The Late N Train


The N train into Brooklyn was running late. I wasn’t rushing anywhere important, only running errands.  Nothing notably spectacular was going on.

I had just come from yoga and my head was clear. My mood was a very perceptive one and I was ready to share the good feelings. The train pulled up and I stood in front of the closed doors. I felt a slight breeze as they parted and I walked in. I gazed to my left and saw a homeless man sprawled out with his belongings; a few large rocks, torn magazine pages, and a couple half-smoked cigarettes. He took up the entire side of the cab. No one dared sit near.

I took a seat across the aisle, between two very doubtful subway riders. They gave up their positions as soon as the subway approached the next stop. I watched this man organize his belongings over and over. His eyes drooped with fatigued and his pupils dilated with inebriation. Every few moments he’d fumble his feet and slur some words, grabbing random railings to steady himself. He was contained in his solitude, not looking to escape. He was of no harm, nor meant any ill will. He was in pain. He was hurt.

The rest of the train scowled. As we approached new stops, passengers entered only to exit, leaving this car for the next. Some held their nose, others held back their stomachs. The man was filthy, but he was still a man. I kept my gaze on him, trying to see myself in his eyes, but the only thing I could see was the separation between myself and the crowd.

This man was on trial, for crimes he’d already commit and the verdict was guilty. He had no home, no job, no money. He smelled like trash and urine, looked like he rolled around in garbage all morning, and sounded like a madman. His actions were unfamiliar and made others uncomfortable. He was homeless. Less than human.

I started to feel bad. My sympathy was overwhelming, so much so that a deep valley of compassion was carved in me. I hoped there would be help to uplift the despair on this train. I sent love to the depths of the ignorant. I asked how I could help change the reality of it all. How could I be a beacon, an example of kindness, love, and empathy? And amidst the glares, judgements, and beckons of the other passengers, I sat firmly in my seat, smiling at this gentle, homeless man.

The people on the 2:34 N Train into Atlantic Avenue made my heart sink. Their disdain and utter disregard for another human being was so cold, so unyielding, that this man never had a chance to change. His position in this world was sealed by the reactions of his peers. His peers—yes, because we are all living on this Earth together—who were going about their days running from work to home, home to work, store to store, place to place, could not afford to give him a simple gesture of kindness. Not even a smile.

Not even an empathetic thought.

I felt bad for that people on that train. For each and every one of them. The only soul that escaped that late N train without an ounce of my worry, was that homeless man clutching his bag of half-smoked cigarettes and absurdly large rocks. He was safe in depths of his solitude from the follies of mankind.

But then again I wondered, how could I love the others? They were me, too.

Redefining Mistake

Growing up, I was unlike the other kids I knew as I never signed up for spring baseball or enrolled in a fall basketball league. Instead, I spent my extra-activity hours studying the art of karate. This year round sport was very demanding. One of the most rewarding aspects of karate was competing in large tournaments. Here I could showcase my knowledge of both fighting and performance.

The kata portion—or performed routine section—of the tournament required that a participant execute a predetermined set of movements in exact precision. Style, technique and form were judged. It was common knowledge that all competitors memorize their katas. However, since there were many dojos of various styles competing, there was no universal way any judge could remember the sequence of each student’s specific kata.

In one competition, I had stumbled over a forgotten move, which ended up costing me a place on the podium. I was upset and on the drive home, my father leaned over and said, “You know Matt, the judges will never know when you’ve made a mistake unless you show them you messed. If you continue you the kata with confidence, they will not notice.”

Wax on, wax off.

After hearing this, I started to think that maybe he was right. The only reason I lost that day was because I stopped and hesitated. I thought I had been caught by the judges, when in fact I was the only one paying attention to the correct sequence of my kata. I lost because I admitted defeat.

This was a turning point in my life: the definition of mistake had been redefined. No longer was right and wrong decided by an outside entity; the judge was always from within.

Extended past karate, the idea of making mistake in everyday life is often seen as black and white. This is most obvious in the traditional school system with standardized exams that gauge not intellect and creativity, but rather the narrow skill of taking such tests. It is also seen in the notion that attending higher education is the only way to make a respectable living. In society, fashion is determined by a scale of social acceptance. Body image, popularity and materiality are all products of dualistic thinking, seeing in black and white. Yet, even in the face of such powerful ideologies, there exists groups that redefine for themselves the meaning of what is correct.

“There are no mistakes, only happy little accidents.” ~ the Chuck Norris of painting

For instance, there have been many movements through out the history of the arts where rebellious artists (usually young artists) go against the status quo of their predecessors’ style. Such movements have been named modern, post-modern, contemporary and avante garde. In a way, every transition is a redefinition, an expansion of what is and what is not a mistake. This can also be seen in the haute cuisine movement of the culinary world, as well as its rejection. In the school system, we see the rise of liberal studies that focus on content and creativity rather than memorization and regurgitation. Other educational systems like the Waldorf Schools are beginning to redefine what an academic mistake is. Through out society, we see the formation and evolution of counterculture groups like hippies, punks, goths and hipsters. These subgroups recalculate what is accepted within society, expanding the definition of what is accepted within society.

In all of these categories, the idea that black and white is the only way to live for billions of unique people is slowly fading away. Just like how I realized I could define what a correct kata was, the world is beginning to realize what defines a mistake is the words of those that are condemned.

Theorist playing cards, eh? “Foucault uses special ability: avoidance! Baffles opponent!”

Rogue thinker Michel Foucault wrote about this idea in his book on power and oppression. He defined—quite uniquely—that the oppressed were not victims of those in power, but rather causalities to their own roles. In order for their to exist a power-oppressor relationship, the oppressed must assume the role of inferior. They must become the mistake. In contrast, Foucault wrote that the power-oppressor relationship could not exist without the presence of both roles.

The definition of what is correct and what is not is only decided by you. You are the person that holds the gavel. You are the one who swings it.

For more on jazz and mistakes click here.

Now, rewind and then fast forward a bit to my next karate tournament. Armed with a new perspective and a confidence I had never had, I stormed the stage and performed my kata. Since I was in charge, I could do as I pleased. I free-styled the whole thing, start to finish. If I wanted to do a spinning back kick in the air, I did. If I wanted to roll across the floor, I did. If I wanted to bang my fists on the ground, I did. The stage was my canvas and no one was going to tell me how to paint it. With sweat dripping from my brow, I finished my routine. I bowed and faced the judges. I couldn’t believe what I heard them say.

“Matt, would you kindly repeat your kata.”

Boy, was I screwed.

I guess this will be a lesson for another blog.