Monday, March 28, 2011

How to be a fool (and what’s in it for you)

The Doodle Fool poem and print by IntentionalArts

Scrollwork’s School for Fools, Part Three
See Part Two, Why you should listen to a fool
Not many folks take a fool seriously these days. But kings, pharaohs, tyrants, and despots knew to keep their fools close.
Today’s wise leader sets aside the chorus of yessayers to seek the fool’s counsel. You might suddenly find yourself in the role of the fool. If you have lousy luck, you’ll have a boss who hires you for your expertise but treats you like a fool—in the contemporary sense. Such people have either not heard or chosen to ignore the adage, “Don’t hire a dog and then do the barking yourself.”
What’s a modern fool to do? Here’s an idea: Embrace the role!
Do you want to overcome a fear of failure? Become a Court Jester. Are you afraid of looking like a fool? Then look like a fool with purpose and panache. Be contrary! Make fun of all sides of an idea! Buck the status quo! And whether you stand on the podium with a trophy or on the sidelines with egg on your face, you will have fed your soul and had fun in the process.
~ Timothy Johnson, Carpe Factum

There is something incredibly freeing about being the fool.

The artist is still a little like the old court jester. He's supposed to speak his vicious paradoxes with some sense in them, but he isn't part of whatever the fabric is that makes a nation.

~ William Faulkner
How do you prefer to offer help—as an expert or a fool?

Why you should listen to a fool. Especially your inner fool.

The Reluctant Fool by LeslieLeeArt
Scrollwork’s School for Fools, Part Two
See Part One, Scrollwork's School for Fools Now Open

Roger Van Oech has a favorite strategy for stimulating creative thinking: Think like a fool. Fools everywhere take this as a compliment.

Roger notes that besides being a truth-teller, a fool challenges assumptions, sees what others overlook, and takes the contrary position in ways that make us think twice. If nothing else, a fool, when heeded, may avert disaster that nobody sees coming.

Once, an institution atop a hill decided to mark a milestone. They would ask a local boy who had made good to return to his provincial hometown and speak at the event. Everyone praised the plan. They asked the new scribe to draft a letter of invitation. It was practically a done deal, as the local boy had already spoken at a previous milestone.

The scribe Googled the invitee’s accomplishments to flatter him with their mention. Six links down was a detailed account of a world-renowned institution’s grim displeasure at the invitee’s admitted plagiarism. Horrified, the scribe derailed the plan and appealed to the man in the corner office.

The experience was rather like pointing out the emperor’s butt nakedness as the fans praised his exquisite new duds. The scribe realized that in following her own code of ethics, she had taken on the role of the fool. Would anyone listen?

The chief pennyraiser’s concern was dealing delicately with the major moneygiver who had suggested inviting the plagiarist. After much hemming and hawing, the plan was scrapped. 

The institution then invited the Equivalent of the Queen, who accepted, to everyone’s shocked delight. The institution made history, as it was her first speech following the election coronation. The near-disaster with the disgraced local boy quickly faded from collective memory.

Nobody credited the fool, of course, but little did she care. Remember, a fool’s credo includes “A fool isn’t in it for the prestige.” (It would have been nice if the fool had been allowed to keep her job as scribe in acknowledgement of her one usefool moment, but why that wasn’t so is a convoluted story involving microbes as metaphor, told here.)

Third and last part: How to be a fool (and what's in it for you)

Scrollwork's School for Fools Now Open

Jester Kitty by tasteslikepurple

Would you turn to a fool for advice? Would you willingly come off as a fool to serve a purpose?

Got a question, ask an expert—how it’s usually done. But when you’re ready to handle the truth, take a hint from rulers of old: Go ask a fool. Even more revolutionary: be the fool for someone.

You can count on experts for conventional wisdom, buzzwords included. Backed with polls, charts, testimonials and bullet points. But rarely will an expert go out on a limb. She will not put her credibility on the line. (Her retweets might plunge.)

If you take her advice and fail, it must be your fault. How can the expert be wrong? She has her own domain name, for heaven’s sake.

A fool, now there’s a different animal. A fool has nothing to lose, because everyone already dismisses her as such. No one sidles up to a fool to network. No one aspires to become a fool. “What’s your major?” “Pro Fooling.”

A fool isn’t in it for the prestige. A fool doesn’t care if you subscribe to the A-List PowerFool group. No fool would bother starting one. Fools are loners; the known exception being partner fools in Elizabethan times named Lucretia the Tumbler and Jane the Fool. (We appreciate that Jane had a no-nonsense approach to branding.)

How does a fool come by her career? Some fools were “naturals” by way of slow-mo minds or deformities. Some fools were trained entertainers.

