Thursday, February 20, 2014

Arete Means Excellence

As I write this, young Olympians are gathered in Sochi striving to become stronger, to go further and faster. They are living examples of the ancient Greeks word, arete, meaning excellence. In the Athlete Village, the young at heart mingle with a friendly excitement you can feel from way over here: The Olympians remind me that I too could strive for excellence—In fact, I have been fitfully doing so ever since a certain class in college.

Meanwhile, far below that special thin atmosphere of Mount Olympus, down here in the muggy world, students the same age as Olympians will be crossing fields to enter campus corridors. Whither arete? In secondary school, as children, the students would have done schoolwork that was adequate, more or less, to pass. As they enter post secondary, as adults, they realize at some level the truth: “You get out of life what you put in.” Some will be inspired—They will strive to learn: A day with new knowledge is like a day with golden sunshine. But many will merely just do what they have to…At least they can look forward to student parties. It’s a long drop from Olympus to campus. Why are so many young people, unlike their peers in Sochi, content to do shoddy work?

I guess they lack vision.

I don’t think students are third-string from a lack of measurable challenges, since their marks are a measurement, and they surely have no shortage of peers to strive with. Rather, I think undergraduates enjoy having a few years of not yet being accountable to life… years betwixt boy and man, girl and woman. I dimly recall a syndicated advice columnist (Ann Landers?) responding to parents. They told Ann about their child’s college sending them two letters. The one letter was a bill for some youthful misadventure. The other letter said the college refused to reveal what the misadventure of their student was, citing (adult) privacy. Ms. Landers suggested the parents switch envelopes and send the letters back.

I think many students, despite being legally adults, don’t see themselves as believing in excellence and responsibility, not yet: Among their peers, all too often, being too responsible is too uncool. To illustrate: I attended Mount Royal College, class of 1984. While you would think that folding desks, compared to normal desks, would be more portable, smaller and lighter—else why make them folding? —I once had an early morning class in a small room by the wrestling pit, a room with nothing but huge folding desks made out of cast iron or something: Very noisy. It was a career class in Leisure Services, (Recreation Therapy) so I knew the exact (nineteen) head count. And for nearly every class, various students arriving late would crash around unfolding their desks as the rest of us were trying to be involved. It would have been simple enough for me to arrive on time, count chairs, and then unfold any needed extras before class started. But I never did. Yes, I had initiative, but no, I didn’t want to be too responsible: I judged at the time it wouldn’t seem cool to my peers.

I could discern the contrast between common students and the Greek ideal of arete because I had left the adjacent army base and crossed the abandoned airstrip over to Mount Royal College. I felt like a minority of one. (As every student feels like) At my student newspaper, if someone came in later on the weekend, they could tell if I had been in earlier: I was, people told me, the only one who always put a pad of typing paper between my typewriter and the telephone so I could take phone messages.

When I was in Leisure Services I knew in theory which program would be the most athletic: dance. My college had no dance program; we did have a theatre program. The theatre students, like everyone else, were more student than professional. One day when they were giving memorized recitals, during class, from a stage, I noticed the only person who didn’t ask for help by calling “line!” was Brendan Lavery. He presented Edgar Allan Poe’s lengthy “(Quoth) The Raven.” For doing dance and movement, Brendan was the most skilled of us all.

It was by taking the Creative Movement class, with permission, that I had the opportunity to be among dramatists. (Note: I find movement is to dance what drama is to acting) Because our teacher, Joyce Grey, taught summers at the Banff School, she had to leave us, mid-semester, for (I think) two or three weeks to go travel across Canada holding auditions. She found a substitute, a man from the real world: Kevin McKendrick, of the locally based, seen around the world, Arete Mime (Physical Comedy) Troupe. He was determined to expose us to arete. And to our shock, he did.

Our morning class was held in the bare dance studio, no desks to crash around. The first thing Kevin told us, standing with Joyce before she left, was we were to be on time, because he would be locking the doors and starting the class promptly. For his first class a raven came tap-tap-tapping on the door—and she wasn’t allowed in. He started the class by, as one student complained, “…working our asses off!” Such vigorous exercise was to allow maximum stretching for our muscles, ligaments and tendons, after we were warmed up: “Your body is your instrument.” For every class the long vigorous routine never varied. Our in-class lectures and exercises would be matched by homework exercises. I remember being the first element, earth, as I “lectured my fellow executives” on why the Ocean Ranger had capsized. Figuratively, I didn’t dare stumble or call “line!” Call it arete. Classmates noticed I wavered a bit as I stood; the teacher said it was entirely appropriate to be a mixed character as I was.

I suppose many of my classmates in leisure and theatre would, like Marjorie Morningstar, go on to have regular lives. One day, talking with Kevin, he told me how he had avoided that common fate. He had been in Canadian Mime School—and by the end of school, he and two of his classmates decided to make a go of it as their own troupe. As Yoda would say, there is no try: I think they really had no choice, if they were going to succeed, but to seek arete. Hence the vigorous exercises every day. I guess by starting bang on time every day the arete trio never succumbed to pencil sharpening or drifting standards or drifting morale…

By the time Kevin left our class we no longer complained about working so hard: We “got it.” Kevin had held up a torch, giving us a vision of excellence, and we had shared the flame…

That semester was so long ago… I remember an ancient Greek urn depicting athletes forever striving, forever young. Today, old enough to wear reading glasses, I fitfully strive for excellence too.

Sean Crawford
In the shadow of the Parthenon,
February 2014

~My essay on Creative Movement is archived April 2012; other essays can be found under the label Olympics.

~The airstrip, a relic of WWII, was used during the week  for a truck driving course; during the weekend you might see it used for radio controlled toys, go carts or for launching hot air balloons. Other relics in the area are hangers and very steeply roofed houses, service issue, presumably based on the nation-wide pattern for houses with heavy snowfall. The runway was destroyed to make way for fancy media housing for the 1988 winter Olympics. Those media houses became student housing.

~The army base was decommissioned, over Mayor Al Duerr’s protest, to save the federal government money. Someday the feds will research how it boosts morale and retention to have a base in the city, but then it will be too late… When my dad was stationed there during the war there was nothing but bush between the base and downtown. At night, when the bars closed down, he would walk back to barracks… I’m amused that my dad and I both did time in the guard shack.

~The wrestling pit had been originally planned to be a sunken fountain, according to Len Thomas, Ph.D. He had suggested it be a wrestling pit instead. Fully padded, bottom and sides, it was great for doing cooperative games, or peer lectures just before going off to do recreation.

~My own little class, with a wall of glass, probably had some sort of curtains or blinds, but just around the corner was a small room called the Goldfish Bowl, opening onto a common area with tables and a dairy bar. No curtains. The class was great for learning to teach, Len told me, because students would instantly get distracted if their attention wavered.

I’m sure I was late for morning class on occasion myself; I mean no lasting disrespect for young students. In fact, I like a poem inspired by what an excellent martial arts master, Masami Tsuruoka, has taught:
We are beginners when we are born.
We are beginners when we go to school.
We are beginners when we leave our parents’ home.
We are beginners when we have children.
We are beginners when we retire.
We are beginners when we die.
The Spirit of Karate-Do Teachings of Masami Tsuruoka, by Andrew Bowerbank, 1997, Morris Marketing and Media Services, Toronto

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