Thursday, May 30, 2019

Alternatives to Pretending


A met an old pal of mine just the other day. He was looking down, which was a surprise. When I knew him well and we were both in our '20s, he was one of the most irrepressible optimists I've ever met. He was always laughing and joking, always cheerful, no matter what the problem. Right now he looked as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. I asked him what was getting to him and he said he was in the middle of a messy divorce. Without thinking, I blurted out that it must be a problem caused by his 'wandering eye'.

He was always a bit of a devil with the ladies, very popular with the opposite sex. In fact, the reason I knew him fairly well in those days is that we used to meet up every Sunday lunchtime in the pub. There, listening to jazz and supping a pint or two of beer, we would swap stories of our recent bachelor exploits. What I remember is that he always had more to report than I did. I led a fairly conventional life then, which meant that even though I could be found in pubs and bars, clubs and discos, I was usually the guy who was walking home early in the evening, alone. Oh, I had my fair share of girlfriends, relationships and affairs, and, in fact, didn't meet the person I settled down with until I was past the magic age of 30. Still, my 'adventures' were as nothing compared to my pal's, who was likely to regale us with every fine detail, each and every Sunday lunch. So, I was thinking, surely that was the issue. He couldn't resist a bit of temptation, yes? What was it, an office romance, a flirtatious affair with a neighbour? My old friend looked at me sadly. You got me wrong, he said. I made all that stuff up.

It was a revelation. I knew that when people like us got together in those far off days, the combination of alcohol and encouragement from peers, meant that one was tempted to exaggerate. I knew that, and I wasn't very good at it, with the result that I was always left behind, struggling to keep up. My 'stories' were always far less graphic, less intriguing, less entertaining than my friend's, mostly, because what I said was true. I was therefore staggered, appalled, when my old friend not only said, 'I made it up', but added, as if it was an obvious afterthought, 'Didn't you?' No, I didn't. Sorry. I didn't realise I had to.

Reading a recent book by psychiatrist Oliver James I realise that I'm a bit old-fashioned. You see, I should have made it up. That's the modern way. In a world that is less concerned with sexual conquests and more interested in material success, the conversation tends to focus on what job you have; what you're paid; where you live; where you go on holidays; and what car you drive. The temptation therefore, naturally, is for people to exaggerate and when they can't get away with that, tell a downright lie. The more sophisticated alternative, in these days of modern credit, is to 'lie' with a reality that you can't really afford. Thus, drive a car that is way too expensive for you, and struggle to pay for it with a car loan that is too much for you. Or holiday in exotic foreign parts and slap the payments on a credit card which you can hardly afford to settle. That's as much a 'lie' as saying you've been there when you haven’t, but it's more undercover and you're less likely to get caught.

Because, in the end, that really is the point. You will get caught out, everybody does. Like my friend from years ago. He was married for many years and now he's divorced. It's taken that long a time for me to find out he was a young and reckless fibber, but I did find out, and yes, I do think less of him, now that I know. Pretending is such a short term solution. It may work, today, or in the moment, but it won't hold up for ever, no matter how much you try and prop it up. Eventually it will crumble to the ground. The point, according to our helpful psychiatrist, is that you have to expend energy to maintain a lie, energy that you take from some other part of your life. Eventually you find yourself putting all your effort into telling people what an interesting and challenging job you have, rather than looking for a better one. Or you spend your precious energy trying to keep up the pretence of having lots of money, and end up in debt. It can't be supported. Far better, says our advisor, to put your efforts into being real and, if you aren't happy with where you are and what you're doing, put all that physical and psychic power into improving your circumstances. If you make the mistake of putting time and effort into making excuses, then that's all you'll have. Instead, put the effort into changing, but own up if things are bad. What do you get? A better life, less tension, stress and painful dichotomy between what you are and what you pretend you are. For me, all it means is that I was being honest about not being seen as much of a Romeo in my '20s. That's hardly a high price to pay for peace of mind.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Alternatives to Drug Testing


Switching on the radio this morning, the News is full of outrage (as usual). This time, it’s about women who are born with too much testosterone. It gives them muscle mass and man-like strength. That doesn’t mean they aren’t women - they are - but there’s an ‘unintended consequence’ - if they take part in Athletics events with other women, they always win. Some people say they have an unfair advantage. The International governing body for athletics is asking such women to take hormones to tone down the testosterone and make them more like all the other women who are taking part.

How dare they! (some are saying.). Running and jumping are for everybody, they say. There are only two categories in Athletics - Men and Women. If people are born women, they are entitled to take part in all ‘Women’ events, they say. Really? You’re forgetting - there are actually four categories, because Para-Olympics mean that athletes who have a physical disability go in for Para events, and there’s a Men and Women category for each of those.

