Friday, May 11, 2007

I had Allen Shawn's book Wish I Could Be There on reserve at the local library. I asked the librarian for the book weeks ago. Six or seven weeks ago. Shawn is the brother of the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn. He is the son of former New Yorker editor and literary legend William Shawn. Wish I Could Be There's subtitle is " Notes from a phobic life. "

Allen Shawn is a man who suffers from many phobias. He's also a man who has a life, and an interesting one at that. He's a composer. He teaches at Bennington College in Vermont. But the life he leads is complicated by the " irrational fears " that define him. He's afraid of elevators, tunnels, bridges, subways. He gets panicky in wide open spaces, yet dreads isolation. He hasn't flown in fifteen years.

He turns down myriad invitations, including those to concerts at which his work will be played.

Why did I want to read Shawn's book? Because the title of his book could be the title of mine. As I get older, my phobias are starting to get the best of me.

I was a nervous kid. A shy kid. Did real well in school, until my junior year in high school when I was giving an oral report in front of the English class ( On Shaw's Major Barbara ) I stopped in mid report and said, voice cracking, " I'm too nervous to do this. " Then slunk back to my seat.

From that day on, the A student I was morphed into a kid who couldn't stand the thought of sitting in a classroom. High school was hell. Thank goodness for extracurricular activities. I played basketball and soccer. Served on the student council. My best friend was the president of his class and the captain of the basketball team. The best looking girl in our class had a crush on me. Everything about high school would have been great, if I didn't have to sit in a classroom.

I graduated from high school and went to college. I lasted two weeks. I gave another school the old college try. It was the University of Hartford. I failed miserably there. Dropped out and joined the Air Force. The Viet Nam War was raging. I thought I'd be safe up there, above it all. In a plane. I flew a lot in the four years I served in the USAF.

Now? I have a fear of flying. The last time I was on a plane was back in 1999.

My wife and I travel a lot. It's not easy. There are certain bridges I cannot go over. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge for example. Tunnels? No way. Elevators? If I can take the stairs, I do.

I love baseball games, but I don't like crowds. Noise drives me crazy.

You read this and probably think: How'd this guy live his life? He must have been curled up in the fetal position, under a bed for most of it. Hardly. I graduated from college. Went on the GI Bill. I wanted to be a newspaper reporter and knew I needed a degree. I sat in those classrooms. Majored in English. Much of the work I had to do to get the degree from the University of Massachusetts was in the form of essays. The professors liked my work. By the time I was a senior I had a 3.8 grade point average. I was starting to worry that I might be valadictorian and have to give a speech at commencement. I didn't have to do that, but I graduated cum laude.

I did get to be a newspaper reporter. That job helped me get over some of my shyness. Then I landed a job as an advertising copywriter and was pretty good at that job. Got promoted to creative director. Was the one responsible for presenting campaigns to clients.

The first ad agency I worked for was located on the 18th floor of the Gold Building in Hartford. Writing was easy. Taking the elevator at 8:45 every morning - that crowded elevator. That was hard. Taking my walks at noon - all that noise on the street. Honking. Yelling. Screeching bus brakes. That wasn't easy.

Why am I telling you this? For years I was ashamed. I was fearful. I was phobic. I didn't talk all that much about my fears. But now I'm reading this book, Wish I Could Be There, and I'm thinking: I wish I could have been there, said yes to that invitation to that luncheon where I'd get to meet Gloria Steinem. That opening night in Cambridge to which a performer had offered me free tickets. I wish I could have been there, too. And there's London. I'd love to go back. But I'd have to get on a plane.

Allen Shawn's written an important book for those of us whose lives are often ruled by our fears. I haven't talked much about this, and neither had Shawn. He's out of the closet now. So am I. And you know what? It was dark and very closed in in there. It was scary. Now that I'm out?

I'm still scared shitless. It's anxiety, but it's situational. A lot of things " normal " people are afraid of doing, I do easily. Some people are anxious about everything. They have what the shrinks call generalized anxiety disorder. You might not want to be me. I wouldn't like to be them. We are who we are.

I gotta go. This is starting to make me feel nervous.


jane c. said...

Terry--I suspected that you were probably not going to come to Stamford to meet and sit with Gloria Steinem next week for the reasons you so poignantly describe in your posting.
Is there any way for you to face your fears now that you have set them out there for all to see?
You have a long life ahead. There is so much to see, so much to do.
And, you've got to get back to London, tie up the loose ends...

Terrence said...

Thanks for that, Jane. Remember the time you, Ben, Donna and I went to NYC to see " Beatlemania? " Ben drove the old VW Bug from Stamford into the city. Something fell off the car as we sped southward. I was in the backseat, terrified.

Beetle Mania!

I'm working on it, facing the fears. But, as I said, I can do things that would terrify other normal folks. The psych ward experience for example. I was the one who was most calm in terrifying, dangerous situations. The one they'd call in to defuse things. Shawn's book explains how this happens with folks like us.

And the bungie jumping off the Newport Bridge. I do that weekends.

Give Gloria my best. And if she's in Newport next weekend...