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INSIGHTS

What it takes to be the best
By Robert A. Wilson |

WE SEE AN actress become her character and think no longer of the actress, but only of the character.

We hear Ella Fitzgerald sing Cole Porter, and we are captured completely, beyond our ability to understand why.

The pitcher winds up, and Oakland’s Ricky Henderson starts for second. In the slow-motion replay, we see his legs pump, the strides lengthen, until he begins the slide. Safe. We are not surprised.

It all seems to come so easily for those who do things well. The triumphant role, the voice, the lyric, the stolen base appear to come not out of struggle but out of inspiration and desire. This is the great, unpremeditated trick of those who do things well: the creation of an illusion of ease and naturalness. It is this illusion that baffles those who try to exceed those achievements.

But achievements disguise the struggle, and ease deceives. Those who harbor the dream to overtake discover-perhaps too late -what a famous Roman painter meant when he advised, “Take infinite pains to make something that looks effortless.” He added, “What one takes the most pain to do should look as if it had been thrown off quickly, almost without effort-nay, despite the truth, as if it had cost no trouble.” That painter’s name was Michelangelo, and when you view the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, you won’t find a plaque telling you that Michelangelo painted the ceiling on his back in poor light, supported by frail scaffolding 70 feet above the floor. For more than 10 years.

And when you see a Monet haystack painting, you won’t find a note from Monet telling you that he painted one haystack 83 times.

Getting it right doesn’t come easily. No one is bothered more by this than the young, who gladly sacrifice the possibility of getting it right for the outside chance of having it come easily. Teachers will tell you that their students resist rough drafts with uncommon vigor. There’s a difference, students later discover, between getting it done and getting it right.

George Shuba played on the Brooklyn Dodgers during the Fifties. In Chapter 4 of The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn wrote at some length about Shuba, who became known as “The Shotgun” for his ability to blast line drives “with a swing so compact and so fluid that it appeared as natural as a smile.” For his book, Kahn visited the Dodger players two decades after their careers had ended-Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and others. Shuba had retired to his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, where he was a clerk typist for the U.S. Postal Service.

When Kahn caught up with him, he had dinner with Shuba and his wife. After dinner, Kahn and Shuba drove around the neighborhood, and Shuba showed the writer the fields where he had learned to play ball. They came back to the house for a drink, and Shuba described in detail his pinch-hit home run in the 1953 World Series against Allie Reynolds. (At the time, he was only the second person to have pinch hit a home run in the World Series.) Later, in the basement of Shuba’s house, he described a ritual to Kahn. First, Shuba took a 31- or 32-ounce bat in which he had bored a hole in the top and had poured in 10 ounces of lead. Then he took a baseball, attached it to a string and tied the string to a beam. The ball fell to about waist-high. Shuba took a few swings, and Kahn was struck again, almost 20 years later, by the economy and efficiency of the swing. Kahn said, “You’re a natural.” Shuba replied, “I swung a 44-ounce bat 600 times a night, every night, and after 60 I’d make an ’X’. Ten X’s and I’d have my 600 swings… 4,200 times a week. 47,200 swings every winter. Wrists. The fastball’s by you. You gotta wrist it out. Forty-seven thousand two hundred times. You call that natural?”

All that effort was made so that crowds on sunlit days at Ebbetts Field could see a man hit a baseball easily and without effort. Tolstoy’s wife copied War and Peace seven times by hand-not for the fun of it, but because Tolstoy didn’t think it was ready. Maybe this is the most interesting issue of all for those who do things exceedingly well: When is the performance, the book or the painting ready? What was the difference to Monet between the 45th haystack and the 83rd? Did he carry from the outset an image of the haystack he wanted, or was each version a preparation for the next, until finally his eye and mind coincided in not a perfect portrait of a haystack, but in the most natural haystack his imagination and hand could summon?

To do something-anything-better than it has ever been done is beyond the power of those who satisfy too easily or quickly. Satisfaction often goes unexperienced by those who do things best. In 1935, Hemingway wrote, “.. .writing is something that you never do as well as it can be done.” Almost 30 years later, when he knew more and wrote less, he said, “I love to write. But it has never gotten any easier to do and you can’t expect it to if you keep trying for something better than you can do.” For those who do things best, everything has to do with reaching for an unattainable level of performance. Faulkner summed it up: “The quality an artist must have is objectivity in judging his work, plus the honesty and courage not to kid himself about it. Since none of my work has met my own standards, I must judge it on the basis of that one which caused me the most grief and anguish, as the mother loves the child who became the thief or murderer more than the one who became the priest.”

The piano begins to play, and Ella Fitz-gerald, ignoring us not at all and yet completely, sings lyrics that, when read, seem almost simple-minded. “Night and day you are the one-night and day deep in the heart of me, it’s an oh such a hungry yearning, burning inside of me.” The spell is cast; how, we can never know. It all seems so unfeigned and capable of duplication-until we are in the lounge of some small-town Holiday Inn in the presence of an imitator, however well-intentioned. It is then that we see the effort, the strain, the absence of the magic.

I read that Leonardo da Vinci would walkthe length of Milan to change a single tint inhis painting, The Last Supper. For those whodo anything exceedingly well, what mattersmost is that we are moved-not by any prologue of effort or strain, no matter what theintensity, but by the transcendence of theachievement itself.

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