From a cold water flat somewhere in Brooklyn.

“You’re a writer?” she said, as she looked up toward the desk where his typewriter sat.

“I suppose.”

“Well you don’t seem certain about it, either of you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well you said you ‘suppose’, you’re a writer.”

“Yes, but you said either of us? Me and who else?”

“The typewriter darling. It doesn’t seem sure about the whole thing either, there’s not even a ribbon in it.”

“There’s not?… Oh…I suppose…I had to step out just before you arrived.”

“Step out?”

“Yes…”

“Well, where to?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Well you’re a writer, and I’m in no rush to get anywhere, I only live downstairs after all. So tell me a story…”

“I hardly even know you. I don’t know if I want to.”

“Hardly seems relevant, it’s your job after all, nobody is supposed to want to do their job are they?”

“Writers are.”

“Well you don’t even seem sure you are one, so stop worrying so much and tell me a story.”

“I’m not a storyteller, I’m a writer. There’s a difference.”

“I don’t see that there is. Well what is it then?”

“I write! I don’t just make things up, and tell people stories.”

“It’s all the same in my book.”

“You seem more the storyteller type.”

“Suppose I am.”

She lit a cigarette and they both watched the blue smoke slowly spiral towards the ceiling. Arching just beneath the chandelier, it doubled over on itself and descended again.

The birds had started to chirp outside the sun was nearly fully up.

“Where do you think we’ll be in fifty years time?” She began again.

“What do you mean?”

“You know, what do you think the world will be like, what do you think you’ll be doing?”

“In fifty years? We’ll I’d better at least be published by then. Written something of real worth y’know?”

“I don’t suppose they’ll even need typewriters by then.”

“What?”

“Well surely somebody will have dreamt up something else, you know a machine that just listens to you speak and does the typing for you.”

“Nonsense.”

“It isn’t. It seems perfectly plausible. I mean think of it, it’s not so long ago people would have laughed at you if you’d told them we were driving around in motor cars, and writing on machines instead of with a pen.”

“I still write with a pen sometimes.”

“So?”

“So people will still want to write with typewriters.”

“I suppose, there’s always a few who cling onto things. Usually it’s either just because they’re scared to move on, or they feel they’ve got a statement to make by not doing what’s expected of them.”

“Either way we’ll still need typewriters.”

“Perhaps, maybe it’s you they’ll replace then.”

“Me?”

“Well you know they’ll probably invent a robot or something that’s better at it than you are. Won’t need a typewriter or you either, it’ll just dash off stories like a printing press, somebody will bind them up and put them straight onto a shelf in the bookstore.”

“What a load of rubbish! I’ve never heard anything that’s so absurd. How could a machine ever write anything? Let alone something anybody would want to pay to read.
They have no emotion, no passion, no romance. They don’t even have a soul!”

“I suppose. You certainly had plenty of all that up until now. Perhaps you should put more of it into your writing and less of it into intercepting girls as they come out of the powder room”.

She smirked.

“Intercepted? That seems a strong way of putting it.You didn’t seem to mind so much at the time”

“I didn’t. I still don’t.
I’m merely making an observation, you could have been here writing instead. If your typewriter had had a ribbon of course.”

“Well it just so happens that’s exactly why I was there.”

“To pick up a typewriter ribbon?”

“Yes.” It was the most certain he’d sounded of anything all evening.

“You were picking up a typewriter ribbon at 11 o’clock at night in a club on the lower east side?”

“That’s just what I was trying to tell you.”

“When?”

“Before, when you asked me to tell you a story.”

“Well go on then.”

“It hardly seems worth it now, you aren’t going to believe me no matter what I say. You’re convinced I was only in that place with the intention of ‘intercepting’ you.”

“Or who ever came through the powder room door before me.”

“I was there to meet Ronnie.”

“I thought you were there to get a typewriter ribbon?”

“I was, Ronnie works in the club office, he said he might be able to lend me one if I swung by, there’s nowhere else open at that hour to get one.”

