On Having The Prize Within One’s Grasp

Thump thump thump. What is that sound? It is the sound of a human heart, stimulated by excitement, beating harder and more rapidly than it is wont to do when the body or the brain is at rest. I am sure you can think of dozens, if not hundreds, of circumstances in which the human heart will go thump thump thump, but today I wish to concern myself with but one. Interestingly, however, it is a circumstance which can take wildly divergent forms. The thumping result on the human heart is the same – the outward appearances could not be more different.

It may be easier for you to cotton on to what I am blathering about if we devise a couple of vignettes, as illustrative of my point.

Let us first consider fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, sprinting as fast as he can round and round and round a running track. He is, in this instance, competing in the second qualifying heat to gain a place in the semi-final of the Pointy Town All-Comers Super Duper Athletico Jamboree. No, scrub that. My argument falls flat on its face if it is a qualifying heat. So we must imagine fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol has already qualified for the semi-final, and not only that, but he has whizzed his way triumphantly through that semi-final, egged on by his redoubtable coach, catarrh-racked Old Halob, there at the side of the cinder track in his raincoat and Homburg hat, and our vignette is actually of the spindly Wunderkind sprinting round and round and round in the final itself. The sky is grey, there is a mild breeze, meteorologists have forecast a blizzard later. Certain birds are perched on the branches of certain trees, singing their tiny birdy hearts out. The birds’ hearts too may be going thump thump thump, but that will be for a different reason, one that need not concern us here, id est avian metabolism. The trees line one side of the field commandeered by the organisers of the Pointy Town All-Comers Super Duper Athletico Jamboree. Usually, cows loiter here, but they have been driven away, with shouting and sticks, to a neighbouring field. Once the cows were gone, at the crack of dawn, a fellow wheeled a canister filled with whitewash round and round the field, painting the lines of a running track, and other athletically significant lines, by releasing whitewash from the wheeled canister through a nozzle. While he was about this business, fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol was already limbering up, puffing and panting in the lee of a pavilion, wherein sat Old Halob smoking his way through his first pack of gaspers of the day. Now all that limbering up and puffing and panting and triumphant victories, or at least placement in the top three, in several qualifying heats and in the semi-final, have led the baggy-shorted sprinter to the moment caught in our vignette. He is whizzing towards the tape. His heart is pounding thump thump thump. He has the prize within his grasp.

Our second vignette could not be more different. There are no trees, no birds, no cows, no whitewash. There is no fictional athlete nor his Stalinist coach. We are not outdoors, in a field, but indoors, in what might best be described as a hovel. The interior is gloomy, lit by sputtering tallow candles because the electricity bill has gone unpaid. There are several eggs and a packet of breakfast cereal in the larder, but little sign of other food save for a discarded toffee apple wrapper in the waste paper bin. The wrapper sits atop a heap of similarly discarded sheets of paper torn from a notepad, crumpled and scrunched up and tossed to oblivion. There is scratchy writing on each sheet, but we shall never read it. The waste paper bin rests on rotting linoleum next to an escritoire. Sitting at the escritoire, slumped, despairing, blighted by miseries unnumbered, is Dobson, the twentieth century’s titanic pamphleteer. He has come to a stop in the composition of his latest screed, stricken with vacancy-between-the-ears. He takes a gulp from a smudged beaker of aerated lettucewater and peers dispiritedly out of an even more smudged window at nothing. Where in our previous vignette we had speed and motion and activity, to the point where one might consider it suitable subject matter for a Futurist painting, here all is still, silent, beige, crumpled, woebegone. But of a sudden the silence is shattered by an ungodly buzzing. The pamphleteer’s metal tapping machine is processing an incoming message. Dobson stirs on his stool and gropes his way through the gloom to the worm-eaten sideboard upon which the metal tapping machine sits. The message is quite astonishing. It is a tip-off that Dobson is to be announced as the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Economics. Dobson is perplexed, for he knows nothing of economics, yet the source is trustworthy, and unimpeachable. Well, that is what Dobson believes, for he does not realise he is being twitted by a mischief maker. Instead, mistaking the sender of the message for his most trustworthy and unimpeachable pal, his eyes shine brightly, and he pictures himself, besuited and natty, being given a cheque for a vast amount of money by some Norwegian persons. His heart is pounding thump thump thump. He has the prize within his grasp.

It is instructive, is it not, that two such shockingly dissimilar vignettes can yet end with identical sentences? Were we to stay with our two protagonists, and to follow them through the next minutes and hours, we would find that, though they had the same thump thump thump stimulation to their hearts, for the same reasons, when the thumping subsided their destinies were as different as their vignettes. For fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol won his race, and grasped his prize, but Dobson learned that he had been made a fool of, and had never even been shortlisted for the Economics Nobel, and so he did not grasp his prize.

It would be well to reflect on this, next time your human heart goes thump thump thump, whatever the cause of the stimulation that makes it thump so.

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