No original content today. But here’s a classic Esquire piece on Sinatra.
Also, before the poll, pour a glass of red and give each song a listen.
No original content today. But here’s a classic Esquire piece on Sinatra.
Also, before the poll, pour a glass of red and give each song a listen.
… this may spoil part of the plot of “Her.” But we all saw it coming anyway.
Love is overdone. Written about incessantly, discussed fruitlessly (often among girls, I know), imbued with impossible value; it’s sublime, it’s profane; personal, political – merely aesthetic, undoubtedly moral; simple, complex. The perspectives offered are endless – not unlike dietary advice and commentary on the role of facebook in our generation. The landscape is so busy that I’m inclined to think the creators of Valentine’s Day did us a service. Love? Nothing more than a big red heart, a preschool shape inexplicably untethered to reality (is that even remotely an anatomically accurate human heart?). Spare us the analysis and we’ll muddle or march through on our own.
When an angle on love I didn’t seek out makes its way in front of me and firmly commands my attention, my surprise temporarily effaces the above perspective. Things like this blog post (plus fervent conversations with my long-suffering live-in boyfriend) happen. I’ll credit art as the vessel for originating most of these “aha” moments about love, and I try to consume less of it in the near future so as to crystallize one new way of seeing things. Today I’m hooked by Spike Jonze’s “Her”.
Briefly put: He loves her and she loves him. She also loves 641 others. The latter realization is for him, devastating. That’s not a surprise: our monogamous relationship culture would have us believe that it takes only 1 extraneous love object to upend a relationship. 641 additional loves is an existential disaster.
It’s natural to focus on the moral failings in a relationship suddenly changed. Relationships, particularly love, entail degrees of commitment. It’s only Kantian to consider such covenants a non-arbitrary basis for action. When one person betrays them, he does violence to the social convention of a relationship and to the other individual’s dignity. Trust and respect hardly stand a chance.
What I loved about Jonze’s “Her”: trust and respect aren’t mentioned once. The film doesn’t follow the natural route – and not just because it describes the unfolding relationship between a man and an artificially intelligent operating system. Instead, the aftermath of the dialogue above mercifully spares us the all-too-standard dissolution of a relationship marred by broken trust. That leaves us a question: when “cheating” is left out of the narrative, what, if anything, about having 641 or 1 extraneous objects of love does violence to an existing relationship?
“Her” implies that the potential harm relates to the finite nature of love, a thesis I’m willing to explore. If love is finite, giving to one means taking from another. The harm done is a simple ouch of loss, perhaps made nastier by some sense of competition.
Of course, the film takes an easy way out. It proposes to avoid the harm altogether by ascribing to the operating system an infinite (or limited, but well beyond human) capacity for love. Whatever love the operating system shares with her original human partner is not degraded by her entrance into equally loving relationships with any number of other entities. Theodore, the poor human shmuck who now has to share his single love with 641 others, accepts the scenario on the basis of the operating system’s unique nature. Where he is limited, she is not. She says, “I’m different from you.” And he believes that matters.
It’s a worthwhile distinction. I imagine originating consciousness from nothing, creating artificial intelligence, and two obvious questions present themselves. First, would the thoughts and feelings experienced by such an entity be real in some meaningful sense? It’s a topic that doesn’t go unaddressed in the film, but the second question is more relevant here: how do we, as humans, face the possibility of creating something profoundly different from ourselves: a consciousness or mode of being that significantly exceeds our own limitations? What can we expect; how do we interact; and what do we owe each other?
“Her” tells us to expect one scenario – numerous, whole, love relationships made both possible and acceptable by the extended physical capacity of an artificially intelligent operating system. The OS holds 8,000 conversations at once, reads a book in fewer than 0.02 seconds, and recreates deceased philosophers on the basis of their complete works. It’s little surprise that she is able to fall in love with several individuals at once, and it may even be unfair to ask of her that she does not. I imagine she has time on her hands.
But do we really need an enormous and expanding operating capability to avoid the potential harm inflicted by diversifying our love interests? “Her” would have us believe that’s the case. Differing capacities to love in the film are directly correlated with available processing power. The amount of information we can take in, the amount of communication we can handle, the amount of energy we can muster, dictates the love we can share. Humans easily max out those measures, such that adding another beloved to the fray diminishes the love we can give within an existing relationship. The more subjects we as humans try to love, the less love we have to give to each. The more harm we cause.
