I’m on a plane heading back to LA from Baltimore, where I’ve been for an invited talk at Johns Hopkins University. The talk went fine, aside from a couple of out-of-body experiences and a few flubs, some of which were probably barely imperceptible to my audience. Others maybe not so much. All of them I will re-hash consciously and sub-consciously for the next few days, then try to cling to as they begin to gradually recede from my brain, eventually passing into legend and myth over the next few thousand years.
A common saying states that there are three kinds of talks. There’s the talk that you plan to give, there’s the talk that you actually give, and there’s the talk that you wish you had given. I’ve given a fair amount of talks over the years, and I’ve found that of all three of these stages, the third and final one – where I re-live my talk all over again, this time saying everything I meant to say with perfect emphasis, pauses, inflections, and storytelling genius, and answer every single question like I’d planted the audience members and given them scripts myself – is undeniably the most torturous and worst of them all.
The following morning, as I was working out on my hotel’s elliptical machine (this makes me sound like a very productive young woman, going to the fitness center while on travel, but since I was planning to gorge myself on Baltimore’s delicious fare “when in Rome”, there wasn’t much choice in the matter), I had an epiphany about this re-hashing routine that I do with talks. I realized that what’s really happening is that I am re-writing history in my brain. I daydream in the present about a different past that I wish were mine.
This “ah-ha!” moment came about as I was huffing and puffing because I suddenly realized that I was doing the exact same thing while I was working out. I couldn’t get the TV in the fitness center to work, so I was listening to my iPod, and I started to daydream about something else.
When I daydream to music, I don’t daydream about talks that I’ve given, but about other things. In particular, I daydream about Private Moments, dance recitals, and flash mobs.
In graduate school for Acting, one of the most terrifying assignments I had was in my Method acting class. It was called the “Private Moment”. One by one we had to get up in front of the entire class, and do two things: 1) One thing that we wouldn’t mind other people seeing us doing, and 2) one thing that we would never in a million years want someone to see us do.
Well, that wasn’t exactly how our instructor put it, but that’s how my brain heard it. The instructor said something more along the lines of the private moment having to be something that we would typically only do in…well, private.
Some of my classmates took the “shock and awe” approach to this exercise (use your imagination. No one used the bathroom on stage, but you’re not all that far afield). Some played it safe, never quite pushing the envelope far enough into the realm of secret abandon. Few struck the desired chord of making those of us in the audience truly feel as if we were flies on their room wall; as if they really had completely forgotten that we were there.
I was one of the students who didn’t strike that chord.
I remember that I chose flossing my teeth as the thing that I wouldn’t mind other people seeing me do (later, during the “class feedback” portion of the program that followed each of our attempts at the assignment, someone said that they thought my parents were dentists because of how diligently I had flossed. So I guess that’s something. Thought I’m still not sure what.). For my real, seriously private thing to do, I chose to sing “One Song Glory” from the musical “Rent” along with the soundtrack recording, since singing out loud to music and pretending I was in music videos or on stage performing was something I often did in the privacy of my personal Broadway/MTV studios (aka “Aomawa’s bedroom”).
I was told by our instructor that I’d gotten close, but that I’d never truly went for it. Other classmates agreed. They’d been cheering me on silently, and they really wanted me to let loose. They said they were really into what I was doing and into the song, and they would have gone with me to wherever I took them.
This is one of the worst things that someone can say to an actor: You held back.
All of this is to say that even now, 16 years later, when I listen to some great song at home and I’m singing along and dancing my ass off, I often imagine that I’m doing the Private Moment assignment all over again. This time I do let it all out. My classmates and the instructor, they all dissolve in front of me. But I still know that they’re there. I just don’t care. And I don’t try to surprise them, or impress them. I just concentrate on myself and how much fun I’m having more than on them. And I let the song take me away.
When I’m working out to music, I’ll imagine something like this (Private Moment 2.0), or that I’m this amazing dancer and I’m dancing my ass off alone on stage in front of a sea of people I know from grad school and college, even high school (the “dancing my ass off” theme is pretty consistent. I’ll probably give a book I write that title one day). All of my ex-boyfriends are sitting in the audience right up front, with regret curling the corners of their mouths. And I’m a wild magical unicorn up there dancing (yep, you guessed it – my ass off).
