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Archive for November, 2012

For the last six years I’ve been ever so fortunate in that out of all the survival jobs actors take to support themselves, I get to teach chess to kids. It never ceases to amaze me how children can embrace such a complex, nuanced game that baffles most of the parents who pick them up after class. Which is why I was especially intrigued by the critically-acclaimed documentary Brooklyn Castle which follows the most dominant middle school chess program in the nation, that of New York City’s I.S. 318, a Title I school where more than 65% of the students live below the federal poverty line.

The featured players all have their own compelling stories. Alexis sees chess as a stepping stone to support his immigrant family. Bobo is the most boisterous and charismatic, tying his chess ambitions with his own political aspirations (including a run at the class presidency). Rochelle aspires to be the first African-American female chess master. Justus is already a chess master as a 6th grader and enters IS 318 with heavy expectations. As a student with ADHD, Patrick uses chess to build his concentration and confidence.

At the center of this program is chess coach Elizabeth Vicary Spiegel. I was especially curious about her perspective on success on how to teach it, especially since she must walk the fine line of pushing her students to perform at the highest of standards while helping them cope with the volatile emotions that come from both the pressures of high-level competition and the tumultuous years of adolescence.

On the one hand, Ms. Spiegel (who at the time of filming was still the unmarried Ms. Vicary) stated that a child’s success comes from values we’ve mentioned in previous weeks: hard work, perseverance, determination. She once had a student who lost his first 21 chess games and after two years of sheer doggedness placed first in his section at nationals.

On the other hand, however, she also encourages “a level of negative thinking”:

One [great thinking habit from chess] is this practice of double-checking yourself relentlessly. That you can play really well for fourty (sp) moves, and then you make one miscalculation, and your opponent sees it, and you lose…a level of negative thinking, of finding the problems in your thoughts—and not being like, “Oh, I have a great idea, I’m fantastic.” You know, you have an idea, and you’re excited about it, and then you go and try to find every possible thing that might be wrong with it, and make sure it’s really correct.  – Elizabeth Spiegel, The Creativity of Chess: a Conversation with Elizabeth Spiegel

This seems to run directly counter with my own philosophy on immediately acting upon one’s inspiration. Of course, improv and chess aren’t exactly the same. One is an art form propelled by the strongest choices, and doesn’t really deal in the realm of correctness. The other is a game with discrete rules and a defined objective, where correct moves bring one closer to that objective and incorrect moves take one farther away. It’s at this point where we might ask what does real life more closely resemble: improv or chess?

But upon further examination, I think this question implies a false mutual exclusivity. Great improvisers constantly dissect their performances and look for opportunities for stronger choices. Chess players must often rely on their inspiration as they move farther away from established opening lines and into unfamiliar positions where the “correct” move isn’t obvious. So if there isn’t mutual exclusivity between these philosophies, how can relentless evaluation AND spur-of-the-moment inspiration co-exist and lead to success?

I can’t give a simple answer, but we can start by imagining situations where each philosophy shines. Relentless evaluation works best in situations where time is not a factor, like playing mid-game in a chess tournament, receiving notes after an improv show, or testing the structural integrity of a skyscraper. And the evaluation must consist of objective judgments on a performance, and not indictments of personal character. Ms. Spiegel reinforces the power of objectivity:

“You know—you’ve lost, and you’re crying—and what chess teaches is that understanding what just happened does make it easier.  And I think that’s an important thing for [the students] to understand in life, as well. Nothing is really so terrible once you figure it out—and that working through something does make it better.”  – Elizabeth Spiegel, The Creativity of Chess: a Conversation with Elizabeth Spiegel

This objective study provides the foundation so our creativity and inspiration can shine.  We rely upon inspiration when time is of the essence and we can’t afford to hesitate, like when we’re playing chess with a minute left on the clock, or we’re improvising a scene, or we have an epiphany on how the world works. We need these bursts of creativity to expand the limits of what we already know. Once the urgency that birthed the inspiration has passed, evaluation takes over again, thus restarting cycle of constant study and performance. And while material award and fear of failure can provide motivation, I’m inclined to believe that the cycle itself is its own reward, since the infinity of the cycle is one of the few things that can fulfill the human heart.

I.S. 318 continued to dominate long after Brooklyn Castle finished filming. In April of this year, even after facing program-threatening budget cuts, I.S. 318 became the first middle school to win the US Chess Federation High School National Championship. Knowing what these kids have overcome, do we have any excuses?

