Why Do We Take Such Great Risks for Sport?

The crash was bad, but not so bad as to be unusual for bike racing. The speeds were high but not as high as they could have been, and because it was a pile-up many of the riders avoided road rash, the sandpapering of bodies as skin meets tarmac. It happened on a controlled course with barriers, meaning lower risk than if the crash had happened on an alpine descent during the Tour de France. What was frustrating about it, however, was the cause: a motorbike, meant to be leading the race, had stalled right in the middle of the narrow course. The riders at the front who could see further ahead were able to avoid it, but those further back couldn’t see beyond the rider in front to make out the hazard. The video doing the rounds online shows a few close calls, and then another rider tries to dodge the moto at the very last second but can’t avoid it, crashing hard to its left and to the right of the course hoardings. Other riders, with nowhere to go, crash right into him on the ground again and again and again. Another video, this one with sound, gives viewers the full experience of snapping, crunching, cracking carbon and the gasps of horror and fascination from the spectators behind the barriers. I’m talking, for those who haven’t seen the videos, about the recent crash at the 2016 Red Hook Crit in Brooklyn, New York.

The cycling world normally seems to exist entirely separately to the one most people inhabit. (I was tempted to write “the one most of us inhabit”, but a glance down at my shaven legs suggests that wouldn’t be quite honest). Yet ever so often the two worlds meet. Most often this takes the form of skirmishes between cyclists and drivers, both of course having good intentions but viewing roads as serving two different functions. Sometimes these tussles are brutal enough, crazy enough, or sufficiently vitriolic for the media to pay attention. At this point anyone with enough sense to see both sides of the argument would be best to avoid the comments section of any website covering the fracas.

The other time the two worlds meet is when a member of the media happens to be reminded of cyclists’ apparent insanity, and decides to spread the word. Global media recently covered a New Zealand cafe that decided to ban lycra-wearing customers, out of fear of what “unseemly bulges” might do for young patrons. And then, of course, there are the crashes, which beg the obvious question of who in their right mind would race bikes like that? A selection of the global media’s headlines for the Red Hook Crit crash include, for instance, “SEE IT: Brooklyn 30k bike race forced to restart after crazy crash — ‘Bicycle wheels and parts were flying over spectators’ heads’”; “Stalled motorbike causes massive cyclist pile-up”; and “Watch: Stalled motorcyclist causes mass cycling crash”. The headlines are written for the general public and pit cyclists and non-cyclists against one another in a clash of civilisation and sanity. Inclusion of details like “a 30k bike race”, marking the article as clearly written by a non-cyclist, immediately alienate cyclists who know that in that kind of race the distance is almost entirely beside the point.

In any case, as many of my non-cyclist friends have watched the Red Hook video over the past few days I’ve become an object of fascination. Having just come out of a 65kph pileup myself a couple of weeks ago, I’m all too aware of the dangers of the sport and what a crash like that is like.

David Foster Wallace described Federer Moments in tennis, when “the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.” I’ve never had the cyclist’s equivalent of a Federer Moment and I think that that’s because for us they don’t exist. A win is created throughout a race, never in a single moment as with a match-deciding touch of a ball to a racquet. There are therefore no individual moments that can be replayed on YouTube. To watch a rider crossing the finish line hardly gives a sense of excitement or beauty, as it will demonstrate nothing of how the race was won, the strategy and tactics and struggles that led to the victory.

The only moments talked about in cycling are crashes. They are the only events of the sport that can be shared in a brief video or discussed in a moment. All else is detail—the battles taking place over sometimes thousands of kilometres, the knowledge required of inter and intra-team rivalries that give meaning to decisions taken during a 200km stage, and the way that riders can be competing for first and second despite being kilometres apart from one another on the road. Detail is impossible to display on TV, let alone in a thirty second viral video. And yet it is what makes the sport. It is what lets those who have been cyclists for years discover new aspects to their sport every year.

I think the world of difference between games and sports stems from this presence or absence of a single moment to be replayed afterwards. That sentence might strike some as odd—aren’t games sports, too? Yes, but I don’t have a word to describe sports that aren’t games. They are all racing sports, but for me that doesn’t quite encapsulate it. So I shall have to make do with an inaccurate usage of the word “sport”. Games live for the event, sports for the detail. Games can be replayed by the “scoring” of points, the spectacle of tries, touchdowns, goals, shots. Sports must have their results explained, and sometimes this is impossible to do in its entirety, or at the very least could only be done in a full-length book. It strikes me as odd that no such individual word exists for these sports, as it is a crucial line of separation from mere games. “One plays football, or tennis, or hockey. One doesn’t play at cycling”, said Jean de Gribaldy, French cyclist of the 40s and 50s.

Stage 16 from the 2015 Giro d’Italia was my cycling equivalent of a Federer Moment. Or rather, it showed how there can be no such thing as a Federer Moment.

The stage was one of the more mountainous of the whole Giro, with the riders to complete over 4,500m of elevation gain—over half the height of Mt Everest. The weather was fine for the riders on the day of the stage, which had always been a worry after a perilous stage 16 of the 2013 Giro, when race organisers were forced to escort riders on a descent. Alberto Contador—32 year old Spaniard, one of just six riders to have won all three Grand Tours (the Italian, French and Spanish), convicted doper—was in the leader’s jersey, the maglia rosa or pink jersey, with a two-minutes and thirty-five second lead over his nearest rival as stage 16 began. By this point the riders had already covered roughly 2,000km of at times mountainous terrain in two weeks, which in Grand Tour terms is when leaders’ exertions can start to catch up with them. Whoever had the best legs after a week of racing may not necessarily have them after two. Contador’s main rival was Fabio Aru, a 24 year old Sardinian riding for ProTeam Astana, the Kazakh team. Just before the Giro, Astana had come close to being stripped of their license to race due to a variety of doping allegations. The riders were there at the race, but had a constantly suspicious eye turned their way, which prompted many to say they were riding to prove themselves. Mikel Landa, Aru’s teammate, was in fourth place on the general classifications standing at the start of stage 16, two minutes and 11 seconds down on Aru and four minutes forty-six seconds down on Contador. He was looking strong, having won the stage the day before, but would be riding to serve his teammate Aru, unable to himself attack or go for the stage win.

