Just another piece of writing

SUNDAY, 30 NOVEMBER 2003

This year has yielded a few good things. Among others, I realized none of my plans is ever going to work out and that I’m probably going to be trapped in an “Exile” essay for the rest of my life. I’ve also learned a few things about life and have written some pieces about it. However, the development that has led to this particular piece of writing is that I have started playing tennis again. This delightful hark back to the days of my youth was due to my friend O. – always on the lookout for someone who can join him in some athletic undertaking.

So it happened that my energetic friend and I were chasing old tennis balls last Thursday afternoon. In the middle of a double fault, I took notice of the people on the court next to us. Anyone who has ever played tennis anywhere in the world would have recognized the spectacle – a coach, and a teenage boy who was sending one perfectly executed forearm after another over the net.

The forearm action was not what impressed me the most. The youngster was dressed in the most perfect tennis attire that one could desire from any tennis magazine. Expensive tennis shoes. Expensive, proper tennis socks. Shorts that were a proper fit, and an expensive, high quality T-shirt with some or other sporting logo. The young tennis player looked good. He would have been able to attract the attention of any teenage girl in the district as much for his impressive forearm action as for the fact that he was a paragon of success: attractive build, athletic abilities, and of course financially successful parents – who else could afford such a perfectly assembled tennis kit?

This young man looked the way I wanted to appear to the world 10, 15 years ago on the courts of tennis clubs in Stellenbosch and in suburban Pretoria. Then it mattered, because at that age you’re eager to compare yourself with others in the area competing for the same spots in the sun. And if you weighed yourself up and found yourself to be a little light in the pants, you usually chucked your hairless tennis balls in your plastic shopping bag, straightened your racquet’s strings, and headed home.

However, there I stood, ten years later, on court number four of the Yang Ming Tennis Club in Kaohsiung. I had on a pair of shorts two numbers too big for me, a white T-shirt with a dragon motif in black, and on my feet a pair of old school socks and a pair of running shoes with worn-out soles. As I was smashing another ball into the net, I thought how gratifying it was that it no longer mattered that I looked the way I did, while the guy on the other court looked like a fledgling Pete Sampras.

Why does it not matter anymore? Because I have something now I had thought a decade ago the best tennis outfit would have given me: I feel good about myself. Why? Because I have found what I like to do; something which I figure I’m at least not worse at than playing tennis. I’m a writer, who runs around on a tennis court for an hour or so once a week with a friend. I’m not a tennis player who at the age of thirty wish I had gone to a foreign country instead, to write essays about the meaning of life. I feel good about myself, and I don’t need expensive tennis shoes and a professional coach anymore to give that to me.

And that’s where this piece would have ended if I could have it my way. But just as I was finally sending the ball with a beautiful backhand down the right line, the internal argument hit:

“So you feel good about yourself because, supposedly, you’re a writer?”

“Well, yes. I write, and I know I don’t write short stories or material for any well-known magazines, but I write.”

“Is it important to actually produce decent literature in order for you to feel good about yourself?”

“I suppose for the formula to work one must certainly not be too lousy at it. You have to be honest. And your identity must be rooted in credible external reality. So, yes. I think if you call yourself a writer, your material should at least be adequate.”

“And your material is adequate?”

“I’m not the best writer of my generation. I’m not even terribly original. I don’t necessarily say what others are not saying. But I say what I want to say, in the way I want to say it. And if I’m going to fail as a writer … well, then it’s something that still has to happen.”

“So you would agree the fact that you feel good about yourself nowadays is possibly based on your own misconceptions and illusions?”

“It’s possible. But life is a struggle, and I’m still standing. So I can’t be doing too badly.”

My friend O. and I finished our game. We wiped the few grains of salt off our brows, finished our sodas and walked away. On the way to our modes of transport I shared with him my thought about how a certain class of tennis player always looks the same, doesn’t matter whether you’re in Taiwan or South Africa.

