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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Naomi Osaka's beautiful pain

by Philip Martin | June 6, 2021 at 8:58 a.m.

We don't know anything about tennis champion Naomi Osaka's pain.

Being famous and having money and living what people who don't know you believe is an enviable life doesn't insulate you from misery. Some demons are good trackers. They'll infiltrate your gated community, they'll find you in your billiard room.

Richard Cory, one calm summer night, went home and put a bullet through his head.

This happens often enough that we oughtn't be surprised.

Some people think having fame and money and talent and everything you ever wanted makes it worse. That having conquered the world, there's nothing to do but sit and weep like Alexander. That the problems of the special are problems that those of us less accomplished are ill-equipped to understand.

Because we don't know what it's like to have to submit ourselves to the indignities of press conferences and the intrusions of paparazzi. Fair enough.

Press conferences can be disappointing ordeals, and not just for the person at the podium. I've been to so many where dull questions were asked not for the sake of dragging fresh insight into the light but for reasons of self-aggrandizement or because the asker lacked enough imagination to be interesting.

For a while, when I was the person who made such decisions, I decided that the publication I wrote for would not cover press conferences, on the grounds that they were a kind of anti-news, staged mainly to control the dissemination of information. They were not authentic, which would make them a kind of fake news.

That was not a practical position, for the world does not conform to ideologies. So since then I have attended many press conferences, enough to know that they are all different and some are better than others.

I once watched actor Joaquin Phoenix crumble while facing a small scrum of reporters and felt protective of him, though the questions pitched his way were banal and harmless. Write it any way you want, you're going to anyway, he said in effect, and he was right.

Nobody learns anything in a situation like that; you get 15 minutes with a star in a hotel room and you're supposed to come away with something? The best thing that can happen to a reporter in that situation is something crazy happens--that Joaquin Phoenix screams that a toad is eating his brain.

Westbrook Pegler, better recalled as a conservative political columnist but who started out as a sportswriter, spent 15 minutes with a young Babe Ruth in 1920 and ended up writing a 80,000-word "autobiography" of the ballplayer pitched in what he imagined Ruth's voice might be.

It started out as a 12-part newspaper series and ended up as the book "Playing the Game: My Early Years in Baseball" by Babe Ruth. It took him three days to write.

It's fairly interesting. Pegler has a clean declarative style and lends Ruth--who had just been sold to the Yankees by the Red Sox--an unlikely self-awareness. A lot of the mythology about Ruth's childhood springs from that book, and it's almost completely made up. (One part that is mostly true: As a boy Ruth admired Brother Matthias, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound Xaverian monk who apparently could wallop a baseball.)

"Biographers are the worst liars in the world and often give us direct quotes from people who have been dead 100 years or more," Pegler wrote in 1946, when he came clean about his literary misdemeanor. "They make a lot of money, though, and, excusing that fic­tional make-believe with which they dress up their Henrys and Louies and Katherines, they are very good and worth every dollar they get, considering the time and reading they have to put in on a book and then the writing on top of all that."

If you read any serious biography of Babe Ruth, you will probably conclude that he had some dark places and was likely profoundly damaged by being sent away by his parents to a reformatory before he was of school age.

But when Ruth was rising to celebrity, attitudes about mental health were not so evolved. Trauma was something you survived or didn't, and if you survived to be Babe Ruth there was no reason not to be carefree and famously accessible.

Babe Ruth knew plenty of pain. He didn't talk about it, we don't know about it.

But there is no safe space in the world.

Maybe there should be. Those of us who lack the wherewithal to walk away from our jobs aren't necessarily under any less pressure than those who toil on our screens and have entourages, but to quote the philosopher Jackson Browne, I don't know about anyone but me.

And insecurity is just the human condition for those of us who are alert to the humming world around us, to those of us not blessed with Dunning-Kruger syndrome. Most competent people are afflicted to some degree with imposter syndrome. Most live with a degree of social anxiety. We are anxious beasts who accept compromises and sometimes feel our dignity impinged upon. Most of us sometimes dread the things we feel we have to do.

I have been in offices where people doped themselves with diazepam and drank too much. I have seen intense pressure and humiliation used as management tools. I have seen people hurt badly by the standard practices and regular procedures.

Naomi Osaka has done nothing wrong by walking away from the French Open and the people who are trying to do their jobs by asking her the same questions in press conferences. She has options and the right to exercise them. Only she knows how bad it is for her and what costs she is willing to incur.

She seems an intelligent, well-meaning young woman who is willing to speak up against injustice and to use her well-earned celebrity to leverage change. I hope she understands that most of us know some brand of pain, and most of us come to some accommodation with the beautiful ache of existence. Most of us manage to carry on.

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