After 100km of racing the peloton was still together. And then Contador’s tyre punctured. Here we need to step back a bit. Were I to show you a video of the event of Contador’s tyre getting a puncture you would see nothing of interest. You could hardly see anything, in fact—just Contador slowly coming to a halt and waving his arm up for the team car to deliver him a new wheel. It isn’t even worth watching. But it is what the event represents in the scheme of the day’s racing—and not just the day’s race, but the week’s, and the entire tour’s, and in terms of Contador’s mission to prove himself again after losing his previous Tour title after his doping ban—that makes it so crucial. And we can’t even just look at this Giro. We need to go back to stage 15 of the 2010 Tour de France, when Contador was battling Andy Schleck on a hors categorie—literally, beyond classification because it is so steep—climb. The two riders were on their limit, riding mano a mano in one of the duels all cycling fans live to watch, with Schleck in the yellow leader’s jersey but Contador only seconds behind him overall. Schleck’s chain drops off just 3km before the end of the stage, forcing him to dismount his bike to put it back on. Contador accelerates away from him, gaining enough time over the next 3km to take the yellow jersey off Schleck.

After the stage, Schleck was understandably not happy. Contador didn’t show “fair play”, he said: “In the same situation I would not have taken advantage.” Contador for his part denied wrongdoing: “I know it’s delicate situation, I know there are complicated parts, but at the moment I attacked I didn’t know what happened, I knew after, I was already in the lead.” That day stood for the unwritten rules of cycling and the age-old debate about the role of mechanical mishaps—whether they are fair game to be taken advantage of, or whether opponents should slow down in the event that their primary competition is afflicted by an untimely issue out of their control. In this case, anyway, Contador was largely seen to be in the wrong. But that didn’t change the fact that he rolled to the start of the next day’s stage in yellow.

Often in cycling you must choose between winning and being a good human being. What do you decide when you are on your limits? What do you decide when you aren’t able to think clearly, when all strategy has been thrown out, and you are left with a single second to decide what to do? Racing lets you see yourself more clearly than in everyday life, and it lets you learn about human nature and the relationship between ambition and morality. Contador gave his answer, just as his opponents in the Giro are about to give theirs.

Back to the Giro. Contador had just flatted. And as he waits for his team car to get him on another bike and back into the race, we see teams Katusha and Astana speed up. Was their decision to push the pace just coincidental timing? Maybe, maybe not. Just as with Contador in the 2010 Tour, actions usually speak louder than words. But the parallel to Contador’s own decision to accelerate in the face of another’s misfortune was readily visible, meaning he couldn’t easily appeal to the court of public opinion. By the time Contador is back on his bike with his team in full damage-control mode, pacing him back to the bunch, he is over 50 seconds behind his main rivals, Aru and Landa. A gap like that alone at the finish line would have threatened Contador’s lead, leaving him vulnerable in future stages, but with a climb as difficult as the infamous Mortirolo still to come on the day’s stage, 50 seconds could easily have blown out to minutes. Not only was Contador not in the running for the stage win, but he risked losing the maglia rosa. He risked losing the Giro, and therefore not even getting the chance to compete for his stated goal of the GiroTour de France ‘double’.

Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo team paces him well to the bottom of the Mortirolo climb, but they’re not moving nearly fast enough to catch him up to Aru and Landa during it. Contador has to decide: conserve energy by sticking with his teammates but risk not ever catching the others, or go it alone in an all-out effort? He has to think not only of whether he will have enough energy to catch Aru and Landa and stay with them on today’s stage, but also how his efforts might cost him on the next four stages before the end of the Giro. He reaches the bottom of the climb and accelerates away from his own teammates. He puts his head down, looking frequently at his power meter to ensure he doesn’t consume too much energy too early and burn out before the top. He eats a gel, takes a drink. Contador is majestic to watch, thrusting each side of his body up and away from the pedal one after another, his elbows close to his body and his feet literally dancing on his pedals. He sits down occasionally to recuperate, but he prefers to ride out of the saddle, seeming most comfortable when weaving his front wheel in and out across the road in time with the motions of his body. He passes practically the whole peloton on the way up, giving them no thought. A fellow Spaniard in a different team takes a few minutes to lead him up and let him gain any rest he can.

All this is playing out on a vast mountain in the Italian alps, the largest stadium in the world with fans lining the roadside the entire way up. Fans run alongside the riders, able to keep up easily because the road is so steep, offering words of encouragement. Contador occasionally offers a nod of thanks.

And then he can see them. Around just one corner they’re visible—Aru, Landa, and Steven Kruijswijk of team LottoNL-Jumbo. It has been thirty minutes or so of Contador in ‘time trial mode’, himself against the clock and his own numbers to try to reach his rivals. Even keen cyclists rarely watch thirty minutes of a five hour race, and even if they did it would likely be the final 30 kilometres—not, as here, almost 50 from the time Contador reached the base of the climb, or closer to 75 from the time he punctured. And yet all of this time is necessary to understand what’s really at stake in the race, how this manifestation of the sport is actually playing out.

But before Contador reaches Aru and Landa, there’s another battle going on. This one is less visible, because it technically shouldn’t happen. Aru is meant to have it easy, with his domestique Landa pacing him up the climb—all he has to do is sit behind Landa’s wheel, with Landa taking care of measuring their pace relative to power and a whole combination of other factors. But what’s becoming apparent is that Aru is struggling. At points Aru cannot even hold onto his teammate’s wheel, dropping back a few wheel lengths and then fighting desperately to get back. He starts weaving around the road, his mouth wide open to suck in more oxygen, all the while Landa looks perfectly measured, his face still calm and his mouth remaining closed. With Landa having won the stage the day before, people were starting to wonder: should Astana have picked Landa instead of Aru to lead the team? In other words, should it be Aru serving Landa rather than the other way around?

