YEAR TO LIVE PROJECT: FROM CAGE TO STAGE – A TEDx STORY

Deep breaths fail to stop my hands from shaking. My mouth is bone dry. The hair on my arms stands straight up. I’ve done this walk before, many times. Up the stairs, past the guys in the headsets, no one making any real eye contact. Every scent is magnified. My eyes dart in a thousand directions taking in everything, yet nothing at all. All senses firing, this is life or death, fight or flight.

I look down at my right palm and for a second am taken aback by the lack of a 4oz glove, by the lack of athletic tape. Where is the athletic commissioner? Every time I’ve done this walk before, someone is waiting for me. Waiting to punish my body, to remove me from my consciousness. Hoping to punch, kick, or choke me into submission.

Every time I’ve done this walk, past the drunken fans calling me a faggot, a pussy, or letting me know, “My boy’s going to kill you,” I’ve been walking into a cage.

A thirty two foot octagonal mat surrounded by a chain-link fence.

A space where the rules are limited and the goal is clear. Hurt or be hurt. Win.

This time the rules are different. It’s not a cage I’m walking into. The crowd is sober and there are no Harley Davidson shirts, red bandanas, or wannabe strippers. There is silence on this walk up, no Metallica, no profanity. This isn’t a dark convention center in the middle of the desert.

It’s a theater in gorgeous Santa Barbara, California and although my body can’t tell the difference, and my mind is reacting the way it used to, I’m not walking into a cage — I’m walking onto a stage.

The parallels between fighting professional MMA and public speaking are innumerable. Had I been made to cut weight and stand on stage face to face with another speaker the day before taking the stage at TEDx Santa Barbara last August, I would not have been surprised and would have felt right at home.

Anyone who has written and then delivered a speech that tells a personal story or climbed into a cage to fight another human being knows that before you get to perform, you’re going to go on a journey. For me, the eight months leading up to my walk out onto that stage were indeed that.

Shit Or Get Off The Pot

When the invitation to be a speaker at TEDx SB found me, I was in a bad way. Six weeks prior, I’d packed up my last few remaining earthly belongings, given my dog to my now ex-wife, said goodbye to the community I’d spent the last half decade building, kissed a few girls, and drove to Santa Fe, New Mexico alone to start my Year To Live Project by volunteering in hospice.

“I think we’re going to be putting on a TEDx event in Santa Barbara in August, if we do, consider this your invitation to speak,” the text on my phone read. The message was from Kymberlee Weil, speaking coach extraordinaire and one of my favorite human beings.

A few months earlier, Kymberlee and I had sat on a stone wall across from the Biltmore Hotel in Montecito and she had asked me a life-changing question. She looked me square in the eye and said, “Answer this without thinking. Tell me the first thing that pops in your head. If you could only do one thing work-wise for the rest of your life, one thing only, what would it be?”

I blurted out, “I would be a speaker.”

Despite having said that, when I responded to Kymberlee’s invitation text, I wrote, “Thank you, but I’m not sure, please give me 24 hours to consider.”

I was in no condition to speak in public. I was severely depressed. Three of my six hospice patients had already died and I was having regular breakdowns from the experience of spending time with the remaining three. If I wasn’t with them, working out, or writing this blog, I was most likely staring at the ceiling in my new “home” or wondering what the hell had become of my life. The thought of going back to Santa Barbara of all places, the home I had just left, the city I had been married in, the city I started and lost a family in, the city where my old business was, all of that was too daunting. No way I was going back there to stand on a stage, not a chance.

When I was fighting, my life would change completely eight weeks before the event. Everything would become geared toward the fifteen potential minutes of performance. Eight weeks was enough time to train hard, work out any kinks in my game, and get in the best shape of my life. But there I was reading Kymberlee’s text, eight months out from a far less demanding performance, and I already felt like I’d lost.

In my head, I wrote Kymberlee back, thanking her for the offer but saying I would rather conclude my yearlong project first and then speak on the entire year rather than speak halfway through it. I picked up my phone and started plucking away at the keypad, but stopped when I was hit by these three questions:

– What happens if I say no?

– What happens if I say yes?

