Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Some Prosaic Greatness

Apologizing for navel-gazing on a blog is like apologizing for farting at a chili cookoff: it's probably the right thing to do, etiquette-wise, but the guests knew what they were in for when they showed up. But since we're all into worrying about how we come off, I'm going to apologize for the navel-gazing. The fact is, for all my attempts at altruism and self-improvement; for all exercise of my listening skills, kinesthetic response, and empathy; for all attempts at a truer, more generous state of being, I remain among the more singularly self-absorbed people I know. There are pluses and minuses to such a character, and I'll probably be forever working on that balance. But for now, I'm somewhat entrenched in a period of self-regard and self-analysis. So here we are.

I have two major events coming up in the next month (or so) that have me absolutely petrified. The first is a "phase test" in my martial arts class. See, at our school, since we're studying multiple disciplines (Kali, JKD/Jun Fan, Panantukan, CSW, BJJ, Savate, and Muay Thai), there aren't "belts" in the traditional sense; rather, they've devised a system of phases. There are three phases with three levels each, and students test once every 2-4 months. This would be my first test, and, if I pass, I'd move to phase 1, level 2. Which would just mean that I'd have a couple more options as to which classes I'm allowed to take, and would hopefully mean I'd get to play with weapons (!!!) a little more.

Thing is, I haven't been quite as consistent in my attendance as I'd like. I've been shooting for going to class 3-4 times a week, but it's really been more like 2-3, and some weeks have been a little less. Not exactly a shameful track record, but enough that, given how new all of these arts are to me (and how little they resemble the Goju-Ryu Karate, Aikido and Capoeira Angola I've already studied) and the length of time it's been since I last studied martial arts, I definitely feel . . . not so much unprepared as unready.

The second petrifying event is the beginning of my education project in mid-October. For those who missed the last few descriptions of this project, a close friend of mine and I will be co-teaching a series of classes on physical theatre, improvisation, and acro-balance. The emphasis will be on how one may apply martial-arts principles thereto, with a secondary emphasis on how one may use the performing arts as a platform for understanding the warrior ethic, insofar as one takes that to mean the ethic by which the "warrior" takes responsibility for her community, and to offer humility and healing by way of her art.

In this case, my fear stems from some of the same concerns, specifically the concern that I'm simply not a good enough martial artist to teach these principles (though the literal martial character of the art is essentially stripped away--we're only dealing with technique in the abstract). I'm worried that, never having taught before, my attempts will be awkward, amateurish. More prominently, though, I fear that these kids will see through my cirriculum and ideas to the lily-white face of my privelige, my paternalistic liberal desire to "give to the community". I find myself second-guessing my own motivations, wondering if my very intent with this project is so stone self-serving that my credibility will be shot before I open my mouth to say my first words.

As I approach these challenges, I hear the steady drone of the same old insecurities: that I'm a mediocre talent, that I haven't managed to do much of anything with myself, that I've a lazy intellect, that it's too late to establish any meaningful direction in my life. Basically, that I've squandered my modest gifts and given the shaft to any chance I might have had at greatness.

Greatness, you say? Yeah, that most prosaic of all goals, greatness, the longing for which is almost ironclad proof of mediocrity, even when the quest for it leads to a quiet (or not so quiet) contempt for all that is perceived as mediocre.

Greatness is a difficult thing to quantify for a dedicated abstractionist like myself. Though I've always hoped for comfort, I never sought wealth; though I crave recognition, I've never chased fame. Of course, I'm pretty sure I always secretly craved both wealth and fame, and had, at one time, that secret, youthful, vaguely megalomaniacal self-regard that whispered in my all-too-eager ear that I was gifted, dammit, that I was special, and that riches both literal and figurative would emerge as my birthright if I pursued truth, love, vision, and autonomy at the expense of all else (that those four directives might prove incompatible never occurred to me). But I've failed to create any legacy as an actor, a writer, a cultural critic, a martial artist, a musician, or a philosopher; attempts at fusing these disciplines into a single line of pursuit has been futile. I keep hearing the snide voice of this guy I heard, once, on NPR, talking about how, with few exceptions, people don't achieve greatness at pursuits picked up later in life, and I worry that the years wherein I could have made this work are past me, that sinking in anonymous routine is the only option left.

Obviously, studying new martial arts in my thirties and teaching eight weeks of an after-school theatre program to at-risk youth could hardly be called bids for greatness. I certainly don't seek fame or fortune in teaching or combat sport. But as these projects certainly pertain to my quest for truth, so, too, do they relate to my longtime musing on the abstract matter of greatness. My insecurities on all matters seem to rise from the same place, that dark little center where I wonder, at every moment, whether I'm an irretrievable failure. Of course I'm chanting on matters micro (the test, the classes) and macro (the quest for truth, the yearning to succeed at something), and it's kept me from getting stuck in too ugly a spiral. But this week in particular, I feel mired in doubt. And while my more immediate doubt is that I'm not enough of a martial artist to pass this relatively simple test, my greater doubt is that I'm not enough of anything to offer these kids any guidance, that I've already squandered my future, that all I have to share is a mish-mash of half-formed ideas that have already demonstrated their own poverty.