As Contador rounds a corner and catches the three riders these many details come to intersect all at once. Contador testing himself up the climb; Contador trying to catch those who took advantage of his mechanical; Contador versus Aru today; Contador versus Aru overall in the Giro; Tinkoff versus Astana; Aru’s battle with his own teammate Landa; Kruijswijk’s desire to crest the climb first to gain King of the Mountains classification points. These contests are all nested in one another, and are being played out between every rider and every team in the race. Nothing shown in a replay on TV can capture its complexity, or the beauty in the nested dilemmas of the sport.

Contador catches them, takes a couple of minutes to catch his breath, and then attacks again, speeding past Aru and Landa. As he passes Aru he looks back for a split second with a stare that says everything: you took advantage of my misfortune but you gave me the willpower to do this. Do you have what it takes? Aru cracks—he simply cannot respond. And that stare speaks both for Contador’s battle with Aru, as well as Aru’s battle with Landa. Aru knows his leadership of the Astana team is on the line in this moment. Next second we see Landa accelerating away from Aru to catch Contador—his directeur sportif had told him over race radio that he was free to ride for himself, to stop serving Aru and go after the win. Aru from here seems at times to be tearful while dragging himself up the mountain alone, and the rest of his race is a battle against himself to limit his time loss not against Contador, but against his own teammate. I’ll cut the story short here. These are the most prominent narratives of detail running throughout this stage, but every rider and every team will have equally fascinating and complex stories to tell.

A criterium, or ‘crit’, is a style of racing that almost seems invented to create cycling moments. In other words, crashes. Unlike a road race which takes place usually over hundreds of kilometres of open road, a criterium involves a set number of laps of a short course with tight corners, very often a city block. ‘Prime’ laps (pronounced “preem”) are announced by the ringing of a bell, informing riders that the person to pass through the finish line next will win additional points and sometimes a cash prize. Overall honours for a crit are awarded to the first three to cross the line after the full number of laps are completed. It is not the distance that makes these races what they are, but the sheer speed and the constant acceleration required as riders come out of the frequent corners. Looking at a rider’s heart rate or power data from a crit will show they were using their maximum capacity for the duration.

You can tell what kind of racing a cyclist will be good at by just one look at them. Crit riders are usually taller and heavier, denoting bigger muscles. They can put immense power down for relatively short periods of time. By contrast, a good climber in a road race will be shorter and leaner, with muscles that bulge less, aside from the upper part of the calf. They have a better ‘power to weight ratio’. On the flat roads of a crit, weight is relatively unimportant. What matters most is that riders have an ability to put down large amounts of power, which means bigger muscles, which means higher weight. But when the road starts to slope upwards, gravity starts to matter, and here what is more important than objective strength is how a rider’s strength relates to their weight. Climbers won’t be able to put down anywhere near as much power as a ‘200lb crit monster’, as they are sometimes called, but the relationship of the power they can put out relative to their own weight means they will reach the top of the hill significantly faster. The steeper the gradient, the more this matters, which is why riders like the five-foot-five Colombian Nairo Quintana excels in the steepest mountain stages of the Grand Tours.

The incidence of crashes in criteriums is higher than in road races because of the speeds, continual tight corners, and usually narrow course. The crash at the Red Hook Crit wasn’t particularly unusual aside from the involvement of a motorbike, which are more of a hazard during road races where they often need to pass riders. The video looked devastating, and my non-cyclist friends could hardly believe their eyes. The question was always why, why, why? Why would you enter a race knowing that a crash like that is likely? It’s a legitimate question, one I’ve asked myself many times after crashing in a similarly bad pile-up. But ultimately, the question probably misses the point.

Loving a sport means you see something where others see nothing. Where we cyclists see and speak of litheness and souplesse, others see emaciation and someone riding their bike. Racing a bike can look easy, but where some see a group of riders going for a spin through some beautiful French countryside or around a course in Brooklyn, I see humans struggling to overcome what their bodies are telling them they cannot do. I see a group humans at the foot of an immense mountain and can feel scared for them, knowing the burning pain about to wash its way through their bodies, knowing the way their minds will one second say ‘you can’t’ and the next will say ‘you must’, all the way up the mountain. I see the irony in a spectator yelling “move up” to a rider in a crit, while their body is on fire, wanting to get off the bike rather than exert even more. Even the grimaces on their faces cannot describe the pain they are going through, and I feel uplifted for seeing the way Contador rode up that mountain alone, overcoming every bit of that “you can’t” in his head—and I can feel Aru’s humiliation, Landa’s veiled pleasure, the year’s worth of emotion coming out in mere minutes.

But pain of an impact is something everyone can feel. The universal horror of seeing the Red Hook Crit crash shows how this kind of empathy is automatic, where empathy for the pain of riders as they climb a mountain isn’t. Even cyclists recoil from a phone screen after watching the video, and can wonder why they race bikes when the risks are so high. But that question of why, why, why would you race your bike is not unique to cycling. Why would someone scale a rock face without a harness? Why would someone throw themselves out of a plane? Why would someone snowboard down a mountain and do backflips on the way? I don’t understand anything of what drives people to take risks for those sports, yet I go and race my bike in a crit and watch people crash all around me, even to be taken out myself. There is something universal here in the psychology of what drives athletes.

David Foster Wallace wrote in his essay on Federer that “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war… It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”

I think we all reconcile with that in different ways. For me it has been coming to realise that my physical body has a counterpart to the years of mental growth through my education. I’ve come to realise that in the physical world, nothing can be rushed. In the physical world time plays its own part. Quit your job and train at cycling or running or whatever sport you wish every day for a year and you will still never be as good as if you trained methodically over two years. More than any intensive training it is simply miles, or “time in the chamois”, that leads to the physical changes needed to improve as a cyclist. I still notice my legs changing shape as months go by, my upper body diminishing to make me more efficient on the bike, the quantity of food I need to consume adjusting as my gut is also made more efficient. And I know that time will also play its part to eventually take all this away from me. I see older men on recumbents in the gym, still intent on spinning their legs but no longer with the ability to ride upright. Their legs still bear the remaining signs of decades spent shaping muscles to ride a bicycle, but each year will continue to take that away.