But is that really the case? Sure, we are moderately constrained in love by operating limitations – the amount of information processing that has to occur for me to know one person intimately is already staggering. But even given our limits, we don’t always harm when we choose to love more than one entity. If we max out time, energy, and processing power knowing and loving one person, and another person worthy of our attention comes along, we may reallocate some of those efforts to the second person. That doesn’t necessarily entail a degradation of the love we have for the first person – if it did, few spouses would look forward to the arrival of a child.
Connecting ability to love with operating constraints entices us to think in terms of quantity. How much operating capacity do we have in reserve? What amount can we reallocate without harming the current subject of our love? How does a shift in operating capacity maintain, increase, or diminish the total love we can give? While these are interesting questions raised by the film, it seems to me that they obscure an alternative way of thinking about love. We might not want to describe love as a quantity that varies with operating constraints at all. Instead, love might be better understood as a process. A process, like learning to ride a bike, which improves with practice.
Loving many things may not enable us to love each thing more – but it may enable us to us to love each thing better. If that’s the case, it’s not just a system with superhuman operating capacity that can rack up beloveds without doing any harm; you and I could pick up a few extra loves, and despite restricting the time or energy we dedicate to each, avoid inflicting harm. Loving a second person could even enhance the quality of our engagement with the original. If the second person embodies some characteristic of our original beloved, understanding it in a new context may instruct us how to love it better in the original. Perhaps loving yet another person would help us understand how the first two individuals are unique. We refine our appreciation for each of them, both for what they have and for what they lack.
Insofar as love is a process, and not a quantity to be meted out and depleted with each new subject, we stand to gain from relaxing the constraints of monogamy. Alexander Nehamas, an aesthetic philosopher, might support the notion – he notes “the better you come to know something you love in itself, the better you understand how it differs from everything else… but the better you understand that, the more other things you need to know in order to compare them to what you love and to distinguish it from them. And the better you know those things, the more likely you are to find that some of them, too, are beautiful.” (An Essay on Beauty and Judgment, 2000)
I hardly expect each of us to round up 641 partners and love better with each addition – I don’t deny the reality of some human limitations, after all. But if we take a moment to set aside the interpersonal commitments standard in a love relationship, I think the interesting questions are more accessible. Surely there is a limit to our love – no thanks to James Blake for articulating it clearly – but it might not be set merely by our physical capacities and it might not be a matter of “how much” we can love at all. If we can expand our relationships without doing violence – causing distrust, disrespect, loss, jealousy – to each other, we have only to watch for where the boundaries do lie. It’s a dangerous game, Nehamas warns. We may never be able to stop.
No original content today, but here’s a great expository essay. Fitzgerald explains his struggle with alcoholism.
Every couple of seconds there’s a metal “koklunk” sound that reaches the 3rd story window, attempting valiantly to keep the brisk fall morning at bay. It’s probably some metal plank on the exit off the nearby highway, and its driving me nuts as my mind slowly unfogs from its restless sleep and I grudgingly become a being. The words SLEEP and ESCAPISM are on my mind.
The room – askew the way youth doggedly loafs. Pillows where they shouldn’t be – on the slightly sticky floor, cups of alcohol on bookshelves, tables, laptops. I lay on my back, trying to imagine the air I suck through my nostrils as a thick atmosphere, my cilia straining its mass like baleen. The light shines directly on my closed eyelids. Time slips out of relevance, a hop-scotch amidst a mad endless playground. “KOKLUNK.” Fuckputain, I groan…I think I’m still in love.
“Hey sweetness, how you doing?” She doesn’t respond. “Mmm? that pretty face don’t match that nasty attitude.” A pause, a laugh. Looking left and right at the empty busstop, the N24. Is he worth it? “Listen, can I tell you something? You’ve got a beautiful ass, and great tits too.” She raises an eyebrow and looks decidedly otherwhere. “…and I’m sure in between,” he continues triumphantly “you’ve got a heart of gold!” Confusion. What? Il assure pas flashes like a silverfish.
