Monday, July 17, 2017

Woody Allen’s Match Point: A Meditation on Chance and Luck

Opening scene from the movie Match Point
The opening sequence of Woody Allen’s Match Point sums up not only a crucial point about the game of tennis but serves also as a metaphor for life’s (seeming) coincidences. The tennis ball balances on the edge of the net and there are two potential options: either the ball falls back into the player’s court and the match is lost or it will creep over to the opponent’s court and mark a win. A whole match could be decided in the blink of a moment and at that point, expertise or experience take a backseat because it is all in the invisible hands of the tennis gods.

This may seem haphazard but as an avid watcher of tennis matches in my youth I can vouch for the importance of the balancing act of the net. There are more than a handful of games that were decided by it. One of the most memorable ones was an early round series of the US Open between the unseeded but terrific Derrick Rostagno going up against the seasoned tennis champion Boris Becker. An upset was on the lips of commentators and spectators as the champ was facing a couple of match points against himself.

As I recall it, Rostagno was about to hit the winning volley to end the game but, lo and behold, the ball clipped the net and flew higher than expected. In the heat of the moment, Rostagno’s reflex was to quickly hit the ball and it ended out of bounds. This tilted what would have been a sure win for the newcomer to a heart-breaking loss.

In fact, Boris Becker won also another match, the ATP final against Ivan Lendl where the rally in the tie-breaker seemed to go on forever until the German was lucky once again; this blond tennis-god favored superstar won the championship as a result.

So Woody Allen indeed hits a raw nerve of any tennis player, professional or amateur. The net becomes the blind line of chance, a random stroke of luck. In the movie, the main character, the occasional tennis instructor Chris Wilton makes an important personal contact at a tennis lesson; he meets Tom Hewett. By chance, he gets invited to the opera during which this ambitious young man meets Tom’s sister Chloe who, as luck will have it, happens to fall in love with him, head over heels.

Suddenly, Chris has the golden opportunity to gain access to sudden wealth; through his relationship with her, he manages to land a job that comes with a personal chauffeur as an enticing perk, and thereafter, marriage formally secures and binds him to a life of continuous wealth. 

Yet then there is the curveball in the curvy shapes of Tom’s fiancée, the sexy Nola Rice. Against all odds and reason, he is immediately taken by her and indeed lusts for her. His desire is so strong that he throws caution to the wind and his persistence finally pays off: He manages to make love to her on a stormy day. 

But that seems not enough, so he continues to pursue her while she is giving him mixed messages. When his friend Tom breaks off the engagement, Chris happens to run into her again and seizes once more and even more tempestuously this new situation and opportunity with Nola.

It is all a matter of luck to him. It was a coincidence that he ran into her after her break-up, so he wastes no time. She gives in to him after a while and he has his way. Yet as she is both unstable and penniless, a struggling actress who simply does not seem to land any gigs, he has no intention of leaving his wife Chloe for her. As he explains to a friend, he has gotten so used to the life of luxurious comfort that he cannot imagine himself being without it anymore.

The irony of it all, fate always has the last laugh, is that his mistress Nola becomes pregnant. It is ironical because he and his wife Chloe have been trying very hard for a child, mostly on the latter’s insistence and his lover gets impregnated during a single misstep. That only time Nola was not protected leads to this - in his eyes - inconvenient pregnancy. Chris even calls it an immense moment of bad luck.

And he puts his fate into the hands of luck. If there is morality, then immoral deeds ought to be punished. Yet if he is not punished, then there is no moral authority or guidance and the world runs on sheer and random coincidence. He puts this to the test by meticulously planning a murder. This is similar to Raskolnikov’s belief that he is morally superior to other beings and that he should get away with anything, including murder. Incidentally, in an early scene of the movie, we see Chris read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

And then there is the culminating point of irony: Blind chance is indeed on his side. In a brilliant sequence, we see how a piece of jewelry gets caught up on the ledge of the river and falls back on the pavement and this shall serve as an important piece of evidence that will not come to haunt but rather serves him well to escape punishment. 

Although his illicit extramarital relationship with Nola comes to light via an unexpected (and rather unlucky) item, namely the diary kept by the victim, it is not enough to incriminate him and that piece of jewelry absolves him completely and puts the blame of the murder on another person completely.

This movie is rather bleak in its message but it is quite brilliant in its ruminations on luck. What if the protagonist is right and we are simply driven by luck and happenstance? How many of our outcomes do not depend on chance? The meeting of one’s beloved? The landing of a job? An accident? A fatal illness?

