Wednesday, March 17, 2010


I remember being taught at a very early age how bad it was to be a "show-off." Not sure how much resonance that expression has for (my now fellow-)Americans, but in England, back in the day, it was very much frowned upon by teachers and classroom peers alike. And the memory of that old rebuke returns when I find myself standing in front of rows of people gathered to hear what I have to say about "Persist." I feel like a bit of a naughty boy, doing something I'm really not supposed to do.

And yet... is this a guilty pleasure? I find myself having an awful lot of fun doing it. Last night, for example, I drove down to Long Beach City College for a gig that had been some time in the planning, and thoroughly enjoyed the evening. I was greeted by an old friend, a wonderful artist, Coleen Sterritt, who teaches there, (here she is on Facebook, and here are some images of her work) along with several of her colleagues, and was treated to a fine Italian dinner at a local restaurant. Good food, good conversation, such as can be had with artists, all engaged with passion in their work and lives...

On, then, to the small gallery where I found some fifty chairs set up and a podium, which I hardly used. I had been told to expect a diverse audience, some returnees to college, some just new, some advanced in their studies, some quite fresh--and it did seem, as they arrived, to be an accurate assessment. I wanted to be sure that I found just the right note for what I had to say, as I have tried to do for each of my very different audiences; and somehow the magic worked again. Up there in front, you can absolutely feel when you have the attention of your listeners, and when the energy is right: the flow of communication is tangible and exciting, much more so, of course, than in the act of writing. It's something I have begun to experience as a performance.

Perhaps, in part, it's in the genes. My father, before he entered the ministry, had wanted to be an actor. My memory of his presence in the chancel is definitely theatrical. Whether celebrating the communion service, or standing at the lectern to read from the Bible, or preaching from the pulpit, he was a skilled performer. My memory leads me to believe that it was, for him, one of the guilty pleasures I mentioned earlier. I could tell that he knew when he'd done a good job. He glowed. And sometimes, if memory serves, he would slap his own hand in mock rebuke for his pride: bad Harry. On one memorable occasion, when I was serving as an altar boy, I caught him in the act. Instead of bowing, properly, to the altar as he strode back to his place, he turned and bowed to the "audience." Then he caught me watching him, and realized his mistake. I won't ever forget that flash of knowledge that passed between us, father and son, in that moment. He knew I was onto his act. He was "showing off." I can't have been more than ten years old.

Anyway, listen, I'm discovering that there's a reward to showing off. I'm not very funny, but I can understand how the stand-up comedian feels when he's hitting his stride. For me, there's a gift involved, an act of pure generosity in speaking out, which is more than generously returned. Having spent a good deal of my life trying to hide myself from public scrutiny, I now begin to understand what I have missed. It's kind of humbling, and kind of exhilarating all at once. Tomorrow and Friday, I'm off to share some thoughts with students at CSU Fullerton, where I have been going for years at the invitation of a good friend who has been teaching there for many years. His class is called "Character and Conflict." I have written about it before now in The Buddha Diaries. Tomorrow, thanks to these new experiences I've had in connection with "Persist," I'll be bringing a whole new sense of what is possible.


Dick said...

Peter -

For me, it's about "being seen". When I was teaching High School Physics, a part of me enjoyed "performing" in front of my captive audience...perhaps similar to your father, the preacher/actor. Today, I like to be seen when I make other presentations and/or facilitate discussion groups.

I sense that my motivation, in part, is hopefully receiving acknowledgment from others of "what a good boy I am!"...a way to satisfy my "people pleasing-little boy." Another part of the motivation is "to be heard" I am often frustrated that some/many/most people in my life are so busy talking that they don't have anything left to listen to me. And yet another part is an opportunity for my creative spirit to come out and play! ;-)

At first glance, I sense that my "people pleasing-little boy" would have been extremely stifled growing up with you in your seemingly "straight laced" culture. AND, as I look back, I sense that my family of origin, here in the good old USA a few decades later, was just as stifling to me in its own way.

Dick G.

PeterAtLarge said...

Dick, I think the desire to be seen and the fear of being seen are very close--two sides of the same coin. Thanks for touching on this perception!

Jean said...

Oh, this is terribly interesting and perceptive - and brave of you to discuss it!

Very British, that neurosis about 'showing off' - though it's opposite can be equally undesirable, of course.

I think you have to like performing and get a buzz from it, get energised by the attention, in order to be any good at public speaking, teaching or presenting, and that most people, from the loudest to the shyest of us, have the capacity to do this, given the opportunity to deliver something know and care about.

When I was young, my painful shyness made me a pathetically bad teacher and I quickly gave up on that. I've noted in the past few years, in my fifties, that when called upon to give a presentation to 50 or 100 students as part of my university admin job - something I would once have dreaded - I now really enjoy this. Colleagues tell me I'm good at it. I have certainly come, in middle age, to, ahem, quite enjoy the sound of my own voice when I'm on a roll and holding their attention. I don't think I'd now balk at any opportunity to speak or read in public, but welcome the challenge.

I laugh at myself for this, of course, for developing the kind of ever so slightly pompous middle-aged ego I laughed at in my elders and betters when I was young, and it's healthy to do so. But I'm also really happy about it - a sad and unnecessary block and fear overcome, a new form of self-expression open to me, and the students receiving the information they need in articulate and hopefully attention-grabbing form.

As long as we have a cool eye on this, as you do, it's all good stuff.

And judging from the one I saw on video, I'm sure your talks are engaging in the best waya nd getting better all the time.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, Jean. It's always good to hear your thoughts. We do seem to share a good deal in the way we look at things. Cheers, P