Last weekend was Printer’s Row Lit Fest here in Chicago, where (I’ve been told) hundreds of tents full of books are set up and crowds gather foraging for awesome finds. While the thought of Printer’s Row Lit Fest from a nerdy point of view sounds like the best thing in the world, I have an undiagnosed Crowd Phobia (and a making-up-words learning disability, but that is another story). I have panic attacks in crowds of people unless certain conditions are met for me to handle the feeling that everyone in the crowd is taller and bigger than I am (at 5′ 2 and 3/4″ that isn’t hard), that I will be either trampled like the poor souls in movie theaters when people yell fire, or sandwiched between beer bellies until I either pass out or die of asphyxiation. Fear isn’t rational, but the panic is real.
However, I have learned over the years and after meltdowns in dining commons on college campuses where every one of the 2,000 students on campus showed up in two smalls rooms that there are just some crowds I can’t handle. This is especially true if I don’t know it will be that crowded. But if I can get prepared ahead of time and find a hand/shirt holding buddy, I can manage crowds of a certain size. Growing up in the south holding the hand of your best friend who happens to be a girl, just so you wont start crying and throwing up in public, is frowned upon. Luckily here in Chicago, not so much, and I have been to street fairs and events where I have had a good time because I knew I had put in place people and conditions to feel safe. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anybody willing to go with me who would also let me hold their hand or bury my face in the back of their shirt if I needed to not see people for thirty seconds.
I was OK with this until I realized that The Bloggess was going to be in Chicago and her event was part of the Lit Fest. Queue deep breath and last minute Gchat to see if someone could go with me to this monstrous affair. Not a one.
My best friend introduced me to The Bloggess over a year ago and I’ve been reading her blog ever since. The Bloggess is a humor blog written by Jenny Lawson, a columnist and former HR representative. Her recent debut book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) (book review some time next week) is the story of Jenny’s life growing up as the daughter of a taxidermist, dealing with her own social anxiety disorder, and how she finds humor in the dark places. I’m a fangirl of many things (see all my Doctor Who postings), but I am especially a fan of courage, genuineness, and a life lived finding the humor and good where possible. So, I decided I was going to go meet Jenny anyway, deal with the crowds and lines as best as I could, and get my book signed. First, I was going to buy her book, and then go anyway, deal with the crowds and lines as best as I could, and get my book signed.
I clicked on the registration button and refused to think about it. I heard the event sold out (meaning a large crowd), and I refused to think about it. I ordered my book, and Amazon never told me it shipped, so I spent a few days thinking I was going to have to get my boobs signed. Which wouldn’t have been a terrible thing, except eventually your skin washes off and the proof you met Jenny Lawson is gone, so I really wanted that book. It arrived Thursday and I worked a twelve hour day on Friday and was gone from my house for fourteen hours. Basically I read the whole book Saturday after work from 3pm until midnight. I say basically, because I was finishing up the epilogue while waiting for the event to start. While dealing with the possibility of not having read the book, or even received it for the matter, by the time I went to event, I still refused to think about the large sea of people I was going to be thrust into.
But Saturday afternoon I realized I needed to come up with a game plan, even if that was only viewing the street on Google maps in street view so I could get a handle on my bearings when there. I pulled my tickets out of the stack on my desk of “Things I need to deal with.” I looked closely at the ticket to find the address and discovered that the event was actually at the Library. The Library I go to on a weekly basis to pick up dozens of books, the Library I’ve already been to book events at, the one place downtown where I can breath even though surrounded by vast amounts of people. I almost started crying I was so relieved. (Yes, I probably should have read the tickets more closely when I registered for them, but I was trying to do something in spite of my fears and sometimes that means disregarding the fine print. Or locations. You know, same difference.)
Some times the universe hands you a doughnut. (Hmmm, doughnuts).
