Sunday, July 23, 2017

Keep On Dancing

I like dancing.

But I didn’t always.

Like the majority of adolescent boys, I didn’t come to dancing with any recognizable skill out of the chute. I was self-conscious about my skinny body and my less than perfect rhythm. Moreover, there’s the sheer action associated with dancing. Speaking up in class is a courageous act: putting your ideas and your voice up for the public scrutiny of a classroom of peers--friends, enemies, and crushes alike--besides the judgment of the teacher as to whether your ideas have any merit. But dancing is so much more. Putting your body, flailing limbs and all, on display in an effort to move with feigned confidence and demonstrate your athleticism, your cool, perhaps even your sex appeal.

That’s a lot to consider putting out into the world in the seventh grade.

So, the first dances I went to in middle school, I did not dance. I did, through an elaborate network of friends asking for me, ask several girls to dance (no dice) but rarely ventured onto the dancefloor myself, or when I did it was more often than not to comedic effect--imitating the head-banging motions of Beavis and Butthead or doing the sprinkler. Safe moves, because I was in on the joke, and I wasn’t supposed to look good so much as I conjured images of other people being funny.

Then I went away to camp.

When I discuss the social benefits of my summers with the Center for Talented Youth, it’s become a go-to anecdote to recall the first time I slow danced girl, and more particularly to recall that awkward transition in “Stairway To Heaven” from soft meditation to electric rock and roll song. (For fans of Freaks and Geeks, you might recognize my plight in Sam’s first dance with Cindy Saunders, to “Come Sail Away.”)

Dancing with a girl felt momentous at the time, and it’s a good hook for a quick anecdote. But in retrospect, those Friday and Saturday nights at CTY were about more than a coming of age moment when it came to sexuality or romance. What stands out even more is the recollection of bobbing up and down and from side to side in a circle of friends, in which not one of us could really, objectively dance that well, and not one of us really, objectively cared. I remember that last dance of my first summer there and a sense of pride at having danced to every single song that night.

And the enthusiasm did transfer to my year-round life, where I started to dance more. I was rarely the one to start a circle at a middle school or high school dance, but there was more than one time when I was the second or third party in, or the first boy to do so--a fact that never ceased to surprise my friends who knew me to be quieter and more serious than all of that.

The dam truly broke for me when, in my junior year, one of the dances hosted a lip synch contest. I developed a full-on routine and choreography to Stroke 9’s “Little Black Backpack,” practiced on a daily basis, and signed up to compete. The night of the show, I recall friends expressing their doubts, certain I was about to embarrass myself and, in the same breath saying they would perform with me but they didn’t know the song at all--code for, if I wasn’t going to bail, they sure as hell weren’t going down with the sinking ship.

In my mind, the lip synch performance was great. Epic. All the swagger of a rock n roll star, amplified by the fact that no one knew I had that performance in me.

To my knowledge, no video of this performance exists, so I can’t watch it with a more objective eye. That said, when I think back on it, I really can’t imagine that it was objectively great. I can remember that moment when a hundred other kids started clapping along, though. That there were screams and hollers of support in all of the key moments I had planned as high spots in the performance. That a rush of people--some of whom I had considered friends, and some of whom I had not--came at me as I posed at the song’s finish, with hugs and high fives—about the closest I ever got to a high school movie moment of triumph. I had won the big game, danced with the prom queen, punched out the bully. All of that sentiment wrapped up into four minutes of dancing and the immediate aftermath.

That moment had a lot less to do with dancing well than what I like to think was a manifestation of everyone’s inner geek and everyone’s inner exhibitionist. That moment of letting go of the fear of looking foolish in favor of doing something bold, incredibly un-cool (when you consider the cumulative hours of preparatory work for a performance at a high school dance) and, perhaps most importantly, fun.

This is the lesson, so obvious, and yet so hard to believe in at the moment of action. The overwhelming number of settings in which dance would naturally play a part, no one cares how anyone else looks dancing--if anything, they’re worried about themselves. After the moment has passed, when a person gets in the groove, dancing is irresistibly fun. But prior to that moment, in making a conscious decision about whether or not to get on the dance floor at that bar or that wedding or that party, it can feel like the world.

I’ve never seen the movie, We Bought A Zoo, but there’s a particular line from the trailer that I’ve loved since the first time I heard it, in the dark of a theater, waiting watch another film:

“all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

Strip away Matt Damon talking to his movie-son. The logic applies to any range of situations from the decision to buy a zoo to asking someone out to dinner. To the choice to dance.

