He wears Black Orchid. It smells lovely on him. When he tells me this, I am not surprised. He always wanted a cologne by Tom Ford, and used to mention it on occasion whenever we talked. How funny it is the things remember about our friends. This is one such thing. This and that he comes from one of those leafy suburbs that are composed of monstrosities in the middle of a forest. His parents’ house is in a gated community comprising such megaliths. Whenever we would ask him to join us on a night out on the town, he mostly said no. There were almost no cars on the road (and no matatus or anything that resembled public transport) when we dropped him off, and it was not even ten o’clock. A lot of things now make sense. The logistics are cumbersome.
We had not met in almost two years and it is the same scent he wore the last time we bumped into each other, at a church no less. I thought to ask him about it then and I did not. Recently, when I recognized it as the same smell, I did. I have a love-hate relationship with fragrances. I enjoy smelling of something other than longing and sweat. They, however, usually try to kill me by making allergies flare up and suffocating me in sniffles. Once not too long ago I tried using a deodorant stick. My thinking was it was probably the canned gases that were causing me trouble. I ended up getting contact dermatitis, a situation a friend of mine lovingly referred to as armpit gonorrhoea. Fun times.
While I was visiting my grandfather, I decided to test my energy (being hot-blooded and all) so I jumped onto one of the branches of the tree under which his house is. In my mother tongue it is called a mukura. I do not know the English-name equivalent.
The branch creaked. I could feel it give way, resisting but unable to remain firm. I quickly let go before it let me down. Last year that branch could have borne my weight easily. I remember swinging from it for a minute or two. It remained rigid then.
Granted, I was not as heavy as I am now and it is not as strong as it used to be. It was also from that very branch that my father used to do pull-ups when he was a strapping young man. I know this because he told me. That tree has some significance to us.
It has witnessed a lot of beatings, laughs, tears, arguments, angers and loves. It is also where we sit surrounding The Old Man when we, sundry relatives who have come to visit, are home. The stories it could tell. I enjoy being under it. It is fragrant and shady and old. I am sure you see the metaphors here. I will enjoy the tree while it is there.
Last Friday as I was going to work, I passed a street kid who seemed to be begging for something from a lady at a pastry shop. I thought to do something good for this complete stranger, so I asked the lady to pack him two tea scones. As she was wrapping them, I heard him say that he wanted tea instead. The woman said, and I got the feeling she was insisting at this point, that the person who makes the tea had not arrived. This was rubbish, of course.
It was slightly past six-thirty in a city that is constantly hungry. Serving him tea would probably mean inviting him into her establishment, and that would put off the other customers. It was a hole-in-the-wall. To-go cups were not part of their offering. I took the scones and handed them to him. He looked at me like I was giving him a pile of hot shit. I was a bit nonplussed. Which chokosh does not want food? By this time, his comrades had gathered around him. He kept insisting that all he wanted was tea and at this point the lady chimed in exasperatedly and told me not give him money.
I was not going to at first. I was getting late for work, so I asked his peeps whether they wanted the scones so that I could get going. They did, and I passed them on. From that confusion of urchins came a thank you. The “main man” however was having none of that. He wanted tea. He said he was cold, and that was what he needed. I agreed to get him tea, but I had “important things” to do, so I asked him how much he needed.
He would have preferred I walk with him to a mama wa chai and pay on his behalf. Depending on the place, he said, it could be ten or twenty shillings. I was in no mood to walk about town with a street kid in search of a tea lady, so instead I thrust twenty shillings from the change I got from the pastry shop into his extended hand. He made a slight protest, and his insistence was grating on my nerves. I told him to be grateful or return the money. I lingered for a bit, glaring at him then walked away.
That incident got me thinking about how we approach helping people in general, especially when coming from a place of privilege or advantage. Do we ever stop to ask the people we think need a hand what exactly they want? I do not believe so. Most of the time we do what we think will help them, which is the height of arrogance. What makes you think you know what someone else needs without even asking?