Let’s talk about Oscar Pistorius. Before he got taken to court for shooting his girlfriend dead, he regularly took part in Para running races. He has no feet and runs on carbon fibre ‘blades’. That gives him an advantage over Olympians with one leg, for instance, but no notice seems to be taken of complaints there, mainly because he’s on the outside of the mainstream, still in the ‘Para’ category. Now let’s try our imagination. Let’s imagine that Oscar goes to the hospital for new treatments, and is told there’s a new type of blade that might suit him. The blades are even more bouncy. He tries them and sets a new world record for the 100 metres - for all contenders, able-bodied and disabled alike. So, feeling confident, he applies to the regular Olympics team. Do you think they would let him in? Not on your life! Ordinary male athletes would shout ‘Foul’ and complain about ‘unfair advantage’. Poor Oscar would find the door barred.

Meanwhile, back in the world of Female Athletics, (governed by an international body which is practically all men), there are strict rules about drug taking. You aren’t allowed to swallow or inject anything that would give you an advantage. One of the banned substances is Testosterone. If you were a female athlete and tested, and found to have an unusually high level of Testosterone in your blood, you would be excluded and - possibly - banned. So, there are already levels of Testosterone which are regarded as ‘normal’. If you inject to get a higher level, you would be described as a ‘cheat’. If you’re lucky enough to be born with an unusually high level, you can demand the opportunity to compete with ‘ordinary’ women. But you know you’d probably win! Isn’t it cheating? You know you’ve been born with a genetic advantage, (just like the mutant ‘X-men’ with their super powers - and the ‘X-women), but you want to play with the ‘normals’, down there with their physical disadvantages! If an able-bodied athlete demanded to be allowed to compete in the Para-Olympics, would anyone think that would be fair? Or worse, what if a man demanded to be allowed to compete in the Women’s 100 Metres? Why? Because he might win! Is that fair?

The answer is simple. There needs to be a new category, where women with a testosterone level around 2 don’t have to compete with women lucky enough to have a level nearer 10 or 12. It’s been done before! People seem to forget. In the 18th century, a man called Queensberry decided to make rules about boxing. He noticed that if you put a man of six foot six in the same ring as a man of five foot six, the match would be over quickly. So he invented the concept of ‘weights’. Now boxers are categorised. There’s ‘heavyweight’ and ‘lightweight’, ‘fly-weight’, ‘welter-weight’ and ‘light heavyweight’. Nobody thinks that’s odd anymore. Why can’t we have categories for ‘Women at Level 4 or lower’ and ‘Women Level 4 or over’. Sound peculiar? One Doctor commented that recent research seemed to show that men who were taller stood a better chance of winning the short races. Every build, he said, was more suited to certain sports. So, me, with my small and thin frame would do better at long-distance and Marathon running. (If only!) While a sturdily built man would do better at shorter distances. Can we imagine - in the future - that there might be races such as ’100 Metres - Men, six feet and under’ and another face for ‘Men, six feet and over’. It’s possible. Would that be so bad?

It’s not just about being ‘fair’. It’s also about being predictable. When we watch a set of runners hammering down the track and breasting the tape, we really do want to feel that any of them might win. It would destroy all interest if we KNEW that the women on the left - the one with the highest testosterone - was going to win the race - just as they did last week, and just as they will next week. We want a bit of the unexpected! Think about horse racing. Usually, each race has a ‘Favourite’, the one predicted to win, but there’s no certainty. Otherwise, gambling would make no sense! In fact, the categories have already been rigged to allow the most unexpected outcome. You might hear an announcement of ‘The 3-20 from Rotherham’, but after that they might say, ‘For fillies, five years and older’. The next race might be for ‘Thoroughbreds over ten hands’. All those dozens of horses have been put into groups which allow them the best chance of winning - because they are racing against other competitors just like themselves. If you mix them all up, then the males - the biggest ones - will always win. Where’s the fun in that?

Personally, I think if the Sport of Kings has to be organised to make horse racing enjoyable, then something similar could quite easily be put in place for people. What’s good enough for horses, is good enough for us, surely? After all, it’s sport. It’s only sport. It’s activities that have been made up to make life more interesting. Can you remember being young? You know when a friend in the playground would say, ‘See that tree? Let’s run over there. First one to arrive, wins’. We can put the game into a massive stadium and broadcast it worldwide but the principles haven’t changed. In the Primary School you soon learned the important lesson: it was no good racing against Jonathan, because he would always win. It was more fun running with Brian, because sometimes he won, and sometimes you would. That was enjoyable. Let’s keep it that way. Let’s redesign sport to keep it something you actually want to witness. I know it’s no fun talking about hormones. Fine. Leave that to the Ruling Body, but, when they do their best to keep the sporting principles in Sport, then I think they deserve our support.


Picture of Mike with his biggest fan