There is a review in the NYT today of a new book by Joseph Ellis, AMERICAN CREATION: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic. Ellis wants to speak about the ad-hoc and improvisational nature of the forming of the US

“What in retrospect has the look of a foreordained unfolding of God’s will was in reality an improvisational affair in which sheer chance, pure luck — both good and bad — and specific decisions made in the crucible of specific military and political crises determined the outcome.”

It’s amazing how stories read backwards make everything look foreordained, but as lived, they look chaotic and chancy. This is the problem of the classic trans biography, quickly written when one has finally become stabilized and needs to enshrine the correctness of the outcome by illuminating the path as obvious and the only one possible. It’s only when we get past that moment of bliss that we get back to the ambiguity of living a real trans life.

I think that the one thing I missed in this life is being more ad-hoc and improvisational. I am good on my feet, and I love being surprised by the viruosic quality of what comes out of me when I least expect it. I watch the Oprah and know I have a bit of that gift, to be in the moment, fluid & lucid, having an outline but making it up as I go along. Remember, when I was a kid, I wasn’t afraid I was trans: I was afraid that I was like Jonathan Winters.

Yet the one thing that I was trained not to trust is my instinct. After all, any instinct that calls a boy to wear a dress and respond like a woman, well, that’s an instinct that must be ill or evil, right?  An instinct that must, must, must be stifled & hidden, right?

I’m getting a bit better, yes. The only person I have cut off is my sister’s friend who insisted on defining my sickness; up with that I will not put.

But I still have to filter so much, limit so much, edit so much, control so much that I feel cut off. My improvisational energy is cut down to a minimum, and that means I feel like I lose much of myself. Good calls with TBB are fun because I get to respond down a chain, always linking back, feeling power and grace come out of me.

There is so much to be said for trying lots and seeing what works, for the audience of engaged people with different viewpoints who can help separate good from bad in a way that often leads to excellence.

I miss that magic, I have missed that magic.

So it’s nice to know that even while fundamentalists read backwards to say that the US is a nice Christian country, foreordained by God, Ellis and others are talking about how crazy messes can make good stuff.

Even crazy messes like me.

4 thoughts on “Improvisational”

  1. The dichotomy of improv/scripted reminds me of all those others great and grand dichotomies, all talking across the same fence while hanging up their respective laundry to dry: Eros/Apollo, love/reason, water/stone, making/finding… and on and on. And it’s true – at some point we all get off the fence and make camp on one side or the other. But that doesn’t stop the conversations, the spirited debates.

    And like you perhaps I love those exchanges. I remember when I taught at the New York Academy of Art, which cast itself as a reincarnation of the French Academy, there was real tension among the faculty and students. Actual heated debates, sit-ins and walk-outs, on issues that hark back to the great divisions of Venice vs Florence, color vs form, ideal vs real, etc. It was as close as a French Academy could come to a 60’s style revolution. And I loved the passion on both sides and thought it was absolutely vital and vibrant and healthy. The debates, I argued, WERE the tradition – not just one side or the other. But alas the will to power, the need to silence any dissent, won the day and ultimately many of us were let go in order to calm the waters.

    So where am I going with this…that I love how these two play with each other, and that it’s the balancing act between the two, the five chairs teetering on collapse, that causes me to hold my breath. Think Buster Keaton here. Or any writer or painter that goes trawling for pearls in the mire and muck.

    So Callan, I think your love for that play of forces still comes out. It’s still clearly there, at least for me, behind your words.

    Oh, and lest I forgot, thanks for the pearls ;)

  2. It was Eisenhower who said “Plans are useless, but planning is vital.” Luck is where serendipity meets preparation; you get to take the opportunity when you are ready to grab it.

    That’s why I am such a believer in rehearsal, in trying lots of different ways and see what works. Nobody is a genius the first time; genius takes having a repertoire of skills and understanding, then putting those together in breathtaking new ways. You have to know the rules before you can effectively break them, as so many have said.

    I love Buster Keaton. His art looks effortless & fluid, but it comes from a lifetime of knockabout, and a huge amount of thought & planning.

    But you, Sarah, know that, and know that it is when our work meets our wonder, when our sweat meets our spark, when our rehearsal meets revelation that we flare with the light inside. It’s always self-creation plus creator, acute observation plus selfless performance, intelligence plus immersion that makes compelling and powerful art.

    Thank you for seeing that in my work.

    And thanks for your sharing here. A gift.

  3. reading backward is the all-too-common result of half-assed postmodernism. in the hands of someone like foucault, the technique of reading backward and finding meanings that may have only been imminent in the history as it was lived can be a delicate, enlightening procedure. in the hands of a self-aggrandizing hack like camille paglia (whose writings i even sometimes enjoy for their sheer inyerfaceness), it reduces social analysis to sophistic mush.

    which might be why poastmodernism – while obviously attractive to us queers – may not be an entirely beneficial framework for transpeople. it allows for too much sloppy projection.

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