Zelophehad’s Daughters

On-the-Spot Mental Meltdowns

Posted by Lynnette

One of my less pleasant memories is that of the oral exam I had to take at the end of my master’s program in theology. Mostly what I remember is sitting in a room and staring blankly at three professors who were valiantly attempting to coax me into saying something coherent. At one point I recall one of them saying, “I know you know this–you gave a class presentation on it just a few weeks ago.” Unfortunately, my brain seemed to have temporarily shut down, and I had difficulty coming up with even basic theological terms.

On-the-spot thinking is not really one of my gifts. In initially getting to know people, I often prefer email to actual conversation, because it’s less stressful than having to immediately figure out what to say. (Seraphine and I met as roommates, and the first year we lived together, despite our adjoining bedrooms, we actually had many if not most of our meaningful conversations via email.) I quite regularly have the experience of realizing several hours (or even days) afterward what I should have said in a particular encounter. And while I’m envious of those who, like Lorelei Gilmore, have the ability to come up with a witty response in an instant, this is often a more practical matter–I say yes to something when I should have said no (or vice versa), or I don’t explain what I need to explain about my own circumstances because I’m not thinking clearly. Sometimes my life feels like a continuous process of picking up the pieces after such incidents.

My on-the-spot moral judgment also seems rather weak. I’ve occasionally found myself lying–not as a result of any deliberate intent to deceive, or even for any discernible purpose, but simply because I went mentally blank and started spouting nonsense. If I’m undercharged for something, I have to be quite mentally on-the-ball that day to process that it’s happened and correct things right then. When I see people who need help, and I might actually be in a position to offer that help, I don’t always make that connection until it’s too late.

I sometimes wonder: does that split-second reaction before we’ve had time to think reveal something fundamental about our character? If such is the case, I might be in trouble. I have far more confidence in my ability to make good decisions when I’m given a bit of time to process a situation. If I arrive in the next life and St. Peter says, okay, where do you want to end up, there’s simply no knowing what might come out of my mouth.

30 Responses to “On-the-Spot Mental Meltdowns”

  1. 1.

    Nobody talks like Lorelei Gilmore. Nobody. That’s one of the things that bugs me most about that show, and I’ve only seen it a few times. Nobody carries on conversations like those. It is proof that the show is written by women who think that is an ideal form of conversation, however unrealistic.

  2. 2.

    If I arrive in the next life and St. Peter says, okay, where do you want to end up, there’s simply no knowing what might come out of my mouth.

    LOL, I hope such a proposition is posed to me when I arrive. Instead I think he’ll look at me and say: “you had a beard, drank waaayyyy too much Diet Coke and pissed off your wife waaayyyy too often…”

  3. 3.

    I know I need to say something profound or funny or witty in this comment, but now I’m thinking too much about it, and nothing’s coming to mind, and as soon as I hit post I’ll think of something better to say, and then should-I-post-it-as-an-addition-or-just-ignore-it?, I’ll probably add it at just the wrong moment, and it will sound stupid, and then Lynnette will think I’m dumb, and all the ZDs will be laughing behind my back, and damn, why don’t I have edit privileges for other blogs, at least at T&S I can post a comment and then fix it thirty seconds later when I realize how dumb some particular sentence sounds . . . hmm, for that matter, edit privileges in Real Life would be really nice too, I could go back and edit stupid things I’ve said, thirty seconds later, or thirty days, or, hell, it would be nice just to be able to edit the whole thing sometimes . . . .

  4. 4.

    cantinflas, I agree that nobody actually talks like Lorelei. But I have to admit that for me, that’s part of why the show is so fun. It’s comparable perhaps to watching Buffy beat up demons.

    That said, I have met some people who were pretty darn good with the off-the-cuff smart-alecky responses. Truly a gift.