– What would I do if it were really my last year alive, the guise under which I was living 2016?

The first one was easy. Nothing would happen if I said “no.” I’d go from Guatemala, where I was headed next, down to Nicaragua to get some world-class surf in for a few months, as I had originally planned. But that idea suddenly didn’t sit well. My tummy felt off, and it’s long been my best barometer in situations like this.

The second question was scary. Anything and everything could happen if I said “yes.” I could fall flat on my face, freeze, and give the worst TED talk in history. Or I could knock it out of the park, change lives, help people, and inevitably catch the eye of a newly single Shakira. Not to mention, anything and everything in between. Perhaps it was time to embrace the idea that anything is possible at any time. Anything.

The last question was the kick in the pants, and the one I knew if I answered honestly would change my response. If I were to take that question seriously, I would be up on that stage. If I were really leaving the world come December 31st, then I’d unequivocally want to leave it with a message, a legacy, having at least taken a shot at giving people something they could use to potentially change their lives.

I took one last deep breath before typing, “Please, take this as my official ‘Fuck yes, I’m in.’”

Now it was time to begin the work of delivering the speech of my life.

Be Shirtless – Actually Be a Shirtless Horse

The fastest way from A to B is through great coaching. From my earliest days as an age group swimmer to today I’ve sought out and been blessed to learn from amazing coaches. They’ve taught me how to keep my head above water, choke people unconscious, and write stellar blog posts. I’m a lot of things in life, but one thing I pride myself on is being coachable.

Two weeks before my last professional fight, I had a bit of a meltdown and sat down my coach and mentor at the time, Brazilian jiu jitsu legend Chris Haueter, to hopefully glean some much-needed guidance.

“Something about this one is eating me, Chris,” I said. “I’m scared as hell and I think I’m going to get my head ripped off.”

Chris was pensive for a minute before answering. “You might, but now we know you’re not a sociopath, and that’s good. Gear up and get on the mat.”

Thanks. Simplicity at its coaching finest.

Having MMA coaches as a reference, it wasn’t surprising that my first training session with speaking coach Jean Louis Rodrigue came as quite a shock.

“I want you to say your lines again, but this time do them as if you were a horse,” Jean Louis told me after I’d run through a version of my speech for him at the Odyssey Theater in L.A. “Actually, take your shirt off and do it topless, horses don’t wear shirts, and besides you need to be more naked for your audience anyway,” he chuckled.

This was my second time working with Jean Louis, an expert at the Alexander Method, the head of the theater department at UCLA, and someone who pretty much has the Who’s Who of Hollywood on speed dial. I never asked, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he knows a certain Columbian pop star’s cell phone number. If Jean Louis wanted me to pretend I was horse, I was going to be the best fucking horse he’d ever seen (and thank God none of my friends could see this).

 

I whinnied, I flung my “luscious mane” around with my head, I galloped, I pranced, and I later sang my lines like an opera singer and even stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Jean Loius pounding my fist into my chest for five minutes while yelling “HUH. HUH. HUH.”

You want me to jump? Sure thing, brother. How high?

 

Each session with Jean Loius was another hour of surrender, of trusting someone whose arena I was playing in with little prior experience. Each session was also a gamechanger for my speech. It was Jean Louis who said, “You’re a bit preachy and you’re not using enough characters. The stage is a character, the lights are a character, the audience is a character. What if….what if you made pain its own character? What if you let pain speak for you, then it wouldn’t be like you were the one doing all the talking?”

That night pain became his own character, modeled after the Marquis de Sade. After that, Jean Louis had me carry a picture of the Marquis with me everywhere I went.

After a particularly hard week of rehearsal, of feeling like I was down on the scorecard in my fight with vulnerability and self expression., Jean Louis said two things to me that forever changed my talk and the way I view public speaking.

After I spent an hour of repetitively and stiffly banging out the same lines over and over again , Jean Louis came and draped his arm around my shoulders and whispered, “You know, this speech wants to take you somewhere you don’t want to let it.” He smiled empathetically. He knew my story and I knew he had recently experienced loss, as well. We’d shared tears together already. “But your audience needs you to go there,” he continued. “And quite frankly, you need to go there for yourself.”

