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What Action Man Tells Us About Male Body Image

(This was originally published in GQ Style September 2013 - Zack)

Traditionally, us men aren't meant to get hung up on our bodies. John Wayne never asked if an outfit made his bum look big, and Humphrey Bogart managed to marry several beautiful actresses despite the duel burden of a face like a melted Dracula mask and the name "Humphrey".

But as we approached the millennium and the critical mass of masculine vanity that was the "metrosexual", we became correspondingly more body conscious. For some of us this means being less laissez faire with the booze and biscuits or joining the gym, but at the extreme it means something darker. While our tight-lipped approach to disclosing health problems makes hard stats tricky to come by, it’s estimated that there has been a 67 percent increase in UK males seeking treatment for eating disorders in the last five years.

One such issue is muscle dysmorphia, sometimes called "manorexia".

"It's an extreme anxiety about the size of your muscles and your physique in general. Typically, guys will be ashamed of their bodies - even if they are in great shape - and become extremely distressed if they miss a workout or eat the wrong foods," says Dr Mark Rackley, a clinical psychologist specialising in male eating disorders.

So what causes it? "There are multiple factors, but the way men are portrayed in popular culture is definitely key.” For example, since the 1960's the Action Man toy has lost three inches on his waist and gained three inches on his arms. “If you scaled him up he'd have bigger arms than any bodybuilder in history" says Rackley.

Of course it’s still predominantly women being portrayed as sex objects, but men are gaining ground. Witness Daniel Craig emerging from the surf under the cameras lascivious gaze for a recent cultural flashpoint of male body-worship. It’s a safe bet that as many men joined gyms as bought expensively product-placed wristwatches in the wake of the Bond reboot. One of those was Josh Mullin, a 25 year old personal trainer who struggled with muscle dysmorphia in his teens.

"My daily routine was all about muscle building,” says Josh. “My worst enemy was missing a meal, or, god forbid, a training session. I would train for two to three hours per day and eat obsessively. I found it difficult to socialise as any time spent away from the gym was a waste in my eyes."

In conditions like anorexia or bulimia, still overwhelmingly female issues, there is a very clear demarcation between disorder and normal behaviour; there's no such thing as moderate bulimia. But for men, the idealised physique is not emaciated. Low body fat is a prerequisite for sure, but so are gym-honed muscles, and you don't get those by starving yourself. Instead, an incredibly delicate balance must be struck. You must consume enough of the "right" foods to provide the raw muscle materials, which may mean six meals a day and thousands of calories. But there's a risk: eat too much and you'll obscure definition with excess fat.

It's a caloric high-wire act, requiring constant refinement and ascetic restriction. But the actual behaviours, focused exercise and good nutrition, unlike the binge and purge of other disorders, are not inherently unhealthy.

So where is the tipping point between enviable fitness fanatic and muscle dysmorphia?

"It comes down to how extreme the anxiety is," says Dr. Rackley. "A person might get a bit antsy if they miss a workout but it's no big deal in the scheme of things. But if you are getting incredibly stressed about diet and it's stopping you from having a normal social life, it could be muscle dysmorphia."

That guy at the changing room mirror, anxiously appraising his reflection and plucking at a millimetre of fat below his navel may not just be a narcissist, he may be a sufferer. Former sufferer Josh agrees. "I think there is a fine line between looking at your body for improvements and body dysmorphia and the two can easily merge. I remember looking at myself thinking I was in terrible shape, but now when I look back I was probably in the best condition of my life."

I found myself nodding along to Josh's story, recognising traits I once shared.

Muscle is an emotional issue, often a reaction to bullying or poor self confidence. Here's the difference: Most sports are self - selecting, a child is exposed to it, finds he has a natural aptitude and sticks with it. As a result, athletes have a relaxed mastery of their bodies, an ownership of their muscle. In contrast, those of us who train for aesthetics tend to do so precisely because of a lack of athletic ability. It appeals because of its solitary nature and the ideology of self -betterment as an end in itself. We're building confidence in proportion to our muscle, and have a proportional fear of losing it because so much of our self-image is tied up in our physiques.

But therein lies the inconvenient truth. Getting into truly remarkable shape requires an obsession with every morsel you put in your mouth on a par with, if not equal to, an eating disorder.

