Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On fear

Happy 2013! I haven’t thought of a thing to Vent about after a month of mental housecleaning in the form of daily kundalini yoga and meditation at Golden Bridge Yoga in L.A. Then last night, a friend told me about a friend of hers, a filmmaker who, frightened of giving a museum talk, discovered beta-blockers—and what my friend, who hadn’t heard about them, considered an exciting breakthrough, I saw as a missed opportunity.

So the filmmaker took the beta-blockers, and what she gained was a successful museum talk, which is now over, and the knowledge that if she has a problem, she can take a pill. But what if she’d seen it as a challenge she could train for and conquer? She might have gained confidence and skills she could draw on for the rest of her life.

(I see curators stumbling through presentations, and I think, get a coach! This is part of your job, why not get good at it? In fact the museums would benefit if they regarded this as an integral part of job training.)

My friend, Hugeutte, was 52 when she decided to overcome her lifelong fear of driving a car. The driving teacher warned her that few first-timers over 30 can become good drivers, but was willing to give her a test drive. Huguette performed well on the test drive, took lessons, and later said, “I know I’ll be a better painter for having learned to drive.”

I have no problem speaking in public—in fact I love it—but it was not always thus. My first experience was when I was 24, working on a political campaign and being interviewed by telephone for a radio show, which resulted in what seemed like an eternity, but was no doubt only seconds of terrifying dead time. I remember watching my co-workers in the office with their ears to the radio listening to.…nothing. And while I later became a slam poet who, a friend said, only needed a stage, microphone, and an audience of 200 to feel entirely comfortable, I did harbor a secret public performance phobia: the piano.

I started playing when I was five and in the middle of my first recital at seven or eight – I remember a white hall and a big black shiny grand piano – I went blank. My teacher had to run and get the music, and I was mortified. Despite 20 more years of rigorous classical training, only my neighbors* knew I could play. My teacher, Lili Simon, who studied at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest with Bartok (his picture was next to the piano), used to pile her family and neighbors onto the couch in the living room when I played, but it was hopeless. Then 15 years ago, a friend who knew of my secret ability, asked me to play at her wedding—an utterly horrific suggestion, which I immediately refused. Fortunately, however, by that time I had done enough personal growth work to recognize that the fear was a signal that, if I was to continue to grow, I had to do it. Eek! Valerie Dillon, a concert pianist turned art dealer who lived nearby in SoHo, offered me a key to her loft and daily use of her Steinway grand. “The only antidote to stage fright,” she said, “is practice.” I played an hour a day for at least six weeks until that Chopin mazurka and two pieces by Bach felt as if they were part of my DNA. Needless to say the wedding went off smoothly, but was almost an anti-climax, because by that time I could have done it in my sleep.

But all this is trifling compared to my friend, Wylie Goodman, who took a leave from her job with the New York City Parks Department and is now completing a six-month bicycling and Couchsurfing tour of Asia on her own. Do you think there was no fear there? I saw her just before she left, after months of training and preparation, when the reality hit her and she asked, “Am I out of my fucking mind?”

This is one of my favorite Wylie anecdotes from Facebook:

(November 12, 2012) And now for today's feel-good story: two 11 or 12-year-old boys started biking alongside me, as kids often do here, yelling "hello" or "where are you from?" when one started singing, "Hey, sexy lady!" I did a double take, stopped riding, called out, "wait!" – and pulled out my iPhone with its downloaded "Gangnam Style" song. We all smiled and started doing the move. At that moment, I felt like the coolest 48-year-old white lady in Vietnam.

Wylie, saying goodbye to bicycle #1, January 10, 2013 in Cambodia

* As young marrieds, my ex-husband and I used to play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto (he on the trumpet, me playing the orchestral part on the piano) in our Evanston courtyard apartment. One day I ran into one of my neighbors who said, “I thought of you the other night. We went to the Chicago Symphony and they performed the Haydn Trumpet Concerto—it was great, except they left out the part where he yells at her about the time.”


MMH said...

What a perfectly lovely post for beginning the new year

Jeff Gates said...

Well, as long as we're venting... I am not afraid to speak in public. Twenty-three years as a teacher helped I'm sure. But I have a few "rules" that help me.

I don't read a paper or lecture. In the last few months I've been in intimate (i.e. small and approachable) public forums where people (well, they were BOTH art historians) read papers. I know how to read so I could read them myself if I wanted to. I want to be able to interact with the person. I want to feel like s/he is taking to me about an interesting subject.

I do try and make my presentations entertaining to a certain extent. My PowerPoints are not long bullet lists. In fact, I usually have one line of text on them. I fill the rest in with my talking. A slide can be informational or it can be funny. I figure, if they're laughing at the slide, then they're having a good time AND not looking at me.

I always find someone in the crowd who is nodding his or her head "yes" while I speak. I hone in on them and it feels like I'm having a conversation rather than lecturing.

It wasn't always this way for me. In junior high I joined the debating team and on my first try, I went silent. It took me a while to get back up on a stage.

I *always* get nervous before speaking. It's natural and keeps me on my toes. In fact, I always seem to say to myself "I don't want to be here." I now laugh when I do. I know it doesn't mean much.