Monday, July 14, 2008

The Sunshine Post #30: On Learning Something I Cannot Spell

Hello dears!

And so I am doing capoeira.

Oh dear.

I am doing capoeira. (I know, right? Another one? Sheesh. I guess I have to learn Portuguese now, too. Lech. And I haven’t even gotten my black belt in taekwondo yet. Talk about a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.) I couldn’t even pronounce this, let alone spell it, years ago.

I was in love the first class alone though – it was like the first time I did taekwondo in New York, or the time I fell in love with nunchucks and sai. In taekwondo, the first thing I thought when I saw all the black belts kicking was ,”Wow, that’s so cool!” But in capoeira, the sight of a couple dozen people doing synchronized gingas was just gorgeous. It’s a wonderfully balanced combination of kicking, striking, and rolling, with rhythm and song tying it all together. I also love how it makes a mockery of slavery, as capoeira was born from the slaves in Brazil. The happiest martial art of all!

After the first class, I welcomed the familiar feeling of being so sore and achy, with my feet black from the mat, and the undersides of my toes close to blistering. My whole body felt like it was made of lead, so much so that I skipped a parkour** class that weekend. Whee! I am home again! And finally, something that will develop my (non-existent) upper body strength! I can finally give up boxing, which I fear will smash my hands and render me incapable of sketching well.

** parkour – it’s this French thing that, as an exaggeration, involves you jumping from one building to the next. People who practice this (traceurs and traceuses) will tell you that it’s about efficiency.

I inwardly rejoice come kicking time, since squatting down for an hour makes me feel like my thighs disappeared. I am known by some as “the girl who does taekwondo” since the height of my kicks gave me away. Oh well. I guess the splits they made me do back then are so paying off now!

I will never give up taekwondo, though. I miss the resonating slap of a kick pad and the satisfying crack of a board breaking. It still comprises my roots and for God’s sake, I have bled for this sport! A lot of drama and angst and hard-earned cash went into my training and some of my teachers have seen me cry and that rarely happens. But I like having something to go back to where I don’t care about getting a belt; it’s just fun for me and I need to recreate that feeling of being so cleansed and spent without the 100 degree heat in yoga.

I think I am doing capoeira to force myself to socialize, as capoeira is a social art and we were told in the beginning that “no one is a stranger.” Yikes and whee, let’s get it on; I am losing this battle. Already my old habits are in place – I stand in the back corner and rarely speak to anyone. Hmm. I do not recall being in a bar voluntarily in my life, and I will make every single excuse not to attend press conferences, huge gatherings, and launch parties. Am I socially deficient or what? I have this feeling that they think me aloof – the pale girl from New York with the fancy handwriting (I was picked on during the first day when I had to sign my name.)

But where human beings are involved, I usually have a good first impression of martial artists. They’re usually more self-assured, respectful of people, and less obnoxious. It gives you a backbone without you realizing it. I think it explains my rather desperate answer to my father a couple days ago, when asked why I just HAD to go to class. I have to do it, Dad! Or else I get so mad at the world and then at myself. I’ve nearly thrown my cellphone on the floor three times the past week in exasperation. I need to get away, you guys, especially when I have this unstoppable urge to start breaking things.

One thing I’ve noticed consistently in martial arts is the apparent homogeneity of the initial mental states of the people who begin doing it. On one extreme, you get the people who are very competitive and want to be the best – the jock types who want to be cooler. On the other hand, you see those who are very problematic and who seem to be the types with self-esteem issues. I reckon that a number of them were picked on in school or at work, aren’t in love with their jobs, or are still seeking some life direction. A few months into it, it becomes quite beautiful to see their confidence boosted up, as though the simple act of hitting a kick pad did something to their heads. Each training day becomes something they can hang onto, to remind themselves that they can be something more than what they ever thought they could be. A few hours on the mat becomes their personal escape from the ordinariness of what has become the existence that is far removed from their childhood fantasies. They become more focused, feeling that if they can finally do a technique they were struggling with earlier, then they can do anything, including stand up for themselves or finally go for what they want.

One wonders whether the lone thing human beings need to trudge through life is a shot of affirmation.

Anyhoo, I am currently extremely jealous of the hosts of Fight Quest, a Discovery Channel documentary that chronicles the journey and training of two guys who go from one country to the next, learning their martial art. Whee! I am fascinated and in love and please, do you need a girl? Yes, you need a girl! And you need one from a different race and culture who is mixed and can speak a lot of languages! Three is a much better number than two and you need your comic relief. HIRE ME!!!!