That's not necessarily a bad thing when done for a specific period of time and with a level of emotional detachment. It can be a powerful and transformative learning experience. But when it becomes a chronic state, creates constant stress and prevents us from having a life outside of the relentless pursuit of a physical ideal, the constantly moving target of the perfect body, the eating disorder tag becomes more appropriate.

Most men eventually get perspective, realising it's possible to be both in shape and a well-rounded person. But occasionally they get stuck, and when that happens Josh has some advice.

"Ask for help. It may seem like no one understands but there will always be family members, friends or medical professionals that can give you advice and repairing steps to take."


Zen And The Art Of Rock Climbing

(I'm still halfway through a book hence the paucity of recent blogs. Instead here's something I wrote at the beginning of the year. This was originally published in OutThere Travel back in February - Zack)

Stepping out of the chilled Air Asia cabin, the mid-day heat of Krabi, Thailand feels like a kick in the chest. By the time my feet hit tarmac my previously crisp shirt looks like the Turin shroud. But I’m not here for a religious experience - I’m here to rock climb.

In all honesty, I’m no outdoorsman. For me rocks are things you order scotch on.

I have no excuses, being both Irish and a personal trainer. The country of my birth has no shortage of spectacular landscapes, but growing up in suburban South Dublin our main hobbies weren't particularly rustic. We didn't gambol through meadows, catch fish in the bay or skin our knees clambering around ruined castles. Granted, we spent much of our formative years drinking in fields. But compared to the sun-drenched pastoral utopia my antipodean friends reminisce about, we were sedentary city kids.

And while my day job of lifting heavy objects means I'm fit and strong, I've always been more about show than go. Primarily, I exercise so I have something nice to hang a t-shirt on.

So when OutThere Travel asked me to come and hang off cliffs for a few days in one of the greatest climbing destinations on Earth I bit their arm off...before wondering how much of the trip I could feasibly spend lying on the beach.

Call me shallow, but you can take your temples, your elephants, your monks- Thailand appeals to me for different reasons. It's a glimpse of the good life, a sliver of luxury that, thanks to the vagaries of exchange rates and global economics, we can all access. But then what’s the point of travel if not opening yourself up to new experiences?

Halfway up a cliff on my first day I think I've figured out what makes climbing addictive. So addictive that in the few days I spend around climbers the most common piece of autobiographical chit chat I hear is "...well I've just quit my job to come and climb here"

I'm on a route known as Groove Tube (climbing route names provide a useful insight into the climber mind - Hello Dali, Fit To Be Thai'd, The Little Shit etc) and I'm stuck. I'm twenty metres up and enclosed on either side by a half-pipe of smoothly curved limestone. The view from here would be breathtaking, blue skies over Tonsai bay, an idyllic inlet framed by monolithic cliffs that explode from the sea, dripping stalactites and tapering to a precariously narrow base.

But I'm not looking at the view. I'm focused on the wall and where the hell I'm going to put my hands. I'm reaching blind. sliding my fingers along the rock in futile circles feeling for a purchase. Finally I find it, my right hand slips into a perfect nook and takes my weight as I scramble up another few feet.

That's where it hits me. Humans have evolved to be problem solving creatures, figuring things out kept us alive, so when we solve something our brain rewards us with a sweet little hit of dopamine, one of our "happy" hormones. It's the reason we like pop songs, our brain predicts how the melody will resolve itself, and responds with a burst of delicious chemicals when the song obliges. It's also the hormone most associated with romantic love. But dopamine is the driver of addiction too. And rock climbing is a perfect dopamine delivery system. It's problem solving all the way up. Every inch, every foothold, every grip, is another hit.

But we know how addiction works. Once we've had a little our brains adapt, we need more and bigger to achieve the same high. Luckily nature lavishes us with ever more challenging routes, and our bodies adapt in tandem. Our eyes become keener, and tiny depressions in the rock surface, virtually invisible to the beginner, enlarge under the climbers gaze. When you watch the experts their arms seem to lengthen unnaturally as they stretch for a crag you'd thought impossibly out of reach.

Tonsai bay teems with experts. When we arrived here on day one for lunch and the afternoon climb, what struck me most was how the bodies changed. Gone are the gym pumped physiques of phi phi or the sunburnt beer bellies of Rialay just across the bay. This is a place for climbers. Their bodies are uniformly lithe, elegantly muscular and a deep golden brown. The Tonsai Man is all forearms, shoulders and upper back. Narrow hips and thighs flaring out into big calves. Abs are defined but not in a shredded, gym honed way. It's a body developed for hauling itself up mountains. No excess baggage, just enough essential parts.