For all I know, I could have been being played. After a short reflection, I became ashamed because I was doing it to make myself feel better, not out of the goodness of my heart. I imagine the warm feelings that wash over us when we are generous to others is one of the primary drivers of notable random acts of kindness.
That kid knew what he wanted. Tea. Not scones. Not money. Tea. He even went so far as to ask me to accompany him and pay for the drink on his behalf. This was not one of the better moments in my life. I failed as a human being. The alternative would have been what we have all done more often than not: walking on by, pretending the street children do not exist, or worse, thinking them lying and lazy and taking advantage of hard-working Millicent Bystanders and walkers-by.
I have always believed that if you can, make the world a better place and not just for yourself. I have failed at this often, and I failed again when I went about this encounter clumsily and with hubris. Maybe next time when a street kid approaches you, ask them what they want. We should treat them like they have agency because they do. We owe them that much.
Fighting the urge to compare yourself to others and put your work on an imaginary scale is something I am confident a lot of other creators – artists, engineers, programmers, <insert an appropriate profession here> – also struggle with. I have to continually remind myself that I also started somewhere and that there might be a level of proficiency I might not attain for years. That we are all more visible nowadays because of improvements in communication technologies and information flow does not help. There is always some new horizon to reach, there is always some low you have moved past, and this intelligence is available from a few keystrokes, practically at your fingertips. Cultivating patience, compassion and humility in a world like this is work.
This is the second part of what I hope will be a continuing series on figuring out what it means for me to be a man.
Most of us, boys that is, are raised with the implicit knowledge that crying, hurting, showing feelings is for women. You do not talk about your problems, you do not talk about your fears. You do not hurt, you do not cry. You are a man. This dubious philosopy sinks in and it takes a lot self-awareness to see how false and detrimental it is to your mental and emotional health.
Instead of confronting your feelings, you run: into a bottle, into work, into another person’s arms. I did the into-a-bottle and the arms-in-another-person-thing. If I was not trying to find the bottom of a green, brown or colourless glass container, I was moving further and further away from myself by numbing the fears and insecurities with someone else. It is amazing how distracting being with another person can be. One can convincingly make a case for regular moments of absolute solitude.
This might also explain why I often found it easier to lie about my intentions, about how I was doing and why I was doing it. “If they know the truth, if they see that I am flawed and scared. I will become diminished.” was the underlying ethos.
My interactions were thus shrouded in sarcasm, irony, self-deprecation and self-parody. Most people just thought I was fun to be around and while they were distracted, they could not see what lay beneath the empty banter and cynicism couched as intellect: months of regret, repressed feelings and resentments piled up and waiting to tip over.
This kind of escapism never ended well. The cliché is your feelings are in the basement doing push-ups. I used to have meltdowns when all the feelings I had repressed exploded, and in turn, caused me to implode. Tears and mucus running down my face, expletives were thrown at anyone who attempted to calm me down or remove me from the place to avoid embarrassment. It always happened when I was drunk and in the company of close friends and family and supposedly having a good time.
It must have been because of the lowered inhibitions. For some reason, no one ever asked me what was wrong. It was all down to The Devil Drink. I have an uncle who never ceases to remind me of one such incident. Even after apologizing, I still do not feel completely absolved. I always wonder whether we might one day sit down, and I can show him how far along I have come and from where I began (and here I was thinking I was beyond his approval).
When I started out writing, I talked at length about my sexual desires and escapades and the things I wanted to do, purr purr. There was no story there, not the kind I envisioned telling, they were a little more than a string of racy words. Anyone can talk about their exploits and claim to be making meaning out of them.
I was told often, quite politely, that I should diversify. In a society in which manliness is measured by how many women you are sleeping with and how often, how could I not, a floundering boy trying to grasp manhood, tell the world how well I was doing with flowery language and interesting turn-of-phrase? To hell with suggestions and feedback!
