

That nasty day with pleasurable ending must have prompted a question why things had taken such course. It actually trigged the whole string of questions, many of which remain unanswered until today. The first one was relatively straightforward – had it been my fault or had it been just a coincidence? At first sight the situation looks simple – I care, other people do not reciprocate it. Actually, the circumstances were probably far more complex and my “forgotten birthday” was the aftermath of people being busy with their own affairs, pre-Christmas and pre-weekend rush and over-reliance on technical aids (facebook notifications I had turned off) fellow people got too accustomed too. Oddly enough, the friend who had persuaded me to switch off the birthday reminder, also did not call me.

As some time went by, I decided to look critically at my relationships with people, to find out whether they were reciprocal. Any relationship, no matter if between family members, spouses, friends, workmates, must be fostered by both people involved in it if it is to last. It simply takes two, if only one person cares and the other just follows, its is meant to break.

So over the course of my review I realised some facts I had not been aware of before: generally (in more than 80% of instances /not mistake for specific relationships/) my friendships had been nurtured by me – I had proposed and most often organised meetings, I had called first instead of waiting for another person to call me, in initiative to keep up relationships had been over 80% of time on my side. What about the other people then? How had they felt about it? Had it been convenient to them to have it mind sooner or later I would call them or ask to meet up? Or had they simply been indifferent about friendship with me? Had I been imposing myself on them and out of politeness they had not told me to f**k off?

So in early February I decided to run another reality check and carry out an experiment: wait until friends feel they need to get in touch with me. Needless to say I have not talked to most of them since then. And needless to say I gave in and called two of them to wish them happy Easter, such strong was my need to talk to somebody. This is turn prompts a question how much such relationship is worth… What should I tell them if they finally get in touch and ask why I was not calling?

Last weekend, I hit up on another idea. In less than a month ten years will have passed since high-school leaving exams – why not meet up with my former classmates to celebrate? I called two friends who were moderately fond of the idea, yet I offered to be in charge of organising the event. I created an event on facebook, suggested timing and venue, yet underlined openness to alternative ideas. Out of 21 people invited, 5 declared they would come, 3 clicked ‘maybe’, 13 remaining did not react at all, no one wrote a single message. Since then the event is idle, no one bothers to show any initiative. The bottom line is that chances of meeting up are tiny, yet I do not feel hurt much, since I treat this as an experiment, which at best could result in a nice social gathering, at worst could have a cognitive value.

I have also realised my perception of recent events is affected by past experience of two relationships with people who I thought were close friends.

My friend Mateusz (name not changed). We hit it off in middle school, had similar passions, interests, pastime activities, could have talked for hours, would meet at least twice a month, holidayed together, supporting each other when troubles emerged. In 2007 Mateusz headed off to Germany to take up studies there. Our friendship by dint of distance naturally loosened up, but we called each other regularly and met up each time he visited his family in Warsaw. In early 2011 I rang him a few times I row (it was quite natural, since it was cheaper for me to make an international voice call to Germany than the other way round for him, with his student budget constraints) and each time he promised he would call the next time. Once I gave him a chance to dial my number. This was my first distressing reality check. In 2012, as his father was dying, I gave in and visited him a few times before and after the decease, I also attended the funeral. Since then we once occasionally ran across each other in town, he would call me with birthday wishes once a year, I did the same. Last year I gave up on keeping up the pretended friendship, he did not call me as well. My father bumped into Mateusz in town last month. As he passed on to me, Matuesz’s behaviour has not changed, he still keeps up appearances of a well-behaved young man. That friendship (after many years I believe it was a true friendship) has instilled in me allergy to feigned politeness…

My girlfriend Ilona (name not changed). Nearly two years older than me. We first me accidentally on my first day at high school. After a few weeks we began to go out together. Teenage crush like many. As we parted on the last day on my first school year, nothing signalled the forthcoming end, even the last song we heard in the same pair of headphones (incidentally, 12 years later, I identify more with the lyrics than at that time). After that ordinary afternoon she did not answer phone calls from me, did not reply to my SMS and GG messages, did not open the door as I went to visit her. As the new school year kicked off, we pretended not to notice each other. After a few weeks she approached me and suggested to finish the childish game. I grudgingly agreed, yet after some three months again we were turning our eyes embarrassed as passed each other. Without a word of apology, nor explanation what had driven her behaviour, I could not forgive her.

