September 29, 2010

Missing Pieces

I used to be somebody’s boss. I was a friend too, in that mitigated way that befalls the manager and the managed. He said I was the best boss he’d ever had. He was ten years older than me. He was clinically depressed. He was probably a genius. For one reason or another, he came up in conversation recently, and I was given pause to think why this man was, in most respects, an abject failure as a man. Let us call him Sebastian.

Sebastian had somewhat miraculously survived a rain of arrows, but the course of life had left him scarred. His father left in early childhood, occasionally reappearing to open up old wounds. At thirteen or so his mother committed suicide, and the ensuing years were dogged by shadowy thoughts and dark depressions. Institutionalised for a time, he never again could entirely break free from the shackles of guilt, anguish, and deep pain. Lacking a father figure, or any strong character to guide him, he floundered through adolescence, emerging as a peculiar and singular adult.

He was educated, by virtue of a scholarship, at a famous Northern English public school (for North American readers, that means he was among the elite). Without much effort, he mastered the classics, and saw life as the endless re-telling and re-working of those fundamental ideas and plotlines. Existence, for him, lacked the joyous sense of the discovery of the new. Everything had already been said. The creative instinct had died shortly before he was born, and this was to him the tragedy of his timing. He obsessed about the lives of Picasso and Bob Dylan, as if they were the last humans to signal new directions. When he experienced their art, it was not to him a joy, but a lament. Humanity had peaked, and he had missed it.

Most people found him impossible to engage in conversation, for he could not abide small talk, and he heard little else. If you could engage him, you would find him in deadly earnest, and should you approach him intellectually he would stop in his tracks at the wonderment of a mind worthy of his contemplation. On the whole, he was an intellectual recluse, unfit for society as he saw it (essentially an uncivilised place). He had a pathological fear of the exhaust fumes of motor vehicles, causing him to cross all roads with wanton abandon for his life and limbs. He could not enter parts of the city where cars went, and would not wait on the kerb for anything. Our walks together were curious, for he knew every route that kept him out harm’s way. And yet he smoked incessantly. He told me he was aware of the inconsistency, and that it was his problem.

His home was a scantily furnished hovel, bedecked with books and LPs. The sky-rise towers of tomes, on every seat and every square inch of hidden carpet, were interleaved with scraps of paper, marking his place in each. For all of these books were being read and re-read. He wrote songs lamenting lost love – he had loved only once, and she had absconded with a Welshman – and sang them to himself. I told him, jokingly, that his was the pyrrhic victory, since the reward for her cruelty had been the Welsh. He took me very seriously, and brightened for a moment.

Toward the end of my relationship with Sebastian, just prior to circumstances throwing me upon the world in a new way, he broached the topic of his father. He said that he had come to the conclusion that his father was a bastard while he was shaving. Nobody, he reflected, had taught him how to shave, and in his mid-thirties he was only just realising that he had always done it badly: trivial, perhaps, but also the thin end of the wedge. Here stood a man, broken in spirit and suspicious of his fellow man, acknowledging that he was only partly formed. Formal education had opened to him the power of thought, but the lack of informal guidance had left him stranded, and all too aware of the impossibility of recovery.

Sebastian had been the innocent victim of the lives of others, and the aloofness of the safety net. He had not fallen and failed as a man, but he had been failed as a boy. In my naiveté I had tried to find ways to direct him, to encourage him, to thrust him into the light. But I was no antidote for a fear instilled in formative years, and I was not then a teacher. The manly man is never timid, I have said, and so say again. We must also, however, be the enemies of fear, and guard against its installation. Without shaping, without careful guidance, without ideas of the men boys should come to be, we risk the emergence of men like Sebastian: men whose heads knew of the good, but whose hearts had never felt it.

September 24, 2010

Keep Calm and Carry On

The manly man is never timid. Timidity is like living half a life, or less, for it inhibits action, and men must act. It also clouds thinking with trifles and obsessions, cluttering up the intellect: men must also think. Timidity is a euphemism for fear. It requires the euphemism because timidity is fear of life itself. It is a bedfellow of shame.

