By Mark E. Smith
During my eighth-grade daughter’s summer vacation, she learned how to swallow a 20-inch stainless-steel sword. Now, that may sound a bit disturbing to you; but, don’t worry, she learned from two of the best sword swallowers around: Donny Vomit and Heather Holiday, headliners at Coney Island’s historical Circus Sideshow, where Mat Fraser, a noted international performer with a disability, also serves as Sealo the Sealboy each summer. And, in case you’re wondering, despite her pushed-up bosom, bull-ring nose piercing, tattoos, and sword swallowing, Heather Holiday is the type of sweet young woman who you could take home to meet Mother – if your mother is OK with sideshow performers, that is.
The story behind the story is that I took my daughter to the Sideshow, in fact, to see Mat Fraser – who has self-described flipper-like arms due to a birth defect – but we found studying sword swallowing via Donny Vomit and Heather Holiday to be a lot more interesting (those with disabilities are really just a dime a dozen these days, slowing down public transit and such as we make others wait for us to awkwardly maneuver our wheelchairs, as if we never get better at driving these things).
As it turned out, witnessing sword swallowing was a lesson that might serve my daughter well in life in more ways than simply working as a sideshow act – which, in my accountant’s opinion, would prove as a fiscally beneficial alternative to college, freeing up hundreds of thousands of dollars for me that I could then spend on a yacht or a 23-year-old girlfriend, or ideally both. See, as my daughter and I learned, there’s truly no trickery to sword swallowing. By tilting one’s head back, it creates a straight line from the throat, down the esophagus, right to the stomach – a nice human sheath for a sword to slip into. Of course, along the way, one has to be aware of the ever-so-minor detail of not tearing one’s heart or other vital organs by which the sword passes (27 sword swallowers have died in recent years by breaking this simple rule), but once the organs are cleared, it’s a straight shot down the hatch.
However, where the real challenge to sword swallowing comes in is in one’s mental capacity to block out one’s natural gag reflex, and then ignore the extreme discomfort of sliding a 20-inch sword down one’s esophagus – and make it appear pleasant and easy on stage. Sword swallowing, therefore, is less a physical skill, and more mind over matter.
Of course, my daughter never actually swallowed a sword, and expresses no interest in doing so – at least not until she’s 18 or when I’m not home. Yet, we both learned a valuable lesson toward mind over matter – that is, how we control our instinctive reflexes makes all of the difference when facing challenges in life.
I know all too well that in living life, not unlike sword swallowing, we need to move ourselves past any discomfort, and have the willpower to simply push through to the accomplishment, sometimes with a die-trying, sword-swallowing attitude. We need to be willing to go where others wouldn’t dare, where we’re willing to swallow our own metaphorical swords in pursuit of living to our fullest. Avoiding a challenge, giving up, or stopping short can’t be an option. It’s how we transcend from merely surviving to truly thriving. It’s how the sword goes from the tip of one’s tongue, to the pit of one’s stomach.
I’m celebrating my one-year anniversary of maintaining a rigorous diet and workout routine – a shift in lifestyle, really, from Twinkies and Southern Comfort, to nutrient bars and protein shakes. Despite my compulsions toward gluttony and binge drinking, I embarked on this path toward higher levels of physical fitness not because I was strikingly unhealthy or out of shape, but because I wanted to simply be a better me (though, I’ve long been remarkably stunning, as you may have noted by my perfectly deformed appearance), pushing myself physically and mentally farther, tackling swallowing yet another sword – and doing so without clipping an organ in the process, per se.
My biggest challenge – or should I say, nemesis? – has been my left arm. You’ll note that I do virtually everything with my right arm – no slight-of-hand or trickery involved – and I keep my left arm on my lap, hand between my knees, namely due to the effects of my cerebral palsy, but also because it’s cozy and warm. See, cerebral palsy is random in its physiological distribution – you might say, it has its own sick sense of humor – so it effects my left arm more than my right, limiting coordination. Fortunately, I’ve developed the larger motor skills in my left arm and hand over the decades for many independent living skills (except for that one favorite “skill” of us gentleman, if you know what I mean); but, overall, Lefty is an unwieldy fellow with a mind of his own.
In my workouts, however, I don’t allow my left arm any slack. If I do given sets and amounts of weight with my right arm, I hold my left arm to the exact same standard – Lefty has to literally pull his own weight, just like Righty. And, it proves little short of torturous much of the time, but, other times, just mocking. Ha ha, I’m Lefty, and you can’t control me – neener, neener, neener!
While my right arm has the coordination to blow through sets on my workout machine, it can be a workout in itself just trying to get my left hand to grip the darn bar (which is also why Lefty is of such little use for that gentlemanly compulsion, if you know what I mean), then I need to muster the coordination for my left arm to move through the workout rep as it spasms and contracts beyond my control. Then, once I fight through one rep, I have to do it all 49 more times, or however many more reps based on a given exercise. Inevitably, a set that takes three minutes with my right arm takes 15 minutes with my left arm – and it’s among the most frustrating, miserable processes ever. I crank up my iPod, shut my eyes, grit my teeth, and just fight through every spasm and contraction, pushing through the reps, no matter how agonizing – with a dose of angst toward Lefty that motivates me, of course. I refuse to let Lefty’s defiant behavior win, ever.
What’s intriguing, though, is a simple question: Why indefinitely torture myself with such a workout? Why not scale it back on my left arm? Or, why not just stop when my left arm seems impossible to control at times? After all, nothing in my life literally depends upon whether I do 30 reps or the full 60 with my left arm. No one’s watching, and there’s no consequence on my career, family, or health if I simply let my left arm have a little leeway. So, why not just do what’s reasonable and practical, and give myself some slack based on the very real limitations imposed by my cerebral palsy?
The answer is, reasonable and practical doesn’t get us ahead in life – a die-trying attitude does, where we’re not willing to give up, where we’re willing to ignore our gag reflex, and ease the sword down our throats, regardless of the discomfort. See, I figured out that my workouts serve as both a metaphor and precedent for other aspects of my life, that working out allows me to reinforce that I don’t care how difficult a challenge may be – I’m not quiting until I’m satisfied that I’ve met the goal, or die trying. It may be uncomfortable as the tip of the sword slides past my tongue, triggering my gag reflex, but I will move past it, till the sword’s tip touches my stomach, the handle against my lips, and my mind has won over matter.
Indeed, what I’ve learned from the principles of sword swallowing is that it’s not a physiological gag reflex that prevents 99.99% of people from swallowing swords, but our mental excuse reflex. Sword swallowers are simply willing to push themselves physically and mentally farther than others – they eliminate their excuse reflex, and just accomplish their goal, where they’re willing to die trying, so to speak.
No, I don’t suggest that anyone attempt sword swallowing – especially my daughter, and if she does attempt it, please don’t tell me (denial as a parenting skill works wonders). However, the mental techniques that sword swallowers use are ones that we should all apply to our lives, where we know that gag reflexes are really excuse reflexes, where we’re dedicated and bold enough to push beyond any hardships to reach the extremes of our potential, swallowing the swords of life, no matter how daunting they appear.