When I was a little boy, I used to watch a couple of my dad’s brothers with curiosity. They were so outgoing and carefree. And drunk too most of the time. The beers just enhanced who they were though – something I believe is true for all drunks.
They were huge men and they truly didn’t care about how they appeared to others and didn’t try to hide much of what they thought. They were irreverent and loud and loved to laugh – unlike my dad who, though he was just as large as them, was the polar opposite in character: angry and belligerent and always spoiling for a fight.
As I grew up, I could never picture myself being as free as my uncles.
While riding your bike up and down the street as a child, the idea of inhibiting yourself in any way doesn’t even cross your mind. You have fights with your friends, you make up, you play “flying saucers” with them (always you get to be the captain, and they are your underlings, if you have any say about it) and together you go through a full range of emotions every day. And the next day you forget what the previous day was about. It doesn’t matter. You are in the now.
Kids don’t seem to have a sense of nostalgia, even for a moment.
Flashes of memory:
Scene: teenaged me on a stepladder, applying paint to the eavestrough of our house. I don’t even recall the colour. Though lost in ADD-addled thought, I was intent on ensuring the paint went where it was supposed to go. The sun was shining in the west, and my dad was out on the front lawn scowling as he watched me work, an ever-present bottle of beer in his hand. I was a little unfocused while my brain processed yet another shiny ball piece of inspiration. He could tell, because he would say something and I would provide one-note replies. In exasperation he bellowed “you’re always in your head. You never talk.” He barked “so what the hell are you thinking about?”
That was a surprise. I knew he was right but it was the first time I remember being forced to be a little self-aware. I probably turned red – I didn’t like being in the spotlight. Not his, anyway. As I struggled to reply, he huffed again and walked away in disgust. A more mature me would have been able to analyze it: I didn’t think I mattered to him. At least, he didn’t show it, in amongst all of the anger and shouting and drinking and swearing and hitting people. So why would it would occur to me to talk with him? I was afraid of him. I was slowly building a belief in his hatred of me. Hindsight reveals so much.
Not being mature, I had no sense of all of this at the time though. I just knew I had somehow angered him, and I was afraid of what that might mean. I had no idea what the consequences would entail. Would I be beaten up? Was he going to use this as an excuse to come at me? God knew. I kept painting, fearful and shaking inside.
Scene: a dark night, my best friend and I were in a camping trailer in his parents’ front yard, talking about something. This was probably within the same year as the painting scene above. I thought Joe was a genius: his marks in school were excellent and we both kind of knew he would end up becoming some sort of an academic. The guy was linear and logical, and we talked about a great many things. This night, however, it was me doing most of the talking. I remember really enjoying the time, until I realized that he wasn’t saying much at all.
“Joe, what’s wrong?”
He looked at me. Shrugged. Put his head down, staring at the floor. ”Nothing”.
Being around a drunk father for most of your life, and being taught how to read him in order to survive, I had developed somewhat of a sense about people, even then. I landed right on the problem. “You think I talk too much don’t you?”
He hesitated. Then nodded.
Shock. Teenage immature revelation.
I shut up.
And then, like many teens, I made a point of fitting in by keeping quiet, and making sure my image was intact. There was no way anyone would ever have to become disgruntled about my saying too much ever again. I had learned my lesson well.
Such behaviour, once learned, becomes hard to unlearn. It becomes your new “normal”. You get used to it. You think this is what you’re supposed to do. This for you is social conditioning, and though marginally disappointing, you’re happy to have learned it. Now you can fit in, and not stand out or become the focus of anyone’s attention. It doesn’t occur to you that “focus of attention” can be a positive thing – you’re only used to seeing it as a negative, ranging from the disdain of your friends to the red-eyed drunken and raging stare of violence.
Scene: I’m an adult, sitting in the basement of a building in the heart of the downtown Toronto entertainment district. A bunch of people – maybe fifteen or so, all different ages and backgrounds – are assembled. All are paying attention to the teacher. Only, it’s not a lecture. He’s giving instructions.
“Never say no”. He starts. ”You may think you have a better idea, and maybe you do. But if someone gives you an offer, take it, and leave your ‘better idea’ in your back pocket. You may get a chance to use it later. It’s more important to follow the lead of the other guy. Think instead of how you can help build his idea.” He smiled. ”Or hers”.
