BY LEE LYNCH
She’s going on a zipline in Las Vegas. That’s what my sweetheart announced this morning. It gets worse. She said the zipline goes over city streets and buildings—and here I was envisioning a sweet pastoral zip across raging river rapids and sharp rocks. Now I only have to worry about her colliding with concrete, metal, and glass. Head first. Seems you have options; she plans zip to belly down, like a diving bird, a Peregrine falcon perhaps, which can reach speeds up to 200 mph.
She concocted this scheme with our friend Heather, who lives in Vegas and knows all the cool things to do. I have a feeling this trip will be a lot different than the one I took to the Lambda Literary Conference back in the early 1990s.
Before my sweetheart and Heather, I traveled alone, so there was no chance of doing anything riskier than surviving the unexpected snowstorm I hit in the mountains of Northern California. But truly, I was more petrified of attending the Lammys than I was of mountain passes or ziplines.
I knew Jennifer Abod, producer of “The Passionate Pursuits of Angela Bowen,” back in New Haven in the 1970s. When I ran into her this summer, she said she remembered me as “very, very shy and very, very skinny.” I mumbled something about being fifty pounds more substantial now, and she may have recognized that the shyness has endured. Or else thought I had the verbal skills of a feral banana.
The truth is that I’m just as shy and timid around people as I was in the seventies. And in the nineties. The easiest part of that Lammys trip for me was walking from my backstreet motel along the fabled “Strip” to the awards ceremony. When I entered the massive room of white table cloths and strangers, I had to about face and find a toilet immediately.
A while later, I found the Naiad Press table and assumed I belonged there, in the one empty seat I saw. This wasn’t long before Naiad changed direction, remaindering books and returning rights to poorly selling writers, but I didn’t know that yet. Nobody but me was freezing me out. Everyone was proper and I was my usual bump on a log self with no conversation in me. Fortunately, I was next to Naiad Press and “Poets and Writers” editor Christie Cassidy, a playful femme who valued my work and gave me the courage to make a brief presentation on stage—to an award winner who wasn’t in the audience and hadn’t sent a proxy. What could be worse for someone like me than to find myself alone on a stage with an unclaimed trophy?
After the lengthy program ended, I felt as isolated as when I’d arrived. I didn’t know who to talk to and was scared someone might talk to me. I slunk through the glamorized halls of the casino, breathing ghastly amounts of cigarette smoke, feeling like a feral banana, an invisible one at that.
That doesn’t change. I go to literary events now, like Saints and Sinners, where I’m warmly welcomed, know my way around a podium, and still quake in my shoes in crowded rooms without my sweetheart. Sometimes I come away from a conference with little memory of it because it takes so much of my spirit to participate.
I know I’m not alone. Even with improved social skills it takes everything I have to start a conversation, or to join a group of laughing, talking people. I’ve been accused of snobbery when I’m actually hiding out. Or people think I don’t like them because I seem standoffish, when I’m actually dying inside, ashamed of my shell of reticence and not knowing how to emerge from it. Or maybe I am snooty, having missed any lessons on small talk.
Thank goodness for women like Mercedes Lewis, who created “Con Virgin” programs at The Golden Crown Literary Society conferences—Vegas being the site of this year’s conference. New attendees get special attention. There are events just for them, if they choose to participate. If they’re not too nervous to accept. I’m one of the latter, more likely to go off in my miserable, lonely corner and become more self-consciously obvious than I would be if I could blend into a group.
In the end, it’s all about ego. I’ll do almost anything, apparently, to protect my ego from being bruised. But, I have learned how unfair that is to others. I’m one of millions; when I hide, when I won’t risk being tongue-tied, I could instead be making life easier for someone as shy as myself.
I’m still the same person inside, and it’s punishing every time I reach out, but I’ve learned, if I’m not adept at talking, I’m a pretty good listener. If I can manage a few seconds of greetings and questions, if I can get out of myself and show interest, I’ve found that people are generally quick to tell their stories, dreams, ambitions.
Not as quick as my sweetheart and Heather will be, high above the theme park called Las Vegas, but no feral banana either.
Copyright Lee Lynch 2018 / January 2018