Today, thoughts about a ballerina and a basketball
player. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Ballet and basketball leave
me with a profound disquiet. The people who do them
well have to make a strange commitment to
themselves -- to their own bodies and minds. Those
of us who haven't been through the intensity of
that soul-scarring process are hard pressed to
Last week I watched ballerina Janie Parker end a
brilliant career dancing Sleeping
Beauty. Now 41, Parker lit up the stage and
moved with the same easy grace that Michael Jordan
Grace under pressure; grace under pain; the
transcendent grace of a mature athlete; grace built
on a terrible focus, on driving the body beyond
natural limits year after year. That focus can turn
into the stuff of hypochondria, obsession, and
A few weeks before her last performance, the
Houston Press did an article on
Parker's feet -- calluses, bunions, reconstructed
tendons. Not only Parker's career, but the
greatness of the Houston Ballet itself, had been
built on that foundation of pain.
But as Parker danced, the pain was invisible. I've
always loathed one feature of ballet: the classic
dancer's smile with lips slightly parted, no
involvement of the eyes, a cold rictus signifying
complete worldly detachment. But Parker is a superb
actress. On her, that smile had warmth and
expressivity that I hadn't seen on a ballet stage.
Nor was there any sign of the ever- present pain.
After the performance, Parker stood in a ballet
stance to receive a standing ovation that lasted
half an hour. At the end, the stage was paved with
flowers and tears ran down across that unwavering
smile. Then, the next day, Father's Day, after the
Chicago Bulls won the National Championship,
Michael Jordan broke down and wept for the memory
of his murdered father.
These are just two of the many people who spend
their lives, not only perfecting the performance of
their own bodies, but also harnessing their minds
to serve that perfection.
When you look at Parker or Jordan it's easy to
wonder if this isn't about feeding the ego. No
doubt the ego is served in such moments. Yet theirs
were not the tears of Miss America on the runway.
Rather, they marked the moment when, lifelong aim
achieved, iron control of body and mind could at
last be relaxed and the effort seen in perspective.
Jordan wept, not for an ego served, but in
gratitude for his first mentor -- his good father.
Tears finally came to Parker when she stepped
forward, grasped the microphone, and struggled
(through that smile) to thank choreographer Ben
Stevenson -- the mentor whose uncanny knowledge of
her full potential has sustained her.
The joy of witnessing such perfection could never
be ours without an inhuman focus of mind and body.
I would never recommend such lives to anyone. But I
would not want to live in a world without such
lives around me.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds