On Being a Guru
You are now a fiftyish Eastern European refugee who teaches philosophy at a third-rate American university in Ohio. You got the job at a time when it was impossible to check on credentials behind the Iron Curtain, and you arrived in America with a nice set of degrees and publications.
Since the coming down of the Berlin Wall, you have been increasingly vulnerable in this area. There have also been a couple of minor criminal arrests. You were drunk when you generated them, and the police were quite decent about the whole thing. Still, there has been some muttering about you in your university. It might be necessary to move to a fourth-rate one, or, better yet, find an entirely new career.
One possibility is to set yourself up as a style-of-life guru, skilled in everything from philosophy to rowing and kayaking, who can turn troubled souls around. Most people get philosophy confused with psychiatry and psychology, and, since you can prove that you really have taught in a university (quitting well before any dismissal proceedings could be initiated), it will be nice to have something in your resume that stands on its own feet. Even apart from the advisability of shaking off your local reputation, this is the sort of thing which should be done in a different and much more glamorous location.
Since you have a sabbatical coming up for the spring quarter, probably the last you will ever get, you take off for California with big ideas. The main idea requires a reasonable expanse of calm water just inland from the ocean. You can there put into practice your special brand of water therapy with rowboats and kayaks.
After a week's travel, you find the perfect thing in San Diego's Mariner's Basin. An almost closed basin separated from the ocean by a narrow strip of sand, it's an attractive little place whose shores are lined with park land and small, but pricey, homes. You find what amounts to a one room shack with remains of oil and grease left over from its days as a garage. It's the only thing within miles for a rent you can afford, and you feel lucky to find it. Your new "studio apartment" does come with a refrigerator and stove, which will allow you to cook lots of kashi and beans. The addition of a foam pad and a couple of inflatable chairs gives you as much luxury as you'd get in most places east of the Oder.
A couple of second-hand aluminum rowboats are acquired cheaply, mostly because they're filled with grunge and completely covered with bird turds. As a resident, you have a right to chain them to a post on the beach.
It really doesn't take a great deal of time and work to pretty the boats up. As you are finishing, a man with a large garbage bag full of aluminum cans lets you know that he has a kayak available, very cheap, in his friend's truck. It turns out to be a common plastic model, and the identification number on the hull has been crudely removed with a knife. The kayak, too, can be touched up, and you have the beginnings of a flotilla.
A search of the internet for the local area under the keyword, "angst", leads you to a rather curious web site. The word itself is used in a quasi-humorous way when it is asked, "Does your angst reach critical levels when your infant throws egg on the floor for the fourth time in two minutes?" Everything about the site suggests that it was created by well-educated people, almost certainly women, who are over- burdened, if not fed to the gills, with child care. However, instead of just trading empathy with each other, they're reaching out for a more systematic palliative. There's an e- mail address and, more surprising, a telephone number. After some thought, you call the number.
The lady who answers sounds a little too well-bred to be truly professional, and, of course, her organization is a non-profit one. Using your softest most academic voice and avoiding any sort of brassy egoism, you explain your background and conclude,
"I have an experimental course of study and exercise, which involves both philosophy and physical exercise on the water, such as rowing and kayaking. I've had some success with it in the east, and I think it might be of benefit to the members of your group."
The response is a little uncertain, that of one who doesn't necessarily take exotic strangers at their word. But these are adventurous people, and she agrees to come for a demonstration at Mariner's Basin. It is, after all, a well- frequented and affluent district which couldn't conceivably be considered dangerous. She, you are pleased to learn, is coming from the exclusive Mission Hills district, and will be there shortly.
You are waiting at the corner of the beach parking lot when Mrs. Henderson drives up. She instantly recognizes you in your professorish shorts, white hat, and sandals. She herself has on shorts and sandals, but her blonde hair is carefully done and cared for, something that sets her aside from the ladies who live next to the beach with their surfer boy friends. Your brand of eastern European gallantry, marked but not overdone, is just right for a highly attractive woman who wants to discuss serious matters without flirting.
After establishing that she has taken some philosophy courses at Stanford, you explain that there is much in certain Platonic dialogues to comfort a women overwhelmed with responsibility. It turns out that some of the women in the group are, not only overworked, but afraid that they won't be able to successfully raise children. She adds,
"These fears are sometimes rather exaggerated, and, in our group meetings, we try to deal with them."
