I’m shy. This was a recent realization, one of those moments when it all comes clear. The revelation would be natural, of course, with the advancement of age. That hesitation of speech when the word is almost there, but it doesn’t come, when pauses are longer, when something comes out that makes no sense. Yet it isn’t a new characteristic; it’s long-standing.
One doesn’t really think of such a thing, given the risks I’ve taken, from ditching an academic career, marrying at nineteen, crossing Europe twice on a motor scooter, or stepping out on stage for thousands of shows. Or raising a couple of kids. But that doesn’t conceal the fact that I’m shy.
What in fact does that mean? It means a reluctance to engage with others. It means a morbid fear of the telephone. It means hovering near the snack table at parties, smiling vaguely at friends, but exhibiting an undue interest in the deviled eggs. In radio interviews or any moment of public display, it means shifting into another persona—not fake, just different. It means armor against feeling.
Why? I once thought it stemmed from my lifelong sense of empathy. Hypothetical empathy, I might better call it. Not that my sense was accurate, but if it seems possibly true, then it has to be paid attention. Did the person you’re phoning just now take a break to go to the can? Does the person you might engage in conversation really want to talk? Or talk to you? Does the person you’re asking directions speak English, or can I muddle through in my fractured German or Spanish or French?
Every start to a conversation is like a dive off the high board at Crystal Pool, a public pool where I sometimes went to swim as a kid. I hated diving, you got your head wet, but I had to dive because I paid to get in, and maybe once I dived off the high board. I don’t know if I did, though I remembered thinking about it. How many conversations have I actually dived into, and how many just thought about it? The last time I was in Council Bluffs, where I grew up, Crystal Pool was paved over. No one could dive into the asphalt.
Nothing to be done to enshrine this realization in behavior, or to contradict it. It’s as much a part of me as the hair of my beard. Which sometimes itches, sometimes tickles my lips, and regularly needs trimming. You just look in the mirror and think, That’s me. Or you scratch.
You do think, Is this truly me or only a mask? Do I grow this as a convenience, so I don’t have to shave every day? What if I never answer this question?
Meantime, I go on with life. More weeding to do, and I’m never moved to question the weeds. The greens barrel gets emptied on Thursday morning, often at dawn, when the garbage trucks do their concert. We live on a half acre of tangle, never clear, always spawning something new to try to clear: sticker weed, stink weed, crawler weed, tall sprout, duff.
What happens when we die? The yard will presumably get sold, perhaps paved over like Crystal Pool, perhaps refurbished as a luxury dwelling, perhaps leveled for apartments. Or perhaps children will build houses in the trees—tall observation points to see the future. If the trees don’t fall on the house.