intellectual agoraphobia

[for those looking for more CM-focused talk, feel free to skip this essay. Although it is ostensibly about CM, it quickly morphs into being about a far less interesting topic: me. More CM thoughts coming in a separate entry.]

I continue to grapple with two things, at first unrelated, then unexpectedly linked, and now dragged together in ways that may not be best for either. But that’s life; they, and we, just have to deal with it. Those two things: first, Charles Murray’s visit to Middlebury College (CM at MC) 10 days ago, and second, my personal efforts to find and accept a writerly voice (which brings with it similar, but separate, challenges of finding right audiences and best practices and so on). I am a bit like the car-chasing dog who finally caught it. Now what? (Or perhaps, I am more like the laser-chasing kitten, given my personal pet preferences, as well as the sense that the real but almost immaterial nature of the little red dot of laser light offers a better metaphor than the expensive and heavy automotive example. Not to mention, everyone understands the value of a car, but the lure of the laser trail is harder to understand beyond the pleasure of chasing it. After all, dogs do like to ride in cars when they aren’t chasing them, or so I’ve been told.) Thus, I find myself in an unexpected situation — people are paying attention — wholly unprepared to capitalize on it, since I never even considered the possibility of being in such a position nor ever really thought about what it would mean to capitalize or why I should want to. But here I am. And, for some even stranger reason, here you are, too.

Not every academic dreams of being a public intellectual, but, particularly if you work in a field of even minimal political significance, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve at least considered the pleasure of playing that role. Most public intellectualizing is generally small potatoes — an interview with local television or an op-ed in your college town’s daily paper — with a few making the big time of the New York Times or CNN. I must admit that one of the draws of my Halloween project is knowing there are no obvious academic experts on the topic. Combine that with Halloween being on a permanent cycle of yearly repeat, and even a poorly received and lightly read book would virtually guarantee a permanent presence in the sorts of trend pieces engaging in pseudo-sociologizing about “what it all means,” which have become so popular in recent years. Sure, it’s not Noam Chomsky, but it’s not nothing, either.

Right now, I am having my brief moment in the sun. I somehow managed to parley a hastily written angry email into almost as hastily written Medium essay, which, much to my surprise, was read by a fair number of people (by my standards, at least). That was followed by another essay, read by far fewer people, reminding me that audience is more about timing than about quality (at least, I comfort myself by saying this). I just happened to write something no one else was saying, which some people wanted to read. It’s at once confidence boosting and deeply humbling. I got lucky. And now, in my efforts to follow all the life advice I frequently receive but rarely apply, I’m trying to make my own luck. When I heard that local public radio would be airing a show on CM at MC, I (with some urging) acted proactively, pitching myself as a “voice for the protests and protesters.” Then they did something I didn’t plan for: they said yes. I sank into my natural state of nervous anxiety. Now what?

As much as I may dream of public intellectualizing, at heart I am agoraphobic. (We’ll set aside the question for now whether I should qualify as an intellectual.) Not that I have a literal fear of public spaces (at least not any more — I had my share of panic attacks in shopping malls as a child, but in retrospect that more likely a fear of malls than anything else), but rather it is the more abstract, amorphous public that unnerves me. The public of the public intellectual (who doesn’t necessarily ever have to leave the house to accomplish this work, so could be a real agoraphobe and still do the job). The same public of public radio.

When we arrived at the station (my girlfriend, recognizing how much I would benefit from some support, drove me), I was queasy and uncomfortable, palms sweating, despite the morning being seasonably cold (which during our overly warm winter, this felt quite unseasonal). My internal shakiness stood starkly at odds with the calm and cool creative-class vibe of the newly renovated building and the soothing affect of the on-air talent. After a quick tour, they professionally separated me from my support system, setting her up in an adjoining room, but out of sight. I was on my own now. Or so I would have hoped. Because, as I learned with mild shock, I would not be the only guest in the studio. Of course, I knew there would be other guests on the show (most of whom would be taking an opposing side), but when I agreed to participate, I didn’t expect to share the studio with them, as they would all be in the studio by the college. I hadn’t planned for this. It made the public part far less abstract. This is not what (I thought) I agreed to. I was not happy about this turn of events. Not happy at all.

My luck was not all bad, however. The other guest, coming up all the way from Middlebury, was running late, arriving just as the show commenced. This spared me the horror of making pre-show small talk, something far outside my skill set even in normal, non-contentious circumstances, and which, to be honest, was a source of anxiety for me at least on par with the risk of an unhinged caller attacking me. Having dodged that bullet, I distracted myself by watching the sausage of how the sounds of public radio get made, enjoying the spectacle of the newscaster transforming into a perfect example of a disembodied NPR voice.

They say the news never stops, but 5 minutes into the hour, it did and we were on. I knew they had a second story following ours, which would limit the time available for our story from the other end. Still, that gave us about 40 minutes to kill. Or to die, as the case might be. It stretched out in front of me like a prison sentence. A digital clock ticked off in front of me. I fixated on the seconds counting up, urging them to move just a little faster to bring this to a close. My mouth was dry. I was already halfway through my first of two cups of water, but careful not to put myself in the awkward position of needing to use the bathroom during the show. As the host moved through the four guests, he didn’t save the best for last. That meant I had to wait through all the others speaking, growing ever more anxious.