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This post, like this upcoming week, will be short. I just wanted to extend my gratitude to all of you have kept up with me on this journey on finding the essence of building masterpieces. There were times in the past few weeks when I would approach my Monday deadline and ask myself if I had anything worthwhile to say. And while I won’t judge whether the thoughts of the last eight posts were, in fact, worth the electrons spent on immortalizing them on the internet cloud, I will say that the reflections on the past two months upon the role of independence, confidence, fear, doubt, boldness, sacrifice, consistency, and hope on our lives has made a tremendous impact on mine own, encouraging me to extract joy from even the most basic and mundane of life’s activities (like saying “hello” to a stranger and meaning it) and to let go of the troubles from unexpected obstacles that once would have left me frustrated and seething. It’s these luxurious moments of reflection that I realize I truly live a charmed life.

We will be back next Monday talking about a game that’s given me a steady income over the last six years. In the meantime, thank you. I truly have much for which to be thankful.

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Eddie Guerrero

It was only a matter of time. When I started this blog, I knew I would honor a few of my personal heroes, but I wanted to wait for the right time. Seeing that we are approaching the 7th anniversary of his death, it would be appropriate to honor one of my biggest inspirations: Eddie Guerrero, pro wrestling legend.

Pro wrestling has had its share of larger-than-life performers: Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker, Stone Cold Steve Austin, etc. Over-the-top personas who were impervious to pain, withstanding the most brutal of attacks and still able to overcome, finally standing triumphant in victory. They were fantastically unreal, characters through whom we could live vicariously and, if just for a few minutes shed our vulnerabilities. Through them, we were invincible.

Eddie Guerrero wasn’t invincible. He couldn’t overpower many of his opponents. His motto was ” I lie, I cheat, I steal.” Whether he was a face (a good guy) or heel (a bad guy), his victories usually came by way of manipulation of a foreign object.

But the flaws in Eddie’s character went far beyond the scripted stories of the squared circle. Eddie battled alcohol and drug abuse during much of his career, often coming to wrestling events while intoxicated or high. The constant physical stresses of wrestling led Eddie to painkillers, to which he would also become addicted. By November 2001, his addictions led Eddie to divorce, enormous debt, and dismissal from the World Wrestling Federation. In a world of fantastic supermen, personal demons made Eddie all too real.

But Eddie’s love for his family and his profession were just as real. And it was in his darkest moments, having lost everything he loved, when Eddie would start rebuilding his life. In the 2004 documentary “Cheating Death, Stealing Life,” Eddie described how his outlook changed after hitting rock bottom:

“I had to start living my day moment by moment. I’m talking hours at a time. That’s how I live my life now. If I say I gotta stay sober for the rest of my life, that looks like an impossible mountain to climb. But if I say I gotta stay sober for today, I can do that.” – Eddie Guerrero

He would return to the WWF in April of 2002 (which by May would be re-named World Wrestling Entertainment), and it would be another two years of hard work, staying clean, and perseverance when the WWE would give Eddie the opportunity of a lifetime: a run with the WWE Championship. At the start of 2004, Eddie was placed in a feud with then-WWE Champion Brock Lesnar (pre-UFC), leading up to a title match at the WWE’s next pay-per-view, No Way Out, on February 15th. On February 10th, during the final WWE television taping before the match, wrestling storyline and reality merged as Eddie brought the full magnitude of his personal struggles into the ring, giving one of the most electric, emotional promos in WWE history.

Five days later, on Sunday, February 15th at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, in front of his family, friends, and a passionately fanatic crowd, Eddie became champion.

It would be Eddie’s only run with the promotion’s top prize. He would be scheduled in November 2005 to win WWE’s other big prize, the World Heavyweight Championship, but by the morning of November 13th, the day before he was scheduled to win the title, despite 4 years of clean living, Eddie Guerrero would be dead, his heart failing after years of drug abuse.

Seven years after Eddie’s passing, his memory is my everlasting reminder that victory is always possible, no matter broken our spirit may be. But we need patience. And faith. Live moment by moment. Count our blessings.

Thank you, Eddie, wherever you are. Viva la raza.

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On a Sunday morning a few weeks ago I was driving in North Hollywood, listening to 98.7 FM. My car radio is usually dedicated to NPR, but on Sunday mornings I turn to the rock/alternative sounds 98.7 FM for its 9-10 AM commercial-free hour of live and acoustic performances where you’re guaranteed to hear Dave Grohl’s acoustic recording of Everlong at least once.

The selection of recordings is pretty standard: recordings of recent alternative chart-toppers (ex: Mumford and Sons‘s I Will WaitImagine Dragons’ It’s Time) mixed in with a few classics like Nirvana’s Come As You Are from the MTV Unplugged concert. But occasionally there will be a song that sounds eerily familiar but I can’t put my finger on it, when I realize they’re playing a cover.

When done well, covers are artistic revelations, uncovering new meaning from an already established piece of work. Case studies great covers include The Fugees’ cover of Roberta Flack’s Killing Me SoftlyWhitney Houston covering Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You, and Lena Horne’s quintessential cover of Ethel Water’s Stormy Weather.  However, for the artist, doing a memorable cover requires walking a thin line. Hold too closely to the original, and one becomes a cheap imitator. Stray too far and one loses the spirit of the material.

