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Monday, November 14, 2011

Abject panic: When Does It Happen -and More Curiously, Why?

"No," my big sister said. "You're not doing it right. You count in increments until you get to the amount of money you were given."

If you saw how these are made,
you might not eat one again
I tried again, pretending that I'd just been given a five dollar bill to pay for a box of donuts. I was sixteen, had just been hired for my very first job at Duncan Donuts, and I felt as if my working life was over before it ever began. I couldn't make change. I was hopeless with numbers, even worse with mental calculations on my feet, and it would be another 20 years before cash registers would calculate how much change was due a customer. I was in melt down, the first of only a few times in my life I would feel total, I-want-to-pass-out panic.

In a charitable mood, my older sister patiently taught me how to make change, this prior to ratting me out to my parents for some infraction I no longer remember. Okay. So maybe I did borrow her sweater without asking. I would have gotten away with it had its belt not slipped off of me in the driveway where she later found it, a vivid black tire tread mark running down its length. But I digress. I ultimately did learn to make change, a skill I rely on to this day. My job at Duncan Donuts, however, had a much shorter run. Between my very creepy boss and seeing how jelly donuts were made, I quit at the end of my first day.

That deer-in-headlights look
Though I would feel abject panic only a couple of times more in my life, the intensity of the panic grew in proportion to the situation. Years after Duncan Donuts, I got a career-move job working for the local PBS affiliate. Each year, the station held a televised fund-raising auction and my job was to write scripts in-studio for the television personality. On one occasion, the auction item was a piece of art, and the "talent" was my boss' boss, a last minute substitution. In the seconds before the camera's light went "green," she called me over, pulled me to her side and sternly whispered that she'd not gotten a script. I was aware of the floor manager counting down: "Three....Two....." and as I saw him mouth the number "one," the fullness of the horror of my situation came to me: The only way I could have seen his lips form the number was if I was IN FRONT of the camera. I was on live television. And in that same moment of realization, my boss turned to me and sweetly asked, "And what can you tell us about our next item up for bid, Susi?"

I cringed. She'd seen my face. She knew my name. She could identify me later if I made a run for it.

Fighting off nausea, I reviewed my options. I could clutch my chest, yell that I was having the "big one," and slump out of the camera shot; I could reply to my boss, "Well, Trudy, not much. What do YOU think about this painting?" I could vomit and vividly illustrate that I wasn't well; I could start blubbering and hope that the audience felt I was moved to tears by the art, or I could craft an answer with a deer-in-headlights expression and hope that it didn't make my boss look bad. All of the aforementioned remedies would, or course, result in my immediate firing. "You'll never work in this town again," I could hear her say.

I was struck speechless with panic. How on earth was I going to get out of this? My cheeks were on fire but my blood ran cold. My knees got weak. My palms were sweaty, and I could see hairline fractures start to form through my boss' make up as her eyes pierced my skull. "Please God, take me now, "I prayed.

In what clearly was an act of God, I was suddenly struck with the impulse to actually glance at the painting in question. I looked at it and realized, "I know this piece."

"Well, Trudy," I muttered slowly, "it's a painting."

The look on Trudy's face read, "Moron. After I kill you, I'm going to fire you. And then I'm going to fire the imbecile who hired you."

"It's a painting by a painter," I went on. "And, as you can see, it's a rectangle." I was cheering up a little. I was on a roll. "It's a rectangular painting by a painter using paint." Trudy looked around, I suspected for a weapon.

I warmed to my subject. "What makes this painting special is the use of lighting reminiscent of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio." "Chiaroscuro, I added, "is an Italian term which literally means 'light-dark," and it's not usually seen in modern depictions such as this painting. During the Renaissance, it had its origins in drawings on colored paper using white gouache."

Where had THAT come from, I wondered. I'd been an art critic and had a degree in Fine Arts and Art History. But I'd actually RETAINED something useful to me in a moment of distress?

I was saved. When the camera went dark, Trudy peered at me over her reading glasses, then turned and walked away. It took two cameramen and the floor manager to remove me from my spot. And all I knew what that I never wanted to feel panic like that ever again.

So when a friend asked me years later to show his dog at Westminster, I wanted to say no. I'd never shown the dog. Heck, I'd never MET his dog. I'd never shown a terrier, I'd never shown at Westminster, and I certainly had never shown while videotaped by a camera. In the end, I was persuaded only because my friend was in a pickle. I would be helping him out since he was showing another dog. I wanted to be a good friend, didn't I???

I met the dog. We took a handling class. We flew to New York. We entered Madison Square Garden. We set up in the grooming area. I went to the bathroom twenty minutes before breed judging and I waited. I waited for the panic and nausea to wash over me, but it didn't come, at least, not in the ladies' room. Swell, I thought. It would hit me as soon as I hit the famous green carpet.

And I was calmness itself
But it didn't then, either. As I entered the ring, I looked at the other dogs and their handlers and realized, "These aren't my people. This isn't my breed. This isn't my dog." And to this day, I doubt I've handled another dog feeling as relaxed as I did when I handled that one. The dog, a lovely bitch, was given Best of Opposite Sex. And as pleased as I was, the whole experience was also a bit maddening to me. Why couldn't I do this for myself when it was MY dog? Why couldn't I settle down when a moment was important to ME?

I have no explanation of why panic washes over any of us at some times and not others, but I suspect it has to do with how invested we are in the moment. I've shown my dogs with no expectations of winning and felt at peace. Other times when my hopes where higher, I fumbled with worry. An ardent desire to avoid looking foolish is also a reliable way to invite terror - and terror was what I felt when I found myself on camera. And finally, the ultimate fear factor may be the feeling that we are utterly out of control over the things that happen to us.

As far as I can tell, if I live my life with low expectations, little regard for the future AND I don't mind looking stupid, I'll enjoy a stress free existence. Such a life also avoids ambition and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with a well played risk. It's not wise to ask me if I'd sacrifice achievement to avoid a feeling of panic. If you've ever known the kind of panic I described on those two occasions, you know what I mean.

Have you felt it? Did you deal with it? And how?

1 comment:

  1. So true about panic being during a time you are vested in the outcome. I've been interviewed on TV with no fear because it didn't affect me one way or another, but I can recall three times I experienced sheer, abject panic that resulted in faceplants, verbal flubs and/or blank stares:
    1. Cheerleading tryouts in high school
    2. Undergrad interview for a scholarship
    3. Vet school interview

    Two of those turned out better than the third.


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