The Honesty Experiment: Steve (i)
Originally written April 19, 2015
I must have smashed a mirror. It’s been seven years of telling the same story over and over again. I hate repeating it. I hate finding joy in knowing that people find it compelling. I hate that it has become a mantra etched into my body.
I shouldn’t start with my father, but I will. He has been, for twenty years, a simultaneous role model and cautionary tale. Gregarious, outstanding and diminished. He and my mother always pushed us for excellence. How many more runs could we fit in at the end of a ski day? How many more percentage points could we squeeze out of a test? My sister and I have become exemplars of not knowing limits. I, happily and thankfully, blame our parents. But he broke his body. For nineteen years he has limped. He thinks it is just an injury and therefore just a part of his life but it has come to define him. The man who once summited most of the Rocky Mountain peaks in any guidebook now grumbles when he walks. The man who once laughed as he skied now skis just to pay off his pass. He once took enormous, heartfelt risks; now he is safe and bored and hurting. We all become echoes of our fathers.
What would it be like to be paralyzed? I used to think I would reimagine myself and design my own limits. Now I don’t know. I do know a few things about myself: chiefly, that I excel when nobody expects much of me. I like creating my own rules and expressing my own art. But I feel crushingly oppressed when others expect or when I believe I am held to a standard I have previously set. So, my body…
I was a shitty ski racer.
I barely ever placed in the top 15. I was pre-pubescent and small. Some of the big guys had more than a hundred pounds and 12 inches on me. While I lived in Calgary and raced in Banff, the expectations were that I was little and slow and risked almost nothing. Nobody blamed me for it, but I was always let down by mismatched desires for my body. I had pushed myself to excel at almost everything but my body was a limitation beyond my conscious control.
Then I discovered a glorious new compensation method: I left.
Suffocated by expectations in Calgary, I went to Vancouver. I had no friends, no family, no preconceived standards of any kind. I learned to harness this tool. I exploited technicalities in my school work so that I would accomplish the prescribed aims of each project but without being lumped in and evaluated against the others in my class. What most took for granted and thought of as an assigned essay I reinterpreted and submitted a script or a poem or a film. I ended up doing more work to cover my bases but this approach was reinforced every step of the way. Not only did I learn that every duty presented an opportunity to create but publicly professors were amused, peers were enamoured. I became recognized for displacing the status quo.
Perhaps this experience undergirds why I gravitate towards the new, the uncharted, the places that have no expectations beyond a foray being glorified as a triumph. It may seem outwardly courageous but it may be cowardly: risking all without a marker for failure. But, in these situations I have accessed my greatest self. I have accomplished goals few others would think to attempt.
My strategy was reinforced tenfold when I returned to Calgary. My first day skiing I paired up with my old coach and casually aced a line he never would have expected.
For the first time ever I became known for my body. I learned to flip. I was flexible. I challenged National Team times on lifeguard exams. I felt the most complete I ever have: a near balance between mind and body that elevated my soul. Then I broke my mirror:
Embroiled in frustration and caffeine, I didn’t spot my landing on a jump. It’s been seven years, four surgeries, nine rehab journeys and a bitterly embattled sense of self. What was once routine has become second-guessed. (Have you ever had to decide whether walking off a curb was worth the risk?) I have the monicker “Parkour Steve” when I work in the Freerunning industry and I am ashamed to show my face around my own gym — so I neglect it. My best stories grew out of action, not introspection. I’m not the Beakerhead Astronaut if I can’t walk, especially in slow motion. I’m not an actor if I’m afraid to dance. Wait, scratch that, I’m not me if I can’t dance. For two years I haven’t been allowed even to swim. And ask my seven-year-old self or my thirty-year-old self, ‘what are your two goals in life?’
1. Swim the English Channel. 2. Summit Lhotse.
For years I have been crumbling under expectations of me. This photoshoot expresses that exploration. (Learn more about the premise in Zoë’s blog here.) Eight weeks before these photos were taken I learned to walk up stairs again. Six weeks previous I learned to walk down them. I have been trying to cope in a redefinition of myself without faith in my body. I’ve been as lost as I was before Vancouver. You’ll see my knees don’t bend the same amount as each other. Who do we become when we aren’t the person we liked?
Last week, for the first time in a very long time, my doctor gave me the go-ahead to swim, to dance, to crawl, to roll, to climb, to jump.
What can I become this time, stripped of all expectation?
Okay, I’m having a difficult time with this. That was just the same old story again. Now that you know a little bit about me, click here if you’d like the truly honest version.