“And it couldn’t wait until morning?”

“You have to write when the mood strikes you.”

“So I’ve heard. You couldn’t use a pen like a normal person?”

“No, not this time. And there I was as you exited the powder room, and I had it exactly what I needed.”

“A typewriter ribbon?”

“No a story”

“Good”.

With that she pulled out the last of her cigarettes, slipped her legs from under the sheets onto the floor, and began to get dressed.

“Well it’s been lovely, I really would love to read your story when you finish it. But I expect my cat is missing me — he gets awfully fussy when I stay out, he’ll want fed” She said as she pulled on the last of the black dress she’d been wearing when they met.

“Let me know how it turns out.”

“I will” he said, looking confused as she slid open the window, sat on the sill and swung both her legs onto the metal landing outside.

“We really live in the same building?”

“Right upstairs darling, I told you. Why would I lie about a thing like that?”

“I don’t know.”

As she closed the window behind her and vanished up the fire-escape, he glanced at his wristwatch on the dresser beside him.

It was eight-thirty on Tuesday morning. He didn’t have anywhere else to be but he didn’t feel like going back to bed. After adjusting the pillows behind him and falling back onto them to consider his options he concluded he’d get up and make himself some coffee.

Perhaps he would head back down to the lower east side and see if Ronnie had clocked off yet. Maybe he’d gotten talking to a few more interesting girls as they made the trip from the powder room door across the floor of the nightclub.

Few of them ever had much of a story, or at least nothing original, and even fewer turned out to live in the same building.

It was those little details that made things interesting… the kind of things he couldn’t think of the word for, though it felt right on the tip of his tongue.

…”Anna!” He remembered her name.

As he climbed out of bed pulling on his underwear from the floor, he made toward the door for the kitchen. But suddenly found himself sat at the little desk where the typewriter sat.

He slid open the bottom drawer, pushed aside a few pencils and note pads and pulled out a small box.

He took the ribbon from it’s packaging, untied it, inserted it into the machine and began to type.

He didn’t stop until late into the evening. It was the little things that made the stories interesting, the anomalies.

The Point of All Those Push Ups.

“What is the point of all those push ups if you can’t even lift a bloody log?”

Towards the end of Chris Nolan’s movie “Batman Begins”, our hero’s butler and long time comrade Alfred, is attempting to rescue Bruce Wayne as his manor home burns down around him. Alfred utters the above quote, questioning Bruce on how useful he really thinks he is if he can’t release himself from beneath a wooden.

In a characteristic response Wayne glares at his friend, momentarily angered by the accusation, and then using the anger to focus his strength “ka-pow!” he releases himself in true bat-fashion.

While Batman has been a motivating factor for a (probably worrying) number of reasons in my life, since I began training Parkour that scene has taken on a different meaning for me.

Let’s be clear, Parkour isn’t going to make you Batman, and in all likelihood your “ka-pow!” moments (don’t worry there will be some) aren’t going to be as dramatic as the dark knight’s.

But what the discipline can provide is an understanding and confidence in your body’s abilities, and an opportunity to train toward becoming better equipped both psychically and psychologically to deal with challenges and problems in life, superhero-sized or otherwise.

From this point of view, the intention should be to focus on ensuring that the training we do, whether surrounding Parkour or otherwise, is useful.

This of course, provides us our first challenge of defining what a word like ‘useful’ really means. Something that isn’t easily done in any practical sense, but if we’re to use the Batman analogy above it can be a helpful, if a little overly theatrical, example.(Advice about theatricality should never be taken too literally.)

If you want to be able to move the burning rafter out of the way when you really need to, you need to be prepared. You need to develop the appropriate body strength and not just be able to apply it to doing squats or deadlifts.

With that in mind, unlike many disciplines, Parkour focuses not on developing strength in any specific isolated area of the body, or a specific chain of movements but instead on developing rounded attributes like strength, flexibility, agility and coordination though movement of the body as a whole. The focus is less about single motions, and more about teaching your body a wide range of movements, picking up abilities that might be useful to us in any set or circumstances.

