On the 22nd February 2013, my father-in-law, George Michael, who heralded from Paphos, Cyprus, slept in the Lord at the age of 89.
I've known my father-in-law for a good 19 years... we had lots of happy times together and we were best of friends. I cherish those memories. We never had a single argument, he always had wise words to give me that were measured, and he was my confidant.
We would spend a great many hours together on Saturdays, or after the evening meal, just chatting about the past, and his life experiences.
Truth be known, I loved to listen to dad tell stories...
He was born in 1924 and learnt to swim in the Coral Bay Sea (in those days it was sink or swim). It always captured my imagination that he was born on the Isle of Aphrodite.
Dad gave me a view of the Great Depression in the 1930s (e.g. there was the story of how the kids in his neighbourhood would fill a sock with rocks and pretend it was a soccer ball, and feet would get bloodied and dirty during a game, and how an empty sardine tin would be put to good use in a game that was reminiscent of cricket). Later, as a direct result of these difficult years his family would lose almost all of their possessions.
He studied hard and graduated with high marks from his secondary school. He was taught by British-trained teachers and had excellent English grammar- often reminding us of the difference between a predicate and subject in a sentence. His favourite author was Homer and he could quote verbatim the opening passages of The Odyssey .
In 1948 dad migrated to Australia on a plane from Cyprus where passengers faced each other and sat on long aisle benches, carried their own parcel of home-packed food, and could see the cockpit from where they were sitting (unbelievably trips to the bathroom were limited to stopovers). The aptly named, Captain Speermint was the pilot. It took 7 days to fly to Australia and there were stops at exotic places like Sri Lanka. He recollected that the plane's door literally fell off just prior to take off from Nicosia Airport.
George Michael with MG at the University of Sydney in 1991 (MTheol graduation).
A few years later my father-in-law opened the Reno Cafe in Newtown, NSW, met Helen, married her and the rest is history... well that and the fact, that he spent almost 50 years at the cafe before retiring in his early 70s... he took very few days off in all these years- on Christmas Day, after a hernia operation, and to see his son graduate at university.
These memories, and many more, are tucked neatly away in my heart and mind. I don't need "inch-by-inch" video recordings of my father-in-law to recollect him. Just yesterday I saw him in a dream going about checking for letters in his letterbox at home. It was precious and the joy was in the re-telling.
In 2002 when George began to have complications with his heart and I began to consider embarking on parenthood, I decided to take a few video tapes conversing with him for his grandchildren, "just in case"... I prompted him in a structured interview and without 'air and pomp' (given the modest man that he always was), he delivered his stories one by one. We did three almost hour-long videos together, and by the end of it, dad had exhausted the "best of" stories.
Years later it got me thinking... what we each hold close to us can possibly only be verbalised in no more than 3-5 hours. Trivialities aside, it is not what we say in words that makes a life... it is who we are that counts.
Memoirs too, seldom fill more than 1000 pages, and most stand at a consumable 230 pages or thereabouts.
Do we really need every moment captured on video? What does it profit us if we do?
Yes- I have to admit. It would have been incredible to catch a glimpse of dad when he was born, to hear his first cry. It would have been great to see him playing one of those childhood games I described above, happy and carefree, even during the Great Depression. To see his parents and what they were like, to catch a glipmse of two siblings who lost their lives early. It would have been deeply moving to see him graduate with "Arista" from his high school, working in the Bauxite mines, later as a member of the British Military Administration during WWII, on the plane to Australia, and when he first opened his beloved cafe.
Courtesy: Michael Family Archives
Picture taken of George Michael circa early 1950s at his beloved Reno Cafe, Newtown where he spent close to half a century.
But actually, when I really think about it, I have all that I need, quality time spent with him, not footage of him. I have about 25 photographs that are priceless to my family, like this one above. I have this very photograph on my kitchen wall. I'd like to remember him just like this. Here he is circa early 1950s, in 341 King St, Newtown. The old Holdens can be seen in the reflection of the mirror. This photo encapsulates my father-in-law- what more would I need? The mystery of his person lives on free of any human limitations.
Storytelling is an art. It is calculated, not full of details that often mean very little. Every part of our life does not have to be action-jammed. It just has to be "our" life, special for what it is.
Nowadays, we are placing undue pressure on our younger generation by the apps we are building. My students tell me that "status updates" need to always be exciting... that you need to be seen always doing something, and to look cool, hip and great in photos or video... inventions like Digital Glass could only exacerbate this expectation and will add even more moment-to-moment pressure on people.
But the reality is that the simple question "what are you doing now?" does not have to be answered every 2 minutes... life happens moment by moment of course, but our milestones take in effect decades to accomplish, even a lifetime in some contexts. We might be getting better at quantifying the banalities of life- but what about qualifying life?