You do begin to wonder if you might be getting in a little over your head, but you reply confidently,
"Most Americans have wildly unrealistic fears. Driving a car, or riding in one, is, by far, the most dangerous thing that we do. By contrast, the chances of dropping one's baby on its head or having it kidnapped are truly miniscule. No one seems to be afraid to drive, and I always have statistics up my sleeve to show that they needn't fear these other things."
Mrs. Henderson is amused by that, and you lead her gently to the rowboat grounded on the beach with the words,
"I have a number of exercises and games which have the function of relaxing people, allowing them to meet one other, and, in the end, giving them a sense of accomplishment."
You help Mrs. Henderson into the boat and explain,
"The first exercise is for us to each take an oar and maneuver the boat to that ketch anchored over there. I'll take the role of a student, one who doesn't yet know how to row."
Mrs. Henderson begins to row in a fairly business-like way with her oar, but you throw in enough bufoonery to get her out of phase, finally causing her to miss a stroke altogether. She looks a little irritated, and somewhat exasperated, so you gradually "improve" until you complete a zig-zag course to the yacht. Resting on your oar, you explain,
"It's my belief that a certain amount of tomfoolery, interspersed with philosophy and other sorts of reasoning, might bring people out of themselves to a certain extent."
She doesn't look exactly convinced, and replies,
"Some of these women can't really think about anything other than their children for very long. You'll have to somehow involve the children in the process."
For answer, you reach behind you, uncover a blue plastic child's car seat, and clip it to some lines you've rigged up on the stern seat. You then say,
"Of course, some women want to get away from the children for a while, but, for those who can't do so without concern, I have a variety of equipment, including cots for infants."
Mrs. Henderson begins laughing louudly and says,
"This is the craziest thing I've ever heard of, but, you know, it might work for some people. I don't see how it could do anyone any harm."
"Yes, we'll at least satisfy Hippocrates' first principle. And now for the other aspect of my course."
"I can hardly wait to hear."
"It's my suspicion that, wherever there's a woman who can't quite cope with her children, there's a father with his own problems."
That brings an immediate response.
"Yes! Some of the men had problems to begin with, but they certainly acquire them when they're landed with a new baby and a wife in the psychiatric ward."
You're alarmed anew at the mention of psychiatric words, but, nodding sagely, you probe a little further. It turns out that some of the women have suffered from post-partum depression, an illness that might land them in a ward for a few weeks. But it's not usually a permanently crippling disability, and you reply,
"Of course, I'm not a psychiatrist and wouldn't attempt anything with a woman in the acute phase, but I have some techniques aimed at men which might be begun while the wife is still incapacitated."
Mrs. Henderson seems interested enough in your program to ask about these techniques, and you reply,
"Some of these techniques are rather dramatic, for example, the Eskimo roll in a kayak."
You have returned to shore by this time and hop into your nearby kayak. Pushing out from shore a little way, you capsize it and, after a short but pregnant delay, roll it back up with your paddle. Next, you toss the paddle to the beach, and roll it up with your hands. You do touch the bottom with one hand, which helps, but she can't see that. This sort of thing always impresses the uninitiated, and you can see that you've established your expertise as far as boats go. There will be no need to claim that you once won the Warsaw-to-the-Baltic kayak race.
After a little oohing and aahing, Mrs. Henderson asks you,
"Where did you learn that?"
"In my country as a teen-ager. It also gives rise to a game. A person standing in waist-deep water tries to tip the kayaker over and keep him from rolling up. I can imagine that as a distracting husband-wife game. It's hard to think about your problems when you're sitting upside down in the water."
"Can you drown that way?"
"No, it's easy to exit when you run out of air."
As you wander up to the parking lot with assorted chit-chat, Mrs. Henderson suddenly asks,
"Do you intend to make money doing all these things?"
You've been waiting for this question, and you reply casually,
"I'd like to eventually retire from teaching and supplement my pension with something like this. It wouldn't take very much, and, of course, I'd enjoy doing it."
Honesty is always the best policy. You here score a point or two with it.
When you reach her car, Mrs. Henderson doesn't make any commitment
for her group, but she does invite you to her home for drinks the next
evening to meet her husband. This is even better. Not only will you
have the cachet of having been in exactly the right kind of place, you
can produce the sort of manly bonhomie her husband will expect.
