“There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste,” states Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine in that favorite of females the world over Pride and Prejudice. “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”
I like this statement for the degree to which Lady Catherine both indulges in grandiosity and reins herself into a conclusion that is – well – accurate. It’s a whole arch of human experience and self esteem encompassed in two sentences: I am naturally endowed with superior taste; I am particular in my ability to consume and assess correctly. I have a deficiency, but if I had tried I would have been proficient. We balance out our claims to exceptional stature with exhibits of our understanding of practice and moderation. We can appreciate perseverance even in the face of mediocrity.
For the last year, I’ve been running an event that asks participants to show-and-tell artifacts of adolescent embarrassment. Wince is like others out there – Cringe, Mortified – but, Hartford being a small city, the Wince gatherings end up feeling familiar, cathartic, and ritualistic. People bring their scabbed-over wounds and have the chance to portray them to others in ways both humble and hilarious. This is a kind of mastery over our pasts, over the marks we have that are manifest to us as stigmata.
Some of these stigmata involve opening our hip joints to the point of developing fall-on-your-face tendinitis, baring a bunch of skin, sequins, and 1/8″ blades. No. I was not an adolescent stripper. I was a figure skater.
I never had the body for it: my hips are naturally tight (something I fought against with remarkable stick-to-itiveness), I’m tall (I even was as a 13 year old), and I am constitutionally terrified of falling. Successful figure skaters have naturally open hips, are short (5’2″ looks tall on the ice), and pitch themselves into the air with gleeful abandon.
But I was graceful and pretty, and there’s not an intermediate-level coach in the world that would turn down good money from a pretty, graceful girl’s family. Anyway, there were aspects of skating at which I excelled. I was good at figures. I liked the meditative absurdity of tracing your tracks over exactly in perfect arches and loops and three-turns. And I was persistent. Obsessive, even. I was well-suited for that aspect of it. So I stuck to it long enough to make dubious decisions about eating habits when my body started changing.
My hips widened and I had a couple really nasty spills working on double jumps. And even if you can starve off excess fat (oops! it actually makes you cold on the ice, which leads to tighter joints, which leads to ugly skating), you can’t arrest the widening of your pelvis. And you can’t arrest your rapid ascent to 5’8″ at 13. The physics of skating get gawky on a 5’8″ female body. It gets harder to spin fast enough and to launch all that mess of long bones into the air. And it hurts more when you fall.
So I stopped. But “I should have been a great proficient.”
I get Lady Catherine. I think I have impeccable taste in music. You can even listen to me boast about how correct I am about music on multiple podcasts. The Hartford Courant enables my grandiosity in this. My brand of snobbery is not an evangelical one, though. As correct as I believe I am about most things musical, I seem to have no need to convince others of my views. Again, I get Lady Catherine.
I ran into some trouble when iTunes came into my life. I had the competing impulses to archive and to exhibit – even to myself – perfect taste. The need to archive won out; consequently my iTunes library contains every album I have ever owned. That means that there are relics of my adolescent taste on my computer and my iPod (obviously, I had to get on with enough space to hold my entire library, because what’s the point of an abridged portable archive?). The thing is a series of linked knots of time – little indices of who I was layered and layered. And none of the knots fray in this context; they remain perfect and tight and discernible.
The element that I’ve been most keen to hide over the years is Depeche Mode. Liking Depeche Mode (you may wish to start playing this song now) to the extent that I do makes me feel vulnerable in my lack of criticality. That’s only part of it though. I realized the other day on the treadmill that I listen to Depeche Mode with my body. I listen to them in this manner to the degree that I would be tempted to use phrases like “bio-rhythmic alignment.” I listen to them with my spine: little pulses and entire landscapes traveling through my core with the ease of electricity.
Again, this realization came to me on the treadmill. It came to me very suddenly, when, perilously close to taking a full-on digger, I recognized that I had been composing first-rate, authentically innovative, brilliant figure skating choreography. Brilliant. Well, maybe it wasn’t Torvill and Dean-brilliant, but it was, at the very least, post-structuralist and shiny as a Swarovski crystal glinting on an imitation-snakeskin Lycra-covered shoulder pad.
And that is the other part of skating I fancied I was decent at: choreography. It makes sense. I was consistently engaged in the practice of imagining my body doing things it couldn’t. This practice put me in a good position to stretch the formal elements that comprise figure skating into innovative, interconnected shapes.
“If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”
“I worked hard to earn my certificates,” writes Sarah Manguso in a graceful essay on music and excellence and imperfection, “but I knew I wasn’t any good. I knew it all the way down to the bottom of my life.” I know this feeling. Training, above all else, is about developing a relationship to failure. You become intimate enough with a discipline that you know how clean its forms can be and how far you are from having the capacity to embody its cleanliness. The more you train, the more you know the forms – and they gleam for you with a kind of perfect precision that permeates and perforates your sense of self. Your body, though, insists on its boundaries and, while you may be in bed with that formal precision, you can only breed with it. You can’t will your body to inhabit it perfectly.
The word failure comes from the French faillir – “to be lacking, miss, not succeed” – and the Latin fallere – “to trip, to cause to fall.” And that is what I have felt in my body while training: the fullness of the regions of lack that press out at the shell of me, persistent. I know the great difference in height between that which I can imagine and the sharp fall to that which I can do.
Even so, it would be inaccurate to suggest that there is not significant joy for me in that fullness I experience in failure. It carries with it an undeniable slap of presence and awareness. And it’s not dissimilar to what draws me to essay-writing. Inasmuch as essays are little attempts – things put to test, weighed against one another – they are also little failures. At birth, we become radically separate beings and from there we stake claims on ourselves to our own particularity. We try to fill it flush to our skin – to embody it justified. Justification is an ideal form, all flush lines and full space. There’s no room for lack; there’s no missing the edges. In our particularity we are always running over the margins or ignoring some yawning gap.
The last week, I’ve been stuck in a groove of a flying camel spin that devolves languidly into the shape of a willow during a drought. At the end, the form has deteriorated to the extent that I fall. It’s part of the form of the spin – a form that wilts and falls apart and crumbles into something both pristine and imperfect.