Stage Fright

Just over a year ago, I went to the LA Bar in Arlington and did karaoke. It was New Year’s Eve, and I had just come from a fairly routine party, where we had counted down the end of the old year and beginning of the new. It wasn’t enough. And so, away I went with my date, and we signed up to sing the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”

I had never done karaoke.

I began to sing in elementary school. First in chorus, where we performed a melange of patriotic and Disney songs, along with the occasional show tune (think “Impossible Dream”). Later, I tried out for the musical Hans Christian Andersen. There were more performances in school, but music, such as it was, was not a priority in my family.

When I took up the trombone—I wanted drums, but the music teacher redirected me with “You have a trombone player’s lips”—there was no insistence on practice. Who could blame anyone for discouraging the initial rumblings of beginner trombone player from the evening routine? My father had a trumpet, which I switched to after a year of trombone. This too proved too much. A few years later my father gave away this instrument from his youth.

I liked music class though, which was almost entirely singing. I explored a bass voice as a counterpoise to my natural nascent tenor. It was fun to dig up those low tones. I also enjoyed singing along to songs on the radio and then to records. This persisted throughout my life, and I recall an incident in my 40’s when I regaled my passengers with “Get Me to the Church on Time,” following Stanley Holloway note for note and comic inflection for comic inflection.

I had long since stopped singing in public as part of a choir or chorus. I was strictly a car singer.

I was, and this surprises most, shy. After college, several years in the restaurant business took the edge off most of my shyness. I learned the value of being professionally—and personally—outgoing. But when I was doing something that mattered to me—interviewing for a position I really wanted, reading my work in front of a panel of judges, singing—the old reserve kicked in. In time, that abated. Mostly. Years in the classroom and standing in front of a congregation taught me how to perform. I may have had some nervous moments—leading “Jingle Bells” without accompaniment stands out—but I found my way. Once, I even promised my recalcitrant students that if they behaved for an entire class that I would deliver a solo rendition of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” They did, and I did.

But singing, really singing, belting it out or digging it up? I still experienced stage fright.

So, fueled by champagne and scotch, I took to the stage at the LA Bar, and my date and I traded verses in and out of the Talking Heads. Whether it was the booze, the company, or my familiarity with the song, which I had sung since I was 20, we killed it.

A year later, I joined my students at the mic for John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.” I had suggested the song to them months before, and they graciosuly allowed me to sing along. Not karaoke, but a couple of guitars and three voices weaving together the wistful “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.” I had 40 years on my students but I remind myself that Prine was only 25 when he wrote the song. How did it turn out? Who knows? I think I stayed on key, and that maybe I added a proper sense of grey to the tenor.

I’m not sure where the shyness came from. Okay, that’s a lie. I know it it was one part nature and one part nurture and which of those parts was larger no longer matters. Derring-do, the genuine impulse to break the limits and cut loose occurs in my life in streaks—often at the edges. When I have been engaged in my most meaningful work (and yes, singing counts), an odd conservative bent takes over. The “Brian YaYa” that my friends called out seems to be replaced by a “Brian Yawn-Yawn.” Okay, it’s not that bad, but when you feel a wilder impulse in your guts, anything else—almost anything else, is a snooze.

Not any more. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” as Warren Zevon said. Until then, I have things to do. I remind myself even now, with 60 around the corner. I have things to do. Best to do them wildly, bravely, and with the full potential of failure waiting. And more, always more. I live with the stage fright.

See the man with the stage fright

Just standing up there to give it all his might

And he got caught in the spotlight

But when we get to the end

He wants to start all over again.

Stage Fright

 

It’s time to start all over again. Again.

Naming it

My friends are pointing fingers, locking their anger on that man, laser focused, sharpened wits at the ready. Especially today, the day after he mocked the woman who stood up and made her claim. And yet, it is never one man who makes the hatred possible. It takes a thousand voices, a million. And they are ready, adamant, and they will do more than vote.

The easy comparison has been to the fiendish orator from the 1930’s in Germany. But are we not living in the Weimar Republic, trounced and wounded and in the middle of a seemingly intractable economic crisis, with people wheeling barrows of devalued currency to the store for bread. No. We are great. We gather to watch football in the fall. We go to the beach in the summer. Our lives are country sweet.

And yet, when one man strokes the match, we burn, ready to ignite a fire that can be seen across oceans—or at least into the homes of those who would stand against our righteous anger. If he throws the match, we provide the kindling and hardwood to guarantee the night will not take us.

And we are, somehow, inexplicably, afraid. Of what? Of whom? Of the stranger. And he brings evidence—these families torn apart by them, those strangers to our great nation. Or this woman, whom he mocks for being imperfect. And all the while, the danger comes from so much closer. For every brown and black assailant, there are a thousand who look like us, who live in our homes and worship at our churches. Are we afraid of them, of the familiar danger that sleeps next to us?

Perhaps, but how much would it cost us to put an end to that? How many families would be torn apart if we laid bare the terrible secrets that line our streets like so many comfortable white fences? Not him. Not one of us. And yet, that is where the danger waits.

And so, because we face an unnamable threat, because we dare not speak its name, we are ready to foist our fears, whole and significant, onto others. Or even take them upon ourselves—blaming the crimes we daily face on ourselves. Not smart enough. Not cautious enough. Not brave enough. Too foolish. Too sexy. Too brazen. Too forthright. Too outspoken. And we do not turn to those we love and say, “Stop. Stop yourself. Stop your friends. Stop the faceless brigades of those who look like you. Stop.”

Until we do, until we stop those who would persecute our mothers, our sisters, our wives, our daughters, our sons, until we name the true source of our gnawing fear and endless recrimination, until we demand a true accounting for the actions, not of a few, but of the many, and stop blaming the hurt, the wounded, the abused, the battered, the raped, and the killed, until we recognize that it is not that man, or those strangers, or those women. We need to do more than hold that man accountable.

It is time for us to hold ourselves and our men accountable. It is time to name the fear. And act.