Positively Kick Ass

Take Your Ugly and Run

Lauren Hutton represents!

Lauren Hutton represents!

It's been too long since I checked in with Les Blank. Not that he's missed me - we've never met - but I've missed him. Blank is a documentary filmmaker, probably best known by those who know him at all for Burden of Dreams, his record of the making of Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog. (That sounds so dull and innocuous, but it's a journey to the ragged edge of madness, as you can see from the clip below.)

There was a stretch of years in my twenties when I leaned hard on Blank's example. What seems at first glance ironic about his choice of Herzog as a subject is that, while Herzog's aesthetic and philosophical bent is decidedly bleak, Blank's is unabashedly celebratory. His two favorite subjects are music and food  - titles include Yum, Yum, Yum! and Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers. His first filmic record of Herzog was not The Burden of Dreams, but Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, the comic consequence of an imprudent bet Herzog had made with another documentarian, Errol Morris. (Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse fame, kindly braised the shoe in a garlicky stock for five hours before Herzog dug in. He declined to eat the sole, noting that he would not be expected to eat the bones of a chicken.)

However ill-matched these two directors may superficially appear, they share an invincible curiosity. Both men relish life: Blank for its unquenchable joys, Herzog for its excruciating absurdities. They are wide-lens visionaries, illuminating what is peripheral, neglected, obscure. Their films continually generate small shocks of surprise and recognition, also of gratitude: the world through their eyes is richer than I knew it and stranger than I had the courage to admit.

If for no other film, Les Blank has a permanent home in my heart because he made Gap-Toothed Women, a cinematic ode to my lisping sorority, from the Wife of Bath to Lauren Hutton. I spent four years in braces - even had the muscle between my front teeth surgically snipped when I was seventeen! My gap got smaller but never surrendered, and Blank taught me to be glad of it. He interviewed a couple dozen women for his film, most of them anonymous, all of them vivid. But if memory serves, it was the underground comic artist and sculptor Dori Seda who revealed the magic of the gap and let me see my adolescent struggles by the light of her own. She said she'd once hated & been violently embarrassed by the stubborn, suggestive space between her teeth. She thought it made her ugly, feared she'd never get a boyfriend (not a "nice" one, anyway), envied the pretty girls to whom everything seemed to come easy. But if she had been pretty, she now figured, she would never have been forced to grow interesting (and strange and strong). She would never have become an artist, would never have found true love. Her gap was her public flaw and her secret power.

An exaggeration, yes, a fable with a temporary happy ending. (Seda died much too young of too much smoking and inhaling of ceramic dust.) But there's truth in it - much the same truth as in Tom Waits' immortal line "If I exorcise my devils, well, my angels may leave too."

What's the devil and the flaw and the power in you?


First and Last, Kick Your Own Ass

You might need help with this one. Photo by lulemon athletica.

You might need help with this one. Photo by lulemon athletica.

Yes, kicking our own asses is awkward, but it's also necessary - something akin to Jesus's advice regarding motes, logs, and first stones, only not so stringently peaceable or self-effacing. It doesn't mean that we have to be paragons of virtue before we start mixing it up - we only need a couple of well-worn, homegrown examples like Abraham Lincoln and MLK, Jr. to remind us that history's most eloquent (and compassionate) ass kickers have all dwelt somewhere lower than they dreamed of ascending. Hypocrisy is sometimes unavoidable on the middle path between perfectionism and paralysis - if we wait to speak up until we're breathing the cold, thin air of righteousness, our voices may die in our throats.

Words imbued with struggle and hope are words in motion; they surge with the power of desire. Words of attainment - been there, done that - have never moved me much. One of my all-time favorite cartoons depicts a small band of men standing on a snow-covered peak, next to a flag that reads "BECAUSE WE'RE JERKS." I encountered it many years ago on the refrigerator of the man who became my husband... the same man who later climbed Kilimanjaro with my father and brother, puking his guts out at 18,000 feet and slogging through the garbage left by thousands of other jerks.

These are the internal contradictions that I don't care to live without, in myself or those I revere. There are people who toss babies out with their bathwater every morning, but I tend to avoid their company. Heroes, like family, ought to embarrass us now and then.