I suppose, all said, that all I can do is persevere, envision myself succeeding at these challenges while preparing NOT to chastise myself if I should fail, and hope that either truth or success peaks over some horizon.

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Blogger the beige one said...

But I've failed to create any legacy as an actor, a writer, a cultural critic, a martial artist, a musician, or a philosopher...

As this entry is largely about self-perception, I won't get too in-your-face, but this prompted me to say "sez you." Sure, the little white professors who serve as the Vanguard of the Canon aren't talking of your various works, but it doesn't mean you haven't made an impact of any kind in the world out there.

As a small example, people still call Sunken one of their favorite theater experiences in Seattle; people still talk of Kung Fu Guy...Who knows who is talking about The Swan?

I'm not about to suggest that the aspirations of greatness should be assuaged by these things, but simply as a reminder that you do have what it takes to get there, even if evidence supporting it isn't as large as you'd like.

I do suggest that, instead of seeing your goals as a reminder of where you're not, that they serve as further impetus to take steps to get where you want to go.

I know you're just giving voice to your thoughts, and that nothing's being impeded by it, and this isn't meant as castigation. I just want to reinforce what you're already doing, and hopefully sharing some of the idealism and optimism I'm known for.

5:05 PM  
Blogger Jacques Roux said...

Those who actively seek greatness, rarely achieve it. While I completely understand, empathize and appreciate the need to strive for greatness and create some sort of legacy, it is an ever elusive goal, which cannot be attained by the person who seeks it. An individual's greatness is only manifested in the minds of others, who have the opportunity to witness, experience, and hopefully interact with the person, theory, concept, invention or work of art they deem "great." Unfortunately, greatness is not a thing achieved, but an honor bestowed. The only way you will be considered "great", is if someone else, other than yourself, thinks or states it.

So stop beating yourself up over it. (I know, much easier said than done.)

The only way to attain greatness, is by doing. You already know this, but it's worth remembering. Act. With confidence (even if you are afraid), commitment (even when you're full of doubt), clarity of purpose (even when you don't know what the next step is), and focus (even when you don't know what the goal is). In so doing, the way will become clear.

Now I'm not trying to get all Kung Fu on you, or anything. But the theory and principle do hold true in application. Simply by moving forward and taking some positive action (i.e. making choices), you will clear the way for further forward progress. It's inevitable. Action narrows the available possibilities and forces further choices and action.

I am also not suggesting you neglect your responsibilities. You must plan, prepare, anticipate and visulaize your actions and decisions. Do your homework, however it may manifest itself, and plan your approach. But you must act. For without action, greatness will never be achieved.

Re: the phase test. If you're under-prepared, then do what it takes to get prepared. If that means that you don't take the test when it's given next, fine. Take more time, learn the material and gain confidence. The study of martial arts is an organic process. Everyone learns at different rates, and at different times. Don't allow someone else's imposed timeline get in the way of your progress. Remember, in a lot of schools/gyms that operate for profit, these 'tests' are a way to foster a sense of accomplishment in the students. Progress which can be quantified is great importance in the Western. Most people aren't comfortable if they don't have some outward manifestation of how "great" they are by moving upward in rank. You shouldn't feel obligated to move along at the exact same pace as your sparring partner. She may just be on a different timeline. And remember, you're learning the fundamentals right now. Those take a lot of time, regardless of past experience and education. Don't let self get in the way.

Re: the teaching. Again, act. Teaching, regardless of content, audience or method, is an active process. And in my experience, the best teaching/learning experiences I've ever had were of an active nature that involved a lot of trial, error and analysis as the process. Again, do the homework and preparation, but remain flexible and open to outside input and influence. The students will respond when they are engaged, and that doesn't come from the teacher "having all the answers." Teaching is guiding the student to their own discoveries and realizations. And that only happens with action.

Sure, you won't reach all of them. But if you've done your homework, and honestly tried you best, it's probably not your fault. You will never be the right teacher for all of the students, all of the time. Period. Just do what you can, when you can.

I find it helps to keep these two things in mind:

"It's good enough for who it's for," and "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."

Just my two cents worth. Good luck.

9:04 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

Yes, and yes, to both of you. I was just musing on the matter, really.

TBO, thanks for the shout out.

