If you’ve never read the Canadian humourist and travel writer Will Ferguson you’re missing out on something special. Travel and humour rightly go together as the perfect combination for a good author to take snapshots of the human condition. In his 2002 masterpiece HappinessTM in a hilarious assault on the whole Self Help genre Ferguson presents his readers with the paradox of the panacea, arguing that it is the imperfections and complications – the change and decay – of real life that give our stories flavour and meaning. When the villain of this tale, a manipulating self-styled modern guru going by the name Tupak Soiree, stumbles upon the cure to all woes the whole world starts to unravel. Everything falls apart, and the chief of the publishing house responsible for his book, Mr. Mead, laments the drivel he has set loose on the earth:
…you know what pissed me off? Do you know what really irked me? The part about male pattern baldness. The part about how ‘we must not merely accept baldness – we must embrace it, we must celebrate it.’ When I read that passage, I knew that this Tupak Soiree fellow was full of crap. Let me tell you something, Edwin. Going bald shouldn’t be something we ‘embrace.’ Going bald is a sign of aging. Just like wrinkles, just like liver spot, just like grey hairs. You want to know something, Edwin? I have arthritis. I’m fifty-four years old and already my hands are turning into claws. My fingers are stiff, my knuckles are knotted like cheap pine. I can barely hold a pen. I have arthritis, I’m going bald, and I don’t like it one damn bit. Why? Because it’s a constant, nagging reminder of my own mortality. And that, my friend, is not something we should ever gloss over.
In ancient myth the ageless gods made human beings to do their work, to till the ground and satiate the idle lords and ladies of heaven with wine offerings and sacrifices. Over the generations of men the gods grew envious of their mortal creations because they exhibited a zest and passion for life the deathless gods themselves could never know. Unlike the eternity of their makers the time of people was short. The longer they lived the more they came to realise that one day they would no longer see the sun, and in their rage against the dying of the light they discovered the art of living.
Our often comic little quest to be like the gods has brought the gods down from their holy mountains to visit us, and while we may laugh at our vanity they have looked in wonder at our comb-overs and anti-ageing creams. “Grey hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life (Proverbs 16:31)” is a sentence which, when I first read it, amused me. I’m less amused by it now that I am going bald and grey. Looking in the mirror no longer shows me an image of how I think I look. Now it asks me questions about the future and reminds me that I am no longer the fairest in the land. My young maths students crack the odd joke about my developing bald spot and I find myself envying their youth and stupidity. I’ll not bother telling them that they too will be like me. My revenge on them is letting them find all of this out for themselves.