Last winter, I started going to the climbing gym in the mornings. And by mornings I mean around 11. My freshman year in college, I judged a class’ merit by its starting time: I majored in whatever subject started at noon. In the same spirit, starting my freelance day a little later suits my natural body clock—and it also allows for free-range of the climbing wall, which is virtually empty before the lunch-hour.
Bouldering problems are marked by colored tape next to each hand and foothold sequence, and it’s significant that they’re problems, not solutions. In bouldering, there’s a built-in expectation of failure: if at first you succeed—well then, it was just too easy. Now go find bigger problems!
And therein lies the beauty: you try to solve a problem, but it doesn’t work. So you need to get creative, and explore other solutions; you need to find a way to problem-solve.
I like bouldering to music, but unfortunately, the stereo isn’t always free. Most mornings there are kids activities on the main floor adjacent to the wall, where gymnastics, yoga, and what I’ve come to call socialization classes are held throughout the day.
Tony, the kid’s instructor, always gives me a nod. He knows I like to play music, so he lets me know if the stereo’s up for grabs: “Hey Jamie, why don’t you play us some music while we bounce around the room?” and twelve pairs of four-year-old eyes follow his gaze, expectantly, waiting for me to entertain them.
But most of the time, Tony plays his finely-tuned kids’ soundtrack, and I chalk up my hands to a steady stream of child-development background music. There’s some decent stuff on there: Israel Kamakavivole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” some hip reggae for kids, and Jungle Book-sounding music, with a groovy back-beat. And the kids remind me of Mogli from The Jungle Book, running around with messed-up hair and curious expressions, bewildered by the big space full of colors and mats and things to roll over and crawl under, and most importantly, full of other kids to interact with.
I smile at the music and the kids exploring their bright new world. A few minutes later, Tony gathers them in a circle to regroup and review group behavior tactics. A little girl named Daia hasn’t said a word all morning; she’s not ready to talk in public—but she’s ready to use her voice. She points to a certain chair and starts to cry: slow and steady at first, then bringing it to a high-pitch wail, the kind that makes moms very sad and makes others struggling to get a good grip on a small, sharp climbing hold, decide it’s time for a breather.
“Daia? Sweetie? What’s wrong?” says Tony. “You want to sit next to Arabelle? Well, let’s use our words,” he suggests. “Come on Sweetie. Daia? Repeat after me: ‘Dan’….”
Daia chokes back a sob, and says nothing.
Her friend Arabelle looks at the chair in question, where a defiant-looking boy is seated. Arabelle chimes in with Tony, channeling Daia’s voice like some sort of medium, or Daia ventriloquist: “Dan?”
“Would you please?” continues Tony.
“Would you please?” repeats Arabelle.
“Let me sit there??”
Daia sniffs, and waits. We all wait. No response from Dan—just a head shake and a grimace.
“O.K….well, looks like Dan doesn’t want to move,” says Tony, stating the obvious, for the record. “So now, we need to deal with this new reality.”
Suddenly, a voice pipes up from across the circle. “You can sit here, Daia,” says a little girl, a tentative smile on her face, gesturing to the empty seat next to her.
“There we go,” declares Tony. “Problem solved.”
I’ve been eavesdropping from the bouldering mats, and I’m impressed: Speak your truth. Ask for what you want. Register disappointment, readjust expectations—and then problem solve.
“Hey Tony,” I call out, across the gym: “I think I know a couple of adults who could take your class. What’s the height limit?”
I get back on the wall and attempt the neon green traverse; I’m working on endurance today, concentrating on breathing and pacing myself and just staying on the wall for as long as possible. Back on the floor, Tony’s motivating the troops for the next round of teamwork. “Now remember what we say when we head on the trampoline,” he tells the class.
Their small voices grow loud, rising in unison, vocal chords resonating with the ancient wisdom. “GIVE. KIDS. SPACE!!” They know this mantra well.
I shake my head, suddenly wishing someone else was here, so we could jointly process the greatness. What a phenomenal life lesson, for all ages. How many arguments, bad moods, counter-productive conversations have been logged into the miscommunication record books, because one person needed space, and the other person wouldn’t give it?
* * *
It’s been awhile, but I cringe, recalling some of my own spatial relations issues over the years.
He: I’m tired.
Me: Well, we need to talk!
Insert Yell for Talk, slam door. Wait 45 seconds.
Knock on door; or open door and look around—depending on whose door’s whose.
Alternate Ending: Slam down the land-line. Feel superior. Start to call back, then hang up and sit on hands. Congratulate self on self-control.
