Sunday, November 30, 2008
When I was younger I probably partied too much, but I've greatly tempered my behaviour. I go out and socialise, because the alternative is to stay home and get bogged down in nothingness. - Ryk Neethling
It took me 4 days to read Chasing the Dream, the authorised biography of South Africa's swimming sensation, Ryk Neethling. More accurately, 4 nights after work, reading until one or two in the morning. Reading the book made me want to go and swim in the gym (but not until I'd finished the whole book).
Clinton van der Berg does a credible job in his first outing as book writer, maintaining invisibility throughout, and giving the platform entirely to Ryk, whose voice comes through with powerful authenticity.
You may be surprised to hear that Ryk was a shy little boy once upon a time, with some of his reservedness caused by a speech impediment. You may also be interested to know which coach pushed Ryk the hardest, and made him the toughest. Here's a clue - not a US-based coach. Disturbing - the enmity between Dirk Lange and Ryk [His dislike of me was relentless], who had very personal, very angry differences. This reminds one of Jack White's struggles and frustrations with rugby's sport administrators. It's great that Ryk courageously admits these problems - and does so in a way that doesn't seem defeatist or spiteful.
Even so, don't expect a sanitised, self aggrandising story. Ryk calls a spade a spade, and an asshole an asshole.
Ryk draws us into his inner circle of relationships, giving us the inside track on Amanda Beard, Ian Thorpe (see above), Michael Phelps (an entire chapter devoted to him) and sensitively portrays his conflicting feelings between chasing his dream and being there for his ailing sister Elsje. There are also fascinating moments of self-examination, from his own failures (Ryk retired in 2000 before making the switch to short distances), to those of his Broederbond father. Ryk manages to maintain dignity in this honest account of a boy from Bloemfontein, who dreamed big, and went far away to chase those dreams.
For some the many references to meets and times may be confusing, and there are one or two rough patches where the storyline seems to skip forward and then hiccups back slightly. These are the only troublesome bubbles caught up (as you're likely to be) in the smooth pacing of the story. The authentic voice maintains a steady momentum through the froth, which ought to get you through his life story in record time.
The last chapters on the Beijing Olympics are as riveting as the chapters of young Rykie. Will Ryk attempt a fifth Olympics? Buy this book and find out!
Listen to Ryk's 10 Commandments
Order Chasing the Dream here.
5 The Righteous Brothers: "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," single (Philles, 1964)
6 Sinead O'Connor: "Nothing Compares 2 U," single (Chrysalis, 1990)
I started swimming at a very young age. I was swimming with a coach, and training, at the age of 4 (whilst still at nursery school). Swimming suited me perfectly, since as a child I was shy, and quiet in public. I was a bundle of excitably mental and physical energy at home, but I found it very awkward to be around other people (and in a sense, I'm still that way).
I remember for the first months in kindergarten they couldn't get me to play with the kids. I would pitch up and draw for hours. I loved the huge sheets of paper they had, and that we could paint with water colors, or fingerpaint, or play with clay. It took a lot of cajolling to get me to loosen up, and when I did, I went nuts. I even performed in a play at the end of the year, where I had to stand up and shout: "HERE COMES THE KING, LET'S RUN AND HIDE." We used to build forts with planks in the trees. It was a lot of fun. Even so, I found a lot of comfort and thrill in the water, and as I say, in drawing. I loved to draw Disney characters, and what we were seeing on TV and movies (Heidi, Pinnochio, Peter Pan The Rescuers etc.)
I was also following in my brother's footsteps, though not quite. He was able to swim all the strokes perfectly, whereas I had a useless breastroke (it still sucks) and my freestyle was VERY free. My father referred to it as the windmeul [windmill].
My brother though inadvertantly painted a large target on his back. A lot of his friends swam with him and kept him company, whereas very few of my kindergarten buddies were interested, and those who were didn't swim particularly fast. When I tried to hang with my brother's friends, they laughed at me. And so that's how I started to work and focus on my swimming. It wasn't long before I was swimming just as fast as my brother and his pals, and that meant I was the quickest in my age group. One year in primary school we broke a freestyle relay record by 13 seconds. I won a few medals at Aquabears and Sasolburg and I broke a backstroke record at one point, but I was no Ryk Neethling, and I wasn't referring to the performances of American swimmers as he was, I was looking to my brother and people from our club (Otters and Seals, people like Barry Visser, and Allan Louis, and his two brothers).
