Performance anxiety

October 13, 2011

When I was a sophomore in high school, I sang my heart out in a 1940’s-style rendition of “Blue Moon” in the annual school-wide talent show, with my buddy Sean playing saxophone as back-up.  It was fun, and I got to wear a sexy dress and make-up (otherwise, forbidden in my household) and I didn’t worry too much about how well I sang or how silly I may have looked up there on stage. I have never been much of an actor (too awkward, bad posture), but ever since I was little I’ve found it easy to completely tune-out my surroundings and engulf myself utterly amid the story in my head. And though I was aware that the goal was to entertain, I guess I was so elated at the act of entertaining myself, it never occurred to me that there was an audience waiting to be entertained, as well.

Selfish, I guess. Self-absorbed? Maybe. But when my mother and sister and brother and friends came to congratulate me at the end of that performance on that spring night 24 years ago, I found myself dubious of their accolades. “Wonderful?” “Stunning?” I repeated to myself. But I’m not a singer. Not a performer. I wasn’t trying to be wonderful. It was just fun.

In 1987, there were no iPhones with which an audience could casually and instantly record a school auditorium performance. The only cameras allowed were the ones that the yearbook staff borrowed from campus offices to record both the mundane and climactic events of every school year. When the yearbook for my sophomore year was released several months later, I was shocked to discover a ginormous (a word that did not exist at the time) picture of a long-legged, microphone-wielding young woman wearing my friend’s sexy black dress. The girl was clearly in the act of singing—her mouth a sultry, lipsticked “oooo” (as in “bluuuuuue” or “moooon”)–with my buddy Sean grooving on his sax in the background.

Oh, it’s Sean! I thought. Cool! And then I read the caption: “Sophomore Katie Gerteis tries a performance of ‘Blue Moon.’”

Right. Double-whammy. First, to realize, after looking back at the picture of the strange girl, that she’s me. And second, that odd, odd choice of word, tries.

Yearbooks, for the sophomore in high school, are sort of like People magazine is for me now; a guilty pleasure at viewing the photographs of our contemporaries, more than the words that accompany those images.

The caption of that photo flitted in, then out, of my brain. What stuck was the thrill of associating that glamorous black-and-white photo with the plain girl that arrived at class clad in baggy shirts and jeans, or her swim team-issued sweat suit.

It was some years later, after I had returned from a year abroad and was preparing to move across country to attend college, that I found myself in my childhood bedroom looking through my high school yearbooks with an old schoolmate and another, older girl she had been hanging out with. The pages of my 1987 yearbook fell to the black and white picture of me in the sexy dress, and the older girl exclaimed that she had been at that talent show.

“Oh,” she said, with all the wisdom of a girl in her late teens, “she was just awful. I was embarrassed for her just watching!”

“That’s me,” I said, flatly, in an attempt to prevent further embarrassment on both our parts. I had learned a lot about communication that year, having had to navigate my teenage angst in another language. Sometimes, with words, less is more. It shut her up, and we went on to do other things that day.

But her unwittingly candid critique haunted me that summer before my first year at college. It haunted me, and it rang about as true as the compliments my family and friends had gushed a few years before. “Awful?” I considered. But I was having so much fun!

Today, I was filmed for a cooking segment on a local TV show as part of the promotion for my new book. I’ve been filmed for TV a handful of times, and I’ve been surprised to discover that I don’t get all that nervous. In fact, it’s a little unnerving how much I don’t get nervous. I guess a big part of me knows that I will get lost in the moment, in the act of whatever I’m doing. And though, it’s not so much about entertaining myself anymore—and more about just getting the damn job done—the effect is much the same. I forget there’s an audience.

I guess that’s what culls out the entertainers from people like me (that, and many, many other things). It wasn’t until after we had finished filming the segment, and I was halfway up the coast from Portland, that I remembered about the audience. “Uh oh,” I thought. And then, unbidden, that long-dormant memory of the caption on that 24-year-old photo, and that sticky, heavy word, tries.

I found myself wondering who wrote that caption. Did they mean what I thought they meant? And what exactly did I think they meant? And then, as I passed the service station in Gardner and the need for gas shook me out of my reverie, I thought, “Am I really this concerned about a caption written a quarter of a century ago?”

Moments come and go. And so does unnecessary worry. But pictures—and the written word—stick around for a good long time. I lost that yearbook years ago, in one of my many moves back and forth across the country. So, consumed with curiosity (and at the risk of appearing egocentric) I appealed to my high school friends on Facebook for a copy of that photo.  It arrived in my mailbox moments later.

It was much as I remembered it. Time has not erased too much of the truth. But upon reading that mysterious caption again, I smiled. The author, though they had the right idea, got the word wrong. That moment on stage was much like many throughout my life—successes and failures alike. I did not try that performance, no. I tasted it.

PS: If you’d like to see me forget about the audience on TV (and learn how to make my chocolate cinnamon buns), tune in tonight to “207″ at 7:00 pm on WCSH6 Portland. Or check out the link when it appears on their website.

2 Responses to “Performance anxiety”

  1. Denise Byron Says:

    I love you, sis!
    Embracing what we love is what life is about!

  2. Denise Says:

    Congratulations on remembering your passion, not your anxiety! :)


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