Sunday, October 25, 2009

Messing Up


As I walked through the Las Pecinas College library last week, I saw a student sitting with a drawing pad in his lap, holding his left hand suspended in a fixed pose over the paper.

His bodily position looked a bit odd to me, but also uncannily familiar. I realized that he was drawing his own hand, which is something that I’ve also been doing a lot lately. My friend Adam has been teaching me to draw, and a person’s own hand is one of the best things to draw, because it allows the student to work on showing planes and angles and foreshortening and, more importantly, it’s always available.

I looked down at the student’s pad, and was disheartened to see that the hand on his paper was way better than those I’ve been drawing. The lines were crisp, assertive, conveying a confident sense of the shape and bulk and gesture of the hand.

In contrast, my lines have a quality that I have seen described as labored. That’s a good term for them. It’s obvious, looking at the heavy, jagged borders of my drawings that I dragged my pencil over them slowly, painstakingly, agonizing over each minute change of direction.

I like to carve my lines in little tiny increments, like frosting a cake, manipulating and smoothing them as I go. This technique feels comfortable, but it’s all wrong. It produces lines that are cramped and fussy. “Don’t hen-peck your lines,” Adam says, standing over me as I draw. “Stop scratching at them.”

If I were writing, the lines I am drawing would be an overuse of adjectives, or flowery description, or excessively quippy narration: they draw attention to the creator of the drawing rather than to the drawing itself. A viewer shouldn’t be noticing the lines of my drawing any more than he should be thinking, “Check out that descriptive language!” when he reads a novel. Instead he should be thinking: there’s a hand.

I know that I need to learn to make the beautiful, confident lines that Adam urges me to create. But when I try, my drawings become distorted and misshapen, because my lines, while assertive, are in the wrong place. That’s the difficulty with being assertive about something that you are just learning; you may be asserting the wrong thing.

“It doesn’t matter,” Adam says. “No amount of drawing hen-pecky lines will teach you to draw a good line. You have to draw the good lines even if they’re wrong.”

That’s the problem with learning confidence: before you earn it, you have to fake it. It’s like wrestling. To execute a take-down, you have to shoot in with confidence, even if that confidence is completely unwarranted. For somebody who has great respect for wisdom and experience, it feels counterintuitive to assume a position of confidence when I know there is perhaps an eighty percent likelihood that I am going to screw the move up.

Luckily, I have now studied enough art forms to know that it’s often necessary to mess things up in order to make them better.

It’s like in kickboxing. You can tell a kickboxer again and again to fix her roundhouse kick, but she won’t want to. Step out, you’ll say. No, in that direction. She steps out properly once, twice. The third time, she reverts back to her old footwork. That’s because the new footwork, while technically superior, doesn’t let her throw the kick as hard, doesn’t feel as balanced and comfortable, can’t be done as quickly. Some day, the new footwork will make her kick twice as hard, but not without a period of frustrating awkwardness.

I’ve been that kickboxer a dozen times, not wanting to mess up my roundhouse kick in order to fix it. I remember throwing kicks at a pad, and I was throwing them hard, I thought, based on the gratifying banging noise my leg was making against the pad. But the holder of the pad pointed at my front arm and said, “You’re dropping that arm every time you throw the kick,” which meant that my face was unprotected for a moment.

Fixing my mistake prevented me from getting the same momentum into my hips. As I practiced with my hands properly blocking my face, my kicks became lighter, quieter, less gratifying. It took me months to regain the same force, although I finally did, and now my hands were in the correct position.

One of the other things I have learned about mistakes is that they are never new. I now know that my small hand drop is a common mistake, one that I see many experienced kickboxers make when they are trying to get extra power into their kicks. We flatter ourselves to think that our mistakes are novel and that we are disappointing our teachers through our unprecedented errors. But errors are predictable, as is our perception that they are unique.

When I started to do yoga, I would always cross my legs the wrong way in one particular pose. “Why do I always do that?” I asked, when my teacher had corrected me for the third week in a row.

Now, throughout the several years I have studied yoga, I have heard my teacher make the same correction countless times, to countless new students. And about fifty percent of the time, the corrected student reacts just as I did, down to the word: “Why do I always do that?” the student asks aloud.

These students are like me, wondering why they would reverse their leg position, lacking the perspective to recognize the answer: because everybody does that.

My students do the same thing, berating themselves for the same difficulties and mistakes that I have seen in a thousand student essays, including my own.

“I can never figure out how much to summarize the plot,” says a student writing about a novel. “I always put in way too much summary.”

Everybody does that, I tell the student. It’s not just you. You’re not the only one who writes vague or confusing thesis statements, who cannot find any way express an abstract, complex idea except through a grotesquely gnarled and winding sentence, who struggles with the transition from one paragraph to the next, who gets to the end of the essay only to realize that you now believe the opposite of what you originally set out to argue. These are the same difficulties writers have faced throughout history, since the dawn of time—the same clich├ęs that will negatively affect their writing in the following areas: clarity, originality, and the ability to make critical arguments—the same opportunities that have been handed down to us as a gift from those who came before us and have made all of our mistakes a thousand times over.