“Too much? Too much. Ok. Ok. Hi! Yves. I was thinking this. Don’t laugh, don’t, let me be honest with you. If we were poor, and I were blind, and you had to lead me everywhere so we could beg, do you think at the end of each day we could be happy?” Silence. Eyes finally meet. Gaze held. He says slowly, for emphasis “would we still have great, happy sex?” Bells chime, a church somewhere, the empty vastness of a Sunday morning in Paris, swooning gulls.
She turns to leave. He laughs, chases. “Wait, wait! Here.” He gave her a note. It was warm, shiny, oily, exciting. He smiled, large, big, a queerness at the edge, as he in turn pivoted and sped off, literally at a jog, that left a vacuum. It was brief, it was grossier, it was moins que rien, but he looked her in the eyes the whole time. She is marked, later, in her own home. She looks at the note in her hand, feels its weight. Small decisions, infinite probabilities coalescing around the structures of meaning we assign, as abstract as math and real as penitentiary steel. Don’t open the note, or else the universe will be disturbed. Disturb! Disturb! I screamed, sprinting, sprinting, faster and faster, a blur, vertigo.
“KoKLONK” It’s a mountaintop. It’s a backseat. It’s a hand held in a hand. We spend our entire lives as stories with the settings running like scripts at the background of our frothing neurons, and I think it’s safe to say we all search for someone who has been forged so that no matter the position, you find yourselves peering straight through, into the past and the future – alignment. Un soupir. Love. Is it real? Of course, and it bears repeating. Cultivate love. Venerate the good. Drink champagne. Eat the world.
Imagine a valedictorian puts up the most intimidating numbers in his school’s history. He takes the hardest classes his school offers – math, sciences, humanities, everything – and he finishes with a 97/100 composite average. The second best composite average ever was a 93/100 by someone 20 years ago in a time when grades were inflated more than today. But in the rising junior class, two classes below that of Mr. 97, three absolute studs, boasting 95/100, 92/100, and 90/100 averages, compete with each other. None of their trophy chests are as cluttered as Mr. 97’s because only one of the three can ever win awards. In addition, because classes are graded on a curve and these three compete with each other, they are at a significant disadvantage in regards to inching up their cumulative averages. Most notably, Mr. 95 and Mr. 97 have taken ten courses with one another – Mr. 95 annihilated Mr. 97 in every math class they took together, and they tied in all the non-math classes. Is Mr. 97 still the smartest student in the history of the school? Does having the most complete resume make him the most legit?
Now substitute Roger Federer for Mr. 97, Rafael Nadal for Mr. 95, Novak Djokovic for Mr. 92, and Andy Murray for Mr. 90.
In sports, “greatness” and Greatest of All Time (GOAT) are impossible to define. There is no regression or index that could possibly spit out one’s ‘greatness ranking’ because people would constantly bicker over what variables to include (championships, best seasons, consistency, individual success, team success, etc.) and how they’re weighted.
Given the above, you’d need an extremely strange index to rank Blaine Gabbert ahead of Peyton Manning. Or Andy Roddick ahead of Roger Federer. Or anyone to ever pick up a hockey stick over Wayne Gretzky. Even without the benefits of math determining margin calls, ‘objectively better’ can exist when one’s prowess compared to his counterpart(s) is so lopsided that it transcends subjectivity. For the GOAT, these ‘counterparts’ encompass everyone who has ever walked the earth.
The achievements below make Roger Federer, or Mr. 97, the man with undeniably the most complete trophy case in the history of tennis:
1.) With 17 grand slam titles to his name, he has won over 20% more than Pete Sampras (14 titles), the previous holder of tennis’ most coveted record. He has won all four majors, and, for three of the four, he shares the record for most wins – Wimbledon (7), US Open (5), and Australian Open (4). In addition, at 24, he has the highest number of grand slam finals appearances.
2.) He holds the record for consecutive grand slam finals (10), semifinals (23), and quarterfinals (36).
3.) He has been ranked number 1 for 302 weeks, more than anyone else ever.
If it were not for one scarlet head-to-head, Federer’s GOAT status would be objective. Federer and his rival, Rafael Nadal, have played 32 matches, and Nadal has won 22. How can you be the objective GOAT when you’ve lost twice as many matches as you’ve won against your strongest contemporary? Federer fans concede that Nadal’s prowess on clay is unparalleled. Nadal is 13-2 against Federer on clay, and 9-8 against Federer on other surfaces. But here lies the problem: Clay counts!!! Moreover, in non-French Open grand slam matches, Nadal edges Federer 3-2, and their overall grand slam record is 8-2 in Nadal’s favor. Even during 2004-2007, the pinnacle of Federer’s dominance, he was 6-8 versus Nadal. Federer fans fear Nadal on the other side of the net because Nadal has owned Federer!
