Lessons learned from comics and movies
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
There is a painting in my bathroom I’m finally beginning to recognize as a self-portrait.
Spaceman Spiff ” an imaginary hero from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes ” is gripped at the controls of his crashing spacecraft. His teeth are clenched and his brow furrows behind his black mask. He strains against the control stick, seeming more angry than afraid of the gaping doom that must lie in front of him, out of the frame.
In this case, his doom is my toilet. On a humorous whim, I intentionally set the picture to look like the diving spaceship was headed straight into the sketchy water of my porcelain bowl. But he never gets there, and the suspended moment of animation is perpetual. Every day I wake up and stumble into the bathroom ” there he is, fighting his inevitable, crappy fate.
Today the crappy fate I’m fighting is writer’s block. And the harder I press myself into the keyboard, the tighter I hold on to the control stick, so to speak, the less I’m able to go anywhere. I start to get mad at myself, which only compounds my ineffectiveness.
Skilled kayakers are especially familiar with this lesson: Look where you want to go ” not where you’re afraid to go.
I was 16 when I learned this lesson, yet I still struggle with it at times.
The house-sized boulder was headed straight at me. The water was flat, my boat was huge (an 11-foot hardshell) and I’d paddled the Class III stretch in the Glenwood Canyon several times before ” but I couldn’t seem to get this one simple move right. I was missing something. I gripped my paddle tighter, pulled harder and faster, and still I could only go straight. Sweat trickled down from under my helmet and my heart pumped with fear as I sped into the vortex of my fate with all the gusto of a lemming.
I’d had 100 yards to do any number of things that would’ve spared me this drenching experience. A sweep stroke, a rudder ” almost anything would’ve kept me from drilling the imagined bull’s-eye with laser precision. But bam, there I was, bumping around this big granite block upside down in a kayak.
I rolled up to the laughter of my adult friend and paddling mentor, Michael.
“I have trouble with that move myself,” he said, his laughter bubbling even louder at the thought of his own wit.
A year later Michael took me down the Roaring Fork’s Slaughterhouse Falls for my first time.
I didn’t have a lot of experience on Class IV, and all the horror stories I’d heard about the infamous ledge drop didn’t help the jitters. I’d heard personal accounts telling how the move was easy but if you screwed up it was nearly impossible to escape the suction of the double-hydraulic formed by undercut rock at the base of the waterfall.
Having paddled Class V for more years than I’d been alive, Michael took the lead after we’d scouted our line. The water was high, and we were using a tree branch to gauge our position as the bows of our boats creeped up on the misty horizon. Michael dropped out of site, as anticipated, but I kept having this feeling we were too far right.
We were. As I crested the waterfall I looked down to see Michael’s head barely sticking out of the frothy water below me. And then I was in the maw.
Our boats bumped and banged as the powerful liquid force stirred us like egg yolks. Pounding water and dull thuds were the only sounds in my skull. Being pulled every which way, with no sense of up or down, it occurred to me I was going to drown.
But I didn’t give up. I remembered stories of veteran paddlers about “reaching for green” to get flushed out of holes like this, so I thrust my paddle as deep as I could. I imagined the blades catching a deeper current that would pull me from the suffocating turbulence.
To my disbelief it worked, but when I rolled up there was no sign of Michael. I was in calmer water, but the river was still carrying me downstream toward more Class IV whitewater. His boat surfaced just in time for me to see, then his paddle, and finally his head came up.
Assuming he was making it safely to shore, I chased after his gear, trying to bump his water-logged boat to the bank while navigating rapids I’d never seen before. I was still in danger.
When it was all worked out, Michael gave me one heck of a lecture, which basically amounted to setting my priorities straight: people first, gear second.
Now, all these years later, Michael’s words ” and laughter ” still ring in my head when I get in my boat, and I realize they sum up lessons I’ve been aware of most of my life, only in different words.
When I was 5, “Top Gun” was, and maybe still is, my favorite movie. One of the pilots “holds on too tight” and “loses the edge” ” his mind was too gripped to forget his fears and focus on escaping his situation. And by the end of the film, the main character learns the hard way that “you never, never leave your wing man.”
That’s the lesson: We have choices and we have priorities.
I can choose what I set my mind to, and I can also pick priorities. That can be hard to do, though, and I keep blundering into all kinds of blocks through my life.
The thing to remember, however, is that life is a river, life is a rock climb, a round of golf. Life is a lot of things, but ultimately it’s whatever I make of it, whether or not it’s by active decision.
Somehow Spaceman Spiff always comes out of his predicaments alive, and this time he even managed to save me from crashing into that giant writer’s block.
Then again, I just remembered who’s really behind the mask …
Derek Franz painted the portrait in seventh grade at Riverside Middle School, and would like to remind everyone of a saying ” taken from the movie “U-turn” ” “If you think bad, you get bad.” He can be reached at email@example.com or 384-9113.
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