Friday, June 3, 2016

The Spotlight Effect Part I



"Fame exhausts me."
~Alice Walker


People often ask me how I do the psychic thing. I'd love to be able to share a magic formula with them, but truthfully it's a lot like a microwave oven. I have absolutely no idea how the machinery works; I just shove a plate of food in, push a random combination of mysterious buttons and pray to God that nothing explodes in my face. Every. Single. Time.


A little history

I attended a smallish high school in Southern California where the limited number of kids auditioning for plays practically guaranteed that we would all get whatever parts we wanted even though none of us had any real talent to speak of. It always sounded so glamorous at first: memorizing lines, evening rehearsals in the school auditorium/cafeteria, standing on stage emoting with all the subtlety and finesse of a rhinoceros who doesn't know what to do with his hands. But then opening night would arrive and my dry mouth and pounding heart would remind me that I am terrified to speak to groups of people, and that no matter how many hours I spent committing my lines to memory, they would all fly out of my head that dreadful moment when the curtain went up.

In my junior year, our drama class put on a play called Godspell which (for those of you who have been spared the atrocity) is a musical rehashing of Jesus' valiant attempt to teach a ragtag bunch of groupies about the meaning of life in the days leading up to his gruesome demise. In this version of the timeworn saga, Jesus wears a Superman t-shirt and modified clown face paint which gives the rest of the cast permission to dress like homeless beatniks who enjoy shoplifting from Goodwill.

When I nervously tell my mother that I have a part in this unconventional production, a wall of icy silence descends as the significance of my announcement sinks in to her newly-Catholic brain. Reading the warning signs on her face, I scramble to justify the necessity of my participation and that, after all, it's a family-friendly story about crucifixion and resurrection! And we SING! And (the cherry on the negotiation cake) it all comes directly from the BIBLE!!

I tiptoe through two days of the silent treatment and worse-than-usual meals as Mother Martyr "thinks it over" while she tearfully prays for the strength to deal with a teenage daughter who has somehow blundered into the drama club. In her religious reasoning, unless someone is begetting offspring through miraculous interactions with a burning bush, sacrificing a family member or being eaten alive by locusts, it simply doesn't count as a Bible story.

After a lengthy phone conversation with my drama teacher in which he assures her repeatedly that it's all very wholesome and no demonic forces are involved (I know this because I am listening in on the extension phone in the basement), my mother cautiously agrees --"with concerned reservations" -- to my participation in the play. Immense relief washes over me as I realize that I will not need to bow out of the production due to my mother's histrionic belief that I am selling my soul (at garage sale prices) to Satan.  In the weeks that follow, she occasionally asks me to sing one of the songs or recite from a monologue, and when I oblige, she clears her throat and says without eye contact, "that's nice. You should practice more."

It's finally opening night and as I am cavorting across the stage in my absurd costume and greasy stage makeup while the anorexic boy playing Jesus dies a melodramatic death on a wobbly scaffolding, I catch a glimpse of my disapproving mother in the second row of folding metal chairs. She is scowling and already rehearsing in her mind the conversation she will have with our priest to plan the exorcism I'll need the moment this travesty is over. Also, it's entirely possible that we will have to move out of town to escape the embarrassment she thinks this will cause her.

Sadly, this episode sets the tone for all of my future public speaking engagements.


Front-page Folly

The year is 2006 and cable television is engaged in a serious flirtation with shows about paranormal activities. Everywhere you turn, someone is waving a crucifix around attempting to taunt an angry ghost in an abandoned prison, uncovering evidence of alien activity in a pyramid, or wandering through haunted houses with special equipment, debunking footsteps in the hallway as air in the pipes. Also, vampires are considered to be ultra-sexy fringe dwellers (the decidedly unsexy zombie apocalypse is still years away) lurking around in forests and high school parking lots, wearing key pieces from the Hot Topic fall collection and seducing pretty young women with plunging necklines and heaving bosoms. The public's appetite for spooky stuff is growing, and the media is eager to deliver the goods.

