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”?

  1. We seem to lose something as we grow up. Children have that PRESENT-NESS and through socialization, through rules, regulations, manners, proper-ness…etc., we lose that. Improv helps to free that somewhat — a lot in fact.

    At times I do find myself wondering what’s the worst that can happen. But sometimes the answer itself is scary enough to stop me from leaping forward. So, nowadays I find myself asking a different question: What’s the best thing that could happen if I do leap? If I do risk? If I do nothing at all, then I never get the shot. But at least with the risk, like buying a lottery ticket, there’s a shot, even if it’s minimal. Knowing I have a possibility, a chance, a shot…gives me hope. And sometimes, that’s all I need to remember. Get me out of my negativity and into positivity.

    Love improv! Love it.


    • wolfshades says:

      Me too. I can’t wait to get back into it.

      What you say about “what’s the best thing that could happen if I leap?” resonates. It’s the opposite side of the same coin to my self-talk, in which I say: “I know for a fact I’ll regret not leaping”. That’s what pushes me over the edge. I hate the idea of regrets. Who wants to come to the end of their life, knowing that “well at least I was safe, and my reputation remained intact”. Who wants that?

      The neat thing is that repetition of risky and bold truth-telling behaviour, coupled with the reward that comes with it, reinforces the integrity of your decision. It becomes a way of building a habit of a lifetime of truth-telling. Such a positive thing, in the end, isn’t it?


  2. racheld23 says:

    Interesting.. That was actually uncomfortable for me to read. I felt myself becoming anxious while you were painting under your father’s watchful, drunk, eye..
    My stomach turned at the idea of Improv Comedy… Especially, the first one.
    I HATE attention.. Which is difficult when you are 5’10” and blonde. For many years I wore natural colored clothing…never makeup… Even now, I rarely cut my hair because I hate that first day when everyone notices it.. I dread it!
    I’ve never been able to pinpoint where it comes from… Maybe it’s the drunk father.. While I was never beaten by mine… It was always smartest to disappear.. Verbally and as physically as possible while in the same room during a rage… The men in my family are prone to rages. (this is not to say my father wasn’t also as loving as he knew how.. When he could)

    Hats off to you for overcoming your need for invisibility… My most daring day is wearing a pretty summer dress rather than the simple shorts and t shirt. But, I’m content…
    Just don’t look at me lol


    • wolfshades says:

      That’s a *huge* compliment, Rachel. That reading it made you feel uncomfortable. Far better than the opposite – which would be absence of any feeling at all.

      I wonder: the avoidance of attention seems to have its root in fear. Certainly our situations are similar in that much of my own behaviour had to do with it: fear of being socially ostracized helped me keep my mouth shut; fear of my dad’s violence contributed to my feeling the need to gain weight (and man did I ever – I only lost it after having gone to therapy and learning to recognize what was going on). Most of those fears now are unreasonable, as I finally discovered.

      I hope you’re able to get to the root of yours as well. There’s so much living to do – fear inhibits that. Now my only fear is that I’ll miss out if I don’t continually challenge myself to step out.

      Improv class is actually an *excellent* way to move away from inhibitions, only because of the rules they provide. Two of the most important rules: you can’t say “no” to any offer. While this might be a little scary because it means you have to go along with what someone else suggests for a scene, it also means they have to go with your suggestions. And of course each scene is usually made up of several suggestions – kind of like a conversations.

      The other part of that is the fear of looking foolish. Everyone has to participate (rule number 2) so everyone equally gets a chance to look foolish or to get stumped. I often did. Another rule is that if someone is stumped, someone else has to come in and rescue them by providing another suggestion, or by stealing focus entirely.

      The best thing about the class is that it is not a spectator sport. No one is allowed to sit there and just watch for the whole session. Everyone is in it.

      By the time you’re done, the constant success upon success changes your way of thinking about having the attention. Some of us actually start seeking it out in real life, not to inflate our egos, but to enjoy the experience of being able to make others laugh. It can get addicting actually.

      I’m still a bit shy sometimes – although when I recognize it now, I force myself out because of the logic that says “what’s the worst that can happen?” Generally the answer is “not much”. And I force myself because I’m worried about missing out.

      One time there were a bunch of women at work all gathered in a circle and talking seriously about something. They were being very quiet as they didn’t want to be overheard. It seemed intense. So I walked right up to them (and they immediately got quiet) and I said “SO. WHAT ARE YOU BABES ALL TALKING ABOUT? I COULDN’T HEAR YOU OVER THERE.” Got looks of disbelief, followed by laughter. That laughter fed the monkey and the addiction got only stronger. : )

      (I think I got away with the “babes” thing as it is totally outside of my character, which they all knew. I also have no idea what they were talking about, not that it mattered.)


      • racheld23 says:

        Writing should move the writer and reader… Well done.
        I’ll admit.. This has had my wheels turning today.
        I don’t think I’m shy in social situations.. Actually, quite the opposite.. I’m a pacifist.. But, don’t tick me off.. I am also prone to rage.
        I’m not a wallflower… But, I HATE attention.

        That up and down look from a guy in the store.. Makes me SOOOO uncomfortable…
        As I mentioned, any change will bring extra attention.. So I avoid it.
        I dont wear dangly earings… Too flashy.. But, i think they look beautiful.
        I don’t want to look silly in public, but I don’t feel like that’s the crust of it.

        Liza Minelli… CANNOT stand her. I literally get physically nauseas at the site of her.. No exaggeration.. Have since I was a child.
        It wasn’t until my boyfriend realized that she is the epitome of what I don’t want to be.. Flashy and attention seeking.

        I’m sure some of it comes from being exposed to rages at the slightest mistake.. But, that’s not all of it. I have gotten better over the years.. As I’ve aged. But, the stomach knots are still there..
        I’m sure improv classes would do me a world of good… But, I’m just not that funny!


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