I looked at the earliest time I could show up because I wanted to beat the crowds, get in the front of the line, and sit where I knew I could escape easily if I needed to. Finding escape routes takes up a lot of my brain power when I’m in new places. I take several minutes to decide the best route versus the worst route. I try to imagine if there was a fire and I could get down a stairwell or if I would live if I jumped out a window. What if the person next to me starts coughing, or talking about her single son, where could I escape? What if I just couldn’t take the pressure of the bodies behind me and I needed to leave? I need an escape route, and therefore I needed a seat I could escape from. So I got there early, there was no line, thankfully. There was one man standing in the “If I get lucky and someone gets TB and doesn’t show up I can attend” line. He didn’t stay there for long. He keeled over from TB. Kidding. Actually, some people with an extra ticket handed him theirs. The joy on his face was beautiful. I headed down to the basement and the room where a conversation with Jenny Lawson and Rachel Bertsche (author of MWF Seeking BFF) was going to take place, found the perfect seat, and finished reading the book. Then the fun began.
Both Jenny and Rachel were extremely funny, witty, women who answered questions by a moderator and the crowd as well as bantered back and forth. Each of them read a portion of their book, inciting laughter among the crowd. Copernicus sat on the table hugging a bottle of water and watching the crowd. Carefully ensconced in my perfectly escapable seat I saw women in envy inducing tutus laughing with their friends before the start of the event, watched the crowd engage with the authors, and wiped tears from my eyes from laughing so hard. In a word, it was awesome.
We all filed upstairs and lined up around a corner waiting to get our books signed. I was so OK with standing in line at my favorite place downtown that I even started talking to the girl next to me. I don’t have a fear of talking to strangers, I just have a fear of new places and getting squashed by strangers who don’t see me because I’m under their line of view (people do trip over me all the time because of this, so actually I think that fear is rational). Our books were tagged with post-its that had our name correctly spelled on them. (This was important to me, my name is never spelled correctly even if I tell people.) Then it was my turn to stand before Jenny Lawson and make small talk while she signed by book.
As I said before, I have no problem talking to strangers as long as I am somewhere that I know and feel comfortable. I’ve worked in the service industry for years, walking up to perfect strangers at a table and making them laugh so I get a bigger tip was my specialty. Even now I work at a clothing store at night and see half dressed women and talk to them through doors about clothing and sizes (FYI that is not an easy thing when you have a woman trying to find something to wear and trying to tell her why the clothing was made weird and doesn’t fit her body, which is always the truth, because clothing is made weird.) But just in case I had prepped what I was going to say to Jenny.
“I just wanted to say how much I love your website and book, which made me laugh and cry at the same time. Also, I love your TARDIS necklace, I’m actually wearing mine too.”
Instead what came out was, “TARDIS cool, me too.” And I shoved my necklace at her.
Enter the Cavewoman.
W. T. F. I have never, and I do repeat, never not spoken well because I couldn’t find words to say. Sometimes I have too many things trying to trip their way out of my mouth and I have to take a deep breath and speak sentences singularly rather than on top of each other, but this was the first time that I literally couldn’t speak other than as a cave woman. Plus, I somehow thought I could make up for this lack of civilized conversation by thrusting my necklace at her. ::headdesk::
At that moment I had an out of body experience. For realsies. It was as though I was staring down at this blathering fan girl and the up tight monkey suit lawyer in me was literally aghast. Thankfully, the monkey suit lawyer snapped her fingers and said, “Back away you crazy woman. BACK AWAY!” At this point I re-entered my body and straightened my spine. I plastered an apologetic smile on my face and thanked her for her time. Then I backed slowly away from the table and hoped, I really really hoped, that I would be forgotten by the tutu wearing woman and the two girls with stuff cats on their heads (plushies, not the taxidermied (which is also apparently not a word, WTF) kind). Similar to when I was in law school, took a three hour test which determined my entire grade for the semester, and then started praying 3/4 of the class did worse than I. Everyone made fun of me for saying this, but you know they were all thinking the same thing.
For some reason Jenny forgave the blathering Cavewoman, signed my name correctly, along with her own, and wrote on my book, “You Rock. “
Never was I more grateful that, unless I let them, people cannot see what I’m thinking.