I have no problem admitting my relationships with people have been driven to some extent by fear of rejection and fear of imposing myself to other people. The former, if not overwhelming and paralysing is natural, as rejection, as long as it does not strike too frequently, is a natural experience in inter-human relationships. Yet for me it matters how I am rejected. In simple terms, a few times I was told straight away to f**k off and… got over it. The moment I was dealt a blow was painful, yet the pain, though intense, was easier to cope with. When it hurt much more, I was rejected by means of silence, inaction and indifference. Maybe if your friend cheats on you, backbites you, harms you directly or shouts in your face they hate you, this helps rationalise the suffering and get over it…? I suppose most people prefer to avoid telling unwanted or getting too close friends to keep their distance, but the want to put it across in non-straightforward way. If they take such path because it is easier, shame on them. If they think they will hurt someone else less, shame on them twice as much!

Hardly ever friendships last forever. They come and go. But as one grows older, the friendships old go, while it gets harder for new ones to come. It is not about not meeting people having all makings of close friends. Over the recent two years I met many such people who I can call soulmates, yet in our relationships there is a distance hard to bridge. The reason is that those people have families or are in long-lasting relationships, they have family and household duties, are usually over-worked like me and their social needs are met by their families, boyfriends or girlfriends or small circles of close friends, the same since many years. So the new relationships, though I am thankful I have met those people, are shallow, though have potential to grow, but I feel the unbreakable barrier on the other side. I cannot hold it against them that their spouses or children are a priority for them and they want to spend their free time with them.

There is a strength in me. In realised it when I had two awful weeks while my father was at hospital (he has only one kidney and was taken there after urinating with blood) and my mother was nearly immobilised at home on account of severe radiculitis. I had to share my time between hospital, home and work (home office) and managed. With hindsight I realised apart from asking my uncle and aunt to look after grandpa (duty normally shared between my father and his brother) I did not tell anyone about my predicament, nor asked for help. OK, I have learnt not to share my troubles with anyone, this is bearable. As the old saying goes, “a friend in need is a friend indeed”, but what if there is no one with who you could share pleasures?

On Sunday morning two weeks ago, I spent over an hour ironing. The radio in the kitchen was tuned to PR1 and broadcasted a mass. A priest in a sermon spoke of Jesus showing has wounds, as a symbol of weakness. Though I am not religious, I interpreted this metaphor as an universal word of wisdom. The authentic intimacy consists in laying bare your fragility to a fellow man.

The confessions above may create false impression of a pitiable life I lead. Don’t get me wrong. There’s the bright side too! My job offers me self-fulfilment, broadens horizons is rewarding and though it is time-consuming, I draw lots of pleasure from what I do. If the work-life balance is not struck, work encroaches on life’s territory only because there is some empty space where life should be. Nevertheless, there is no boredom in my spare time. I go to the swimming pool, read, write, attend dancing classes, play volleyball, cycle, visit interesting places. Sometimes I wish I had any companion or had an emotional bond with my companion… I could enjoy it more…

You could only argue how many of these activities create opportunities not just to meet new people, but to build more than shallow relationships with them. Well, the more opportunities, the more chances :) Still, most situations in which I meet new people are work-related, but given how overloaded with work I am, I usually look like the grumpy cat and the first impression when somebody meets me must not be positive ;-)

So how about those relationships. They need to be taken care of, but not at any price. I want to feel they are reciprocal, I do not want to feel not holding on all the time would mean letting go instantly. So much and so little I am asking for…

Sunday, 10 April 2016

On public appearances

Not the perfect day for political musings. One observation I will not hold back on sharing is that given the magnitude of bylejakość, tumiwisizm, couldn’t care less approach and faith things will somehow fall into place, a tragedy in scale similar to the Smolensk crash is just a matter of time…

The post inspired by Michael’s deliberations on delivering public speeches, structured as a response to it, supplemented by odd thoughts and questions straying away from the main topic.

As someone who regularly addresses audiences I'm not fazed by the thought of speaking to a few score people.

The stage freight, or lack of it; is it inborn and hard to overcome, or something humans can have influence on? Some individuals are said to be born leaders or born speakers. Some people are born shy, some bold, some feel up to stand in front of people, for some it is one of the worst torments – so does not public speaking take talent?

As a teenager in middle and high-school I was a member of a school theatre. My friends and I would put in humorous self-written plays (rather than playing out dramas) dealing with current topical issues, often politics. The experience has tamed by fear of appearing in front of tens or sometimes hundreds of people, but also has developed spontaneity, as we did not have to stick to someone else’s script..

I sat down for a total of four hours to prepare and polish a speech.

How much preparation is essential? One cannot (or should not?) deliver a speech totally extemporising, as subjects may be too serious to give room for that much free-style, but on the other hand polishing up each single word of a speech to be made and then sticking to the draft word for word smacks of an exaggeration and unnaturalness.

As a student I was always most fond of scholars who delivered their lectures without aid of notes. They just came to the room, without a single piece of paper and could talk for hour and half, not because they had learnt by heart their lecture, but because the wisdom they intended to pass on was well-structured in their heads.

