Pay no attention

I can still remember the nerves as I sat there, front row, at the school assembly. The main school hall was in the middle of the building, with classrooms off to each side and for assembly it was laid out with row upon row of plastic seats, ready for every pupil in the school to sit and listen to the headmistress. On this day, rather than sitting with the rest of my class, I was sitting up front next to a teacher as I was about to be invited to get up in front of the entire school.

Off to one side at the front of the hall, from where the headmistress was addressing us, was a large black grand piano. Far larger than the upright that took pride of place in my parents front room, or that of my piano teacher, the only two pianos I had played. That grand piano was the largest piano I’d ever seen and as I stared, marvelling at the lustre of that deep shiny black casing and the curves of its acoustic chamber, it seemed to grow larger and larger with every passing second.

Then my name was mentioned and, taking that as my cue, I got up and walked over and sat on the large leather stool, checked my music was at the right page and looked down to be faced with a gargantuan keyboard that was fully 10 feet from end to end (maybe it was 20 feet, or 30? it’s a hazy memory and remember, the piano was still growing with every passing second), each key was the same size as my entire hand, the pedals were large enough for me to stand on. I can’t recall which year I was in, only that it was Primary school, and there I was, a tiny, petrified boy sat in front of a piano that was rapidly taking on gargantuan proportions and proving more and more daunting by the second.

It took all my strength and willpower to push the keys down for the opening notes – I can’t recall the piece I played but I’m betting something by Mozart – and I know I stumbled over a couple of notes midway through but, by and large I have no further memories of the performance. I don’t know if I re-took my seat to deafening applause or stony silence, I don’t know if the headmistress made any further comments, I can’t recall if it was at the start or the end of the day.

What I can still remember, with alarming clarity for someone who has atrocious powers of recall, is how nervous I was before, during, and after the performance. As I sat there waiting to be called up, I was hoping my sweaty palms wouldn’t be an issue, not to mention wondering if people would just start laughing at me and, as the headmistress called my name, I can still feel the lurching drop that occurred in the pit of my stomach as I got up and walked to the piano, knowing all eyes were on me, watching me and nothing else.

These days I can look back on such an event with a smile, safe in the knowledge that I got through it and it was probably a good thing that I was able to do it at all. Such things are character building for a young boy, right? Ahhh the joys of hindsight. However back then the entire experience, the build-up to it, the performance, and the teasing in the playground after the fact, all added up to what was simply a horrifying experience for what I was back then; A young, not very confident, boy who didn’t even really enjoy playing the piano at all. I still don’t know how the entire thing came about, but I’d guess living in the same street as the headmistress had a bearing…

I’m not sure where my dislike of being the centre of attention came from. Perhaps because I was always happiest and most content as a child if I was on my own, lost in my own worlds of imagination. Perhaps that was something I used to block out other things going on around me, and perhaps that was due to my sister not arriving until I was 8 years old with my Mother being in and out of hospital in the intervening years. I honestly don’t remember and I know my childhood was a happy one, and full of love, but most of my most vivid memories only feature me on my own.

So from being the type of child who used to sit at his desk and stare out the window, watching the cars drive round the roundabout so often I could tell from the brake lights which car was which – Ford Sierra, Fiat Panda, Cortina, Astra – to being plonked in front of the entire school to perform was a massive leap. I didn’t enjoy the clamouring Aunts who wanted to hear my play the piano at home, let alone sit in front of all of my classmates and friends.

Horrifying.

Part of that, I realise now, blends into my mental health issues and the inability to take credit for things I have achieved. I don’t dwell on my achievements, I don’t put weight behind them and congratulate myself. At least I never used to, that has started to change but that’s very much a work in progress. With that in mind then, it’s easier to see why being the centre of attention has never sat comfortably, doubly so when it is in any way congratulatory which, given how aggressively competitive I was growing up became a very sharp double-edged sword.

I was in the Boys Brigade for most of my childhood and won every trophy going. In the Juniors I won Best Boy, and repeated it when I moved up to the Company (go 1st Dumbarton!). My squad won Best Squad and Best Squad Games trophies that year too, a clean sweep. Which was great, I lead a group and we were successful and then I had to accept actual trophies in front of a people at an awards ceremony and UGH.

Regardless of where it’s come from I have never liked being the centre of attention, and as a 40-something year old man, I still don’t. So as something which I utterly abhor as a personal experience, I struggle to find the appeal in it for others. Why do you get up on a stage and sing? Why do you write your heart out and then read those self same words out loud as others gawp on (as I did recently).

It’s also why, whilst I have many friends who adore the current… trend? … of drag artists and drag shows, it’s that very extrovert and OTT behaviour that pushes me away from it. You may see makeup that is on fleek (?) and outfits that dazzle and shine, and acres of positive energy and empowerment and acceptance, but beyond that all I see is a clamouring for attention that borders on the desperate? LOOK AT ME, it screams, LOOK AT ME!

Which, to someone who internally is typically screaming STOP LOOKING AT ME, is so far from my comfort zone that I can’t even begin to understand it. Logically I know that there is a lot more behind the power that drag artists get from their performances and that it’s all driven by many other factors and can be a hugely empowering influence for the individuals who take part, and it’s just as likely that they are deliberately pushing things so so far with their extroverted behaviour that it stems from the same place as my deep hatred of being the centre of attention.

