Tuesday, November 06, 2007


I began this post after I had taken the boards, but before I knew I had passed them. (When, in fact I was quite sure I'd failed them.) It goes with the poem about having misery and humiliation for house-guests.

It's the humiliation of the body that makes it worst. Every grade-school humiliation -- every missed easy fly ball to right field, every basket I missed, every race I came in next-to-last -- in short, everything that made me decide, in the course of my nine years in public school, that my body was a lost cause, and that I was going to ignore it, and use my brain -- it all comes back, remarkably vividly. This humiliation comes from that same deep pool of misery. Nothing separates me from that slow, awkward, pudgy, easily flustered boy.

The tempting thing, of course, is to wait. To call this a time that doesn't count. To ignore my reactions, as best I can, and fill my time up with sudoku and hexwar and eating halloween chocolate. To wait until I get my results, and real life starts up again. After all, it's only thirty days.

But this is the thing. It's actually this, right now, that is real life. I am the less deceived right now than I will be when I know how I did, and am either studying to take the test over, or scrambling to get all the accommodations and paraphernalia of a massage practice together. It's no accident or aberration that makes this sinking sensation so familiar. The fact is that the jury is always out. In one way or another, I spend most my life waiting for judgements that will never be rendered. I will never know, in the end, whether I was worthy of respect or of ridicule. There is no epilogue to this novel. There are no answers at the back of this book. There will never really be any more basis for answering the question than there is now.

And there's a reason for that. It's because the question actually makes no sense. It's intrinsically meaningless, in the same way that asking "how red is lopsidedness?" is meaningless. Gathering more information about lopsidedness or about red is not going to help us answer that question. The predicate simply doesn't apply to the subject.

So the conviction that this question must be answered before I go forward -- that I'm just kicking my heels in the waiting room until it is -- that is what needs to be dismantled. Really it matters so little whether I passed or failed. What matters is seeing this whole structure of suffering exactly as it is.

That's why I'm welcomed my house-guests. Not because I enjoy suffering. But because they can tell me how this thing works, what it's made of, what keeps it running. And because I'm old enough to know that misery and humiliation will stay as long as they damn well please; no amount of shooing them away or attempting to distract myself will hasten their departure.

So I listen to them.

They tell me a story, over and over, about a boy playing basketball. His team was losing, they were spending all their time on the home side of the court, fending off attempted baskets. He managed to steal the ball and break loose, and pelted across the court. No one ahead of him. No one even next to him. He ran in his ridiculous duck-footed way, but he ran as hard as he could. There was a roar of approval from the stands -- a sound he had never heard, for himself, before. It was an easy lay-up. Anyone else on the team could have made it.

He missed it, of course. Flung the ball up wildly. Not even a respectable miss; it barely hit the backboard. There was a groan from the crowd. That was it: his day in the sun, as a basketball player. The other team snagged the rebound. Everyone pounded back to the home side. We all went back to trying to fend off the attacks on our own basket.

But listen, listen to the story. There are two points that bear contemplation.

One is the duckfootedness. There is a valuable somatic understanding there. That exagerated external rotation of the hips -- it goes with the exagerated lordotic lumbar curve and the slump of the shoulders. It's an attitude of defeat, of unwillingness to leave the ground. I could barely jump at all -- no one can, in that posture.

But the second point is the more important. The hinge of the story, the reason it still makes my insides crawl, is that the shot was an easy one. For other people. The fact is that lay-ups were nearly impossible for me. I was terrible at them in practice, too. My legs and arms seemed to run on entirely differently neurological circuits: I could control the arms or control the legs, but not both. And switching between them confused me so much that I could control neither: I would run up under the basket and make a convulsive little hop, like a hooked fish, and the ball would float up into the air in a random trajectory. That was what always happened with lay-ups, for me. But in the moment when people were cheering for me, I thought -- if one thing that had never happened to me before was happening, why not another? Why not that effortless leap, followed by a cavalier one-handed tip to the backboard, and the ball falling sweetly through the net?

The story suddenly comes clear. I held my inability to do layups to be a moral failure, a curse bothing causing and caused by my unpopularity. I didn't think of it as something that was simply physically difficult for me, a problem in coordination and posture and timing, which a person could analyze and address. I never practiced them if I wasn't made to. At home, I practiced free-throws, which I was really quite good at. One more galling thing about that failed lay-up was that if I had stopped at the head of the key and simply taken a free throw, I would probably have made the shot.

The sting of the story all rests in the shot being an easy one. If the shot hadn't been an easy one, then the whole thing would unwind to an unremarkable, unmemorable, unhumiliating event. Something I would have forgotten thirty-five years ago, as everyone else on that court has forgotten it. (If they even remembered it the next day.) It should have been easy.

Likewise, I shouldn't be flustered by practical tests. That's the conviction that fuels this emotion, that makes me miserable and humilated rather than ordinarily anxious to see if I passed. If I could learn to hold that as a simple fact, just a morally neutral characteristic, like having blue eyes or short arms -- which is surely a more intelligent and accurate way to think of it -- the misery and humiliation would have no place to sit down. They'd get tired of standing about and just leave.

Well. Easier said than done, convictions like that have the tenacity of old blackberry brambles, steel hard, rooted deep under the ground. Hacking away at the surface is a start, but only a start.

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