The Discomfort Zone

I can’t sing. I know that I can’t sing, and so I don’t. At least, I don’t sing when someone’s watching. I mean sure, I’m physically capable of singing — and I’ve been caught singing in the shower when I thought no one else was home, and a few times in my car when I stopped at a light — but you know what I mean: I can’t sing well.

Consequently, the suggestion of karaoke has never appealed to me. I can’t imagine that I would ever want to participate, because I’d be too afraid of being embarrassed.

It’s bizarre because although I can’t dance either, I’m more than willing to make a fool of myself on a dance floor. I suppose it’s a comfort issue: When I dance badly there are others who are also dancing badly, so I remain comfortable even though I look foolish. Singing is different because more people pay attention to you, so it’s more intimidating — even when you’re in a dark bar with a tipsy audience.

So when my girlfriend Cassie got invited to a local karaoke bar, she asked her friend Sarah to “hold on a sec” while she proposed the idea to me. Cassie covered the receiver of her cell phone with her hand and explained “Sarah’s at a karaoke bar — they’re having a fund raiser for Janelle’s friend, whose house burnt down. Do you want to go?”

Typically, I would have said no. My mind would have immediately dismissed the idea because it would make me uncomfortable: I don’t drink, I don’t sing, and I don’t like smoke-filled bars. I therefore believe that a karaoke bar would not be conducive to meeting people with similar interests. Furthermore, it’s late, I’m cozy indoors, and I’d prefer to stay in rather than drive out in the snow and spend a few hours somewhere simply wishing I was at home.

Cassie and I have lived together for almost a year now, so she knew all that I felt before I even opened my mouth to reply. With her hand still covering the phone, she convinced me to go using one simple sentence:

“It’s for a good cause,” she said.

I agreed. She let Sarah know we’d come out and got directions. We donned our coats and walked outside, then proceeded cautiously across the parking lot. The snow that melted in the daylight had refrozen, creating an invisible obstacle course of icy asphalt between the apartment door and my car. I tugged my car door open with a crunch, causing some snow to fall from the roof and into the car. It landed, unsurprisingly, on the driver’s seat — continuing a quirky tradition my car started doing ever since I moved to Michigan. I sat in the snow-covered seat for only a moment while I started the engine and turned the defrosters to high. I stood up, grabbed the two ice-scrapers from behind my seat, and handed one to Cassie. I closed the door and we immediately went to work on the windshield.

Once we were on the road, I felt glad to be out. The glum Michigan weather kept me holed up in our apartment for the majority of winter, so it felt good to brave the snow for something other than groceries or Christmas shopping. By the end of our drive, I thought I might even enjoy myself at the bar.

The lot was packed full once we arrived, so we parked alongside of the bar on one side of the exit driveway. If anyone gave us any trouble about it, we were prepared to argue “Well if the driveway was plowed, then we would have known that this isn’t a parking spot!”  As we walked around the windowless building towards the front I heard a snippet of “These Boots Were Made For Walking” through the emergency exit door.

Inside, there wasn’t an empty table to be found.  Locals ranging from their early twenties to late fifties filled the place wall to wall from the door to the stage.  I wasn’t sure if the fund raiser drew in the crowd or if karaoke night was always this popular, but one thing was certain:  If we planned on sitting, we’d have to push our way forward and pray that there were spots left at the bar.

(‘Scuse me. Pardon me. ‘Scuse me. Pardon me.)

We eventually found ourselves right up front where Sarah was sitting.  She had managed to claim a few seats on one side of the first table.  The seats may have faced away from the stage, and therefore required us to straddle the bench awkwardly to see the singers, but we gladly sat down.

Strewn about our table amidst the drinks and raffle tickets were song selection booklets.  Cassie eagerly picked one up and started paging through it by artist.  Incredibly, I grabbed one of the booklets as well.

Cassie wrote down her name, her chosen artist/song title, and its corresponding code on a form slip.  She noticed me filling one out for myself, and couldn’t help but peek over my shoulder.

