Little Dragon

by Sam D. Lyons

His passion might have been in the martial arts, but Bruce Lee’s most constant ambition was to achieve worldwide superstardom in films. That surprised me to learn, though I didn’t know much about him anyway before reading the book by Matthew Polly, Bruce Lee: a life.

I knew only that his fame as a fighter was nearly matched by his reputation as a philosopher; and so I guess he always struck me as being too far above the pursuit of something as egocentric as fame and global superstardom.  But then, it turns out he was a pretty egotistical guy, and this ambition might have been every bit as attributable to vanity as it was practicality.

For one thing, yes, he had a lot of swagger and bragged often.  In fact, it’s a character trait that took center-stage recently in Quentin Tarantino’s latest Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in a scene where Bruce Lee challenges a stunt man, played by Brad Pitt, to a fight after Pitt’s character raises doubts about whether Lee could defeat Muhammad Ali.  Seconds before, Lee had insisted that he could make Ali a cripple.  

The film sparked controversy among Lee’s fans, as well as friends and family, who regarded the depiction as distastefully over the top, while further citing Bruce Lee’s deep admiration for Muhammad Ali. In an interview for The Wrap, Polly himself weighed in on the scene.

“Bruce Lee was often a cocky, strutting, braggart,” Polly says.  “But Tarantino took those traits and exaggerated them to the point of a ‘SNL’ caricature.”

It may indeed be easy to observe Lee’s cockiness and vanity and think less of him for it.  I’ll admit that I did too while reading the book, until I began questioning whether it said more about me and less about Bruce.  This book is not just the story of Bruce Lee, after all, but a compelling portrait of ambition, and devotion to oneself and self-actualization.

Bruce Lee from his unfinished film ‘Game of Death’

I think it’s safe to say our relationship with ambition has proven complicated over the years, at least in America.  On the one hand, we celebrate it as an integral component of success, something that neatly ties into the more traditional, individualistic values of the American Dream.   On the other hand, we relate to it with an equal degree of skepticism, a wariness of how easily and suddenly it can morph into selfishness, ruthlessness and greed.

Lately I’ve come to identify two seemingly separate value systems at the heart of that ethos, counterbalancing eachother in a continuous drama playing out in the mind of the individual, and by extension, in the whole history of mankind: service to oneself and service to others.

Now in reading Bruce Lee’s story, it might be easier to assume that he most definitely took the more individualistic route.  For example, at first glance, someone who frequently brags about how great they are might not seem like the most likely person to prioritize other people’s needs over their own.  He also took virtually no interest in social and political issues or the larger news of the world.  But in true Bruce Lee fashion, examining this a little further leads to larger, more philosophical questions.  Chief among them, to what degree does self-devotion translate into service to others?

It’s another question probably better suited for another time.  The book makes no claim to know the answer, and I won’t either.  Like so many of the best questions, there may not be even an ultimate answer that can be applied to every situation. 

Still, in pursuing that ambition, Bruce Lee left an indelible mark on our culture, revolutionizing the film industry around the world and popularizing martial arts into a global phenomenon and respected institution. 

It’s important to understand because it suggests Lee’s own awareness of the more practical benefits of achieving fame; that while he might have been as keen as the next guy in simply seeing his face and name all lit up on the silver screen, he knew full well that those same benefits extended far beyond himself.

Starring on screen as a strong, confident Chinese man with attitude, acting not in some peripheral, subservient ‘butler’ role–the kind that was typically given to Asian actors next to their white co-stars–but as a leading man with more wit, charisma, charm and sophistication than any action movie star before or perhaps since, Bruce Lee left an incalculable influence on the collective consciousness for millions of people around the world, certainly for the continent of Asia, and most specifically for the Chinese, who for centuries had long suffered under the stigma of being labeled the “sick man of Asia.” 

Bruce Lee’s fame shattered that image, and his influence continues to empower generations of people, young and old, navigating their own paths to self-empowerment, in the continued realization of who they are, and what they want to be. 

Still, it seems that same ambition cut his life tragically short.  At age 32, he suffered a cerebral edema and died shortly before the release of Enter the Dragon, the very film which would catapult him into fame and set that future influence into motion. 

While the precise cause of the edema is still met with some uncertainty by medical experts and biographers, Polly makes a strong case for heat stroke/hypothermia caused by overexertion and sleep deprivation during the production of the film.  Enter the Dragon was his first starring role in an American movie, and he was very much aware of it’s potential impact as the perfect platform to introduce both himself and his philosophies of self-empowerment to the world. 

The Man Himself

With the film’s success, Bruce Lee had finally achieved much of what he envisioned, only posthumously; and as he paid the ultimate price, we might question whether it was even worth it.  The author makes no overt claim to know one way or another, though he does conclude that his death was not a tragedy because, as he writes, Bruce Lee’s life was a triumph.   

“Even though I, Bruce Lee, may die someday without fulfilling all of my ambitions, I feel no sorrow,” he once said.  “I did what I wanted to do. What I’ve done, I’ve done with sincerity and to the best of my ability. You can’t expect much more from life.”

Issue #2 / Quinby & Co.

 

 

Kerouac

I read your words late this morning
to rock and roll in
the living room
booming, resounding
as clouds roll, overcast
in mysterious
oncoming afternoon
daze………

Are we here?
Is everybody in? Is that working now.
Is it just me?
Do I type too fast? I am just?
Trying
to type
my
poem, for Kerouac
triumphant
having licked the devil
toward the end of his book
of pomes
I like that
lip drummer
Pome
little sketches
all that was familiar to me
returns to me
as Jack and I
lick those demons
once again
yea once and
for all

Issue #1
Q&Co.

#24/8

I keep reading about your life
wanting to know more
and see, increasingly
how much one can learn
from you, by your example.
your level of commitment
your discipline, vision
your athleticism
and focus
a keen intellect.
with respect to your craft
and further…
a heightened awareness
of self

a devotion
to your family
and your friends

I know the mamba
as the mentality lives
it continues to elevate
an inspiration to millions
as the image of you,
determined and true
lives on,
a global icon, yea
but also a local hero
a beloved father
husband
friend

we wave the purple and gold
numbers 24 and 8
we hold up that jersey
bearing your name

from your hometown of Philly,
from which signed & sealed,
came the USA to that golden coast
your adopted home
to these streets of LA

here your legacy lives
far beyond the game,
as we honor all that you gave
and worked to create,
in others and in yourself
it’s a calling, a cause
to celebrate
a reminder each day,
of what it is
to live

& what it is
to be great

Issue #1
Q&Co.

Orphan in Toledo

Note from the Editor: Cal Corso. Actor, poet, frenetic wild child and the natural leader of this band of hooligans. Orphaned as a small boy and raised by his aunt. Moved to California in 2017 accompanied by Jude Moonlight where he fell in with an odd assortment of characters and has since been leapfrogging from the backseat of his car to the old movie theaters on the fringes of town, from the bars, cafes and pool halls in and around the city of angels up the golden coast to the cliffs of Big Sur.

Occasionally he makes trips to Spain, which he claims to be his mother country, though this has yet to be confirmed or denied. He began these trips somewhat recently. His first was with a girl he knew, way back when, to Madrid and later into Toledo, the historic capital of the old Spanish kingdom.

I’ll let him take the reigns from here, since I think he might be able to tell the story better than I.

Ren Michael_

Alley cats; Toledo, ESP

I’d just come in from Madrid, on the train which leaves out of the Atocha station at the edge of town.  That is, the old town.  The part where I did most of my running around, with the Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace to the west, the Paseo del Prado to the east, the Reina Sofia museum to the south and the Grand Via to the north; all anchored in its center by the Puerta del Sol.

Madrid Atocha; Madrid, ESP

I only start in Madrid because that’s where my adventures in Europe began.  While it is the heart of Castilla and the La Mancha region, at least officially speaking, for me the true heart and soul of Spain lies in Toledo.

I’m one of those old-fashioned cowhands who thinks that to truly get to know a place, you have to dive into its history. As I mentioned, Toledo is known as the Imperial City and once served as the capital of the old Spanish Kingdom. Its long history of steel-working and sword-making date back to the Roman Empire. In fact, today you can purchase some of the finest steel blades produced in all the world.

I might have even pictured myself as some valiant knight just once or twice, between every glimpse of medieval architecture as I walked the town’s narrow, labyrinthian alleyways.

I’ve always been a good navigator, and I got lost almost every time I walked from one end of town to another. Not that I minded in the slightest, since each time I discovered something new. A cafe, castle, cathedral or chocolatier I hadn’t yet seen.

Labyrinthian alleys of Toledo; Toledo, ESP

The real crux of the matter is this, most of what you see there has been around for many hundreds of years, and when you imagine the old kingdom rising to prominence from this city perched on a hill surrounded by the river, as a moat surrounds a fortress, you can’t help but get swept up in its beginnings and visualize those knights and soldiers walking beside civilians up and down the streets every day.

Shadows in the alley; Toledo, ESP

Now yes, my ancestors do come from this part of the world, it’s true; and you might have heard that I was orphaned as a young lad and so maybe there’s some part of me that’s always seeking to better understand where I come from. Maybe lineage is more important for me than it is for others, and with that comes a deeper appreciation for history. But I’ve never been one to remember dates or any one king or queen’s name.

Twilight on the edge of town; Toledo, ESP

In Toledo, I was far more caught up with simply being in a place that was, and still feels very much like the heart of Castilla, the heart of Spain. Maybe it was the surviving architecture, or maybe the people. Maybe yet, the prevailing sense of quiet whenever I looked out over the rooftops or turned down some secluded street corner that lent itself to something bigger, and older, than what I could see with my own pair of eyes. In any case, it wasn’t something that I intellectualized too deeply or even thought twice about. I just felt it. It hit me the moment I first set foot in town and in some ways, it’s stayed with me ever since.

View of the Alcázar de Toledo from across the Rio Tajo, Toledo, ESP

Few places in Toledo left so great an impression on me as one particular point near the Alcazar, the main castle on the west end of town. As you pass through the main courtyard there, beyond the statue of Cervantes and down the stairwell descending toward the ravine, you’ll find a pathway leading to an overlook with a view of the bridge crossing the river.

I wrote a sketch not long ago when I was there.

Rio Tajo; Toledo, ESP

Hidden
from the city
an outpost, abandoned
dry, graffiti on the walls
I stand, try to frame
the sky at dusk

and the river…
running through
the bridge of cobblestone
the lonesome,
strung-out
croon
the whole world’s waiting
from the gaping canyons, high
to the European sundowns
as the mighty knights cry:

Welcome to Toledo, brother
in the shadow of the dawn
we are but ghosts, old
soldiers, still at night
you might hear
our song

& your shoes are torn
you’ve got no sword,
you’re like a man
without a name
yet in your heart
your family mark,
know we’re with you all the way

“Carry on, dear son,” I hear
“I am ever at your side.”

so I take my shoes and ride in the night
‘Neath the stars
of the Spanish skies

‘Rooftops of Toledo’ by Ren Michael

I can relate to that old painter El Greco, the Greek who decided to set up shop in Toledo, where he lived and worked for the latter half of his life. Much of his work can be viewed throughout town, in various cathedrals and also at Museo del Greco, in the Jewish Quarter, on the opposite end from the Alcazar.

My own favorite El Greco painting is actually in New York City, but still it’s a view of Toledo, as the name indicates. I think it honors much of how I personally feel about the city. Toledo, a place so closely tied to the surrounding land, river and sky that all seem to be one singular force, some kind of phantasmal city where the ghosts of knights reside, keeping their vigil, still honoring an age-old devotion. Even in death.

‘View of Toledo’ by Doménikos Theotokópoulos ‘El Greco’

There’s a monastery close to the El Greco museum. San Juan de los Reyes, it’s called. Saint John of the Monarchs. I pictured myself living there, as a monk. I figured if any city allows for a life of humble living, of quiet study and reflection, it’s Toledo. Not exactly a rambunctious town, but certainly one where you can take a pause, a moment of silence, and reflect on those who’ve come before. In this city, after all, it’s like they’re never really gone.

Issue #1
Q&Co.