We laughed about the children of rich people, solo tennis with wooden paddles and hairless tennis balls and how you eventually shake off the feelings of dissatisfaction about yourself after years of torture comparing yourself with people who look so much better in the sun than you.

I mentioned how it sometimes appears as if we spend years constructing our own worlds in such a way that we can eventually feel good about ourselves, so that we don’t have to feel ashamed anymore about the things we couldn’t have had better in our younger days. And, O. added, to be able to laugh about the things we were once so embarrassed about.

But I have never been satisfied with an unfinished argument, and I know the standard for a “good point” is high. After all, I can still get away with a debatable point if my opponent was of flesh and blood, but my differences of opinion these days are mostly with the Internal Man of Steel. He does not tolerate partially assembled arguments, and he does not rest before an issue has been resolved.

“What does it mean to feel good about yourself?” the Man makes his reappearance as I’m starting to pedal home. (“Damn this!” I wanted to shout.)

“Among other things, it comes down to you going through a process by which you identify what is not important to you,” I replied to my own question. “Or you go through a process by which you come to understand that some things are not as important as you once considered them to be. So, you distance yourself from things that don’t matter so much anymore, and the end result is that you feel better about yourself.”

“You mean things like expensive tennis shoes and flawless forearm shots to your professional coach?”

“Yes, to name one example. The process also involves that you identify the things in which you are truly interested, things which are important to you … your talents, your strengths; things you can use to make a success of yourself. The idea is you go through this process, and you emerge at the other end with a better idea of who you are and what you should do to be happy. To eventually …”

“… feel good about yourself.”

“Yes.”

“But what does it matter if you feel good about yourself?”

Dear reader, it’s quite possible that you consider this material to be boring. You may think I constantly harp on the same points. You may think I’m keeping this project artificially alive because I am too much of a coward to confront a more ruthless world in my own country. You may even feel like putting this material down to watch TV instead or maybe going outside to hit a tennis ball hairless yourself against a brick wall.

However, I politely implore you to do me a favour: Imagine what it must feel like to be me.

I cannot take anything for granted. I have to question everything, and at least make an attempt to understand everything. And not even to slide in behind my computer at home to write an essay about it. I must understand in order to function – in this world, in this particular period of the history of human existence, on this planet!

By now I have actually managed to develop an adequate understanding of the world and historical period in which I live. (Don’t have much of a choice: We all know what happens to people who fail to function properly in Polite Society.) I will even be so presumptuous these days as to claim over a cup of tea that I know what the “meaning of life” is, that I even deserve to know, or that I have spent enough years pondering the question to have at least a reasonable idea by now. Other people my age have houses and cars and credit cards and children. I should, after all, have something to say at a social occasion! (“Hello, I’m Brand. I don’t have a house, a car, a credit card or a child, but I do know what the ‘meaning of life’ is …”)

Of course, it’s always possible that everyone knows what the “meaning of life” is, that I’m simply far behind everyone else, like being late for a party and blaming the traffic. And as friends and family share glances I know everyone had to deal with the same traffic to be on time. It was only me who had to stop at every corner to take a smoke break, to survey the landscape and take everything in. And just maybe the so-called meaning of life was never such a big secret from the beginning.

However, why on earth do I ask these questions? And I know I’m not the only one! It does sometimes feel like I’m on a solo mission when I stare out my kitchen window night after night, but I know everyone wonders about these things – or maybe I just hope they do.

Have people always asked these questions? And I’m not talking now of the Greek masters and writers of ancient Rome and Confucius and the Buddha. I’m talking about the peasants and innkeepers and market women and maids and sailors and soldiers from a few centuries ago. Did they know the answers to the important questions of life? Did they wonder about it? How about miners and factory workers in the present day and age, and mothers with curlers in their hair and a baby on the hip, and street sweepers, teachers, tradesmen, lawyers and engineers, and professional tennis players and their coaches?

If serious questions challenge us, how many of us are ready to recite an answer in which we truly believe?

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