I can’t think what will have changed. From the first moment to the most decisive, beginning with distant anticipation, and climaxing with a relaxed strut towards the podium, the range of me was on show. In my imagination, those last few steps should have been heart-stopping. Terror should have taken over, halting my breath, and stripping my voice of all power. My blank gaze, peering into hot lights and eager, expectant faces, should have betrayed my fear, my clammy need to be absent.
In December of last year, while doing some e-mail housekeeping, I sent a message to organizers of the Creativity and Madness Conference, asking them to clarify the status of my then 3-month old application to present my Tommy paper at their next event. Given the lack of response prior to this point, I expected a polite form letter, thanking me for my proposal but rejecting my request. It would have sounded like the kind of letters I get from publishers when they dismiss my queries regarding my novels. No big deal. I was simply striking something off my to-do list, and tidying my ambitions. I’d move on to the next writing project, I figured.
Then came a pleasant surprise, not that my negative streak was anywhere near done with me. Within days of my e-mail, I received a reply from event organizers, apologizing for their delayed response, and asking me to present my paper at the next conference, scheduled for this August. I laughed in semi-belief. The only other time I’d gotten such an affirmation was when I’d…when I’d gotten word that my Tommy paper was to be published, come to think of it. Of course, conference organizers would be interested, I suddenly thought. This was a great opportunity. Those doors that seemed impenetrable now squeaked and moved, showing a gap behind which I saw smiling, inviting faces. It was January. I had seven months to prepare a talk based upon a paper I’d spent ten years writing, off and on. I knew the material like the front and back of my hands. Not only was this not a problem, I was ready to slam dunk, hit a home run; I’d even invent a new sporting metaphor to predict the imminence of my success.
Hold on, I soon cautioned my excitable mind. Hold on. I’ve been saying that short phrase over and over again these last few months. Sometimes the words contain, as in restrain, drunken, inflated thoughts, which otherwise fuel my flights. They pull back upon ideas that leave me breathless, floating on momentum, feeling good but also weightless, like Wylie Coyote finally looking down, realizing he’s in mid-air and that his plan actually sucked. Hold on, I likewise say to nagging doubt, to cynical pride; to envious heart and fearful spirit—four horses of my private apocalypse, ever ready to close ranks and bring me down. Caution reminds me of sober days after, when moments have passed, my carpe has not been diemed, but nobody really notices but me.
That’s what it’s like at night when the mind won’t rest, won’t let go of its spin cycle, and sleep is like a forgotten skill. I feel a portent of failure, hitting me like a dull thud, as that’s the sound of a joke that doesn’t work. Between April and June, I happily distilled my seven-thousand-word Tommy paper into an hour’s power-point display. I selected its best ideas, embroidered with an amusing anecdote or two; I included a dozen or so images, all torn from the internet, to stir associations, give my presentation a powerful edge. I even discovered a few tools in my PP program to inject drama, like fade-ins on photographs. Come late July, I was ready to talk, and barely needed a single note before me to aid my oration. Fascinating insight, profundity, even a song would spin effortlessly off my tongue. Or, at least I’d recite the lines of Tommy’s finale, “Listening to you”:
Listening to you
I get the music
Gazing at you
I get the heat
I climb a mountain
I get excitement at your feet
Then I traveled to Santa Fe, the site of the conference. On the first day, I regarded the audience, its three-hundred-person-deep girth, and gulped. I listened to speakers whose bio profiles took minutes to announce make dry yet content-thick deliveries. An expert on Leonard Cohen and Carl Jung recited song lyrics and quoted Rumi. A vast crowd of erudite baby boomers gazed lovingly at him and other speakers like they were core members of an established fan base. Suddenly I was in mid-air, gazing at a fan base that was not there, and believing that my plan sucked. No one was interested in Tommy, much less my infantile notions of attachment theory and rock and roll. My jokes were leaden; my anecdotes deadening. The baby boomer crowd would fall asleep, and snore loudly during the lulls within my stuttering delivery.
When my presentation began, my mic failed. Seriously. I felt like uttering that line— ‘is this on?’—to signify a kind of comic parallel, but the failure wasn’t mine. The failure: it wasn’t mine. I looked to my right, at the sound man, who looked slightly panicked, under more pressure than me. His boss, the conference director, appeared to snatch from him a hand-held microphone and then walk towards me. We were already behind schedule because he’d privileged a previous speaker with an extra few minutes. There was no way I’d get similar slack. But it was alright. I don’t recall exactly how I felt walking to the podium—only that I felt okay. My breath was there. I felt reasonably embodied, present; the demons seemed sidelined, and I was relaxed, ready to have fun. I got this, I thought. Then I spoke of Tommy, attachment and object relations theory, including self and other representations: in short, all the stuff that had been stirring for…I want to say forever.