We've got two wars going on. Russia's incursion in Georgia has all the trappings of a Cold War-era showdown. The economy is drowning, the Masters of the Universe talk as if they're bums on the street cadging a buck, the religious extremists are as extreme as ever, bombs get deadlier, firearms more powerful and easier to obtain, and the list goes on. It's a scary time to be here on planet Earth. At the same time, I'm sitting at home typing instead of facing the effects of any of these challenges, and the cat is peacefully napping behind my chair. For all the major crises I've lived through, abject, out and out stomach-in-throat fear has never been an actual result in my life, for which I'm extremely thankful.
Still, like anyone else, I have my fears, and I have my extreme doubts and worries, which are at least somewhere on the grand continuum of fear. Walking into a crowded room where I don't know anyone is one of the more crushing experiences I can imagine, filled as it always is with hovering around the perimeters of conversations before being invited in. Identifying the other loners takes time, and the energy to stick out your hand and say, "Yo, I'm Marc," and the person could turn out to be beyond boring. Such are the chances we take.
I can only think of three times when I was blanketed and covered by fear, and they all involve performing for important people. In high school, I competed in the Fort Wayne Philharmonic's young soloist competition. I prepared Alan Hovhaness's Prayer of Saint Gregory, one of those rare pieces I love as much today as I did when I first discovered it.
A guy named Charlie Conrad was judging the trumpets, and I'd heard his name from my teacher, who'd said that Conrad was the first-call session player in Indianapolis. He was supposed to be amazing, and I respected him a very great deal.
I all but froze when I walked into the room and saw him there, and the performance sounded like I was frozen stiff. No high notes, no phrasing, and my knees started to give out, which was always the first sign I was feeling performance anxiety.
I bombed out again in front of Conrad a year or so later at a contest while playing a different piece in Indianapolis. My mom was charitable: "Did you mean to play it that fast? I never heard you practice it that fast." I eventually got a grip on performance anxiety, but not enough for yet another crashing and burning at my senior college recital. It said that Hindemith's Trumpet Sonata was on the program, but I don't think anyone would have recognized it without that visual aid.
That sort of fear doesn't hit me too often anymore, thankfully. A presentation can bring back the butterflies, but you're almost always allowed to have water and coffee nearby, as well as papers to shuffle. That helps. I sometimes wonder if people who take gigantic folders to meetings carry all that paper around as a security blanket. Me, I go into meetings armed with only the most necessary material.
All of which is to say that it isn't the present that I fear for, it isn't any pressure-inducing situation that scares me, but rather it's the worry that nothing will ever change. I won't meet the people who can move my life to the next stage, whatever that is. Or if I do meet them, I say something stupid and they write me off. Or someone meets me and goes away unimpressed. I do a lot of things in my life by myself, and I do get scared that will never change.
I see it around me. I see the middle-aged guys eating at restaurants, at movie theaters, places where people usually don't go to alone unless they have to. It doesn't seem like such a great leap to find myself there in five, ten, or fifteen years. That scares me.
This is what Mark Strand alludes to this in his poem "Black Sea:"
that the world offers would you come only because I was here?"
Why would someone? What possible reason is there that our paths should cross, at the precisely correct time, when both of us are looking for something that the other friend can provide, and be able to find it in the other person? There isn't an answer. It's all chance.
Still, I think this is completely irrational. I've managed to connect with virtually everyone I've set my mind to lo these 30 years. There are very few situations I can't talk my way out of, or make a joke and lighten the mood and be able to effect my escape. I have several groups of friends I value incredibly highly, and who I spend more nights out with than I probably should. (I get far from enough sleep.) Still, there have been several times, some in the not so distant past, where I've met someone, made a few follow-up calls, and then watched as absolutely nothing happened.
That randomness scares me. The randomness that a terrorist will decide to do something suicidal, or that a banker somewhere dreams up a way of slicing mortgages and creating securities, and dragging down the U.S. economy, or simply that I'll miss a major connection, these fill me with an empty sense of dread.
People come into our lives when we are ready for them, I believe. I don't mean this in a utilitarian way; I mean that I have something to give to someone, and they are able to fill a need of mine. There is something that we offer each other at that time that a lasting connection ends up being forged, whether it's personal or professional. I only hope that those chances happen. Sartre said that "Hell is other people," but I sometimes think it's more true that "Hell is no people." I like my solitude, I like my books, but there are times when they outlive their usefulness, and a simple meal with someone across the table can approach the divine.