Consider the court jester. Her job description read, “Make a fool of yourself.” Being that already, I don’t suppose a fool ever suffered a crisis of inauthenticity on the job. Her purpose, ostensibly, was to distract from the dreary, especially on days when the castle was damp and the porridge tasted like slurry. But she was more than just the class clown, and she knew it.
"The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be the fool." 
~William Shakespeare

As an equal-opportunity poker of fun, the fool could get away with risky behavior. Namely, magnifying faults in the mighty and collapsing puffed-up egos like failed soufflĂ©. She had the protection of the throne because only the fool could be trusted to tell the truth. It’s one of the ways fools added value to the court.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

4 traits to pack whether touring or taking a tango lesson

Stepping on a ballroom dance floor for the first time is a lot like landing on foreign soil. The vernacular is perplexing. Customs from the old country die hard. Culture shock sets in.

Adjusting to life on the dance floor is less of a strain when you’re able to relax into tourist mode. Be sure to pack these traits, suggested on a website for expats. They can be quite useful for dance students who find themselves on unfamiliar terrain:

High tolerance for frustration and initial failure
If you’re a Type A personality, someone driven to conquer and rack up the wins, it might work against you here. Your impatience could be your own worst enemy. Regulars who know their way around the dance floor make it look easy. Don’t be fooled.

Are you analytical, given to breaking down degrees of longitude and latitude in partner positioning? Do you put off decision-making unless the information at hand reaches critical mass? You may want to let it go, just for the duration.

Curiosity and keen observation

It helps to have a desire to discover. What would happen if you flex your knees just so? Does it help you balance? Are you willing to put up with feeling awkward? Are you fully in the moment, such that when the instructor points and says, “Move your left leg” you move precisely that, not your other left leg?

Do you check yourself in the mirror habitually? Do you clown for the mirror? Here, the mirror is your friend. Let go of inhibitions and lend your body to the dance.

Strong communication skills

A couple’s level of communication is tested in times of crisis. Both of you floundering and unsure of who does what next—that qualifies as a crisis. Do you blame the other? Take turns giving feedback and listening? Do you sulk, burst into tears, walk out, turn a cold shoulder? The post-dance lesson counseling office is right next door. I’ll be right with you.

A sense of humor

Wardrobe malfunctions, a loudly grumbling stomach, a fall on your rump that does not lead to paralysis, brain farts, and other humbling experiences do not need to cut short one’s dancing aspirations. Stuff happens. (It’s all happened to me.) If you are capable of laughing at yourself, you can set everyone at ease and return the focus where it belongs—turning the dance floor into your new stomping grounds, where you’ll want to come back for more.

As a ballroom and Latin dance instructor since early 2007, I’ve seen similar behavior patterns in students new to the concept of partner dancing. As an expat to the United States since 1985 and a graduate student in acculturation in the late ‘90s, I’ve mulled over the best practices to hasten adjustment and optimize learning.

I have a special empathy for new kids on the block, having been one repeatedly through many school transfers and as an adult immigrant. I can tell you’re new here because you’re leaning up against the studio wall and I have to peel you off by coaxing, “Come claim your floor. It’s yours for the next hour.”

And now, four rules that don’t apply outside these walls:
1.     Men, you’re leaders. Always. With that comes major responsibility. Your partner will be walking backward most of the time. If she bumps into the wall or trips over someone, it is your fault. Always. You’re the only one who can see where you’re both going.

1.1 Women, you’re followers. Always. But we start with our right foot—because we’re always right. If your leader doesn’t do a step perfectly the first time, your only option is to follow.  He won’t learn if you backlead him all the time. His orders are to invade your personal space. If he steps on you, most likely it’s your fault. You have to move your feet well out of his way.

2.     Face each other. Put your palms up. Press your palms against your partner’s. Give each other resistance. That’s right, push gently away from your partner. You not only have my permission, you are hereby urged to do so. It’s how you’ll “hear” non-verbal cues.

3.     On public displays of emotion: Quick smooches are OK; hollering is not. This is not the debate club. Sticky-sweet newlyweds-to-be will have to reset to un-cling mode for the time being. If you start hitting each other I will separate you. (It’s been known to happen.) Mrs. Scrollwork has zero tolerance for partner abuse.

4.     Try not to talk over my instructions. I know you’re trying to be helpful. Believe me, it’s not. You are not your partner’s parrot. The one exception is if your partner does not understand English. Or is deaf, in one or both ears. But even then, if you’re louder than the instructor, we will both be hoarse, and everyone will leave exhausted. Not fun.