And my most recent experience – around a month ago I knew I would be participating in a workshop aimed at improving collaboration between two departments. I was supposed to be a passive participant. The day the workshop was due to be held I showed up at the office at 8:15 a.m., opened up by mailbox and found the message from my boss, who for personal reasons could not attend the event and had asked me to stand in for him. He had enclosed a presentation and wished me good luck, expressing his faith I was up to this task. I stared at the screen for a while and brought back the credo I sent to my former colleagues the day I was leaving the Employer: “whatever looms as a problem, treat as a challenge”. Challenge accepted!

Delivering the speech, I did not feel comfortable. I was neither reading verbatim from a prepared text, nor was I extemporising around a set of hastily scribbled notes (as is my usual habit). I was also conscious of the race against time. Because I was filling in around the main points, the output was a hybrid of the structured and unstructured; key facts and figures surrounded by a stream-of-consciousness conversational style.

The style of speaking does matter and one could argue whether it is the style or the content (probably both) that makes audience swallow every word flowing from a speaker’s mouth. I dislike people who read out their speeches. My impression whenever listening to such speeches, often monotonous, making audience falling asleep, is that the link between a speaker and their speech is lost. When building sentences off the cuff one shows up their linguistic skills as well as put their heart and brains (rather than only mouth) into delivering the speech.

My preference is to fall back on some notes, being the agenda of things to cover in a speech / presentation and serving as reminders of some stuff which should be highlighted to make the appearance desirably effective.

As I was delivering the workshop I felt uncomfortable for another reason – it had been meant to be run by a senior manager, whose role was to point up shortcomings of other people’s behaviours and bring people on looking critically at their conduct and putting forward what improvements could be made. Stepping into a senior manager’s shoes was far more distressing for me that having around one hour to work up a concept for the workshop. I had the great comfort of knowing what I would be talking about, knew well my audience (around 40 people) who would be wondering why I had been chosen to be in charge of instructing them how to improve their work.

If you think you're good, you're comparing yourself with the wrong people. Too often I hear "Panie Michale, pana była najlepsze prezentacja" simply because the others were soporific - lawyers reading dense slabs of text from a PowerPoint slide, or else people with an all-too-visible dread of public speaking.

My university experience reminds me here of the PowerPoint disease, the worst ailment of speakers and presenters. Reading out the content of a displayed presentation is the quickest way to bore your audience to death and gain notoriety of a poor speaker. A good question is then to what extent contents of PowerPoint slides and a speech should overlap. My own recipe for a decent presentation is to establish a thin link between the presentation and the speech. The slides may contain pictures, graphs, charts and main points the speech revolves around. People should listen to you, but not instead of reading when they see on slides. Down-to-earth content is what I would prefer to pack into attachments sent out to audience; those really interested would familiarise with it and keep in their files after the presentation anyway.

The fear of public appearances also makes itself felt and is discernible for the audience. I cannot claim to be unfamiliar with the stage freight, yet by no means it paralyses me. It does not stimulate me neither, but to overcome some bit of it, I tell myself if my listeners’ opinion on me is low, I am unlikely to change it. Keeping calm whatever happens is the best advice I can give. Once you make a mistake, you will not reverse it, leave it behind, erase from your memory immediately and focus on what lies ahead to avert next botch-ups.

What's the secret? To convey wisdom, not facts. People want insight, not statistics. I could have started more strongly - either with a memorable anecdote, or a startling comparison. I could have ended with a searching question. More pauses were needed - my fellow trainees said they had difficulty in digesting what I'd said, because I was in a hurry to beat the five-minute deadline.

The point about wisdom is spot-on, yet insufficient for a speaker to enchant their audience. Brilliant speech is composition of many factors: choice of words (plain language), flow and tone of voice, the aforementioned pausing and silence, body language (striking a balance between standing still and being too fidgety or over-gesticulating is an art), amount of anecdotes and humour to be interspersed throughout the speech (which should not be confused with stand-up). The balance, suited to content to the speech and situation is then essential. On top, I would pose a question whether a good speech should be a monologue or should a speaker interact with the audience, ask them questions, encourage listeners to challenge them? And to what extent should a speaker dominate audience? Shy speakers barely keep eye contact with audience who with time drift away, while too aggressive speakers who shout, run around, insist viewers take part in their show also are disliked by many…

Charles also declared war on waffle, on unintelligible words, on jargon. ('Pursuant' is one I particularly dislike.) "Use words that you use in natural speech, as though you were speaking to your aunt."