I knew he was right. My lines were perfectly memorized, my movement patterns matched the points in the paragraphs where they needed to be, but my heart still had a two-foot-thick titanium wall surrounding it. I was protecting myself at all costs, even while onstage and under the pretense of sharing my story.

He left me with one last question, one that sent me straight to my truck blubbering like a baby.

“Also ask yourself this question: are you willing to let your audience see how beautiful you really are?”

Simplicity wins via knockout once again.

Life Backstage

One of the mindfuckiest parts of MMA shows is having to sit in a cramped greenroom backstage while one by one the other fighters leave to fight. They may come back thirty seconds later, or twenty minutes later. They may come back with jubilant smiles on their faces, or covered in blood with teeth missing. Fortunately, while I wait to step out onto this new stage of my life, I know exactly how long the person ahead of me would take—and I have a greenroom all to myself. So, I lock the door and get to work.

My preparation for speaking and fighting is virtually identical — I move constantly. I bounce up and down on my toes going side to side from foot to foot. I shadow box with an opponent in the mirror, stretch my arms out using the wall, and do forward folds, down dogs, cobras, and lots of pushups. At this point in preparing for a fight, I know I’ve put the work in and I know I’m not going to tire myself out by warming-up, so I keep moving. It’s just a matter of holding my shit together and not freaking the fuck out as the minutes tick down.

Here in this greenroom at TEDx SB, I know that “Tinier” Tim Bauer just took the stage so I have eighteen minutes to keep myself collected. I grab a hand towel and pretend to have a tug of war with it, pulling it apart with my hands, forcing me out of my head and back into my body. Then more pushups. Then squats. I’m shirtless so not to sweat through my clothes before I even hit the stage.

“You’ve been here before,” I tell myself. “Only there’s no one out there getting paid to assault you. Everyone out there is pulling for you. You’ve got loved ones in the audience, people want you to succeed.” These thoughts help a tad, but not as much as throwing elbows at an imaginary opponent.

There’s a knock on the door and my “handler” tells me she needs to take me upstairs to get me mic’ed up. I ask her for one more minute, pee out the last three droplets of liquid my body can let go of, give myself one final “let it all hang out up there, it’s do or die” nod in the mirror and follow her upstairs to the stage.

The truth is I live for the walk out.

It was my favorite part of fighting and what I missed most afterward. Its absence was one of the major catalysts for a decade of my life being spent stoned out of my mind so as not to face the fact I’d never do it again. It’s the adrenaline. It’s the heightened senses. It’s how time slows down while my heart explodes in my chest. It’s the moment immediately before fully committing to slide down the face of a wave that wants to kill you. The first five seconds of free fall after jumping out of an airplane. It’s why life is worth living.

I keep bouncing on my toes, making circles with my arms while listening to Tim keep the audience in stitches with his brilliant delivery. The sound guy tapes a microphone to my cheek, adding a second piece of adhesive when I tell him I’m planning to move a lot.

Three minutes to go.

I stop moving and start slowing down my breathing. I pray. I ask for strength. I ask to be used in service. I ask to move at least one person in the audience to change their lives.

Two minutes.

I keep my hands in prayer position in front of my heart and take five deep breaths, wiggling my entire body and pretending I’m Gumby, loose as a goose, cool as a cucumber. “Who’s calm as fuck?,” I ask myself. “Damn skippy, you are.”

One minute.

Having been at the rehearsals together, I know Tim’s speech and he’s wrapping it up. He’s hit a home run — the audience explodes.

A calm comes over me. Ok, it’s happening. No backing out. What will be will be. Let go. Trust Kymberlee. Trust Jean Louis. Trust the divine. Most importantly, trust yourself.

Tim walks off stage past me but doesn’t say a word. He knows where I am and that we are in two separate worlds at the moment. Kymberlee walks onto the stage and says something about the last performance of the day after asking the audience if they’re ready for one more talk.

I take my final deep breath hearing her say in my head, “And now, weighing in at 155 pounds and fighting out of Redondo Beach California…” and my feet start moving.

Push play to see what happened next….