S h o r t   F i c t i o n  /  E s s a y s


Form 2, Substance 0


Overheard last night while waiting for my son Paul at his karate class:

A mom and the secretary are discussing an upcoming tournament. Mom turns to her son.

Mom: Do you want to be in the tournament in Ojai next month?
Kid: Um, okay.
Mom: You won fourth place in the last one, didn't you?

Kid: (nods and smiles)
Mom: And what would you have had to do to win third place? (prodding)
Kid: Um... practice?
Mom: Yes, you need to practice at home. You really need to practice. Don't you?
Kid: Yeah.
Mom: You need to practice at home so you can get really good like him (points to K, a brown belt who has been studying at the school since he was a very small boy.) See all the stars on his uniform? You need to practice so you can have stars all over your uniform, too.

I was both saddened and discouraged by this dialog. If it were me, I would have encouraged the boy to practice so he could become good at karate, because mastery and competence and fitness and discipline are good things that will take you far, and help you to handle what life throws at you.

I see so much of this attitude in the current-day U.S. where adult influence on kids is concerned: a distinct emphasis on form over substance. Study so you can get the grade; do his school project for him so he can pass the class; participate all the 'right' activities so they'll look good on your college application; go to college so you can get the diploma that leads to a high-paying job. What ever happened to learning for the sheer joy (or intellectual/cultural benefit) of it? Or in order not to be blind to what's all around you? To become more capable or to polish yourself as a human being?

From where I sit, the 'do it for the trappings' attitude lead us, perhaps almost imperceptibly at first, down the path toward EnronThink, where what becomes important isn't the strength of what we've accomplished, but merely the image we've managed to project... and have succeeded in getting others to buy. The problem, of course, is that when the going gets tough--and it inevitably does--only actual achievement stands by us. Form becomes a fickle friend, leaving us, like the proverbial emperor, standing in the street in our underwear.


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