5.29.21 2

The Wall of Fear

This is embarrassing, but for your sake, I’ll throw myself on the grill.

Susie & I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. I worked in a bookbindery—a factory that made covers for books. My job: someone slid me a stack of naked books; I’d hold each book up against a hive of cardboard spines, select the size that fit the book’s spine, insert it into the book, and slide it down the table to the next workstation. I hated my job. 

An ad in the paper said a Country & Western band was looking for a lead guitarist. I’d played guitar for many years, but never in front of anybody, never on a stage. Odd, right? Too shy. Plus, I stunk, and I’m from New York, I had never listened to country music, but the gig would pay. It would sure beat binding books—so in a blush of bravado, I called for an audition.

I went to the library and asked if they had any “Country or Western” music to prepare. They had three albums which I checked out. One was Merle Haggard. 

When I showed up for the audition, the bandleader was there by himself. By astounding coincidence, that same Merle Haggard album I had studied was on the turntable. 

He asked, “What do you wanna play?”

I said, “I dunno…how about I play along with whatever you got on your turntable?”He raised an eyebrow, turned on the stereo, lowered the needle on the album. I played for like 20 seconds—he picked the needle up, stared at me a few moments, and said, “You’re hired.”   

“I am?!?”   

“Yup. Our first gig is this Friday night.”   

“THIS COMING FRIDAY NIGHT??? What about rehearsal?”   

“You kidding? the way you play, you don’t need rehearsal; you’ll do fine.”

I didn’t own an electric guitar, didn’t own an amp, and I had never stood on a stage. I was stupidly sick with fear—and rightly so. And yet, in my stupidity: I borrowed money for a guitar & amp and quit my job! (“Aren’t you going to give two weeks’ notice?” my boss demanded. “Yes,” I replied, “Between now and for the next two weeks, you’ll notice I’m not here!”). And I moved from renting a single room flat to a second-floor entire apartment. 

Friday night at the first gig, I was so scared I drank two shots of bourbon just to steady the shakes. I had to go to the bathroom every 8 minutes. It was terrifying. The only two recollections I have of that night are (1) I made a lot of mistakes, and (2) no one being in the audience to hear them.

We did the Friday & Saturday night gigs, I ‘phewed,’ and looked forward to some much-needed rehearsal—which never happened. For five days in a row, they wouldn’t answer nor return my phone calls. On the sixth day, over the phone, they fired me.    

“You suck. We hired Danny Stratman”. Turned out everyone knew Danny—guitar & fiddle extraordinaire, he was the best in town. 

Bleak despair. I sulked in my second-story apartment with the shades pulled down, watching bowling on TV. That is truly glum. My grandmother phoned, said she’d just heard the good news about my new job in the band, she was so happy, so proud, and wanted to hear all about it.   

“Ohh, it’s not much…”. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her I’d been fired.

Despair led to depression. Which led to angst. Which led to anger. Which led to resolution. Somewhere in those 24 hours, bolstered by the unblinking love and support of my girlfriend (who’s now my wife), I decided to become a professional guitar player. 

“Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly—until you can learn to do it well” –Zig Ziglar.

Here’s where it got scary. I committed. 

My calendar was clear for practice (I imagined my old boss at the bookbindery saying, “That’s right, sonny: you’ll notice between now and the next two weeks: you’re UNEMPLOYED!”). I signed up for guitar lessons from the local teacher and committed to rigorous practice.

Here’s where it got even scarier. In my gut, I knew I had to get stage experience. Still, I was terrified, so I decided to go to a local bars’ Monday night Country & Western jam sessions. When you go to this jam, you walk in carrying your guitar-BIG RED FLAG, no sneaking in–sign up on a list, and wait until they call you up to play.

The band leader that fired me was right. I sucked. I knew it —but this wasn’t about ‘not sucking.’ This was about getting experience, standing in front of an audience, and playing. So I stood up and played. Soon, everyone at the jam sessions knew I sucked, too.

On the following Monday, I signed in and then waited a long time before getting a chance to play. It was pretty late when they finally called me up. We did one song, and they announced, “We’re gonna take a short break, folks, we’ll be back in a bit,” nodding me off the stage, dismissed for the night.

I came back the following Monday, the Monday after that, and the Monday after that. Every Monday, for months.

Honest truth: I would not let Susie come along to those Monday night sessions. It was too embarrassing, too humiliating. I was ashamed, and in my weakness, I could not tolerate the thought of her seeing me so scorned —the snickers, comments, eye-rolls, fingers-in-ears, laughter, walk-aways. It was dreadful, and frankly took me several years before I could even talk about it without tears welling up.

But brother, I did learn how to stand on stage, and I did learn how to play guitar. Not overnight, not over a month, but over several years, I pressed in. Hours of practice, steady improvement, gigs with bands in bars, 45 minutes on stage, 15-minute breaks in the backroom kitchen practicing. Up late, then up in the morning, guitar in hand. 
I loved playing. Loved it. Couldn’t believe I got paid to play.

Three years later, just before moving to California to go to music school, our band entered a Battle of the Bands contest. The first-place prize was $1,000. The towering favorite was a regional touring group that was a shoo-in for the win. Honestly, they were so much better than us that we could not compete musically, so we didn’t sweat it. We treated it like another gig, went out and did what we always do: played our best and had a blast. We had fun, fun, fun. 

Guess what? We won, won, won! I think the judges judged us with their eyes instead of their ears. 

Guess what else? The shoo-in for the winner’s lead guitarist was Danny Stratman. 

Two years later, after music school, I made the eyes wide open decision that the music business was not for me. We went in another direction—another scary choice. 

In regards to my music career, quitting was the second-best decision I ever made. The best decision was going for it in the first place —for had I not done so, it might have haunted me….gee, could I have done it? But having done it, I walked away free, content with what I’d done. 

**I’ve come to believe that the opposite of fear is love. How often my little fears were interrupted, dispersed by the laughter, enthusiasm, and outlandish love of my wife, daughters, & son! – they give, they share, they lift & elevate those they love – and their radiance dispels the shadow of fear. 

Love induces Bravery. Fear is a shrinking vacuum. Love an expansive radiance. Fear sucks us in. Love thrusts us outward. Your family, friends, and neighbors stand to benefit from your outbursts of love. Fearful, they may never know you. Loving, you can deep connect.

The wall of fear may be blocking you from the desires of your heart. But the wall of fear melts in the face of love. So go ahead! Be loving! Be brave! Crash through the wall of fear and bless the objects of your affection.

Leave a Comment


  1. Zack wrote:

    So good to read your stuff again. I love it. I laugh, cry and most of all, am inspired to go for it.

    Published 6.30.21
    • Dirk wrote:

      Zack, thanks so much for your good words–you inspire me.

      Published 7.3.21