Naturally, one must not ride roughshod over politeness. All those moments of inaction and indecisiveness in Jane Austen’s corpus occur for good reason. But they do not ultimately put permanent hindrances before her heroes, for where they do, it amounts to character flaw. The impolite man acts without thinking, and duly makes trouble. He is the opposite of timid: the bull at the gate; the Tuppy Glossop, if you will. The bookish man thinks without acting, and is duly ignored. He does not enter the world sufficiently to be concerned with such things. A well-measured dose each of consideration and execution, laced with a healthy portion of confidence, makes for the ideal type.

I am given pause to reflect on such things as I re-immerse into a culture that is, to be absolutely exact, strangely familiar. Like the jarring dissonance caused by two musical notes whose harmony is only out of alignment by the slightest fraction, we are caught off guard most precisely when we are closest to comfort. In many respects I am at home: I know where I am, with whom I am dealing, and what to expect. But just as car crashes tend to happen close to home, all the securities accompanying knowledge of the where, the who and the what can be lost in an instant when, say, exiting from the wrong end of a station; finding construction on your route home; meeting someone with whom you have no common language; or being told by Telekom to buy your own bloody modem. You get the picture.

Some years ago, these kinds of things might have affected me. Uncertainty, if not met with resolve, is met only with withdrawal or with alcohol, and these do not make for safe ports in stormy weather. I have, in my years of emotional maturity, come to realise that awkward situations do not become less awkward for being ignored. Internal upheaval can only be redressed by coming to terms with it. It has become a cliché to invoke the spirit of the Blitz, and some may find it belittling to that spirit to print the words ‘keep calm and carry on’ on everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs. Still, it is precisely this will to continue that should activate us, under all circumstances. Life is not to be feared, nor to be passively observed. Live is to be embraced, and to be lived.

September 22, 2010

Cheats: Nobody Prospers

‘Not cricket’ is a phrase that goes beyond those cultures where the game is actually played. Even Americans understand that it refers to acts of impropriety that simply go beyond the pale. It stems from the traditional uprightness of the sport itself, its respected laws, and the sporting conduct of its practitioners. When John Major unwisely (at least as far as political expediency is concerned) told us to ‘get back to basics’ in the ‘90s, he exemplified the point by saying that it would be a good idea for people new to Britain to understand the laws of cricket, for therein the foundations of civil society lie exemplified. To Tom Brown, cricket was ‘more than a game’: it was ‘the Birthright of British boys, old and young, as trial by jury and habeas corpus are of British men’. The historical weight of this kind of symbolism makes it all the more galling that cricket is being besmirched by corruption and greed, and is taking place in an atmosphere of suspicion and bad blood. Cricket at the moment is, for want of a better term, ‘not cricket’.

In Pakistan, cricketers are the nation’s rock stars. At the top of their profession, these men are incredibly well paid and serve as the admired idols of millions. Amid Pakistan’s social, political and environmental catastrophes, the national cricket team has had the opportunity to represent the spirit, the pride, and the hope of a nation. The abject miseries of a people can be lifted by experiencing vicariously the successes of their brethren. The spirit of emulation – in diligence, perseverance, and skill – may foster better days. The charges before these young and privileged professionals, and the officials surrounding them, are grave. What shall we think if it transpires that they had not the strength of character to refuse the advances of bookmakers and the glistering prizes of corruption? It would be a disgrace. That the Pakistani Cricket Board throws stones from within its small glass house is shameless. That honourable men must consider defamation suits against dishonourable men within the world of cricket will do long-term damage to the game. And above all, that the people of Pakistan, in desperate times, may see their heroes on the make, will pour scorn on their own travails. A wounded nation can not be expected to endure these insults.

Although I am certain that the cancer will be cut out of the game, the recovery will be slow. It is not only the cheats who will not prosper. The honest are tainted by the misdeeds of their peers, and the public has had its trust shaken. Decisive action is necessary in order to demonstrate that the game values its integrity before all other considerations. I trust that the authorities will have the courage of their convictions.

September 19, 2010

A Robust Diversion

My friends, I am still without a reliable internet connection in Berlin, and in any case I have been tied up with the coarse twines of bureaucracy. It is to be expected after such a move. All will be functioning somewhat normally by the middle of next week, I hope. In the meantime, allow me to direct your attention to a growing repository of film reviews that take a more serious tone than the genre typically allows. In particular, I was struck by this four part review of First Blood, seen through the eyes of a man who was not born at the time of the film’s release. I grew up drawing pictures of Stallone, having found something in his characters that reached the incipient man in my boyhood imagination. In Rocky and Rambo, Stallone created emblems respectively of the American dream and the American nightmare, and I would humbly suggest that whatever sins the man later committed in the world of film, these two pictures stand as masterpieces. Each holds rewards that surely makes them worth revisiting.

