Saturday, December 3, 2011

See the Man with the Stage Fright

The life of a writer is much like that of a weather observer at Advance Base in Antarctica in the winter of 1934, but without the snow and all the social distractions. The reference is to Admiral Richard Byrd, who spent five months completely on his own in the deepest of all deep souths. His chronicle of the experience, Alone, is a classic in the psychology of social isolation. I read it when I was about ten and even back then I could totally relate.

Ten-year-olds with books and real heroes - hold that thought.

Anyway, there are just enough of us loners in the world that we can be regarded as borderline normal. What is weird are the abrupt transitions into the rough and tumble of people contact.

Bang! Suddenly, on Wednesday, I needed to be on my game - not in sweat pants and a four-day beard - with a full array of social skills. The occasion was a NAMI San Diego board meeting, which I managed to get through in one piece. The next night was the real challenge. This was our annual business meeting and holiday potluck. It wasn’t that I had to socialize. I was also responsible for entertaining a crowd of 50 people for 30 minutes.

But first let me tell you about my boneless lasagna. I like to cook, and the lasagna I brought to the potluck was a killer. As I was reheating it in the kitchen area at the event venue, I happened to joke that I had picked all the bones out of it. By the time I set it down on the buffet table, everyone knew about my boneless lasagna.

Fortunately, the running joke went over well. The lasagna was also a hit.

Social situations used to terrify me. Now they merely pose an extreme challenge. In a few minutes I would be joining Lisa, our board president, on stage. We were running a quiz night, and I would be taking the lead. I was working off of a script of sorts, but I was also flying off the seat of my pants. We had pulled off a similar event last year, and the people there had witnessed a miracle without even realizing it. If only they knew the real me.

I stepped onto the stage without stumbling. Seven or eight tables had their quiz folders. I introduced myself and explained the rules. This was the difficult part. The audience had yet to settle down and a lot of cross-talking was going on.

“The prize,” someone - maybe Lisa - whispered to me. That’s right, the prize. This was my cue to have Annie, our events and development manager, hold up Walter Isaacson’s new bio of Steve Jobs.

I launched into my first question, which had to do with the rabbit people in NAMI San Diego. Ah! A NAMI San Diego round. People were getting it. On the second question, I found my stride. “The ukulele is catching on worldwide as the ultimate cool instrument,” I opened. “Name our NAMI San Diego ukulele phenomenon.”

Most people knew who that was - Devin - a very likable and committed young man. “Devin embodies what I love about NAMI San Diego,” I went on to say. Suddenly, I had their attention. “We often come to NAMI in need,” I continued. “Then we give back and volunteer. And some of our volunteers wind up working on our staff.” I saw the nodding heads. “It’s a circle of life,” I blurted out. Somehow, the Lion King reference worked.

The crowd was into the game. One of my questions had blue moon as an answer. Instantly, one of the tables in front - Team Darwin, I think - burst out into a spontaneous rendition of the classic Rogers and Hart ditty. A ten-year-old girl on the team - the brains of the operation - burbled merrily along. The crowd cheered. I looked to Lisa. “Score an extra point for this table,” I commanded.

That extra point figures mightily in this story.

Call me butter, ‘cuz I was on a roll. I pointed to Team Einstein, with two MDs and a lawyer at the table. “Don’t worry about these guys,” I advised the others. “They over-think everything.”

All too soon, it was time to wrap it up. Lisa tabulated the scores. We had a tie between the two front tables. Team Darwin (the Blue Moon people with the ten-year-old brains of the operation) - and the other guys. There was the girl. There was the Steve Jobs book on display right next to me.

Could we just declare Team Darwin the winner? I asked. No, the girl’s mom insisted we do it fair and square. Time for the tie-breaker question.  I flipped through my sheets of paper. “Movies and TV,” I announced. I scanned down the questions:

“Which actress starred in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?” No, I decided, not that one.

“What was Marilyn Monroe’s real first name?” Not that one, either.

Then my face lit up. Here we go, I announced. “Name Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs.”

For the rest of my life, I will never forget the girl’s reaction. Her face beamed a thousand watts as she levitated from her chair. Then she grabbed a pen and started scribbling furiously.

Then came the moment of truth. How many dwarfs did you get? I asked Team Darwin. Five, came the response.

Oh-oh. That didn’t sound like enough.

How many? I asked the other table. Five, they answered.

Whew! My team had dodged a bullet.

Did I dare risk another tie-breaker question? I hesitated, then I knew exactly what to do. “Team Darwin has fewer people,” I announced. “Therefore, they have more brain power per population.” Therefore - this time the girl's mom showed no resistance - “I declare Team Darwin the winner!”

I gestured toward the girl. “Come and get your prize,” I said holding up the book.

Really, I should get out among people more often.


Your brow is sweatin' and your mouth gets dry,

Fancy people go driftin' by.

The moment of truth is right at hand,

Just one more nightmare you can stand.

See the man with the stage fright

Just standin' 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 ...
- The Band

No comments: