Faking it

I used to ride horses.

Scratch that. I used to ride horses well. I still know how to do it; if you dropped me in a saddle right this second, I’d be all right.

Horseback riding is one of those things that all kids should be required to learn. It’s unfortunate that it’s so cost prohibitive. I don’t care about horse shows or competitions or looking good in a pair of skintight pants and knee-high boots. A kid can learn to ride horses while wearing jeans from Target, heeled shoes from Payless, and the cheapest safety helmet you can find. Competition is fun, but that’s not what it’s about.

Riding horses levels the playing field. It’s you and the animal. That’s it.

I taught riding lessons for ten years. I was a good instructor. A very good instructor. I knew what I was talking about, and I really cared about my students.

One of the first things I always told my lesson kids was that they were in charge. Once that horse moved away from me, I couldn’t do a damn thing to stop it. Even a small pony had a good 500 pounds on me. A horse? Twice that. The only person in control is the person sitting on top of the animal.

If you think about it, that’s really empowering for a child. Kids are constantly being “instructed.”

Put your shoes on. Put that down. Take that off. Don’t touch that. Stop it. Come here. Sit down. Be quiet. Move. Hurry. Slow down. Watch your head.

On a horse? It’s all the kid.

You know how they say an animal can smell fear? We talked about that in the last post. It’s true. And horses — especially lesson horses — know when their rider is afraid. They know when their rider is confident. They know when they can get away with standing in the corner, no matter how many times the kid wails on them with her heels. They know when their rider is accomplished, and disobedience won’t be tolerated.

Horses are a great equalizer.

I remember being twelve years old, at a rinky-dink riding camp where my parents let me spend my summer. There was this cocky boy who was also a student. He was a horrible rider, but he liked to talk the talk. At the end of every day, we got a thirty minute free ride. I was assigned this horse Gretchen, who was the cream of the crop. Perfect gray pony who would do anything you told her. She’d never misbehave. Cocky kid was assigned Tassie, this nasty red roan mare who wouldn’t listen unless you were confident.

For fifteen minutes, Tassie stood in the middle of the ring and refused to move for that kid. I was happily cantering around on Gretchen.

So cocky kid whined to the teacher. The teacher asked me to trade.

Three minutes later, I was happily cantering around on Tassie. Cocky kid was pissed.

Horses know.

But here’s the thing: horses are pretty frigging stupid. Their brain is the size of a walnut. Seriously. A walnut. When people tell me they’re afraid of horses, I always look at them sideways and say, “Have you ever been near a horse? Do you realize that you can wave your hands and yell Boo!, and a horse will run away?”

I went out on a few dates with this one guy who came out to the farm with me once. Horses will do just about anything for food, and lesson horses recognize all the sounds associated with snacks. Rattling plastic, crinkling foil, you name it. This guy was eating chips from a bag when we walked into the field. The closest horse, an aged mare, heard the bag crinkle. She lifted her head and started ambling towards us.

The guy? He yelled, “They’re charging!”

And he ran from the field.

Freak.

But I digress.

Horses aren’t brilliant. So if you aren’t confident, that’s fine.

You can fake it.

I had one student who cried in her first few lessons. I had a zero-tolerance policy on tears. You can’t cry on horseback. It’s like texting while driving. You’re just bound to get into an accident. If you’re crying, you aren’t paying attention, you can’t see, and you’re not in control.

The last thing you want is for the horse to be in control. Thousand pound animal, brain the size of a walnut. Yeah, they can’t be in control.

So I taught that student the “Grr!” philosophy. When she got scared and wanted to cry, she had to say, “Grr!” And I mean, she really had to growl. She had to make herself the scary one. She had to pretend to be the badass. The horse didn’t really know the difference.

It worked. She did it all the time. She bought a tee shirt that said, “Grr!” (That made my day.)

And you know what? She’s a beautiful rider now. A brilliant one. If she reads this and sends me a link to a video of herself riding, I’ll add it to this post. Every time I see her videos on Facebook, I remember the scared little girl who sobbed in the corner of the ring, then got it together to find her inner “Grr!” and got the horse under control.

She faked it until she didn’t have to fake it anymore.

Horseback riding isn’t the only place faking it works, however. It’s just a great place to practice.

I’m terrified of confrontation. I hate it. I always want to squirm and back down. But I find that inner “Grr!” and stand up for myself when I’m right.

I just started coaching soccer for my son’s team. I don’t know anything about soccer. Nothing. I have never played in my life. During our first scrimmage, one of the kids scored a goal. I cheered, high fives all around, the whole schebang.

Then I realized I had no idea what happened next. Do they start in the middle again? Do they just throw the ball out of the goal and play on? I had no idea.

But the kids didn’t know either. I faked it.

Same thing with writing. (You knew it had to come back to that, right?) I don’t have a college degree. I don’t have any creative writing classes under my belt. I took AP English in high school, and that’s about it. Sometimes I read real writing blogs (a great one is www.storyflip.blogspot.com) and read about the mechanics of a scene, or plotting, or the way dialogue comes together with narrative to build a scene.

Then I’ll say to myself, “Huh. I guess that is how that works.”

Sometimes confidence has nothing to do with how strong you are, or how capable.

Sometimes it’s just about how well you can fake it.

In the end, what’s the difference?

**ETA: She did send me a video!

~

Playing games

When I was 19 or so, I worked a part time job at a mall store called The Game Keeper. I don’t think they’re around anymore, but it was your typical retail shop full of board games. I loved working retail. I’m not afraid to talk to people, I’m very service minded, and who doesn’t like playing games all day? It was a decent store, but part of a dying breed. We didn’t sell anything electronic, so you can imagine where that went.

After I’d been there about a week, this guy came into the store. He was about six feet tall, blond (but in the hot ash blond kind of way, not the surfer dude way), and dressed head-to-toe in black leather. Black boots with laces and buckles, black jeans, black tee shirt, and black leather jacket, the kind that looked badass in 1998, and damn it, they look pretty badass now. Let me see if I can find an image of the kind of look I’m talking about.

Okay, I can’t. And here’s a little tip for you: don’t do a Google Image Search for things like “hot guy,” “hot biker,” or “Val Kilmer.”

(Unless you’re gay, a guy, or want to be disillusioned that hot actors keep their looks forever, respectively.)

But seriously, if you can imagine Val Kilmer when he was playing Ice Man in Top Gun, then you know what I’m talking about. Here was little 19 year old me, writing vampire novels and working retail, and this guy walks in the store, and my jaw frigging drops. He was about 21 or 22, and my little self went hustling to that end of the counter, all, “Can I help you?”

But then he walked past the counter. He walked to the back of the store.

He walked into the back room.

And then I realized he was a fellow employee.

His name was Michael. I wish I remembered his last name, because I’d be internet stalking him in a New York minute. (Sorry, hon.) I flirted with this guy like crazy. He was clearly into me, because he flirted back, in a dark, broody kind of way that is only really sexy when you’re 19 and don’t know any better.

When he found out I rode horses, he asked if he could come riding. At the time, I was also working part time at a horse farm, so I invited him out. He showed up early, while I was still working, and he offered to help. I will never forget leading him into the barn where we stacked the hay bales, and saying we needed to move about ten to the other barn. Then I turned around to get the wheelbarrow (because hay bales weigh about 60 lbs). When I turned back around, he had a hay bale in each hand.

He raised an eyebrow and said, “Just tell me where you want these.”

God, I’m just about falling off the couch remembering this. One in each hand! It’s a miracle I didn’t tear all my clothes off right there in the barn.

Here’s why I didn’t: I was a virgin.

Yeah, I didn’t know what I was doing with this guy. With any guy. I didn’t really know how to flirt. I was still learning courtship, and body language, and sexual cues, and all those kinds of things that people stumble through in their teens and early twenties.

Michael and I went out several times. Almost every time was in a crowd of people, like after work, or with a few of my friends. But one night, his car was in the shop, and we worked the same shift. I offered to drive him home, and he accepted. We sat in his kitchen and talked for the longest time — it was well after midnight. Maybe after 1am. Our conversation turned slightly racy, and I began to wing it.

Then somehow we started talking about sex. I hadn’t even kissed this guy yet, but it felt strongly like it was heading in that direction. Hell, not just heading in that direction, it was probably on the freeway. I knew he had to be experienced (I mean, come on), and I wasn’t sure how to handle that. I told a funny story about a friend’s first time. Then he told a funny story about his own first time.