I went to every Interhigh gala - not a huge feat - but I started with Free State Colors at the age of 7, and got it in Butterfly two years later. Two years after that I was a very serious 11 year old, and I knew who I was competing against. Luke Wollenschlaeger was a giant, and worse, he was a year younger than me. Next to him I was a pipsqueak. There was also Almero Strauss - a quiet, strong, white haired boy from Jim Fauche, and Mark Collie, who would go to Currie Cup. I wanted Free State colors again, and I needed to beat all these boys to get it. So I quit soccer (I was playing first team and Free State soccer at the time) to focus on swimming. I trained six days a week, often twice a day. Sometimes we even trained on Sundays. Some days I cried in my goggles. Other times my arms were too tired to lift to brush my hair. I swam so much when I looked at light bulbs I saw rainbows.
I'm not going to recount the race (I have before on this blog) other than to say Luke and I powered ahead of Almero and touched at the same time, 30.something. They gave me first.
The sacrifices that went into the race, and the 50/50 gamble of who won in the end didn't quite make sense to me. It didn't make the sacrifice worth it. I could also see that my body wasn't quite cut out for swimming (my coach said I was about to grow, but I've always been a bit too short for the sport, although I still have a big chest and long arms). The other thing was that at the same time that I waqs training like hell in swimming, and doing okay, I wasn't training at all in athletics (other than soccer practise) and then I would sneak a 2nd or 3rd in 100 metre sprints, and in the long jump. For many years I was the fastest swimmer and runner in my class, and I was one of the youngest boys in my class. So there was definitely a temptation to try athletics and other sports besides.
At the end of that year Penny Prideaux quit and went to Cape Town. That was a big blow. There was nothing wrong with Simon Gray, except that he came from Welkom and seemed to bring some of my arch enemies (like Mark Collie) from there into the squad...and he started off with quite technical training so I couldn't hear him (we had to write down heart rates etc and I had doctor's instructions to protect my ears so could never make out what he was saying). My first few workouts were miserable.
I had ear problems my whole life just like I had problems with my teeth. I suffered from ear ache, and several times from holes in my ear drums (where the chlorine had literally eaten through). This lead to me breathing on one side, something I still do today. Doctors today comment on the narrowness of my ear tubes; something I believe was an adaptation to those many hours spent in the water as a boy.
In the pool I had a nose clip and stuff in my ears, outside I had external braces. I was a mess outwardly, although inwardly I was the same boy with a strong fighting spirit. The addition of Grey High school, with all the older boys become pubescent assholes, was difficult for me to handle. My brother left as well, and my coach.
And then I left the sport completely for a few weeks.
It wasn't really a spontaneous decision. While I was training for my win, I resolved to take a breather (whether I won or not). And 'then see'. When I won the coach for Grey High secondary approached me, and told me how important I was going to be for the High School. He also wanted me to train in Grey's swimming pool, which I knew wasn't going to work.
Grey shipped in some of the best swimmers from other schools, which made it harder just to qualify for interhigh (you had to come 1st or 2nd). Now I was swimming against 5/6 of the best swimmers in the Free State. So I was often coming third, and often asked to swim the 100 Butterfly to let the other swimmers off the hook.
There are a lot of reasons. Even though I never regained the high level I had as a pikkie, I swam regularly in high school, and probably even more in university (but on my own, focussing on 1500m). I did attempt a comeback, and in matric I tried again, but family stress was worse than ever. In the end, I lost focus. For me, I achieved what I thought was enough for the time - #1 in the Free State. SA colors seemed very vague and hard to pursue (not hard to do as much as hard to figure out what to do and how), and I saw a lot of crazy swimmers in my time (I must have seemed off my rocker at times too), and didn't really see the sport as worth investing in. Especially since I didn't even have clarity on who would coach me, or how. And that was never really resolved.
So I do have a few regrets. I would have liked a better high school stint, but I did try and swimming served me beautifully as a triathlete, and I won races and managed podium finishes after school. My swimming background serves me still ;-)
Running for Your Life - Physical training, good diet and longevity are all tied together - PLUS PODCAST
Why running? Running is the most accessible exercise and arguably the cheapest. It can be done almost anywhere, with the minimum of infrastructure. People who complain that they are susceptible to injury should start off taking long walks.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
NVDL: 'Do what needs to be done'. Wonder what that is...
One of my favorite songs of all time...
Charlie Kaufman has been involved in the likes of hyper-original and seminal masterpieces (Adaptation, Being John Makovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
All of these movies feature miserable losers and mismatched lovers, but it is the intelligence and sensitivity, and the sheer creative freshness, that shines through. Kaufman is Woody Allen on speed: less nerdy, sharper and, well...better.
First, the title. Synechdoche. You say it like this: si-NEK-duh-kee. It's a metaphor of a sort, where a part is referred to as a whole, or the whole refers to a part. For example:
The White House said... (refering to a few government insiders).