For the first meeting of the course, Mrs. Henderson, now Lydia to you, produces no fewer than five women, two of their husbands, and one other man. You've rented some extra boats for the occasion, and the course design calls for you to set most of the group up with exercises in the water while you discuss philosophy with one or two at a time.
As you gradually get to know your students and suggest readings to them, you're struck by the fact that the women don't seem in the least depressed. They're intelligent, charming, and, for the most part, markedly attractive. None have brought children to this first meeting, and they seem to feel as if they're on holiday. There are, of course, real problems, or Lydia wouldn't have brought them. But you don't ask any whether they've been in the hospital. You'll find out about that soon enough.
It's the three men who constitute the surprise. You expected blonde athletic sportsmen, accomplished in many areas, rather like Lydia's husband, Rick. These poor gents, on the other hand, are far from that. One, Sam, is small and doesn't look at all athletic. He also tells you that he's afraid of the water. Another, Jeremy, is a rather dyspeptic- looking youngish lawyer who doesn't smile or laugh from beginning to end. The third, John, is a professor of sociology, and is so obviously a mass of nerves that he can hardly say or do anything without some sort of elaborate rationalization. But, of course, you can deal with all these things. You've been told that you're not without charisma.
A couple of days later, Lydia calls you on your cell phone. The response of the women in the group was enthusiastic, and Lydia adds,
"You certainly gave them a good time, if nothing else. And they're reading the things you recommended."
"I was surprised at how healthy they seemed. I wouldn't have known that any of the women were having any particular problems."
"You can sometimes tell by looking at their eyes. A couple are just out of the hospital, but even they are on the upswing. Can you really combine philosophy and rowing in some way."
You are, in fact, confident that you can apply anything to anything, but you don't put it quite so baldly. You then suggest that something different needs to be done with the three men. Lydia replies,
"I've been in contact with them before, arranging child care, and other things. They aren't snapping out of it the way my husband did. When I got home from the hospital, Rick was euphoric and took me out dancing."
It's yet another surprise that Lydia herself was in a hospital, but you reply only,
"Well, he's a much stronger man."
"Of course, any sort of mental illness, including past-partum depression, is scary to be around. People don't react in their normal ways, and it's easy to imagine that the changes will be permanent. If a woman can't get out of bed, a husband who doesn't have it all together might think that she'll be paralyzed for life."
"Really? Does that ever happen?"
"In about one case in a hundred thousand."
"If you can keep the men coming, I'll figure out something."
"Don't show them the Eskimo roll. That'll just frighten and discourage them."
Jokingly you suggest,
"Instead, you can pretend to drown, and we'll have them rescue you."
Lydia is well on her way to becoming your unpaid assistant in the course, and she replies,
"They might just stand there gaping. What then?"
"We need to bring in the right philosophy for them."
Over the years, you've written various little philosophical tracts intended to produce discussion in your classes. Since the views expressed are quite extreme, and would have caused commotion at your university, you attributed them to various fictional philosophers. Max Ernst von Tannenbaum was a follower of both Neitzche and Freud who held that it is essential for a man to feel that he dominates the groups of people who surround him in his daily life. This is partly a matter of behaving in the right way, but, even more important, a matter of choosing the right groups. If he can't control all the groups of which he is a member, he should at least dominate as many as possible.
It's a consequence of Tannenbaum's view, which you don't usually mention, that a man might be best advised to acquire slaves and retire with them to an obscure location. But that ignores one of his other principal teachings.
Apart from a good deal of advice on developing behavior likely to produce dominance, such as staring fixedly at people while remaining silent, Tannenbaum uges his followers to find, not just any groups, but the best ones that he can possibly dominate. In order to accomplish this, he is advised to keep trying better, more virile, groups of men until it becomes obvious that he cannot succeed. At that point, he backs up to the last group he dominated.
You yourself have experimented in this area. Partly to make yourself more American, and partly as a Tannenbaumian, you took up boxing. The boxers, without question, constituted a superior group, one whose members could beat the brains, and some other things, out of the ordinary citizen.
When you were hanging around gyms, some fifteen years previously, you found that there was always a need for sparring partners. If a beginner, having learned a few rudiments, could be lured into the ring, he would get a quick and memorable lesson in the gentle art of pugilism. He remained an amateur, both in theory and practice, even if he sparred with professionals, but he became a more intense kind of amateur.
