“. . . Through a lyric slipknot of joy . . .” (Yusef Komunyakaa)

Without thinking about it.

Without thinking about it.

Most of the time when I write—here or elsewhere as anyone who has read any of my stuff can readily see—my idea is only sketchily formed when I begin, and it may not be any more complete when I finish. I often follow the directive, “We write to know what we think.”

It’s unusual for me actually to be thinking about an idea long before I write it. I organize my thoughts as I go along. However, I have an essay (or a blog post or something) brewing in my mind that I don’t know how to finish. My mind was jogged into thinking about it during the every-semester tutor-training session at the Academic Development for Student Athletes Center at Southern Methodist University, where I tutor student athletes. My essay might begin something like this.

Listeners, if they happen to be where they can watch me playing the organ, often ask me (and I’m sure every organist gets the question), “How do you do that with your feet?” My answer is usually a flip, “I don’t know because if I think about it, I can’t do it.” What I thought about for the first time in that training session was the other necessary step in that answer, “But if I think about anything else, I can’t do it.”

If I think about my grocery list while I am playing the Bach E minor Prelude and Fugue, my playing will be either mechanical or full of errors, or both. On the other hand, if my imagination is not running wild when I am reading The Goldfinch, I may as well stop reading. I will not only miss the imaginary world Donna Tartt has outlined for me, but I will also, at the very basic level, not be able to connect the visual stimulus of the squiggles on the page (or the Nook screen) to words that have definite sounds that carry socially-constructed discreet meanings.

I don’t know how to research topics related to how we learn, how we train our different kinds of intelligence, what makes us good at some things and not at others. I have found one that has succeeded in confusing me—which means it is probably exactly the article I need to begin with.

Stevens-Smith, Debbie, and Deborah Cadorette. “Coaches, Athletes, and Dominance Profiles in Sport: Addressing the Learning Styles of Athletes to Improve Performance.” Physical Educator 69.4 (2012): 360-374.

Here’s the question I’d try to answer if I were half my age and looking for a career:

Is it possible that student athletes are trained to use their brains with so much focus that they learn not to multi-task mentally? Or that only students who are able to learn in that way become great athletes?

I was watching an SMU basketball game on TV last night (I would not have enough interest to watch any other). At one point the members of the SMU team passed the ball enough times preparing to make a basket that every player on the team had possession of the ball at least once—a couple of them three or four times. All of this passing was going on seemingly miraculously right through the arms of the opposing team. Finally one of the players wove himself between two of the opposing team, jumped up to the basket and dunked the ball.

An absurd focus

An absurd focus

That’s the way good teams play, of course. Nothing special about that. But I was thinking about focus. Obviously those guys have a kind of focus on what they and four other men are doing to tune out everything, from the noise of the cheerleaders chanting, “Defense! Defense! Defense!” to the chatter of the other team, to the lights, to their teammates sitting on the bench, to the other team trying desperately to hit the ball as they pass it around.

Focus! What kind of training does that take? If they think about it, they cannot do it. If they think about anything else, they cannot do it.

Because I’m so un-athletic and have turned into a fat old man with a “bad hip” and a “bad shoulder,” I really don’t like sports (never did, truth be told). But I think I’m hooked—not on the game, but on what basketball players do.

I’m mystified, bewildered, dumbfounded by the focus of those guys. How does one concentrate that way? Concentration that borders on the miraculous, on the improbable, the absurd. What percentage of the population can do what those guys do? It seems statistically impossible.

It is a kind of intelligence that I can only imagine—no, let’s be honest, I can’t imagine it.

Of all the organists I have ever known (and it’s a passel of them, let me be clear), those few who have had the ability to focus most completely have given up much in their determination to “do that without thinking” and to “think about nothing else” when they are performing. Social skills and wide knowledge of the world around them have in some instances passed them by.