When I was a kid, I worshipped Pete Rose, and I have never regretted it. I didn't guess at the depth and breadth of his assholery when I was eight, but it was there all the time, and it was part of what made him great - that pure current of self-interest that sent him barreling around the bases whenever he knocked out another hit. Pete lent me strength and a dose of "fuck you" attitude that helped me survive a typically rocky adolescence. Maybe every eight-year-old girl needs an asshole to admire, preferably (much preferably) from a distance. Close up, they're not so great.

The Pete-Rose-sized hole in the Hall of Fame is a travesty, a monument to misdirected sanctimony erected by men who confuse baseball with religion.

And that brings me back to my original subject: the weird yogic practice of kicking our own backsides. I was in college when Pete Rose finally got busted for gambling, and then for repeatedly lying about it. I didn't feel betrayed; I didn't feel like everything he'd given to me had been stolen away. I still felt grateful. But damn, did I wish him just a smidgen of self-awareness. He'd worked so hard once upon a time to make himself an "athlete" - it was always going to be in quotation marks! - and now that he was permanently benched, I longed to see him devote some fraction of that focused effort to the remaking of his character. Like a lot of other admirers, I would have been happy even to hear him acknowledge that the floorboards were rotting.

But that's the challenge, isn't it? We know better than anyone where we want to go, but we can't see our own butts to kick them. We can rely on trusted friends to guide us, we can try to expand our peripheral vision (meditation as vitamin A), but we finally just need to get into the daily habit of pretzeling ourselves and letting fly: "You're really not all that, Gretch. And you know you need to call your grandmother."

So I want to say at the outset that most of what I post here will be written in the "royal you." I'm not saying "go kick some butt" because I've already reached sublime heights of strength and wisdom. I'm telling you what I need to hear, as I gather my courage to head out and make a new mess of mistakes.


Ass Kicking vs. Shit Kicking

These two sometimes get confused, but if you want to land your kick, you've got to aim high. I'm assuming (optimistically) that you don't want to waste your time, also that you don't want to add to the sum of gratuitous misery in the world. There are already plenty of people out there stirring the contents of the communal honey bucket without our joining in. For the sake of clarity, here are a few of the forms that shit kicking can take:

Photo by steenslag.

Photo by steenslag.

  • Pretending that disagreement is a sure sign of stupidity (on our opponent's part, natch).
  • Pretending that disagreement is a sure sign of moral depravity (ditto).
  • Bitching and moaning about things we can't possibly change.
  • Bitching and moaning about things we could change, theoretically, if we didn't have more pressing things to do.
  • Taking the view that most or all of our sins are sins of omission, while other people are willfully obnoxious and/or out to get us.
  • Hairsplitting, nitpicking, all kinds of uninvited grooming.
  • Temper tantrums.

These are all pretty well guaranteed to take us nowhere fun or even interesting. Ass kicking, in healthy contrast to shit kicking, is ideally a skilled and deliberate action, even a joyful one, designed to promote forward progress.

I want to be clear: I'm talking human butt here, figurative butt. No other animal has a figurative butt to kick - kindly leave their real butts alone.

There's no magic formula to ensure that our efforts are well-spent. Ass kicking is a trial-and-error endeavor, in which only results will tell. But there are a few things we can do to tip the long-term balance in a positive direction:

  • Name names. Ours and the other guy's/gal's. There are significant exceptions, but by and large anonymity promotes cowardice and impedes learning.
  • Focus on substance over trivia.
  • Try to remember that whatever nutty thing the other gal thinks/does/believes, it's working for her somehow. No one is an idiot when it comes to her own immediate interests (though most of us are idiots regarding our long-term interests).
  • Answer the question: who gets helped here? If "I do" is the only obvious answer, the real answer may be "no one."
  • Start from common ground. If we can't find it, we need to create it. Here's the weird part: the other party doesn't need to believe it's there, but we do. Failing that . . .
  • Walk away when the quicksand has only reached our ankles.
  • Be ready - be hungry - to learn. Embrace the real possibility that our own butts will be smarting when we're done.

Contrary to popular belief, ass kicking takes discipline and trained intelligence. It's a mighty calling, not to be undertaken lightly.