He also has a certain swagger, perhaps the tiniest bit smugly aware that, while others get pissed on the Koh San road, he's in the "proper" Thailand.

I finish the first day elated and exhausted. The skin on my hands is sore, my forearms are pumped and a cold Singha beer in The Grotto while watching the very Platonic ideal of sunsets feels well earned.

In fitness we talk about the SAID principle - Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. It means that training does not necessarily transfer to a particular task unless it is specific to that task. I come face to face with this on day two when I realise how poorly fifteen years of gym training has prepared me for rock climbing. My upper back is in pieces. It hammers home the flaws in my technique- your hands should secure you to the rock face while your legs do the heavy lifting. I had been trying to chin-up my way to the top. The soreness gives me the feedback I need to alter my technique and I feel like I'm making progress.

Climbing is utterly engrossing, to the point of being a meditative act. As much as we talk abstractly of living "in the moment", we rarely do. Too often our minds are occupied with anxieties about the future or regrets of the past. Meditation alone is great but it's a challenge to shut off the higher conscious processes, the constant thinking about thinking. Climbing doesn't give you that option- you're in the moment or you fall off. Without conscious effort you find yourself at peace. For all the physical effort of the sport, rock climbing is a shortcut to serenity.

As a thank you to Ghop and Sue, our climbing instructors, we bring them for lunch at our hotel. Ghop tells us how he got into rock climbing in the early nineties before it exploded as a tourist industry (remember those playful climbing route names? Well the first one was called The Money Maker when Thai locals worked out they could charge tourists to climb it).

Climbing hooked Ghop utterly. He spent five years living on the beach doing nothing else. Climbing, thinking about climbing, discussing the minutiae of routes with friends, turning them over in his head, coming up with tweaks, solving the puzzle.

After lunch we tackle our greatest challenge yet, an endurance testing climb-hike-climb with the promise of the best view on the island as our reward. At the summit, the greenery falls away, the rock flattens out and our weariness evaporates as the view reveals itself to us. To call it spectacular would be to undersell it. Let’s just say the sense of achievement, the perfect blue skies and the kind of tropical landscape you expect King Kong to burst from at any minute create a truly perfect moment. I begin to understand why those climbers quit their jobs to come here.

Travel wouldn't be travel without at least one moment of existential crisis, where you wonder just what the hell you're working so hard for back home. I'm not saying I'm ready to hand in my Oyster card. I still love the mad London scramble. Cabs and cocktails, ambition and avarice. But there are lessons here if I want them and can believe they won't be eroded when I return to my East London bubble.

The lesson is the same as ever - focus on the wall in front of you. On where your hands and feet are right now. Not the summit above or the ground below. When you solve the puzzles, stop and enjoy the dopamine hit, and then reach for the next ledge.


How To Be More Creative

That title is a bit of a cheat, because I haven't written a blog this week. I'm trying to write a novel right now, aiming to finish it by the end of November to tie into NaNoWriMo.

I had planned to write something about creativity a few weeks back however, and it ended up working its way into the book. So I'm posted that little section here to keep the blog updated. It kind of vaguely fits.

You're joining it about forty pages in. All you need to know: Anna is an actress, she's just been dumped. Brian is a writer. They're in Thailand.

Here you go.

Anna was in that brief, magical window of afternoon holiday drinking. Just beginning to feel the alcohol fizzing between her synapses, slipping into a state of effortless flow. Everything she said was that bit quicker, wittier. Brian was good company too, he had a way with words and seemed to know a little bit about everything.

It was a few hours past the raging heat of mid-day and a breeze fanned them gently. They had a whole day ahead of them and the stresses of life were like faint wispy clouds far out on the sea, barely visible.

After their initial reacquaintance she'd apologised for not remembering him, feeling terrible. He was fine about it, just teasing her.

By that time a waiter was hovering and asked if she wanted a Bloody Mary too. She prevaricated, but Brian told her to sit and have one drink so she'd climbed into an adjacent sun-lounger and kicked off her flip-flops.

Now, two hours later, they were getting quietly steamed and discussing the relative merits of CGI blood spatter.

