A Poor Substitute

Posted on October 8, 2011


Sometimes I picture myself in situations in which I don’t belong, situations that require a level of knowledge or skill that I don’t possess. Situations, in short, that would leave me flat on my face, and pretty much everyone hating me.

It isn’t that I’m wishing to be in such predicaments. I’m actually fantasizing about the horror, similar in a way to the brief and exhilarating moment of panic I feel when standing on top of a tall building, or at the railing of a bridge. If I were to lose my mind for just three seconds, I think, I could be plummeting to certain death.

These are insane thoughts, I realize, but they’re followed by a delicious sense of relief. It’s that terrible possibility butting right up against a much better reality — and experiencing the distinction under my skin — that makes the exercise worthwhile.

Besides, no one knows I’m thinking them.

I’m not talking about mortal danger here. I’m talking about something far worse: the potential for utter and inescapable humiliation. The risk of being exposed as a fraud.

* * * * *

When world leaders gather for an international summit, I imagine being introduced as the keynote speaker. In the daydream, no one questions my presence at the event, so I must be who they think I am. But as I rise and stride to the microphone, I’m turned back into the real me, the one who doesn’t know what he’s doing there or even what the meeting is all about. After I take my place on the podium, there’s a pause for a few moments, which the audience assumes I’m using to add drama to what I’m about to say. But then, what would I say? Could I get away with something like the essays I wrote in high school English classes, the ones that helped me escape the trap I’d set for myself by not reading the assigned novel? Would some abstract, flamboyantly colorless generalizations do the trick? It’s possible, but I just remembered something else: the speech is supposed to be in Russian.

If I’m watching a movie and one of the characters needs to undergo a major, complicated, life-and-death operation and they have to call in the only person on Earth who has ever successfully performed it on live human subjects, I insert myself into the story. I’m the surgeon. I’m known throughout the medical world for this groundbreaking, high-risk, experimental procedure in which the patient’s internal organs all have to be removed, turned inside-out, polished, and then replaced. The top doctors from the best research hospitals are all there in the operating room, waiting to witness my technique and to take careful notes. I arrive, scrubbed and gowned, and wearing those bizarre eyeglasses with the lenses on top of lenses, so that I resemble a cartoon character whose eyes are popping out. It’s truly a ridiculous look, especially for someone who spent that many years in school, and this somehow adds to the scene’s allure. A team of nurses and assistants await my instructions as they prepare for the thirty-seven-hour operation. And then, of course, I turn back into me, the guy who gets nauseous carving a pumpkin. As I look around the room, I can see that people are expecting me to do something unbelievable, but really, I don’t know what it could be. So I resort to the only thing I can think of in that situation. I pretend to get some mysterious spinal cord disease that also adversely affects my ability to stay awake, and I fall to the floor.

A lot of people are good at playing musical instruments. So many, in fact, that we have whole mobs of them performing anonymously in orchestras. As individuals they get almost no attention, and probably not much money, either. But once in a while, and for reasons I can’t fathom, someone gets singled out for universal acclaim. This person is declared a genius, a prodigy, gifted and brilliant. People who know nothing about music use these words, mostly because it makes it sound as though they know something about music. Often the subject of this attention is a pianist. A pianist is a piano player in a tuxedo. It’s usually a man, in his late twenties or early thirties, with wild hair, strange facial expressions, and upper body movements that look as though he’s murdering someone in the shower. Audiences pay exorbitant sums for tickets to hear these pianists, and at the end of the concert, will stand and applaud and yell “Bravo!” more times than necessary, even if they’d been asleep since halfway through the first piece.

What if I snapped out of a trance and found myself on that stage, seated at that piano? I look out over the audience and there are thousands of people, waiting for me to move them to tears with my interpretation of Schubert’s Rondo in D Major. My hands begin to shake. I’ve played two instruments in my entire life: the harmonica when I was eight, which caused our cat to leave home and never return, and the violin many years later, which caused my instructor to move to South Korea and never return. I hate to disappoint so many loyal music enthusiasts, but I wouldn’t know a pizzicato from a cacciatore. My only escape is to fake a nervous breakdown right there on the stage, a development that is, after all, not uncommon among gifted brilliant geniuses.

I’ve imagined myself playing in the World Series or the Super Bowl. But what if I were an umpire or a referee in one of those big games, with a billion people watching? Officials have to know all the rules, and be able to recall and apply them with split-second timing. That’s hard to do. When put on the spot, I usually can’t remember my own telephone number. Plus, once an official makes a decision, he has to stick to it, no matter how clearly the instant replay shows what an idiot he is. He can’t change his mind, shuffling back and forth, dangling helplessly among opposing choices, the way I do when I’m trying to buy cookies. This particular nightmare — the one taking place in the world of professional sports — has the added element of physical peril. Surrounded by dozens of three-hundred-pound brutes and thousands of spectators, and within striking distance of gamblers who are adept at shattering kneecaps, I can’t afford a mistake. I have to make well-founded calls, based on solid expertise, and back them up with a level of confidence that I have rarely approached.

But that’s what makes these such perfect fantasies. I can visit a situation, feel mortified beyond description, and then yank myself out of there just when the blade is about to fall on my neck. It’s wonderful. And a great escape from the boredom of my regular job as Head Chef here at the White House.

Posted in: In Over My Head