    Jared, won’t you be surprised when you encounter a bearded St. Peter drinking Diet Coke. ;)

    Eve, that does sound like a horrendous experience! I think like you, I do fine as long as I’m feeling relaxed, but once I get tense it’s kind of a vicious cycle. I also think that it’s often the unexpected that I don’t do well with. I’m fairly comfortable with speaking in sacrament meeting or teaching, for example–but if someone makes a really strange remark to me at church, my usual response is to stare at them blankly.

  5. 5.

    One of my less pleasant memories is that of the oral exam I had to take at the end of my master’s program in theology. Mostly what I remember is sitting in a room and staring blankly at three professors who were valiantly attempting to coax me into saying something coherent. At one point I recall one of them saying, “I know you know this-you gave a class presentation on it just a few weeks ago.” Unfortunately, my brain seemed to have temporarily shut down, and I had difficulty coming up with even basic theological terms.

    Oh, my, yes, does this ever bring back some unpleasant memories. For me speaking off-the-cuff is a fairly all-or-nothing propisition. When I’m feeling confident and relaxed, which usually happens when I’m speaking in comofortable, familiar situations, I’m OK, but as soon as I get tense and slip up, my composure is frequently irretrievable. Before I know it I’m not quite sure how to tie my own shoes and I stare blankly at my interlocutors wondering when they will realize I cannot call to mind the social forms necessary to dismiss them politely and so go away on their own recognizance.

    When I was about six or seven, my Primary class did a skit–I forgot in what context or for what audience–about a boy who got burned in an accident but overcame all obstacles to become a great runner. My Primary teacher cast me as narrator because I was good at reading and memorizing. And I read my lines over and over and memorized them without a hitch. But on the day of the performance, something went wrong, and I froze. I have a vivid, humiliating memory of turning around to face the stage curtains (I was standing in front of them and off to one side) because I couldn’t bear to face the audience. My teacher had to come up and physically lead me offstage.

    Eeek.

  6. 6.

    Kaimi, I’ll have a good response to your comment . . . just give me a minute. :P

  7. 7.

    My first Ph.D. oral exam was much the same way. I stared blankly at my committee as they asked me questions that I had prepared answers to. Luckily, they let me take the exam again after I failed it the first time.

    Needless to say, I quite often wish I were better at on-the-spot thinking.

  8. 8.

    Wait, you and S. aren’t sisters? I thought all the ZDs were one family! Are you and Eve sisters? Have I completely fabricated the whole sibling theme?!?

    On topic: I am absolutely disabled by my nerves when it comes to musical performance. I was a very very good pianist at my peak in high school, but I always flubbed recitals and competitions, every single one. It’s not so bad when I’m singing, but I still get pretty nervous. (I’m fine with accompanying, though, no nerves.)

    On the other hand, I am, if I do say so myself, extremely good at extemporaneous thinking and speaking. I’m very good at scripted public speaking, too, but my favorite part of conference presentations is always fielding questions afterward; my oral exams were highlights of my grad school experience; I am at my very best in a seminar situation, etc. Nothing really that I can take personal credit for, since it’s absolutely just the way I’m wired; often I think my glibness is in fact a handicap to real intellectual depth.

    No Loralei Gilmore I, however; I am not witty, or even mildly funny, though I dearly wish that I were.

  9. 9.

    Rosalynde, no, you’re not imagining things. Most of the ZD bloggers are sisters (and one brother–Ziff). There are two of us who are good friends of the sisters (myself and Katya), and we have been adopted into the ZD family.

  10. 10.

    Rosalynde, my least favorite bit of conference presentations is dealing with the questions afterward! Clearly I need someone like you to come play Aaron for me.

    And yes, as Seraphine said, it is true that Kiskilili, Eve, Ziff, and I are siblings. (Our other three sisters seem to be a bit “less active” when it comes to this blog; perhaps they need a visit from their home teachers.) However, in an attempt to counteract the influence of whatever genetic oddities we might all share, we persuaded some other people to blog with us. Either that, or we were so used to having lots of sisters everywhere that no one noticed when a couple of other “sisters” slipped in. ;)

  11. 11.

