Scaring the bejeezus out of me

I’ve had a few scares in my time. Near misses that could have been nasty car accidents. A snow machine incident that could have had far more disastrous consequences. Air turbulence that resulted in freewheeling trollies and broken limbs.

I’ve had heart-stopping moments that are etched on some deep stratum of my subconscious. Like when I first went abseiling and had to make that 90-degree flip over the end of the cliff. Or my first trip to Disneyland. Or my first earthquake in Alaska.

Feeling scared, though, is a completely foreign feeling for me. An old friend of mine, long since dead, told me once that he reckoned I had guardian angels working around the clock. Just observing my life and the potential trouble I could have gotten into over the years, this was the only explanation he could come up with for my living a life relatively unscathed.

But here I am, in the prime of my life, and I’m scared. Very scared. I have a nasty, pervasive feeling in the pit of my stomach that is slowly seeping into every core of my being. And try as I might to think good thoughts and imagine good things, it just won’t go away. If anything, it’s getting worse.

I won’t get into the politics of it all. Far too much (albeit hardly anything about policy) has been said by both sides of the Great American Debate to warrant my adding my tuppence ha’penny. Be it Clinton or Trump, whoever wins next month, wins. What scares me silly is the immediate aftermath.

bbbbI was in California during the Rodney King riots and should Clinton win, I fear that those riots will be replicated on streets across America in a couple of weeks. Trump is just a penny shy of prepping his more radical supporters to ready themselves. Should Clinton win, I fear that her rather invasive tendencies could see the world caught up in even more war. Should Trump win, I can’t see Clinton supporters being anything other than resigned to their loss, but I fear the far-reaching consequences of having his brand of rhetoric behind a global microphone.

It’s not about policy. Or mandates. Or visions of the future. My fear has to do with legitimising hate speech. Fomenting a distrust of all things foreign. Replacing tolerance with insularity. It’s about example, or the lack thereof.

I was brought up well. I was taught that one should never raise oneself up by bringing another person down. If this election campaign is taken as an example of twenty-first-century politicking, then I fear that politicians here in Hungary, and in the rest of the world, will see it as a behavioural blueprint and follow suit. And what then?

Young people the world over are seeing a level of nastiness that seems to know no boundaries. Tshirts worn by Trump supporters emblazoned with foul-mouthed epitaphs are shown on TV. Derogatory comments aired, and aired again, travel the world like virulent viruses. And the behaviour of potential world leaders, behaviour that would have been decried with disbelief when I was still young and impressionable, is in danger of becoming the norm.

Earlier this month I read that those employed by the Russian government who have children studying abroad were told to cut short their schooling and bring them home to be enrolled in Russian schools. If this is about protection the minds of the young, I wonder if Putin is on to something.

We’re already seeing the rise of parochialism. Small-mindedness and pettiness are on the rampage. Shortsightedness is blinding us to the damage being done by seemingly throwaway comments that are taking root in our collective psyche and altering our moral code. Bigotry and bias are being bandied around at will. It’s scary. I’m scared. And I wonder how much worse can it get and when we will feel the full brunt of it in Hungary.

First published in the Budapest Times 28 October 2016

2014 Grateful 27

I nearly didn’t recognise her. The short crop was gone, replaced by a pinned up 1940’s bob. I hadn’t seen my mate MC in way too long. Despite the best of intentions, work and lives had interfered. Schedules had clashed and best efforts to get together had come to nowt. It had been nearly two years since we’d seen each other – by far the longest time we’ve gone with out setting the world to rights in our own inimitable way.

STA_9956 (800x399)We did the train-station theatrics in Bath with minimum fuss but the right amount of understated excitement at being together again. And then we went for lunch. One hour morphed into two, three, four. The bottle of wine long-since gone, we had just one Italian spritzer (limoncello and prosecco) which turned into two and then three. Nearly a full eight hours later we had caught up on personal stuff, discussed Putin’s bout of sabre rattling, bandied around the possible consequences of China’s debt bubble busting, debated the current rise of antisemitism in Europe, wondered at the whole gay rights vs human rights, and expressed our liking for the current pope. Back home to hers and the conversation continued. That night, I marvelled, not for the first time, at the enduring power of real friendship and thanked my God for blessing me with some fabulously interesting friends.

The night before, I’d been to a reception in Bahamas House in London. The current Governor General of the Bahamas was retiring. As he spoke, he mentioned that at 84, it was time to retire. He didn’t look a day over 70. There, I caught up with old friends from the Bahamas and Jersey, met some new friends from South Africa, and again, marvelled at the diversity of opinions, perspectives, and lifestyles that the world has to offer.

