Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1136:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1136.

Today, thoughts about a ballerina and a basketball player. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Ballet and basketball leave me with a profound disquiet. The people who do them well have to make a strange commitment to themselves -- to their own bodies and minds. Those of us who haven't been through the intensity of that soul-scarring process are hard pressed to appreciate it.

Last week I watched ballerina Janie Parker end a brilliant career dancing Sleeping Beauty. Now 41, Parker lit up the stage and moved with the same easy grace that Michael Jordan does.

Grace under pressure; grace under pain; the transcendent grace of a mature athlete; grace built on a terrible focus, on driving the body beyond natural limits year after year. That focus can turn into the stuff of hypochondria, obsession, and self-destruction.

A few weeks before her last performance, the Houston Press did an article on Parker's feet -- calluses, bunions, reconstructed tendons. Not only Parker's career, but the greatness of the Houston Ballet itself, had been built on that foundation of pain.

But as Parker danced, the pain was invisible. I've always loathed one feature of ballet: the classic dancer's smile with lips slightly parted, no involvement of the eyes, a cold rictus signifying complete worldly detachment. But Parker is a superb actress. On her, that smile had warmth and expressivity that I hadn't seen on a ballet stage. Nor was there any sign of the ever- present pain.

After the performance, Parker stood in a ballet stance to receive a standing ovation that lasted half an hour. At the end, the stage was paved with flowers and tears ran down across that unwavering smile. Then, the next day, Father's Day, after the Chicago Bulls won the National Championship, Michael Jordan broke down and wept for the memory of his murdered father.

These are just two of the many people who spend their lives, not only perfecting the performance of their own bodies, but also harnessing their minds to serve that perfection.

When you look at Parker or Jordan it's easy to wonder if this isn't about feeding the ego. No doubt the ego is served in such moments. Yet theirs were not the tears of Miss America on the runway. Rather, they marked the moment when, lifelong aim achieved, iron control of body and mind could at last be relaxed and the effort seen in perspective.

Jordan wept, not for an ego served, but in gratitude for his first mentor -- his good father. Tears finally came to Parker when she stepped forward, grasped the microphone, and struggled (through that smile) to thank choreographer Ben Stevenson -- the mentor whose uncanny knowledge of her full potential has sustained her.

The joy of witnessing such perfection could never be ours without an inhuman focus of mind and body. I would never recommend such lives to anyone. But I would not want to live in a world without such lives around me.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Shield, M.J., Soles on Ice. Houston Press, Vol. 8, No. 2, May 16-22, 1996, cover and pp. 21-23. This may be read online at: http://www.houstonpress.com/1996-05-16/news/soles-on-ice/

See also the article on Parker in the Houston Ballet Program for Parker's last performance on June 16, 1996, pp. 26, 28, 40, and 58.

You may watch Janie parker dance in these two You-Tube programs:

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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