Tuesday morning: I am back in my usual seat in the Hope Café, ears pinned for the odd snippet, listening for more vignettes of others’ lives, for the demands of the empty-headed aspiring writer are constant! It is raining outside; inside the umbrella stand is stuffed, its tray almost full, and there’s a smell of damp clothing and hair. The latter is particularly pleasant – not!
The regulars are here, plus those for whom the “Why don’t we get out of the rain and grab a cup of coffee?” is irresistible. In the far corner, sitting by himself and enjoying the contents of a pot of tea, a grey-haired chap is head down into a book, his lips gently and unconsciously forming the words. I recognise the cover, the latest by the American author John Grisham entitled ‘Sooley’. Grisham has written 36 novels, mainly involving lawyers and court cases; they are always well-crafted and gripping stories – you can tell I’m a fan as is, I assume, the man this morning.
Having read Sooley, the story of a gifted basketball-playing teenager from South Sudan who makes it to the United States in search of a better life, I realise only two aspects of the story have stayed with me. One is that keeping up-to-date with the geopolitical news of South Sudan and its northern neighbour Sudan, both countries riven by tribal conflicts, dashed hopes and refugee crises one after the other, is difficult. The other, light years away from the reality back home, is Sooley playing by himself in the American school gym, shooting baskets hour after hour after hour. The dedication required of individuals who want to ‘make it’ is admirable; but playing by yourself is also lonely. Oh! The third thing, sorry I only said ‘two’, is that I know nothing about the art of playing basketball and actually don’t want to!
Funny thing one’s mind. Noticing Grisham’s book cover has got me thinking about all sorts of things, particularly about being alone, playing by yourself, maybe playing with yourself. Sooley is not unusual. Swimmers swim up and down their pool, length after length, two hours before breakfast, alone with their thoughts. Trumpet players lock themselves into a sound-proofed rehearsal room, practising their scales and embouchure. Alone!
The other day Celina and I tried out ‘bouldering’ in the local centre in Portslade. Not quite climbing with ropes, you use handholds to climb up an artificial wall. We went together, but climbed solo. Focused on the task, on the unfamiliar, directing your body to reach here, hold there, up and up! You can play virtually any sport by yourself apart from, by definition, team games; those who try to play by themselves within a team don’t succeed! (Note 1)
From a personality point of view, humans can be divided into those who are generally extroverted and those who are generally introverted. Those who define as extroverted engage with people and things around them; they use the interaction with others as a way of recharging their emotional and physical batteries. Interestingly Western cultures tend to sanction and encourage this outgoing gregarious nature. The flip side are the introverts who find mixing and being with others energetically draining. They much prefer the inner world of concepts and ideas and love their own company.
Practising most activities requires a focus, the coming together of all of one’s abilities and skills, to perform something. My daily challenge of Killer Sudoku is not shared by Celina; when we practise our hot yoga, we share and enjoy the tangible emotional vibes and spirituality of the other attendees, but the focus is firmly on one’s own efforts, the battles with the body and mind and the heat!
My grandchildren seem to enjoy Mindcraft; playing by themselves …… woe betide someone who interrupts at some crucial moment. And that’s true of so much of what we do, painting, writing, talking, acting, designing, curing, cooking whatever; the focus to bring together the skills ….. to do.
Our experiences of ‘lockdown’ are varied and illuminating. A number of people re-found that the art of sewing, painting, and other activities can be very rewarding, (See PC 205 and the Lego Porsche) whilst the interaction with those in the same household more challenging than normal! Playing with themselves was better than playing with others!
Humans can play by themselves and with themselves and this thread reminded me of my large, loveable, black Labrador Tom. Tom used to have wild dreams and some wet ones; it was embarrassing when he sat outside a shop waiting for me, spraying the pavement!! Tom’s facial expression never changed much and it was hard to know whether he was aware of what he was doing! The human experience maybe can be summed up by the drill sergeant opening the door to the National Service squaddies’ barrack room at 0600, screaming: “You ‘orrible lot! Time to get up! Hands off cocks, on socks!” (Note 2)
I notice a number of others are plugged in …… and I plug in my earphones to listen to a podcast! The Times magazine last Saturday covered the phenomenal success of one called ‘Call Her Daddy’ by 27 year old Alex Cooper. Podcasts are a god-send for those who travel, listening to new ideas, old concepts, history, careers, life stories; you will find something of interest. Cooper’s, the fifth most popular ones (Note 3), covers sex, with chats and advice about ghosting, threesomes and masturbation. Two other contributors, Emily Ratajkowski and Heidi Montag, cover issues like body image and orgasms. Asked by the interviewee for her very best sex tip: “I would say the confidence you have in the bedroom should be the same confidence you find within yourself when you’re masturbating.”
Masturbation? Hands up who hasn’t indulged in a little self-help relief and if not why not? Just playing …….
Realising the time, I stuff everything into my Kipling, settle up with Susie and head out into the rain.
Richard 26th November 2021
PS In The Times’ ‘Last Word’ last week: “The best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding.” Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish author. Following this, someone wrote in to the Letters page, saying that her mother firmly believed she was the only person that she could get any sense out of!
Note 1 “There is no ‘I’ in TEAM”
Note 2 National Service in the UK lasted from 1949 to 1960. All 17-21 year old males had to serve 18 months (increased in 1950 to 2 years); women were not included.
Note 3 The first four in the very American-centric list are The Joe Regan Experience, TED Talks Daily, The Daily (an American-focused news digest) and The Michelle Obama Podcast.