Or perhaps they belong to a special group of people who are “wired differently” than the rest of us and are somehow naturally able to memorize a Widor Organ Symphony in a week (yes, I know an organist who did that—and a conservatory pianist who memorized and performed with orchestra the Rachmaninoff “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” in less than a month).

How are those few organists (and other “world-class” classical music performers) like the 450 men playing in the National Basketball Association this year? Something about all of them is different from all the rest of us.

I am not one of them (Duh!). I have no clue how it feels to have that kind of focus. And I have about a dozen ideas for writing on the subject—most of which I will not finish in the 14.07 years the Social Security Actuarial Table predicts I have left to write. Focus!

Slam, Dunk, & Hook, by Yusef Komunyaka
Fast breaks. Lay ups. With Mercury’s
Insignia on our sneakers,
We outmaneuvered to footwork
Of bad angels. Nothing but a hot
Swish of strings like silk
Ten feet out. In the roundhouse
Labyrinth our bodies
Created, we could almost
Last forever, poised in midair
Like storybook sea monsters.
A high note hung there
A long second. Off
The rim. We’d corkscrew
Up & dunk balls that exploded
The skullcap of hope & good
Intention. Lanky, all hands
& feet…sprung rhythm.
We were metaphysical when girls
Cheered on the sidelines.
Tangled up in a falling,
Muscles were a bright motor
Double-flashing to the metal hoop
Nailed to our oak.
When Sonny Boy’s mama died
He played nonstop all day, so hard
Our backboard splintered.
Glistening with sweat,
We rolled the ball off
Our fingertips. Trouble
Was there slapping a blackjack
Against an open palm.
Dribble, drive to the inside,
& glide like a sparrow hawk.
Lay ups. Fast breaks.
We had moves we didn’t know
We had. Our bodies spun
On swivels of bone & faith,
Through a lyric slipknot
Of joy, & we knew we were
Beautiful & dangerous.

Use that uncanny focus.

The most focused performer I ever met.

The most focused performer I ever met.

“. . . The noose pendulous over his head, you can feel him. . .” (Yusef Komunyakaa)

As a non-tenure-track professor of a college course now called “Discovery and Discourse,” (aka, “Freshman English”) I assumed one of the best means of “discovery” about any given topic for students would be discussion with other students who were not cookie-cutter versions of themselves. That, of course, is a liberal knee-jerk idea. I even went so far as to socially engineer class members into talking to each other. I’d ask them to get into groups of three in which they did not know either of the other two or have any contact with them outside of class.

That process usually meant that, if the class included students from one of the prerequisite minority groups on campus, they did not end up forming a group to work together either in safety or in opposition to the others. If the students didn’t self-select that way, I had my not-so-subtle ways of getting them to regroup.

The first time I was engaged to the woman who eventually became my wife (after our second engagement, brought on by my having no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated from college) and then became my ex-wife (when I figured out one possibility for what I wanted to be when I grew up), I met one of her closest friends, a young man who had been a classmate of hers at the college where she went before she transferred to the University of Redlands.

Her friend was a radical liberal hippie type from the East somewhere (we later visited him in Philadelphia, but I don’t think that was his hometown). At the time I met him, I was under the no-doubt communist (at least fellow-traveler) influence of Dr. L. Pratt Spelman, Director of the School of Music and Quaker activist against the Viet Nam War (which was hardly even a war at that time).

I was, because of the no-doubt-anarchist influence of Dr. Spelman, primed to be influenced by “Young Pierce,” as my sometimes wife called her friend for reasons I’ve forgotten. He was a member of SNCC—the Students’ Non-violent Coordinating Committee. He had either been in the “March on Selma” or helped coordinate the “Freedom Riders” who supported it. I can’t remember. He showed up in California, and I was terrified of him both because he was so damned articulate and persuasive about Civil Rights and such things, and because he was tall, red-headed, and handsome, and my not-yet-wife obviously had some feelings for him that made me nervous.