The other faculty guest, even after arriving late, comfortably waited for his turn and casually offered his viewpoint when asked; meanwhile, I stressed out. I wrote frenzied notes on everything everyone said, drawing little diagrams connecting points and possible responses. I imagined this is what everyone does on the radio, although I noticed I was alone in doing so. When my time did come, I felt almost prepared, pages of freshly written scribblings arrayed in front of me. Ready and kind of willing. But I botched the hand off. I stumbled and stammered. Even more, my mic crackled and popped. A lethal combination of stage fright and technical difficulties. Self-consciousness overwhelmed me. I had to say something, but nothing came — struggling to find words, then strangling them in my throat before I could get them out. Even on the radio, I felt all eyes fall on me, and not just those in the room. To distract from my suddenly all-too-real audience, I turned to the clock, hoping the solidity of time would steady me. But it offered little consolation, the seconds appeared to slow down, perhaps a response to balance out the dramatic jump in my own heart rate. What was the question again?

Yes, this is all rather overwrought, and adds nothing new to the countless stories of performance anxiety. But I hope to uncover something of use here, at least for myself. In that moment, I wondered what I was even doing there. How was it that I, of all people, got drafted into this role? Even worse, why had I taken such an active part in that process? After all, I knew this would happen. It always does. When confronted by a public, I seize up. I freeze up. My abstract agoraphobia has always nagged at me. Sometimes, I can use it to my advantage, as when, in a desperate attempt to get offline and back to work, I post a comment on a favorite time-wasting website, knowing that the fear of having to engage with a response will be more than enough to keep me offline for a long time. Usually it more of a serious liability, such as its current efforts to create a serious crimp on my writing goals. Which is how I ended up writing in public in the first place. To learn to handle this better.

Even as I replayed this conversation in my head, something else was happening in the real world of the studio: I was already answering the question. Yes, my microphone continued to slightly buzz and howl (during the first break, they gave me a different mic), but I was doing what I came to do. Was I doing well? That I can’t answer, but at least I was talking like a somewhat normal person, which is a non-trivial achievement for me under any condition. If you want to know how actual the show went, you can listen for yourself. Instead of responding to the content (which you can evaluate on your own), I want to jump to the end, because that is the best way to describe my own sense of time during the rest of the show. It was over almost immediately after it started. It was an intense experience, demanding an alertness and responsiveness that reminds me of the classroom interactions I find myself missing so much lately. After my initial choke, I found myself having to hold back so as not to interrupt others, having to wave down the host to find room for me to chime in, and reaching a point where I felt that I could think through new arguments in addition to simply repeating what I’d already written.

Why does this matter? It matters for two reasons, one more generalizable than the other, in terms of life lessons for someone who wants to write but doesn’t, a someone like me. First, I want to think about what got me to the radio station in the first place. It was not to expound and extol my brilliance. What would be the point of that? Rather, it was the opportunity to amplify voices and positions not being heard enough in the debate and to stand in solidarity with the students. If I had not gotten the positive responses from students, alumni, and faculty from my first essay, I would never have bothered contacting the show’s producer. While I was not the only person taking the side of the protesters on the show — we were joined by a student who did a wonderful job making her case — I do know that if I had not made contact, no faculty member would have been on making this argument. In this case, then, it helped that it was not really about any unique contributions on my part, but simply that I was there to support people who needed support. That is, the ideas were not important because they were my ideas, but because they were serving a larger goal. (This is not a cure-all, as this same responsibility is just as (if not more) likely to be overwhelming and keep me at home and hiding from the public. Luckily, that didn’t happen this time.) As much as I’d like to claim that I found the strength to speak because I was speaking for others, I don’t think that’s true. This certainly helped motivate me to get to that point, to reach out, to not call in sick the morning of, but in that moment of doubt, other factors were at work.

The other reason it’s useful data for me is because I have been reflecting on the mechanism that stops me from getting from the desire to do something (write this Halloween book, go on the radio, talk to strangers, etc.) to the actual doing, especially given how the actual doing of the thing is rarely traumatic (and, one might even say, is often at least tolerable). But the freezing, the seizing, the stammering, the stumbling, this happens to me all the time. Usually, I decide it’s too much and turn back, angry at myself for chickening out, and angry at myself for never doing what I think I want to do. In my mind, this space between desire and action feels like a yawning abyss (or alternatively, a yawing abysm), one that defies any effort to overcome. While it is easy to point to places where things work better(e.g., the classroom, and now, perhaps, the radio studio), this is not really about physical places, any more than my agoraphobia is about avoiding going into wide open spaces.

Instead, the place of interest is the place I go to when I try to move from intention to action. It is not a place that is necessarily between the two, just something I put there. And this most dangerous of places, I find, is the inside of my head. To put it simply: I think too much. (As evidenced, no doubt, but the irritating writing style on display.) To return then to an earlier question, how does one resolve the tension that best way to overcome the agoraphobia that stands in the way of occasional dabbling in low-grade public intellectual work is to not think so much? The entire point, after all, of book writing, or radio-opining, etc, is to think. People tell me this will come with practice, the best way to go out in public is to go out in public more. This does come with risks, however, since such efforts are just as likely trigger in me avoidance as engagement, offering the ironic unintended consequences that efforts to be more public make my world narrower and more isolated.

I don’t yet have any answers. But I will end by noting that after my radio show was done, when I contacted the producer and host to thank them for inviting me onto their show, I made sure to let them know of my expertise on all things Halloween, if they ever need someone to talk tricks and treats.