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Copyright © 1999, 2003
Dorian Scott Cole

 Life Stories
Part 1

Part of the Meaning in Characterization Series

How long do you want to live? | How much control does a person have over their lives? | Five examples | 

How long do you want to live? 

For some that may be a meaningless question, but for many it is a very relevant question. For those in their fifties today, medical science is projected to gain the ability to enable some of them to live to 120+ years with a good quality of life. Many young people today will probably see the year 2100. A hundred and fifty or more years is not out of the question, especially for those younger than 50. For those who retire at age 65, what do you want to do with the second half of your life?

Things which people have difficulty fitting into their perspective on things, such as the consequences polluting the environment, suddenly become very relevant and meaningful. Who of us wants to live in a smog filled land full of corrupted drinking water and exhausted soil that won't grow? Does land erosion by wind mean more if it means in ~thirty years our food supply could be curtailed? Will we be running out of gas for our cars and heating oil for our homes?

Let's all take a moment to sit in our living rooms and imagine 60+ years of watching TV and wondering what to do with ourselves. Our choices seem to be:

  • We can watch TV for 60+ years, like prisoners in torture chambers.
  • God will drop something in our laps. Depending on our perspective, this might entail avoiding responsibility for our lives, or being blind to the world around us, or possibly even just watching TV for 60 years.
  • We can cast our fates to the wind, hoping that we will land in something interesting. The problem with this is that one risky outcome is to end up on the streets among the homeless.
  • We can take control of our lives and become responsible for choosing a direction and for preparing, while watching for opportunities.
Hmmm, I seem not to have left any reasonable options except the last one. Pointedly shaped questions? I'm beginning to talk like a radio talk show host - only one opinion. So write me a note and tell me about better options. And, no, surveys have shown that cat burglary doesn't work for most people.

How much control does a person have over his life?

Charlotte Linde, in her book Life Stories, indicates that most people talk about their lives as if all their choices were planned. Yet at other times people talk as if everything in the world is in their way. The negative control that some of us exert has obvious consequences. We can subvert any opportunities that come our way with a few simple words. The following are guaranteed to put an end to opportunity:

  • I can't.
  • I don't do that.
  • I would, but something is preventing me.
  • I'm afraid.
  • It wouldn't work for me - that's not my luck.
  • I'm not qualified.
  • I'm a victim of circumstances.
Can a person really take control of his life, explore his talents and abilities, and turn his life into something successful? Or is life capricious, giving success to some and a dismal struggle to others? What would it seem to take to make our lives successful? What would we say to others about how to become a success? - this is what we write into a character's life to make him a certain success. Would it take living amidst unbridled opportunity, for example where there are too many jobs and too few people? Would it be wealth - just having the money to make anything come true - just to circulate among those who have it and be so impressive that anyone can be coaxed to do anything for you?

If not wealth, then position and power - just to be where you can shape things and shake people and make it happen? Or nothing more amazing than a good education - someone says we must go to that university, and we can't be successful without those courses, and we can't even get a job without that degree, and if we study with that master we will be assured a ...? Or just luck - just to be in the right place at the right time, and just get the breaks that get you in the door?

Maybe a stable family is the key, one with both parents, someone encouraging who does homework with us, and no dysfunctions dragging everyone down, and the right spouse who doesn't frustrate us, and no divorce, and no kids creating noise and problems, and no problems? Or even if we could just manage to get by and have no financial problems... and no one arguing about financial problems? Then maybe we could get control over it all and make it work. We just can't direct our lives because all of these things are in our way.... can we?

Six Examples

The last few biographies that I read were of people who were highly successful at what they do. (Mostly only highly successful people write biographies.) It is worth a look into their lives to see exactly what they had going for them that was their springboard to success.

Noriyuki "Pat" Morita (no biography)

The action star mentor in the Karate Kid movie series, Mr. Miyagi, was played by Pat Morita. You might think that Pat was a real karate expert from Formosa. Not even close. He never studied Karate, and was born in the US. In fact, "He developed spinal tuberculosis at the age of two and spent the bulk of the next nine years in Northern Californian hospitals, including the Shriners Hospital in San Francisco. For long periods he was wrapped in a full-body cast and was told he would never walk." After doctors fused four spinal vertebrae, he left the hospital at age 11 and joined his family in an internment camp for the Japanese, detained until the end of WWII.

Despite Pat's very difficult youth, he went on to become a major star on both TV and the movies. Wikipedia article: Pat Morita.

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin was a very successful actor, writer, director, producer, and studio owner. We might suppose that he was born into good connections in a studio family. Fat chance - he was born in England somewhat before studios and film were even invented. But he wasn't born to just any family, his was almost totally non-functional. In its early days, it was a vaudeville family, but this was more a source of instability than any kind of advantage. His father was an alcoholic, and his parents were separated when Charlie was just a boy. His mother suffered with mental problems and was in and out of asylums. They were lucky to get a meal a day - if you can call crumbs a meal - sometimes they had no meal at all.

When they were too poor to rent even the lowliest room available, they went to the work house where Charlie and his brother were separated from their mother. She was to work while they were schooled, and they didn't see each other for months at a time. Charlie's brother joined the Merchant Marines as soon as he was old enough, hoping to be some support for his mother. Charlie often lived on the streets, entirely on his own.

Charlie recognized an acting talent within himself, but by the time he discovered it he no longer had the advantage of innocence - he had stage fright just like the rest of us. He left school and joined a touring acting troop. Eventually he moved to the United States to pursue acting. He polished his craft and made a name for himself, and eventually discovered California where the silent film business was blossoming and he was invited to take a role.

What can be said about Charie's life is that he came from a very deprived background with no advantages. He looked for his abilities, he was an actor who was able to portray  people from diverse backgrounds and portray diverse emotions, and he worked hard to develop his talent until he became successful.

You can read more about Charlie Chaplin's interesting life in My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin. 

Aaron Spelling 

Aaron Spelling was known as the most successful producer in television. He was creating successful television series in the early 70's (Mod Squad), and continued with shows like Charmed and Fantasy Island. Spelling is known as a "hands on" producer who was very close to his cast - he cared about them. He produced all kinds of shows from police action featuring women, to nighttime soaps, to love series. He made sitcoms that entertain us, and his favorite thing was exploring relevant social issues in his sitcoms or TV specials. He had done shows on such things as eating disorders, gays, aids, nuclear war, and prejudice.

To get where Spelling was, you had to be born into the Hollywood elite, right? Forget it. Spelling was born into a Jewish family in a small town in Texas where Jews were a very small minority. They were so poor they rarely had bread or meat, and often got stale pastry. The children slept three to a bed. They had no car and rarely left the neighborhood. Spelling was always sick and every day on the way home from school the other kids would beat him. Descrimination was rampant. Exhausted, weak, beaten, sickly, and depressed, he determined to lay in bed until he died. His school teacher allowed him to move to the next grade if he did six book reports. Spelling discovered stories, and then movies. (Read Spellings autobiography, Aaron Spelling: A Prime-Time Life, and you'll discover the remarkable way that he used stories to escape fights.)

A stint in the Army made it possible for Spelling to attend college (GI Bill), and there he began acting in plays and writing. He did well and built on his success leveraging it into Spelling Productions.

What can be said of Aaron Spelling is that he came from a deprived background with no advantages. He looked for his abilities and became a writer, actor, and producer who was able to portray people from diverse backgrounds and address diverse emotional needs, and he worked hard to develop his talent until he became successful.

Sean Connery

Sean Connery was a successful actor even before his James Bond roles in the '60s, and he is still very successful as an actor and producer today. He still wears the label of one of the sexiest men in the business. Obviously British, but unlike Chaplin, Connery is a suave man of cultured and wealthy origins, right? Think again. His father was a truck driver with a penchant for gambling and whiskey. They lived in a poor industrial area, and Connery was "raised" on the streets where he circulated with the wrong people. He skipped school and had his first sexual encounter around age 8. Did he have good looks going for him at as a youth? At ten years of age, his picture looks like a candidate for a happy face - just a little makeup needed. At age 11, he took two after school jobs to supplement the family income. By age thirteen, in spite of excellent math and sports skills, he left school to work full time, and three years later joined the navy. Ah, yes, coddled in the lap of luxury, he was.

After the Navy he worked odd jobs including posing nude, until he entered the Mr. Universe contest. After the contest, an agent asked him to join the chorus of a musical. It was there that he decided to go into acting. Finding that he had talent, he continued to work on his talent and on educating himself through reading. 

What can be said about Sean Connery is that he came from a deprived background with no advantages. He looked for his abilities and became an actor, and finally a producer who is able to portray people from diverse backgrounds and portray diverse emotions, and he worked hard to develop his talent until he became successful.

You can read Sean Connery's biography in the January 1999 edition of Biography magazine. 

Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan is my most favorite actor. For me he sits in a class that includes Danny Kaye, Walter Matthau, Jim Carrey (and many others) who are spectacular at what they do. These people communicated brilliantly without words, that is, visually (and also with words). They also happen to use comedy and warmth, which is a superior way of addressing issues, or just lightening spirits (entertainment). Comedy also includes physical comedy, but Jackie surpasses them all with spectacle. He is known for doing his own stunts - actually a multiplicity of spectacular stunts in every movie. (Thankfully, I think he is tapering off on these.)

As I have written before on this Web site, Jackie has an unassuming and very visual Charlie Chaplin like quality about him that communicates without words (and endears him to the audience). Surely someone with as much polish, skill, and audience rapport as Jackie Chan would have learned his craft by having all of the benefits of advanced schooling and position in society. When I read his autobiography, I Am Jackie Chan; My Life In Action, a few years ago (on which this information is based), I was in for a big surprise. I highly recommend reading his autobiography.

Jackie's mother and father fled from war-torn China, the future anything but certain, except the strong determination to survive, and the certain knowledge that suffering brings character in manhood. Their son would be no exception. Jackie was born poor, and narrowly escaped the tough streets of 1950s Hong Kong. His father became the cook for the French Ambassador. But escape didn't mean privilege. His home was a barren bedroom with only hand-made furniture, where he and his parents slept until he was 6.

At four, Jackie's father was teaching him kung fu, to strengthen body and mind. Jackie described himself as a big disappointment to his father, lazy, impatient, and with his martial arts knowledge his favorite hobby became fighting other kids. He missed the points of kung fu entirely. The children of Western ambassadors often picked on him, and he began to take delight in defending himself and others. Pain meant nothing.

Jackie entered a good school, but was bored with the inactivity, never did homework, and was disruptive (the class clown). Spending his travel money on snacks, he usually hitchhiked home from school each day, or walked for several hours, typically getting into fights and tearing his school clothes. His fighting with other embassy children nearly caused international incidents. He would have to repeat his first year of school.

Not the scholarly type and out of control, Jackie's formal education was over. What to do with him? The decision became clear when his father was offered a better job with an embassy in Australia. Jackie would remain behind and become a student of the Yu Jim-yuen's China Drama Academy. Chinese Opera - training known for strict discipline.

The academy was a plethora of physical activity, delighting Jackie. He had no idea of the world he was entering. Separated from his mother's tender and caring love, he entered a world in which a boy could be disciplined... even to death. The agreement was for ten years. In return for being rigorously taught, he would do public performances, and do them with precision. For many years he would receive no pay, just room and board.

At first Jackie was ostracized by the other children. He not only was not one of them, he seemed to be the Master's favorite. They hated him for it. They stole his snacks, bullied him, and made his life miserable. This went on for only a short while - one day he was caught trying to retrieve a snack, a nut, and was caned for it. Caned - a very painful punishment. Six lashes by the Master. It was an initiation. He was then welcomed by the others. Next things changed for the worst.

They rose at 5 am, ran laps, and were not allowed a bathroom break until after breakfast. They then practiced for 6 hours. Accidents happened and injuries went untreated. Practice continued - pain was to be endured. If you were alive, you could practice. Punishment for faulty performance or any other infraction was more rigorous exercise. The afternoon then was filled with flexibility exercises. The splits hurt badly, and they were forced to go fully down by the weight of the Master and other students.

Chores came for the tired students after practice, followed by dinner, and then school. The class usually dissolved into chaos. The 12 hour training day continued until bedtime and 5 hours of sleep. Entertainment was unheard of. They were expected to be experts in all of the intricate skills required for Chinese opera, gymnastics, stage combat, mime, acting, and singing, donning intricate makeup and costumes, before they were ever allowed on stage. Life was about struggling, pain, and surviving.

It got worse. When Jackie's mother left for Australia, not only did her visits cease, the Master now adopted Jackie. Rather than allow the students to think that Jackie now had a place of privilege, the Master decided to use him as an example. He would train twice as hard, and when he was punished it would be twice as hard. And when others failed, he also received their punishment, but twice as much of it. Jackie seemed to be a magnet for suffering.

After his ten year agreement was up, Jackie decided to go into the movie business. It was an endeavor filled with more struggling, pain, survival, and self doubt. He began working not as a trained opera performer, but as an extra, playing corpses and things like that. He thought his nose was too big. His first courtship hit a snag, and the love of his life, was suddenly forbidden to see him, breaking up the relationship, so he felt loathing for himself. Jackie had the same self-doubts in life as everyone else.

Jackie got into the stunt business by volunteering to do difficult stunts to prove that they could, or could not, be done. He volunteered for the toughest stunts. He worked continuously in unsafe conditions - unlike the safer conditions demanded by the US movie business. He worked long days, often until ten at night. Jackie's movie career was more tough work in stunts that later became the hallmark of his career. The movie business in Hong Kong paid next to nothing. It was a long, long road for Jackie, with many difficult times, to work his way up to success and eventual international stardom.

Jackie Chan doesn't begrudge the difficult times in his life. They helped make him who he is. Sometimes we growl about our lives when we have to go to school, or we don't have the change for a hamburger, or are deprived of entertainment for a few days, or our careers don't move as fast as we would like. Jackie is an example of what can be accomplished by discipline, that is, dedication and hard work.