“I’m just saying I don’t see it as the biggest problem with movies right now. I think the problem is Hollywood has run out of ideas” she said. “We just get sequels and superhero movies and that’s it.”

“I didn’t say it’s the biggest problem – I said it’s emblematic of the biggest problem, which is basically laziness,” said Brian.

He held his hand in the air. From across the pool, the waiter made eye contact. Brian held up two fingers indicating another round of green tea mojitos. The waiter gave him a wink and a thumbs-up and hurried off to the bar.

“I have this idea that creativity thrives on restriction,” he said.

She rolled her eyes, fishing in her bag for her cigarettes, simultaneously vowing to break the habit of smoking every time she had a drink.

“Creativity is a result of different concepts mixing up in your brain and concocting something new. Your brain has this information stored over here and this idea here, and when you start to mix those concepts together in unlikely ways you get something new and different. Art basically. It’s alchemy.”

“Which has what exactly to do with CGI blood?” said Anna.

“So how do those ideas get stirred up? It happens when we’re put into unfamiliar situations and faced with new problems to solve. If you think back to movies pre-CGI, they were trying to realise these completely fantastical images - alien cities, giant monsters, whatever. The distance between the image in the creator’s mind and what could be achieved on screen was greater because of the technology of the time. So they were forced to be more creative. Think of the best movies; Jaws, Alien, Evil Dead, they all faced the challenge of creating images the technology of the day had to stretch to achieve.”

Anna had lit her cigarette, nodding along but also scrunching her nose up not ready to concede the point.

“Okay fine,” she said “I agree they’re great movies.”

“Of course you do, because, questionable taste in ex-boyfriends aside, you are not a retard,” said Brian.

Anna chuckled.

“But one of the many things that marks those movies out as classics is this: It’s what you don’t see that’s scary. Right? The shark, the alien, the fucking thing that chases Bruce Campbell through the forest.”

“Good point,” she said.

“So what went wrong? The technology improved. The gap between the image in the creator’s mind and what could be realised on screen narrowed. Film-makers don’t need to think to come up with creative solutions anymore, they just whip it up in a computer,”

He was speaking quickly now,

“There a reason Jurassic Park still has some of the most convincing special effects of all time despite being a 20 year old movie. It’s because they stayed within their limitations and used a mix of practical and digital effects. Nowadays we’ve got CGI car crashes that look about as convincing as cut scenes from Grand Theft Auto. They don’t just use computers to render the impossible or enhance something real, they just use them when they can’t be arsed doing anything real at all.”

“This theory of yours -” Anna began, but he cut her off in the rush to complete his thought.

“And the worst offender is CGI blood spatter. It’s wrong because using blood bags is one of the oldest special effects in cinema. And it works beautifully. And the digital stuff is never, ever, convincing. Hence,” he said with a flourish of his freshly arrived cocktail, “CGI blood, the perfect symbol of the decline of modern cinema.”

Anna stared at Brain, momentarily dumbstruck.

“That…” she said pausing for emphasis, “is the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard.”


How To Feel Inspired


Jason Becker had his first guitar lesson at five years old. His father taught him a couple of simple chords, but he lacked the patience to stick with it. Not unusual for a kid his age, but that impatience was a quality he'd display throughout his life. He found it difficult to accept that mastery of a skill took time. He wanted the ability immediately.

But he returned to the guitar and that restlessness, the inability to accept anything less than mastery, drove him to become a virtuoso by the age of 14. This was the early 1980's and "shred", a mutant fusion of blues, rock and classical guitar played at ungodly volumes and near light speed, was in its infancy. Jason practiced obsessively, he would run scales between bites of food at the kitchen table. He even bought a miniature guitar for the car to practice at red lights. Family videos show Jason at gigs executing solos that would have even highly competent players tearing their hair out, he's doing it with a dopey grin on his face, single-handed while his free right hand performs tricks with a yoyo. In another video, a high school talent show, Jason plays blues riffs that make Clapton look like a ham fisted clutz. He’s playing them with his teeth.

Which is all so much showboating of course, but Jason was no mere fret gymnast playing fast for the sake of it. He had a deep and innate understanding of music, setting him apart from the hordes of wannabe shredders who, in Edward Van Halen's disdainful view, "played the guitar like it was a typewriter". It led to him being picked by an inchoate record label specialising in freakishly adept guitarists. He was paired with future Megadeth member Marty Friedman to form Cacophony. They enjoyed some success, albums and tours, but then opportunity really knocked.

