Going Over The Edge

“The hardest part,” I said to Carlos, “is the final push to go over the edge.  If you have the balls to make that push, it’s a fun ride from there on.”

We were half up the tower to the top of the H2-Oh-No waterslide at Mountain Creek Waterpark in Vernon, NJ.  I knew what was coming, and I knew I needed to get Carlos pumped up to overcome his fear if he was going to keep his promise.

“I’ll do it if you do,” he had said about 15 minutes earlier.

So up the stairs I went.  We had been to Mountain Creek several times before, but none of us had ever done the H2-Oh-No slide.  It looms over everything else, up the hill (“mountain” is a bit of a misnomer, but the place does double as a local ski destination in the winter) at the edge of the park.  The tower is about 100 feet tall and from the top you have an amazing 360 degree view of the Vernon Valley in Northern New Jersey.

Then, after waiting for the people in front of you to overcome their fears and make their push into the unknown (sometimes screaming the whole way down, which doesn’t help calm your own nerves), it’s finally your turn.  You sit down on the slide and the world literally drops out below your feet.  I don’t know the actual angle on the slide, but when you are sitting there, you can’t see anything more of the slide beyond your feet.

In your heart, you know that there is a slide there and you know that once you make the push, you’ll have a great experience, gliding down to the end, far in the distance.  But at that moment of truth, the heart is having a raging battle with the head over what to do next.  As an aside, as I’m writing this, I’m having a debate over which is the head and which is the heart in this battle.  The head should be the logical, rational actor, explaining to the emotional heart why its fears are unfounded.  But in this case, I think it is actually the reverse.  The heart KNOWS this will be fun.  The head on the other hand is reacting to the visual cues, and telling your arms DON’T DO IT!!  There is NOTHING THERE!!  DON’T push us over the edge.

And then you have a decision to make.  You can stand up and take the walk of shame back down the stairs, comfortable knowing that you’ll reach the bottom safely.  But in the back of your mind wondering about what you missed out on.

Or you can take a leap of faith and send yourself over the edge into the great unknown.  (For safety reasons, you have to push yourself – the park staff standing up there won’t do it for you.)

Carlos was a good friend of my oldest son, Jack, who was waiting, along with my other two kids, Blair and Alex, down by the finish – they knew (and know) me well enough not to fall into the trap of claiming that they would do it as long as I did it first.  As Carlos and I were making that climb, I was struck by the metaphor that slide represented in my own life.  Several times in the past, I had put myself on the edge of that slide and, after taking a deep breath, pushed myself past the point of no return.

When I graduated from high school, I made a decision to go off to a college that I had never seen and knew very little about, other than that it was a good school and that they had just won the league football championship for the first time in twenty-five years. I had met with the freshman football coach when he came through Southeast Michigan on a recruiting trip, but they did not pursue me aggressively.  I hadn’t seen the school because they had not deemed my heretofore demonstrated athletic skills as being worthy of a recruiting visit.

At the same time, another school in the same league was showing a much stronger interest in me.  They DID deem me worthy of a recruiting visit to the campus.  And the coach responsible for recruiting in the Midwest called me several times, both before and after my visit.

Given that set of circumstances, I think most people would probably choose to go to the second school – to the place that was saying “We want you!!” rather than to the one that was saying “Eh, IF you happen to get through admissions, we’ll give you a look.”

I don’t know why (maybe it was the challenge presented to me by the first school playing “hard to get” and me, in my mind saying “I’LL SHOW YOU!!”) but I made the decision to take what looked like the tougher path.  Four years later, we had won four more league championships, including a perfect 10-0 season my senior year, and I had earned my way into a starting position for the last two years.  More importantly, I had made some incredible, irreplaceable friendships that would last a lifetime.  And I could look back on that decision and know, with absolute certainty, that it was the right one.

While in college, I decided that after I graduated, I wanted to go to Japan.  It may seem hard to believe after the past twenty-three years of economic malaise that the country has suffered through, but at the time, in the mid-1980’s, Japan was THE economic power in the world economy.  They were buying marquee American assets, from Rockefeller Center in New York to Pebble Beach Golf Course in California, and a lot of other assets in between.  Everyone was convinced that their economic model was the future.  I decided to go see it for myself.

And so, after graduating from one of the most prestigious schools in the country (I say that only because other people seem to see it that way, but that’s a discussion for another time), where companies literally flock by the hundreds to recruit the best and brightest to join their organizations after they graduate, I left without a job offer and without conducting a single interview with any company that visited campus.  I wasn’t interested in doing any on campus interviews.  Because I wasn’t interested in a job that “some day, maybe, a couple of years from now” could possibly lead me to a position with that company working in Japan.  I wasn’t willing to wait that long.

So after graduating, I went back to Michigan and worked three part time jobs to save some money to go to Japan.  Four months later, when I had what I thought would be enough to buy a plane ticket and get me through a couple of months on the ground, I was on my way.  I got my passport, bought my plane ticket (return  date 9 months later), and boarded a flight for Narita Airport near Tokyo, with no idea what I was going to do or even where I was going to stay when I arrived.  Remember, while Al Gore had already invented the internet, it hadn’t yet been commercialized.

I wasn’t flying completely blind.  I had the names of a few people that were connected to people I knew from college.  I knew (at least thought I knew) the phone numbers of a couple youth hostels and low cost places to stay.  And I had studied Japanese for a whole year – nevermind that I had forgotten it all by the time I got on the plane.

I took a leap of faith.

As I’ve told people in the years since, the first twenty-four hours on the ground were the worst of the whole adventure.  I arrived at Narita after more than thirty hours of travel time (I couldn’t afford a direct, non-stop flight!), completely wiped out and jet lagged (something I had never experienced before).  I took the train from the airport to central Tokyo and then got on a pay phone to try to find a place to stay for the night.  And the phone numbers I had were wrong!  And the people on the other end of the line didn’t speak English!

I found an information booth where thankfully the girl behind the counter DID speak English.  I explained to her that I was looking for a cheap place to stay and she got on the phone with the YMCA.  They had a room!  It was about three times more expensive than what I was hoping to pay but I took it (looked like those savings weren’t going to last quite as long as I thought!).

On the taxi ride to the YMCA I tried to communicate with the driver – using what little Japanese I could remember.  It was futile.  This guy could be taking me to some backroom auction where I could be sold off into a life of prostitution for all I knew.  The stress built. We arrived at the YMCA, and I paid the driver from my quickly depleting savings.

I checked into the Y and went to my room, completely exhausted and disoriented (no pun intended).  A couple of hours later, in the middle of the night, I was awoken by an ambulance blaring on the street below – shouting orders over a loud speaker in a language I could not comprehend.  What was he shouting?  Was there an earthquake?  Tsunami?  Was Godzilla about to descend on the city?

My central nervous system revolted.  Fortunately, my room had its own bathroom and I made it to the toilet before the convulsions in my stomach reached my mouth.  After spilling my guts, I was splayed on the floor, neon lights flashing across the room, the shouts from the ambulance, now slightly further in the distance, still ringing in my ears.

And I thought to myself, “What is wrong with me?  Am I crazy?  Do I have some kind of sick death wish?  What the fuck have I gotten myself into?”

And that was the low point.  From there, I got up the next morning and started figuring it out.  I had a lot of help along the way (a subject I’ll write about in another post sometime in the future).  I ended up staying in Japan for two years.  And had an amazing experience.

And so it has happened at least three or four other times during my lifetime.  Momentous, life-changing decisions where ultimately, after all the planning and preparation that may be possible, the final action requires you to step out of your comfort zone and be willing to take that leap of faith.

As Carlos and I were climbing the stairs to the top of the slide, I was less than a week away from making another such leap.  We had made the decision [this time it was made along with my wife 😉 ], to move the family from the comfortable, familiar life we had been living to a new, unknown adventure in an unfamiliar part of the country more than two thousand miles to the West.

The slide seemed to be the perfect symbol to me.  The perfect start to a move, that in hindsight I know was the absolute right decision.  And one from which I have never looked back.

I continued to try to coach Carlos as we proceeded with the climb.  “Look at the view,” I would say, casting my hand out across the valley.  “It is so beautiful up here.”  “Look at those wimps down there,” I declared, pointing down to the small spots that I knew were my three kids waiting below.  “Bet they wish they had the guts to do this!!”

We weren’t yet at the top, but I could already see that he was starting to waver.  His steps were becoming slower, less assured as the reality of the height started to hit him.  “C’Mon Carlos, you can do this!  Just keep moving forward.  It’s great and you’ll be fine.”

We got to the top and he paused.  “You go first,” he said.  I knew if I went first, there was NO WAY he would be following behind me.  “No chance Carlos,” I said.  “You told me if I did it, you would do it.  I already went once.  Now it is your turn.  You’ve got to put your fear away, sit on that slide, and push yourself over the edge.  Let’s go!”

“I can’t do it,” he blurted out.  “Carlos,” I said, in a last gasp effort appealing to his Latin machismo. “Are you really going to walk back down those stairs with all those jokers giggling at you the whole way down?  REALLY?”  Without success.

He turned, and started walking down the stairs.  It saddened me a bit, to think that he would come so far up that ladder, but there was nothing I could do or say that would get him to take that final step.  And I didn’t know why it was the case – whether it was an unflappable confidence in myself, an immeasurable faith in God’s plan for me, or some combination of the two – but I knew that whenever I was faced with such a decision requiring a leap of faith, that I would grab hold with both hands and push off with all my might.  With a certitude that I was in for a thrilling ride and everything would be alright in the end.

As I watched him descend the stairs, I turned and sat on the edge of the slide.  Took a deep breath and said to myself with a smile, “Here I go again.” And launched off into the unknown.

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