Saturday, October 28, 2006

On Mediocrity

Even though I’m dead set on becoming one, I have a huge problem with expatriates. Bad times are good times for somebody and as some Jamaicans go through the worst of times, expatriates seem to be coming here by the plane load, taking jobs, many of which Jamaicans are qualified or can be trained to do. I see them at Heathers, Peppers, Red Bones and sometimes I can’t shake this feeling that we are entering a new era of Massas disguised as marketing managers, efficiency experts, HR managers and police commissioners. I can’t shake this feeling even as I scour the online career website looking for a way to put this creative writing MA to good use. I was ambivalent about my ill will to expatriates for a long time until I realized that it wasn’t them I was pissed off with. It was Jamaicans. We are the people of the plateau—we work as much as is necessary to reach a flat, safe place. Then we stay there for thirty years.

Is there anything so ludicrous as the Long service award? It’s to reward someone for not making anything of their lives, for hedging their bets, for playing it safe, for setting their brain on dim for thirty years. For being mediocre. And not just in work but in education, politics, philosophy, music, and life. It's not that expatriates take jobs that Jamaicans can’t do—its that they take jobs we don’t feel we have a right to.

The Jamaican still feels he has no right to success, to excellence, to ever use any word in the superlative. You hear it in how we greet you.

“Whaappen star?”
“Looking at you, the better one.”

“How are you?”
“Hanging in there.”

I think we are taught this. The second we reach that career choice age in high school the first thing taught is to hedge our bets. To pick those fall-back subjects just in case. To this day I can’t remember putting my fall-back subject to good use and I wasn’t always a writer. More than that, we take the hedge your bets philosophy through life. Here is the problem with this. If in life, career or even love you always consider the alternative or the cop out strategy, you’ll never lock on to the drive, intelligence, the cojones to be a true success. If you never reach the point where the only way forward is through, where this is it and nothing else, you’ll never achieve, it. Whatever it is. Sean Paul succeeded where others did not because there was no other choice. There was no waste management career if the music thing didn’t turn out. Those who think he had lucky breaks are not only unaware of the real story but also fall prey to that sin of the mediocre: bitchiness about others’ success.

As long as you work with a net, you will never fall, but you will never fly either. The security blanket that is supposed to be a cushion for achievement does the opposite, it sucks achievement back down to the midrange. Shockingly most Jamaicans or rather most of the Jamaicans I’ve met seem fine with this.

A friend of mine told me recently that she had a huge fear of flying. I told her to become best friends with Valium, but also to take the longest flight she could book, over sea if possible where there was no chance of a stop until the final destination. The last time she flew, the knowledge that there was a stop in Montego Bay, amplified her fear instead of reduced it. Yes it’s the swim in the deep end philosophy and some will drown that way, but so many more would soar. I think. I hope.

This wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t such a national malaise. We read putrid crap like The Five People You Meet in Heaven, a book so sickly sweet that I got tested for diabetes. We watch Martin Lawrence movies, listen to Andrea Bocelli records when we want to feel cultured, along new age music and lots of lite jazz. For a particularly deep night we reach for The Road Less Traveled or The Alchemist. When asked about this most of the people I know will reply that they just want something light, some form of escape, something they don’t have to think about. Can there be anything more tragic than to believe that you could never enjoy a thought? That learning cannot be fun? That to be challenged in any way is to be subject to something just slightly worse than constipation? Believe it or not Camille Paglia can be a riot. You might shed more tears over Anna Karenina than you did over Titanic. Peter Gabriel is more rewarding than Sting. Tar Baby is a sexier read than Waiting to Exhale. I’ve been told too often that I’m too deep and you don’t have to over analyze everything or reach for the toughest most puzzling book or movie. There is this belief even among some of my closest friends that I cannot possibly be having any fun. And here I thought puzzles were fun. Here I thought that I was laughing like an idiot because As You like it was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, not because Shakespeare was costing me some brain cells.

It doesn’t surprise me that people with a mediocre appreciation for art have a midlevel appreciation for life as well. Many will say that they are just being realistic and there is some truth to that. But more often than not they are just being pessimistic, as if a dim view of the world is a correct one. And while thinking the world is set against you is pessimistic, getting one CXC pass and biding time as a secretary for four years is just plain lazy. I take issue with this realism. It's as groundless as any other fantasy. But convenient. And aye, there’s the rub. There is a safety in mediocrity that’s four hundred years wide. An irresistible safety. The problem with risking failure is, well you fail, don’t you? But most of us do not fail. But maybe we should, because those who have already know that failure is just another speed bump to success.

I have friends who are writers, artists, dancers, musicians, politicians and photographers. A few will make it, some of them spectacularly. None of them will fail, but several will never achieve anything remotely close to greatness. It’s not a matter of talent or intelligence though those are crucial. But there are many mezzo-sopranos out there taking dictation. Many possible Oliviers biding time as bank clerks. Weekend virtuosos all of whom think a second job, a moneymaker is a sign of good sense, not cowardice. Maybe they are right. I’ve claimed to have a lot of things but good sense was never one of them. I just never thought that there was something in this world that should be out of reach.

Maybe this is one of those slavery shackles we’re still trying to pry loose. Or maybe we are just imitating our leaders. There was nothing particularly remarkable about PJ Patterson, but he was prepared to do the one thing at which mediocre people excel. He was prepared to wait.