Ex-Van Halen frontman Dave Lee Roth chose Becker as his new lead guitarist. To put this in context, in guitar playing, as in any field of endeavor, there's a pantheon, a group of acknowledged geniuses. In movie making you've got Scorsese, Spielberg, Godard, in writing you've got Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, and in guitar playing you've got the likes of BB King, Chuck Berry, Clapton, Hendrix. Well the guy after Hendrix was Eddie Van Halen. He hit the guitar playing world like that big black obelisk from 2001 A Space Odyssey and put the evolution of the art form, literally, on fast forward. When Roth split with Van Halen he worked with Steve Vai, another six-string superhuman, arguably the most technically impressive rock guitarist of all time. Well, Jason Becker was picked to follow those guys.

It was shortly after recording his first album with Roth that friends started noticing Becker's limp. He initially dismissed it as a pinched nerve, even joking it was down to his tourniquet-tight trousers, an essential part of the shred metal uniform. But his balance soon deteriorated and at the behest of his mother he finally saw a doctor.

That’s when he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gherig's disease, an incurable degenerative illness that gradually paralyses its victims till they can't breathe or swallow without medical assistance.

He hoped to at least tour the album with Roth, but the illness was working to a different schedule, and when it finally attacked his fingers and basic guitar lines became a struggle, he knew it was over.

So, gifted guitar virtuoso loses ability to move. I suppose you could frame it as a terrible irony or hold it up as evidence of a Godless universe, but you’d be ignoring the innumerable banal atrocities that happen every day and singling this one out as more important. But nonetheless here I am watching a documentary about Becker at home, and tearing up. And it’s ridiculous. I find sentimentality awkward and balk at the kind of heartstring-tugging manipulation these stories are normally laden with.

For me, the whole business of “inspiration” is totally devalued now, deadened by over-stimulation by reality TV, Nike ads, social media memes and the rest, my inspiration circuits just aren’t receptive to this stuff anymore.

But something about Becker just gets me.

Metal guitarists are the pro-wrestlers of music; vaguely ridiculous with their costumes and bombastic affectations, hopelessly un-trendy, the butt of a thousand lazy jokes, but nonetheless displaying a deep love of and dedication to their craft that would shame any of us and is all the more touching because no one else takes it seriously. I am always impressed by top athletes, great actors, anyone who displays amazing talent, but I have an extra layer of admiration for the person who obsessively labours to become world class at something most of the population will regard as a weird curiosity at best, and at worst a dumb joke. They don’t do it for plaudits and money and acceptance, they do it because they must do it.

Legendary screenwriter William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Marathon Man) says he’s most moved by a character who shows what he calls “dumb courage”. Maybe what moves me about Becker is a close cousin of that quality - a kind of dumb dedication. The kind that forces a kid to give up his childhood for a skill that will never be taken seriously by the arbiters of cultural importance.

Because playing like that takes dedication on a level most people will never understand. When you hear Becker or Van Halen or Vai play you’re hearing the sound of an abnormal childhood, of long nights at home while friends were out partying, of years and years of insane solitary focus. Even when he was touring with Cacophany and his bandmates were indulging in the kinds of things bands on tour indulge in, Becker was calling his mom and practicing in his hotel room. He’s the guy who did everything right.

He never stopped either. First he would dictate guitar parts for other musicians to transcribe and play and make records that way. Then his voice left him. He could still move his eyes and his chin, so he used specialist computer equipment to compose. Then he lost control of even his facial muscles and could communicate through eye movement alone. So his dad devised a method of communication based on dividing Becker’s field of vision into quadrants. One look, say, up and to the left, selected a subsection of letters, and a subsequent eye movement picked a letter from that list. His father would look into Jason’s eyes and say the letters aloud, and when he thought he could guess the word early he’d say the word. When you see them communicate now, thousands of hours of practice behind them, it looks indistinguishable from telepathy.

So Jason still makes music with his eyes and his dad and the extraordinary, tireless support network of his friends and family

I can already hear the traditionalists chiming in with "it's about the notes you don't play" and "Chuck Berry had more soul in his little finger than these show-offs", and it's not that they're wrong, or that hyper-technical rock guitar is even my favorite thing to listen to. But when I was a teenager learning to play and developing my own obsession it was an inspiration to me. The simple desire to have no ceiling to your repertoire was something I could relate to and admire. I wanted to be free to play the music I heard in my head, not hemmed in by slothful, uncooperative fingers.