The risk of sport is an integral part of this reconciliation with having bodies. Bodies are fragile. Flesh can be scraped off, bones break. Bodies also heal. Risk in sport is not desirable, but it is an unavoidable part. And those of us who have a sport are willing to take the risks we do because it shows us that although our bodies can do all sorts of amazing things, they mustn’t be taken for granted. If youth is wasted on the young, sport might go some way towards alleviating that waste through the individual recognition that bodies aren’t uniform and nor are they infinite. A misjudgement of the mind has consequences for the body.

The beauty I see in cycling lies in part in physical aesthetic, in aerodynamic bicycles, glistening muscles, perfect roads and snow-capped mountains. It is also in part the beauty of mental battles, the metaphor of struggling and overcoming. Sport is so much more than a body doing what bodies should not be able to do. It is not just about physical perfection so great that it plays out on the court or field as transcendence. It is all of that, but that is not it. What a bike crash shows us is that whatever beauty we find in sport, and however that sport leads us to reconcile with our having bodies, is different for all of us. Through sport bodies become both mortal and immortal. The attempt to reduce a group of athletes to being seen as suicidal idiots must be resisted for precisely the reason that watching Federer can come to be seen as a religious experience.

An event like the Red Hook Crit crash is, on the one hand, entirely insignificant. The riders involved are faceless, the whole thing over in just a few seconds. Its details, though, are timeless. To see beautiful and powerful bodies made vulnerable to the whims of a stalled motorbike is to feel fearful and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.

Valls Calls Down Under: Another World Leader Woos the South Pacific

Which country wouldn’t want to be a Pacific nation these days? It was a sign of the times when Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, declared during a visit to New Zealand on May 1st that “I also come as a neighbour, as France is also a nation of the Pacific!” One could almost picture the notes his aides had prepared on the flight over, suggesting, one suspects, that Mr Valls emphasise France’s deep ties and connections to the Asia Pacific. His visit to New Caledonia, Australia and New Zealand comes at a time when many countries are dispatching leaders to the South Pacific to strengthen economic and political ties with friendly countries in the region.

France does indeed have colonial-era ties to the Pacific. New Caledonia, an archipelago roughly 1,000km from Australia’s eastern coast, remains a “special collectivity” of France. France also counts as possessions the islands collectively making up French Polynesia in the central South Pacific, as well as the tiny Wallis and Futuna. Yet this, too, is changing. Part of the reason for Mr Valls’ visit to the Pacific was to discuss with New Caledonia’s leaders details of the islands’ 2018 referendum on independence. As a vote nears, France looks to be seeking continued influence. While in Noumea, Mr Valls announced a $240 million loan to help Societe Le Nickel, a New Caledonian producer that has been struggling with low nickel prices.

But Mr Valls’ need to quite literally exclaim his country’s ties to the Pacific seemed to emphasise the insecurity behind the statement. He is not the first world leader to emphasise the ties. In a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011, President Obama declared that “Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth—the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” As with France, the statement is not untruthful. But the circular logic in proclaiming a “new focus” with reference to a “fundamental truth” of history does show the urgency with which these pivots to the Pacific are being undertaken.

These declarations of Pacific identity may nevertheless help to give the impression of friendliness, which is useful for countries hoping to tap into economic opportunity in the Pacific. Much to Japan and Germany’s dismay, Australia announced on April 26th that it had chosen France to build its new fleet of submarines. The A$50 billion ($38 billion) contract was highly prized, and explains Mr Valls’ last minute addition of Australia to his Pacific tour.

Pacific countries seem to be rather enjoying the flirtation. The French leader’s visit gave John Key, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, an opportunity to make former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark’s case to be United Nations Secretary General, as well as argue for a long sought-after New Zealand-EU trade deal. Mr Valls may also have encountered Pranab Mukherjee, India’s President, on the tarmac in Wellington — Mr Mukherjee was calling on New Zealand’s political and business leaders, the first ever visit to the country by an Indian head of state. He, too, brought the possibility of some large cheques, announcing the agreement of direct flights between the two countries.

In the end, it is deals like that which mean countries are unlikely to pay much attention to the historical or geographic accuracy of claims to Pacific identity. In the world of global trade and security nothing is either true or false, but declaring makes it so. Mr Valls’ over-eager exclamation might have been worth it after all.

In Myanmar, Learning What is at Stake in Our Travels

In the summer after my freshman year of college I travelled alone through Myanmar. I used as a guide not Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor, but Somerset Maugham’s book The Gentleman in the Parlour, his travel diary of reflections and stories from a trip through Indochina in the early 1920s. I travelled by river, as Maugham did, on a restored Irrawaddy Flotilla Company steamship; I visited the sights that he wrote of, and stayed in the same hotel in Rangoon (now Yangon). Along the way I saw Myanmar through Maugham’s eyes, though that doesn’t mean I agreed with his descriptions.

