Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Postcards From My Childhood Part 6: Guileless Clunk

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"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I willfully sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget.

At age 12, I signed up for a ping pong competition. The best player, Ricky, was an arrogant, tanned, broad-shouldered 15 year old California adonis with a custom-made paddle. I, pallid and short for my age, was not deemed a hot prospect, so they matched me against Ricky in the first round. I was a pawn to be plowed through en route to Ricky's inevitable triumph.

Ricky sneered at me and launched his famous serve, tossing the ball very, very high into the air, then slicing it so fast the eye couldn't follow the motion. It tore by me. I never even moved. And it dawned on me that I could never beat Ricky on his own terms. I couldn't match his vicious slams, or counter his esoteric spins and slices. I'd miss a lot more of those shots than he would. So I decided to concentrate entirely on missing less than him.

When Ricky's shots, humming with topspin, sizzled toward my side of the table, I'd simply return them. Clunk. Right down the middle of the table. Nothing fancy. No english. No pace. Just a big, dumb, clunking return - volley after volley, point after point. And Ricky, sensing my strategy, began tightening up, returning my cloddish volleys with increasingly hostile smashes....some of which missed. Meanwhile, none of mine missed. Clunk. Right down the middle. Clunk. Clunk.

I won, of course. And, of course, he refused to shake my hand. Poor guy. I may, to this day, be the worst thing that ever happened to him; the sole blot on Ricky's otherwise immaculately golden life record. Here's to you, Ricky, and the botoxed pilates teacher with whom I visualize you sipping overly buttery Chardonnay in your Malibu hot tub. Remember me by my sound: "Clunk".

Sometimes a person works hard, learns all the moves, develops talent with arduous training, and some lazy, no-talent shmuck comes along and finds a way to undercut you. While it's important to develop one's talents with due discipline (as I've done in a number of realms, myself), it's also fun to sometimes be the undercutting shmuck. The guy who gets there via guileless clunks.

Consider my little video, "The Enigma of Von's Magical Cookies". It's dreadfully shot and edited, the sound's abysmal, and the whole thing seems pretty aimless. I'm incredibly bad at every necessary skill, and used lousy tools to record it (a smartphone camera and a Radio Shack microphone).

Yet it's got something. As time has passed, and I view it with a fresh eye, I see that it's actually good - in vibe and overall effect, if not on any actual merits. Guileless clunk won the game. Lots of people really like it (I got a beautiful note from Von's surviving daughter - Von, alas, passed away shortly after the video was shot), but a friend who's a legendary film director, and who otherwise likes my endeavors, detests it. In fact, it makes him apoplectic. He's certainly not jealous, any more than Ricky was jealous of my table tennis skills. After all, my video's not 1/1000th as good as the worst of his films. But all he can hear is the "Clunk", and it's pure anathema. He wouldn't hate it this much if he didn't recognize that it works. Failure doesn't provoke hatred.

Guileless clunk can be used even at higher skill levels. For instance, I've played piano since age six, but never really learned piano technique. My left hand is kind of gimpy, and where a serious pianist might have nine hundred different ways to do a certain thing, I have only four or five. But that's enough to get by. I'm no clod; I've put in my 10,000 hours of practice. But I'm not versatile or elegant or well-taught or "proper". I take liberties and cheat with quirky shortcuts. Never having taken the pains to become a "real" pianist; I opt for the easy route. If you heard me, you'd think I was professional. But when pro pianists hear me, all they hear is the "clunk". And they want to strangle me. Because it works.

My father, a wonderful sculptor, always wanted to try painting, but he knew he had no facility with color. Finally, he came up with a dazzlingly creative solution: he'd paint only with primary colors. Brilliant! And the results were distinctive and appealing, though not very painterly. But they antagonized his second wife, a well-trained serious painter. Noticing months later that he'd stopped painting, I asked him why, and all he'd say was that his marriage was more important.

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