July 29, 2011
Recently I heard that experts are concerned that playgrounds are too safe. These are probably the same experts who have, for years, said that playgrounds are too dangerous, and who can’t make up their minds whether eggs are good for you or bad for you or whether if you just eat the white part you’ll still die from radon seeping up from your basement, which makes me want to find them and say, MAKE UP YOUR MINDS. The truth, actually, is probably much more complicated and the experts are probably still concerned about playgrounds being dangerous because of the lead in the paint on the monkey bars and the arsenic in the wood chips, but journalists don’t want to report that it’s complicated, which makes me want to find the journalists and say, QUIT TAPPING MY PHONES. What the experts are really concerned about is that playground equipment is now designed to be too safe and isn’t challenging enough. Being able to overcome challenges, even on the monkey bars, helps children build confidence and reduces anxiety later in life. And if there’s anyone who knows about late life anxiety it’s the experts who study things like children’s playground equipment.
This has inspired me, though, to write a new book: Everything I Ever Needed To Know I Learned By Breaking My Arm. Or at least it would if I’d ever broken my arm. I’m not saying broken bones are a great thing to have. They may build character, but then so does buying a goldfish and finding it floating belly up in its bowl the next morning. And I’ve got to admit I envied my friends who had broken arms or broken legs, if only because they got to have the fun experience of having their casts signed by everyone they knew. Actually as a kid I never even came close to breaking a limb because I was so averse to taking risks. On the one hand there’s nothing good about serious injury, but on the other hand my fears were often irrational and I missed out on things like trying steamed clams, jumping off the high dive at the pool, or riding a roller coaster. In short I missed out on some relatively safe things that I might even have enjoyed because I was afraid to push my own limits. And when it was too late I’d always end up regretting not taking the chance to try something when I had it. As an adult I’ve tried to overcome that. I’ve tried to live with an attitude of trying new things that I might have been too scared to try when I was younger. I’ve worn short sleeve shirts in public, ridden on public transportation, and eaten tomatoes. And those are just some of the bigger risks I’ve taken. Honestly, I’ve tried to live the belief that opportunities to try new things don’t come along that often so I should take them when I can, and yet, this last week, I found that belief tested. I was in a yoga class. I realize on the risk scale of one to ten a yoga class comes in somewhere around negative three, but then taking a yoga class wasn’t really about pushing my own boundaries. When, three or four days in a row, I noticed on my way home from work that a new yoga place was opening I thought it might be interesting to try it, even though the only thing I really knew about yoga is that it originated in the same part of the world as most of the answers to my customer service questions about the new TV we bought, and it involves stretching and balancing in positions with ridiculously long Sanskrit names. And I remember reading somewhere that John Cleese practices yoga. That would be the same John Cleese who’s built gadgets for James Bond, once bought a dead parrot, killed half the guests at a wedding, robbed the rich of their lupins, ran the worst hotel in history, and had a brief and unhappy affair with his daughter’s Barbie doll. So you can see why yoga would pique my interest.
Last week the class instructor announced that she was going to teach us a position called, I think, youwannabeincirquedusoleilavana. I’m pretty sure that’s what it was called. It involved lying down on the floor with chairs behind our heads then lifting our legs into the air and then bending our legs forward from the hips so that our feet came to rest on the chair. At this point I have to mention that, as a kid, anything that involved being upside down or in any way putting my feet over my head caused me to go into a full blown panic attack. I nearly flunked gym class because I couldn’t do a forward roll, and even underwater in the deep end of the pool I couldn’t turn around in a circle. Something about orienting my body so that gravity’s pulling straight down on my head completely disorients me. So when the yoga instructor showed us this position I had two conflicting thoughts. One was, why not try it? What’s the worst that could happen? The other was, Your body could collapse in on itself like an accordion, breaking several ribs and vertebrae and you’d be in a cast for months, the instructor’s reputation would be ruined, and from now on everybody who ever takes a yoga class will have to fill out a complicated legal form stating that they’re aware of the risks and they’ll all hate you for wasting their time. So I got on my back with the chair behind head. And I actually got as far as lifting my legs into the air. That’s when I hit a wall. Not literally, but figuratively I couldn’t go any further. It was being unable to do a forward roll in gym class all over again. The instructor came over and said, "Let me help you," and, putting her hands on my ankles, started to move my legs forward. That’s when she looked at my face and saw a look you normally only see in the eyes of people who’ve been told they’re going to be audited. Briefly I tried to rationalize the terror, thinking to myself, hey, a guy your age shouldn’t be putting his feet over his head anyway, but, naturally, the eighty year old guy on the mat next to me had managed to fold himself completely in half and was chewing one of his toenails. The instructor looked at me and said, "Okay, maybe we can work on this some more next week." And that’s when it hit me. It’s a cliché that opportunities only come once, that you should never turn anything down because you’ll never have a chance to do it again, but the truth is that life is always offering us second chances. Tomorrow is a chance to do something you didn’t do today. That’s why, this week, when I go into the yoga class I’m going to push my own limits and try that position. And after that I’ll do something else I’ve never done before: getting people to sign my cast.