    What Lynnette should have said, except that she had a mental meltdown:

    You see, there was this evil sorceror who separated us at birth and raised one of us to be a lethal assassin, while the other was blissfully unaware of her peril . . .

    (Of course, then you have to fight over who gets to be the assassin.)

  12. 12.

    Shhhh, Fake Lynnette. You’ll blow my cover.

  13. 13.

    On-the-spot thinking is not really one of my gifts.

    It’s not one of mine either. Maybe that’s one of the genetic oddities you referred to that run through the family of Zelophehad.

    My slowness of mind is one reason I typically prefer eletronic to real time communication. Unfortunately for me, much bloggernacle discussion occurs so quickly that it’s effectively real time. By the time I’ve thought of a clear way to say what I want to, there are 50 other comments on a thread, and every thought I had has already been brought up and the discussion has moved on. I sure do enjoy reading the discussions, though.

  14. 14.

    Aiieee! What is this–”the errand of assassins is given to sisters?”

  15. 15.

    Thank you, Lynette. I appreciate the connection between being impaired in on-the-spot thinking and on-the-spot judgment very much. Although I love speaking in conferences, I’ve prefered email for years in any kind of debate or deep discussion because, as you said, the best answers come later rather than sooner.

    It had not occurred to me to look at other things I try to do quickly that might also benefit from some time and thought, but I think you’ve hit on one.

  16. 16.

    Rosalynde said,

    I am absolutely disabled by my nerves when it comes to musical performance.

    Oh, yes. Musical performance disasters constitute a particularly humiliating category of their own. Earlier tonight Kiskilili and I were discussing the fact that the physical manifestations of stage fright–the shaking, the sweaty palms–can be fatal to string players. Once you lose the fine motor control in your bow arm, it’s all over. Nothing to do but smile shakily at your audience as your bow slips and vacillates into increasingly squeaky registers.

    I remember practicing and practicing a simple Christmas carol on my violin to try out for the fifth grade talent show. I had no trouble with it at home. On the stage, under the lights, the inevitable happened. Needless to say, I did not make even the first cut. A few years ago, I had the same experience playing a cello solo (very bad idea) for a branch talent night. Even though I played the piano for sacrament meeting nearly every week (relatively easy to hide behind the piano stage left while everyone sings), it had been years since I had actually performed, and my nerves were so wracked I barely made it through my piece before fleeing the stage.

    I’ve often envied visual artists, who can do all of their agonizing at home, behind the scenes, and then stick their work up and disappear if they like. My distaste for performance is one reason I didn’t go on as a music major. Even when I didn’t flub it due to nerves, I just never enjoyed it much. It quickly got to be a chore. (And then there was the little problem that I was and am way, way too lazy to spend six hours a day holed up in a tiny, airless practice room.)

  17. 17.

    If we are sharing musical disasters . . . Two years ago I decided in a fit of rashness to have the stake choir learn several challenging pieces (at least for my stake) for stake conference. Not only did I have to learn the music to accompany on the organ, I had to recruit the whole choir myself. After two months filled with the stress of practicing and leaving pleading messages on stake members’ voicemails, I was miserable. I managed to make it through the Saturday evening adult session without major problems on the organ, but by the second hour of the general session on Sunday I was ready to go home and go to bed. Halfway through the last song, Faith in Every Footstep (not an easy song on the piano, and a nasty one on the organ), I missed a registration change, got off beat, and lost the choir. In my panic I came in the wrong key at the wrong place. After failing twice to rejoin the choir, I gave up and let them finish the song acappella. I contemplated turning off the organ and walking off the stand right then but instead started to cry. Somehow I managed to play something for postlude through my tears. Falling apart on the stand at stake conference would have been embarrassing enough without the fact that my organ teacher was in the audience and less than thrilled with my disasterous performance and public meltdown. In the stake conferences since then (and I am preparing for another in a month), I have to keep reminding myself that I already survived my worst nightmares and it can’t be as bad again. Of course there is always hope that performing gracefully comes through experience.

