This year has been a year of many great disappointments, in a life that did not lack for disappointments before. This is a theme I have addressed in recent blog posts and will probably revisit. But although I feel weary and bitter –I have few regrets. I am going to discuss my current position in life as an American man through the lens of another American man who died at 60 years old but clearly shaped his world by 53 in a way that I have not. I have found all efforts to make real progress or secure any real opportunities for my life stymied and setback in far too many ways to enumerate. I have often said to my closest confidantes that I have no real talent for happiness. That has been true throughout my life. I also have a growing sense over recent decades that the worst of a bad lot is yet to come. But if there will be a bitter harvest yet to reap that does not mean that I am filled with regrets, in fact I am less burdened with regret each year. Foreboding, exhaustion and a sense of the goodness dripping out of life I know in abundance — but regret diminishes annually.
What is not lacking in life for some is terribly lacking for others and it is the whole realm of soul searching, gut-checking and the like. I mean only a particular family of introspection and not every possible kind of introspection. There are kinds of self acknowledgement and examination which create more ennui and those which resemble the football player who watches the tapes of his game. In this post I am (among too many other things) discussing the latter. How many of the readers of this post will instantly recognize the following line, I do not know — but here it is: if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. I don’t think the evidence that I have dared greatly is as obvious as the evidence that Teddy Roosevelt did and yet as I sit placidly editing this post I think of myself as one who has dared greatly.
August 3, 2017 is the occasion of the Hall of Fame Game broadcast on NBC. It identifies the moment when professional NFL football returns to the screens across America. I’m watching the heat of a house with very little working air conditioning. Hot as it is it is the evening and a cooler than usual summer evening. There is a chance it will defrost over the course of the night and work as it should. But I am not sure that is the case. The defrosting of an AC unfit can take longer and given the type of case and the fact that I don’t own it or the house, there is no way for me to be sure that the freezing of the unit is the issue. I’m sure that this is the step to take next in servicing the unit. Playing football early in the season gets hot in Louisiana. The Hall of Fame Game far to our north is probably not cool for the players. But it is a worthy celebration of the game. The Hall of Fame Game is part of my life right now.
Like other posts I have created that deal largely with someone else’s words in this blog — this post is still largely about me as I have sat in the Vermilion Parish Library in clothes I usually use for yard work but not yet dirty or sweaty and my leg braces which I love not to wear but when I do wear them I never wear them for yard work. My shorts there, tucked under the public access computer revealed the braces which I often am less than eager to display although I have. It’s also a post about me laying across my bed. It seems one of those days when one is beyond really caring about the outcomes of most of life’s past stages and such. I am by circumstances drawn to look at my life and the world thought the lens of a particular set of words by a great — but imperfect man. A man who abounded in courage and activity but could also reflect and think. he was not a poet or a singer and yet one part of his huge output of words is read in a poetic light and has a certain song like quality, so I am blogging about it. I have blogged about Frank Sinatra’s song My Way and used it to discuss other issues. In that song he has the lyric “regrets I have a few, but then again too few to mention.” That is in fact a sentiment that resonates with me more as I age. I have more bitterness but fewer regrets than when I was younger. I am going to wrap this post around a set of quotes as I also did with a post quoting Bruce Springsteen and one quoting Billy Joel this past year. The three songs involved in those three posts linked before have very little to do with one another but the are all by American men with big popular careers who sang songs they wrote rooted in personal experience. I have never done a post about Kipling’s poem If , but if I had done so it would be a good bridge to this post because this post is not about a recent popular song and how it relates to something that I want to say but rather about a presidential speech from the early twentieth century from which a portion is often excerpted as an inspirational sort of prose poem.