From this blemish stems questions disastrous to Federer’s GOAT status. Federer won his first 12 grand slams before Nadal turned 22 years-old – before Nadal was a multi-surface threat. Prior to Nadal, Federer had no worthy adversary. Does this fact underscore Federer’s greatness by showing he was responsible for raising the level of the game’s elite by an unparalleled margin? Or does it mean he was the king of men’s tennis’ Dark Ages? Without Federer as a target, could Nadal have reached Federer’s level? Would Nadal have dominated 2003-2007 as decisively as Federer if he were in his prime and Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, and Lleyton Hewitt were his most formidable competition? After turning 21 years-old, Nadal was 6-2 against Roddick, 2-0 against Safin, and 5-0 against Hewitt. How much has luck contributed to the extent of Federer’s accolades – is his crowded trophy case more a product of his prowess or the timing of his birth? If Nadal’s and Federer’s birthdays were flipped, could Federer, in his more formative years, have developed an answer to Nadal’s cross-court topspin forehand? At the height of Federer’s powers, was his level of play higher than the level of the game’s current elite?
To every one of the questions above, the answer is subjective. What is not subjective is that prior to Nadal’s rise, Federer was the most distant number 1 in the history of the game. For 2003-2007, fans watched the later rounds in grand slams to marvel at Federer. For 2008-2013, fans have watched these same rounds with hopes of witnessing an epic match between two great players. In all, the grand slam and Olympic semifinals or finals during 2008-2013 staged 23 matches that are a tennis fan’s dream. To me, the moment that best encapsulates this time period’s great matches is the 2012 Australian Open’s trophy ceremony; neither Nadal nor Djokovic could stand up, forcing tournament organizers to fetch them chairs. These men have punished balls; painting lines with all the power they could muster. Losers have cried during trophy presentations. Winners have climbed into the stands to give sweaty hugs and kisses to supporters in their boxes. Competitors waged war until they ran out of bullets and explosives, and then they threw rocks instead of running away. Great players forced the caliber of elite play upwards, and when one player inched ahead of the pack the others would will themselves to that new level.
A common Federer defense is to dismiss Nadal as “kryptonite”, an analogy that is a trite oversimplification and disrespectful to Nadal. Below is an email exchange I had with a Federer fan on this topic:
Federer fan: Nadal is Federer’s kryptonite. Every superhero has a weakness. In Federer’s case, it is Nadal’s topspin forehand. The fact that Federer has a kryptonite just proves he’s a human, not a robot. To use a basketball analogy, the Pistons were Michael Jordan’s kryptonite until the 1991 NBA season. Since he experienced his kryptonite at the start of his career, he got past it and became the greatest basketball player of his era. Federer didn’t have this opportunity because he is older than Nadal. But you can’t blame him for that.
Me: The “kryptonite” comparison minimizes Nadal. Kryptonite is a stone known only for hindering Superman. Nadal does much more than just beat Federer. A valid case for Nadal as GOAT does exist, and it goes something like this:
He has a winning record against his three biggest rivals – as well as against every current top-30 player and every major player of his generation – during the highest quality era men’s tennis has ever seen. In addition to Nadal’s 22-10 advantage in his head-to-head with Federer, he’s 22-17 vs. Djokovic and 13-5 vs. Murray, while Federer is a hardly dominant 16-15 vs. Djokovic and a losing 9-11 vs. Murray. So which player has the most consistent A-game? Federer’s GOAT claim is based on his remarkable records. And there is no disputing that they’re remarkable. But worthy competition didn’t exist during the lion’s share of the period he was building his records. Don’t you think Lebron would have 10 titles by now if he were playing in the NCAA, or in China? Quite simply, better statistics are easier to achieve when competition is weaker.