(I always want to say the last two out loud when I’m teaching. Diplomacy stops me.)
To put it in dance studio terms, welcome to my world. Life as you know it is suspended here. You and your partner have your work cut out for you. Work with me, people. = )

P.S. I understand that in certain parts of the world it is taboo to show the soles of your shoes. Unfortunately that constitutes a vital part of the “promenade with flare” in tango. Perhaps a menu substitution is in order. How does the chicken walk sound?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Warts and all Wednesday—my version of Ash Wednesday

You feel like your day is down the toilet and it's only half over. Really, what could be worse than being you right now? Being me, at age 7 and 15. What you are about to witness is one woman's self-flagellation in writing. You may want to look away occasionally.

It's Ash Wednesday here in the U.S. A reminder to all flesh that we all came from dust, and to dust we shall return. As Web personas, we are either complicit or unwitting accomplices to putting our "brand" on a pedestal. Particularly on Facebook, we chirrup like happy little chipmunks. See what my child did, look what I made for dinner, isn't my cat cute, aren't I a well-heeled traveler, my how skinny we were in college, on and on ad nauseum. I confess! Guilty.

Everyone thinks of fasting and abstinence in terms of appetite — meat, chocolate, seconds, sex. I'm abstaining from online self-aggrandizement today. In fact, I'm going to the opposite extreme. I declare this my Warts and All Wednesday. Let the humiliation begin.

In second grade I was transferred to a new school where the most important part of campus was somehow left out during the 10-second tour. All was in order until just before the bell rang. My bladder refused to hold it anymore. I made my way gingerly to the teacher's desk, knees squeezed together, and had barely squeaked out a plea for directions when Teacher said pityingly, "Oh, but you went already." A warm puddle was forming on the polished wooden floor.

"Did you slip on the floor and get your uniform wet?" one of my sibs asked on our way home. I stayed mum. I've blocked out how I returned to school the next day without hesitation. Maybe I was stoic even then. Fortunately, after the school year ended I got transferred to another school.

Years later, when I interviewed job applicants on a university campus, one of the first things I pointed out as I gave them a tour was — yup, the restroom facilities. No one need be denied basic human rights on my watch.

At 15 and a new student (again) during my senior year in high school, I accepted the position of platoon leader during our compulsory military training. We were to compete in drill formations against other high schools. We didn't have sports programs, but the Philippines being under martial law thanks to the late dictator Marcos, pseudo-military posturing for women was apparently the extra-curricular of choice. A big trophy was at stake.

I drilled with my platoon after school and on weekends under the hot tropical sun. On my bellowed commands we practiced marching in sync, turning sharp corners, moving our gleaming fake swords at snappy angles. Competition day came. I led my team out to the exhibition field and turned to face them. You know where this is going. They were so far behind me I had to walk back to them just to see the whites of their eyes. Every face had a grimace lurking right beneath their stony expression. A few shot me sympathetic looks.

We bombed. We just couldn't recover from that initial mistake. I sat alone afterwards, until the faculty advisor plopped on the ground next to me.
"What are you feeling?" he asked nonchalantly.
"Nothing." I said.

Did you have the kind of parents who told you you could be anything you wanted if you set your mind to it? My Dad told me he expected me not to be stupid. A reasonable expectation, if somewhat low. But when I did do something stupid — cheated on my Biology exam at 14 — he didn't make a big deal out of it. No lecture, no grilling. No hissy fit when Mom and I had to meet with the principal over it. He even dictated the letter of apology they required so they wouldn't expel me.

The principal tried to speculate why a student leader like me would stoop to cheat when my grades were stellar. Speaking about me as though I wasn't right there, she told my mother, "There are some students who feel that they want even higher grades." Me, greedy? Lady, you don't know me, you don't know squat, I was thinking. For the record, I had been feeling rather left out for being such a goody-two-shoes. On the one occasion I had decided to be bad I got caught. Thus went my short-lived stint as a rebel.

I can smell perfection-driven people quite accurately. I worked for and with a few in my time. One boss chastised me for admitting that the blazer and shift she had just complemented me on weren't actually purchased together. One fellow dance teacher couldn't come up with a single area of improvement for herself when we were all asked to self-assess at a staff meeting. It was just too important for her to maintain her self-delusion about being perfect. I called her Diva with affection until she turned critical toward me. From then on I still called her Diva, minus the affection.

I am comfortable with my flaws. I don't mind disclosing them. It's easier to be tolerant of others that way. It's no guarantee they'll be tolerant in return.

"Excellence is willing to be wrong. Perfection is being right.
Excellence is risk. Perfection is fear.
Excellence is powerful. Perfection is anger and frustration.
Excellence is spontaneous. Perfection is control.
Excellence is accepting. Perfection is judgment.
Excellence is giving. Perfection is taking.
Excellence is confidence. Perfection is doubt.
Excellence is flowing. Perfection is pressure.
Excellence is journey. Perfection is destination."