Just say ‘yes’: A social experiment
Was it worth the bother? Affirmative
It is the hallmark of most adults, as we lurch zombielike into middle age, increasingly to become distilled versions of ourselves. What once burgeoned or flourished now crystallizes or self-embalms. In the last year, I started doing needlepoint while drinking a gin and tonic; currently nothing holds my interest like “The Great British Baking Show” and its explications of self-saucing puddings. My friends call me Danger.
Until Thanksgiving 2013, Shonda Rhimes, the creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” and executive producer of “How to Get Away With Murder,” was in a similar rut. But at that holiday meal, Rhimes’ sister told her, “You never say yes to anything.” This prompted Rhimes – a workaholic, 43-yearold single mother of three whose stage fright had her turning down many requests for public appearances – to spend a year saying yes to new opportunities. By the end of her memoir, “Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person,” Rhimes had lost more than 100 pounds, given the commencement speech at Dartmouth, appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” stopped
working on the weekends and chosen the writing life over a marriage proposal.
Eager, as I would tell a friend, “to get a little Shonda in my life,” I recently spent a month emulating Rhimes. I started by making a list of activities that I aspired to but that, as “The Year of Yes” put it, were “scary” or took me “out of my comfort zone.” I wondered, will I, like the “Grey’s Anatomy” character Cristina Yang, learn to “dance it out” or, like the “Scandal” heroine, Olivia Pope, learn to “stand in the sun” – or will I dedicate the rest of my life to tucking my Smith & Hawken gardening clogs into my PBS tote bag?
Two items on my list were physical challenges. I was right to be scared of them. For my shoulder soreness, I wanted to try an inversion table. At La Casa Spa & Wellness Center on 20th Street, I paid $60 to lie for 20 minutes on what looked like the world’s most elaborate ironing board and tip myself upside down so that, unsupervised and without straps or a belt, I was hanging from the tops of my feet for 90 seconds at a crack. I gained new admiration for Bruce Wayne’s metatarsals. The next day, my shoulders seemed unchanged, but my legs were a lake of fire. Would I return? As Rhimes would say, “Girl, please.”
It was equally disruptive to my carapace, but far more fun and cosmic, to attend a butoh class in midtown with my friend Camilla. A juddering, trancelike form of dance that emerged from postwar Japan (you may have seen it in Madonna’s video of “Nothing Really Matters”), butoh has you concentrate all your weight and gravity into one part of your body such that the rest of your body twitches and flaps. Camilla told me that some years ago she marveled at a fellow butoh classmate’s dancing, “but it turned out she was having an epileptic fit.” I loved the teacher (a thin, intense Frenchwoman named Vangeline), as well as an exercise in which we pretended to have no faces. But the next day: lake of fire No. 2.
Were there yeses that I was unable to complete? Uh-huh. They tended to be challenges that were thrown at me rather than those I’d devised. Leaving for my office one morning, I wanted to but did not kiss my boyfriend goodbye in front of the workmen who were fixing our windows. I decided that any resultant social awkwardness would fall on Greg rather than on me, which didn’t seem fair.
That said, the yes possibilities that were fate-derived rather than me-derived included my sweetest and my most complicated accomplishments. For Thanksgiving, Greg and I went up to southern Connecticut, to the home of my brother, Fred, and his wife, Jocelyn. An hour or so after the meal, my musicobsessed brother thrust a guitar into my hand and encouraged me to play and sing in front of the other guests, who were doing the dishes. I’ve done this about nine times in my life; I play and sing with a 45 to 75 percent mastery of any given song, which can scare the horses. But suddenly, Fred and I were warbling and plucking out Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” and Loudon Wainwright III’s “Swimming Song.” I’d forgotten how good it feels to talk to my brother in his lingua franca.
An hour later, Fred asked me if I would like to inherit the hulking mahogany sideboard that has been in my family for three generations when he and my sister-in-law sell their house sometime in the next year. The one that won’t fit in my apartment; the one that has a broken leg and that no one else in the family wants; the one that will incur either a $700-a- year storage fee or a complicated relationship with a friend who will take it as a negotiable permaloan. Yes?
In the end, I’m pleased by the results. The physical pain from the inversion table and butoh quickly lapsed. I’ve inherited a family heirloom (Yes!), rekindled with my brother and made a friend. (Camilla and I chatted up a butoh classmate, with whom I’ve since dined.) All in all, fairly tight.
Inspired by the memoir “Year of Yes” by Shonda Rhimes, the writer Henry Alford spent a month trying new things.