There’s a moment in the new Matt Damon movie, The Martian, that is testament to the indefatigable power of human achievement. Stranded on the red planet, our hero considers his dwindling food supply against the fatally inhospitable surroundings, and decides to commit all his intellectual resources to surviving. When faced with the impossible, he decides not to give up.
I’ve lived that moment. I, too, was faced with insurmountable odds; confronted by the unblinking glare of failure and defeat. And you know what? I was Matt Damon. Or at least, I was his character in The Martian (being Matt Damon himself would require possessing a great deal more abs than I’ve ever been capable of).
See, for me, it happened because of ballet. No, I’m not doing ballet now. As a 37-year-old male, it might be too late for me to try it, even if I wanted to. Not that I want to, of course. And before you judge me for rejecting ballet out of any perceived stereotypically male-insecurity related reasons, please give me more credit than that. I am confident enough in my own sexual identity to happily accept that it’s perfectly okay for men to wear tights and plié. If I was younger, hairless, had even vaguely competent proprioception, and slightly more rhythm than a corpse in advanced stages of decomposition, I might have signed up for some Swan Lake myself.
So no, the ballet I speak off involves my daughter. I have a six-year-old, and as all parents do once their child is old enough to say, “I’m bored,” I signed her up for ballet classes. That’s what you do if you have a girl: ballet or karate. The former for the grace and elegance it imbues, the latter so she can push any misbehaving boy’s Adam’s apple down into his testicles with a well-placed elbow. I don’t know what extra-curricular classes you seek out if you have a son. Perhaps how to take better pictures of their man-junk with a cell phone – from talking to my female friends, I’m starting to believe that’s the entirety of male creative output in the 21st century.
For my daughter, ballet involves attending several hours of rehearsal a week, during which she, along with other girls her age, are taught rigorous ballerina discipline by a fierce lady. For the parents, it involves sitting outside the ballet school for hours and hours and hours and hours, staring into the middle-distance, while we feel the sands of time drizzle through our fingers, our minds blank and silent.
It’s glorious. As someone who normally can’t pee without a six-year-old walking into the toilet demanding an immediate critical appraisal of a doodle of a pony, those hours of loneliness outside the ballet school are the closest I can get to a Zen state. But it’s not that simple. Life, of course, rarely is. Getting my daughter ready for ballet involves shoving her into a pair of tights and a ballet outfit, all of which she can manage herself now. The one thing she can’t do herself – and therefore the responsibility for which falls on my shaking shoulders – is tie a ballet bun.
The men reading this won’t know what that means. The women will. I now have the utter and complete sympathy of all those women. Men, here’s why: a ballet bun is a meticulously sculpted work of precision that requires years of apprenticeship to master. To get it truly right is an achievement on par with painting the Sistine Chapel. Every Saturday morning. While the Chapel ceiling wriggles and complains about how hard you’re doing the brushing. Okay, that analogy fell apart. Look, just believe me when I say it’s really bloody tough, okay?
The first few times I tied it, my daughter looked less like she was sporting a ballet bun, and more like a ballet cronut. Maybe even a ballet croissant that had been partially ripped apart by mice. The ballet teacher was getting angry, but my daughter was getting embarrassed. I was getting stressed out. So I decided – it was time to either surrender, withdraw her from ballet, or move to another country. Or summon the spirit of Matt Damon and face the unfaceable.
I began by watching YouTube videos. There’s hundreds of them out there, just to help struggling fathers like myself. None of them are great. Each one contains a single bit of useful information, and so I watched all of them, piecing together the techniques and secrets of the ballet bun like an archaeologist. Then we did practice runs. Then, on the morning of my daughter’s ballet exam, I woke her four hours before she needed to be there. And we began. Time after time, I failed. At one point, I think I cried. At another, a chair that had stubbed my toe got flung out the front door. My daughter told me to breathe. Then she told me to not breathe so loudly. But still I persevered. I gelled the hair. I used hairspray. I gathered it up so tightly, I made an airtight seal inside the hair. I brushed it so meticulously, each strand could be individually counted. Then I screwed it all up by making the bun off-center. Then I started again. And again. And again. Until I got it. The last bun, the bun that won, was a thing of perfection. When it was tied in place firmly, I looked down to see my hands were shaking and my shirt soaked through with sweat. I then forbade my daughter from moving her head and drove us to the ballet class. I wasn’t hallucinating the achievement either, because all the mothers present cooed over the perfection of that bun and applauded my handiwork.
I don’t consider myself a hero. Nor do I think there should be a public holiday to commemorate what I did. Those kinds of honors aren’t mine to ask for. They are yours to give. Just know that I know of bravery. And of perseverance. And the limits of human endurance.