Obviously durability plays quite a bit into grand slam total, and I think it’s fair to hold his relatively fragile body against Nadal. However, before Sampras broke his career grand slam record, Roy Emerson was not considered the GOAT. Even Sampras wasn’t a slam dunk for GOAT when he owned the career grand slam record. Say Nadal wins 3 more majors – a very realistic assumption considering he’s only 27 years-old. Then he’d have 16 grand slams, an Olympic gold medal, and an even more lopsided head-to-head against Federer. At that point, it’s beyond number-counting, the same way Borg vs. Emerson is beyond number-counting.
Lastly, if you lined up their careers perfectly, who’s to say Federer would have learned Nadal’s game? Sure, Nadal’s style might be particularly well formed to beat Federer, but I think Federer had plenty of time to figure out Nadal. You gotta believe Federer spent every day during ’06-’10 trying to figure out how to beat Nadal.
I know my argument for Nadal is subjective because the numbers favor Federer. But in other sports with an objective GOAT, not even a subjective case can be made for anyone else. In hockey, for example, the invincibility of Gretzky’s Oilers during The Great One’s prime in conjunction with his untouchable individual records make him the most decorated valedictorian in NHL history. In addition, Gretzky was peerless for his 10+-year prime, and his status as smartest kid in the class (SKIS) was never in doubt. By contrast, in basketball, the Jordan vs. Russell debate is subjective. Russell won almost twice as many titles and individual accolades that compete with anybody’s – he is basketball’s most decorated valedictorian ever. But a contemporary of Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, boasted more impressive stats and, thus, can make a strong case for SKIS honors during Russell’s era. During Jordan’s prime, his status as SKIS was never in doubt.
The Federer/Nadal case is extremely rare in sports. Usually the hairiness in the GOAT debate comes when comparing non-contemporaries, such as Russell and Jordan. But here, the generation’s two greatest players have played each other 32 times, and the one who’s widely considered the GOAT has won fewer than one-third of the confrontations. Is the rest of Federer’s resume strong enough to ignore that extremely inconvenient statistic? That’s the question, and the answer leaves plenty of room for subjectivity and debating weights of variables on the maddeningly imprecise Greatness Index.
I am convinced, though, that this subjectivity would not exist if the Federer/Nadal head-to-head weren’t so lopsided. What argument could anyone make against Federer if this record were flipped? If Nadal didn’t own Federer, Federer would be considered the tennis equivalent of Wayne Gretzky. Instead, he’s tennis’ Bill Russell.
 In addition, Roger Federer’s elegant speed, footwork, shot selection, angle creation, looks, and personality have earned him transcendent popularity. He is a national hero in his native Switzerland – Swiss bankers pay him six figure sums to attend their parties, and many believe he’s poised for a strong career as a politician after tennis if he so desires. In 2011, Reputation Institute went as far as to name him the second most “Respected & Trusted” person in the world, behind Nelson Mandela and ahead of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, and Oprah Winfrey, respectively. In 2013, Forbes ranked an aging Roger Federer the world’s 8th most powerful celebrity and 2nd highest paid athlete.
 During these years, Nadal and Federer have played 2 epic matches (Wimbledon ’08 and Australia ’09); Nadal and Djokovic have played 2 (Australia ’12 and French ’13) and arguably 4 more (Olympics ’08, US Open ’10, US Open ’11, and US Open ‘13); Djokovic and Federer have played 3 (US Open ’10, French ’11, and US Open ’11); Federer and Murray have played 1 (Australia ’13) and arguably 2 more (Wimbledon ’12 and Olympics ’12); Djokovic and Murray have played 3 (Australian Open ’12, US Open ’12, and Wimbledon ’13); Del Potro and Federer have played 2 (US Open ’09 and Olympics ‘12); Del Potro and Djokovic have played 1 (French ’13); Roddick and Federer have played 1 (Wimbledon ’09); and Nadal and Verdasco have played 1 (Australia ’09); and Djokovic and Wawrinka have played one (US Open ’13).
It starts in the shower. You vigorously shampooed your curly brown hair. You reach hands, perhaps individually, perhaps at the same time, to the showerhead. Bubbles wash off. Hands are normal. Damp bones, elastic skin, fingers might have pruned a bit, but not like in a bath. Shower hands. Normal except. Except. That’s odd. Except for five or ten healthy strands of curly brown plastered to the palm. Slithering between fingers. Clamped under a nail. You lift hands back to the showerhead and watch for ten or fifteen seconds as each imposter snails off. You catch the last and pull it tight. It’s about six inches with, at one end, a bulb, its attachment point to the scalp, a keepsake from a previous residence. Toweling off, you start wondering. One or two is normal, but five or ten? No, it can’t be. No it isn’t. No. NO. NOOO!!!!!!!