Dancing isn’t for everybody or every situation. But I dare say that it’s for a lot more people and a lot more situations than people care to admit on a day-to-day basis. It can mean the difference between blending in and standing out. Between a moment you look back on with regret and a moment of triumph. Between being too cool, or too old, or too professional, and having the time of your life.

It starts with that moment of courage. It can lead to a whole lot more.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Sock Puppets

The last semester of my MA program in writing was dedicated to the thesis—seventy-to-eighty pages of work, revised through an intensive partnership with an advisor, plus a weekly class when folks finishing their time with the program from each of the different genres (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and science writing) came together to discuss their theses, elements of craft, and what we would do once we were done with the program.

The capstone to all of that was a reading. Each of the graduates had about eight minutes to read a selection of their work for an audience of fellow students, faculty, alums, and whatever family or friends attended.

I had completed the MA part-time via night school, while working a full-time job. It took four and a half years and during that time I attended just about every these reading. I knew what I was getting into.

Still, I was nervous.

I’ve had my share of public speaking engagements and I’ve read my work at plenty of open mics. All considered, I was probably as well prepared for this reading as I could be. Still there’s a sense of gravity to events like this--that as much as they are meant to be a celebration of work, they also mean putting your work up to public scrutiny, and yourself as the conduit for your work reaching an audience made up mostly of people who haven’t read your work before and who never will again.

I was reading about clowns.

One of the stories in my thesis was “Clown Faces,” a story later published in an anthology called Things You Can Create, which I had revised heavily over the course of my thesis term, and I’d be reading from a particularly dark new segment of it--a portion when an evil clown who dropped out of clown college contemplates unleashing a lion on the other members of a circus.

In an effort to counteract the gloom of the piece and add an especially surreal layer, I decided to read while wearing a big red clown nose.

As I prepared for the reading, looking at myself in the mirror as I familiarized myself with lines and memorized key sentences, I realized another advantage of the clown nose. It was funny.

In a public speaking/reading trick that I have learned and forgotten over and over throughout the years, if I can get a crowd laughing, and particularly if I’m laughing with them early on, it can be a tremendous means to diffuse tension. The clown nose looked to be my answer this time around.

And then another answer came up.

One of the poets reading that same night (to protect the innocent, we'll call her Julie) was particularly nerved up about the prospect of sharing her work with an audience, particularly a poem posed as a dialogue between two characters, when she didn’t know how on earth the audience would follow what was going on.

I happened to walk into one of our final classes before the reading, just as she was venting this trepidation, and more importantly just as another classmate suggested that she do the reading with sock puppets.

“That sounds awesome,” I said as I took my seat, only fifty percent aware of what they were talking about. “And I’d be down to play one of the sock puppets.”

“Really?” Julia asked.

I had made the remark off the cuff, and assumed that the whole thing was a joke. It occurred to me in that moment that it may actually be serious, and that if I, who was vocally encouraging her, back pedaled out it could be seen as a real jerk move. So, I said, “Of course.”

I wasn’t sure how serious either one of us were.

But the night of the reading arrived. As always, bottles of cheap wine abounded in the lobby. I poured my first glass. When Julia found me she was already on her third glass and rapidly approaching the line at which one becomes too drunk for a reading to be a good idea.

She handed me my puppet--a bright red wool sock with googly eyes glued to it. “Don’t worry, they’re new socks,” she said. A second later, she handed me the poem, delineated on the page like a script.

Julia read early on, and she did well, in a series of poems that culminated in her inviting me to the podium. I bounded out of the audience, sock puppet and script ready, and we proceeded to ham it up to an absurd degree, in a moment I’m not sure that the faculty loved, but the crowd sure seemed to get a kick out of.

After that performance, wearing a clown nose for my own reading felt less like meat and potatoes, more like the gravy on a night of literary absurdity. And I thought to myself, that Julia and I--and the whole lot of us--hadn’t just survived that reading and the end of our grad school years. We had taken ownership over them.

It’s easy to look at a public engagement as something that has to be formal and nerve-racking, and there’s a time and place for solemnity. That said, I walked away from that reading with a renewed sense of all of the fun that life can be when we do let our hair down and worry less about perfection, more about having a good time. There’s plenty time in life to take yourself seriously. We’d might as well take advantage of the opportunities for play while we're at it.