Tuesday, May 24, 2005

look for tongues and Vs and try to stay in the darkest water

I went and did a three-day tandem white-water canoe course this last weekend. It was a little scary to just head off on my own, show up on my own -- because it is a very well-established training camp for paddlers, it has a bit of a summer-camp chummy feel, and it was hard not to feel like the lonely new kid who doesn't know anybody or how things work there, showing up in the dark the night before the first class. I become very reserved, hang back and observe in new situations. Fortunately, it is a very welcoming, well-organized place, and by middle of the first day I was feeling relaxed enough to joke a little with strangers, and by dinner time I was actually sitting with strangers and drinking wine with them.

Other paddlers and the instructors I had all carefully asked at one point or another why I'd decided to come on my own. I just said "in preparation for a canoe trip this summer with my sister who lives up north" and left out all the gorey details of why I am without a paddling partner.

Anyway, it ended up being, overall, a very good weekend. Trying sometimes on a few fronts, but I met some interesting people of all backgrounds (CEO of a huge home-building corporation in Toronto, a blacksmith who does custom work, world-class paddlers and authors, a woman who works for a boreal forest conservation organization...), ate some good food, and tested some things that needed to be tested.

I wrote the following paragraph in an email to a friend this morning and copy it here (with a few quick tweaks I admit) because this is the best way to describe my main instructor:

I had this older guy in his sixties as a teacher, he has been guiding and paddling for almost thirty years. He was very clear about what he wanted us to do. He was lean but well-muscled and his perfectly-controlled form was beautiful to watch and to try to emulate. I thought he looked rather like Sean Connery in The Rock (an infantile movie) when he was all kitted out in his militaristic-looking black dry-suit and trim black helmet with a safety knife strapped to his PDF, with his dark eyes and his weathered face -- quite dashing, in that way that older self-possessed men can pull off, partly because they can not possibly know (or even care) how handsome they look. Then after classes when relaxing he looked just like a white-bearded grandpa, kind of frumpy in unflattering clothes, with big glasses. I liked him a lot (but am not actually attracted to such old men, at least not yet).

Another instructor I quite liked, was a red-headed fellow from Newfoundland who was very gregarious and spoke with a wonderful accent that sounded Irish/Dublinish. He said things like "Oh girl, don't get me started, I could talk the arse off an iron pot." He called every woman he spoke to "girl", and it was completely unoffensive, possibly because of the way he rolls the R, possibly because of the genuine warmth in his voice when he says it. He also introduced me to a new exclamation that I've added to my list of favourites: "Sweet adorable Jesus!" (and though I will not say it with the accent myself -- too silly -- consider for a moment the sound of that accent, which also means that Jesus was pronounced "Jaysis"). He was the sort to chat with everyone and make them feel at home but not get too thick beyond what was appropriate with anyone, I could see that quickly.

The last instructor I'll mention was the most testosterone-driven jackass/jahshah I've met in a long time. He was an assistant teacher in our group, and had me so close to screaming with frustration on my first day that I actually spoke to someone about it. He was very harsh ("No! You DID IT WRONG again! You've got to LISTEN to me! Keep your wrist turned outward! TURN IT!!!"), then would compensate for this inappropriately severe criticism (when lord knows I was thinking and listening and working so hard to get it right) with lavish praise ("You know, I think you are the most promising paddler in the group, you really show a lot of talent, I've been talking about you with [the head instructor]"). He also made comments like "You want your paddle shaft to be like your boyfriend -- vertical" and "I've seen quite enough of your ass all day". (I was in the bow.) As you can imagine, it was exhausting.

I have managed difficult men many times in my professional and personal life (fortunately none in my family) -- the chest-thumping gorillas, the thugs, the self-important idiots, the insecure sexist and homophobic assholes who violently suppress their above-average lust for the other fellows on their rugby team... but as a paying client of course, dealing with this sort of thing should not be my role.

This fellow's main redeeming quality was that I could tell he had a very good heart under all that -- he just was completely and honestly unaware of how he was coming across (a bit sad in a man well into his forties, if you ask me), what power he had as an instructor/authority figure, what was appropriate behaviour, how to inspire confidence, how to deal with different personalities and styles, and the very basic concept of patience -- in short, all the things that make a good person a good instructor.

The place I was paddling has an excellent reputation for professionalism and though white-water sports may be a bit of a "sausage fest" (as another student observed), there are a lot of highly accomplished women in white-water as well, and one of them runs this place. The school has an excellent reputation for a reason -- because this sort of thing generally does not happen, and on the rarest occasions when it surprisingly does, they respond appropriately and immediately, as they did in this case. I didn't even have to initiate the discussion, because another instructor observed enough to come and carefully ask me about it before I even had to consider the discomfort of "tattling".

I strongly suspect that he will never become an instructor there now. I would feel badly for him, but think of it more this way: it is not his calling and he shouldn't be wasting his time trying to become an instructor when it is so clearly against the grain of his natural temperament.

Some day I'll be better at the starboard on-side turn, and not collapse my left arm like a chicken wing, but sweet adorable Jesus, it's going to take some time and a lot of practice. And maybe another set of lessons with Sean Connery's white-water-paddling Canadian doppelgänger.

1 Comments:

At May 27, 2005 12:09 PM, Anonymous karate kat said...

On the topic of men, power and extreme sports, I was at my karate class last night and although I generally love the sport and the atmosphere in the dojo is very fair and egalitarian, there are some men who just cannot deal with sparring with women. I randomly chose as my partner a black belt whom I don't know (the instructor just calls out 'change partners' and you have to run to the next free person). I was attacking by using four different kicks and the last one was a turn around and kick from behind technique which is renowned for being awkward and ineffectual. When I executed my kick, the black belt did not block it and counterpunch, he just stood there and laughed. I joked with him about it that time, despite this being a serious breach of dojo etiquette. But when I had to do it again he did the same thing, stood there, shook his head and laughed. And this time, some of the other men around were watching and they laughed as well. I then asked him to at least counterstrike, which he did in a very half-hearted way. The instructor then called us to change partners again. I was furious however, since if there is one thing you simply do not do in karate is not counter but stand there and laugh at your partner. Granted, my kick was pretty terrible but that's not the point. I couldn't believe this black belt would be such an arrogant twat. But you know, after years of trying to tell off men who insult and patronise me, I've learnt that the worst thing you can do is respond when you're angry because then they'll just pat you on the head and say, 'oh isn't that cute, she's angry, she's a feisty one, isn't she?' What is wrong with some men? He would never have acted that way with another man, no matter how junior or pathetic. The worst thing of all though, was the other men who stood round and laughed with him, those obsequious sheep.

 

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