Learning to Fall Well: Lessons from Unicycle Riding

I dusted off my old unicycle and brought it down to the bike shop where they put on a spiffy new Specialized tire called the Renegade.

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While circling the cul de sac last night on my spruced up one wheeler, my husband Steve encouraged me to put on my helmet.  My initial response was that I didn’t need it since I had never worn one growing up and I didn’t injure myself when I fell.  After a few minutes, common sense and an abundance of caution led me back into the garage to get my helmet.  It was fun to ride on something that I learned to balance on 40 years ago but you can never be too careful.

Strong and vivid childhood memories came rushing back and they reinforced a key concept I recently read in Ray Dalio’s book titled Principles.  Learning from our mistakes is key to growing and developing new skills.

I was reminded that it is okay to try something new and fall down. If we are going to learn a new skill we should not be afraid of failing, in fact, we should look at our failures as the ultimate learning experiences.   This is also the Agile mindset which embraces experiments and encourages doing, testing, reflecting and adapting in an iterative manner.

When I was 10 years old, my eldest brother, Billy gave me a unicycle for Christmas.  It was a shiny steel Schwinn with a black leather banana seat.  I was so excited and couldn’t wait until spring arrived so I could take it outside and ride it. MyfirstredUnicycle

I knew that I had to learn how to balance in order to ride but I was ready for the challenge.  Little did I realize just how hard it would be since my memory of mastering my first coaster bike at age four was that it was simple, quick and easy.

When learning to ride a bicycle, I didn’t use training wheels and was helped by Billy holding on to my sissy bar and running along side me as we traveled on Maiden Lane.  After a few sprints up and down the block, he encouraged me to keep pedaling so I could balance and ride on my own.  In little time,  I was off to the races and just a bit wobbly.

There are no training wheels when learning to ride a unicycle-  just continuous practice and persistence.  You have to experiment and try an action in order to learn what works and what doesn’t.

I had to continually fall and fall again until my muscles and my brain learned how to balance.  I practiced for many weeks by holding on to the side of my brother John’s 1973 blue Chevy pickup.  I went up and down the length of the truck until one day I got to the end of tailgate and kept going.  It was a wonderful feeling of freedom and I remember thinking “What do I do with hands now?”.   In the end, I used my hands to wave hello and goodbye to all my neighbors and friends.

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A 1973 Chevy like the one my brother John had

I road my unicycle all over Spotswood NJ in the early 1980s and loved the responsive steering it provided. You could turn on a dime and make quick 90 degree turns just by rotating your hips.  It was fun, lighter and so much easier to stow than a bicycle.

Learning to balance on one wheel wasn’t a quick and easy endeavor but in retrospect, I think it helped prepare me for the future challenges I would face in life.  I had to experience what didn’t work, learn from it and try again. Over and over and over.

Sound familiar?

Making mistakes and falling well are part of the process of learning. 

I appreciate Ray Dalio’s reminder of this important principle and for all the happy memories of my Spotswood unicycle adventures!

Remember:  It’s okay to try something new and fall. 

It’s even better when we learn from our failures and do it better the next time!

 

Stranger Things Part 2: The Resurgence of D&D

Once upon a time in a land called Spotswood, there lived a small band of boys who wanted to escape to faraway places. Some were heroes and some were villains but all were creatively powerful. The young lads were named Peter, Chris, Bob and Jake. Led by a Dungeon Master, they met every week to map out their adventures and roll the dice for their fate.

The group ducked out of the doldrums of tedious tasks from school and created a magical world beyond anyone’s dreams. It was wondrous place of exploration and discovery where the only limitation was the boundaries of their imaginations.

A small square of land inside the boundaries of the brook and the streets of Bruning, Maiden and Manalapan became mystical whenever the boys met to embark on their adventures by waging war against the monsters.

Each boy became a rich and clever character with varying abilities and they often worked together to strategize, solve problems and overcome challenges. Other times they plotted and schemed and sought more control and power.

Some were Human and some were Elves. Others were Dwarfs or Wizards.

No matter what class they were, they assembled face to face around the table to slay monsters like Dragons, Giants, Orcs and Demogorgons. 

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In my last article “Friends Don’t Lie and other Stranger Things”, I highlighted how the elements of Freedom and Adventure were more prevalent for kids growing up in 1980s and were fostered by the very popular role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). The lack of electronic distractions combined with the creative power of the face-to face interactions with a dedicated group of ongoing characters propelled a generation of geeks and nerds into one of the most innovative and explosive periods of American prosperity, the 1990s.

Dungeons_and_Dragons_-_Chapter_1One of the things that fascinated me most about the Netflix series, Stranger Things, was the central and influential role the D&D-like game played. The plot, time frame and characters were perfectly set and most Generation Xers will proudly tell you that the story line would not have worked as well in another other decade.

 

When I was a young girl, my heroes were Wonder Woman and Samantha Stephens from Bewitched. Science fiction and fantasy were my favorite books thanks to my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Muschla. So as you might imagine, I love the idea of average, ordinary possessing special powers that enables them to kick ass and defeat the stronger villains and monsters.

Role-playing games like D&D are so popular because they so strongly tap into that primal urge to be secure and defeat any threat to one’s safety. It is all the more fun and appealing when you add in a sprinkle of magical powers that help you slay an evil foe with a bit of fire and flair! Merlin and Harry Potter showed us this.

Although I wasn’t an elf or a witch or even a fairy, I had a carefree and adventurous childhood growing up in Spotswood, NJ. Everyone in the neighborhood knew each other by name and we all played together in the streets and explored in the woods and by the outlets, rivers and lakes.

I grew up on a small street called Maiden Lane and soon branched out with friends on Bruning Lane and Manalapan Road. After junior high school my world expanded to include friends from faraway places like East Brunswick, Milltown and Old Bridge (they were really only a few miles away).MaidenLanePorch_cropped

The close-knit friendships we forged in the 1980s were organic and lasting. The creative minds and sense of unlimited potential propelled us on an exciting journies to battle strange enemies and malevolent beings. Little did I know it would send me to the Persian Gulf in 1990 to fight in a war against Saddam Hussein but that is a story for another blog!

During school, my circle of friends was diverse and interesting included a quirky group of kids. They were mostly marching band members who were smart and dare I say slightly dorky. I had the fun and privilege to watch some of them play D&D for hours on end and was fascinated by the creativity and power of the character development. The concept of underdog heroes having powers to stop villains appeals to me and perhaps some of this influence is what planted the seed for me to join the US Army in the late 80s.

I recently had the pleasure of reconnecting with some childhood friends from Spotswood to get their perspectives on Stranger Things and specially the influence of D&D.   Luck would have it that I was Facebook friends Peter C. (Spotswood SHS class of 82) and he has been a Dungeon Master for the past eight years and played with the boys on my block in the early 80s. Jack Pot! What fun we had talking about Stranger Things and strolling down memory lane, if not Maiden Lane.

Pete explained that D&D puts you into the adventure and makes you a hero. It sparks your imagination and for him and his friends it made their comic books come alive.

As a Stranger Things fan, Pete felt that “the D&D connection in the show allows the kids to relate to the weird events having around them. They have readied themselves for these battles. D&D has taught them to be heroes and they are putting it use fighting the Demongorgon in the Upside Down. Mind Flayer and Truesight are also out of D&D and are referenced in Season 2.

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The New Yorker magazine recently published an article by Neima Jahromi titled The Uncanny Resurrection of Dungeons and Dragons” (Oct. 24, 2017) and it summarized well some of the key ideas I had percolating in my mind after binge-watching Stranger Things Season 2.

The themes of escaping and being “off the grid”, connecting with a close and trusted circle of friends and fighting a common enemy are alluring and powerful in any decade.   The creativity that is unleashed by unplugging and sitting face to face around a table for hours is amazing and satisfying for many people. The level of immersion, concentration and focus that results from this type of experience is also something that is lacking our in hyper distracted and multi-tasking world.

This is why! This is the reason why Stranger Things resonated so strongly with me and millions of others.

People long to escape and share their stories and experiences. Role-playing games like D&D bring people together and gives the group sense of camaderie and belonging.

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Like the band of boys from the land of Spotswood, you can enter a magical world that is an exciting place of exploration and discovery where the only limitation is the bounds of your imagination. You can become a long-standing character that can grow in skills and power. You can be a force for good or you can chose to become a monster. No matter what, you will have fun and shared adventures with a trusted circle of friends.

Friends Don’t Lie and Other Stranger Things- Part 1

“The Past is a foreign country: They do things differently there”.

–L.P. Hartley 1953

Why am I longing for the year 1984 like it is some quaint, simple and authentic nation that values loyalty and character?   Is nostalgia clouding my view and causing me to misremember this strange decade that is now viewed as “retro” by the Millennial and Z generations?

I blame this recent love and fascination with the 1980s on the popular Netflix series Stranger Things. I finished watching season 2 three weeks ago and it really has me obsessing about big hair, parachute pants, and the video games Pac-Man and Asteroids.