And if that is so, how can we escape it or turn it into good luck? Are superstitions helpful? Or should we pray to a supernatural being to win over favors? We often think or assume we are in charge, and in some situations, we may be, but it is like the tip of the iceberg: There is so much brooding beneath it all and it might just come down to a stroke of luck after all.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The End of Silence: Back from a Hiatus or Stress-filled Interval

Light at the End of the Tunnel
My apologies for not having posted for quite some time. Even during busy times, I would usually manage to sneak in a post or two every month but the past six months have been quite something, to put it mildly and euphemistically. Some parts I am personally responsible for, while others have been thrust upon me unawares.

First off, since Christmas I had been ailed with intense gum pains, which eventually led to the extraction not of one put two of my teeth! Fortunately, they are not front row teeth but losing two generally healthy teeth is hard to swallow. Both cases were due to irresponsible if not downright careless actions by two different dentists: the first one had done me a root canal but managed to leave a souvenir in the gums, a tiny broken piece of equipment; the second one did not put in or fasten my crown properly leaving room for bacteria to enter on the sly, which led to a subsequent infection and copious amounts of pain. I had to be treated with antibiotics for one of the abscessed teeth, while the other one remained a borderline infection case and that meant that I had to refrain from drinking wine for a whole two weeks in a row!

My wine-drinking habit started about a couple of years ago when I was facing a heavy workload and the precious red liquid helped to ease and deal with the stress. While drinking wine I have come to appreciate it not so much as an alcoholic beverage but rather as an art form in and by itself. It is not just used to drink my sorrows away but to replenish myself with life and vitality whilst discovering and developing a certain palate or taste bud for this nectar of gods and goddesses. I am far from being a wine connoisseur but I have picked up a thing or two along the grapevines.

But somehow even wine could not prepare me for what was to come. I took in a heavier load than normal and ended up working pretty much non-stop. No holy sabbath or idle Sunday for this middle-aged man! I was tired and weary, and family time or any other time of quality for that matter had to be reduced and downright sacrificed for the sake of work. All work and no play, well you can imagine and fill in the rest.

Yet I am one who can generally deal with constant stress, or so I thought. It turns out that by continuously living in survival mode and not giving your body time to recover and to regenerate can only lead to more serious problems. The workplace that used to give me joy and encouragement and that appreciated and valued my intelligence and creativity had undergone some unfortunate changes in management (and possibly ideology) and became instead a blind and deaf place where choices were limited to either their way or the highway, so I was forced to put on my wandering boots.

As a result, my stress levels skyrocketed and were much higher than usual. I suddenly suffered symptoms I had only heard or read about: I could not sleep well; I felt troubled and tormented with occasional panic attacks, and highly unusual for me I just did not feel at peace anymore within my skin.

I realized that many people suffer on a regular basis from these symptoms and they – the symptoms not the people - are truly unpleasant and overwhelming; I felt affinity with them and their suffering. Especially now, I get angry at people who do not see this and assume that insomnia or episodes of stress can be treated by simply relaxing or closing one’s eyes. It cuts much deeper than that.

As usual, I try to see the positive side of things although this optimistic side of me had been stifled and comprised within me. I had support from colleagues and friends and I am entirely grateful for that. A few words here and there and a hug felt like balsam on my soul. It is often in times of need that one realizes how much love and care there is in people, which then manages to come to the forefront. It creates a new bond that is to stay even after the periods of stress, a glimpse of beyond the surface, the true worth and value of a person. Of course, there are some who are nothing but surface and lack worth, value and dignity, but that is better left unsaid here.

The other thing I learned was not to overvalue work. Many of us see it tied up with our identity. We work very hard to establish a name and career and take it to be the definition of who we are. But this is not so. It can at best only be a fragment of ourselves. The workaholic (and I am a recovering one myself) may not immediately see this, but there are other parts and aspects to life than work. In the end, when you pour so much of yourself into your work, you realize that at the end of the day, it does not amount too much. People who have been loyal to companies for years can be replaced and are essentially indispensable. I have seen and even felt it myself at times and it can be all as empty as a Trojan horse when push comes to shove.

So for reasons of health and sanity, it is best to find balance and moderation in everything. That extra push at the expense of one’s personal relationships is not really worth it. Time will pass whether you notice or not. We want to be doing what we enjoy the most and be with the people we cherish most and not be dictated by the mandates of work. As the good book says somewhere, there is a time and season for everything while a wise man once advised us to avoid excess and seek only moderation.

These are the lessons that I learnt the hard way over the past months but they needed to be learnt in that manner. That is when and how you remember them best and cherish those findings most. It may feel like turning your world upside down, but it is a necessary evil that can be turned to your own advantage if you look closely enough. Long story short, this is why I have neglected my joyful duty of writing and posting here and I hope it serves as a genuine apology with the sincere hope that it shall not happen again.