Monday, December 3, 2018

Pointing My Skis Downhill

I have never liked skiing very much. I did not grow up in a family that skied. The first time I went was in college and I was not very good. Then as a 30-year old I went skiing in Montana with Erica and her brother.  They took me way up to the top of a Bridger Bowl intermediate level ski run and told me it would be fine.

It wasn't fine.

It took me at least an hour to make it to the bottom and it was hell. Whenever I would point my skis downhill I would start to pick up speed and panic. I felt out of control. I DO NOT like to feel out of control, so I would snowplow or turn parallel to the hill and slide across the face until I stopped. In this way, I ever-so-slowly got to the bottom of the run.

Fast forward ten years: I am teaching at an elementary school in New Haven and we take our kids skiing at Mt. Southington.  (There are no mountains in Connecticut, so Mt. Southington is misnamed--it's really just a big hill.) The gym teacher arranged the trip each year and I got to go as a chaperone for my 6th graders.  There was no pressure on me to ski, so I had room to go and learn at my own pace and in my own way.

Even given that freedom to learn at my own pace, it still took three trips for me to discover something essential:  the only way to get better at skiing would be to let my skis point downhill. Yes, if I did I would pick up speed and Yes, it would feel scary. But nothing terrible would happen. I could always just turn and slow down if it felt too bad. Or I'd fall. Then I'd get back up and keep skiing.

I got much better at skiing after that.

The underlying lesson—that to get better at something you sometimes have to feel bad at it, (and maybe even out of control), is coming in handy years later.

I recently took up acting as a thing I do. It has been a revelation. I started acting lessons precisely because I wanted to do something that would be hard and scary. And it has been both of these things. But it has also been a way to understand myself and other people better. In order to be someone else on-stage or on-camera I have to have a good sense of what that person is thinking and feeling and then I have to find ways to convey that interior state to an audience using my face and my body as much as the words of the script.

I have been in two acting class showcases, two short plays, and six student films in the past year.  I have liked being in the films. But I have LOVED being in the showcases and the plays. There is something about being on stage in front of a live audience that is so thrilling.  The first time I performed in front of an audience there were 80 people in the crowd in an intimate theater at Cornell’s Risley Hall. Just before I took the stage I felt so nervous I was shaking and my mouth was entirely dry.
The applause for the scene before mine ended and I stepped out onto the stage. I took a deep breath and let the words of the script take over. Before I knew it, the scene was done, people were clapping, and I left the stage. I have no specific recollections of my five minutes performing the scene. The script and the scene had a gravity of their own—just like a ski run—and I had pointed my skis downhill and let them take me.

It was exhilarating.

In my three chances to be on stage since then, the same thing has happened each time. I work very hard to memorize my lines, so that when it is time to go, I don’t have to think about them at all. I also work hard to come to an understanding of who the character is that is speaking the lines. These characters are not me so when the gravity hits it can’t just be me up there saying lines. It has to be real in the context of the scene.

Once the lights have come up I have been able to turn downhill and let things play out without fear or even self-awareness. I have seen videos of these performances after the fact. They’re not bad. If I were in the audience, I would not be thinking, “that guy really sucks.”

A few weekends ago I was filming a scene for an Ithaca College student film. It is called “Assassin Camp” and I had a small role as a dorky dad who is sending his high school son off to Film Camp. There is a scene where I drive my boy to the college where camp is being held, pull up in front, and get out to give him an incredibly awkward hug. And then, as he walks away, I yell out “Knock ‘em dead!” while I thrust out a big thumbs up.

We filmed the first take and the director said, “Give me more on the thumbs up.” So we filmed it again and I thought I gave him more. He called “Cut!” and said “Even bigger. There is no such thing as too big with this line.” So we filmed it again. And again I was too restrained. Finally, I remembered the idea of pointing my skis downhill and the director said, “let’s just do this ten different times and play with it—go HUGE!”

So I did and if felt great. I had to turn off any inner voice I was hearing and simply be that dorkiest of all dads and then just let it rip.

Being me, I often get stuck in the mistaken belief that there is one right way to do something. Combine this belief with a real fear of being bad at things and you have a recipe for paralyzing self-doubt and inaction. From the outside this often looks like passivity or an unwillingness to actually do anything. My experience of these moments where I really want to be taking an action or trying a new thing is anything but passive.

My interior monologue runs something like this:

“I know I need to be doing something right now. Why aren’t I doing it? What is wrong with me? Shit? What is wrong with me? Okay—I’m going to count to three and then I’m just going to do it….one…two…thr—but wait, something just changed…maybe now is not the right time.  And maybe the thing is the wrong thing.....I’ll do it later. Yeah—this is definitely NOT the right time…..I will surely do it later.”

It can go on like this for a very long time. Days. Weeks. Years, in some cases.

But now, when I find myself spinning my internal wheels like this, I can break into the monologue and remind myself to turn the skis and be okay feeling a little out of control.

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