If was written in 1895 and published in 1910 the same year that former President Teddy Roosevelt gave the speech that this post is written largely about. It is quite possible that Kipling had Roosevelt in mind along with others when he wrote this poem. It is also possible that Roosevelt knew the poem fairly well. To my knowledge it is possible that neither work was much influenced by the other very directly but there is a connection in larger terms according to the poetry foundation… Kipling was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s connections to poets and literary artists that actually mattered:
The Kiplings lived in America for several years, in a house they built for themselves and called “Naulahka.” Kipling developed a close friendship with Theodore Roosevelt, then Under Secretary of the Navy, and often discussed politics and culture with him. “I liked him from the first,” Kipling recalled in Something of Myself, “and largely believed in him…. My own idea of him was that he was a much bigger man than his people understood or, at that time, knew how to use, and that he and they might have been better off had he been born twenty years later.” Both of Kipling’s daughters were born in Vermont—Josephine late in 1892, and Elsie in 1894—as was one of the classic works of juvenile literature: The Jungle Books, which are ranked among Kipling’s best works. The adventures of Mowgli, the foundling child raised by wolves in the Seeonee Hills of India, are “the cornerstones of Kipling’s reputation as a children’s writer,” declares Blackburn, “and still among the most popular of all his works.” The Mowgli stories and other, unrelated works from the collection—such as “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and “The White Seal”—have often been filmed and adapted into other media.
So there can be no question of whether or not Roosevelt’s view of empire and imperialism in Egypt, India, the Philippines, Panama and Korea as they appeared in his public policy were at least minimally influenced by Kipling. Nor is it at all likely that Kipling’s literary vision in a number of works was untouched by his experience of Teddy Roosevelt. One is aware that both shared many interests and attitudes and a certain perspective on how to live. But that goes beyond my scope in this post. Part of this post is going to be about my interest in trying to compete on Jeopardy. I am mentioning that because Kipling and Roosevelt both use images and suggestions of competition and sport in the broadest sense — the GAME — to describe what they envision as the virtuous life. I spent time in the Philippines and Colombia and had friends in both countries, and still do. .Both are countries where Teddy Roosevelt’s darkest and direst legacies are remembered. But even from their points of view, he is a man one can understand. He was not a man of absolute and blind hatreds and greens. He could do great things and he did. He was in many ways the kind of man Kipling calls for in If.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream- -and not make dreams your master;
If you can think- -and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on! ‘
Kipling had a rousing end to his poem and there is time and space to point out some kindred notes in the speech we are discussing here. I will say that France, England and the larger United Kingdom as well as Roosevelt’s United States of America all had different understandings of class but class is a theme that is important in this final verse and in Roosevelt’s speech.
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings- -nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And- -which is more- -you’ll be a Man, my son!
Here is the paragraph in full that precedes the famous part of Teddy Roosevelt’s speech. It is not my place here to point out all the connections that exist between the two but simply to declare that such connections exist.
It is well if a large proportion of the leaders in any republic, in any democracy, are, as a matter of course, drawn from the classes represented in this audience to-day; but only provided that those classes possess the gifts of sympathy with plain people and of devotion to great ideals. You and those like you have received special advantages; you have all of you had the opportunity for mental training; many of you have had leisure; most of you have had a chance for enjoyment of life far greater than comes to the majority of your fellows. To you and your kind much has been given, and from you much should be expected. Yet there are certain failings against which it is especially incumbent that both men of trained and cultivated intellect, and men of inherited wealth and position should especially guard themselves, because to these failings they are especially liable; and if yielded to, their- your- chances of useful service are at an end. Let the man of learning, the man of lettered leisure, beware of that queer and cheap temptation to pose to himself and to others as a cynic, as the man who has outgrown emotions and beliefs, the man to whom good and evil are as one. The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities – all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of weakness. They mark the men unfit to bear their part painfully in the stern strife of living, who seek, in the affection of contempt for the achievements of others, to hide from others and from themselves in their own weakness. The rôle is easy; there is none easier, save only the rôle of the man who sneers alike at both criticism and performance.
Two fundamentally different men were saying some things in different ways but the passions, ideals and event the weaknesses of both men have lots of common qualities. I am not sure at all that the age of Roosevelt and Kipling is really as near to us in spirit as it is in time compared to most ages of history and literature. Neither man much describes the life I have lived for I have largely lost and they felt themselves largely to be winners and the difference illuminated all of their words compared to mine.