As long as I was getting likes and “Buda…!“s I was okay. Also, the sexism there was evident: you have conquered women. Therefore, you are a man. You conquered. She is not the one who made the choice to sleep with you. You made her sleep with you. What happens when you are not “conquering”? Do you cease to become who you are? To say nothing of the fact that you are defining yourself according to a constantly shifting externality: what other people feel and think about you at a given moment.
Part of growing up and being a man, I think, means being able to handle your emotions well. This is not to say you should be happy all the time, never show any feelings, or showing all your feelings all the time. It is a balance between recognizing what you are experiencing, seeing that you are not defined by your emotions, getting to the bottom of them and putting them in the proper context.
You feel. You are not what you feel. You can feel without being governed by your feelings. These are things I am working on and I hope by being frank about my shortcomings and telling better stories, not self-aggrandizing ones of conquership, I will learn how to go about this better. At least now I do not need to be high to open up and be honest about what I am going through nor do I do it mostly from behind a screen.
On top all of this is the realization that there is nothing emasculating about opening up and sharing your thoughts and feelings. It does not make you less of a man to feel and to show that you feel. I have a long way to go before I can afford a modicum of smugness as far as this kind of maturity is concerned but I recognize how far I have come. This deserves an ice cream. Or an indulgence at Bookstop.
Three years ago I decided to get back into programming, not for school this time so that I could get a passing grade or augment a project. It was something I did to become more marketable, to have a fresh and profitable skill, aside from the advantages of building up problem-solving know-how and beefing up logical thinking. There was no downside.
I had heard of this language called Python, so I had a look at it. It has a scary name but once I realized its cognitive load was less than the other languages I had come across, Java, C# and The God Language C++, I took to it, and kept at it for a little more than two years.
I was so into it, I went back, after a fashion, to the Java I had run away from and I was thinking of building an Android app. What kind? Well, you will see why this never took off in a bit. That is how much I latched onto coding.
I cannot exaclty pinpoint when it was, but something changed. I could not seem to focus anymore. I found myself daydreaming whenever I opened my code editor, and simple errors took hours to find and fix. Implementing simple logic turned into a chore and I found myself getting lazier with each passing day and turning to online searches for things that previously I could conjure up in minutes.
I remember helping an intern with a simple download program: set it to download a file from a given server a certain number of times while showing the progress, find the average download time taken and then delete the downloaded file. I knocked it down in under half a day, from start to finish, bug fixes included.
I looked at the code again a while back and I felt like an impostor. Did I really write this? It was getting harder to find Python articles interesting and to finish tutorials. There was an emptiness inside me and I could hear echoes of a past I felt that I could never attain again ring hollowly and hauntingly in my head. The thrill was gone.
I shifted away from programming, to reading (for and not school) and writing and watching cartoons, and in the moments in and between these activities, it occurred to me that I had never clearly defined what I wanted to achieve while coding. Most people I have interacted with want to build things (apps, infrastructure, websites) and automate regular and tedious tasks (systems administration). They have clearly defined objectives and thus know exactly how to go about attaining them. I did not.
To a significant extent none of this was clear before but even then I knew something was off and it had a lot to do with what my intentions were. I slogged through for a few more weeks until about four months ago when I quit out and out. I was done.
Even as I set up virtual environments and installed the packages I thought I might need on the new operating system running on my machine, deep down I knew I was done. I had had my fun and it was time to grow up and admit, much like my redefined feelings for Subarus, that this was not such a bad thing.
Working at tech company, it was inevitable that conversations about programming would come up. And they did, and I gave the excuse I usually give – I did my best and it just never stuck. People would nod understandingly because, I guess, we all have those things we have shot our shot at and missed, over and over, to the point of a resigned comfort.
In a world in which we are constantly reminded we can be anything and do anything, only if we work really hard, the knowing that this is not always true is hitting home a good one, as the cool kids say these days.
My father is fond of saying that excuses are like armpits: everyone has them and they all stink. Mine was not good enough. It was as smelly as they come, so I looked beneath the surface. I was scared I would never be a good programmer, not like the guys and girls I looked up to. It might be a carry-over from my uni days. I was never good in class. My grades were wanting. Programming made me feel as if I was in class again, that I was in a place where there was immense potential to fail spectacularly.