Then he asked me about my first time.

I told the truth. I said, “I’m still a virgin.”

It was like flipping a switch. The mood was gone, the chemistry was gone. He sent me home. Not rudely, but definitely not warmly. I tried to call him two days later, and another guy answered the phone. I heard Michael in the background say, “Tell her I’m out.” And at work, he was always cordial, even friendly, but there was a definite distance between us.

At the time, I was hurt, for sure. Devastated. Confused. And I was too young to ask him about it.

But now I know he was doing me a favor. A guy like that wasn’t looking for a relationship. I probably would have slept with him that night, and he probably would have forgotten my name within three weeks. At the time, I thought he was being a jerk, but he wasn’t. He was being the opposite. He was acting with honor and chivalry, and for a guy of 22, that’s saying a lot.

So Michael-whatever-your-name-is, thanks for being a gentleman. I hope you’re doing well.

And I hope you haven’t let yourself go.

Like Val Kilmer.

~

Better than

Those words are pretty exclusive, if you think about it. Really, any kind of comparison is an excuse to ignore the lesser.

I’m prettier than she is.
I’m smarter than he is.
I’m taller than he is.
I’m skinnier than she is.
It works the other way, too. You can dismiss yourself. I’m uglier than he is. I’m fatter. I’m dumber.
I used to teach riding lessons to kids, mostly teenagers. If there is one skill teenaged women have, it’s comparing themselves to others. When riding horses, a lot of skills are pretty solidly objective. Can you sit the trot? Can you canter? Can you jump? How high?
Jumping is a popular skill for kids. It’s so easy to quantify. It’s easy to brag. It sounds impressive, and it’s easy to visualize. If you can jump a course of fences at three feet, it’s assumed you’re a better rider than someone who can only accomplish the same course at 2′. If you can finish that course in 90 seconds, you’re assumed to be a better rider than someone who took two minutes.
You’re better than they are.
Dressage is a lot more subjective. It’s the French word for training, but it’s an entire riding discipline on its own. It’s about feel. It’s about nuance. Skill. Talent. It’s tough to brag that you rode a balanced fifteen meter circle at the canter. It’s hard to boast that your horse finally moved through his back and dropped onto the bit. It can’t be quantified, and unless you ride horses, it’s tough to visualize. Dressage is often compared to ballet, and it’s an apt comparison. You don’t have to be a dancer to appreciate a talented ballerina performing en pointe–nor to wince at the train wreck in a tutu.
Just like you don’t have to be a writer to appreciate good writing–nor to recognize crap on a page.
There’s a tendency to identify ourselves as “better than” someone else. It’s human nature to want to be the best–I can’t dispute that, and I won’t even try. We’re competitive animals. I thrive on challenge. I love to win.
But finding that “better than” limit, it’s easy to settle. Really easy.
Too easy.
Writing, like dressage, is tough to quantify. I remember reading on the Absolute Write message boards that you needed to get ten “full manuscript” requests to land an agent, as if there were some magical query formula. I certainly didn’t get ten full requests. I didn’t get five.
I didn’t even get two.
That doesn’t make me a better writer than people who don’t have an agent, and I’d be stupid–and ignorant–to think it did. There’s an incredible amount of talent out there, still looking for agents. One of my bosses said today, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” I wrote a good book and sent a query on the right day. My book isn’t necessarily better than anyone else’s. My book is the best one I knew how to write.
My next book is going to be better.
But when we identify ourselves as better than someone else, we close the door on learning from that person. Once we’re on that pedestal, who wants to look down? But there’s a lot of talent among our peers. Maybe that writer who we dismissed for horrible dialogue can write the most amazing settings. Maybe the person whose characters might as well be floating heads in a whitewashed room can write some killer dialogue. Bad kissing scenes might be trumped by heart-racing tension.
Human nature dictates that we look forward, look up, climb higher. No matter what level we are, from the mega-bestseller to the fledgling writer–if we forget to acknowledge the skills of those around us, if we compare and dismiss, we’re missing an opportunity.
If you get used to being “better than,” you turn off your ability to simply get better.
Then, in no time at all, someone gets better than you.