This is a day when I have been running errands and was hoping for a small deal to come through, but as of the time that this post is going up it looks like it will be a while before I know it will come through or not come through. Perhaps it is only delayed but perhaps it fits into the pattern of ever constricting possibilities and lessened opportunities which define most of my life today. So like a lot of American men who are not happy with their own future I enjoy watching the men in the arena of professional sports living out their potential and being rewarded in grand ways. Like many others I feel I too have played a few games that matter although things have not worked out so gloriously as the glories that this game celebrates.
All I can say with certainty about my prospects for the rest of my life is that they are not good. The work I have poured into novels, projects, businesses and ventures which have not prospered can never be replaced, and the costs have been borne while undertaking many more prosaic things. I have drunk fairly deeply of personal and social defeat at many levels. The questions that realistically face me today are not about whether I will know success or failure. My only fantasies that have any hope of coming true are those which are tied to plans and dreams about levels above or below the point at which I feel that I would sort of break even in life. The other thing I can say is that in terms of realism and experience as I have known it, things are likely to keep getting worse in all sorts of ways over the foreseeable future. Every major sign as to the direction of things is toward the worsening of most or all things that matter. I have taken some risks in life there is no doubt about that, I do not feel that I took a lot of unjustified risks — but when one risks one must be prepared to loose. The more one loses the more risks one must sometimes take. Like a team with the lower score and the clock against them in football — I must play the long odds. Gambling becomes the conservative position.
Another game in my life right now is Jeopardy. This year I took the online test to qualify as a Jeopardy contestant. I very much doubt that I will ever appear on the show but I took the test. I have been watching the game on television and playing the J-6 game on my own on the computer as often as possible since I took the test. I have not been called for the audition, interview section of the process yet. I likely will not be, but if called I think most people who are called are not actually invited to appear on the show. If I do appear on the show, then the second place finisher receives a compensation prize of 2,000 dollars and the third place finisher receives a compensation prize of 1,000 dollars. If I were to defeat my two well selected and qualified opponents then I would have to beat long odds to win more than once. I figure that if I won four times it would make a real difference for the rest of my life that would probably make everything more than worth it and would change the status and outlook of my remaining years. The odd of me winning the Jeopardy game four times are more or less infinitesimal from the point of view of my current position as one who has not been invited to the interview stage. But I honestly believe that this is my most realistic chance for a good and prosperous old age. I don’t think it is even a particularly close thing. Nor do I think that it would be all that great — simply that it would make a more positive and tolerable old age more plausible as an outcome. That is my best shot at a modest prosperity. To win a hundred thousand dollars on Jeopardy. There are no other paths leading to good and prosperous outcomes. At least none that I can see ahead. The gambling chances are the best ones for this man who can no longer gambol along reliably on dependable legs.
I have just recently turned 53 and my life no longer has the blush of the fresh rose upon it. But I am not sure that it ever had much of that. Right now I am in the ongoing process of watching the Ken burns film The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. The second episode is titled, The Man in the Arena and ends with the famous excerpt from his Citizenship in a Republic speech delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris on the 23 of April 1910. The best known part of the speech is below.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
I am writing some of this blog post on August 3, 2017. It is the birthday of my niece and godchild Anika Claire Spiehler, besides being the Hall of Fame Game day. I have invested alot of my life in her and she is a great person but the truth is I did not contact her successfully on her birthday — another defeat in a string of many. August 3 was also a day in the deep summer of South Louisiana with its heat and humidity, the AC stopped working in the place I live — that I still call Gammie’s house. It is a day in the year that I am 53, and like almost everyone, far less successful than Roosevelt.