Never mind those feelings. What happened, of course, was that in about one weekend my political beliefs went from nice-boy (leaning away from) Nebraska Republicanism to radical (if timid) bad-boy California anti-almost-everythingism. I had been duly prepared for the change by the relentless tutoring of Hyman Lubman in my junior and senior American History classes at Omaha Central High School. Relentlessly academic and intellectually challenging, that is. I was pretty much a “hanger-on” in those classes, but Mr. Lubman had managed to get me used to the idea that the status quo might not be the status good.

The School of Music at the University of Redlands under the anarchist influence of Dr. Spelman (who was president of the dangerous American Society of AestheticsNOT skin-care) had one African American student—and I didn’t know any others from other department of the University. Can we say token?

Meeting Young Pierce opened me to a vast array of no-doubt-communist causes from anti-war to civil rights to “what’s-a-little-recreational-sex-between-friends,” and almost to smoking weed. That’s where I drew the line (at that time). You know, sex, drugs, and J.S. Bach, or something like that.

So here we are again where we were when I met Young Pierce. Wars that seem endless, Jim Crow voting laws being passed

Yusef Komunyakaa. Through the mirror into lynching.

Yusef Komunyakaa. Through the mirror into lynching.

right and right and right, and income inequality growing by leaps and bounds (the university where I taught for 15 years never paid me more than $40,000 per year, and rumor has it they’ve offered a famous football coach $4,000,000 to come and save the program, 100 times the amount of my salary). You know the state of affairs in this country. I don’t need to tell you.

I grew up in Nebraska, never more than a stone’s throw from the Oregon Trail. All the people on the trail a hundred years before were white. As far as any of us knew.

Our favorite stories of the Oregon Trail, the ones we played at and reenacted as kids, were the stories of the settlers being attacked by Indians, aborigine wild men out to kill us white good guys. We knew in a play-acting sort of way what “circle the wagons” meant. Wagon train, Oregon Trail, non-white heathens attacking, “CIRCLE THE WAGONS.”

So here we are again. Circle-the-wagons time. The non-whites are attacking again. Ebola from Africa. Thousands of children from Central America. Those “lazy black people that wants the government to give them everything” trying to vote. Gays getting married (most of them are white, but they might as well be black). Those old people without photo IDs trying to defraud us by voting. And a dangerous Indonesian-Kenyan smartass in the White House.

I don’t quite remember when it was (in your 70th year you’re allowed to forget almost everything), but once in my life I was questioned for a Gallup Poll. It must have been at a time of some economic distress in the country because the first question was, “What do you see as the most important problem facing our nation today” (or some you’re-in-the-Gallup-Poll language). My answer was, “Racism.” The young man asking the question was thrown off completely. “Racism” was not on his possible answers list, so he had no idea what follow-up questions to ask.

Circle the wagons.
Yusef Komunyakaa was born in 1947. He is best known for his poetry about serving in Viet Nam. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. He is currently Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University’s graduate creative writing program.
In several of his poems he uses the image of reflections as a metaphor for our ability to see past what is real in the present to connect with realities from other times or places. “All is a random flow of contingent, accidental associations, connecting to each other laterally but not to the transcendent presence of idea . . . Can one look through the window of history to its essence, or do its surfaces just laterally refract?” (“Knowing their place: Three Black writers and the postmodern South,” by William M. Ramsey).

Can one look through the window of the history of lynching, that is, racism, to see its essence?

“Reflections,” by Yusef Komunyakaa
In the day’s mirror
you see a tall black man.
Fingers of gold cattail
tremble, then you witness
the rope dangling from
a limb of white oak.
It’s come to this.
You yell his direction,
the wind taking
your voice away.
You holler his mama’s name
& he glances up at the red sky.
You can almost
touch what he’s thinking,
reaching for his hand
across the river.
The noose pendulous
over his head,
you can feel him
grow inside you,
straining to hoist himself,
climbing a ladder
of air, your feet
in his shoes.

What we do to "Freedom Riders."

What we do to “Freedom Riders.”