Of course there’s no amount of training you can do that will ever mean you’re prepared for every obstacle you might come up against, but what you can learn is to trust your body and use the attributes you have developed to solve whatever problems you find along your path.

As you do this, the more you begin to apply these attributes, the more you may also find that you begin to surprise yourself.

While hopefully this is unlikely to include moving burning bits of building, the same principles apply to much more likely every day scenarios. Be it our ability to assist somebody with heavy luggage on a flight of stairs, or any number of day to day tasks that – if we don’t feel in some sense ‘prepared for’ – we often choose to shy away from.

It’s one thing to be prepared physically but any truly rounded training or discipline has to ask questions of you mentally too.

After all we know that if anyone has the ability to release himself from beneath burning rafters, it’s Batman, but as we see in our example the physical strength alone is sometimes not enough, it takes Alfred’s prompting in order for our hero to focus that strength into something he can use.

In a similar way we need to look not just at the question “how useful is our training?” but also “how useful do we want to be?”

By asking this question we can begin to analyse the psychological motivations and reasons we choose to take up physical training, and the value that we can find in it.

In Parkour, training at height, breaking jumps and training under potentially stressful situations is something trainee Traceurs sometimes spend years breaking down.

Fear, much like being useful, is an abstract concept and while being pinned in the crumbling remains of a charing building is easy to recognise as a fairly universally fearful situation, it isn’t necessary to recreate this kind of dangerous (and potentially life threatening) situation in order to be able to begin to train psychologically for it.

For many people, training at height might mean nothing more than practicing jumping between objects a few feet off the floor. The value of training done within these controlled situations can be psychologically as valuable to us, as something of much more super-hero like proportions.

What is important is only that we begin to address the idea of being able to perform with the attributes we have developed, even when on the edge of our comfort zone.

The fear we experience in these moments, much like our idea of being useful, is subjective. We may not all be able to save Gotham each night, but by training not only with the intent of becoming stronger (physically and psychologically) but also with the goal of being useful, we create the kind of focus and dedicated mindset which has become embodied for many who train Parkour in the saying: “Be Strong to be Useful”

And with that of course we also find an answer for those who might ask: “What’s the point of all those push-ups?”. Simple: we just want try to be a bit more useful (and maybe just a little bit more like Batman).

A Little Wilder.

 

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If you asked me for my ideal fantasy dinner party guest list, Gene Wilder would have been at the table every time. So it was with an exhaustive sigh that I read the recent news that 2016 (forever more to be known as serial killer ’16) had added another name to the list of those attending the great dinner party in the sky.

I always held out some dim hope of a final book tour, a chance hand-shake or hug, and the opportunity to look into those mad eyes and say thank you; for the irreparable damage you caused to my parents and countless dozens of others who have had to put up with me and my over-zealous imagination.

Like many Irish kids, I grew up watching the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. For us on a small island on the wind swept western fringe of Europe it seems to have become a strange staple of family viewing, particularly around Christmas (often paired with a bar of intrinsically-linked-in-your-mind-for-the rest-of your-adult-life purple foil wrapped Cadbury’s chocolate). So like a great many I suspect, this was my first meeting with Gene Wilder.

I don’t remember exactly the details or the timing of when I first saw the movie, only that it seems to be indelibly marked on my conscious as far back as the point where things become blurry, and then eventually become nothing at all..

I remember that and the the fact that even years later, my mother would hum the tune to “Cheer Up Charlie” at me whenever I was taken with the kind of traumatic teenage upset that is only ever childishly reinforced by the humming of any tune at you by a parent.

Years after viewing the movie, I’d also discover that a mischievous welsh man with a head full of Norwegian folktales and world war two battle stories had penned a whole number of such spectacular tales for children. Some of which would go on being turned into feature length movies decades later, if unfortunately not all with a similar level of success.

