Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Some skills you can master at any stage in life, and some you can't.
Those you can't, athletic pursuits mainly, blame it on physiology -- muscle development and muscle memory, a development and memory that must be locked-in prior to eight years of age (and that's being kind, I would set the bar closer to three or four), when you're still the Pillsbury dough-boy or girl, all squishy and malleable. Before your muscle, mind, and fear have assumed a lifelong prejudice to go one way and not another. Before balance becomes an immutable concept, and while the virtues of gravity are still open for debate.
Oh yes, you can start, take up, any and all -- skiing, dancing, skating, soccer -- at whatever age, but if past the early learning curve, you'll never be more than competent. In fact, competency becomes the aspiration. But if you're pursuing a lifelong dream, if you're a dream stalker, one who chased a dream because the dream never chased you, competency is a brave and noble pursuit. Heroic poems have never praised the merely competent, and j'accuse poetry for that lapse.
Which leads me to horses, and Ben Johnson, and of course, me, eventually.
In both Hollywood and on the rodeo circuit, Ben Johnson was considered the best rider in the world.
A cowboy from Oklahoma, Johnson fell into Hollywood by accident -- first as a wrangler, then stunt double. Other riders, the best of the best -- from the legendary Harry Carey Jr to Gary Cooper, said, and without jealousy just awe, that Ben Johnson was better than the best. Even John Ford loved him, and John Ford hated everyone. John Ford talked Johnson into taking some supporting roles in his films. "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" might be the most famous.
Ben Johnson never wanted to be a movie star, and he wasn't, but Ben Johnson did want to win a national rodeo championship. So he quit the movies, hit the rodeo circuit, and damned if he didn't get a National. After a year or so, he returned to films, saying, "It's necessity. All I have now is the silver buckle, $40, and an angry wife." (She didn't stay angry long; they were married for 50 years.)
So let's take a break. Here's a video, watch the action between 3 minutes/40 seconds to 6 minutes, and see what the guy could do, and do at a dead fucking run. (I won't apologize for the music, I didn't score it.)
Though Johnson did win a Best Supporting Oscar, he didn't think highly of his own acting abilities. "Everyone in Hollywood is a better actor than I am," he said, "but no one else is Ben Johnson."
I always wanted to be a great rider. It's the hardest thing I ever set my mind to, and I didn't come close. My horse bucked, spun, and reared all her life; she broke my hand, my leg; she gave me two concussions, and countless trips to the e-ward.
Even after 20 years together, I wasn't a great rider, or good, or even competent. After awhile, I accepted the fact that an excellent trail ride meant I stayed in the saddle.
Sometimes it's good to try with all your heart and soul to do something you'll never do well. Humbling, of course. But being the best at something shouldn't be one's only goal or only source of pleasure, nor should measuring yourself against the best and falling short always be a source of pain.
If you're smart, eventually you see success as a movable target. Elastic. Something that expands and retracts according to what you want to do, what you have the talent and ability to do, and then, finally, what you most desire to do. Sometimes success is simply the grit to try. Getting thrown and getting up, getting thrown, then getting up again.