Opening Remarks: Beards, Death and PLAY

May 22, 2009

YES, ladies and gents, it’s the glorious month of May. “May” as in “May as well be November.” By all rights this should be summertime, and I should currently be ensconsed on a headland somewhere, watching the sun set over a loving sea as I finish off another bottle of fruit cider – perhaps even sporting an adventurous pair of sandals. Instead, I’m watching another slew of gray stagger along the sky like some old bloke with a stone in his shoe, wondering whether or not it would be excessive of me to add another sheet to the bed. I’m fully aware of the tired old adage about “The Great British Summer”, but this is bloody stupid.

I’ve no doubt in my mind that eventually we’ll get a break in this crap weather, and June and July will conspire to render me a sweat-strewn, shade-seeking wreck of a man. As my nain remarked, it’s a bad time for me to try and start growing a beard – though I personally think the age of twenty-two is a perfectly acceptable time for a man to start growing a beard. Had I grown one at say, six, then she would probably have a point. In any case, I’ve now switched from the dog-eat-dog world of telemarketing, and have found myself in the slightly more comfortable sphere of retail, specifically outdoor gear. Given that my job now consists of trying to flog shoes, tents, sensible shorts and rucksacks, a beard is very much on the cards.

But I’m the first person to admit that the last time I made an attempt at facial hair was a disaster on par with the Bay of Pigs invasion, and I’ve the dodgy passport photo to prove it. Rather than looking like a subversive member of Generation Y (which was probably my intention), I look like a student who hasn’t shaved for a bit. I can almost imagine the disappointment spouted amongst the employees of the passport office when they came across my photograph: “Is it a beatnik? Is it Leon Trotsky? Is it a sexy, offbeat wordsmith who doesn’t play by the rules? Oh no wait, it’s just Iwan. Hoh hum. Pass me the one of that terrorist bloke again”.

Given that I recently went through my twenty-second birthday, I suppose the beard attempt is not only a cunning ruse on my part to make me look all clever and intellectual, but also a way of physically reinforcing just how old I actually am. Unlike the sort of wistful, Peter Pan types who want to stay young forever, I’m fairly keen on the idea of growing older – given that in the scheme of things, that’s what human bodies tend to do. We’re as much of a subject as entropy as everything else and I don’t want to avoid that. I like the idea that my mortal frame is daily assaulted by the sleek missiles of pathology, which wind down my lifespan a tad more in the doing so. In such a light, everything else becomes much more appreciable. And consequently, I’m happy enough with displaying my ever-advancing years. To be honest, I can’t wait to go grey. I may just dye my hair gray for a laugh. Who knows.

Most people will recoil from this sentiment in an “oh, what a morbid bastard!” fashion, but I don’t think my appreciation of mortality implies that I like the idea of dying. Granted, I’m not too big on the idea that one day I will simply cease to be and my consciousness will return to nothingness for the remainder of eternity, but in a roundabout way it seems like a reasonably good deal. Life, the universe and everything say to us “Look, you’ll get a few billion years of non-existence, about eighty years of conscious life, and then you can go back to the billion years of non-existence.” Ergo, given that the ratio of life to un-life (rather than death, which to me is the process between the two rather than its own identifiable state of being) is a tad unbalanced, you have to enjoy what portion of life you have.

Those who know me might be reasonably shocked to discover this. After all, my thrill-level extends no further than occasionally taking sugar in my tea. I’m not one of those people who apparently “live life to the max!” by flinging themselves from aircraft, plunging through caves or engage in chases with predators. But I don’t believe that that is the only way of experiencing the fullness of all of life’s sensations, and it’s a sad thing that we’ve had such tripe sold to us by the adrenaline crowd. I grant you that such intensity of experience can be quite life-affirming, but the benefits of existence can be granted in different ways. Read a good book. Go for a walk on a windy day. Find a good bit of art and do your best to enjoy its being there.

Better yet, talk to people. Find out what they enjoy, explain to them what you enjoy and try to find some common ground. We’re not solitary animals, and with good reason.  Human beings are very big on social ritual, relationships and communication. We came down from the trees partly because we developed such very handy systems of getting the right messages across to the right individuals, and in all sorts of ways too; be they signifiers of “That’s my bit of grass; keep off!” or “Hello there. Would you like to mate?”. These are the things which ease the pitfalls of mortality, reminding us that we are hardly alone in our state.

