Tiger Woods and the two impostors

Tiger, Tiger, Tiger. You’re making me … re-write my manuscript.

My book, as a reminder, is about success and failure and how the two can be, as Kipling put it so poetically, impostors. The main character is Hannibal, and his story introduces the various themes that come up in the course of a life, each of which is then illuminated with other lives, ancient or modern.

Here is how I went about it:

  • Mainly I chose relatively obscure people for my characters studies, which is to say people who are interesting or known for a good reason but not ‘famous’.
  • When I did include somebody conventionally famous (and there had to be a good reason!) I focused on an obscure or non-obvious aspect of that person’s life.

Well, Tiger falls into that latter category. I examined one aspect (I won’t say which) that he shared with Hannibal, and one that he didn’t, both of which made him unbelievably successful.

And now… the babes. So many of them. They’ve started keeping a cheat sheet to keep track of them. Plus: Wives swinging golf clubs after mid-night car crashes; cable-TV know-it-alls pontificating about morality; coy mea culpas and a career inter- and perhaps dis-rupted.

What can I say? I notice that everybody suddenly has a strong opinion about this young and immature genius. Tragic hero? Victim of hubris? Pervert?

Somebody from Pakistan informs us that it is entirely normal to have lots of women if you can. Somebody else explains why black women are not mad at Tiger. And so on.

My own default position in these matters is to be cavalier. But Tiger’s self-immolation now looks to be epic in scale. And tragic if the flames sear his children.

Among athletes, Diego Maradona comes to mind–the best in his sport, only to waste it all in decadence. Among politicians (well, where do you start?), perhaps Eliot Spitzer.

Yes, they were successful. Yes, their success was an impostor, by goading them, psychologically, into self-destruction. Is it simply the old Greek theme of hubris? Was it a character flaw? More subtle?

One thing is clear: I have to adjust my manuscript.

And one other thing should not be forgotten: Kipling said triumph and disaster are impostors. Tiger is young, as is his wife (not to mention their kids). As a great advertisement featuring Tiger (before his fall) once put it:

It’s what you do next that counts.

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Another book based on Kipling’s If

By now you all realize that the idea for my entire (forthcoming) book came out of two powerful lines in a powerful poem, If, by Rudyard Kipling. “My” lines are

… If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…

Well, it turns out that I’m not the only one getting book ideas from lines in that moving poem. Craig Mullaney, a pretty impressive young man, is just out with The Unforgiving Minute. (He’s with Penguin Press, the corporate sister of my publisher, Riverhead.) Here he is on the Daily Show, talking to Jon Stewart.

“His” lines from the poem, which made it into the title, are the final four:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And-which is more-you’ll be a Man, my son!

As Mullaney says, it’s a book

about growing up to be a man; starts at West Point when I was seventeen, ends when I sent my brother off to war.

I have not read it yet, so I can’t review it. (I’m swamped with books at the moment for a particular reason, which I’ll tell you about in the coming week or so.) But could we just, you know, have a moment for Kipling? He fell pretty far out of fashion in the past century. And yet: a sudden outbreak of young authors feeling so touched by his words that they conceive entire books. Not bad, Rudyard, not bad. Dare I say that whatever slump your reputation suffered in the previous century, it is fast turning out to have been an … impostor?

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Blagojevich dares cite Kipling

Indirectly, I had to discover that Rod Blagojevich, Illinois’s Senate-seat-selling governor, has been quoting Rudyard Kipling’s If. Yes, that’s the same If that inspired me to write my book. What gall that man has.

At least he stopped just short of the two lines that form the core idea of the book: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/and treat those two impostors just the same.” Odd. I would think that he must be hoping that his Disaster somehow reveals itself to be an impostor.

According to William Kristol’s account in today’s New York Times, Blagojevich on Friday, after pledging that he will fight, fight, fight:

quoted the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating …

But Blagojevich carefully cut off his recitation before the stanza’s last line: “And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.”

Well, I suppose the poem is public property. Go ahead, Rod. I’ll share.

Kipling’s If

Rudyard Kipling’s If:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,
If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

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Postscript on McCain

Read David Grann in The New Yorker on what I consider an epic, a Greek, a heart-rending tragedy: the transformation, under pressure, of a great man, John McCain.

This is a man who was once “more at peace when he was losing” and who, above all, was afraid only of one thing: losing his honor.

Thinking in terms of the underlying idea for my book, I can’t help but wonder whether his (unexpected) “triumph” in the primaries was in fact the great “impostor” of his life, leading to an all-encompassing “disaster.”

(To those of you who are new to this blog, those words are from a Kipling poem that inspired my entire book.)

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Uncle Lulu

That guy with the cigar on this West German stamp from 1987 is my great-uncle, Ludwig Erhard, or “Onkel Lulu” in our family.

Why is he on this blog?

