The Reason For The Breakdown

Recently, I accidentally attended a one-man show put on by a Physics Clown. (My laptop wanted to autocorrect that to Psychic Clown. Is that a thing? And what would a psychic clown predict? Future Cirque du Soleil show themes?) He did exactly what you would expect a Physics Clown would do, demonstrating all manner of science principles while wearing a clown-themed tie-dyed shirt and using colorful props. He had a Chinese yo-yo, a balance board, a unicycle…you know. Science clown stuff. In the interest of clown transparency, prior to each demonstration, he would explain how long it actually took him to learn to juggle, or manipulate gravity sticks, or use the Kendama toy. The story was consistent across the board—it takes a long time to master all of those skills . Depending on the trick, it was years to many years. There is a process, with time invested in making sure what you’re doing is not only done well but that it’s worth watching. It’s the kind of dedicated, focused attention that turns a person into a successful Physics Clown – or into Steve Martin.
Psychic Clown: I predict where you’re going here
Me: You’re good

Steve Martin is a stand-up comedian, actor, film director, dancer, art collector, playwright, musician, and author. I’m not sure why he does all that stuff. Honestly, just one or two of those things would be in good taste. I’m not a psychiatrist or anything, but to keep piling like that on probably speaks to a desperate need for validation. Despite the fact that I think I’m contributing to his narcissism, I am a big fan of his writing. He’s written fiction (Shopgirl, Cruel Shoes), memoir (Born Standing Up), plays (Picasso At The Lapin Agile The Underpants), and he is a regular contributor to publications like The New Yorker (some of the New Yorker pieces are published as a collection in Pure Drivel). While I was composing this paragraph, he published a technical manual on operating DVRs and the world’s most insightful Trader Joe’s shopping list. He has been consistently funny, consistently smart, and consistently entertaining in all of the mediums. He makes it look easy, and you don’t make anything easy without working incredibly hard.

As much as I love his books, my favorite Steve Martin piece is an essay called “Banjo” he wrote for the 1999 Oxford American magazine’s annual music issue. In it, he describes his love for the five-string banjo and details how he taught himself how to play, breaking down the songs on his bluegrass records to tortuously slow speeds and practicing in his car to spare the ears of everyone around him. Chord by chord, he developed his musicianship and proficiency, working his way up to that coveted banjo trophy: the breakdown, those blisteringly fast picking solos that define the five-string banjo in bluegrass music. The essay is joyful in that way that indulging yourself in discussing your favorite topic is joyful. It’s a banjo lovefest geekout. If you’ve ever seen Steve Martin play banjo, you see that same joy. He loves to do it and it’s fun to see, unlike, say, sitting in a chair tapping away at a laptop. There’s no such thing as a flashy typing solo.
Physics Clown: you should add some science
Me: how
Physics Clown: ride a unicycle while you’re writing
Me: my insurance company says I can’t do that anymore


Cannot show entire cover due to unauthorized status, but I can confirm that is Steve Martin’s neck

The act of writing is not in and of itself very interesting to watch. It’s a person and a keyboard and endless hours of hilarious Vines used to procrastinate to avoid actually writing. (Okay, that person is me, but if you think I’m not going to watch a cat get its head stuck in a Kleenex box, you’re crazy.) It’s very intense and dramatic internally. Externally, it’s watching paint dry, but with more profanity. It’s not the kind of activity that will draw a live audience, but there are some instances where a cheering section would come in handy. Like when I pick the perfect verb or use the Oxford comma.
Physics Clown: Just you and a laptop? That’s it?
Me: Yup
Physics Clown: Does the keyboard explode?
Psychic Clown: No
Physics Clown: (sigh)

Since I’m writing this stuff anyway, I may as well throw my own high-five parties.  Like all of my problems, I am solving this one with books. When I’m draggy and unmotivated, it’s all about creative inspiration. I’m no Physics Clown, but I like to read, and reading Steve Martin is a master class in, um, smart people who use words right and good. It gets me fired up. Stand back, because I am about to rock this place with a 10-minute air banjo breakdown. Pay attention, because I’m getting better all the time.
Me: Ask me that again
Physics Clown: Does the keyboard explode?
Physics Clown: (sigh)


Action Items
The Oxford American’s music issue is amazing. Check out how to get it.
Steve Martin does a bunch of stuff and he brags about all of it.
“Banjo” is included in The Oxford American Book Of Great Music Writing.




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