At a somewhat higher level, there were local professional fighters who weren't good enough to have a national reputation, but who could sell a thousand seats in an obscure arena. There were preliminary bouts before these local main events, and there was a need for "opponents."
Anyone around the gym who could hit the bags acceptably would eventually be offered fifty dollars and a round-trip bus ticket to traval to a nearby city and appear in a prelim. In view of certain legal short-cuts that were often taken, these events were usually staged at some little distance from the sponsoring gym. And, of course, the bus would get home a man who might not be capable of driving after the bout.
At one point, when you were out of funds, you accepted such an offer. It was explained to you that it was no big thing.
"You can go a couple of rounds and then take a dive if you have to."
On arriving in the small city whose name you wish you could forget, you made your way to the shabby arena in a district of junk yards. You had to explain your role to the ticket taker, who, after some indecision, had you directed to a concrete room under the stands. A number of fighters, trainers, and managers were gathered there, but no one spoke to you. Eventually, you were called by a loose approximation of your name and arrayed for the fight. They were unhappy with your Eastern European name, and you were christened, "Smasher Smith". Unfortunately, you began to feel that you had promoted yourself to a group that you couldn't possibly dominate. But it was too late.
After what seemed to be a very long time, you were led to the ring. A lot of people had come early to see the prelims, knowing that they often featured mis-matches. These, in turn, produced violence and mayhem. There was a roar as you stumbled up into the ring. You then looked across to see your opponent, a professional fighter. He was smiling, but not in such a way as to suggest that he would be gentle.
You were fully prepared to take a dive, even as early as the first round, but you never really got the chance. Pinned against the ropes by blows that seemed to come from more than one man, it was almost impossible to get down. By the time that you were finally stretched out, there was no question of getting back up. You were sick twice on the bus coming back.
Conscious of these memories, you give your three male students xeroxed copies of Tannenbaum's treatise. But you don't recommend boxing to them. A good left hook to a man's head might knock the angst out of him, but it might also leave him a gibbering idiot. Similarly, while the singular experience of being dragged out of the ring amid jeers to make room for the next event might make his previous problems seem rather less significant, there could be unintended consequences.
At the next meeting, two days later, it becomes clear that most people, particularly the women, prefer kayaks to rowboats. It seems to have to do with the sleekness of the appearance, and the way they glide. The only exception is a woman who has brought her infant and installed it on the stern seat of her rowboat. Sending the group out for a tour of the basin conducted by Lydia, you have a talk with Jeremy, the lawyer whose wife is due to remain in the psych ward another couple of weeks.
The Tannenbaum reading has set him off, not in a way in which one might have expected, but on a diatribe against his wife. Jeremy didn't want the child, doesn't like it now, and would like to trade his wife for the glamorous young associate his firm has recently hired. This lady, it seems, is welcoming. He therefore has a glimpse of paradise just out of his reach. You react only by saying,
"It's not a good idea to divorce a woman who's in the hospital, or who's recently been in one. It tends to be remembered and held against you."
That backs him up a bit and makes him think, perhaps for the first time, what his law firm would think of his course of action. In the meantime, Lydia and the others have come back. You promptly set them going on a nautical version of hide- and-go-seek in which they hide in their boats behind the numerous yachts anchored in the basin. Lydia, having remained on shore with you, says,
"You seem to have a new surprise every few minutes, Stefan."
You acknowledge the compliment and tell her about Jeremy. It turns out that his wife is a good friend of Lydia's, and she reacts with shock and anger. Then, after a moment, she says,
"Actually, I'm not surprised. I've never liked him, and that's just what I'd expect from him."
"His wife may then be better off without him."
"In the long run. But Margaret is in no position to withstand a shock like that just now."
You explain that you may have delayed him a little, and she says,
"I know! I'm in a garden club with the wife of the managing partner in Jeremy's firm. I'll speak to her, and I bet her husband will have something to say to Jeremy."
"Many law firms in that position would fire the young woman lawyer."
"And she'll deserve it. She must know that Jeremy's married. In the meantime, I'll find a way of letting him know what I think."
You suspect strongly that Jeremy won't be back for any more sessions.
At the wrap-up, you suggest to the group that they might like to participate in the main San Diego kayak and rowboat race in six weeks' time. You explain,
"There are hundreds of boats divided into races according to the class of the boat. I've been told that the races get mingled together, and that it all ends in a big party on the beach at Coronado."