There were surreal moments when I felt as though I was in Maugham’s world entirely, as though not a single thing had changed in the intervening 91 years. In these moments it took something to break the scene for me to realise I lived in a different world to Maugham’s. One evening I sat on the top deck of the ship which was tied up on the banks of the Irrawaddy near Mandalay. I was reading The Gentleman in the Parlour, as I did each day of my trip, but the passages I read that night were of the exact sights and sounds that I presently looked at; his ship might’ve been tied up in the exact spot mine was, and that evening’s weather and sunset seemed identical. As he recorded it: “The sun set on the other side of the river and a red cloud in the west was reflected in the tranquil bosom of the Irrawaddy. There was not a ripple on the water. The river seemed no longer to flow. In the distance a solitary fisherman in a dug-out plied his craft. A little to one side but in full view was one of the loveliest of the pagodas. In the setting sun its colours, cream and fawn-grey, were soft like the silk of old dresses in a museum… It was impressive to reflect that it had stood for so many centuries and looked down impassively upon the smiling bend of the Irrawaddy.” But I’m obliged to add to Maugham’s summary that in the background of this majestic scene were the guffaws of Americans and Australians, along with the perpetual droning of outboards attached to barges. Thousands of famished mosquitoes settled in for a feast despite their hosts’ best efforts to keep them out of the pantry, and a Californian felt the need to show off his camera’s new electronic viewfinder to all passengers nearby. It was thirty-three degrees celsius, the humidity unbelievable, and my clothes still stuck to me after the day’s stroll in Mandalay.

When one reads The Gentleman in the Parlour one can’t help but think that Maugham had the unique ability to never experience anything in his travels that detracted even slightly from a moment’s perfection. But moments when the spell was broken showed me how unlikely it was that that was the reality—only the reality he chose to pass on to his admiring and well-paying readers. Speculation, yes, but surely the mosquitoes were louder and noisier, more vicious, and as Maugham was later to discover, more likely to be carrying malaria. Surely his fellow passengers were equally as obnoxious at the wrong times, and roaming dogs, rabid, frightened him during the last few seconds of an Irrawaddy sunset. I’m not able to believe that Maugham was a traveler immune to every annoyance, perfectly calm and able to take everything as equally beautiful and part of a scene.

If that is true, then he was no different to any of us today. If Maugham were to make a Facebook account (despite the chuckle that image causes) he would fill it with beautiful pictures of himself frowning-smiling, as he did, in front of the sights of the “East”. Drink in hand, he would pose on the sun deck of the Flotilla Company steamer at sunset, next to friends and locals and other glamorous people, thinking of the sighs of awe that his reading public would let out when they see the photo on a foul London day. Travel writing was, in Maugham’s time, an earlier version of the Facebook glamour shot, available to the adventurous and wealthy few. We all engage in Maugham-style omission, projecting only the highlight-reel of our lives, and some seem to relish the thought of friends’ jealousy back home as much as I’m sure Maugham did.

Or perhaps there’s another explanation, which I was only able to see when re-reading Maugham after my trip: that I’m only able to speak of perfection and annoyances—I’m only conscious of them as an idea while traveling—because I view everything through the lens of Maugham’s writing and the perfected photos I’ve previously seen. I’m conditioned to seek out those “perfect” times, as defined by others’ photos and stories, so full of omission. If that is true, then travel is a search for the unattainable: nowhere, at any time, will ever come near to our preconceived notions. And out of fear of being viewed as inauthentic travellers, or unable to admit that the reality did not live up to the vision, we go home to partake in our own omission with curious friends, family, strangers… propagating that irreconcilable chasm between expectation and reality. It is telling that I couldn’t see this while in Myanmar, but only when I left and could look back on myself as a traveller.

I first remember critically reflecting on Maugham’s book that one evening on the top deck of the ship, right after the sun had set and I struggled to believe that Maugham’s descriptions were honest. But it is only recently that I’ve come to critically reflect on my own journey, on myself as a traveller and my use of Maugham as a guide.

I travelled to Myanmar because I wanted to see a country I’d heard so much about, and I used Maugham’s book as a guide because I wanted to view it through an historical lens. But in retrospect perhaps that was a mistake. I viewed the country through an historical lens, yes, but a lens that was so tied up with empire and colonialism that it was almost dangerous. On a separate trip to Phnom Penh in Cambodia I again stayed in a hotel that Maugham had stayed in and which he had written about in The Gentleman in the Parlour. Coincidentally—and these sorts of occurrences are what created my link to Maugham as a writer in the first place—I was placed in the hotel’s “Somerset Maugham suite”. On one level this was exciting, an inexplicable coincidence that left me examining every object in the room for signs of his long-ago presence. But in another sense it was troubling. It sold Maugham’s colonial lifestyle to wealthy travellers who never stepped back to question what it meant for a European traveller to be quite literally buying, for a few days, that life.

Writers often envelop us, holding us tightly when we read lines that cut to the heart of our thoughts and attitudes. These create powerful bonds that can often last a lifetime, and indeed there were aspects of this to the way I read Maugham—his attitudes to his own country while abroad, his patriotism, his descriptions of personalities he liked and disliked. But what I’m realising now is how we become different people through reading, no matter how much we have in common with the authors whose works we read. I’ve now read Maugham in over six Southeast Asian countries, three of them since my trip through Myanmar, and what has been more valuable than that trip to begin with has been seeing how my own attitudes have changed, including my attitude towards my own trip. My journey through Myanmar now seems to me less a grand adventure than merely a continuation of colonial influence and Orientalism in Southeast Asia, the sign of an unreflective teenager succumbing to the lure of pomp and grandiosity in what once seemed a part of the “exotic” “Orient”. Just as Orwell left Burma in disgust at his own role in the dynamics of empire, I too now worry about the systems of ideas and knowledge that led me to consider such a trip, and which blocked me and the other travellers I encountered from seeing the part we were playing in a larger historical narrative. Only now, years after my journey, can I see how Maugham’s version of the Facebook glamour shot kept me, just as it keeps many of us, from seeing what was really at stake in my travels.

Learning How To Do Nothing

I don’t remember the crash.

I was riding my bike in a race at West Point, the United States Military Academy. The peloton of over 80 riders was moving fast, over 60km/h, on a gradual downhill section. It was a wonderfully sunny day, one of the first since a New England winter that had sucked the vitality out of landscapes and people, and everyone was riding hard but still able to enjoy the springlike roads and scenery. I was right in the middle of the pack of riders, sheltered from the wind, and as the speeds picked up on the downhill I had that magical feeling that comes from riding in a group at high speeds—the smooth sound of aerodynamic bodies and bikes slicing through the wind, the clicking of expensive freehubs rotating as sheltered riders pedalled softly. The riders around me all had the same feeling, and we couldn’t help but exchange grins despite being competitors.

