Portrait

Pounding the pavements with philosopher and How to Think About Exercise author Damon Young.

By Nic Low.

Damon Young on thinking … fast

“Many ideas are best developed in company. Take a rambling chat while jogging together … the conversation is the ideas – they are public, and developed together amidst footfalls and breaths.”

– Damon Young, How to Think About Exercise

Out the front door, we go stride for stride through Melbourne’s spacious east. It’s spring and the streets are greening fast. We start slow: strangers seeking a common pace in conversation and in gait. I’ve got longer legs but the man beside me, dressed in running tights and athletics hoodie, looks like he could pick me up with one hand. His head is shaved and his animated, youthful face is hopeful and curious and intense. 

Our plan is to run, sprint, walk, think and talk about Damon’s latest book, How to Think About Exercise. It’s a short sharp philosophy of exercise culture and our relationship to our bodies. Of all the sports he discusses, it’s clear he likes yoga the least. He prefers explosive pursuits: sprinting, weightlifting, boxing, judo, karate. They help channel his anger. I ask if he’s ever been in a serious fight. “Several.”

In Hong Kong as a teenager he saw people trampled to death in a stampeding crowd. Back in Frankston he challenged a group of guys jostling a movie theatre crowd. They busted his mouth and gave him scars he still carries, but he didn’t go down. Telling the tale, his colour rises. “I’d do it again, if it was the right thing to do.”

The road crests and falls and we start to hit our stride, joints warming, breath coming quicker. Damon is carrying an injured back, but he holds a good pace. We crane round in unison to check for traffic, dodging expensive prams and cars. It’s an affluent neighbourhood, though Damon and his wife, Ruth, a bright-eyed, softly spoken sociologist and writer, rent a modest house they will never own. Nor do they own a car, choosing to walk their children to school instead. Other parents pity them. Damon grins, bemused.

Talk turns to parenting, the tyranny of comfort, the national aversion to risk. Much of Damon’s conversation orbits around Sartre’s project of the self: the need to take responsibility for crafting yourself, with all the mess and mistakes that entails. Damon speaks with relish of growing up around Mount Eliza, where his parents gave him a machete and turned him loose to explore the beaches and bush. It sounds like an amazing upbringing. “That was the exception,” he says sharply. I let it drop for now.

A hundred metres from a row of suburban shops Damon pulls up. “How about some sprints?” he asks. “Here to the corner, fast as you can. Observe whatever thought comes into your mind. Go!”

We go, two over-thinkers pounding along a suburban avenue, hurling ourselves towards the five real estate agents and waxing parlour at the corner. The thought that enters my mind: this can’t be good for Damon’s injured back.

At the corner we slow to a halt then turn and do it again. We ease off to a walk, and stand panting beneath the gaze of motorists. I feel life in me, arterial, and a twinge in my own compressed writer’s spine. We’re still 11 kilometres from the CBD. I’m delighted when Damon suggests we walk the rest of the way.

Single file on a narrow elevated footpath, Damon tells me that from a young age he’s been aware not of death, but of his death. Paused over chilli and garlic in Little Vietnam he says: “It’s my death: no one else can die it for me.” On a suburban kerb he recalls a trip to Wilsons Promontory when he and Ruth were students. He was swept out to sea. Some time later he struggled back in through waves and rocks, bloodied but joyous in the knowledge that his body was equal to the task. “It was awesome!” Ruth thought he’d drowned. She was so furious she wouldn’t speak to him for the rest of the day.

Then, amid the roar of a 12-lane intersection, Damon’s exhilaration fades. Four years ago, Ruth became gravely ill. “Bad sushi, perhaps,” he says quietly, hitting the crossing button. She contracted hepatitis A and suffered acute liver failure. The doctors talked them through the possibilities, from recovery to coma and death.

For all his willpower, Damon had to confront his own uselessness. In such situations the temptation to find someone to blame is strong. But central to the project of the self is resisting false consolation, and recognising what is and is not within your control. Damon put his head down and did what was within his control: the exhausting, messy work of caring for his wife and their two young children. There were no self-help revelations, but the experience became one of the engines of his philosophy. “It’s not just mortality,” he says. “It’s fragility, in everything.”

By now we’ve been on the move for hours. Damon speaks often and with passionate warmth about Ruth and their kids, Nikos and Sophia. At times this is phrased curiously in the negative: his desire not to hurt or let them down. We cross the relentless machinery of Hoddle Street. The city’s skyline and noise rise up, and our voices, too. Damon finally circles back to his own childhood. “You can’t fix your parents,” he says, “but you can help people be better with disagreement and conflict. It doesn’t have to be vicious or vindictive.”

We’re in the heart of Melbourne now, outside the State Library of Victoria. This is our destination, ostensibly because The Moat does a good cup of tea, but it’s fitting because it means the day’s journey mirrors Damon’s own: a personal, visceral undertaking that begins in a suburban house, full of fragility and love, and ends in the public theatre of writing. We drink tea and say goodbye. Damon heads off to catch a train home to his family and I realise I’m wrong. His destination isn’t the public theatre of writing at all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 18, 2014 as "Thinking … fast". Subscribe here.

Nic Low
is a writer and artist. His first book is Arms Race.