Newspaper cutting of my dad and his uncle

Newspaper cutting of my dad and his uncle

Because is life is one of those I trace in my book, to show that that what happened to Hannibal and Scipio happens to all of us, one way or another.

My dad pouring tea for his uncle, the chancellor, in the 60s

My dad pouring tea for his uncle, the chancellor, in the 60s

In Germany and continental Europe, Ludwig Erhard is a household name. In America, he is not, but should be. He is famous for being a founding father of post-war (West) Germany, its first economics minister, the father of its currency (the Deutsche Mark), and then its second chancellor (ie, prime minister). He is credited with causing the stunning economic growth of the 1950s, sometimes called (but not by him) an “economic miracle”. And he is probably the most steadfast proponent of freedom, tolerance and open and fair markets in German history.

Dad and Lulu again

As my father’s uncle and godfather, he practically raised my father after my grandfather died. I only met Lulu when I was very small (he died in 1977). He liked to hide Easter eggs for me in his steep hillside garden by the Tegernsee, an Alpine lake south of Munich. His influence lives on, in Germany, in our family, and now in my book.

My mom with Lulu in New York, where I was born

My mom with Lulu in New York, where I was born

Churchill on well-disguised impostors

My book is about Kipling‘s notion that success and failure, or triumph and disaster, can be impostors. That does not mean, of course, that all triumphs and all disasters are always impostors. But to say that wittily, we really need ole Winston.

Churchill, as it happens, lived a life that in many ways illustrates Kipling’s impostors, but that’s for another post. Here is today’s anecdote:

After the Brits voted him out of office in the 1945 election (as a Thank You for winning the war–talk about impostor!), his wife said to him that this defeat might be a “blessing in disguise.”

“At the moment,” Churchill replied, “it seems quite effectivley disguised.”

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The suffering of Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten at Wikimedia Commons

Kahlo and Rivera. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, via Wikimedia Commons

I popped into the Frida Kahlo exhibition currently at the San Francisco MOMA. Mainly, to see her piercing paintings–and boy, do they pierce–but also, at least in part, as research for my book.

A friend of ours, Erika Lessey Chen, had suggested Kahlo to me a year ago as a possible life-story to look into. I had told Erika that I’m interested in people whose success (triumph) somehow turned into failure (disaster), or whose failure somehow turned into success, à la Kipling’s impostors.

Does Kahlo fit my story-line? Mostly, I’m looking at characters such as Hannibal’s enemy and nemesis Scipio to illustrate how disaster at the right moment in a life can liberate a person–set free his or her imagination and creativity, and thus initiate a much bigger triumph in the future. People such as J.K. Rowling and Steve Jobs.

But disaster can have other effects, of course. There is the strength that comes from overcoming it. I’ve mentioned Joe Biden and Demosthenes in that context. Among the main characters in my book, the person who would personify that is Fabius, the old Roman senator who was the only one not to despair after Hannibal’s crushing victories.

And Kahlo? As I walked through the exhibition and looked at her absolutely harrowing self-portraits, I realized that she had done something else again with her own disasters: She had made the disasters themselves the success.

Here she was on a hospital bed in Detroit, her body writhing and bleeding, with a uterus and a fetus torn out of her. She painted it after yet another miscarriage. The people in the exhibition became very quiet in front of that one.

There she was bound in a steel corset with a broken spinal column, her entire body pierced with nails. In this painting, she is all pain and frustrated sexual desire.

Over there she is sitting in a double-self-portrait, after her marriage to Diego Rivera had failed. She is holding hands with herself, and simultaneously tries and fails to stop the bleeding of her heart. (All these paintings seem to be copyrighted, so I don’t want to show them here.)

What were her disasters? The first was polio, which she caught at age six, and which left her right leg atrophied. The second was a bus accident when she was eighteen. She broke her spine, her pelvis, and lots of other bones, and an iron handrail pierced her uterus, leaving her infertile. The third, arguably, was falling in love with Diego Rivera, whom she adored but who was never faithful to her.

In short: pain, infertility, loneliness. And to deal with it, she painted. And the painting made her into the most “successful” Mexican artist ever.

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Biden and Demosthenes: A tale of two stammerers

As I was watching Beau Biden (video below) and his father Joe at the Democratic Convention today, I was struck by a stunning parallel between Senator Biden’s remarkable life story and that of the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes.

Both were stammerers in their youth. Both were taunted for it with cutting nicknames–“dash” for Biden, since he left his words hanging with a dash; batalus for Demosthenes, which meant both asshole and stammerer.

But both defined themselves by overcoming this impediment, and thus turning their greatest weakness–speaking–into their greatest strength–oratory. Demosthenes went on to become the single greatest orator not only in Greece but in all of history. Statesmen from Cicero to Disraeli and Churchill looked to him for lessons in how to move a political audience with speech. Joe Biden, too, became an effective–and, if anything, a garrulous–senator and may now become vice president.