So towards the end of the hour, Everlong had just finished and transitioned to this slow, morose arpeggio. Immediately I thought Johnny Cash, but it’s too slow for Ain’t No Grave. Hmmm…

“She was more like a beauty queen…”

Huh. OK, that’s Chris Cornell, but this doesn’t sound like anything from Soundgarden or Audioslave.

“…from a movie screen…”

Now I’ve DEFINITELY heard this song before…

“…said don’t mind but what do you mean…”

Wait… am I hearing this right?!?

“…I am the one…”

Wow! This is friggin’ ballsy.

When I got home, I found I was really late to this party, like five years late. In 2007, Chris Cornell recorded one of the greatest covers in history, tackling one of the most iconic songs in pop: Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. Its brilliance was embedded in Chris’s unapologetic determination to make Billie Jean his own masterpiece, not recreate Michael Jackson’s. Earlier this year, Chris would create yet another brilliant cover, his own take on I Will Always Love You, in honor of the late Whitney Houston.

Chris was following a common adage of most self-help books: be yourself. Don’t try to be anyone else because you can’t compete with the real deal. But there’s only one you, and you have a special, unique perspective that no one in the world has, so just be the best “you” you can be. Simple.

It’s around this time when I set the book down, admire myself for the $14.95 + tax + shipping well spent, and proceed to ruin the experience by doing something really dumb; I start thinking. That’s when the big gorilla of a question enters the room:

What the hell does that mean?

Don’t I embody the entire spectrum of human experience? If so, isn’t being angry, detached, apathetic, and generally angsty just as valid an embodiment of myself as being joyful, energetic, and happy? What if “I” am not a good person? Am I not being “myself” when I practice self-restraint and allow the teenagers who egged my car to get off scot-free? Why does being “myself” require me to be relaxed? What if “I” am just a stressed person? Who’s to judge that my fears aren’t part of who “I” am?

I can’t say I’ve found any definitive answers to those questions that have perplexed me since my teenage years, but I have my own personal theories to addressing them. Yes, all emotions, including those society would consider destructive, encompass who we are. In fact, those destructive emotions like anger and detachment can serve to protect us when surrounded by threats. However, survival is not advancement, and the advancement of the human race, and thus our own personal success, is predicated upon our ability to cooperate and share information, so behaviors that facilitate such interactions better serve our personal advancement. These behaviors are the actual foundations of being our “true self.”

So here’s a non-scientific, non-definitive list of clues that you may be acting like your “true self”:

1) You are more concerned about others than their perception of you.

Cooperation compels us to focus our attention to our environment so we can properly process, communicate, and affect our environment. Focusing on ourselves means ignoring what is around us, making communication difficult, and cooperation impossible. Even our biology is geared toward perceiving outwardly; after all, aren’t our bodies engineered to see what’s around us more easily than to see ourselves?

2) You become more aware of the possibilities to build, and less concerned about protecting what you already own.

Building is an external action, requiring that one interacts with the environment. Such interaction encourages the attention from others, some of whom may find it in their own interest to assist your creation. While preservation is important, if you spend more energy protecting than building, then you’re effectively limiting your opportunities to interact with others, thus cutting the opportunities to cooperate.

3) You find you’re surrounded by more allies than adversaries.

If you are experiencing clues #1 & #2, then chances are you’ve found a solid group of allies. Allies allow you to spend more of your energies building and cooperating and less on protections since you don’t need to be as concerned about personal attacks. So if you believe you are surrounded by few allies and more adversaries trying to pull you down, while it may be necessary to leave such an unhealthy environment, consider too it may just be your own perception, and your perceived adversaries have actually been potential allies all along.

(PS: If anyone has any more clues to how to “be yourself,” please share them in the comments. We can use your wisdom.)

So how do these clues apply to Chris Cornell’s Billie Jean?

1) Chris’s performance is completely dedicated to communicating the story of Billie Jean to his audience, with absolutely no concern about his own self-image, how he shapes up to Michael Jackson, or any other distractions that don’t concern Billie Jean.

2) In Billie Jean, Chris saw an opportunity to build upon a story, knowing full well he didn’t need to worry about protecting his image, his previous work, or Michael Jackson’s. Without those burdens, Chris could bring his full creative strength to his endeavor.

3) Chris saw his audience as allies, not critics, allowing him to perform with a compelling vulnerability lesser artists couldn’t reach. Less protections lets Chris communicate more, which makes the performance that much more powerful.

So in essence, being yourself means not thinking about yourself. That’s MY strong advice.

And practice safe “dance on the floor in the round.”

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