Call back 11 seconds later and let it ring. Still ringing.
A friend of mine once told me he really loves his girlfriend; but she never lets him just feel what he’s feeling. If he’s mad, or sad, she pushes him to get over it. He said it really bothers him. He said he won’t marry her because of it.
Personally, I’ve learned “I don’t want to talk right now” usually means “I don’t want to talk right now,” and counting to ten in separate corners of the playground really means giving the other kid space.
* * *
Over at the trampoline, Daia’s calmed down. She’s still not talking, but her high-pitched squeals are now of delight, not angst. Tony is calling out other things for kids to keep in mind. Help others! Share! Be POLITE!
Be polite. I stretch my sore fingers, and think of an incident during a recent trip to Fiji. There were four of us crossing the international dateline: my two best friends, Heidi and Sarah, myself, and one of Heidi’s work friends, the Wild Card, who vaguely resembled Naomi Campbell, and subsequently acted like a supermodel. Enter hormones, colossal fatigue and five days of torrential tropical rain. Patience had worn wafer-thin, and our coping skills had all but disappeared.
One rainy afternoon, an expat invited us for spontaneous cocktails at sunset, but we’d already made plans for the trek to town for Friday night festivities. In Fiji, heading to town involved multiple bouts of public transportation and promised to take most of the afternoon—and so, on behalf of the group, I politely declined the invitation, asking the man for a “rain check,” instead. We both laughed at the ample opportunity for a rain check in a tropical rainforest, and he sent us on our way with a pat on the back, and a chuckle, wishing the “Colorado ladies” a “very dry evening.”
The four of us piled into a taxi, my friends and I crammed into the backseat, while Wild Card stretched out up front, the only seat she deigned to occupy.
“That was so rude, Jamie,” she said, craning around the headrest to glare at me.
“Excuse me??” I countered, leaning forward into the hostile air space between us.
“Yeah, it was. In fact, you’re the rudest person I’ve ever met,” she declared, eyes flashing below overly-sculpted eyebrows.
“Whoa” said my friend Sarah, with a slight cough, trying to still the escalating emotional tide. “Now that doesn’t sound right.”
Fast-forward to total behavioral meltdown, heated talk of new lodging arrangements and parting of ways and finally, upon my suggestion, a group conference in the living room, Real World-style.
In this case “giving each other space” wasn’t the answer; I think we actually needed an escalation. Because the old way of doing things wasn’t working, and it was time to face the new reality: Wild Card and I were two totally different types of women—and we weren’t getting along. However, the old reality was still in effect: we were on a group vacation on the other side of the world, down several dirt roads and five days into a 15-day excursion. We had to find a different way to deal with each other.
To my astonishment, Wild Card apologized—twice, in fact, saying “You know, I just say what’s on my mind. Sometimes I don’t think!” I listened without interrupting, begrudgingly admiring her self-awareness, impressed by her ability to take responsibility.
Our anger cooled. The rain stopped. We put on dresses, and went out drinking.
And she and I actually enjoyed each other the rest of the time. For her high-maintenance looks and uncanny knack for taking over the front seat, Wild Card had a surprisingly pliable travel persona. She’d throw her perfectly ironed hair into a baseball hat and come kayaking; when the first shuttle was full, she opted to walk back in the mud. Our last night as a group we decided to splurge, and end our trip on a four-star, air-conditioned note, and we stayed at the Hilton; Sarah and Heidi left the next morning, while Wild Card and I flew out a day later. We were last seen laughing, just the two of us, toasting the end of the Fiji chapter at the underwater bar. We took the same flight to Australia, navigating through customs – and customs detainment – like good travel partners. We shared a taxi through the streets of Sydney to her friend’s flat, before finally parting ways.
The taxi continued on to my own friend’s flat and for the first time in weeks, I was on my own. I took a deep breath, and sighed. The driver pulled in for petrol, and I asked if I might sit up front. Then I thought of Wild Card, and laughed; she’d ridden in the back this time. And I sort of missed her already.
* * *
I hop back on the climbing wall, refocusing on today’s bouldering problem: yellow tape with blue stars, and long reaches for my short arms between almost every move. I glance over at the kids. Tony’s moved them beneath a giant rainbow-colored sail and I’m not sure what the lesson is now, because I can’t see them, can only make out the outline of their little selves crawling around under big sheets of fabric.
The mood in the room is optimistic, however. It seems they’ve managed to maneuver the trampoline, without trampling on anyone’s fingers—or feelings.