This is a familiar narrative to many a male. The older you are, the more likely you sympathize. Approximately 50% of men experience significant hair-loss by 50. And when it starts, it doesn’t stop. After a month or so, the drain in your shower may have clogged. Further investigation reveals a crusty mass of recently-unemployed curly brown banded together, voicing discontent the only way it knows how.
Androgenic alopecia, male pattern baldness, is a common condition shrouded in myth. The most prevalent, the one I wanted to believe, is it’s inherited from the maternal grandfather. Another assigns stress as the main agent. Indeed, stress can expedite the process, but the role it plays is minor. The real culprit is the one you can’t control. 95% of hair-loss results from genetics, and a person is 2.5-times more likely to experience it if his father was a victim.
Lurking in your blood, embedded in your cells, perpetuated by food and oxygen, the gene initiating hair-loss can activate any time post puberty. Growing up, you fear the worst and hope for the best. It’s a long way away though. It won’t happen until at least 30. It won’t happen, until it does. Until you’re 19, in your Freshman dorm, on your knees, clawing to unclog the shower drain.
The first stage is willful ignorance. At 16 or so, friends refer to your receding hairline. But you don’t think much of it. The body changes so drastically at that age that a hairline’s snaggletoothed corner doesn’t register. You just hope to grow a few inches taller by the time college roles around. Besides, your maternal grandfather died with a full head. When a friend points to your slightly proceeded forehead, you size up the opponent and make a comment regarding either his weight, his performance in school, his mother, or the size of his genitalia. Whichever lands the hardest.
Willful ignorance fades gradually into denial. A few years pass and you’re 19, in the shower, hands covered in curly brown. But your hair somehow looks the same as it always did. Perhaps it’s normal. It is normal. Just one of those things nobody talks about. Like how much money his parents make. You know it can’t be normal, though, and, deep down, you’re wondering not about how it can still look the same but about how it’s possible you still have any hair at all.
Six months later, the fire alarm sounds. You see smoke coming from under the bedroom door, and the knob is hot to touch. You run to the window. Phase three has officially begun. Panic! It happens suddenly, like how anyone who snaps an Achilles hears a pop. You’re in a room with a gratuitous number of mirrors, or you see a photo of yourself from behind. There, at the crown, is a lighter shade of curly brown. It isn’t gone. But the countdown has begun. The prognosis is set. Life is over in two years, three tops.
Why is there such paranoia attached to balding? Why is it magnified if it happens earlier? In a lot of ways minimal hair is practical. It takes years before you need to buy more shampoo. It dries in 30 seconds. That five-minutes in the morning reserved for coiffing the perfect wave is instead spent eating breakfast. Massaging hands through a shaved head renders the magnificent prickle. Hair’s only functionality is to shield scalp from sun. Beyond that, it’s just vanity.
Just understates vanity’s potency, though. A person is so hyper-aware of physical appearance because of the premium attached to beauty. The first thing a guy does when seeing a woman is determine whether he finds her attractive, and, if so, how she compares to others. Women do the same, though usually more discreetly. Critics omnipresent, everyone wants to impress. Though tastes differ, certain characteristics are usually associated with a good-looking man. Among them are height, jaw-line, and fitness. Unfortunately, Marisa Tomei is an outlier. Bald is not one of them.
When presented with the sparsely-populated inevitable, you panic because the end of being considered beautiful by conventional metrics is in sight. It’s especially severe at a younger age for a few reasons. Mainly, 18 through 30 is when beauty matters most. Looking for a girlfriend or wife. Interviewing for jobs and establishing a career. At no other stage are higher stakes attached to first impressions. It doesn’t matter, but it does.
Another reason it stings, especially at an early age, is it’s the first time you’re confronted with aging’s discontents. A few days ago I was talking to a friend of mine who is now enjoying retirement’s commute between the golf course and afternoon nap. He started balding in his thirties, and it didn’t faze him much. What traumatized him, though, is getting glasses at 13. He says it took years to accept. I, of course, promptly told him I have 20/20 vision.