As always, it is how they overcame that is the story. Joe Biden’s story is all over the news this week. But you may not know Demosthenes’ story. Here is the brief version, as Plutarch tells it:

Once, after Demosthenes was once again laughed out of the forum of Athens for his slobbering, panting attempts at speech, he was walking in dejection around the port. An actor followed him and caught up. He asked Demosthenes to recite passages from Euripides and Sophocles. Demosthenes recited them. As soon as he stopped, the actor would deliver the same passage, but with full force and feeling, with gesture and emotion.

Demosthenes was so inspired that he built himself a sort of cave underground where he hid for months at a time, just practicing his speech. He shaved one half of his head, then the other, so that he would be too ashamed to come out. With laser-like focus, he stayed in that dungeon and worked on his tongue, his vocal cords, his gestures, his cadence, his logic.

Eventually he came out of his cave and set his hurdles higher. He recited speeches while running up hills. He went to the shore and orated against and over the breaking waves. When even that became easy, he put pebbles under his tongue and then enunciated over the roaring surf. Here he is, as the painter Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ imagined him:

In time, he became the greatest orator, and then the greatest statesman, of his country and time, Athens in the fourth century BCE. It would be Demosthenes who roused the Athenians against the menace of Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.

Were the early failures, setbacks and shortcomings of Joe Biden and Demosthenes impostors, in Kipling‘s sense? Do they belong in my book, which is about how the two impostors, triumph and disaster, work? Stammering, for Biden or Demosthenes, was not a liberating event, as failure was for Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, or Hannibal’s nemesis, the great Scipio. Their stammer was more like a gauntlet that life threw before their soul. Success in life can be about picking such gauntlets up and then going deep, way deep, to find the strength.

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Which Bhagavad Gita?

“With no desire for success, no anxiety about failure, indifferent to results, he burns up his actions in the fire of wisdom. Surrendering all thoughts of outcome, unperturbed, self-reliant, he does nothing at all, even when fully engaged in actions.

There is nothing that he expects, nothing that he fears. Serene, free from possessions, untainted, acting with the body alone, content with whatever happens, unattached to pleasure or pain, success or failure, he acts and is never bound by his action.” (BG, 4.19-26)

Boom. Could anybody say it better? Who do you think did say it? Rudyard Kipling, whose two impostors are the seed of my entire book?

Actually, it was Krishna, in conversation with Arjuna, on the eve of an 18-day battle that would kill about four million (!) and which only eleven men would survive. Here are Arjuna and Krishna, his charioteer, in between the opposing armies just before the battle, as Krishna reveals to Arjuna the two crucial secrets to our lives: how to know and do your duty, and how to live.

I’m talking, of course, about one of the greatest poems (books, texts) ever written, the Bhagavad Gita, or “song of God”. It is a relatively short song inserted into a huge (!) epic story, the Mahabharata, which is several times the length of the Bible, or of the Iliad and Odyssey combined.

I’ve been re-reading the Gita in several translations while researching one chapter in my book. Why? Because Hannibal faced the same dilemma that Arjuna faced, when he broke down sobbing before the great battle, a battle that he suddenly did not want to fight at all, but which, as Krishna made him realize, he could not not fight. So Arjuna faced the same conundrum that Hannibal and Scipio faced: how to get into the right frame of mind to live life.

Oh, wait a minute. Did I say that Hannibal was in the same situation as Arjuna? I meant, that we all are in the same situation as both Arjuna and Hannibal. That is the point of the Gita, and also (more humbly) of my book.

Now, for those of you who love the Gita, I thought I’d do a quick review of the three translations and commentaries I’ve recently re-read. That way, maybe, I can help you choose the one that’s right for you.

The Gita is a poem in the original Sanskrit, and the translation that best preserves the beautiful, easy, fluid feel of a poem is the Bhagavad Gita by Stephen Mitchell (Three Rivers Press). The opening quote above comes from his translation.

A slightly less beautiful but perhaps more helpful and accessible translation is The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners by Jack Hawley (New World Library). The title sounds as if it were a sort of “For Dummies” version, but it’s not. It’s intelligent, and editorializes a bit whenever the words in the poem mean something very different from the same words in our ordinary language.

Then, of course, there is the intimidating two-volume brick God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita by Paramahansa Yogananda (Self-Realization Fellowship). That is the kosher version among yogis, because it’s academically and intellectually thorough. I’ve tried several times to get through it and failed. If it’s beauty, ease and enjoyment you’re looking for, don’t pick this one. But….

do pick this one if you have even the slightest interest in a deeper understanding of the Gita. For example, the thing to get about the poem is that there are two battles going on: the external one involving four million warriors and elephants and chariots; and the internal one that we all wage every day. Paramahansa Yogananda is great at the genealogy of all the people in the war, so that you realize, for example, that Arjuna and his four brothers are the intelligent and higher parts of our mind, who are fighting 100 cousins, who are the powerful but lower parts of our mind, such as anger, desire, greed, and so forth.


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