A slight unexpected movement amongst the riders ahead of me. Then I’m on my back on the concrete, my legs tangled at inhuman angles with my bike, one foot still clipped into a pedal, and I’m doing mental checks to determine the damage to my body. Pain everywhere, blood down my left arm and leg, an intense, sharp jabbing pain in my tailbone, difficulty moving my right leg. I didn’t know it at the time—it must have been the adrenaline—but the tailbone wasn’t my main concern. The medics, when they reached me after checking on some of the other riders who had broken bones, noticed immediately that my helmet was shattered. I still don’t know if I had passed out or for how long, but the pain and dizziness in my head hit me a few hours later while I waited to be seen in a nearby hospital.

Concussion. Which, my doctor tells me, science still knows relatively little about. I was prescribed ’cognitive rest’, which essentially involves this: do nothing to stress your brain, in the same way you wouldn’t work out after pulling a muscle. No reading, no intense conversations, no laptop, and as little phone as possible. Maintain this regimen until you feel better.

The first couple of days after my crash were confusing and irritating, and I cannot emphasise the difficulty I had in avoiding the magnet-like pull of my phone to my hand. But with time came ease of thought and a clarity of mind that I have not felt before. There just seemed to be so much time. From the moment I woke up and proceeded  to not spend the next ten minutes checking emails and Facebook, life was slower and more internal. Each hour lasted longer, and evenings stretched on. It was an unbelievable change from the busyness and rushing and stress and the feeling that there was never enough time in a day that I’d had throughout the previous week, month, years.

I kept wondering what to do with my eyes. Over breakfast I stared into my coffee, stared into my bowl, stared blankly at the table, and felt absurd for not doing anything. I couldn’t pretend to read a newspaper and couldn’t pull out my phone, which is our automatic act whenever faced with being alone with nothing else to do. I feared what people would think of me sitting alone and just staring, doing nothing at all other than thinking.

Our society is one that seeks productivity and disdains anything that isn’t, so much so that the feeling of what I call leisure guilt is one most of us are familiar with. Leisure guilt is that niggling in the mind during activities we find pleasurable but which don’t involve a laptop. I get it when I’m out cycling or when I go for a walk, when I spend a little too long with friends over dinner talking politics, and when I’m reading a book unrelated to schoolwork. I’ve even had leisure guilt when spending too long on class readings I’m enjoying, because I should be moving on more quickly to other tasks. Leisure guilt says this isn’t going to help you achieve anything, get back to work.

If we feel leisure guilt even when reading or discussing politics with friends it’s no surprise we feel it when doing precisely nothing. Doing nothing these days usually involves lying on a couch scrolling through Instagram; it needs to be distinguished from properly doing nothing nothing. The latter can even seem impossible. Who these days sits on a park bench with their hands on their knees and stares into space? Where would you even look? Wouldn’t people think you’re strange? And if you do try it, the urge to pull out your phone can become all too great to resist.

Another word for doing nothing is ‘daydreaming’, which is often used as an insult. It implies unproductiveness, impracticality, a head in the clouds. No one wants to be called a daydreamer, that person alone on the park bench staring awkwardly into space. Yet with my concussion, unable to be productive and do things, I could really only do exactly that—sit on a bench in the sun at Yale’s Cross Campus and daydream, letting my mind wander as it pleased.

Daydreaming is the antithesis of productivity. Productivity is to be sought and daydreaming avoided, society says. Where daydreaming at its best still leads to nothing tangible, productivity gives us the pleasure of ticking off to-dos, sending emails, reading pages, writing words and crunching numbers. Productivity leads to results we can see, and makes us feel good about ourselves. With limited time each day and a culture of busy, who would consciously take time to daydream, to do nothing?

But what crashing my bicycle taught me is that we undervalue doing nothing—and even if we realise its value, it is a process to learn how to do it.

The truth is that without daydreaming our productive time may be spent on activities that weren’t worth pursuing in the first place. To focus solely on productivity, without ever giving ourselves space and time to daydream, is like starting to cook a meal before knowing what you want to eat or even having a recipe. It is to ask yourself a more specific question before asking yourself the larger question that determines which specific questions to ask. You don’t go to the supermarket before asking yourself whether you even need anything, and you don’t start cooking before knowing what you’re making. And yet when it comes to productivity, we frequently fill our days with tasks before giving ourselves the space to ask whether those tasks are ones we ultimately want or need to be doing in the first place.

Life sweeps our bicycles out from under us. Had I not had time to do nothing, I would have learned nothing from my crash. Yet having had this time, I maintain that daydreaming’s most important function is in giving us the mental space to answer fundamental questions about ourselves and our lives. Productivity is merely time spent, never to be recovered, unless it is done with a purpose that is well understood. We must give ourselves the time and space to form the blueprints of our lives, and to do that we must realise the absurdity of our leisure guilt.

Connecting the Dots of Our Lives

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

Steve Job’s Stanford commencement address is one of those talks I rediscover perhaps once a year, watch twice in a row, feel that my life has changed, and then forget about a few days later. As much as I want to hold onto all that wisdom and let it change me, life always seems to get in the way.

I wrote recently about the difficulties with wanting to go abroad to do something different, to discover new interests and passions. To go abroad for study, for instance, requires an application that forces you to outline how this experience “aligns with your academic and career goals”. To be honest—to say simply that it doesn’t align, and that’s precisely the point—is to put you in a prisoner’s dilemma scenario with other applicants.

But I think that’s applicable not just to going abroad, but to what we want to do with our lives. Perhaps part of the reason I forget again and again about Jobs’ speech after feeling so deeply moved is that the daily reality of thinking about my future forces me to connect the dots looking forward.

