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useless

I'm sitting at my 'new' writing bureau in the midst of another session of insomnia. It is 1:56am, I have been awake since 3am(ish) and have had two and half hours sleep in the last forty-three hours, plus perhaps 30 minutes dozing on the plane to Edinburgh (very early) yesterday morning. It sucks. Tiredness has its price; I am grumpier, slower, sometimes drunker on it. I also tend to think a lot.

In the taxi on the way back to Edinburgh airport yesterday afternoon I fell to thinking about my dad, in particular the last twenty odd years of his life.

He was a proud man. He had survived a world war as a submariner, had two wives and two lots of kids. He had travelled the planet and worked on the frontiers of the developing world as a civil engineer. He knew his stuff, so much so that the Papua New Guinean held their job offer to him for three years whilst he worked in Hong Kong.

It is hard for me to imagine the changes he must have seen in his time; social, cultural, technological. I think about the changes that have occurred in my forty-one years and it beggars belief sometimes.

He lived on the cusp of change, particularly in Africa, when the last surviving remnants of the imperial and frontiersman age were in their twilight years and the continent was on the verge of its often bloody self-discovery, a process still ongoing in so many ways.

When we returned to the UK from Papua New Guinea he was in his early sixties, my mother in her forties and Jules and I still fairly young. Britain had changed since he had last worked here, and that was self-evident in what happened next. It took me a long time to realise it but those changes destroyed him. He somehow went from a knowledgable, supremely confident and capable man to an over-experienced, expensive and out-of-date dinosaur. He went from being valuable to not being, despite everything he had to offer; all that experience, knowledge and ability suddenly counted for nothing, and in the eyes of society, and, the bit that took me a long to fully understand, in his own he was valueless. And useless.

Illness took him in the end, a long and drawn out combination of cancers and dementia that took years from all of us, leaving him very much the shell of the person he once was. Death, in the end, was merciful to us all.

I wonder that at some point we are all going to be useless. All our skills, all our knowledge and insights, everything we have contributed and attained will count for little, except in the memories of friends and family. It is the way of our society, it is the way it functions, and the evidence for that is all around us, in the way we regard the elderly, in how we treat them, socially, professionally, in how we prey on them (criminally, familially, politically) and how we herd them off to die.

Like my father I am somewhat a misfit. I am forty-one, I have a comfortable, white-collar, managerial role in a somewhat arcane field, yet I am unmarried, without children, do not own my own home, have no savings and very little in the way of a pension plan (I have some small company ones but fuck me if I don't understand them, because I really don't). Whilst I have value now, I will have less and less social value than my peers as I grow older. I wonder at what point I will become socially and economically useless.

In many ways I think I am that now. If no-one did my job then it wouldn't really matter. Things might cost a bit more, or go a bit wrong, or not turn out quite as planned, but society and the world would still tick along. Like money, my skills and job are an artificial construct that fulfils an artificial need in a predominantly artificial world. Come the zombie apocalypse my job would count for nothing.

A while ago I alluded to my mid-life crisis. I am beginning to wonder if the core of that crisis, for me and everyone-else who goes through it, is that sudden realisation that whatever it is we are doing, or have accomplished, in the vast scheme of things, counts for nothing. Or perhaps it is simply all those wistful dreams and wishes reaching a critical mass, dragging us from the mundane to the oft-hoped for fantastical.

Or perhaps it is the recognition that our value systems and our methods of tracking the success of our lives do not fit, that, at the core of us, there are things and relationships and experiences that have more worth than artificial ones we peg ourselves to.

My dad was proud man, who experienced a world and a time that we have long left behind. He did and saw things that I only know the barest details about, and that I cannot begin to imagine. He had a profound and lasting effect on his sons and those who knew him. He was loved and thought of fondly by so many people, all over the world. He travelled the planet and did things because he felt he could. Because he dared.

If I could go back to being that idiotic, stupid fourteen year old boy, standing in the kitchen yelling at his father in incomprehension I would pause, look my dad in the eye, and in the midst of telling him that I loved him I would let him that he was never, ever useless.

mid-life crisis

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