Excellent point. This has been said many times, yet deserves to be repeated; an outstanding presenter knows how to put complex phenomena into simple words, so that they become graspable for an ordinary recipient.

Know in advance where you'll be speaking, what the podium is like, try out the sound system and IT beforehand to check it all works as it should - and above all, who your audience is, and what it expects.

Back to my experience of delivering the workshop. I kept the cool head. Before other participants turned up to the hotel where the event was due to be held, I walked there earlier and blatantly asked technical crews to set up the IT, to avoid being distracted by non-core stuff.

With hindsight, given how “my” workshop was praised by participants, seems I did quite well. If I had a chance to deliver the same workshop, I would cut back on number of jokes in the introductory part of the presentation. I wanted to relieve the tension audience had, their faces were telling me they did not fancy my (often auto-ironic) jokes and though I did not make a piss of myself, I was horsing about, not something I could boast about.

Now, looking forward to next opportunities to make public appearances. Just like dancing, swimming or travelling, this is the way of giving off to the world the spare positive energy I have inside me.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Zalesie Górne, Wisła Resort

Both Easter Sunday and Monday, against long-term forecasts, brought clement weather. Though the temperature did not hit balmy +20C (it is bound to get that warm tomorrow), cloudless skies and warm breeze definitely carried the first whiff of spring in the air.

I spent most of the Sunday in Ursus with the family, yet was free to organise some leisure for myself on Monday. Since the bike was not ready for jumping on the saddle and cycling away and I did not feel like pottering about, I opted for a bit of further travel option – by Koleje Mazowieckie train, to Zalesie Górne to check whether the Wisła Resort, whose best days were seen in 1970s and 1980s, holds up well.

Kind of shame to admit, this was my first journey by Koleje Mazowieckie for which I had to buy a separate ticket (until then I could do with the Warsaw travelcard). Before setting off, at home, I checked how much the trip would set me back. Koleje Mazowieckie’s fare list is a pitiable example of lack of simplicity. The very fare tariff is 162 pages long, while the attachment to it is composed of another 64 pages (hint: relevant information can be found on page 13 of the attachment). A passenger who wishes to take a train wants to simply know how much they would pay, instead of learning rail operators recognise more than a dozen types of discounts and by what documents carried along they need to be proven. Then a penny drops – the service search tool, apart from finding suitable services, calculates the cost of a journey. Quick, yet not entirely intuitive.

My no-discount return ticket from NI to Zalesie Górne and back (16 kilometres there and back) would cost me PLN 10.73. Actually this is the price for experience of train travel, since had I chosen to get there by car on my own, the very petrol would have set me back some PLN 6.00, not to mention if I had taken three passengers to the car, the journey by car would have been six to seven times more economical…

My train was due to depart at 13:51. On my way to the station I realised I had forgotten to take the camera. Too late to go back home, I had to do with the smartphone, hence the skimpy photo coverage. The nearly empty KM train pulled up at time. As a passenger willing to purchase a ticket, I boarded the first carriage through the first door, as instructed by Koleje Mazowieckie. Not a ticket collector in sight; I walked the first set of three carriages from end to end twice and did not find any crew member. Eventually, I ended up free-riding (for the first time in my life) to Zalesie Górne, as there was no one who could sell me the ticket. The nearly-empty train trundled from NI to Piaseczno for 15 minutes. The reason for ultra-low speed is the on-going modernisation of Warsaw-Radom line, resulting in trains running in contraflow down to Piaseczno station (then the journey goes smoothly). I feel sorry for commuters riding from Piaseczno every day if it looks bad like this, yet after they endure the repair and reconstruction, they will enjoy far faster and more comfortable SKM services.

The entry to Wisła resort is just next to the railway station, then one needs to walk some half a mile to reach the ultimate destination, ponds / small lakes which are the core attraction of the place. The resort is kind of derelict, yet to judge the extent to which its glory is gone, I will need to venture there, that time by bike and with camera, in high season. There are several facilities for visitors seeking leisure: open-air swimming pool, canoes, water-ski-lift, a few bars and canteen. The place appears then a good nearby destination of a one-day foray for resident of Warsaw and Piaseczno.

I strolled around the place for an hour before heading for the station to catch my train home (the journey back also took 20 minutes, but I did buy a single ticket, for PLN 5.80). My social observation was that I was the only person sauntering there alone. It might have been a matter of the specific day, or just a coincidence, yet I wonder whether it takes a lot of courage to organise and spend time on one’s own if fate brings such situation on us. Definitely, if there is no one to keep you company, it is better to go out, move one’s a**e, breath in fresh air lap up the beauty of the nature, then spending time at home…

Enough writing for today, the bike’s ready for the first ride in 2016, off to Powsin leisure park for the whole afternoon!