Monday, February 25, 2008

Feel the Fear

The philosopher Roger-Pol Droit wrote an engaging little book called Astonish Yourself: 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life. Long title, short book. In it, he outlines different mini experiments in changing your point of view a bit. One of them is to sit in a room alone and call out your own name, call it as though you are calling someone who can't hear you. You are to do this periodically and repeatedly, then insistently, for about 20 minutes, or until you get that spooky feeling that you are actually calling someone else. I tried it in my little hotel room in NYC a few weeks ago, while waiting to go interview Broadway's bowlers. It was creepy and interesting all at once. For just a few seconds each time I felt that I was calling to someone else, and that the someone else was me.

In another experiment, called "Dread the Arrival of the Bus," he urges readers to take a seat at a bus stop and then imagine that the bus isn't coming. It has broken down. "You're going to be late. You must find an alternative means of transportation, provide explanations, telephone people to warn them, even change your timetable. The entire day may put put out, every meeting will have to be pushed back." Then he asks readers to embellish this scenario. "Maybe the bus will arrive, but driven by terrorists, stuffed with dynamite, and with no brakes left...The driver is an extraterrestrial, and the passengers are all in league with him. All those who got on at the preceding stops have already met their deaths with bloodcurdling screams."

I like this. Feeling fear is something most people avoid. And to do that, we avoid so many experiences. During the process of interviewing those bowlers, the alley was so loud that I had to turn the microphone down. There is a button on the minidisc recorder that allows you to make the microphone less sensitive. You toggle the switch to blunt the mic when the environment is too loud. I used that button and a similar one on my own emotions, I toggled down the fear and with it part of the experience. For the past three weeks, the recorder has been sitting next to my bed, untouched. Why? Because I'm afraid to listen to those interviews, afraid to be found wanting as a reporter, terrified that there's no story there, that I won't be able to turn anything in, that I'll have to sheepishly admit to my editor and to the people I bothered that night for their opinions that I didn't do a good job.

Among the list of things that can and do go wrong in life, these fears are so minor as to be laughable, and yet they have simmered in my mind all these weeks. Then last week the show's producer called asking after the story. Time to face the fear. And so I sat in it for a few minutes, imagining everything that could go wrong, exaggerating it, stewing it it as much as I could stand. And then I took out the recorder, put on the headphones and pressed the play button. It wasn't nearly as bad as I feared. How could it be?

Sure, that's me asking the stupid questions with my voice strangled by anxiety. Yep, that's the moment when I should have taken ambient sound but didn't. And oh yeah, that sweet quote is going to be unusable because, like an idiot, I stepped on the end of it, or turned the mic away from the guy speaking. Yep, that's me giving up on an interview just as it was getting interesting because I was afraid to ask a more pointed question. The same mistakes, in short, that I often make when gathering sound. And yet, they're not fatal. At least I hope not. Once, years ago, I was working on a football story, covering this huge and important high school football game. I carried with me an old Marantz analog recorder that weighed about 25 pounds. Just at the last moments of the game, the final plays really, the thing cut out. Out. Gone. Bye, bye sound. The batteries had kicked and I had no replacement batteries that worked. Holy, holy, sh*t, sh*t, sh*t. No post game interviews. No nothing. Just game sound that cuts to silence. Story was due the next morning. 

I went home and logged tape and magically wrote around it. It helped that people I was covering were themselves great characters. Just before the last play of the game, a running back who was nearly flunking out of high school turned to a referee. They were both standing near the end zone, and the player took in the cheering crowd, the snow falling, the tension of this last deciding play in which his team absolutely had to score, and he looked at the ref and said, "Is this great or what?" Seconds later, he caught the football in the end zone. Game over. I didn't have the sound, so I just described it, but turned it around so I told the ending of the game first and then ended the story on the player saying that to the ref, so we could end on the game sound, the sound I had.

Fortunately for me, the editor loved the ending. Maybe something that will happen again this week. Maybe, except that nothing's at stake in this story. It's just bowling. Oy.

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