, , , ,

asphalt sealer fluidity

In what was a glorious summer for gymnastics, the Montreal Olympics of 1976 saw the 14-year old Nadia Comaneci score a perfect 10 for her uneven bars routine. It was the first flawless score in gymnastics history, and a first of such magnitude that the scoreboards, which were not designed to have two digits before the decimal, only managed to register a comic 1.00. That score was followed by six more perfect 10s (or 1s!) from her in those Summer Olympic Games. You can see those routines on YouTube today, and they still seem other-worldly. To see this young girl performing so confidently in the pin-drop silence of the huge arena, one cannot but marvel at the precision and fluidity of her movements, their strength and their grace. She elicits involuntary “ooh”s and “aah”s not just from her enrapt audience in the arena who had the privilege to watch her live, but also from today’s YouTube viewer, some 37 years after the fact.

The closest I have come to seeing in person anything remotely of that calibre was when I saw an act called Tournik, in Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo. It was almost six years ago that I saw it, but I remember it vividly. The act involved the traditional high bar of men’s gymnastics, but used four bars, arranged in a square. Several gymnasts were on them at the same time, moving in patterns which ensured that they never crashed into each other. The geometric perfection of their act was mesmerizing. All that their act required was that no two of them ever be in the same place at the same time, and this they achieved by the simple expedient of obeying the rhythm of the music being played as they moved in their predetermined patterns. That rhythm was the key to their act, the thread that tied them all together, making them cohere into one highly functional unit. The Grand Chapiteau filled with “ooh”s and “aah”s, as it had for Nadia. You can see about six seconds of the act over here, and the full act over here.

Above average motor skills are not restricted to gymnasts though. Two years ago I went to see a physical therapist to see if he could help my twisted ankle heal faster. I wasn’t really interested in going, and only wanted to learn some exercises from him. But within a few minutes, he had made a convert of me. Treating my foot like a mechanical object with parts that needed to be fixed, he moved it around like nobody’s business, and it took every last ounce of my ego (or what I call my “manhood”) not to say Yes to his repeated enquiries of “Is that too much? Should I lighten up?” His movements were practised and thorough, gentle but firm. The smoothness of his action belied the strength of his hands and fingers. I went back several times, and admired his efficacy of movement every time.

Experienced and skilled craftsmen of many stripes have the same efficacy. Back when I was a child, it was still quite common in India to have carpenters come to your house and make your furniture right in your living room or courtyard. They would measure and saw the planks of wood, they would nail together pieces, laminate the surfaces with formica that was cut to the exact same size (but of course) and, best of all, they would create even, smooth surfaces with a hand plane, the little curls of wood falling off, creating a pretty mess. I would watch them for hours on end and I still remember the smell of sawdust and wood shavings from those days. Their repetitive motions were soothing, and the quiet hum of their busy work quickly became a favourite source of entertainment (read wasted time) for me.

A few weeks back, I saw yet another category of workman display his skill. The paved areas around where I live were getting a sealer coating of asphalt, to better protect the surfaces from the weather, so that they would last longer. One man poured out the liquid and the other spread it evenly with a tool shaped like a flat mop. He walked up and down the surface, leaving his boot marks as he did so, and then he walked back, smoothing over them. His movements were relaxed and calm, no strokes were wasted, and he seemed to accomplish his task with minimal effort.

Even more recently, there was a girl in the park nearby, trying to juggle some balls in the air. She was only a beginner, but for the seconds when things worked, it was beautiful. The blue, red and green balls moved in hypnotic repeated patterns then, as did her hands. For those few seconds, her whole act clicked along exactly as she intended for it to, and the balls and her hands were part of a single fluid motion.

The best part about fluid movements, to my mind, is that they are so utterly democratic. You might see them in a Nadia Comaneci video one moment, and see them in an anonymous construction worker the next. You can see them in how a trained chef chops onions on TV, but you can also see them in how my sister chops onions. Human beings are advanced learning machines, especially when shaped by habit. If they do something repeatedly, not only do the neural pathways get wired to do that thing on auto pilot, [1] they also figure out a way to perform that action with the greatest economy. It’s an optimization problem to which they gradually find the global solution.

There is another aspect of fluid motion that is even more subtle, and it is this: For the doer of the task, time falls away. Especially if the task is sufficiently complex, it occupies all the conscious attention of the doer, and leaves no room for other distractions, including that of passing time. In this state of flow, nothing seems to matter apart from the job at hand. There is a peaceful liveliness at work, and that alone makes skilled, highly effective motion worth striving for. And it often does take some serious striving. Anyone performing at a high level of skill in a complicated task has to have spent a lifetime practising that task, for their neural pathways to have learnt it so thoroughly.

Whether the flow is achieved in an overtly physical activity, such as the ones I mention above, or in something less physical, such as painting, writing, or singing, there is the same fluidity involved. It may be of the hand, or the mind or the vocal chords, and thus operate less obviously than if it were more physical, but the same principles apply. The doer is still transported to a different place by it, and, possibly, so is the viewer.

Having said that, there is something about the fluidity of physical movement that is especially immediate to the viewer. [2] To go back to Nadia, some of the discussion in this clip is particularly fascinating, especially the bit where she says, “When I take off, I already know what the end result is.” Clearly, there is a physical awareness and a personal mathematics of a higher order that is at play here. [3] At any given moment, she knows exactly where every ounce of her slight frame is, and where it needs to be, and she knows how to make it be there. It is this business of relaxed control taken to its absolute limits which pulls in the viewer, I suspect. Or at least it pulls in this viewer. And while pulled in, for a little while I experience a small fraction of the doer’s flow state, simply by being an interested, wholly committed observer, and that temporary glimpse of an alternative reality always leaves me enriched. Long may it be so.


[1] The auto pilot leads to illogical behaviour sometimes. I am reminded of a friend who often makes tea for two even when her husband is away travelling, simply because she is habituated to making tea for two. People who lose a long-term companion often report similar behaviour.

[2] To my mind, the only other sort of fluidity that is on par with that of physical movement is the one displayed by musicians.

[3] This is what she says in full: “When I take off, I already know what the end result is. Sometimes I feel that I am off because I took off a little to the side so I have to make very quick correction in air which is, like, either shoulder or my head turns the other way, but you can’t see that. So it’s tricky.” It’s almost frightening how much is going on underneath those polished, perfect-10 routines.