Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Measure of Success

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.


  1. Your words are so true... If one doesn't try, they never will know... I remember Ben Johnson and yes, what a heck of a (humble) rider..

  2. I like that, "success as a moveable target."

  3. Your Altadena NeighborOctober 8, 2014 at 8:36 AM

    Just love this.

  4. Just ask any disenfranchised group how they've managed to survive and they'll echo your words, KB. Brilliant:

    "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."

  5. Beautiful piece Karin. Sometimes however, it is possible to beat the odds. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZY0cdXr_1MA

    Please cut and paste, and also take into mind she is African American, almost unheard of in the ballet world.

  6. The supporting stars of those cowboy movies were, of course, the horses. Imagine having to do the same scene over and over ... Or did they not do that back in those days?

    How old were you when you learned to ride? I learned when I was 40. It was a dream since childhood, and I finally had the money and time to do it. But I'd left it far too late - I never got the posture right, my rising trot gave me backache, and I never did work out which foot the horse was leading on. Of course, it's so much easier with your American saddles - falling out of one of those is almost impossible. (Hah! I bet you'll disagree).

  7. KBF, did you see that when Ben Johnson was riding the two horses with one foot on each, he actually let go of the reins with one hand to wave his hat? Incredible.

    Hi Jean, nice to hear from you. And you, too, YAN.

    PJ, for some reason, I had a feeling you'd like this one.

    Doris -- I heard her on NPR and became an instant fan. Thank you for the link.

    Bellis, I didn't ride western. I started out English and then went to a modified bareback pad -- one with stirrups and a a foam tree. Weighed about 5 pounds, if that. I rode in summer camps all through childhood, but the good riders lived on ranches and rode every day and a variety of horses.

  8. I've ridden rarely, and not in the past 2 decades. I've attended plenty of rodeos, and always admire the participants' physical prowess.

    And success without sustained effort seems like a gift, rather than a reward for a job well done, doesn't it? Anyone can be lucky, theoretically, but honing a skill is something admirable, even if you never equal someone else's capabilities.

  9. Well, and then there's Ben Johnson, which I realized later I had neglected to mention. Before the comment about how well he sat a horse all I could think was, "Could there ever be anyone else who looked more natural on a horse?" I don't think so. You can always tell when someone is thinking too much about their riding, I don't think he saw any separation at all.

  10. Yeah. And to Marjie's point, I started skiing when I was three, and therefore came quite naturally to a sense of balance on the slope. No instructor had to parse out my individual movements, degree of knee bend or elbow position, to help me find my comfort zone, I had it. So instruction was just taking things to another level.

    Whereas with riding a horse, and particularly when I took a handful of lessons, it's like it split my body into separate quadrants, and my conscious mind was way too into the mix. What are my thighs doing, my heels, my hands, how am I sitting. So trick-riding aside, I could never look, as you say PJ, natural. Like I was born to it. Because I wasn't.

  11. Preach it, sister. The wave of the hat was truly a gasp-worthy moment. Years ago, I took up tennis because I thought that maybe I could get a game off Tim. Not a set mind you, just one lousy game. Of course I was deluded to even think I could get close, but at least I got out on the court and had some fun with my fellow beginners. Plus, one does not appreciate how the pros make tennis look easy (on TV) until one gets out there to defend all the real estate.

  12. Measuring oneself against the best, when you're far from the best . . . that stops so many dreams from being achieved. As Cunard advertised, "Getting there is half the fun." Just those little successes, day by day, week by week.

  13. Yeah, Ben Johnson! I'm scared of horses and don't have much appreciation for them even at a distance, but Ben Johnson riding the hell out of one is a thing of beauty, for sure!

    Just a couple of months ago, I read Harry Carey's autobiographical account of his many years working with John Ford. Awesome stories about Johnson, Ford, John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, and a ton of other greats. What a fun read!

    Actually, though, Ford and Ben Johnson did have a serious falling out sometime around the end of filming Rio Grande, which is one of my faves. They worked together only one more time---more than a dozen years later, I believe---on one of Ford's last movies, Cheyenne Autumn.

    Ford was a true pain in the butt, I guess, but what marvelous movies he made!

    And quiet, humble Ben Johnson..LOVE the guy! So glad you wrote about him today!

  14. @Karin: you bet I did.. that was epic!. What I liked about him was the way he took praise... what a sweet man.

  15. WCGB - You bet. It looks entirely different from the other end of the tube. Tho I think Tim and I once agreed watching the pros raises our own game.

    Hi John. (It's finally going to be under 95 degrees around here -- I can't believe it.)

    Oh Lizzie, I can tell we could have a long chin wag all about westerns. Yes, I read about the falling out -- Ben refused to take any more shit from Ford. But Ford really needed the best rider for a role in Cheyenne Autumn. Here's the kicker, Ben agreed, then broke his foot and had to be doubled.

    Hi Barbara, good to see you.

    KBF, I think I've watched it 10 times now.

  16. Did you know?
    John Ford grew up in Portland, ME and yes, people who worked with him declared him a nasty bugger. His name was John (Jack) Feeney, nicknamed Bull for his prowess on the football field. Today, Bull Feeney's is a fine Irish bar in the Old Port.

  17. Crap I'm sick of getting thrown, and can barely get back up with these shitty knees.

  18. Sometimes it's good to try with all your heart and soul to do something you'll never do well.

    I don't know how many of us would even put in the time, $$, effort, to start that "something" if in the end we we gained not much more than what we had to begin with. Maybe even less!

    However, for those who would receive humility in return - Go for it!!

  19. I always liked Ben Johnson. The fact that he had the guts, to give up everything, to follow his dream, is inspiring. The video was great and the two horse scene was amazing!

  20. And you know, it's not like I'm the repository for all things Ben Johnson. But I had my yearly viewing of Shane recently (there's a handful of movies I watch every year), and there was Ben Johnson. I'd never realized how pivotal his role had been. So one thought led to another.

  21. Goog article, Karin!
    Love it: "Sometimes it's good to try with all your heart and soul to do something you'll never do well." So true.
    Thanks for the video.

  22. I was not familiar with Johnosn. Loved learning about him though.

  23. I began riding when I was 8. I took to it. I didn't have lessons but didn't need them (like you and skiing). My dad had worked as a cowhand in the '30s and he taught me a few things.

    But it's like speaking a foreign language. If you don't keep doing it, you lose your skill.

    I don't know anyone who's the best at anything except, like Ben, at being themselves.

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