More than that, I work with some really hotshot engineers. There is no way my stuff, that against theirs looks like “Hello, World!”, would match up to their cloud architectures, Arduino code and shell scripts.
Even through all this, I had attained something, a certain peaceful patience. It was at the tip of my brain, as it were, and about a week ago it came to me. It was not the sensation of falling and scrambling to attain some kind of balance that comes with not knowing what you are doing and why you are doing it. It was a warm glow, a feeling of connectedness that I recognized as empathy. It might look like some new age brouhaha, that one can become more empathic from programming, but bear with me.
When I set out to code, I was using tools built by other programmers, from the text editor, to the compiling tools that ran quietly in the back, to the actual programming language, to the operating system on top of which all these run. Until I attempted to build my own tools I had not fully grasped just how daunting and challenging it is to create a particular class of software.
I was jolted into a new awe of programmers and programming and with this came a patience that I did not believe I was capable of. We are fast to judge and deem certain apps or websites horrid. To some degree, this is true. But, if you were to step back you would realize no one sets out to build a bad product on purpose. Even the ones that slow down our phones and computers and occasionally crash them were mostly created with the best intentions.
And this may be another reason to learn how to code: to better appreciate computers and software, the things that we take so much for granted that we never stop to think just how much work has gone into them. Now when I
lovingly harass our engineers to get fixes out, I also want to hug them (no, really) and tell them what a fantastic job they are doing, aware of the challenges they overcome with each of their keystrokes, of the sheer hard work and experience that goes into building even something as simple as a spinning error icon. Sembuse video games, operating systems, photo and video editing software?
And it is not just where the raw lines of seemingly incomprehensible text are concerned. There is a syntax and artistry to the best code that takes on the flavour of poetry, and I will go so far as to say that programming is an art form. You are creating something from nothing, something that moves and makes you feel and seems to have a life of its own. How many are the times you feel that you can talk to your phone or computer, that they
How many are the times you feel that you can talk to your phone or computer, that they get you, and you cannot seem to recall a time before them? (Of course, this may also be because your phone and computer are watching you in a sense. To the builders of the software, you are just another data point to collect information from in order to later sell to).
This is an ode to those brave women and men who dare to talk to the machines that make our lives that much more bearable, the ones who build the software that often seems like it has taken away some of our cognitive functions. I tried to do this and I fell short.
To further extrapolate, we all need to put ourselves in such situations, to take risks to better discover ourselves and to fully grasp the kind of effort that goes into making something, anything. Undertaking a challenge such as programming, writing, learning a musical instrument, things that seem easy from the outside, may help us become more patient, kind and understanding with others, and more so, with ourselves. Here is to learning a skill, even if it only has cool value.
Undertaking a challenge such as programming, writing, learning a musical instrument, things that seem easy from the outside, may help us become more patient, kind and understanding with others, and more so, with ourselves. Here is to learning a skill, even if it only has cool value.
They all mean well. We bump into each other in our day-to-days, and it is a good thing to check regularly up and touch base with another. However, I mostly do not want to take part in the small talk. It is cold (no, it is not. I have felt colder. This is nothing). It is rainy, and the traffic is more of a nightmare (as it always is when it rains, coupled with the fact that most of us become stupid when it rains).
Yes, I usually get to the office early, even during the rainy season, despite the fact that I live along Thika Road (so that I can spend some minutes by myself reading, writing and working without distractions before the rest of you beautiful degenerates show up and smash the crystal serenity. This is a sentiment echoed by another person we work with). Internet connectivity has gone down again, like all of the Friday last week (it usually does when it rains and not just in this country). Do you see a thread here?
It always seems people pick the moments when you are most engaged in chatting you up: enjoying a quiet lunch, a sunset or a breath-taking panorama, or watching a cartoon. I do not understand why a lot of people are uncomfortable with silence. It is perfectly all right not to talk and not to engage people who would like to chat.