Lots of love,

The Sunshine Post #29: Tae Kwon Do, Tae Kwon Don't

Hello dears!

So I’m taking another break in taekwondo. Tsk and sigh.

Is it just me, but as you go through your twenties, your body just isn’t the same anymore? I used to be high on adrenaline all the time; I got through the GREs on one hour of sleep (I was too excited. Yuck.), and for as long as I can remember, I have always been chasing deadlines. I never allowed insomnia, migraines, or PMS (yeah, I’m going there) affect me before, but now, they sweep me off my feet faster than a hero from a sappy romance novel. Oww.

Rahr. My black belt. So near. Yet. So. Flipping. Far. (I’ve three tests to go, yo.)

You know, there are times when I wonder why I even do this to begin with. I mean, I do not have the body of a martial artist by virtue of my hips alone. (They’re the only things that haven’t budged in my sudden and drastic weight loss. Carp.) Possessing these has made me incredibly grateful for celebrities like Jennifer Lopez who have equally, uhm, developed posteriors and have made them acceptable in modern society. (They run in the family. Maternal side. I am optimistic that childbirth will be a breeze.) The “taekwondo body,” as I have learned, is that of a tall and skinny person with no butt cheeks to speak of. In that case, I am so in the wrong sport.

But every time I ask this question, I always have the same answer: solitude. I’ve always seen martial arts as my way of zoning out the world. I think that we go through so many distractions every day that keeps us from realizing our potential in life, translating to a lot of bitterness and wasted time. It is also the one thing that has kept me grounded and allowed me to not take things way too seriously. I never liked team sports.

Even the choice of martial arts I’ve made is very telling. I like taekwondo because you use your legs to get attackers away from you, and my legs are quite long so I get great distance from humans. I love weapons, too, because they’re an extension of my body; yet more distance away from humans. I will never be caught dead doing jiu jitsu or judo or samba – arts that force you to be very near people, mixing with their sweat and bad breath and all. Eww.

I will always be grateful for the self-respect that I found while doing it. I think it makes you aware, every single day, of your dignity to the point that you will never let anyone take it away from you – they will have to take you down first and damn it, you are trained to be up to that challenge. It makes me impervious to pain and suffering.

I once read that doing things like yoga and martial arts releases creativity, which, considering the timeline of when I began them, completely makes me understand why my life has turned the way it has. I have no regrets, though. I LOVE being in the creative realm! I think I can finally look at my work from now on and know that I own it in its entirety, without feeling like a fraud because I keep having to check out what other people are doing.

These things serve a different purpose, too. For a writer, doing something physical is a metaphor for living. The board that I have to break in taekwondo is representative of the fear that prevents me from doing what I want. Twisting like a pretzel in yoga is analogous to my goal of pushing myself beyond what I thought I could do. I think it’s why I hate going to gyms despite my athletic lifestyle. Nothing like running like crazy on a treadmill and getting nowhere as a metaphor for life that might come true!

But I need to take it easy for a while, or at least find another time to do it and not at six in the morning. This isn’t an “adults-only” class with students who just want a release from work or school. People train here because they aim to compete, be it in a regional tournament or the Olympics. The vibe is completely different from the other martial arts classes I’ve had, where we all just go to let off steam. Here, you pretty much have to kill yourself. And I’m the ‘outsider’ in the class. Rahr. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, when I was having my armor secured by the Skinny Jerk Who Keeps Calling Me ‘Heavy’ that I finally snapped and said to myself: That’s IT! I’m doing capoieraaaaa!!!!!

And so I cut one class. And then another. And finally, a whole month went by without me stepping on a mat. And then I had an idea.

(E-mail censored from here on out because this might bite me in the ass.)

Monday, July 7, 2008

J.K. Rowling's Commencement Speech at Harvard University

Copyright J.K. Rowling, 2008

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates,

The first thing I would like to say is 'thank you.' Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor, but the weeks of fear and nausea I've experienced at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself into believing I am at the world's best-educated Harry Potter convention.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can't remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the 'gay wizard' joke, I've still come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step towards personal improvement.
Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that has expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called 'real life', I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These might seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that could never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.

They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents' car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticize my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person's idea of success, so high have you already flown academically.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone's total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

You might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty International's headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to think independently of their government. Visitors to our office included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country's regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilizes thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people's minds, imagine themselves into other people's places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathize.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathize may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.
One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people's lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people's lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world's only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children's godparents, the people to whom I've been able to turn in times of trouble, friends who have been kind enough not to sue me when I've used their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I can wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

I wish you all very good lives.

Thank you very much.