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Movies seemed bigger and better forty years ago and we were forever changed by ET, The Terminator, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Back to the Future, Ghost Busters and Gremlins.   The themes of good vs evil seemed more simple, sincere and powerful. Films were more about entertaining and less about lecturing.  The plots and characters seemed more fun and whimsical. Being an adrenalin junkie, I loved the intense adventure, risk taking and the fearless dedication to noble and sometimes scary causes.

I found myself pondering the question of why Stranger Things resonated so strongly with me and millions of others?

Being a proud and slightly older member of Generation X,  I reached back into my memory banks with the help of photos, high school year books and interviews with childhood friends.  From this I distilled the following four reasons for why the early 1980s were so totally awesome and how the Stranger Things cast and plot exemplified them:

  • Freedom
  • Adventure
  • Loyalty
  • Character

The tight group of friends in Stranger Things had an important and secret mission on their hands and I related to the huge amount of Freedom they were afforded by their parents.   As a latch key kid with both parents working, I had large  amounts of time on my own where I could explore and be with my friends.

Unsupervised Adventures were another hallmark of growing up the in the early 1980s.  For me, the only planned or scheduled events were sporting events at school (or via a bus) during the week, orchestra and marching band practices.  Most of my memorable experiences were outside playing in the street, at the lake or in the woods. By far the most exciting adventures were spontaneous.

Defeating the demogorgon and rescuing Will from the Upside Down was the ultimate adventure in my book.  I loved how many of the parents in Stranger Things were completely oblivious to what their kids were up to!

The theme of Loyalty really hit home for me during Eleven’s strong expression/tantrum of “Friends don’t lie!”.

Mike, Eleven, Lucas, Dustin and Will had a strong and trusting bond of friendship that enabled them stick together, count on each other and accomplish their heroic mission. I identified with this sense of commitment as I still have loyal connections with a number of friends from my childhood and adolescence.

The concept of Character in Stranger Things resonated with me in two ways with two meanings. First, I loved the character development of the underdog heroes and the references to Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). I also felt a strong sense of virtue and moral code among the friends.  I dig more deeply into the D&D influences in my next blog ( part 2 of this series).

I can’t tell you enough how much I enjoyed Stranger Things. On multiple levels, for a multitude of reasons I became enthralled, reminiscent and excited. While I’ve always been a big Sci-Fi fan (Ray Bradbury rocks), there was something special about this mix of characters, plot and time period. It truly warmed my heart.

Seeing and feeling the loyalty, love and trust of family and friends makes we want to travel home soon to my small hometown so I can take a walk down by the water with my sister, brothers, nieces and nephews.

“The Past is a foreign country: They do things differently there”.

Stranger Things reminded me of just how different our world has become in the past 40 years and how lucky I was to grow up during a time of relative peace and innocence.

I’ll end with a Top 20 List of the things I loved about the 1980s (in no particular order).

  1. Hanging out with friends and listening to records or tapes for hours on end.
  2. Making custom cassette tape mixes. IMG_4511
  3. Watching actual music videos on MTV.
  4. Being able to go over to someone’s house unannounced and just knock on the door and ask if they want to come out and play.
  5. Climbing trees and occasionally having someone break an arm (ok, maybe I don’t miss this part).
  6. Live rock concerts.
  7. Playing in the “dirt piles” behind my house.
  8. Sitting around an open fire in the woods.
  9. Going to Devoe Lake and sitting by the small waterfall overlooking the American Legion post.
  10. Play acting and performing skits for no apparent reason.DSCF8413
  11. Riding our bikes to places my parents didn’t know about ( and would have had a heart attack if they had).
  12. Exploration and the sense of wonder at discovering new and buried things.
  13. Playing kick ball in the street.
  14. Riding my bike and unicycle without a helmet ( it’s amazing I survived).
  15. Swing sets and dodge ball at recess after lunch at school.
  16. Playing video games at the local pizza parlor (Sorrentos).
  17. Jumping off home made, wooden ramps with our bikes.
  18. Storytelling at sleepovers.
  19. Overalls and white painters pants.
  20. High school yearbooks with hand drawn artwork on the covers.  See the Pegasus photos above and below.

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In Part 2 of this Series on Stranger Things and the 1980s, I’ll dive into the magical world of D&D which played such a pivotal part in the Stranger Things series to date.

I recently interviewed a childhood friend from Spotswood, NJ, Peter C., who shared with me his experience with D&D over the past 39 years and his thoughts and perspective on the early 1980s and the Stranger Things series.

Stay tuned for more tidbits, trivia and insights from a Dungeon Master!

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