  18. 18.

    Oh, Fideline…ouch. I would have cried too.

  19. 19.

    Ouch, Fideline. That one really takes the cake.

    As a pianist who gets drafted (regularly) to be an organist I’ve got a small but growing catalogue of disasters. There was the time I didn’t balance great and swell correctly, and no one heard the melody. The time I didn’t open up the expression pedal _at all_. I really had no clue how it operated (this comes from learning on the job), and it turns out that no amount of crescendo pedal can really compensate for _no_ expression pedal. (Doesn’t help to add stops when they’re all closed.) There was the sacrament meeting I like to refer to as “experiments with 16 foot stops.” (Careful with those!) The inevitable “waaaay too much trumpet.”

    And my favorite of all — the time that I didn’t realize that transpose was on, and inadvertently took a very bewildered and out-of-breath congregation through four verses of Scatter Sunshine, all of them five (or was it seven?) half steps higher than the Green Book actually recommends. All the while thinking, gee, I’ve never realized how high this song goes. I think we lost most of the congregation at the high D — err, high G-sharp . . .

    (The best part is that all of these . . . learning experiences . . . took place in full view of the ward, with all attention on the music. Fun!)

    Of course, the number of actual technical disasters, that can be blamed on my neophyte-to-the-instrument status is dwarfed by the number of times I just missed notes, plain and simple, and managed to slaughter the hymn the old fashioned way. Given that sad reality, I’ve perfected the technique of giving a quizzical glance at the buttons and settings whenever this happens, as if to project “it’s not me missing notes, it’s probably some technical error or other.” I like to think this maneuver gives me plausible deniability, but it probably doesn’t.

  20. 20.

    If we’re sharing musical disaster stories…

    My worst experience has to do with a performance in church (it was in high school, I believe). I was playing a Bach Invention and about halfway through, I blanked. I didn’t have the music up there with me because it was a piece I could play in my sleep. I couldn’t remember what came next. I didn’t know what to do, so I started the piece over. I got to the same place, and I blanked again. I was panicking at this point. I wasn’t about to start the piece a third time. Luckily, I managed to remember the last line of the piece. I played the last line, sat down, and burst into tears. I never played a solo without music again.

  21. 21.

    Kaimi, your stories reminded me of a humiliating mission experience: my companion and I arrived to the chapel one evening for a baptism to find that the elders had, without my knowledge or consent, listed me on the program as the organist (I had never so much as touched an organ) because I played the piano, and the organ’s basically just a big piano, right?

    Seraphine, I’ve had very similar experiences. (Playing without music is always a little scary, I think.) There’s something about the physical memory of performance that’s so unconscious that if I suddenly think too hard–or if I’m too nervous–my fingers can’t remember anymore. (Isn’t it strange how the fingers, and not the brain, do the memorizing?)

    Playing music somehow unhooks my brain in the same way that long drives do, and I can find myself playing through pages and pages without entirely being aware of what I’m doing while my mind enters an almost REM state. And then suddenly, I’m jerked back to reality when I realize, in a panic, that I have no idea if I’m on the second verse or the third.

  22. 22.

    Fideline’s and Seraphine’s posts are reminding me of that singular experience, at once intensely physical and strangely disembodied, of watching one’s tears splash one by one onto piano or organ keys as one sits in front of an audience in some pose of mindless terror or agony, thinking not of the music, not of painstakingly rehearsed stage-fright management strategies, but of the angel Moroni and Captian Kirk and Left Behind bumper stickers, paralyzed and consoled by the vivid, almost palpable image of oneself being assumed bodily into heaven, or the Enterprise, which, under the circumstances, is almost the same thing.

    It would seem, from my extensive participation on this thread, that I have, or had, a lot of unresolved musical performance trauma. No wonder I quit.

  23. 23.