These tales in turn of course, fed my imagination late into my teenage years, and there are still few things I can recommend as highly as going out to grab your nearest teenager and feeding them Roald Dahl’s biographic stories.

As is the way of things, once a boy of a certain age and disposition realises the allowances that are made for social duties and etiquette, if he is seen to be engaging in an ‘intellectual pursuit”,  I was left with a bookish bent for most of my precarious pre-adulthood and beyond.

Arguably it is this exact bookish nature that years later would bubble up the desire in me to bother keeping a blog (for the record this is my second of sorts…). And so, tender reader, we find ourselves here, so engaged, extrapolating a point because of a mad man in a purple tail coat and a top hat.

But is not the neat narrative of Wilder’s Wonka aiding my itchy habitual reading that I want to talk about. Beyond that, it is how his performance as Wonka provided an inspirational first glance of something unique and wild that, in someways I’ve perhaps been chasing ever since.

When we first see Wonka at the gates, old and stiff, and frail – he struggles to make his first steps.  He falls,  he tumbles and suddenly he springs back with as much magic as any special effects budget has managed to conjure since. An entrance that at once creates mistrust, anticipation and a wonderful sense of the unexpected, of surprise, of magic.

From that frame on I, like many others,  was enraptured by his performance and watched with a keen eye as he beautifully crafts eloquent sense from non-sense (“strike that, reverse it…”) and seems to somehow outsmart every adult in the room, simply by appearing to know nothing.

As the tour of the factory begins Wonka, dances down the steps to music which we’re uncertain if anybody but he can even hear. Passing gingerly through a patch of candy canes, and stopping to sip tea from a daffodil, we arrive with him at the point which will, for me always best define Gene Wilder, as he wistfully glances off camera and swoons to us:

“If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it”

A philosophy on par with any in modern children’s folklore. Akin perhaps to something like Mary Poppin’s dictum that “In any job that must be done there is an element of fun” but to me a great deal more important, brave and enlightening.

It speaks of the act of conscious thought, and our ability to make careful considered efforts about how we chose to view the world. An echo of  philosophy and thought that has gone before “Et in arcadia ego” and a rather impressive free thinking  message to deliver for a kids movie –  but then it was the seventies.

Perched on his oversized toadstool, Wonka seems to exist on some other plane, in a state of chocolate induced zen from which he cannot be shaken.

True it was Leslie Bricusse’s lyrics that provide us this pseudo-philisophical treat, but it is Wilder’s performance and voice, for me at least, that helped to so clearly display the truth in it.

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Wilder’s gift it seems was to be able to convey something inherently human. As the too recently deceased Robin Williams is quoted as stating “You’re only born with a little spark of madness, you have to hang on to it.”

It’s that small spark which I feel is familiar to not only Wilder’s performance as Wonka but many of the roles he played and characters he created subsequently. For me Wilder seemed to come closer to exemplifying that spark of madness and magic better than nearly anybody else.gene-wilder

His performances, right up until the end, helped us see humanity in the odd and unusual. He highlighted the benefit of seeing things from a different perspective. As with many characters since Shakespeare’s King Lear, it has often been the fool’s privilege to be the only one with the freedom to be speak truly and honestly. Wilders’ art and nature seemed to recognise and personify this.

Those eyes always held back a knowing, there was mischief, melancholy, madness, and amongst it all a tranquil calm certainty.
Still each time I descend a flight of stairs on a particularly good day, I hear those first few staccato notes of ‘Pure Imagination’ in my mind, and sometimes I’ll skips back a step in time with it as Wilder’s Wonka did.

I’m grateful for the laughter and the smiles that he provided me, as he did for so many innumerable others (and for the lingering taste of a nostalgically enhanced bar of Cadbury’s Whole Nut)  but I’m perhaps most grateful for the idea that even a kid with two left feet can still dance to his own rhythm, it is simply a matter of choosing to hear the music.

As an old Japanese proverb has it:

“We are fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance”

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