Of course he and I had different goals but even allowing for that he laps over the lines to achieving some great success in addressing interests that are more my interests than his own. It probably is a day in a year that I thought I would not reach at all if I did not reach it in a better state of mind, well-being and prosperity than the one I occupy. One of my interests in life has been the connection between France and the United States. On that point I wish to quote Theodore Roosevelt:
France has taught many lessons to other nations: surely one of the most important lesson is the lesson her whole history teaches, that a high artistic and literary development is compatible with notable leadership im arms and statecraft. The brilliant gallantry of the French soldier has for many centuries been proverbial; and during these same centuries at every court in Europe the “freemasons of fashion: have treated the French tongue as their common speech; while every artist and man of letters, and every man of science able to appreciate that marvelous instrument of precision, French prose, had turned toward France for aid and inspiration. How long the leadership in arms and letters has lasted is curiously illustrated by the fact that the earliest masterpiece in a modern tongue is the splendid French epic which tells of Roland’s doom and the vengeance of Charlemange when the lords of the Frankish hosts where stricken at Roncesvalles. Let those who have, keep, let those who have not, strive to attain, a high standard of cultivation and scholarship. Yet let us remember that these stand second to certain other things. There is need of a sound body, and even more of a sound mind. But above mind and above body stands character – the sum of those qualities which we mean when we speak of a man’s force and courage, of his good faith and sense of honor. I believe in exercise for the body, always provided that we keep in mind that physical development is a means and not an end. I believe, of course, in giving to all the people a good education. But the education must contain much besides book-learning in order to be really good. We must ever remember that no keenness and subtleness of intellect, no polish, no cleverness, in any way make up for the lack of the great solid qualities. Self restraint, self mastery, common sense, the power of accepting individual responsibility and yet of acting in conjunction with others, courage and resolution – these are the qualities which mark a masterful people. Without them no people can control itself, or save itself from being controlled from the outside. I speak to brilliant assemblage; I speak in a great university which represents the flower of the highest intellectual development; I pay all homage to intellect and to elaborate and specialized training of the intellect; and yet I know I shall have the assent of all of you present when I add that more important still are the commonplace, every-day qualities and virtues.
The little known quote about France above is from a speech is well known for another part that is usually applied in the most personal ways and only vaguely in a public service way. But this paragraph about France is the paragraph which directly follows the most famous part of the speech. The part I am referring to is usually printed, read and published alone as an inspirational prose poem and titled, The Man in the Arena . This part of the speech is personally edifying and is intended to inspire and many people, like me do find it personally edifying. The rest of the speech is known only to very few, relatively speaking. I am quoting another part out of order and will slide some other sections around as the post drags on. The point of the next section is that this speech was about individuals but it was about individuals in the context of citizenship and their role as citizens in a republic. It was not just about individual living their own lives with no social context.
Today I shall speak to you on the subject of individual citizenship, the one subject of vital importance to you, my hearers, and to me and my countrymen, because you and we a great citizens of great democratic republics. A democratic republic such as ours – an effort to realize its full sense government by, of, and for the people – represents the most gigantic of all possible social experiments, the one fraught with great responsibilities alike for good and evil. The success or republics like yours and like ours means the glory, and our failure of despair, of mankind; and for you and for us the question of the quality of the individual citizen is supreme. Under other forms of government, under the rule of one man or very few men, the quality of the leaders is all-important. If, under such governments, the quality of the rulers is high enough, then the nations for generations lead a brilliant career, and add substantially to the sum of world achievement, no matter how low the quality of average citizen; because the average citizen is an almost negligible quantity in working out the final results of that type of national greatness. But with you and us the case is different. With you here, and with us in my own home, in the long run, success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average women, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary, every-day affairs of life, and next in those great occasional cries which call for heroic virtues. The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed. The stream will not permanently rise higher than the main source; and the main source of national power and national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation. Therefore it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average cannot be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.
It is none to easy to put the time we live in and the time Roosevelt lived in next to one another for good measure. Despite, the famous part of the speech — Roosevelt was a critic as well as a man of action. He was introspective, religious, well read and an historian. He was a man devoted to family and culture. The contrast between him and all recent presidents at a personal level is striking. The exceptions are the one term presidents George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter both of whom were enormously successful compared to most men but remarkably shabbily dispatched as Presidents. Only they can approach (in my view) his kind of personal resources in approaching the post. The challenges we face are greater than those he faced. But I wonder if our internal resources are his equal.