BETTER SORRY THAN SAFE
I started thinking about the concept of risk the other day after my 66-year old best friend Michael confided that he’d signed up for Scuba-diving lessons. Apparently, strapping on oxygen tanks and exploring the murky depths, had been a life-long dream; he was damned if he was going to let his heart issues and age stop him from fulfilling it.
As a realist, who jokes he is a “drowner” as opposed to a “swimmer,” this sound like insanely risky behavior. (Keep in mind I never did earn my YMCA “porpoise” credentials as an 8-year old, settling instead for a certificate that labeled me “algae.”) I’m exaggerating, of course. If I capsized in the ocean, I’m confident I could survive. The strategy is simple; find the nearest person who knows what they’re doing and hold on for dear life.
Our earliest recollections may include parental reminders to avoid questionable behavior at different ages and stages of our life.
“Don’t touch the hot stove, you’ll burn your hand!”
“Stay away from that boy, he’s got trouble written all over him!”
“Invest in a company that makes running shoes? That's crazy talk!"
When we become adults, (I’m still waiting for my certification) many of us continue to practice risk avoidance—settling into safe jobs, safe marriages, safe hobbies.
But, reflecting on my past, much of what has been the most gratifying involved taking chances. Not putting myself in physical peril so much, as I have no desire to jump out of a perfectly good airplane, rattlesnake wrangle or spelunk. In my case, risk has involved making life decisions that left a major question hanging in the air. “What’s going to happen now?”
I once took a morning show job in radio without having met the people I was going to work for. In fact, my job interview and acceptance consisted of a recommendation from a friend of mine and a five-minute conversation with the general manager.
Shortly after, I found myself schlepping across the southwest part of America pulling U-haul trailer behind a skeptical (and shoddily made) Mazda. Neither my future-former wife or I had any clue what to expect from Albuquerque. In fact we had to stop in Flagstaff, Arizona and ask if, perhaps, we’d already driven past it and hadn’t noticed. And yet . . . yet . . .my dozen or so years in New Mexico proved to be some of the richest, most rewarding and memorable times of my life.
As writers, we know all about putting ourselves on the line. After all, that manuscript you’ve toiled over for months (if not years) runs the constant risk of ridicule and disdain. That carefully crafted simile, as graceful as a wet dachshund, could easily provoke a reader to say or think; “That sucks like a nuclear-powered vacuum cleaner.” Yet, all it takes is for one reader to tell us she enjoyed reading our work and looks forward to the next, to make the negativity swirl down the drain—forgotten.
In my retirement years, I’ve begun thespianizing again. (If it’s not a word, it should be). I acted (and acted out) regularly during my college and post-college days. The first post-retirement foray, two summers ago, was with Portland Actor’s Ensemble, a company that performs free Shakespeare in the city parks during the summer. We coped with traffic noise, barking dogs, car alarms, boisterous street punks and a drunk who, to paraphrase Janis Joplin: pulled his harpoon out of his dirty red bandana. This cretin wailed out harmonica blues riffs during my best speech in the The Tempest. We had to incorporate him into the on-stage action. The adrenaline generated by terror and generous audience applause during the curtain-calls left me feeling alive, relevant and craving another chance to entertain.
Most recently, I’ve gotten involved with The Original Practice Shakespeare Company. These maniacs perform the Bard’s work faithful to techniques used n the 16th and early 17th century: no director; no rehearsal; scripts-on-a-scroll that only include your lines and the cue line before yours. Your tools as an actor are your interpretation of what’s going on, based on the words on the page, the actions of the other characters and whatever costuming and props you choose to bring with you. You’re encourage to include the audience in your antics. Act one, scene one, you’re on your own, go for it. Trust me, performing this way is undiluted fear of the most delicious variety.
Now this endeavor is certainly not an equivalent risk to being lowered into the Mariana’s trench in a shark cage or schussing down the sheer face of various and sundry Alps, but it does share some characteristics. There is that moment, when you step forward and launch yourself into the abyss of unknown outcome that makes you appreciate the fullness of life and your potential as a human being.
Leaving your own comfort zone, and pushing the limits of what you believe you’re capable of, is one way to reaffirm that you’re alive. Whether your risk-taking involves roller-blading blindfolded and nude through a busy airport or simply writing a haiku and posting it on the internet, I encourage you to go for it. Try something you’ve always wanted to try. Take a class on a subject matter that baffles and excites you. Risk ridicule by performing, painting, playing music or dancing. Tell the waiter at an authentic Chinese restaurant to bring you something exotic.
Are there consequences for risky behavior? Sure there are. What you have to weigh is whether those repercussions are worse than knowing that fear kept you from living your life to it’s fullest potential.