“Separate Ways?” she asked.

“It’s a Journey song I like.  The lyrics aren’t really relevant to our relationship ever since I moved here, but I know most of the words.”

She nodded, seemingly impressed with my decision to sing.  She stacked the slips on top of each other, kissed me, and approached the stage.  She handed our entries to the DJ, finalizing my decision for me.  That’s when my palms started to sweat.

I felt like there were plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t be nervous.  I’ve sung along to “Separate Ways” at least a hundred times before.  I won’t forget any words, because they’ll be right there on the screen.  I’m not tone-deaf, and even if I did sound mediocre, bad, or downright awful, is anyone really going to care?  Seriously.  I’m in a bar full of strangers, all of whom will forget all about me by tomorrow.  Why should I be nervous?

Because I can’t sing.

No matter how many comforting thoughts I could come up with, I was still uncomfortable.  I tried to concentrate on how the song is like five minutes long.  Nothing to sweat over.  Nothing at all.  I reminded myself of senior year of high school, when I was president of a whole mess of organizations — Computer Club, Physics Club, National Honor Society.  I made speeches, I led meetings, and public speaking was never a big deal for me.  Seriously, why should I be nervous!?

Because I can’t sing.

Although I’m not normally into alcohol, I considered buying a drink in the hopes it might calm me down.  I started singing along to the songs as their lyrics appeared on the monitor, hoping that I’d get used to the process and start believing it was no big deal.  I imagined trying to get people in the bar to start dancing, just so that when it was my turn to sing, less people’s attention would be directed at the stage.

“Cassie, come on up!” the DJ finally announced.

She shot out of her seat and took the mic.  She tore through “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes like a seasoned pro while the entire bar clapped to the beat.  When the chorus came, they all sang along.  I could barely hear myself think with the overwhelming cries of “I say hey… What’s goin’ on!?”

I’m next.  That’s what’s going on.

I wiped my sweat-streaked palms on my jeans over and over waiting for her song to end — for my turn to begin.  She belts out the final verse and the bar goes nuts.  The DJ signs her off with a “Let’s hear it for Cassie!” and then surprises me with an unexpected request:

“Jim, come on up!”

What just happened?  Was I skipped?   Wouldn’t I be next if Cassie handed our slips in together?  After thorough consideration, I resigned to the idea that Jim’s song must be on the same karaoke CD that Cassie’s was, and I was probably next.  I would be called up after Jim and then this anxiety episode could finally be finished.

After Jim came Sandra.  After Sandra came Diana.  After Diana came Ted, and so on.  Either the DJ was having a really hard time finding the CD with “Separate Ways” on it, or I had been skipped.  I concluded that if I planned on actually singing, I needed to tell the DJ that he skipped me.

I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  I totally punked out on my first karaoke experience.  Sarah and Cassie were both willing to talk to the DJ for me, but I begged them not to.  I spent three hours in the bar being uncomfortable over a five minute karaoke song, and when an opportunity to escape the discomfort presented itself, I latched onto it and refused to let go.

I lost my nerve to sing, so we decided to leave.  During the drive home, I kept apologizing.

“I’m sorry.”  “I’m sorry I didn’t sing.”  “I’m sorry I didn’t sing, I thought I wanted to.”

Cassie stared out the passenger side window.

“I’m sorry too,” she said.  “Sorry you got skipped.”

We drove without saying anything for a while; our silence interrupted only by the intermittent sound of the wipers clearing snowflakes from the windshield.

“I’m still proud of you,” she finally said.

I smiled at her under the red glow of a stop light.

“Really?” I asked.

“Really.  You don’t normally come out to the bar, but tonight you did.  When I saw you looking through the song book, I got excited thinking maybe you’d sing.  When you put in your name with me, I felt proud.”

She leaned over the console and kissed me.

“I’m proud to have a boyfriend who spontaneously steps out of his comfort zone, just for me.”

“Just for a good cause,” I said with a wink.

