In the presence of greatness...
May 27, 2017 Filed in: Ruminations
There is a scene in Kung Fu, a TV show from the early '70s that goes something like this:
Master Po: Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Young Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
Po: Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?
Caine: Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?
Do you ever marvel at the skills of a master? It may be a musician, or a chef, or a tai chi practitioner. They have refined their art to such an extent that each movement seems to be effortless and so logical. You think, after watching them for a while, that you, too, could step up and play like that, cook like that, do the form like that. Then you make the attempt (if you make the attempt), and you fail. Miserably, completely.
It's not that you don't have potential, not that the desire is lacking, but that you have put in the hours, months, YEARS of practice needed to make such a thing look so simple and effortless.
In high school, I got a guitar for my birthday. It was a very nice guitar, with a beautiful satin finish, and quality components. But there was a problem - the frets buzzed. I was a beginner on the guitar, but every time I played it, the frets made a buzzing sound. Passing the music store one day, I dropped in to talk to the staff.
"How is the new guitar?", they asked.
"It looks great," I replied, "but the frets buzz."
"How odd. Bring it in and we can file down the frets a bit", they said.
A week or so later, my father dropped the guitar off to get the frets filed down. He brought it back to me a few days later, and I took a few strums on the now-fixed guitar, The frets still buzzed.
I was frustrated.
So Dad and I went back to the store, and Dad said, "Look, this guitar has buzzing frets and you said you would fix it, but my son says it's still buzzing."
"How odd," said the sales fellow, a hippie drummer/guitar player that worked there. "Let me give it a try." The hippie took my buzzing guitar and played several minutes of the sweetest guitar music I had ever heard. With nary a buzz the entire time.
It was me, or rather my poor technique, that was causing the guitar to buzz. Red-faced, I grabbed the guitar, thanked the hippie for his time, and followed my dad to the car.
I learned a big lesson that day - If you fail to accomplish a task, it is likely an internal rather than external road block. Don't be too quick to blame external forces, or your tools, for failure to accomplish what you are trying to do.
The masters have practiced, practiced, practiced, correcting their form, making tiny adjustments, slowly, over time, until the result is a beautiful product.
Which brings me to my buddy, Joe.
I'm not sure of his formal title (Savant may be part of it), but he troubleshoots and repairs electronical devices for a living. And not just any electronical devices either; he fixes medical equipment like X-ray machines, and catheter labs, and various other doctor doo-daddery that, you know, KEEPS YOU ALIVE! Not only does he do this for a living, but he is the MAN, the go-to guy, the top dog, the big kahuna or, as they say in the medical business, the SHIZZ.
Oh, and he sometimes helps me on my layout.
Now I need to explain that Joe gets more accomplished on my layout in an hour than I do in a week of puttering. I've watched him in action - he uses the same tools as I do - soldering iron, solder, wire, files, opti-visor, rum. Yet, in his hands, those tools create beautiful things - perfectly shiny solder joints; tight wraps around crisply exposed bus wire; squarely mounted tortimusses with ramrod straight throw rods; and my favorite - finely prepared turnout throw bars, installed with perfect spacing and electrical isolation.
Joe is the Master Po of railroad wiring.
And I know how he does it. I can see him do it. But I can't duplicate it. Joe's efficiency and artistry comes from literally years of practice, every day fixing devices that are infinitely more complicated than anything we have on our layouts. He has developed instinctive troubleshooting procedures that allow hime to observe a situation, diagnose the problem, develop a remedy, and implement the fix. His efficiency is born out of a thousand repetitions of problem-solving, similar to the thousands of hours practicing to become a maestro.
By comparison, my attempts are clumsy. Oh, they will suffice, for a while (unsoldered twisted wire can maintain electrical contact for nearly 20 years…ask me how I know that). If you look under my layout, you can see where Joe has been - the solder joints are cleaner, the wiring layout is straighter, no solid wire in sight.
Joe is Master Po to my grasshopper, Obi Wan Kenobi to my Luke, Gandalf to my Bilbo, Spock to my Kirk, Chen Man Ching to my Ben Lo.
And I will continue to observe, and learn, and marvel, at the work of my very own Master Po - Master Joe.