Yet it remains so so far from my comfort zone that I can’t empathise with it to the point that I really don’t enjoy watching it and, in my own way of dealing with my emotions that may, occasionally, be externally expressed with a small (teeny tiny) level of sarcasm to those who do enjoy such things, well to those people I apologise. It really REALLY isn’t you and most definitely is me.

For the record I’m not anti-drag artist, it’s just not for me. I’m glad it brings happiness and joy to so many people.

This topic has been on my mind once more as we roll towards the end of October and my annual ‘I hate Halloween and everything that goes with it’ mindset. Friends of mine host a party every year, and every year I publicly moan about ‘having to get dressed up’ and invariably, because I don’t want to let people down and have an innate desire for approval, I end up scrabbling around for a costume at the last minute.

My favourite to date was a printed t-shirt that read “Error 404: Costume Not Found”.

Once again this years invite arrived (via Facebook obv) and I immediately, internally, baulked at the idea of it. I don’t mean I stopped and thought about it and then reacted, I mean it’s like a reflex, the minute I read what it was that knot in my stomach appeared. Now I should stress that my reaction is not about attending the party per se, nor is it about the people who may be attending (well not ALL of them), and it’s not like I haven’t attended Halloween parties held by these gracious hosts before, and hey I’ve even dressed up a few times, but no, it’s the thought of having to get dressed up and walking in and having people turn and look at me.

For a while I used to think it was the dressing up thing specifically. And it’s definitely a large part of it because I tend to struggle to feel comfortable in my own clothes, let alone having to find a costume that fits and doesn’t make me feel more ridiculous that I do on any other given day (I think we can see where this is headed).

Admittedly Halloween is a bit of a double whammy because I also don’t understand why Halloween is so popular, and why so many people revel in the scary, horror side of it so much. Let’s dress up as a zombie, ohhhhh, let’s dress up as a witch, aaahhhhh. But then I don’t enjoy horror movies so the entire genre that is ‘horror/Halloween’ is complete lost on me and I’m really REALLY fine with that. But, I digress.

I know a LOT of people who enjoy dressing up, not just at Halloween, and that makes me wonder what they get from it? Is it actually driven from the same place? A dislike of being ‘seen’? A way to not be the you that you aren’t all that fond of, by pretending to be another? I’m veering heavily into stereotypes here but looking at the continued expanse of the cosplay world, is that a prime area for extroverted introverts? And does that make me an introverted extrovert? (hint: yes I am, mostly).

I have, on more than one occasion, dressed up in fancy dress for a party. But the more I consider it, and the more I look at my natural reaction to being requested to dress up, the more I struggle to put the wishes of the requestee (who are requesting this of everyone, and aren’t singling me out, I know) over my own needs. Given my constant, innate desire for approval, the need to be liked by as many people as possible, I can confirm that, as the kids say, the struggle is real. I want to dress up in the best costume and have everyone at the party turn and stare in awe at how amazing I look and to praise me for it, except I want them to do all that without looking at me. Is that too much to ask?

A lot of this relates to my own body issues. I watched enough Gok Wan back in the day to know that my own internal image likely doesn’t match the reality but I spend every single day aware of my size. I pull my coat closed when it falls open, I adjust my position when I sit at my desk. Given I try and NOT draw attention to myself because I don’t like what I see, is it any surprise that I don’t want other people looking at me? Why would I willingly do something that is entirely designed to make me the centre of peoples attention, that is wholly predicated to make people look at me?

All of this angst lies slap bang in the middle of my inner quandaries, driven by emotions writ when I was a child, which have me simultaneously loathing any form of attention whilst at the same time craving approval and realising that to get the validation I internally crave I have to put myself in the spotlight now and then.

And yes, I’m aware that it isn’t healthy to seek validation from others, I’m much much better at loving myself these days than I have been, the base instinct remains.

So sometimes I go to parties and dress up. And more often than not I end up leaving them early because that simple act is the culmination of several days build up and by the time it arrives, and I’ve spent a couple of hours there, I’m done.

I’m still not fully sure where this is all seated though, and year on year my mood around Halloween seems to sway from indifference, to a mild loathing. It’s the same feelings I get when any mention of “ice-breaker activities” or other such enforced fun are mentioned, the same internal stomach churn, and the same sarcastic comments are issued forth.

I don’t like my reaction to those, nor to Halloween in general. I don’t like my perception of how others see me when I act this way, and I know many people think I’m just permanently grumpy. I’m really not. I’m not a curmudgeon or a grump, I’m typically pretty happy, I like enjoying life, and I do love hanging out with friends and family and having a laugh.

I recently bought myself a piano, a small keyboard, as the mood occasionally takes me to sit down and play again. I was surprised about the memories it brought back and how quickly my fingers remembered what to do, which note was where, and I still sit down every now and then.

Sometimes I’ll see a piano in a hotel bar, or as is more likely in a public space somewhere, and I wonder what it would be like to sit down at it and play something. I know I have the ability, if perhaps not the memory, nor the dedication to practising that it would take to do so, but I don’t. I know it might happen in the future, nothing is fixed, but for now I’m happy knowing that I could if I wanted to, and that I’m choosing not to, even if I’m not happy about the reasons why.

So no, I won’t get dressed up and go to the party like I have done in previous years, and even though I’m not happy about the reasons why, I’m always happy to get the invite and knowing that I could.

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