It was a comedy improv class. The objective was to tap into our “inner child” and play pretend with each other. It was entirely positive, and it involved taking the focus, and becoming the center of attention, if only for a few moments.
It was exhilarating. I was the guy on a fishing trip with a friend, and we were discussing my getting a job at his company. And all the while we were sitting in an imaginary boat, casting our lines and winding the reel back in. He built on my idea by presenting an offer: if he could have a date with my wife, he’d see that my job application was approved. My instinct was to immediately say “no” but then I remembered the teacher’s instructions. ”You know – that might work. I’m going to need more than a job though. ” I thought for a moment, while casting the line once again. “Maybe stock options. And your cool new car. That would be my price.” We dickered back and forth, adding conditions and treasures, until we finally ended it by reaching an agreement.
So odd, playing that scene. We had became oblivious to the fact we were both the center of attention – except for the brief moments when the class laughed.
In another improv exercise, we were learning about adding dimensions to our invisible props; to be aware of them. The teacher said “very often you’ll see some actors on stage, sitting in a car. One of them will get out and walk to the other side – RIGHT THROUGH THE IMAGINARY ENGINE. It irks me every time. It destroys the scene. I want you to be aware of your scene, and everything in it, and respect it completely. Make it real.” He looked at us, intently. ”If you can make yourself believe everything in your scene is real, your audience will follow you and they’ll believe it too. Every time.”
To illustrate that point, the teacher chose an imaginary thick heavy door that didn’t open too well. One by one, classmates went up to the door, used big heavy keys to unlock it, and then struggled to get it open. Then they would struggle just as hard to pull it closed behind them. Then they would sit down, or go to an imaginary fridge, grab an invisible drink and open it. Or read a newspaper. About four or five of them went up. Then I had an idea: I walked up, struggled with that same door, got inside and closed it. Then, with my back ramrod straight, I looked around at them in disgust. ”One, two, three….” I counted them all. “All five of you are in here… ” I raised my voice in anger. ”….and there are 1,500 prisoners out there, all unsupervised.” Their eyes all widened and they got up in a rush and scrambled to get out the door.
The class laughed. That did it. The seed was planted. Attention. Positive attention. Instant addiction.
Scene: a sports bar in a small town. Noon hour. About seven colleagues and I sitting around a table, having lunch. A TV set was situated on a shelf that was close to the ceiling, and it was tuned to a music video station. The theme was 90′s music, and we were enjoying it, and discussing the songs as they came on.
Then the Divinyls’ song “I Touch Myself” came on. Anyone who’s ever heard it knows the lyrics fairly well. It features a woman singing to her lover about how she masturbates when she thinks of him.
The conversation around the table stopped abruptly. Most of us were guys, and we couldn’t even look at each other. For some reason I found this hilarious. My improv-enhanced mind whirled with possibility.
I cleared my throat, turned and looked at the guy next to me (who, aware of my gaze, elected to stare with apparent focused and fascinated attention at his plate of fries). In the deepest voice I could muster I growled “kind of embarrassing isn’t it?”
The table exploded with laughter.
I didn’t know it then, but I was reprogramming myself. Detoxing from a lifetime of self-repression. Learning that embarrassment should be reserved for honest mistakes, not for honest behaviour. Not for speaking out. Not for truth-telling, no matter how ridiculous or outrageous the truth, or even whether it was couched in humour or bold straight talk.
I brought that dynamic to my workplace, often blurting out wild-eyed stuff to the disbelief and laughter of my friends and co-workers. Safety doesn’t seem that much of a factor anymore. And even when there is the possibility of violence – like on a crowded subway or busy mall – it’s better to face it head-on, with truth. People truly don’t expect that. They expect fear, and hiding.
I was learning that you get a lot more done, accomplish more, find more satisfaction in throwing off the safety of quiet, and replacing it with risk, and attitude and laughter.
To this day, I still have to coach myself though. What about you? Do you find yourself, as I do, having to repeat “what’s the worst that can happen” to yourself? Do you find what that is, and then say to yourself “to hell with it – I’m doing or saying this, and if they don’t like it, or me, that’s too bad”?