The day before that, I’d been in Bern, Switzerland, and had had dinner with a mate of mine from school whom I hadn’t seen since 1983. I recognised AR immediately, partly through a recent connection on LinkedIn but mainly because she really hadn’t changed that much. We sat for a couple of hours in the shadow of the Swiss Parliament and caught up on 30 years, mostly trading experiences of where we had lived and what we’d been doing in our intervening lifetimes. We swapped news about classmates whom we’d been in contact with recently, try to put names to their collective faces, and reminisced about school days and the green uniforms that were indelibly etched on our fashion consciousness.

Earlier in the week, I’d managed to inject some life into a rather lethargic Geneva in the company of some new friends from the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Samoa (our Solomon Islands friend had gone in search of shoes). As we sat and traded stories, our fluency much enhanced by some semi-decent Swiss wine, we seemed to focus on commonalities. Shared phrases, ones that I’d assumed were quintessentially Irish, like ‘yer man/yer woman’ are alive and kicking and doing the rounds in the Cook Islands. This begs further investigation and one of these days I’m sure we’ll manage it. Traditions, habits, recipes, tales of madness and circumspection travelled to and fro across the table. As I settled into my hotel bed that night,  I marvelled at the opportunities and chance encounters thrown up by the universe that have the potential to become enduring friendships, or not, and I thanked my God for sending these people my way.

As CS Lewis is said to have said: ‘Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.’





What if

I’m not allergic to work. I’ve never been allergic to work. In fact, I used to have a masochistic obsession with working overtime when I had jobs that paid by the hour in a hand-written check neatly wrapped up in a benefits package. Back then, being asked to do overtime made me feel important. It validated my work. If my employer was willing to pay time-and-a-half for every hour I worked outside my normal work week, I had to be doing something right. Right?

Getting a seat on the salaried train exposed me to a system that expected me to keep working and working and working without any overtime; I was expected to take solace in the fact that what I was doing was important, vital even, to someone else’s success. Since moving to Budapest, I’ve wised up a little and am now fully behind New York Times bestselling author Timothy Ferriss’s concept of a 4-hour work week! Less is more in my book. Cue platitudes: love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life / work like you don’t need the money / work smarter not harder. But judging by what I’m reading in the papers these days, my love affair with Hungary could soon take a turn for the worse.

More work, less money

Current Hungarian legislation codifies a 40-hour working week. There’s a motion on the mat to have this increased to 44 hours a week before the overtime clock starts ticking. Under legislation proposed by the Economy Minister earlier this month, employers will be able to demand an additional 4 hours of work per week from their employees at the normal hourly rate. It would seem that longer working weeks are on the cards for Hungarian workers.

Now it’s rare that I find myself ever agreeing with Russian President Putin, but this particular two ruble’s worth of insight caught my eye. He’s on record as describing extending the working week as an ‘absolutely groundless method’ of generating profit.  Mind you, this was in answer to Mikhail Prokhorov’s proposition to increase the working week by 20 hours to 60 hours. In Hungary, we’re only talking 4. But is that what’s really behind the government’s move to extend the working week? Increase profits by way of increased productivity?

Fewer hours, more productivity

But wait…it wasn’t all that long ago – 1969 in fact – that Harry Trend compiled his report for Radio Free Europe editors and policy staff. Under the illuminating title Reduction in Hours Stimulates Labor Productivity in Hungary, it cites research into the effects of the 1968 move to reduce the working week to 44 hours, a move which gave rise to fears that a shorter working week would result in more overtime and more staff, and less productivity and less service. It all came to nothing. In fact, not only did productivity increase, overtime decreased. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened there! Unlike John Ruskin, I’m neither a genius nor an economist, but that doesn’t stop me applauding the foresight he showed in 1850 when he listed three things necessary for people to be happy in their work: ‘They must be fit for it. They must not do too much of it. And they must have a sense of success in it.’ Now seriously – is this rocket science we’re dealing with?

Doing too much

According to OECD figures, in 2008, Hungarians worked an average of 1988 hours (ranking 5th behind Korea, Greece, Chile, and the Czech Republic ) while at the opposite end of the scale, Dutch workers put in a mere 1389 hours, followed by the Norwegians, the Germans, and the French. Even Irish workers just put in 1601 hours…and this was before we bungled things so badly. To my untrained eye, it would seem that working longer hours doesn’t really pay off in terms of domestic progress. So what to do?

Well, instead of treading the well-trodden path of business as usual, what if Hungary were to blaze a trail and do what other countries are just talking about? What if it were to shelve the traditional, time-worn measurements of progress in favor of those that measure what matters? What if, instead of focusing on creating jobs, jobs, and more jobs, it paid attention to creating quality jobs? What if it found a way to bring Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow to life: to encourage employers to find the balance between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer? What if instead of invoking longer working weeks, people actually worked fewer hours with incentives to work smarter and work better?

What if?

First published in the Budapest Times 24 June 2011