By now, I have been conducting sessions for three years and am beginning to settle into a routine with a small client base who find me by word of mouth. I am still mystified to be stumbling around in this career and startled when someone reports that a "prediction" I made came true. I deftly change the subject when anyone asks if I teach workshops or speak to groups, and have no desire to advertise my services to the general public. In addition to realizing for the first time that I am actually an introvert, I find that I'm firmly in the grip of impostor syndrome and shrink away from connecting with anyone involved in the wacky goings-on of the metaphysical community.

As cosmic jokes go, this is the perfect atmosphere for what happens next. A reporter at the local newspaper has been working on a story about the public's current infatuation with the paranormal and my name has crossed her desk three times from different sources. She calls and leaves a message on the answering machine asking for an interview with "Susette-the-psychic". I shock myself by returning her call and agreeing to a meeting with her and a photographer. I wonder why photographs are necessary as the anxious adrenaline begins to course through my veins. Is she hoping that I'll levitate above the coffee table or summon ghosts from the hall closet? I distract myself by worrying about how to conceal the nervous blotchy condition on my neck and chest which presents itself in most photographs taken of me. Almost immediately after hanging up, I regret agreeing to the interview and begin to concoct reasons for why I need get out of it.

Thanks to the intervention of well-meaning friends and family members who believe I should go through with it, I do not cancel the appointment, and the reporter and photographer show up at the agreed-upon time on an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon. I greet them with sweat soaking through my blouse and launch into nervous gibberish, already trying to explain myself and what I do before they're even in the house.

While the reporter and I get settled on the couch, the photographer takes a good, long look at me from head to toe before roaming around the house in search of good light and appropriate angles for the daunting task of shooting photos of yet another woman with double chin challenges.

I should be used to it by now, but the reporter is looking at me with a mixture of skepticism, curiosity and a little fear which sets me on edge. It occurs to me that this thing could easily go sideways; she has the power to write anything, good or bad, and the entire community will accept her words as truth. My mouth goes dry and I become conscious of my every word and movement, imagining how she must be seeing me, given the fact that she is not a believer in any sort of paranormal or mystical event - a tidbit she discloses at the very beginning of our conversation.

As she asks me the usual questions about how I do what I do, what my childhood was like and if I can "see things" like Lotto numbers, I can tell that she is waiting for me to astound her by reading her mind or striking up a lively conversation with her dead Grandmother. Neither of these things happen and I feel as though I am wasting her time with my uninteresting and probably fictional abilities.

After a thorough search of the property, the photographer has finally found a place to take my picture, and as I pose awkwardly on the stairs by the window waiting for instruction from him, he clicks a few shots and then announces that he's finished. While packing up his equipment, he asks with a smirk if I know who will win the 2008 Presidential election. I tell him that I don't, and he makes a sarcastic "uh huh" sound as he leaves the house. The mood in the room is heavy with unmet expectations, and I recall bitterly my mother's hollow advice about needing more practice. It's a dark and somber day when the opinion of your adversary turns out to have merit.

About a week later, an evenhanded, unbiased article featuring my interview runs on the front page of the Sunday "Living" section of the newspaper. It's all very neutral and includes interviews with others from the metaphysical community talking about how psychics can come out of hiding now that paranormal events are being seen as mainstream. The startling part is the gigantic color photo of me that accompanies the article, taking up nearly half the page. By some miraculous stroke of luck, the light and angle of the photo work in my favor and someone has thoughtfully cropped the image to hide the sweat marks under my arms.

By Monday evening, there are thirty nine messages on my answering machine from people wanting to schedule sessions. Some leave comments about the photo, saying that I look "angelic" and "serene", while someone from Arizona (how did she see the damn thing, anyway?) thinks I look "otherworldly". A man with a gravelly voice asks if I would like to accompany him to New Mexico in search of extra terrestrials, and more than a few are tearfully asking if I can communicate with dead animals or help them to find their mother's safety deposit box keys.

Weirdest of all (at least for the moment) is the woman wearing a straw hat and bedroom slippers who recognizes me in the cat food aisle of the grocery store the following week and asks if she can touch my hand so that her migraine headaches will finally stop. I tell her that she has mistaken me for someone else and slink from the store with my head down. My career as a psychic has officially begun.

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