by Jerry Waxler
When the hero of the television show “Kung Fu” smashed faces, I cheered him on, without pausing to consider that I don’t like pain, and usually admire people for more peaceful behavior. After reading the memoir “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly I have now had an opportunity to think more about what should have been obvious all along – if you hit someone in the face, it’s going to hurt.
Polly was raised to be a nice guy, intent on being kind to people, but he also wanted to learn how to stand up for himself. So when he dropped out of Princeton to learn to fight at a Chinese monastery, one of his goals was to become less of a nice guy and more of a “bad ass.”
Dark side of heroes
Polly analyzed his opponents during a fight, learning to intentionally mislead them so they wouldn’t be able to predict his next move. Inflicting pain was his goal, and he was proud to achieve it. But hurting people sounds like something bad guys do. Aren’t protagonists supposed to be “good”?
The question has haunted me my whole life, not just about heroes in books but about my own behavior. Somehow I had formed the idea that emotions made me look flawed, so I thought I was supposed to hide my emotions. As a result, I appeared stiff and remote, an image that turned people off. Instead of convincing them to like me more, my behavior gave them reasons to like me less.
As my memoir took shape, a more troubled and prickly young man emerged than I ever realized. However, when I saw this flawed character on the page, it didn’t look as bad as I had always feared. Instead, I realized many heroes have edgy, even repugnant character flaws. Homer’s Ulysses was impulsive. Hamlet was self-involved. Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict. And despite these flaws, or perhaps because of them, readers identify with the hero. So why shouldn’t the hero of my memoir also be flawed? This acceptance of my faults liberated me from the exhausting work of pretending I’m perfect.
Matthew Polly apparently understood this principle. He made no attempt to hide his bloodlust, or his inner conflicts. Underneath his exterior projection, I felt the adrenaline surging through his body and shutting down his thoughts tightening the bond between an authentic author and a curious reader.
Hard body parts are tools of the trade
In the Kung Fu tradition, fighters selected their own specialized fighting technique and that technique became their trademark. One type of specialty, called Iron Kung Fu, required the fighter to develop enormous strength and hardness in a part of their anatomy such as their forearm or neck.
Polly met a practitioner of Iron Crotch and accepted an invitation to go with the man to visit his rural village. The fighter, who was singularly unattractive, apparently benefitted at least in one way from focusing so much attention on his genitals. On the trip home, he stopped off at various homes to pay respects to a half dozen women, and the babies he fathered.
At first, the practice of Iron Kung Fu sounds weird and foreign. With a little reflection, you see that mixing matter with flesh is a common occurrence. In the childhood tale of Peter Pan, I was fascinated by Captain Hook’s prosthesis, and the peg legs often sported by pirates. Many modern Superheroes have non-flesh appendages such as the blades that spring out of Wolfman’s hands and the web that spins from Spiderman’s wrists.
Once you start looking, you notice real humans also use matter to extend their capability. Modern people wear breast implants, tooth implants, artificial heart valves and pacemakers, insulin pumps. Rappers mount diamonds on their teeth. Wigs are artificial. So are clothes, jewelry, and eye glasses. Exploring these extensions of self into matter can extend your understanding of how you operate in the world.
Write a scene about some inanimate extension of your own body, and see how it affected your emotional well-being, your sense of wholeness, or on the other hand, talk about how it felt foreign and strange.
Fighting Technique with an American Slant
Polly decided not to study the Iron Crotch technique. Instead he invented his own fighting specialty called “Crazy American.” Taking advantage of the prejudice Chinese people had about Americans, Polly acted like he was out-of-control, intimidating people without striking a single blow.
What sorts of manipulative behavior have you used in order to gain some influence over people? Write a scene about a time when you intentionally acted out or in other ways played a role, in order to create a desired effect in the people around you.
To read part 1 of my review about “American Shaolin” click here.
To visit the Amazon page for Matthew Polly’s Memoir, “American Shaolin” click here.
To visit Matthew Polly’s Home Page, click here.
Gary Presley in “Seven Wheelchairs” proposed the unusual idea that the wheelchair was an extension of himself. To read my essay on this compelling memoir click here.
On your flaws: Maybe I had more forgiving parents than you did, but I always felt that falling short of perfection was not the end of the world, only the beginning of a long crawl back toward fulfilling the ideals of my mentors, toward not disappointing the people I respected and loved. In other words, it was nothing less than being human in the best way I could. Since I began my own memoir, I have found that admitting and facing those imperfections in retrospect has given me much more patience with other people. I may be terrifically special in some ways, but I am damaged and flawed in others. And so were my parents, and so are we all. Writing memoir has for me become a totally unexpected way of feeling close to the rest of humanity.
Thanks Gene. Yes, it’s amazing that this art form creates connections among people. I love that.