Yale’s Office of Career Services recently asked me to send them my latest resume in order to talk through how it will set me up for the type of work I want to do over summer and after graduation. Through even requesting a resume, the question asked of us is not what do you want to do, but what can you do. The entire conversation is framed from there, with possibilities built on who we were rather than what we want to be and what we could be. We are incentivised by college career offices and employers to connect the dots looking forward, to extrapolate our pasts into our futures as if we were unchanging. That is a fallacy, an ever so costly one, and we must recognise that change is the point of our education. To leave college on the same path as one began leaves me wondering again what our time here was for.

A resume is the ultimate dot-connecter, and it requires that those dots are perfectly linear. I’ve heard from other students who went to their college career services office, who sat down with an adviser and were instantly labelled. “I can see from your resume that you will go into public policy”, the adviser says confidently, going off two previous public sector summer jobs the individual had listed.

Those summer jobs themselves were chosen by happenstance and serendipity! At age 20, to be told what career options are open to you based on a cumulative four months’ work! You wanted to be home one summer, you knew someone who offered you an interesting job, so you took it. Chance, fortuity; taking opportunities as they are presented: this is the right thing to do, and it is not connecting the dots forward. But to then be told by someone, supposedly a professional who knows how to best set you up for a career, that your dots will align only with a limited range of others… Your life’s work decided by happenstance!

I exaggerate, but perhaps only slightly.

And we know the answer were we to say, no, that’s not what I want to do with my life, in fact I want to be an artist and work on climate change. “But what experience do you have?” Job applications list as a requirement “former relevant work experience”. Your adviser tells you, “You’re competing for this museum curation job with other applicants who have spent the past three summers in that type of work. Why would they take you over them?” Friends and family say about your public policy job offer, “it’s a fantastic opportunity and a prestigious career, you should be pleased.” Resignedly, you decide that perhaps the public policy job wouldn’t be so bad. And so you connect one more summer’s dot, and as that line becomes longer it becomes yet more difficult to begin a new set of dots entirely. Each dot acts as a magnet, drawing yet more similar dots to it, and the more there are the stronger the magnetic field becomes. Two dots connect on your resume and decide the next fifty for you.

I exaggerate, but perhaps not much.

In class with David Brooks this semester we spent a few sessions discussing how to choose and shape a career. We were discussing careers in the traditional narrative of “needing the stars to line up”, in the same way that Jobs talked about your dots connecting. Someone frustratedly said “It’s not about how well the stars line up, but how creatively you draw a constellation between them.” I hadn’t heard that before, and it hit home.

The same advice is embedded in Jobs’ talk. From India to calligraphy to Mac OS is no path that a career adviser could ever have seen, or which Jobs could have put on a resume. “So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” He did what he felt was right, and later, after working out what he wanted to do, realised how these past experiences could make him better at whatever work he wanted to devote himself to. Had Jobs met with a career adviser or needed to apply for a job through a resume, where would he have ended up? What creativity, passion and talent would have been wasted?

We need to be aware of how our personal narratives and the lives they lead to are shaped by the structures of resumes and career thinking. Without understanding this, well-meaning career advice may hold us back from drawing a constellation between the dots of our lives, forcing us instead to draw an all-too-straight line between them.

The Two Yale-NUS Colleges

I’m sometimes asked what it is like to attend a university that is frequently in the headlines because of controversy. And it’s true: Yale-NUS College, where I am a member of the inaugural class, has been continually questioned and debated in public right from the start. Yale-NUS has been seen as a herald of the corruption of liberal values, where those poor students are censored and must be regretting their fated decisions to go there rather than Yale. We have been compared to blind puppies, and people have pitied our apparent lack of freedom.

But having spent this past semester at Yale in New Haven I’m struck by the fact that there are really two Yale-NUS Colleges. There’s the one that I attend, where student life is really just what I’ve had at Yale, where students have no need to take notice of the dire predictions made about our college’s fate. And there’s the other one, where Yale-NUS stands for the selling out of American liberal institutions. I read about the latter college in newspapers and online, and begin to pity those students myself. But I’ve certainly never encountered it in my three years at Yale-NUS College.

We should believe that Yale-NUS exists for an educational mission, and in that light what matters are the experiences that my classmates and I are having, over and above the abundance of interests and opinions that commentators on Yale-NUS seem to have. Each of us chose to attend Yale-NUS for very real reasons, unrelated to speculative controversy, and the College must be assessed against these reasons and hopes. For me, it was wanting a true liberal arts education in the Asia Pacific, an education that gave respect to narratives other than the American and Western European.

A recent Yale Daily News feature about Yale-NUS declared that “equally, if not more, important than how Yale-NUS’s watchers in New Haven view the partnership is what insiders — Singaporean politicians, peers at other local universities or patrons at Singapore’s signature food markets — think of the school.” Perhaps—but once again, this misses the point that Yale-NUS exists not for political and higher-ed insiders, let alone aunties and uncles at Singapore’s hawker centres. To juxtapose this with an equally crass stereotype, the equivalent would be a reporter from Singapore asking patrons of a Bojangles in Tennessee what they think of Yale. The response may not be quite what Yalies were hoping for, and ultimately those perspectives matter little to students’ lives.

The focus on the views of everyone other than students at Yale-NUS belies the false premise from which American commentators, as well as many students at Yale, approach the College. The frequent comparison between liberal Yale and authoritarian Singapore shows how Yale-NUS is often seen as a civilising mission, a grand scheme to indoctrinate Singapore from the inside, to end those restrictive chewing gum laws and ultimately allow gay marriage. These concerns demonstrate the confusion of liberal values with a liberal arts education, and I for one came to Yale-NUS for the latter.

Yale may believe it is exceptional, yet I’m inclined to read this exceptionalism as restricted to the realm of liberal arts education. As Yale’s own prospectus on Yale-NUS describes, “Creating an entirely new liberal arts college in Asia would allow Yale to extend to other parts of the world its long tradition of leadership in shaping liberal education.” One may disagree with even this goal, but it is a mistake to read it—as most critics of Yale-NUS seem to have done—as synonymous with a mission to inculcate liberal values in Singapore.

