Posts Tagged ‘risk’

Attention

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.

(Nothing happened)

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”?

“I DON’T BELIEVE YOU ALVIN!!!”  Teacher barked in clear frustration.  “You’re acting.  Stop it!”

Teacher sat back in his chair, face all red, incensed.   “Bob, sit down.  Let me work with him.”

Bobby quickly made his way to his seat and Teacher stood up at the front of the room and faced Alvin.

“You’re acting”, said Teacher.

“I’m acting” replied Alvin.

“No.  You’re acting.”

“I’m acting” said Alvin, puzzled.

“You need to stop acting”

“I need to stop acting”

Teacher exploded.  “YOU NEED TO STOP ACTING”

Alvin mildly replied “I need to stop acting”

“GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD!’  Teacher blasted the words right in his face, spittle flying.

“Get out of my head” replied Alvin, still mild.  Still controlled.

Teacher was anything but controlled.  “GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD!!!”

This acting exercise, of repetition back and forth between the two, went on for some time.  The rest of the students watched the two, entirely rapt, tense.

Teacher was getting angrier by the moment.  His fists clenched, the veins in his neck were bulging.   Alvin remained a shining example of control.

“YOU NEED TO GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY CLASS”

“I need to get the fuck out of your class”

“YES I WANT YOU TO GO, NOW!!” he barked.

‘Yes you want me to go now.” Alvin replied, seemingly obvious to the dangerous rage.

“GET THE FUCK OUT ALVIN!!!”

“I….”  Alvin faltered.

One of the students jumped up, walked over to Alvin.  “Dude, the exercise is over.  You need to leave.”

Alvin finally realized the Teacher was serious.  It was apparent to everyone in the class except Alvin that he was not cut out for this work.  He was somehow blocked, and there was no way around it.  He could not express emotion, which was what the exercise was all about.  Teacher sat back down, face still red, while Alvin got his stuff together and made his way out.

I sat there, a little stunned.  My problem was similar to Alvin’s though not so acute.  I’d been able to express true emotion in this class, except for one:  anger.  Every time I tried, Teacher called me on it.  “Stop.  You’re acting.  Stop acting.  Now, try again.”

The difference between a good actor and a bad one is that the good one is telling the truth.  The bad one is lying, but trying to convince that he’s being sincere.

Truth-telling truth-tellers.

It took me a long time to realize what that means, or to find the label to something I knew to be true.

For the longest time I wondered why I was so irritated with phone calls.  Maybe I was being snobby?   That didn’t ring true.  If anything I was more accommodating than the average guy.  Or the average Canadian for that matter.  (And you KNOW Canadians are pretty damned accommodating, often bending over backward to help you out.  It’s not a wild stereotype when I say that many of us will say “sorry” when you step on our foot.)

Yet, when I received a phone call, I couldn’t wait to put the phone down.  What was that about?  It really bothered me.  Some of the people I loved and respected would call, and almost always I couldn’t wait to get off of the phone.  There have been times when I gave serious thought to getting rid of all of the phones in my life.  There’s a phone at my workplace.  Maybe I could make do with that, or with pay phones.

Yet, this revulsion for phone calls wasn’t universal.  There were maybe two people who would brighten my day when they called.  And I knew I could spend hours on the phone with them without giving thought to ending their call.

Finally I realized what it was.

Truth-telling.

Any guy who’s in a relationship with a woman, will attest to the fact that the lazy practice of apologizing to his woman in order to get back into her good graces (especially when we don’t know what wrong we’ve done) doesn’t work.  Invariable, our women will ask “what are you sorry for, exactly?”    They are looking for specificity.  They want to know that we know exactly what we’ve done wrong, that we recognize it, and will attempt to change our behaviour in the future.

Truth-telling.  They’re interested in our truths, more than our blanket apologies.

Phone calls, or conversations in the office that revolve around trivial stuff might be of interest to some people.  Not to me though.  I could give a rat’s ass about so many trivial things.  I have no interest in polite and pointless discussion.  Pretending interest is the opposite of truth-telling.   For me, it is creative suicide.  Hanging from the patter until dead.

Hence the hated phone calls.  Except for ones received from a few people .   The difference with them?   They delved deep into things.  They were curious, and alive and passionate.  We didn’t talk about the obvious.  Not about the weather (unless it was stormy, and a tree fell down, and an adventure ensued).   Nor about what we ate that day (unless it was monkey brains, and it tasted just like squid, and was delicious, particularly with tartar sauce).

We compared notes on discoveries.  The warp and woof of universal truths.  Things we’d observed – in each other, and in other people.  We were people watchers.  We were empaths.  Anything that threatened to take us down the path of the verbal rut was jettisoned quickly, with relief.