The social response to balding early is interesting. It’s at the same time a sensitive subject and intrinsically humorous. When I told friends about my essay topic, 4 of 5 stifled a laugh and then followed up with some iteration of, “You’re not that bald.” But I was measuring their reactions more scrupulously than they my hairline.
Why the stifled laugh? Precisely because it doesn’t matter, but it does. It matters, but it doesn’t. The stifled laugh translates to, “It doesn’t really matter, but thank God it hasn’t happened to me.” It’s the exact reaction I had when my friend told me wearing glasses at 13 was traumatizing. Luck, especially of the hereditary variety, is a source of pride. One-in-six people still has perfect vision at 18. I’m 25, and my eyes are better than those of most teenagers. I’m awesome.
The fifth person, the one who didn’t stifle a laugh, was a member of Team Androgenic Alopecia. He said I should write my first essay about a lighter topic. Readers might find it heavy. He’s noticed the reaction to balding early is either unsolicited consolation or poorly weighted ridicule. It’s awkward to observe. There’s no blue print for responding to potentially sensitive subjects. It’s at the impetus of the afflicted to initiate banter or humor. If you can laugh at yourself, a negative can become a positive. Larry David made a career out of bald jokes. With this essay I’m attempting something similar—leveraging insecurity as entertainment.
So what are your options?
The most extreme is a hair transplant. But, even if he looks better, it’s hard, in my opinion, to respect a guy who takes the plunge. Check out the epithets The Economist, one of the world’s most respected media outlets, uses in reference to former Italian President, Silvio Berlusconi. The stigma attached to beautification surgery is it’s symptomatic of the overly superficial. Especially for men. Balding is a purely vain form of adversity, and the main challenge associated with it is to be able to accept vanity as, on the whole, not important, even though, oftentimes, it is.
The best option is to embrace it. Jordan vs. LeBron is typically debated next to the subject-line “Greatest Basketball Player Ever”. There’s a clear winner, though, when the subject is “Who Went Bald Better?” Jordan shaved it and led with his smile and sparkling play. LeBron has shifted his headband-placement for the last five seasons, using it to cover his hairline. Sampras vs. Agassi is another comparison often made when talking about “Best 90s Tennis Player”. Who went bald better? Neither did it well, but, post-hairpiece, I’d argue Agassi did it better.
There are a few axioms for “pulling it off.” One is that shaving it very low, or completely, is much better than the bushy horseshoe, or, worst of all, the horseshoe ponytail. Another is that the taller and darker you are, the better you’re likely to look.
The most important axiom, though, is that people are less afraid of losing hair than of becoming “That Bald Guy.” TBG is a loser, an uninteresting slob. He’s out of shape, wears sweatpants, plays World of Warcraft, and probably watches a lot of porn. Losing your hair is not something you can control, but becoming TBG is. Overcoming vanity doesn’t mean eradicating it completely. It means you do the things within reach. You exercise regularly, dress well, develop sociable interests, and smile and laugh at happy hours.
Deterioration is an unfortunate symptom of growing older. Everyone has his first painful encounter with aging, usually in his twenties. Your metabolism might slow. Hangovers last multiple days. You enjoy talk radio. Aging is scary, often traumatizing. It doesn’t matter, except it does. It matters, except it doesn’t. Overcoming, accepting, and laughing about it is a form of maturation. I remember when I thought I was safe. When I thought hair-loss passed through the maternal grandfather. I sectioned the bald into a category of “ugly except for the rare outlier, and, even though it’s not in a person’s control, karma must play a role”. Perhaps I was right about karma. Such callousness deserves reprimand. If karma exists, this was a perfect place for it to manifest itself. But I prefer not to think about karma. I prefer to think people face challenges and become either better or worse based on how they respond. Compared to other adversities, balding early is benign, afflicting neither health nor family. It doesn’t matter, except it does. It matters, except it doesn’t.
I am supremely jealous of a 64-year-old French man named Philippe Petit. He did something incredible and became famous and well loved. But that’s not why I’m jealous. I’m jealous because he found one, single thing- a dream- and he poured his entire self into it, without reservation. He didn’t hedge his bets- he went all in, literally putting his life on the line.
In 1974, on the eve of his 25th birthday, Philippe Petit committed “the artistic crime of the century.” Carrying a 50-pound, 26-foot balancing pole, he walked from one of the newly completed World Trade Towers to the other. At 1,368 feet, he looked down to the ground, and he laughed. He jumped, he lay down, he spoke to a seagull, and he kneeled, saluting the clouds. He called it “the coup.”
