Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Masters...

Hello Friends.

Have you ever seen that show Chopped? It’s a reality competition show on the Food Network where chefs have to make an appetizer, entrée and dessert within a certain amount of time, all while incorporating certain ingredients that are unknown to the competitors until they begin each round. So, for instance, the chefs have twenty minutes to create an appetizer, and they find out the mandatory ingredients they must include are grapes, Vienna sausages, liquid smoke, and a bus ticket. Course by course, they are whittled down until the champion is left standing. This show has been on for years and is syndicated, so it airs in reruns every day. I’ve only just started watching, so every episode is new to me, and I’m fascinated.

It’s not the food that’s particularly compelling, nor even the sense of competition. I think what makes this show so good is that even the chefs who don’t make it past the first round are excellent. It is often splitting hairs to determine a winner as none of the chefs are amateur. The tremendous appeal of this show is that everybody watching at home gets to witness mastery.

I’ve become obsessed with the idea of mastery, in any arena. The notion that one can have complete superior knowledge and complete control of a thing is suddenly so attractive to me. Also, I think I’m at the age where I have contemporaries who are masterful, and it makes me stop and marvel. It’s remarkable how little we care about masters, though, especially if they’re adults. A five year old playing classical piano is mind-blowing, for instance. We soil ourselves with delight and take pictures and video and we shriek and we cry and we say, “This is a gift from GOD!” But when a 30 year old plays classical piano it’s like, who gives a shit?

The point is, there is mastery all around us. I’m sure recognition for one’s talent and ability is lovely, but I think the true satisfaction a master enjoys comes from simply being aware that they are masterful (I am clearly not a master of synonyms, but I don’t think any other word applies here). I think that kind of satisfaction would give one’s life a purpose and direction that the rest of us muddle-throughers don’t enjoy. I’m tired of muddling-through, and it would be nice to feel confident about my ability to do something for once, thus a Dream is born.

Dream: Become a Master of something.

Goal: Achievable. I’m old enough to know that skill and expertise aren’t acquired overnight, but I’m young enough to take on a new challenge with vigor and optimism, so surely Mastery is in my future.

Plan: Examine mastery, at least what I’ve seen of it, to determine how to harness it for myself.

It’s the common realization of the liberal arts graduate that he doesn’t know how to do anything. Allow me to pause at this moment to acknowledge just how privileged I sound right now. If I wasn’t me, I’d beat me up.

GUY: Hey James, what’s wrong?
JAMES: Aw, I’m not a Master at anything. (Kicks stone, trips, falls into pile of money and preferential treatment because he is a white male)

I don’t regret any of my education as a Fine Arts Theatre Major, but I do regret placing such emphasis on vague ideas and not enough in practical application. For instance, I could probably trot out a British accent, or break a scene down into beats and objectives, but I don’t know how to fix the sink.

That said, I have a friend from the same background, with the same fundamental education as me (even less as she didn’t pursue acting at a university level, I don’t think, but I could be wrong), and she is clearly, obviously masterful. She’s on television shows and movies now and is so good that I don’t recognize her as someone that I know. I have about ten seconds of, “It’s so cool that she’s in a show!” and then it’s, “Ooh, is she mad at him? Is that why she left the party? What’s she doing now?!” In other words, I become invested in the character that I’m watching and forget the actress, which is what is supposed to happen.

I have another friend who is a playwright. Not someone who mumbles quietly at a party about “writing plays on the side sometimes, I guess.” He makes his living writing plays, which is very hard to do, but again, he is masterful. Much like my actress friend, my playwright friend does work that transcends my relationship to him as I read it or see it performed. He rendered one character in one of his plays who is a teenager with Asperger’s or social anxiety, he sits somewhere on the autism spectrum, and his parents are divorced. He has monologues and scenes throughout the play and is rendered so deftly, with moments of such heartbreaking clarity, that it’s the character I connect with, beyond the artifice of a play, beyond an existing relationship with the playwright.

I know a guy whose job it is to render water. He spent years at different institutions getting his undergrad, masters, PhD, and now he works for a software company and leads a team in developing technology which somehow convincingly mimics the movement and undulation of a body of water. Apparently this is useful for animation, marine biology, making trippy screensavers. Can you imagine what goes into this kind of work? The patience required, the dedication, the single-minded purposefulness?

I don’t know exactly how it relates, but I’m confident mastery must somehow tie into Flow. The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (turns out it’s spelled just like it sounds!) is credited with defining the concept of Flow, or the Flow State. That’s when you’re so completely immersed in a task that a kind of time-suck occurs. You sit down to noodle a riff on your guitar (that’s the technical term, “noodle a riff”) and suddenly four hours have passed. Isn’t that satisfying? That happens to me sometimes when I’m writing. Writing is an agonizing process, to be sure, and nothing looks as good on paper as it sounds in my brains, but suddenly it’s 11 pm and there’s a crick in my neck and my bladder is full but there’s a page of stuff that wasn’t there before and I don’t know how any of it came about and where all the time went.

I think Malcolm Gladwell is the 1000 hours guy. He believes that if you devote 1000 hours of practice to something, you will master it. 1000 hours is a lot, but that still seems too simple. By that definition, every super-dedicated kid who played basketball every day after school for ten years would be drafted into the NBA. Any child of strict parents would be a virtuosic pianist. Time alone cannot equal mastery. I read an interview recently with David Epstein, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who wrote a book called The Sports Gene. Among other things, he determined that training not only cannot replicate the same results in different people, but some athletes who seem preternaturally gifted at a particular sport can plateau with training and even get worse. Some long distance runners, he theorized, have a certain number of races in them. Training is important, to be sure, but a good runner can simply run out. I wish I could cite specifics here, but I can’t find the piece. I believe him, though.

I’m embarrassed to report the one thing at which I may have been masterful and that was, I’m loathe to admit, working cash at a drugstore. As much as I hated it, as mind-numbing as working a till can be, talk about a flow state. If I had a line of customers, no price checks, no refunds, no machine malfunctions among them, there were moments I swear I was better than a machine. I could scan, demagnetize, sort, bag, take payment, and make change in seconds. Truly, seconds. This was before we had to charge five cents for a bag, mind you, and custies would whinge and guess at how many bags they needed and that was of no use to me. I could take down a line like a champ. My tills were never out money, my items never set off the beeper from not being properly demagged. I work in a store now, but the process is not the same. There is necessary chit-chat and precise garment folding and I’m more often on the sales floor than behind the till anyway. And I certainly don’t want to be back bagging Tylenol and baby formula, not for anything. But I was good at it. Extremely good. Masterful.

How exciting that we live in a world where we can witness the best of ourselves. I just saw this movie Gravity, for instance? Holy god, what the fuck was that, am I right? The whole movie takes place in space, there’s very little dialogue, the visual effects are rendered spectacularly, and the performances are amazing. I have the new Katy Perry album on my pod and haters can step to the left because those tunes are TIGHT! I feel sorry for people who dismiss pop music because I think it’s as intricate as any other musical style and incredibly appealing, if not long-lasting. Katy Perry might be bubblegum, but who doesn’t love a stick of bubblegum every once in a while? I saw a guy at the gym today put the machine to maximum weight and just power through it, conquering physical resistance with sheer power. On Chopped tonight someone made a taco out of eels. I don’t know if I’ll ever find my own mountain to climb or dragon to conquer, but at least with mastery all around me, I’ll enjoy the muddle through.

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