It’s an extension of our takes on life – whether the intent is to grow, to find freedom from expectation, with the ultimate intent of flight.

Truth-telling.

It removes you from social niceties.  It gives you an appearance of danger.  Truth-tellers are generally not that predictable.   They don’t fit into the expected, the norm.  You don’t know what they’re going to say, or do.   Henry Rollins – truth-teller.  Unpredictable, dangerous.   Clint Eastwood.  Another truth-teller.   I think Bono is one too.

My acting teacher – the one I mentioned at the start of this blog.  He was a definite truth-teller.

I remember one bright shining moment of truth-telling at one of his classes.

It was my turn to get to the front of the class.   Whenever it was our turn, Teacher would pair us up with another student.  The only direction was to say something.  Anything.  And the other guy had to repeat and reflect it back.  The intent was to tap into real emotion.  So we never knew where it would go.  It was exhilarating, exciting and just a little bit scary, because it meant being vulnerable.

This time, Teacher paired me up with…..his girlfriend.

I shook my head, startled.  And then I settled in.

The first thing I noticed was that she was beautiful.   It crossed my mind that if I said my truth, Teacher might not like it.   Teacher was unpredictable, and could switch on real emotion at the drop of a hat.   One real scary dude.   Still, I thought, it’s risky but I have to do it.  I have to be real.  I can’t pretend.

So …..I smiled at her.   Teacher’s girlfriend.   She smiled back.

I gulped, because her smile affected me so much.

She started the exercise.   “You gulped.”

“I gulped” I said, nodding.

“You gulped”, she said, teasing.

“Yes, I gulped” Now I was grinning, from ear to ear.

“You’re happy” she said.

“Yes, I’m happy” I said.

Then before she could reply, I inserted a new phrase.  “You make me feel silly.”

“I make you feel silly”

“Yes” I was smiling so hard I could feel a tear of joy starting at my eyes.  It freaked me out a bit, but I had to let it go. “You make me feel silly”

“I make you feel silly” now she was grinning hard.

We went back and forth for a while, venturing a new phrase now and then, as the passion slowly built.  It took a while.

Eventually, I got to:  “you’re so bright”

“I’m so…..bright?” she asked, a slight frown at her forehead.

I corrected myself.  “Your eyes are so bright”   And so help me God – they really were.  Her eyes were shining.  I can still see them, even now.

“My eyes are bright”  she smiled, hearing the truth.

“Your eyes are bright”

She smiled and said nothing.   Teacher jumped in immediately.  “Continue!”

She cocked her head, and, still smiling, said “you’re messed up”.

Wham.  Truth.

“YES.  I’m completely messed up.”

“You’re completely messed up”

I took the next step.  “You’re messing me up”

Her face gained colour.  “I’m messing you up.”

The room was completely quiet.  Every student was leaning forward on their chairs.  I didn’t look at them, but knew exactly what was going on.  Except for Teacher.  I had no idea what he was doing.  I didn’t even want to think about him.

“Yeah, you’re messing me up.”

“Yes I’m messing you up”.  She smiled so sweetly.  (And when she did that – it *completely* messed me up)

“I want to get close to you”

I heard the class gasp.

She repeated it back, a little more quietly.  “You want to get close to me.”

“I really want to get close to you.”

“You—”   Teacher jumped up, interrupting.  “Wait a minute”

I thought “ok this is it.  He’s putting us out of our misery”  Only, he wasn’t.   He grabbed two chairs and brought them to the front of the room, facing them to each other, only a few inches apart.

“Ok” said Teacher.   “Sit there.  And continue.”

We sat.

I looked closely into her eyes.  We weren’t smiling anymore.

“We’re close to each other”

She said “we’re close to each other”

“So close” I almost breathed the words.

“So close” she murmured.

Back and forth, looking deeply into each other’s eyes.  We repeated and repeated.  It was all truth.

Finally, I whispered “I want to kiss you”

She stayed close, looking deeply into my eyes.  “You want to kiss me.”

“I want to kiss you.”

We stayed there, silent.  And we let the silence take over.  The class was silent.  I’ve never felt such stillness.

And then Teacher stood up and walked over to us.   “Well done.”

I heard the class let go of its breath.  And then they applauded.

Truth-telling.

There was an emotional after-glow to that truth exercise.   I could tell she felt it, because I saw it in her quick smiles and glances in my direction.  I could still feel my heart pounding too.   Teacher knew it to be truth, and he knew that’s as far as it went.

Once you dive into the ocean of truth-telling, anything less is a rip-off.  A facile and pointless exercise.   A spiritual hotdog when you’re craving a thick juicy peppercorn steak.