The blonde in the red dress...
Cuba scored a home run...
Kaufman renders New York in the story, and his 13 million inhabitants refer to the world (or Kaufman's at least). Kaufman sees each person as the lead role in their lives, no one is an extra. But be warned - Kaufman's movie, unfiltered, becomes very emotionally draining.
Synechdoche. It's the perfect title for Kaufman's story, because it is a self-reflecting story, shooting off in a myriad of increasingly fragmented (but somehow cohesive), often ambiguous directions. One device Kaufman uses here that he has not employed before is leaping through entire lifetimes of his characters, forwards, backwards, forwards. Not a few days, weeks or months, but from childhood to adulthood, adulthood to the very last days of their lives.
For the bulk of this film, many viewers will probably keep up. I believe it was Kaufman's intention to overwhelm the audience, so that eventually they get lost in the size and complicated scope of the film, just as the deteriorating Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) eventually gets consumed by the girth of his theatre project. The question is: did Kaufman get overwhelmed by telling this mammoth story, or did we?
There are some fascinating asides in Synechdoche, among them the silly ambiguities Cotard has to deal with [''No' I'm not dying, or 'No' you can't tell me?']. The casting, as in all kaufman's flicks, is outstanding.
The 4 year old daughter of the theatre director, Olive (Sadie Goldstein)is delightful. Cotard's rebellious (and apparently bisexual) wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is an artist who flees with Cotard's daughter to Germany.
We get some relief from all the misery through Hazel (Samantha Morton), except that her house remains of fire for the duration of the story.
Despite the happy quirks, the tragicomedy and the emotional authenticity Kaufman embues (in his directorial debut), Synechdoche becomes increasingly deep, dark and profoundly miserable. Much of Kaufman's misery is darkly funny, all of it is fantastically complicated.
Kaufman at turns demonstrates the creeping sickness in society. That everything we eat is sick, making us sick. He veers off this topic into the sickness of our thoughts - the mental malaise that is each person's melodrum of madness. There was also the disturbia lurking in the background - the violence and anarchy that is growing behind the walls. This is Kaufman's dystopian view of where the world beyond our immediate experience is manifesting.
Kaufman wants to show everything - the whimsy, the irony, the dreariness, the loneliness, the love, the loss, the dystopia, the joy of living. He wants to mix it up and mess it up in the way life is messed up. Life is filled with hope and despair, disordered, something beautiful, often gross, sometimes grossly funny. It's confusion with a few stepping stones that make sense through the whirling humdrum of it all. But overall, it's an unholy miserable mess which Kaufman renders with some elegance.
There is some sex and a lot of death, and Kaufman broods on the death part. There are plenty of funerals in this film. Even an extra gets his own funeral. The message is that specifics are not important, even if the specifics of our own circumstances are what we claim to define us. In the scheme of things, specifics don't matter. Nothing matters. Everything resembles everything else, and spills into everything else.
Whether the unbearability aspect was intentional, I'm not sure. But there is a point where the film starts to fall apart. It unravels, becomes less relevant. I considered walking out of the film, just because I was becoming less comfortable watching it. I don't know if it was his intention to show this as a metaphor for life that sometimes seems so fleeting, other times it drags on unbearably, as life must in old age and infirmity.
Don't bother trying to understand it, or try to make sense of it. Just appreciate that each character is the leading role in their movie, and that none of the movies they're living matter. Nothing matters (have I already said that - this film does that a lot), and everything matters - and in that dichotomy lies an answer to the meaning we give our lives, and we impart to others.
In the apparent random chaos of life we will ask ourselves, from time to time, what all of this means. That is perhaps the only important question, even if the answer eludes us. This is the Synechdoche Kaufman wrestles with, and wrestles it to the floor.
NVDL: Life is precious, life is short. On close examination, life is tragic and miserable. So step lightly through it, and stay lively, and try to enjoy the moments you can without judging them. Life will judge you anyway, so make the most of every confusing, fucked up moment and push away the awaiting madness and chaos and darkness for as long as you can...
Charlie Kaufman is a genius when it comes to crafting a story. He works on levels that some artists aren’t even aware exist. Trying to map one of his films is a little like trying to comb Medusa’s hair. Only he would name his film and base the concept on a synecdoche (pronounced si-nek-duh-kee) which is defined as the following: a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole, the whole for a part, the species for the genus, the genus for the species, or the name of the material for the thing made. Read back over it, because I had to mumble “whatthefuck” a few times before it made sense to me.
NVDL: What's that saying again...Less is more?
The problem is that what we are receiving is unfiltered Kaufman, and we aren’t equipped to handle that.
Synecdoche is Kaufman’s Ubu Roi, and it’s just too hard to handle.