So it turns out I'm as vulnerable to inspiration as anyone, because Becker didn't just pluck at my jaded heartstrings, he made them wail like an overdriven Stratocaster through a Marshall stack.

Jason Becker, ladies and gentlemen. Long may he shred.

PS- The movie I watched was Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet. It's available on Netflix and I highly recommend it.



London Personal Trainer's Top Tips On How To Die

"To study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one's self to die." - Cicero

One of my earliest memories involves being struck silent by an existential dread while playing outside my house. I must have been about five or six and I had just decided to pretend to be a horse. I pulled my jumper up over my head, the neck securing it at my hairline and the sleeves flopping backwards to form an ersatz mane/ears. I started mock galloping on the green outside my house when suddenly I was struck by the very clear thought that there was ultimately no point in pretending to be a horse, because I would one day die.

I stopped - silent, frozen mid gallop, knees bent, hands aloft gripping imaginary reigns (for I was both horse and jockey, zoologically implausible, admittedly, but then I was only five). My eyes went wide and unfocused as I looked not at the grass or my hands or the blue sky (because skies are always blue in childhood memories, which given Ireland's average annual rainfall, proves memories are unreliable at best), but instead into the future.

I had a vague understanding that time would pass, I would become an adult, like my parents, and then old, like my granny, and then I would be gone. Even then an instinctive, proto-atheism denied me the false consolation of an afterlife, so I was forced to conclude that pretending to be a horse, that doing anything at all in fact, ultimately had no point.

Everything, no matter how joyful or fun or satisfying, was a diversion on the road to oblivion.

I've held on to that fear and despite assembling a more sophisticated philosophical toolbox for dealing with it, I still occasionally have a mild attack of panic at the immutable fact of my own mortality.

It's been said that philosophy is man's attempt to come to terms with death. But it's not just philosophy - any field of human endeavor is a bid for immortality. As the only animal who fully grasps the fact that it will one day die, we are unique in our attempts to leave a legacy, some emblem or artifact, stretching off into eternity long after we've become clever fertiliser.

Well that's one way of achieving immortality, but it's not nearly literal enough for me.

Say this to most people and their answers will usually be some blithe variation of an argument first put forth by Lucretius.

"You won't even know you're dead, so why worry?"

Richard Dawkins apparently takes solace from the fact that when he dies he'll return to the same state he was in when Alexander The Great walked the Earth. Why worry about not existing when you've been nonexistent before?

A famous passage from Nabokov's memoir sums it up beautifully-

"The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is headed for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged — the same house, the same people — and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse order of events, his very bones had disintegrated"

That's a fiercely moving piece of writing, I'd have it read at my funeral, but I don’t find it comforting.

Christopher Hitchen's makes this point in the introduction to his own memoir, written while, unbeknownst to him, his body incubated the cancer that would kill him just a year later.

For Hitchens, the fact that you won't know you're dead is "exactly the thing about the post-mortem condition that actually does, and must, make one afraid".

Death is to Hitchens as it was to Philip Larkin -" The sure extinction that we travel to, and shall be lost in always,

Not to be here, not to be anywhere"

That some find this comforting is bizarre.

But if scientific and literary greats can't offer relief they can at least offer distraction, which may be the best any of us can expect.

In a recent interview, Woody Allen said

"It's just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don't have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we're just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything that you value, whether it's Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci, or whatever, will be gone. The earth will be gone. The sun will be gone. There'll be nothing. The best you can do to get through life is distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the key is to distract yourself."

I’m with Woody in that distraction is vital for getting through the business of life without having a mental breakdown every five minutes, but we shouldn’t ignore death completely. Death is what inspired all these great works of art (and so many more) in the first place, there’s nothing as motivating as a deadline after all.

The ancient Egyptians had a habit of dragging a dried skeleton out for display at parties for just this reason. A message to the revelers: “None of this will last forever so enjoy it while you can”.

As I stood still on the grass outside my house with my jumper over my head, all of these writers and thinkers and artists were still waiting for me to discover them, so they couldn’t offer any of this advice. But I suppose I came to a similar conclusion There was nothing I could do about dying, but even so, even if pretending to be a horse was essentially pointless, it was a fun distraction.

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