Sometimes I’m singing too. And sometimes I’ve got a chorus line of dancers doing Beyoncé-style moves around me, and I weave in and out of them, seamlessly transitioning from dancing in unison with them to striding slowly down the middle of the stage, parting them like Moses parted the Red Sea, staring straight ahead, singing and commanding all eyes to rest on me alone.
This daydream can easily morph into my flash mob daydream, where I’m…well, dancing in a flash mob. You get the picture. It’s on my bucket list.
The common denominator in all of these scenarios is that I am the star and I do everything perfectly. Additionally, I am the envy of all who lay eyes upon me. Also, I am the queen of all I survey. Music allows my mind to wander, and that’s where it usually wanders to – a world where my delusions of grandeur are not delusions, but reality, where my monstrous ego is satiated with an equally gargantuan-sized cupcake.
So I got to thinking this morning while I huffed and puffed while imagining my usual solo “dance of abandon” number to M83’s “Midnight City”, that I was expending a lot of mental energy doing all of this elaborate daydreaming. And the focus of this large amount of mental energy was on something that wasn’t real. It was all a big figment of my imagination. It was fun, and it did make the time on the elliptical fly by (which is certainly a good thing), but when all was said and done (or rather, imagined to have been done), the music would stop, and there I would be, back in my real life. At the end of the “perfect talk” daydreams (which weren’t even fun) I’d be back where I was, in the aftermath of the talk I had actually given, that I was barely conscious of by now. How much of my real life was I missing daydreaming about a different, flashier, better reality?
So I did something I’d never done. I didn’t make a list of my accomplishments. I didn’t make a list of the things I was grateful for, or of the things I had done well in the talk I just gave. I’ve done those things before, and they are useful. But I decided to try altering things at the source. I decided to change the focus of my daydreams.
Right there on that elliptical machine I pushed the arrow pointing to the left on my iPod Nano, and “Midnight City” started again. This time, I decided not to daydream about the dance number on stage with Beyoncé’s dancers and my wistful ex-boyfriends watching in agony. I didn’t daydream about kicking the private moment’s ass with my classmates looking on with envy, awe, and appreciation, unable to keep their toes from tapping along (circa “Flashdance”) as I showed them what it really meant to “dance like no one is watching”. I didn’t daydream about any of it. Instead, I decided to daydream about what really happened yesterday.
As “Midnight City” played, the music video in my head showed me at the front of the auditorium, telling a story about finding planets and thinking about what kind of weather these planets might have. Then in the video there was a flashback to when I was making people laugh with that joke I told at the beginning of my talk about who in the audience was born and wasn’t by the time the first planet was discovered around another star. Then I really was answering some questions like I’d expected them, and offering coherent insights on others. Then there was a scene in the music video where I sat down with one professor, and then another, and then a graduate student, and then another professor, and I told them more things that I know, and answered more questions, and listened to their input, agreed with some of it, and respectfully challenged them on some of it. We talked, and I jumped up to the board and drew figures and pictures, and we talked some more about future ideas, and I was this scientist person who was acting like a confident bad-ass. And things were rolling out of my mouth like I knew they were right, and there was no doubt or anxiety, because this was who I was and what I knew and what I thought. Then at the end of the music video, I was at a great restaurant with people who enjoyed my company and I theirs, and we ate and talked and laughed for almost four hours, till my sides hurt and I had to get up and do a dancer stretch (ok, the dancing had to come in there at some point, but I actually did get up and do that stretch in the restaurant, because my side hurt that much from laughing). Then the song ended.
What had just happened? I had just daydreamed about stuff that really happened, that I really had just done. There was no sadness at the end of this daydream like there usually was with the others when I realized that what I’d been dreaming about hadn’t really happened the way I’d dreamed it, the way I’d wanted it to. This time, I felt full. And I was full of no one’s reality but my own. I was full of myself, in a good way. I felt proud.
Maybe I had something here. Maybe if I made a conscious effort to not just become aware of what I’ve done well during the course of a given day, but to incorporate it into my mind’s regular, home movie routine (which will likely always be there), I could turn wishful thinking into a conscious positive narrative, and I could choose to replay that reality to my favorite tunes, rather than fiction. Could “what rocked” rather than “what if” be the stuff that dreams are really made of?