    People,

    On the positive side, think of how many young musicians were actually inspired by you. They could proceed confidently with their lessons knowing that even great musicians like those on this thread can forget their notes. You spared them all the humiliation of thinking they were the only one who make mistakes. :-)

    My only experience with music performance came when I volunteered for the ward choir because they said they needed male voices, but after three practices the conductor took me aside and wondered if I wouldn’t mind sharing my talents in some other way than singing. He told me I was mixing up the other basses. I actually felt relieved rather than embarassed.

  24. 24.

    Eve, I have lots of musical performance trauma associated with the piano, but not as much with singing. I especially like singing in choirs (especially large ones–if you mess up, no one in the audience can tell!)

  25. 25.

    In 21, Eve said:

    …my mind enters an almost REM state.

    When we think about poise under pressure we should also think of athletes. Tiger Woods always plays his best golf on the last day of the tournament, when it really counts, and when his competitors are falling apart. It is common to hear the announcers say that “Tiger is in the zone”, and everybody knows what they mean.

    Which isn’t to say he never makes mistakes. At the PGA championship last month, he sliced a drive, bounced it off the roof of a building and into an adjoining fairway. He also missed a couple of gimme putts. It is almost enough to give us mere mortals a measure of comfort. Almost.

  26. 26.

    And people wonder why I (unlike all five of my sisters) never learned to play a musical instrument. ;)

  27. 27.

    And my favorite of all — the time that I didn’t realize that transpose was on, and inadvertently took a very bewildered and out-of-breath congregation through four verses of Scatter Sunshine, all of them five (or was it seven?) half steps higher than the Green Book actually recommends. All the while thinking, gee, I’ve never realized how high this song goes. I think we lost most of the congregation at the high D — err, high G-sharp . . .

    Kaimi,

    This made me laugh more than I have in weeks. Thank you.

  28. 28.

    Okay, so I have something for this anthology, too. I am tormented by a psychosomatic spasmatic cough that shows up at moments of high tension and great solemnity: in the temple, during seminars, when I have just finally finally gotten the baby to sleep beside me in bed and am beginning to think about considering the possibility of ever so slowly detaching the nipple and … just maybe… rolling over…. COUGH. COUGH COUGH. DC al fine, crescendo, molto agitato. It only ends when I drink a quantity of very cold water and relax.

    So, my brother’s senior recital. He’s on cello, I’m on piano, we’re doing Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.” Right after the interlude at the second “A” section. COUGH. COUGH COUGH. Yes, I had to get up, walk off the stage, abandoning my brother mid-measure, search frantically for water backstage, gulp down great draughts and pray furiously for a miraculous healing. After a minute I walked back out, apologized, and we picked it up right there.

    But my take-the-cake story is even worse. The day before a big concerto competition, I was slicing some cheese at the counter and took off a big flap from the tip of my left index finger. Pressure was applied, bleeding was stopped, bandaid was administered, and the decision was made to go on with the competition tomorrow. Rehearsal went pretty darn well, considering the BANDAID ON MY LEFT INDEX FINGER. So when we arrived at the venue, I decided I’d play without the bandaid. I took it off before sitting down at the piano, and by the second movement I started seeing handfuls of blossoms of red blooming all over the keys. At the end of the piece, the keyboard looked like a particularly ill-executed Jackson Pollock. To this day I’m haunted by the thought of the poor hapless kid who played next, entering to find the Texas Chainsaw Massacre on his Steinway.

  29. 29.

    Dear Rosalynde “Blood on the Ivories” Welch,

    You win.

    :)

  30. 30.

    Rosalynde, those are great stories. And I thought tears were hard on the keys–nothing to blood! (Come to think of it, my cello still has tear stains.)

    At moments of solemnity and tension, I tend to giggle nervously, and sometimes laugh uncontrollably, although I can’t ever remember having done this in a muscial performance.

    The more I read these stories and think about my own meltdowns, the more I think that Lynnette may have known something the rest of us didn’t in her refusal to take up an instrument. (Of course, too, she was going to be a theologian, engaging the mysteries of God and the universe. In the context of such weighty matters, we sometime church musicians are merely a commerical break.)

Leave a Reply