Who is this guy?

This man (X) is a person who was raised with the advantages. His parents were wealthy, powerful, and well connected. Do you think that those made the difference for him? Hmmm. X had a nanny from month one. He was rarely seen by his parents who were too busy entertaining and being entertained and doing politics to have time for a child. Despite great wealth, his mother paid so little attention to him that he was often seen in shabby clothes. Was his mother's picture in evidence in later years? No, the picture of his nanny hung in his bedroom until the day he died. 

He was a hyperactive child - his limbs, his face, his mind constantly in motion. He was difficult and troublesome from his early youth. A rebel against authority, his rebellion continued through school and into politics. He had a speech defect, he stammered, especially when nervous. He had one miserable cold after another, and was plagued with bouts of pneumonia most of his life. He had no playmates as a child, he was mainly alone. 

His family life was turbulent, and he went for long periods of time without even seeing his parents. It was easier to know his parents through newspaper articles about them. 

Education? He was sent to boarding school at age seven and never lived at home again except for visits. He skipped school, flaunted authority, and was infamously known as the school's greatest rebel. He simply never mastered any part of mathematics. Required to learn Latin and Greek, and study the classics - he simply wouldn't - he saw no value in them. He refused to learn anything except what he was interested in, but he loved to read history. He made no progress in his studies. The school had floggings every morning for the educationally or behaviorally deserving - up to twenty strokes on a bare rump with a birch rod that left red welts. He was allowed to remain in school only because of his parents.

He was known as the school dunce - the last in his class - even though some of his teachers could plainly see that he was brilliant when he wanted to be. He was nervous on exams - developing a mental block - and did very poorly on them. The other boys disliked him, and he was frequently in debt. He was known as abrasive, careless, accident prone, and slovenly. He planted explosives and blew up a neighborhood building. On the minimally good side, he was good at history, and by age seventeen had become good at fencing - other sports he hated.

His father judged him not sharp enough to study law and encouraged him to enter the Army. When he began trying to enter the Army, his father berated him in letters as worthless. He flunked the Army entrance exams twice and finally squeeked into the lowest qualified units. 

Was X's life ruined by all of this? What do you think happened to X?

  1. He became a great philanthropist and teacher.
  2. He committed suicide on his twentieth birthday because his parents forgot it.
  3. He spent the next twenty years in therapy claiming his parents didn't love him and the school abused him.
  4. He became a great leader.
  5. He became the infamous outlaw of "The Great Train Robbery" fame.
  6. He wasted his life trying to find love and gain self-confidence.
Pop psychology would point us to some negative outcome. Some time later after X had made his way in life, Hitler's war machine loomed on the opposite side of the channel from X's island nation. France and most of Europe had already fallen to the Fuhrer's onslaught. The British Army was trapped on French soil across the channel, helpless to even return home to defend it's own land. Britain stood nearly defenseless - the Naval Fleet was bolstered by tug boats, fishing boats, and pleasure yachts. Britain's southern edge was basically indefensible for geographical reasons. Beaten to a whimpering and ragged skeleton, demoralized beyond reason, there was no hope. 

The King of England sent for Winston Churchill and asked him to form a& government. Hitler, poised for a victory celebration, asked Churchill to negotiate what amounted to a surrender. Hitler didn't know his enemy. Churchill would never give in. He met the task with the same steely determination with which he had faced floggings in his youth. 

Winston Churchill said to the War Cabinet, "If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end when each of us lies choking in our own blood upon the ground." He said to the House, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. ...we shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, ...we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

Winston Churchill went on to lead his nation to victory, and during his lifetime he also wrote many histories and novels. You can read more about the life of Winston Churchill in The Last Lion, by William Manchester.

These five successful people had all the reasons in the world to fail. They faced impediments such as bad health and physical limitations, no family support, family problems, prejudice, severe lack of money, no connections, no opportunity where they lived, unaware of their own talent, lack of education, "nude posing," being in the wrong crowd, no looks...

We usually imagine that our environment is a handicap, never imagining that our miseries can be beneficial. I believe that the contact that the first four of these people had with the common and poor side of life helped them identify with people's desires and aspirations, and through this they were more fully able to portray people in writing and on screen. I believe that Churchill was strengthened by the love and attention of his nanny and some of his teachers, and by the difficulties and miseries he imposed on himself by rebelling against everything and choosing to go his own way. 

I talked to one aspiring producer who revealed to me that he had gone to college to become a child psychologist. But when he started working in that field, he found that his childhood had been so "normal" that he wasn't at all able to relate to the children's problems. So he became a producer and discovered he had some talent in that area. He was soon hired by a large agency. 

We can always find a reason to fail - reasons abound. If we want to control our lives, we need to see the reasons to succeed.

- Scott

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