I grant you that at one point, human life may well have been solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. But now, we have the capacity to step beyond such miserable boundaries; be that through the arts – which, through beauty, makes life less poor – and the sciences – which through medicine and rapidly advancing information technologies, life becomes less solitary, nasty, brutish and short. It’s daft of us to shun such things in favour of continuing our misery, or even re-enforcing it in the name of drab superstition or unbridled fear.

And I’m aware that sometimes it becomes very easy to miss the point. I frequently do so myself, and it’s only through brief stints of introspection that I become aware of it again (that’s partly the reason why I have such things as blogs and notebooks). As of late, my life has often become that dreaded battle between work and “liesure time”, in which I spend my time outside of work reminding myself that I’m not in work. The problem with this way of doing things is that despite any efforts we may undertake to rid ourself of such notions, work kind of wins out in the end. After all, we usually treat our liesure time as a way of “recharging” after work, or a method of “unwinding” in between shifts. Maybe it’s just me, but does anyone else notice the deeply utilitarian shades behind such terms? We “recharge” things like phones and mp3 players in the expecation that we’re going to have to use their energy up soon. Things are “unwound” not because we wish to return them into a smooth state, but because we know there’s windy bits coming up, and we have to get all the kinks out so the rubber band can achieve it’s fully windiful potential.

In the vein of such thinkers as Alan Watts, Bob Black and Dr Stuart Brown, I quite like the idea of PLAY. Again, this might stun some people who know me fairly well, and as such know be to someone who isn’t wholly enamoured with the world of rushing around and physical activity. As a child I never did enjoy playing tip, and I can’t say much in the favour of sports. However, those are not the only things defined by the word “play”. Play can also mean things such as creativity, communicative intelligence and pure light-heartedness – in the vein of the people-connecting stuff I was on about above. Again, as with “living life to the full”, we’ve had an entire possible spectrum of things represented by one word reduced to one single and rather odd sphere of things. We’ve been taught that, despite the axiom of it not being the winning that counts but the taking part, play is about exertion and competition. So-and-so is better than the other so-and-so at football, or running – therefore, so-and-so is the winner and the other so-and-so is the loser. This duality is the be-all and end-all of it, and don’t you dare argue!

This was partly the reason why I never enjoyed P.E lessons or school sports day as a child. I’ll admit this doubtlessly stems from my also having been an unathletic and lazy child (traits which continue proudly into my adult life), but these things were infested with the idea of competition; and worse, it was a competition that I couldn’t win. Worse still, I made the mistake made by every child who isn’t good at sports; perhaps I couldn’t run as fast as one person, but I could write better stories than they could. Rather than outright letting go of the poisonous idea of competition, I simply decided to switch things from a losing game to a victorious one.

To me, it seems that this mindset is filtered down into the academic system by the world of work, which has a vested interest that people should be eager to display the abundance of their talents over the lack of someone else’s. No good at filing? You can move boxes. No good at stacking shelves? You can do pricing (ad nauseum). Plus, this works innately well in an economic and employment sphere based on competition – if you do better than someone else, you get to win more job security. You get to beat the other poor bastard, and quietly rejoice in their downfall.

Yes, it looks like work has infected everything else, turning things which aren’t work into a kind of “anti-work”, once more reducing a spectrum to polarisation. If you’re having trouble digesting this idea, try and imagine how ridiculous it would be if someone proposed that all the colours which were not blue were from now on to be thought of as “anti-blue”, rather than red, green, orange, purple, yellow, gray, brown etc. The whole concept of blue still wins through, because we are defining everything else in its relation to blue, rather than considering all colours in their own equal place on the spectrum.

My advice is that rather than viewing life as a battle between “work” and “not-work”, it should instead be viewed as an entire vast range of states and experiences, of which “work” and “not-work” are only two different possibilities. All the way through, keep in mind the possibility, ingenuity and joy of PLAY – be that writing a blog, drinking a fruit cider out on a summery headland, or growing a beard.

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