Unless you catch me deep in the throes of my cups or up on stage with an amp at my back and a cranked guitar firmly wedged between YOU and ME, I am painfully shy in public situations. And I mean PAINFULLY shy. Painful as in turning my guts inside out because I’d rather paste myself behind that shadow in the corner of this packed room than get up there in front of you with my book in my hand so you can watch my legs shake uncontrollably with the goddamn St. Vitus dance as I sweat hangover buckets and read aloud without looking up once shy. Painfully shy as in it’s probably painful for others to keep wondering, What the hell is wrong with this guy shy or who’s that creepy bearded silent twitchy dude at the edge of the crowd knocking ’em back and back and back shy. Why won’t he talk to anybody? (answer: crippling self-doubt).
Once you get to know me, or if we’re talking in a more intimate situation, I’m not as painfully shy. The instant I’m not worried about impressing you, or, more accurately, the instant I feel comfortable enough in myself around you to not obsess over the idea that I will invariably do something to make you think I’m a total moron, you’ll get a more accurate sense of what I’m like (i.e., not the person I’m describing here, but still a person I will not attempt to describe at the risk of coming off as an overly analytical, self-aggrandizing fool–whoops, too late).
But if you see me in public, especially in a situation where it would be in my best interest to “network” or otherwise “perform” in any capacity for any reason (beyond playing in a loud rock band), do not mistake me for being a bit zen or confident or even standoffishly arrogant in the way I inhabit a certain kind of quiet, because that’s just me keeping mum and trying not to spontaneously combust as the hamster in my head cranks out mile after mile on the infinite loop wheel that is my consciousness, the specifics of which at any given moment could be rocketing around between any of the many little needles that inhabit my fully loaded kit bag of fears and doubts running from the selfishly self-absorbed to the giant global paranoias that concern any person with a shred of social consciousness. Know also that I’m working a healthy dose of the guilty self-hatred born of a recovering Catholic turned Agnostic into the mix, and you might get a pretty good idea of the sad, janky carnival ride going on behind the eyes of “that weird dude over there chewing on his fingers.”
I’m not sure if it’s that I grow on people like mold or that I’m adept at hiding my constant state of anxiety most of the time, but I’ve managed to become good friends with a number of kind, patient, intelligent and creative people who I think might be able to see that there’s actually someone reasonable and creative buried somewhere in all this mess I’m trying to describe. Truly, when I consider my nature, I count myself very lucky to have the excellent friends I have who come from all walks of life.
Sean Lovelace is one of these friends, and I had the immense pleasure (and terror) of hanging out with him for a number of days at this year’s AWP in Chicago. I say pleasure, because Sean is a funny, smart, thoughtful, well-read guy who likes to knock ’em back. Being that I like to knock ’em back as well, we often have a nice, if woozy foundation from which to work when we hang out, and this usually leads to an excellent time. I’ve also been friends with Sean for a number of years now, and he’s someone I feel genuinely comfortable around, so when my inner anxieties erupt around him, I don’t feel as bad about it because I know he’ll cut me some slack. However, you’ll remember I mentioned terror above. I say terror because Sean is also a very popular and well-published author in the indie-lit world. He actually has fans. At AWP he is the kind of person people recognize and approach to tell him how much they admire his work. He is also very well connected with the core group of people at the center of the indie-lit scene. This means hanging out with Sean at AWP will require you to meet a number of well known people you’d like appear reasonably intelligent around. Being that I’m a bit older and kind of an “outsider” writer who doesn’t have a big stake in the indie world, you’d think this wouldn’t cause too much anxiety as far as I’m concerned. Um. Reread the above and you can guess how that worked out for me.
But it wasn’t all nerves and gut clenches and disappearance behind a veil booze, though I still ended up playing wall flower at various points. Despite myself, I met some very nice people along the way, one of whom was Jimmy Chen, a San Francisco writer whose writing and mixed media work I admire. Sean has always wanted to meet Jimmy. So when Jimmy texted him about a party in a club on Thursday night we set out to track Jimmy down. Keep in mind, this was late in the game. We’d already been at it for quite a while, cabbing from reading to reading and bar to bar, but at some point after Jimmy’s text we found ourselves facing the graffiti scrawled walls of an alley at the mouth of which a woman in gypsy garb was grilling up charred wads of unidentifiable meat. We stumbled down. Wove our way through shades of smoking hipsters and young literati. Faded into the pulse and strobe. Happily found Jimmy up against the bar. And then Sean asked me to take a few pictures with my cell phone.
What follows is a photo-essay of what it looks like when a guy with a gut full of needles carrying around a bag of rabbits inside his head tries to take a few pictures of two lit but otherwise seemingly well-adjusted people who’ve always wanted to meet each other. Let’s call this series entry #1 of The Anxiety Diaries (Sean Lovelace, Jimmy Chen and My Thumb)
Was I finally able to navigate this small request and take a decent picture for my friend Sean?
Ah, yes. It’s the small victories that bring me hope.