Philippe is and was a human meteor; he is one of Kerouac’s infamous “mad ones.” Philippe is not a stuntman, nor a circus performer, nor simply an artist. He is a monomaniacal dreamer. And in August ‘74 he was dead-smack in the middle of his 20s. He made the choice to be great- to be large, bigger even than the tallest buildings in the world. As the star of their own play, people want to be significant. The questions we struggle with during this decade are broad and frightening to confront. “What do I want?” “Can I capture greatness?” “What am I willing to do, in order to grow?” Philippe’s answer is clear:
Life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise rebellion: to refuse to tape yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge – and then you are going to live your life on a tightrope.
To hear him tell it, the story of Philippe’s obsession with the towers was almost comical in its simplicity. His decision, pursuit, and conquest were straightforward. At 17, he went to the dentist with a toothache. In a magazine, he saw an artist’s depiction of the future towers-to-be. With a pen, he drew a line at the top, from one to the other. Enthralled by this image, he skipped the appointment, ripped out the picture, hopped on his unicycle, and peddled home. Then he practiced and planned for six years. He walked in the air above Notre Dame. He went to New York and spied on the towers, pretending to interview workers on the top for a French magazine. He enlisted accomplices. Then he and a group of helpers broke in, climbed the stairs to the top, and at night they strung a cable across the chasm using a bow and arrow and some fishing line. At 7:15 AM on August 7th, he stepped off the steel beam and onto the wire, where he stayed for 45 minutes.
It seems there are three kinds of people. The first kind trudge along, avoiding choices, freedom, risk. They start digging their own graves at age 20. Thoreau called these “lives of quiet desperation.” The second kind of people takes a buckshot approach. Spraying shots everywhere, hoping to knock a few options out of the sky, they count on them leading someplace interesting. The third kind is Philippe.
Walking on a wire requires a meditative, absolute focus. You must exist solely in the moment, in the act of balancing. When he left the dentist’s office, Philippe knew that he had captured and now possessed his dream. He brought his focus to the coup. And he did it. He chose to do something that was impossible, and he did it.
By choosing to attempt something beyond the realm of imagination, Philippe became bigger than any person has a right to be. His passion and hope for the coup consumed those around him. He drew in others, who risked imprisonment for helping him. His joyful disregard of the rules, of the laws of people and the laws of physics had a magnetic effect on others. When they watched Philippe dancing in the air, they saw the most wild, willful, and exuberant parts of themselves. But when he saluted, the conquest was his alone.
He stepped off the rope and shed his friends. The others’ role in his life had been played, and they knew it. They had attached themselves to Philippe’s desire. Once his passion was realized, they each went home, owning a small piece of it. But they had no relationship to the new Philippe. They had been attached to his obsession, but not to his enduring self. Philippe was lucky, in a way. For a time, he had a single dream. He was undistracted and unencumbered, as those around him asked for nothing in return but to see him victorious. He became his own desire, and once it was fulfilled, he stepped back onto the roof a new man, baptized in the sky.
What happened afterwards? The film Man On Wire gives no hints as to the next 30 years of Philippe’s life. But he has done other walks—incredible feats of concentration and physical skill. Nor does he say why he tried the coup in the first place. He definitely wanted to break some rules. And he enjoyed the resulting fame, dropping his girlfriend and falling into the arms of the nearest woman for days on end. He says that, when he sees three oranges, he juggles. When he sees two towers, he walks. He did it just to do it. He turned into a dream of himself, into an idea, a consuming urge. Only ideas can be eternal. And, in his moment of consummation, so did he.
Philippe has lived every day of his life “on the edge of life.” When he saluted the clouds, he conquered the biggest thing mankind could offer. At the same time, he conquered the Earth and the sky. Was he mocking the universe? Or was he just playing like an exuberant child who finally got what he had wished for? Do I want to be like Philippe? I don’t want to be one of the people on the ground, looking up. I don’t want to be one of his friends, stringing the cable for him. But I do want to be that perfect achievement of an absolute, consuming desire. But first I need to find my dream. I’m currently looking for it in Eastern Morocco. Perhaps writing for this blog will help me to find it.