In the Zone — and Out of It

What is “the zone,” an expression often used by performers in various fields of competitive or personal endeavor? Clearly, it has something to do with consummate functioning, with a kind of inner serenity or a unique coordination of mental and physical attributes leading to superb and unanticipated achievement. Where is the zone is another question. It is depicted as a place, yet it is nowhere, a metaphor for a condition in which the normally impossible becomes possible.

Many years back when I used to play soccer, I was the lousiest member of the team, completely invisible on the pitch. Until one day, it seemed I had been gifted with an unerring foot, potting six goals to the amazement of my team mates. I never scored another goal thereafter, but on that day I was in the zone. My experience as a hockey goaltender was rather different—at first. Though I was a pretty good netminder and logged a fair number of shutouts, I will never forget the game, the last one I played, when pucks whizzed by me like I was hitch-hiking. The net behind me felt a hundred feet wide and we lost 10 to 1. I was so far out of the zone I may as well have been living in another sector of the universe.

The greatest obstacle to the capacity for transcending oneself is, usually, oneself, but the zone is that mystical mode of being in which the warts and deficiencies of one’s nature are stripped away for reasons that elude analysis. We might say that the zone is like a religious sanctuary where one cannot be touched by hostile elements, including one’s own inadequacies. There is something almost supernatural about being in the zone, as if one had entered a state of grace or been consecrated by a higher power.

Every artist, teacher and athlete knows what I’m getting at. There are those mysterious intervals in life when one can do no wrong and the unpredictable gods collaborate with one’s every effort. I have had teaching days when I never needed to look at a note, and writing days when I covered page after page without the need to revise. But these were (and are) rare instances; reality seldom conspires with one’s intentions. Generally one stumbles along, either acquitting oneself in an orgy of incompetence or merely being ordinary. For the most part, we find ourselves in that desultory, in-between sphere where we habitually linger, perpetually hoping for something better, perpetually fearing something worse.

Such has been my staple experience playing the guitar. There are moments, admittedly few and far between, when I feel as if I’m playing like a pro, every note ringing cleanly as a tuning fork, chord progressions smooth as Bechamel. Sometimes an indifferent guitarist can get “there,” too. The sense of exhilaration is inexpressible. At other times, all too frequent, I am ready to give it up, the guitar bucking like a jack drill, the strings like sodden spaghetti under my fingers. The sense of despair is equally inexpressible. I begin to worry that the first couplet of Belfast poet Adam Crothers’ "Blues for Kaki King" from his debut collection Several Deer applies specifically to me:

If I could get these six strings working they still wouldn't work on you.

I'm entitled to exit at any point and everybody's glad when I do.

I recall a desperate week when, for some inscrutable psychological reason, I was simply unable to form the piece-of-cake b-minor finger configuration, though it never before or since gave me any trouble. How to explain these uncanny vicissitudes?

Occasionally the fault may lie with the instrument and its contingencies: climate-related expansion or contraction, a slightly bent neck, frets that require to be dressed. The guitar might simply be out of whack. But far more likely it is the guitarist who is out of whack.