Caden Cotard is the prototypical depressed artist at the center of all of Kaufman’s work. The biggest issue is he’s too much of a mope. While all of Kaufman’s previous characters had brief moments of whimsy and joy, Cotard is enwrapped in the shit that is his life, and he doesn’t have opportunity to smile or be happy. While Eeyore is my favorite character in all the Hundred Acre Woods, there’s a reason why we rarely get a story that focuses entirely on him. Too much of the somber plodding sadness makes it hard to appreciate the beauty.
The other problem is that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden. It’s impossible to separate Hoffman from this character. He’s the same blustering depressed bastard he’s been playing forever. It’s not that he’s not good; it’s just that I’ve had my Phil. Conversely, Samantha Morton gets a chance to really sparkle as Hazel. She’s even more bubbly and lovably cynical than Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine. Hazel strikes me as the kind of woman Clementine would have grown into if she decided not to stay with Joel after the credits, and ditched the punk rock. She manages to be alluring and shy, seductive without seeming to be aggressive, adorable and smart and basically everything you would want in a girl. If you aren’t head over heels for a Kaufman love interest, there’s a casing of ice over your heart. Morton is brilliant, actually capturing everything I loved about her character in Mister Lonely without being in a terrible movie.Kaufman really stretched beyond his means. The man’s the master of the meta-film, and he actually managed to pull off a meta-meta film that meta-struates all over the fourth wall. Consider this: The movie is about a director who’s somewhat imaginatively talented who crumbles under reality in the face of a project that’s beyond his scope.
NVDL: This was an interesting movie for me, because I am right now constructing a fictional account of real life (mine), and adding a few layers of satire to make it both more and less palatable.
I think you need to be something of an artist to enjoy and commiserate with Kaufman. He wants to show everything - the whimsy, the irony, the dreariness, the loneliness, the love, the loss, the misery, the joy of living. He wants to mix it up and mess it up in the way life is messed up. Life is filled with hope and despair, disordered, something beautiful, often gross, sometimes grossly funny. It's confusion with a few stepping stones that make sense through the whirling humdrum of it all.
At time in this movie I thought Kaufman was very wisely showing the sickness of society. That everything we eat is sick, making us sick. He veered off this topic into a mental malaise. There was also the disturbia lurking in the background - the violence and anarchy that is growing behind the walls. That was also profoundly accurate of where the human condition is headed. Whether the unbearability aspect was intentional, I'm not sure. But there is a point where the film starts to fall apart. It unravels becomes less relevant. I considered walking out of the film, just because I was becoming less comfortable watching it. I don't know if it was his intention to show this as a metaphor for life that sometimes seems so fleeting, other times it drags on unbearably.
There are plenty of funerals in this film. The message is that specifics are not important, even if the specifics of our own circumstances are what we claim to define us. In the scheme of things, specifics don't matter. Nothing matters. Everything resembles everything else, and spills into everything else. Don't bother trying to understand it, or try to make sense of it. Just appreciate that each character is the leading role in their movie, and that none of the movies they're living matter. Nothing matters, and everything matters - and in that dichotomy lies an answer to the meaning we give our lives, and we impart to others.
"I have always been a shutterbug. Would love to be a photo journalist someday!" - Vinukumar Ranganathan
It was a vivid reminder that the internet has made well-placed amateurs and independent journalists more powerful than ever before. In a matter of hours, Ranganathan had become one of the world's most famous citizen journalists to date.
Friday, November 28, 2008
We enjoy the present then, at the cost of future convenience. This is due to the short termism of the market, and is further evidence that the way markets are configured is neither rational nor realistic - but merely sentiments roiling in rhymnes and some (but not sufficient) reason.
Oil prices ought to be $80 or more now. It is absurd that they are hovering around $50 given the stated depletion levels of oil fields, which are emptying quicker than demand is falling. For reference, China is still growing, instead of at 11%, now it's 9%. That's a 2% decline, but they're still growing. Meanwhile Oil prices have plunged over 60%. Crazy!
"The system has never been tested for a deep recession." - Ken Rosen
The worst-case scenario goes something like this: With banks unwilling to refinance, a shopping center goes into foreclosure. Nobody can buy the mall because banks won't write mortgages as long as investors won't purchase them.
"Credit markets have seized up," corporate securities lawyer Michael Gambro said. "People are not willing to take risks. They're not buying anything."
The retail outlook is particularly bad.
In this sense service delivery becomes a matter of survival - in future - and cannot be over-emphasised or prioritised.
THE RETAIL price of all grades of petrol will decrease by 161 cents a litre on December 3, the minerals and energy department announced on Friday.