Now the student will need to go back through his essay, clearing out the extraneous plot summary in each paragraph and replacing it with fresh, healthy argumentation. It will take a lot of work, and he’ll lose over a page of hard-earned writing that he was counting on to meet his four-page minimum. But when he turns in those final four pages, they will be stronger for the loss, free of sloppy lines, assertive and accurate and confident.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Woman as Sexual Dictator


So few women recognize the power that they hold over men. If women only realized how badly men wanted them, they would use their sexuality to get whatever they want.

A particular country-inflected pop star has been in the news as often for the fluctuations in her weight as for her musical successes. She was the darling of the entertainment magazines when she lost about ten pounds off of her already slim figure in order to have the tightest possible buttocks for a role in a movie that required her to wear tiny shorts. She was then chastised heartily by the same magazines when, several years later, she gained over ten pounds, bringing her five-foot three-inch frame from a svelte 110 pounds to a “chubby” 124 pounds.

She eventually lost that weight, but then recently made the cover of virtually every major entertainment magazine because, at a recent performance, she looked to have gained about twenty pounds. All of the photographs on the magazines were from the same single performance, as though she had only gained the weight for that one day. Now she has lost much of that weight, although one magazine recently noted that she was so distraught of the unexpected death of her dog that she had “stopped losing weight.”

Of course, by regular-people standards, this woman has never been close to overweight. Her low weight of 110 pounds, according to the body mass index (which is just a fancy name for a height/weight ratio), was at the low end of the “normal” range, while her gained-twenty-pounds weight of 135 puts her at 23, near the top of that normal range.

And BMI aside (it’s a poor judge of healthy weight at any rate), in the normal world, a 135-pound, five-foot-three-inch woman is what we would consider average.

I think of this woman, of her rise to hotness glory and her fall from hotness grace, whenever I hear people say that women have a deep, untapped source of power stemming from the fact that men want to have sex with them.

I’ve heard tell of this mystical power for as long as I can remember. I raged over it in my teenaged journals: this power that isn’t power at all, the power not to do something but of somebody wanting to do something to you, power that can turn on you at any moment and leave you ugly, undesirable and humiliated.

Now with more perspective, I’m still skeptical about my potential ability to lord despotically over men based on my chromosomes and anatomy.

As power goes, it’s a backwards sort of power, in the sense that it is conferred by the person who is supposed to be the subject of that power. When a dictator takes power over a nation, he does not need the approval of the people that he will lord over. If a Mafioso has the power to kill you and your family if you don’t seat him at the table he wants at your restaurant, your decision that this power is not real or valid will not change the reality of the situation.

So I suppose that sexual power is more like a democracy, where power is given willingly and can be taken away at will also. In a democracy, a leader must cater to the wishes and whims of his constituents, and that changes the kind of power that he has, which is why we more often call it service than power.

Likewise, the woman who wants to use her sexuality as power must cater to the whims of the men she seeks to dominate, in this case, maintaining her sexual desirability, which often lies in inverse proportion to her domineering nature. So for example, if a girlfriend wants to use her sexual power to make her boyfriend clean the apartment once in a while, he may just decide to cast his vote for a new challenger in place of the incumbent.

If a woman wants to wield her sexuality as power, and you decide that you don’t want to have sex with her to start with, her power is gone, instantly, and she is disgraced. Take the example of the famous pop star. As long as she weighs 110 pounds and wears tiny shorts, she is at the pinnacle of feminine power. But when she weighs 135 pounds and wears an unfortunate pair of unflattering jeans, she is humiliated, a laughing stock, she has let herself go, despite the fact that she is considerably slimmer than the average American woman.

When people talk about women’s sexual power, they are fantasizing that women could have dictator-like power over men, when in fact, at the very best, she is more like a civil servant.

This myth of woman as sexual dictator comes from the fantasy that male desire could be bottled and put to some use. I imagine the thought process, at least for men, goes something like this:

I am soooo attracted to Woman X and Woman Y and Woman Z. I don’t think those women could have any idea how much I desire them. But if they knew, they could use it against me in some way. And I wouldn’t even mind, because it would be erotically thrilling to have my desire used against me.

But of course, the power of Woman X, Woman Y, and Woman Z only comes from the fact that this fellow, Man XY, cannot be with them. The moment Woman X became the lover of Man XY, Woman Y and Woman Z’s power would skyrocket.

Not to mention Woman Q, who has been admiring man XY for years, but is not his type. She has no power over Man XY at all. Which is too bad, because she’s the only one who really wants it.

It reminds me of a scene in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Before Paul D. has sex with Sethe, he finds the web of scars on her back to be irresistibly compelling—a living, breathing tree growing on her back, calling to him with its powerful life force. But as soon as he has sex with her, it devolves into a grotesque, seething injury.

So as compelled as we are by the myth of the all-powerful pussy, this power is as ephemeral and undefined as the power of the British royalty, as unwieldy a weapon as those F-22 stealth jets whose production was halted because they couldn’t fly well in the rain. It is cotton-candy power, sweet and tempting until you put it in your mouth, at which point it disappears.