September 13, 2010

Sober Thoughts

One of the lowlights of training for a long-distance run is the realisation that one would be better off without alcohol. I am by no means of puritanical bent, but nevertheless I went ten weeks without so much as a drop passing my lips. After that amount of time, the wagon is far above the road, and the fall from it is all the more treacherous. But I can take my lumps with the best…

How much should a man drink? I talk not of matters relating to health. A man is free to drink himself to an early grave should he so choose, and so long as he takes no other with him. Likewise, a man may be teetotal if he pleases, and if it helps him to run marathons. But these are rare exceptions, and we must discard them. The question is really how much makes a man unmanly? To this I offer no volumetric statistics. Every man knows his own body. And everyone knows when he’s had too much.

The Italians have the right idea(!). The bella figura is a matter not only of outward elegance, but also of inward composure. One must be in control of all one’s faculties, and be highly attuned to one’s society. Alcohol has the irritating effect of dulling our sense of propriety, and muting our inhibitions. These things are matter of self-reflection, and we must be mindful of holding on to this internal dialogue with ourselves. Should we lose this capacity, we have consumed too much. In short, a man may drink, but only insofar as he is able to think. Being drunk no doubt has its merits, in certain times and places, and among certain friends. On the whole, however, it is a state that nobody likes to see, much less experience, and its evils far outweigh its joys.

September 05, 2010

Marathon Memoir, or, Notes on Commitment

My faithful readers, I have adhered to my promise of some months ago not to bore you with details of my arduous training regime in preparation for the Montreal marathon. Now that the regime, not to mention the race, is over, I hope you’ll permit me a few words on the subject.

Over the past weeks, the only respite from chronic pain has been the occasional spike of acute agony. Serious runners will talk incessantly about technique, stretching and all the rest but, be those things as they may, my view is that if it isn’t painful then there’s not much point. After all, if preparing for a marathon was little different from walking in the park, there would be little sense of achievement attached to the thing. In the last three months or so, I have had blisters, a bloody ankle, runners knee(s), and inflammation of the IT band (too dull to explain). I have run the best part of 300 miles, eaten a hundred-weight of pasta, lost two inches off an already respectable waistline and added them to my calves. The temperature for most of my training averaged around 30 Celcius, but peaked at about 45 for several days in July. Most of the time it has been misery. But it is done.

For those of you who care about such things, my time was 3:43. I missed my target time by a minute, but will not grumble. My half-marathon split was much more impressive, clocking in at 1:44. It will not take a mathematical genius to determine that I slowed down. A brief word on ‘the Wall’: I hit it at about the 20-mile mark and it stayed with me until close to the finish. Afterwards it returned. I can only describe it as something akin to being twice one’s regular weight and having to run through treacle. Finishing in such a state is a singular mixture of euphoria and desolation. I cannot imagine what it must feel like not to finish.

Sticking with a thing when it seems like it can’t be done is a quality that is perhaps more scarce these days than of yore. Part of the reason I ran this race was to see if I possessed it (happily confirmed). The Victorians called it ‘pluck’ but, however one labels it, one can’t help reflecting that the most common response to adversity in the twenty-first century is to give up. Resignation does not flatter us, but it is easy to do. You might say that a marathon is of no consequence – a commitment to a trifle – but I say it is emblematic. A man must know what he can endure, for life itself is a marathon. We do not choose to set about it, but since we are in the race we might as well do our level best. Everybody will meet unwelcome inclines, uneven roads, and inclement weather. I won’t labour the point. It will suffice to ask the pertinent questions: when we finish will it be with the sense of satisfaction of a job well-done? If we fail shall it be gallant or pathetic? Shall we lament that we might have tried harder, or shall we leave it all on the road?

I shall resume ‘normal life’ as soon as my legs recover. A new challenge lies in store, however, about which more anon. Before I sign off, a brief acknowledgment in the direction of the Australian man, running a marathon a week for 52 weeks, who provided me with perfect and encouraging company for the middle 8 miles or so of the race. Truly a manly individual.
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