TAI CHI FOR WRITERS: Inner peace through embarrassment
People ask me how a bookish, well they don’t say “fag,” a bookish man like me has wound up a regular in a weekly session of “Tai Chi for Writers,” thereby working toward inner peace. I’ve never had a meditative state of mind, always watching from the outside like a little boy whose nose is pressed to the window of the pet shop. And yet here I am, week after week, out in the sun, sweating through some fancy footwork and ancient rhetoric. To me the road to Tai Chi feels organic, almost preordained. I was laid up in the hospital when Peter Maravelis came to my bedside and sat there, placidly enough, consoling me and telling me that this would never have happened to me if I had been doing Tai Chi all these years. I was so hopped up on sedatives I could hardly understand what he was saying, but he carried the day by announcing that he was going to put his money where his mouth was, by running a class called “Tai Chi for Writers,” an ongoing workshop for a few invited guests. “But what is Tai Chi?” I feebly asked, from out of a gray buzzing tunnel, ringed with cartoon flies.
In a few months I found out, sort of. We, the writers, stood in the June heat in the clear summer weather of San Francisco, moping around the gigantic outdoor plaza of the Art Institute on Russian Hill, with its magnificent swooping views of the Bay and its mysterious adagio of Angel Island and Alcatraz. Peter is a dapper, Apollonian fellowof medium height, intense Greek features, clad in black as befits his day job which is managing events at City Lights bookstore here in North Beach. He has no ass at all and I’m probably staring enviously, at where it might be in his sunny black pants all the time he’s explaining how, when he was a mere stripling he stumbled onto the teaching of Dr. Fei, an elderly Chinese-born physician who threw off his white doctor’s coat at lunchtime and evenings to become this whirling dervish of the 24 postures. I think it’s called the Yang style. Dr. Fei, in his 80s when Peter worked with him, is gone now but I like to feel his working with us, flapping his petal-like hands in an appalled approval, for we are so bad it’s crazy.
I tried, I really did, and Peter has the patience of a saint, for we are no ordinary bunch of human beings but we’re writers, much more geeky than the average Joe I think. It took us from June through the end of July to learn how to bend our knees and make this one tiny ankle step, moving our left feet perhaps two inches, in the beginning of this 24 step routine—the short routine, for apparently there’s a 36 step, a 108 step, and so on. This one was designed, like a golf course, for Westerners who can’t really distinguish the different movements, each with an evocative, sometimes silly name. “Okay kids,” Peter will bark, in a deadpan Bob Fosse. “Let’s see what we remember of ‘Repulse the Monkey.’”
Not many of us have the deep memory to actually come back week after week, but I’ve persisted, through the summer heat into autumn’s auroras. We don’t really get winter in San Francisco very much, but Peter has edited a new book (San Francisco Noir, a collection of, well, duh) which takes him this way and that on a book tour for many Sunday afternoons. In the meantime I told my friend Kota about our class and, although he’s not a writer precisely, Peter made him feel welcome. Well, he’s sort of a writer, he’s a visual artist and video maker and what not. Kota stepped right up, rapidly taking in everything I had learned, months after I began. I watch Kota now. I see how he observes intently everything Peter shows us. Then he launches into the routine, going his own route. His gestures are not like mine, they’re more economical. When Kota extends his hands at the beginning, he doesn’t “represent” as I do. I do method acting, you see—plunging my arms out like Lord Byron leaping into the Hellespont at Sestos—then, when I retract my arms , elbows down, palms averted, I try to scare myself as though some awful Gothic monster were approaching—Grendel perhaps. The back of my hands gets closer and closer to my breastbone, as though horrified—I think of Medusa coming closer, turning my palms to stone. My eyes will never again close and I’ll be found like a fossil zillions of years from now, a statue of melodramatic fright. Meanwhile across the plaza pal Kota is merely pointing the tips of his fingers skywards, very simply, like a page turning.
