Last summer, I wrote about not being able to resist a challenge. I was writing specifically about the 24 Hour Project and about seeing that I respond to challenges the way I responded to dares as a child … the way I still quite often respond to dares as an adult. And that got me thinking about other challenges I’ve taken on. And I realized that the challenges definitely take the form of wanting to make a point, wanting to prove something to someone, wanting to be clear about not accepting anyone’s underestimation of me.
I learned to throw darts primarily because men seemed to think women couldn’t be good at it, and I enjoyed beating them. I didn’t throw “the right way,” and that made my victories all the sweeter. Men would see me playing darts in my old roommate’s bar and feel the need to help me understand how to throw correctly — I didn’t stand where or how a “real” darts player should, didn’t aim properly, blah, blah, blah. I’d let them blather on a bit and then tell them I was perfectly happy with my stance and my aim. This always seemed infuriating to them, enough to make them challenge me to a game so they could demonstrate how superior their methods were to mine. I didn’t always win, but even when I lost, I put in a strong enough showing to shut them up. And when I won, I shut them down entirely. Or, nearly entirely … there were always guys who insisted I was experiencing beginner’s luck. It was that much more satisfying to beat them two times, three times, five.
I became a strong enough darts player to be invited to join a couple of teams. I didn’t join. I wasn’t so interested in the commitment of league play or spending that much time in bars, so thus ended my career. I’d had a similar experience with pool as a college student. I wasn’t ever good enough to be a true hustler, but I had fun seeing the looks on men’s faces when I made particularly impressive shots, when I cleared a table without them having the chance at more than a turn or two. Occasionally now I’ll make a shot that would have made 20-year-old Stacie proud, but I play so infrequently, all my real skill has faded.
I do the National Chorale’s Messiah Sign-in because it’s so very much fun and also because it offers a number of challenges:
- Am I still a soprano, can I still hit those highest notes?
- How many choruses can I get through without having to look at the score?
- Have a gotten over my shyness about leading a group of sopranos around me who are just as shy as I am about coming in first on certain passages?
- Am I able to fake my way through when choruses I haven’t practiced are added to the line up?
These are small, relatively harmless challenges. I enjoyed and enjoy them immensely, but none of them put me in any danger, offer no risk of physical harm. I haven’t avoided scary challenges because they were scary. I just haven’t come face to face with too many. I can really only think of two. Two! That’s surprising and a little disheartening … but maybe it’s also true that I have a wonky measuring stick for what constitutes danger or risk, and I’ve actually done many more potentially-unsafe things than I realize.
Forever-ago I was hitchhiking with my friend Rachel in the south of France. We were on our way to Italy (or, really, anywhere … we didn’t have too many hard and fast plans on that hitch). We’d made the mistake of staying out too late. We should have gotten ourselves to a town before nightfall and found a hostel or cheap hotel. Instead, we’d stayed on the highway and were stuck somewhere on the road to Monaco. A van stopped and someone inside pushed open the side doors. A cloud of smoke blew out at us as the men in the front seat told us to climb in.
Although Rachel and I are no longer friends, I have to say here that I continue to be grateful to her for insisting that we not get in the van. Because yes, I was totally about to step willingly into my certain doom. It was late and I was tired, and that van was the only vehicle to even pause on the way past us. I pushed aside the rules I’d made for myself about staying safe while hitching. I knew we shouldn’t get in that van … but I was going to get in the van. Until Rachel grabbed my arm. Dangerous challenge avoided. Score one for me (well, for Rachel).
Fast forward to my late 40s when I scaled a barrier wall meant to keep commoners like me away from the beach in front of a swanky resort on the north coast of Jamaica. Resorts like to claim their beaches are private, but Jamaican law says beaches — all beaches — are for everyone, that beaches belong to the people and are, therefore, public. There’s something in there about where private property ends and public beach begins, but I don’t remember the specifics. Resorts, determined to create a private beach where there isn’t one, sometimes go to great lengths to keep the riff-raff away from the rich folks. One of the ways they do that is to build walls off the end of their property line stretching out into the sea.
I’d set out on my walk that day with absolutely no plan to do any rock climbing. I was wearing a ground-sweeping sundress and flip-flops. I had my crazy-expensive, brand new DSLR in my little cross-body bag. I was just going for a stroll.
When I ran into my first barrier — a chain-link fence that was annoyingly high, I didn’t consider climbing it because a short walk out toward the road offered the option of just walking around it, so that’s what I did.
But then I ran up against the wall. It was maybe 20 feet high and made of some unkind-looking, very large rocks. I thought I should turn back, but the wall pissed me off. The nerve of people blocking access to a beach. And there were a couple of people climbing the wall, so I figured I could do that, too.
I’ve never been a rock climber. Neither am I particularly muscular. No matter. I put my flip-flops in my purse, tied the skirt of my dress up above my knees, slung my bag to the back, and started climbing.
I realized almost immediately that I’d made a terrible mistake, but I was determined. I’d taken the challenge. There was no chance I was going to back down.
The climb was ugly. I had to go up several feet and then out over the water so I could continue up and top the wall at its lowest point and wind up on the open-to-everyone part of the beach. Pretty quickly, my dress was up around my waist because I needed the legroom to make wider and still wider steps.
I made it, my butt flashing all and sundry in my wake. I didn’t fall into the ocean and destroy my new camera or my precious body. I came down on the fancy side of the wall, sorted my dress situation and began strolling the beach. The resort guards gave me the fisheye, but they left me alone. I made the most of that beach stroll … because I was terrified thinking about how I’d get back over the wall without dying in the process. When I finally worked up the courage to take on the return trip, I was lucky enough to be guided by a man who was on the other side of the wall. He told me where I could find each of the hand- and footholds I needed to move over, across, and down the wall. Yes, it meant I was flashing him the whole time, but we both survived it. (That random man was one of many guardian angels who’ve appeared just when I needed them. He saved my life that day as surely as Rachel did on that highway in France 29 years earlier.)
Don’t tell me you think I can’t play that game. Don’t tell me I’m not allowed to take a walk in a place I am absolutely allowed to walk. Danger? Ha! I flash my quite sizeable butt at danger. And I will use whatever strength or cleverness or stubbornness I have to put your arrogant presumptions right back in your face. Do not have the audacity to count me out.
I like this piece of my personality mostly. I would, actually, like to expand it. I don’t want other people to count me out … but I count myself out all the time. La Impostora elbows her way past my bravado and shuts all my shit down. Perhaps one of the secrets to besting her is hearing her criticisms and put-downs the same way I saw that beach-blocking stone wall: just hike up my skirt and get the hell over it.
Hmm … That bears some more thinking. I like it. I need to marinate in it a bit and see if I can actually practice it.
It’s Tuesday, so that means it’s Slice of Life day over at Two Writing Teachers! Click over and see how the other slicers are starting the new year!