She let out a sigh as she settled back into her seat and the light turned green.

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10 Responses to “The Discomfort Zone”

#1 Lauren on 06, Feb, 2008 at 1:59 pm

Oooh next time you get talked into karaoke I want to go too. I always chicken out too. We can encourage each other. 🙂

#2 Stephen Hopson on 06, Feb, 2008 at 5:16 pm


I throughly enjoyed this story because I had a similiar experience one night earlier this year. The church I go to has “Open Door Coffeehouse” where everyone is welcomed to dance, sing, showcase their artwork or read a poem.

Suddenly I found myself singing along, Karokee style, surprising everyone, especially myself. I ended up having a good time but I’m certainly not someone who will end up on American Idol – who cares, right?

Thanks for sharing.

#3 Pat R on 06, Feb, 2008 at 7:26 pm

Good job Shaun. Even though it didn’t work out for you to sing you pushed through the biggest hurdle of all and that was to get out of your comfort zone and just go for it.

#4 Matt on 06, Feb, 2008 at 7:31 pm

Well written Shaun. I enjoyed reading it very much and see your writing style getting even better (from an already high level!) I’m looking forward to more of your articles in the future. Thank you! — Matt

#5 Deb Estep on 07, Feb, 2008 at 8:17 am

Hmmmm sounds like the universe granted you a reprieve in not actually having to go up and sing.

Don’t ever question… How would it have been?

Just hold that thought that you had the *courage*
to fill out that slip and attempt to DO IT.

xo xo

#6 Rich on 08, Feb, 2008 at 1:53 am

I used to tell myself things like ‘I can’t sing’, ‘I can’t dance’, ‘I can’t ‘. But since I came to Japan I’ve started doing a lot of things I’ve never done before. No one here knows I can’t sing, so I always sing at karaoke. No one here knows I can’t dance so I signed up and started taking hip hop lessons.

I think one of the most important things in life is to keep on doing new things, to keep trying new things. Life’s boring if you always do the same things you’ve always done. Lots of times I’ve been faced with the decision of stay in vs do something new, and I almost always decide to do something new. Why? My life would be far more interesting, far more fun, far more enjoyable having tried it.

One of my friends here once told me something interesting. ‘Rich’, he said, ‘Being out of your comfort zone is in your comfort zone.’ What I believe that means is that even if I’m doing something new, something something I’ve never done before, doing something I have no idea how it’s going to go, I’m still comfortable with doing it. It’s great!

#7 Jinno on 08, Feb, 2008 at 8:34 pm

Haha, I’ve got a similar problem, man. I’m practically willing to do anything that will make me look stupid. But there’s a couple of things I find I “can’t” do. Those being talking to a girl once I’ve decided that I like her, and public speaking of my own accord.

I don’t understand why, I used to act, I used to be on the announcements at my school. But for some reason when it’s MY WORDS I can’t do it. As Mark Twain’s adage goes “It is better to close your mouth and have them think you a fool, than to open it and have them know it.”

I’m not afraid of LOOKING like an idiot. I’m fine with that, such superficial opinions are fine. It’s to have a god’s honest opinion that I’m a fool based on what I say that has me worried. Has me so convinced that it’s a failure to do otherwise.

#8 Bobby Karaoke on 08, Feb, 2008 at 8:38 pm

You can come out and sing with Bobby Karaoke anytime, co-president of the computer club ’00.

#9 Darren on 09, Feb, 2008 at 2:29 pm

Have no fear little brother. I will forever be nervous when i step on stage. But doing it for the first time will help you break out a little more. Of course you’ll still sweat and have shaky hands when you try it again, but its all about the fun and entertaining people in some manner. I’m no Steve Perry but i enjoy belting out a little Separate Ways myself when the crowd screams for some Journey. Haha have some fun!

#10 Keara on 12, Feb, 2008 at 10:33 pm

I know I can sing and I am still awkward when it comes to things like karaoke…. think about that!

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