I can feel myself attaching Western meaning to each piece of physical business. Most often I imagine myself as Martha Graham—back totally stiff as though Fate jammed a brief broomstick up my ass, which of course it has—yes, Martha Graham, making tragic pictures out of the simple movements of an arm or leg. Meanwhile pal Kota is resembling nothing more than a finely tuned person machine, and plus he can remember which step comes next, as I never can. I think because I’m trying to relate too much. I see the monster, the monster makes me think of my own neurotic brain tangles, and then I get stuck. I would never, then, abandon my cares and pick up a niblick, for a golf swing is pretty much the next item of business on the dance card. It looks like you’re on Pebble Beach. It just doesn’t flow for me, the progression from “Carry Tiger Back to Mountain” to “Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail.” Peter suggests that the wonderful ssecret of Tai Chi is how it maximizes contrasts, how it enjambs the tiger’s bulk and ferocity right next to the delicacy of the little sparrow. I’m just embarrassed. Week after week I’m out there waving my hands around and moving from stone square to stone square, staring at Alcatraz, but having no idea of what I’m doing.
Then I realized that, oh well, I never did figure out the “why” to anything. Never knew why I left New York and came to San Francisco. Never knew why I became a poet or whatever. Didn’t know why I got married. Never figured out why I buried my life under the punishing pile of papers on my desk. Things just happened, fate jammed them there. Got lucky. There’s one posture called “Beware Fist Under Elbow,” perhaps my favorite, for it seems to me ideally designed for “acting.” Peter says we’re surveying the landscape for attackers, our legs spread wide apart, our arms extended on either side, as though to trap ghosts passing by. We make three lateral clomping motions through the aether, thudding like dinosaurs over stony plain, managing to turn our bodies about 105° to the left. Our heads bob back and forth the way raptors do in Jurassic Park. I’m thinking, this is the beginning of the world, The Rites of Spring, the very first music heard by the dinosaurs. Did the dinosaurs know the why to everything, or were they, too, embarrassed by their tiny brains and the way that nature seemed to be mocking them? Alcatraz, way out there in the silvery Bay, so far away no prisoners could swim it, and yet nowadays tiny tykes and their ancient grandads make the round trip every day thanks to mercury laced vaccines I assume.
I guess I’ll keep up with this group as long as it lasts. I’m a Capricorn, loyal to a fault. And what is Kota’s birthday? Isn’t it in August, summer sometime, what does that make him? I don’t know why I’m doing any of this. When I was a boy, I used to go to church every Sunday morning with my folks. Clockwork type of thing, and my mind would drift off into outer space, dreaming of being somewhere else, being adored, feeling like a man. I’m embarrassed to even start thinking that what I do now on the weekend mornings is like a church thing, if only because, I’m so incompetent, is my soul too small, was it wizened like my liver by 1000 acid trips and gallon jugs of Manhattans, or all the guys I screwed around with scotfree? I can’t remember posture 11, “Fair Lady Weaves with a Shuttle,” in which we advance in turn towards each of the four winds, but I do remember My Fair Lady, the musical, and how I could never decide if Julie Andrews would have been more authentic than Audrey Hepburn in the Cukor film, or should they have gone with what Jack Warner wanted and hired Cary Grant to play the Rex Harrison part (and James Cagney as Eliza’s father). I’ve got no idea what to do next.
Kevin Killian,, born 1952, is a poet, novelist, critic and playwright. He has written a book of poetry, Argento Series (2001), two novels, Shy (1989) and Arctic Summer (1997), a book of memoirs, Bedrooms Have Windows (1989), and two books of stories, Little Men (1996) and I Cry Like a Baby (2001). He has also edited a collection of short stories by the late Sam D’Allesandro, The Wild Creatures. For the San Francisco Poets Theater Killian has written thirty plays, including Stone Marmalade (1996, with Leslie Scalapino) and Often (2001, with Barbara Guest). His next book will be all about Kylie Minogue.