There's a good deal of the favorable reaction to such a thing that one would expect of any group of Californians, but the men are conspicuously silent. As things break up, you let Sam and John know that you've got a special plan for them, which will make the race fun. They look a bit brighter.
Once the men have departed, three of the ladies, including Lydia, find that they are free for lunch and invite you along. Repairing to a little Thai place up the beach, you find yourself seated in comfort amid flattering attention.
A few things that had puzzled you begin to come clear. Not all the women in the group have had post-partum depression, nor have they all been hospitalized. But they have, at one time or another, been close to desperation. Sharon, the blonde on your right says frankly,
"Most of my problems are the result of being married to John. He fascinates me, but he could drive ten wives to distraction."
"You paddle a kayak very nicely. These little marital problems will disappear after you've had a good race."
Everyone laughs, but Sharon replies,
"They won't disappear if I have a good race and John doesn't."
"John will also have a good race. I have it all planned. He and Sam will both row in the boat that has two rowing seats."
"Neither of them rows very well. It'll be even worse if single rowers pass them."
"There will be very few rowboats in the race. I'm informed that it's mostly kayaks, paddleboards, and other things."
"Will they be the only boat in their class?"
"No. There are two neighbors of mine, muscular young men, who'll be rowing another boat about like the one John and Sam are in."
"But that's terrible. John and Sam will be left in their wake!"
"Not so. The other boat will have a bucket tied to its bottom. The young men will strain mightily and visibly, but they'll fall behind."
The ladies are half delighted and half shocked. But you point out,
"It's not against the rules to tie a bucket to your boat, and the young men will enjoy the physical challenge. They like to do a hundred push-ups each in front of the young ladies on the beach, and this performance will be even more impressive. I'd also like to hire a couple of the more spectacular of the maidens to paddle along beside them and cheer the young men on. John and Sam will then have the satisfaction, not only of beating them, but doing it in the presence of their presumed girl friends. Unless, of course, you think this is going to far."
There is a good deal of discussion on this point, but the humorous aspects of the situation overcome any doubts. All those present agree not to speak a word of it to anyone else. At the end, you mention Tannenbaum, and Lydia interrupts,
"I'm on to you now, Stefan. I bet you wrote that Tannenbaum material yourself."
You somewhat shamefacedly admit as much, and Lydia says to the group,
"Despite all these games, Stefan's an eastern European innocent in California. He needs protection at times."
After that, you become less a therapist and more of a coach. The ladies, some of whom have run marathons, expect you to set a training schedule. You make up a rather elaborate one, xerox it, and hand it out. There are technical points of paddling, such as pushing with the upper hand, as opposed to pulling with the lower one. Then, as the training intensifies, there are the minor injuries. The first to appear is pain between the shoulder blades, which is only muscular, but which can get pretty intense. There is a touch of tendonitis, including tennis elbow, and a couple of the women are having wrist problems. You switch one of them to a left-handed paddle, and the problem disappears. Fortunately, there's no nerve impingement.
Sam and John at first have trouble co-ordinating their strokes in the rowboat, but Sam turns out to be stronger and more virile than you had at first supposed. He develops a decent even stroke, and you put him in the after seat. John has a tendency to make everything more complex than it need be, and, of course, has trouble making decisions. However, seated behind Sam, he has only to follow his stroke. At first, it bothers him visibly that you've put him in a position in which it's difficult to carry on in his usual way. He flutters a bit, asking you,
"What if Sam sets a pace that I can't keep up."
"Ask him to slow down a little."
"But it would be humiliating to ask that."
John is never quite serious, always deprecating himself a little, but you reply in a straight-forward way,
"Sam won't make fun of you. He'll just slow down a little."
"What if he tells other people that I couldn't maintain the pace."
"Sam isn't like that. He's hardly competitive at all. He wouldn't care."
You gradually discover that, if you engage in this sort of cross-talk with John, he'll keep rowing. He does still fear humiliation in the race, but you tell him,
"Whatever else, you'll be in front of the people rowing dinghies under ten feet."
"I bet some of these young California brutes can make a dinghy fly."
"It's physically impossible for a dinghy to go fast. It's length and design impose an upper limit on its speed. You and Sam go much faster."