Within the realm of liberal education, however, the best people to ask about how Yale-NUS is shaping up are students themselves. The education I am receiving at Yale-NUS is practically identical in structure to that I’ve received this past semester at Yale: great professors from the world’s top universities, small seminars, a focus on debate and challenging other viewpoints. Where my education at Yale-NUS has differed is in the extent of those differences in viewpoints.

At Yale in New Haven the perspectives of other students that I’ve had to engage with have been centred around a common set of values. Differences of opinion on fundamental issues are really only minor differences around the edges of a topic, if those topics are even raised at all. At Yale-NUS, on the other hand, I have had to engage with viewpoints so different to my own that I have struggled to find language to respond. On topics from gay marriage and capital punishment to the role of the U.S. military in the world and the “Asian values” debate, I’ve been exposed to viewpoints that I always dismissed as being held by other people. To realise that these views are held by people I call friends is an education in itself, and has taught me necessary lessons about the diversity of the Asia Pacific.

When we focus on Yale-NUS’ mission to bring liberal arts education to the Asia Pacific, rather than liberal values, the irony is that I think Yale-NUS better lives up to its mission than Yale does. More often at Yale-NUS do I find myself deeply intellectually challenged, shocked at being face to face with a viewpoint so starkly different from my own, and forced to formulate a response that can be comprehended despite deep differences in fundamental perspectives.

Step back from the controversy, look at Yale-NUS for what it was intended to be and not what its critics say it should be, and then ask us about what it’s like studying the liberal arts in Asia. Yale-NUS is no longer an idea or an experiment, but is a real college with students who have very good reasons for attending. It’s time to start talking about the Yale-NUS that actually exists, not the one created from the minds of a small number of loud and eloquent commentators.

“Do you think we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it?”

A: Also, I have a philosophical question for you. Do you think we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it?

B: Thinking about life is one of the only things we can do that transcends our own lives. It speaks to something more timeless, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a life, in fact.

It’s kind of the eternal conversation. It’s internal, it’s you grappling with your own mind, I would even say it’s the only way to work out what being human actually is.

A: Hmmmm…

But by that metric we might as well have been born brains only.

What’s the point of having able bodies if we spend all our time inside our heads? Or what’s the point of having such a gigantic diverse interesting special world, and special people in it, if all our time is spent thinking about things we haven’t necessarily lived?

B: I’d say it supports the mind. Without being a body in the world, with those special people, we wouldn’t have anything to feed the mind with.

It’s the physical experience that gives rise to thinking about life. Unless you’re Descartes.

A: Right, exactly! Hence my question.. We spend all this time thinking without actually having the physical experiences to give basis to those thoughts.

We think about the physical experiences of others, be them fictional or historical characters.

Rather than going out there and having them ourselves.

B: How do we make sense of our own experiences in the world unless we’ve given thought to the experiences of others before us? We’d be actors going onto the stage cold, it’d be as if we lived in a vacuum where no one had lived before us. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate ignorant life, animal-like?

A: No, I mean… of course we should give thought to others’ experiences, but I think we often leave it at that.

But also life is not a play that needs to be put on properly… it doesn’t require rehearsal, the whole point of life is that no matter how much you read or prepare, it’s never going to go as planned.

I’ve been thinking about this because on Friday my friends and I were playing never have I ever, and I realized that I know a lot and I study a lot, but that very often I don’t live my life to the fullest.

And not even in the way of doing crazy things, but of just experiencing things for myself rather than taking others’ word for it.

B: Now you sound like Kundera, and I hadn’t even realised where I got that earlier phrase from: “Because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come… We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?”

And one part of me has always loved that phrase, wanted so desperately to agree with it in order to feel that lightness, to just live without the burden of all those who have lived before and all who will live afterwards. But—and I don’t know how to properly describe this—I feel like that’s abdicating some human responsibility.

A: Human responsibility to what?

B: I get asked that a lot (including by you!): do you actually live? You don’t drink, you don’t go out, everything is so structured and ordered, what new experiences are you having, how do you know what kind of life you want to lead without trying? And the truth is I’ve never really wondered, because the decision not to do those things has been so firm. There’s a million things you could do and you’ll never do all of them. Commitments are our way of limiting the choices open to us, what we can do with our time over the course of a lifetime. I don’t feel at all as though I’ve missed out, and that time I’ve spent reading and looking internally has (I hope) given me a way of making greater sense of all the experiences I have had and will have.

A: No yeah I know what you mean, but I think my question is not necessarily that we need to live our lives by those metrics of drinking and going out, but more of… meeting new people, taking big risks, doing things for the hell of it and not as part of a plan, etc. And sometimes I wonder if I’m being ungrateful of the fact that I have a healthy and privileged life and that instead of taking advantage of it to live everything I possibly can that its being wasted.

B: Of the billion directions your life could take, of the limitless spontaneous ways you could live your life, how should you know which directions to even take if you haven’t, through thought and reading, come up with some internal framework and blueprint for the fundamentals of how you want to live?

I think that’s where all this thought and reading comes in. I refuse to think it’s wasted time. It’s what gives meaning and sense to external life that would otherwise be wholly existential.

A: I just don’t think the internal framework and blueprint should come from other people’s experiences, from what some old white dude wrote in a book a thousand years ago. Nor should it come from assumptions about life that I make in my brain without actually having gone through them in reality. I think the whole point of youth is that you’re given a chance to go out there and create an internal framework through trial and error, one that works for you because you are unique, and not one that you’ve lifted from someone whose life circumstances were entirely different. And I think reading and thought should come in at the point where they aid you reflect on what you have experienced, but not manuals for how you should experience things. Reading in particular can help you get an idea of how others have dealt with similar problems, and thus you can feel less alone in your overly human struggles, but they should not be taken as guides on how to act.

B: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

So, to end: was this conversation a waste of time, should you have been outside living life instead? 😊

A: I am! Hahaha I’m driving to the club 😛

B: Ah, then there’s our answer. False dichotomy!