When MG Michael, Roba Abbas and I ran a GPS data logger experiment in 2008, we soon realised that our participants were more preoccupied with increasing their waypoint count and to be documenting that they had done more than other participants, than by the quality of the activity(ies) they were engaged in. One participant would say: "I've done 10,000+ waypoints today", and another would say "but I've only done 400". One of the biggest learnings for me personally came, when the participant who had done an average of 400 waypoints per day documented that he had a "boring life" in his daily diary and that all he did was study. On the one-hand I agreed with him that maybe, it would be good to get more fresh air, but on the other hand I told him that if he had done 10,000+ waypoints that would leave very little time for study. Moving around a lot geographically, and being busy, between work, home, and university, and social events does not always necessarily equate to quality of life, just quantity. You could do 10,000+ waypoints and be miserable for being so busy, and do 400 waypoints and think you are king of the castle.
My father-in-law slept, worked, and lived in his beloved Reno Cafe and was one of the most content people I've ever met. His waypoint count on most days would have been condensed into a 30 by 10 metre shop front and not been more than 400 waypoints most certainly... What does it mean then to be content in today's terms?
This brings me to my next point... how technology is encroaching the sacred space of meditation. Yes, we can learn from reflecting on video we take of ourselves, active in an event. But actually, what we really need is some time to reflect alone, in quiet and in secret. We come to this realisation repeatedly when we are suffering (for example, during relationship issues, in sickness, or in the passing of a loved one). In fact, MG has often commented to me since the passing of his father, that although he was certainly grateful for the many people that surrounded him and his mother during those first difficult days, he longed for a solitude, to grieve alone.
Social media, smart phone, the cloud and the rest, have meant that we are invariably connected with technology, and yet not connected with oneself, our spiritual side. Certainly I have found, from my personal experience, the more I have become engaged in the wireless Internet in general, the less time I have had to meditate, or read texts of an inspiring nature. Or perhaps my motivation has dwindled as a result of the instantaneous nature of all these mediums and I have not forced myself to retract.
Interruptions via mobile phone have meant time away from loved ones (even though I consider myself rigid with its use). "Web sites", even like this one, have meant less hours sleep, despite that it is "my work..." The list goes on. I am not talking about work-life balance but something deeper about what we have become, questions of ontology and metaphysics, and pondering on what we might become with those things which are being predicted, if we do not acknowledge some of the probable drawbacks of new technologies...
And now back to my father-in-law... a few more thoughts in closing. He was always one for innovation.
In Cyprus the cafe (kafenio) his father owned had the first wireless radio in the town, and men would gather from Peyia to listen to this great and awesome machine. In Sydney, dad bought one of the first televisions available in Newtown...
He could see clearly how computers could improve business operations. And was always amazed by such things as text-to-speech synthesizers, biometrics and the like.
He was proud of working hard and having the ability to purchase things... and he thought it was important to keep up with the change, lest one fall behind. But he only ever used technology when it was really needed, not because he had to. There is a discernible difference.
Finally, I think about what dad's life might have looked like from the outside if it was wholly video recorded. Perhaps words some content analysts might have used would have been "plain", "simple", "monotonous", "repetitive", "routine". But it certainly was far from that. The analysts might have segmented his life in several stages:-
Snapshot 1: The Great Depression: Growing up with very little, going to school and studying hard under oil lamp, and farming the land on weekends, and with his father at the Peyia cafe serving the citizenry.
Snapshot 2: The migrant story: Arriving in Australia with enough money for one night's accommodation at the Ritz Carlton, and a single suitcase of clothes, knowing nobody.
Snapshot 3: Spending almost 50 years at the Reno, serving customers, behind the grill, ordering supplies, and mopping up.
Snapshot 4: As a father, grandfather, and husband.
That's life from the outside. Video is highly prone to misinterpretation and notorious for the exclusion of context. What matters, is things that one cannot utter or say or be seen doing. It is that warm and fuzzy feeling I get, my husband gets, and my children get when we recollect my father-in-law in our memories.
It is the estimated 5 million plates of food he and my mother-in-law, Helen, delivered in their life at the restaurant- serving others. What matters are those priceless conversations he had with his customers who loved him dearly and would come back again and again. Some of these customers walking in young men and not leaving until their own deaths almost half a century later. And then there are the stories he did not repeat often- almost shy and embarrassed to bring up in conversation- when he and Helen would in the evenings make sure to hold on to "the leftovers of the day" to pass onto the homeless and those in need.
Thanks Dad- you were the best father-in-law I could have ever hoped for! George misses your talks, Eleni your tricks, and Jeremy your hugs.
"May your memory be eternal."