Jacques . . . Yes. As far as the test goes, like I said, I don't feel unprepared so much as unready; the former, I can work on (and am working on). The latter is more about mind state. I can really only deal with that in the moment, and hopefully it will become easier with experience, as I see what phase testing looks like at this school.

Everything else you say, I essentially know. And I don't think I ever sought greatness as a martial artist; I've always thought of being a good martial artist, a diligent martial artist, as a tool for becoming a more versatile actor, a more aware writer, and a more effective and interesting person.

The "homework", such as it is, is essentially done for the two major projects. The other stuff--the acting, the writing, the philosophy--simply happens as it does, as there are projects worth pursuing and thoughts worth putting down. And, ultimately, I've always functioned in the realm of doing, rather than of pursuing greatness. Really, the only reason I pursue greatness is because success, for a stage actor, means compromises I'm not willing to make. I think I sometimes pursue greatness so that I may feel less guilty for making the decision not to pursue solvency at the expense of my integrity.

Ultimately, all I can do is audition for the shows that are worth doing, and hope those who produce those shows see what I have to offer.

On the writing . . . well, I just have to keep doing it and submitting it.

At some point, I'd like to write for myself. I don't know if that means a solo show, or gathering fellow writer/actors around me and creating small pieces, or . . . well, I don't know what it means, which is obviously why I'm not doing it. But if I'm to create work that embodies and emboldens my artistic intentions to such a degree that I feel like I'm not a complete sham and a pseudointellectual fraud for feeling that my art should mean something, given all the things on my mind, that would seem like the best path.

9:43 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

While greatness might describe what I imagine the social reality of what I want to accomplish looking like, transcendence might be more what I'm after. And I've definitely had my share--a greater share, indeed, than some people may ever have--of transcendent moments. I think I just want to have enough of them, with enough witnesses, that my lack of success won't be perceived as failure.

9:46 PM  
Blogger Stine said...

What am I ever gonna do with you? I've shared my opinion, even when not wanted, on all of the topics you discussed. And well, fuck, if you ain't listened to me up to this point, why would you start now?


Jacques, will you be my third husband?

10:34 PM  
Blogger Jacques Roux said...

yes, I know you are aware of all these things, and are simply "airing it all out." Whenever I find myself in such a situation, or some other type of dilemma, I always find it best to talk things out. By doing so, the proper choice or course of action almost invaribly presents itself. And I suspect that is precisely what you're doing. But I felt inspired and compelled to voice my comments, and did so. I know you don't really need the input, you know what's going on, but sometimes it helps to hear from an outside source.

And let's face it, I just wanted a break from homework.

Stine, I appreciate the offer, but as you can tell, I love the sound of my own voice too much. I doubt you'd have the patience necessary to take me on as a third man-toy. And my own inflated ego wouldn't tolerate being tertiary in any type of social dynamic. But thanks anyway!! ;-)

Hope all is well in the Emerald City.

8:42 AM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

But I felt inspired and compelled to voice my comments, and did so.

I might add that you did so quite eloquently.

I know you don't really need the input, you know what's going on, but sometimes it helps to hear from an outside source.

Of course. And I don't know that I'd say I don't need the input; I was obviously looking for something.

To be honest, I'm skirting one of the major components of this whole matter, something that could make for its own post, but that I'm at loathe to bring up in this land of a thousand mommies . . .

. . . and after writing it down, I'm kind of thinking it should be its own post (I can leave out some of the more uncomfortable aspects, like my feelings about IVF). So stay tuned.

And let's face it, I just wanted a break from homework.

Oh, I hear that. :^)

11:05 AM  
Blogger amandak said...

Haven't read the next installment of this train of thought, but just wanted to comment briefly on the teaching thing. As a teacher in training, I totally hear you and relate to not feeling like you know the material well enough to teach it to someone else. My teachers and fellow trainees assure me, and I have had this bear out in my limited experience, that you really only need to be a step or two ahead of your students to know "enough". And I'm positive you've got that covered and then some. I learned a great deal from my students, while I was actively teaching. It deepened my understanding in a way that being a student just can't. And, it was great fun. Keep it loose and enjoy yourself, and your students will too.

12:23 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

Well put, Amanda. I've actually found that, even in my early stage of training in this martial arts program, I'll get paired with beginners, and find that I experience all sorts of revelations about my training, and about the art itself, that I somehow miss in the passive position of being taught.

Thanks for the encouragement.

12:31 PM  
Blogger JJisafool said...

The other folks in your world are so much more positive and affirming than I am. I was gonna brush the Oreo cookies off my chest, sit up straight and loudly slur "What's so fucking bad about mediocre?"

I take insignificance as such a given that I can I applaud my own glacial rise to mediocrity.

9:00 PM  

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