The day of my first orchestra concert in the 4th grade, a half-day at school that gave me a few hours to wander the neighborhood on my bike, I was bitten down to the finger bone by a squirrel and later experienced my first, “Show-must-go-on,” feeling. While I would prefer to discuss my resolve, after the thrill of a rabies shot, in adapting my cello part to require fewer digits, I unfortunately know the squirrel thing requires some explanation.
Yes, I managed to be bitten by a big reddish-brown neighborhood squirrel. This is the story I told everyone and stuck to for more than a decade:
I was sitting on the sidewalk a few blocks from home, just minding my own business and enjoying the view of a busy anthill, when a squirrel fell out of a tree, landed next to me and, in its terror or confusion, bit me on the finger.
This is what really happened:
I was riding my bike down the nearly empty street a few blocks from home, when I saw a dog attacking a squirrel by the curb. I jumped off my bike, shooed the dog away, and picked up the injured squirrel to carry it to safety, I guess. The panicked squirrel immediately latched onto my finger like a sprung trap. When I couldn’t shake it off, I had to kick the beleaguered squirrel repeatedly with my sneaker.
After I rode my bike home, crying, with one bloody hand held in the air, I accepted some Tylenol and pity-Pepsi (my folks were pretty tight with the soda) and re-enacted the scene for my family. I told them how crazy it was, me just sitting there, fascinated by nature. I remember imitating my double-take at the fallen squirrel several times, like, “Whoa…what?” The detail of the ants, I hoped, would prove brilliantly specific, and as I had spent a few minutes watching some ants on our own sidewalk a couple days before, had the ring of authenticity.
It took me years to recognize that my fear of looking stupid for picking up the squirrel was misplaced—I had naively tried to protect an animal, forgetting its wildness. Nearly heroic! Instead, I dissembled.
Well, I may have been an idiot and a liar, but I was not going to miss my fucking orchestra concert. I practiced for the rest of the afternoon, my finger numbed and wrapped and pointing toward the ceiling, and worked out a serviceable, if unlikely, new fingering.
Why? Why not bask in the Pepsi-soaked sympathy for the injured and enjoy a release from stress by skipping the concert? For the same reasons that most performers will overcome almost anything to take the stage. Because of the work I’d put in, and because I didn’t want to wimp out. But mostly because the hot lights of attention were timed to land on me, and even in the relative anonymity of a group setting, I was not going to miss that opportunity.
For these reasons, I, like many others who would call in sick to work for a little sniffle, have sung and played on stage between puke sessions. I have passed out in a fever behind the drum kit on set-break. A good friend with stomach trouble once crapped his pants onstage, made it to the break, changed, and headed back out. You don’t call in sick to a show. You get up there and you do your damned thing, and you don’t deserve a medallion for your gallantry because everybody knows you have no choice. It’s life and death. You can’t not do it.
The performer and the performance need each other like a baby and an aching breast. If you have this disease, this craving, you cannot hide from it for long. Symptoms appear early—I remember taking advantage of every party my parents threw to appear with my brother in crazy costumes or impress with a dizzying array of fake fart sounds.
We do not generally grow out of this condition. Despite the obvious vanity, despite the vulnerable risk of ridiculousness, the need to be noticed and tell our story rips its way continually to the surface.
In college I once went to a Chicago gallery with some friends to see a neighbor do his performance art. Surrounded by a series of paintings that detailed the aftermath of having been a young gay prostitute, my neighbor sang in drag, stripped, planted a banana in his ass, and then tried to take a shit onstage. We’d known all about the act. We clapped and cheered his bravery. In the moment, nothing mattered more than that shit. That shit stood somehow for redemption. Performance redeems. (the shit, I’m afraid, like much art, proved unsuccessful)
And performance is fun. It feels good, it is life fully-actualized, to kick ass in some small way under pressure. Like a mix of sex and athletic competition, performing reduces everything else, pushes back the walls and worries, and allows the joy of metamorphosis. It has also allowed me the audacity to wear sparkly shirts and pants of greater or lesser taper than generally tolerated.
This past weekend I hosted an open mic event for teens at my library. I set up a twelve channel PA, a bunch of microphones, and a fog machine in front of some stage lights and wondered if anyone would show up. I wondered, like an old dumb-ass, if video games and tumblr had eclipsed the need for live performance. For almost three hours, more than a dozen high school kids read poems and stories, sang ambitious songs from Disney musicals, played ukuleles and electric guitars. They reminded their parents and friends that performing is a positive act, a gesture of hope.
A girl with bright pink hair who I’d never seen before told me her name in a small voice just before the first scheduled act. She wanted on the list. I told her it would be awhile, there were more performers than I’d expected. She nodded. She waited quietly in the back, and when it was finally her turn, she walked, shoulders hunched, to the microphone and unleashed an intense spoken-word piece about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Her hands shook the script violently while her voice took on surprising power and dominated the otherwise silent room. When she was finished, she let out a loud, staggered sigh and received her applause with a downward glance and a smile. I blinked hard. I hit the fog button for all I was worth.
“At the End of the Night,” short fiction by Kelly Sands Goss, reminds us of the way relationships can live out through performances that mask and reveal our hearts. Goss’s piece displays a gift for quotidian detail and the resonant image, linked and balanced by confidant, probing syntax. Her characters and their performances feel similarly universal and distinct.
A dying mother who has clung to dreams of stand up comedy plays the lead in Jan Maher’s flash piece, “Half Full.” In fewer than eight hundred words Maher offers up an indelible character, a compelling mother-daughter relationship, a look into the hearts of born performers, and a kind of discourse on personality type. Bravo.
Sometimes emotional survival among others requires a performance, the consequences of which have a life of their own. So it is for the speaker of “The Connoisseur of Canoes,” a poem by Jimmy Pappas. A poem that appears to be a gently comic scene of public loneliness expands in the final sentence to take on unexpected depth.
J. Scott Bugher’s poem, “Theme & Variation,” probes the space between potential and stagnation, between musical performance and performance in life. While focused on a musical exchange, the piece is satisfyingly visual and textured on different planes as a result. Like our other poem this week, “Theme & Variation” turns unexpectedly to surprise us and find a new dimension.
Photo By: United States Mission Geneva