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Germ Bag

Exit Stage Fright

By Suz Redfearn | Posted 2/26/2003

Editor's note: With this installment we bid adieu to Germ Bag. Suz's idiosyncratic column has been a City Paper Online exclusive for nearly five years, and an integral part of the website. We wish Suz the best, and for her readers, her old columns will still be available in our archives. See the endnote for more Germ Bag information.

I do not fear floods. I laugh at tornadoes. Grizzly bears? Whatever. Spiders and snakes? Bring 'em on! Groping uncles? I've got mace.

But public speaking? Now, that folds me right into the fetal position where I'll lay whimpering for hours, days. Why, my first terrible childhood memory came from being forced to emcee my first grade Christmas pageant. And since that wretched day, I've spent most of my life working hard to dodge the dreaded microphone. In school, I was an expert feigner of illness on oral report days; when I became a reporter, I was forever darting this way and that to avoid speaking at roundtable discussions. The fear has haunted, daunted me, defined me as a creature who will never -- but never -- take the stage. Any stage. For anything. Ever.

Lately, though, at the ripe age of 36, I have felt a deep compulsion to kick that demon in the teeth, to release myself from my most gripping phobia and find a way to take the microphone, speak into it and not die. Because, what if Random House rings me up at any second and wants me to pen a book, followed, naturally, by a slew of speaking engagements and public readings? I knew if that happened right now -- and it could happen, right? -- I'd have to drop the phone and dash away bleating. I really don't want that.

So when I learned recently that writers were being summoned to read their work at an upcoming event at a teahouse, I knew it was my moral imperative to lunge at it and grab it like it was a baby rolling into oncoming traffic. In immediate response to this notion, the various lobes of my brain fought it out for a long while. When the blood bath was finished though, I was surprised to see the proactive side emerge victorious. I e-mailed the writers'-event guy and declared my solid desire to read.

When the guy didn't respond for three days, most of me exhaled in outsized relief. The rest of me was chagrinned. Would I never get the chance to get over being a limelight cripple?

On the evening of the third day, though, finally there it was -- an e-mail from the guy in my inbox. It read: "Do you want five minutes or seven?"

Absorbing it, I was aflame with the fight-or-flight syndrome, feeling like someone had opened up my clavicle and dumped scalding water down in there. My next course of action, then? Just don't e-mail the guy back, pleaded my inner wuss-wuss. But then my more ass-kicking side stepped to the fore, took over the keyboard and responded: "Seven. I'll take seven." Then she hit send and with that, I was committed, locked in, trapped irrevocably. This was good. And it was bad. To make it through the five days preceding the reading without slipping into a terror coma, I decided to break everything down into easily managed chunks.

Step 1: Choose. Within a few minutes, the relentless stage mother deep inside me decided I'd read an essay about how my inner Brizezilla had taken over with a vengeance while I was planning my wedding two years ago. The cruel, ungodly thing was the piece required that I sing.

Step 2: Practice. I had no clue how to go about practicing for such a thing -- speaking or singing -- but I assumed the best strategy was to pretend my home-office futon was an audience that had to be read/sung to over and over again. The first time I did this, I managed to spook myself to the high heavens, envisioning each of the little black leopard spots on the futon cover as a critical audience member heckling and jeering and thinking nasty thoughts about my prose. Facing them, I'd get flustered and stammer. But thankfully, with each successive reading, the little spots became less and less menacing. By the 8th reading, the spots were cupping their chins and listening raptly. By the 12th reading -- the last one I did, just before I left for the teahouse -- those spots loved me.

Step 3: Endure stomach aches. The day of the event, a shocking, unexpected sense of calm settled over my person, leading me to think that -- contrary to what I'd assumed all my life -- perhaps my nerves could handle this without massive rupture. Then, at around 3 p.m., I began to experience severe gastrointestinal distress. I realized then that I had just been in a robust and crazed form of denial all day.

Step 4: Choose outfit. For the event, I selected my Christmas 2002 outfit, a snappy number I'd worn at every holiday party we were invited to last year -- at least the ones that weren't going to have any of the same guests. It consisted of black pants, black boots and a fitted black V-neck sweater trimmed with white, vaguely Western-style cable stitching that screamed Good times in Aspen! The waist was too big on the pants so I'd taken to resizing them with safety pins. Dressing that evening, I suffered long and hard wondering whether it was bad karma to do my first public reading wearing gerryrigged pants. I went with them anyway.

Step 5: Get there, park, be overcome with superstition. When I finally found a space outside the teahouse, I made something of an aggressive three-point turn to nab it, inadvertently cutting off a woman who was walking across a sidewalk driveway. She stopped, smirked and let me finish, but as I did so, my heart sunk. That maneuver just cost me the night and my future, I thought. Surely, all my clothes will fall off while I'm reading and I will stammer so hard that I will abort the mission 14 sentences in, sprinting from the room blubbering and sweating and ripping at my own head. Or, you know, not.

Step 6: Harbor fantasies that divine forces are shepherding you. After the parking incident, things started to converge swimmingly, almost magically, as though I'd choreographed them. My parking spot was right in front of the joint. Inside, the audience was perfectly sized at about 50 -- not enough to cause an aneurysm, but not so few that I wouldn't feel like I'd accomplished something sizeable once the evening was history. The lighting was low and flattering. All the tables were filled save for the exact one I wanted: the one closest to the bathroom where I could slip off unnoticed to fiddle with my hair and lipstick whenever jangled nerves called for it. Plus, the table was so deep in the room that I couldn't possibly make a run for it. And the stage? I'd expected a podium where I'd have to try not to fidget or faint while standing. Instead, the evening's readers got to sit at a table where they could try not to fidget or faint while sitting. Were the goddesses on my side or what?

Step 7: Make absolutely sure no loved ones are there. I told Marty it would be loads easier for me if I didn't know a soul within a one- to two-mile radius of the reading. He said he understood, and agreed to stay home. But I couldn't help but wonder if that was all a ruse and at any minute he was going to show up waving and smiling. Thus, from the place's lower level -- where the event was -- I watched the stairwell like a vigilant Secret Service agent, seeing people's feet arrive first, then their legs, then the rest of them. Any pants or shoes that resembled items in Marty's closet sent me into a tiny fits, interrupting the digestion of my ramekin of seaweed, the only thing on the menu I could stomach.

Step 8: Scrutinize others. Pretty soon, the evening's host -- the guy I had e-mailed -- shushed everyone and explained that the first 10 orators would be reading from their novels, then four of us wild-card people with no novels would go. He introduced the first participant. She walked up there, sat down and read quietly, timidly, with little feeling. This comforted me; I had the sense that, regardless of my crushing anxiety, I would at least appear a bit bolder than that. Next, reader #2 showed too much emotion, ushering in a big, fat déjà vu of my high school days when we'd giggle and poke fun at people who read with feeling. But I fought that, because dammit, that was then, when I was a bad teenager, and this was now, when I was a nice 36-year old trying to kill my demons and entertain a live audience. Feeling was good. Some feeling -- but not too much feeling.

The host then got back up and read the work of a woman in the audience who was too shy to read herself. The work was really fetching, both poignant and funny. But, because she wouldn't stand and speak, I developed a sudden odd disdain for her. She represented all that had been keeping me down for the last three-plus decades, all the turd matter I was minutes away from kicking to the curb. For that reason, I knew she and I could never hang.

That said, I noticed that no matter how much each of the readers stumbled over words or didn't, wrote well or didn't, the audience was supportive and always clapped heartily, myself included. There was a sense of writer camaraderie in the air. I hoped that would save me should I regurgitate seaweed onto the microphone.

Step 9: Wring hands about timing. As the eighth reader finished, I started using math tables to calculate the best time to primp. I knew my hair would stay lively and curly for no more than about 15 minutes after preening. I also knew that I licked my lips so much when agitated that lipstick only stayed put for 16 minutes -- 17 at most. Each person read for about 10 minutes, except the non-novelists, who were to read for five to seven minutes. I didn't know if I'd be reader 11, 12, 13 or 14 so I computed that I'd best slip away as reader number 9 took the stage.

Step 10: Chill out inexplicably during lift off. After reader number 12 had left the reader's table, the evening's host began reading my bio and it was time. Remarkably, in that moment my heart rate slowed and so did my breathing. Either some really powerful defense mechanisms had slid into place or this public speaking thing wasn't really so bad. Suddenly I rose and there was courteous, perfunctory clapping issuing from the 100 hands in the room. I moved through the crowd, feeling like I wasn't walking but rather flowing on a conveyer belt of what must surely be shock. But I didn't really feel shock. I didn't feel much of anything, and soon I was maneuvering myself behind the table and into the chair under the spotlight, taking a few seconds to tranquilly smooth out the papers in front of me and adjust the microphone while the whole world looked on. Amid it all, somehow I was the embodiment of serenity -- not at all the quaking pile of diarrhea I assumed I'd be. How this had happened I had no idea.

Step 11: Read. I took a deep breath and then suddenly my essay was spilling out of me. My first sensation: blinding confusion. That's because hearing my voice amplified and piped throughout a large room was the essence of disorienting, really throwing me off for about 15 seconds. But I don't think that was noticeable, and I adapted to it quickly. Besides, bigger worries lay ahead: singing. Before I knew it, though, my four to-be-sung lines were flowing into the microphone. And somehow, it was no big deal. No big deal at all. Contrary to a lifetime of expectations about how this would go, I was crazy-relaxed up there. Content, even. At home.

I was pretty sure I'd sound like a nervous, screeching rodent, but listening to the words coming from my head, calm and snide, it sounded just like me having a conversation with a friend. This was the best-case scenario, but one I never dreamed would occur. And when the audience reacted, when they laughed or whooped, I got chills. Each titter was like a tiny orgasm. Oh miracle of miracles, I loved it up there. And the laughs were just getting bigger, more exuberant as I went.

Yes, I did stammer here and there and fall over my words. But it didn't bother me, because so did everyone else there that night, and it was ok. Amazingly ok. I don't know why I thought dudes with machetes would appear if I messed up, ready to cut me in half -- but they didn't. They stayed in the jungle, out of sight.

Seven minutes passed in what seemed like 45 seconds. I sang the last two lines of the piece no problem, and then my virgin limelight visit ended. I paused a second then stood up and headed back to my little table, careful not to look into anyone's eyes and unintentionally obligate them into clapping harder than they really wanted to.

Step 17: Go home, feel triumph. Leaving the teahouse, I was so filled with verve and power, I could barely drive home. A half-hour later, I recounted the whole thing for Marty in one big verbal jumble accompanied by wild gesticulations, like a person on amphetamines. And of course, instead of sleeping, I spent most of the night lying there replaying the event in my spastic head, turning the sound way up on the laugh track. I also vowed to get up early and research other places I could go to read my stuff, because, against all odds, I was now fully addicted. All that fear -- every last bit of it -- was for naught.

Oh, I knew the demon might rear his head again. He may cause me more searing cramps on the day of public readings, or render me unable to eat anything but thimblesfull of tofu. But that was all right, because I was certain of one thing: he would never lord over me as he'd done before.

My boot's blow may not have struck the demon absolutely dead, but to be sure, he was finally infirm now, lying in a nursing home, his bony hand despondently pushing at his fruit cup.

%,%Got some swiveling hips, some clever quips or Gladys Knight and the Pips for Suz? Then by all means, e-mail her at Germbag@starpower.net. And yes, this is the last Germ Bag on the Baltimore City Paper Online, as the paper's new management has decided not to renew the Bag's contract. But stay tuned -- the Germ Bag is hoping to find a new home soon. So, if you're not on the Germ Bag e-mail alert list, e-mail Suz and get on now! But for now, so long Baltimore...

%,%02/26/2003% %Suz Redfearn%,%Cabin Pressure%,%Escape -- you might think it's what you desire. Until you've actually run somewhere. Then, sometimes you realize all you want is to be back in the terrible cracked talons of your captors.

Take a few weekends ago, when Marty suddenly turned to me and piped, "Hey, let's go stay at a cabin in the woods! We need a break, some time away. We've been working like dawgs!"

This was striking for several reasons. 1) I'm the one with the frequent, powerful B&B-and-cabin fantasies, and 2) he's the one who wants to stay home and follow the NFC. These are our roles. Our destiny. But hell, I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the butt.

"Hallelujah, brother," I testified. Marty got on the Internet, then, and quickly found an ideal destination: a cozy cabin nestled on 80 snow-covered acres two hours away in West Virginia. The Web site indicated the place was owned by two aging hippies who provide all guests with granola and soy milk. Count me in, I said.

Marty rang them up and luck was on our side: it seemed that, just a few short weeks before the Martin Luther King holiday weekend -- when everything else was booked -- a cabin remained magically available. Marty booked it and I sighed, visions of healthy breakfasts, scorched kindling and nature walks dancing in my head.

Flash forward two weeks: Winding past old country churches and farms, we pulled onto what would have been a dirt road if there hadn't been so much snow, and there he was: Dave, one of the aged hippies. Simultaneously rickety yet robust, Dave brought to mind the praying mantis. He was jovial, formerly blond but now mostly gray with big blue eyes. He seemed excited to meet us. I looked down. Dave's khaki pants had clearly been worn several days in a row without laundering, because, well, maybe that's how it's done in the country.

Next, things got tense as our silly, sorry city car fishtailed all over the place while we followed Dave's truck deep into the woods, finally stopping at a beckoning little brown cabin set on a slope. We scrambled to the door, hungry to behold the interior of our home for the next three days. And there it was, finally stretching out before us: a rustic, simple one-room abode outfitted stem to stern in thrift-store finds. My eyes fell over the nubby plaid couch, the ceramic black panther skulking across a dresser, the macramé-owl wall-hanging the size of a mini-dress. I dug them.

And I dug that there were no vestiges of modern life here -- no phone, no TV and, most notably, no connection to a sewer system. It only took a few seconds to realize being in the country meant that a loud click-suck, click-suck noise would emanate from an in-house water pump whenever one copped a squat or washed a beer mug. Yeah, we were truly in the middle of nowhere, tethered to nothing. Just me, Marty and a milk carton cut in half and left behind by Dave in the hopes that we'd compost.

After a after a few hours of fireside reading, restlessness set in and we were compelled to explore the snowy acreage at our disposal. We suited up like nobody's business -- me shielding the lion's share of my face with a balaclava I ordered from a harsh-weather-gear catalog as a joke when I lived in Louisiana -- and headed out to follow Dave's hand-drawn map. As we trudged, we had some giggles trying to identify the mysterious animal tracks in the snow. Were they from deer? Wildebeest? Wayard salmon? Hell, we didn't know.

Within about six minutes, it became apparent: all trails led to Dave and his wife's renovated Civil War-era home. Gosh, did they want company that bad? Or were they narcissists? And hey, where was his wife, anyway? We went ahead and loitered in their backyard for a spell feeling awkward and admiring the cheerful outhouse and sizeable man-made pond -- afraid to proceed on the trail, which lead to the front of the house.

Not knowing what else to do, Marty and I turned back. But then suddenly, like a daddy long legs appearing out of nowhere on your corn dog, there he was, the spindly Dave, just standing there at the other end of the pond staring in our direction, silent. Reflexively, I called out to him. Dave gave a friendly holler and a wave, and we all commenced to moving along the trail toward each other. Meeting at the edge of the frozen pond, the three of us passed the next eight minutes, hands in pockets, chatting about city life vs. country life vs. suburban hell. I kept thinking Dave's wife would emerge from the house (or the outhouse) and join in, but she never did. Last, we kvetched about how it was supposed to dip to 4 degrees that night, then we went our separate ways. Dave seemed to be a good guy. We didn't want think weird thoughts about him, but we couldn't help it.

"Is Dave going to kill us?" I asked Marty on the way back to the cabin.

"Probably not," he said. "But I can't promise anything."

After spaghetti in the cabin, Marty left for a night hike by the light of the full moon so he could experience 4 degrees. I was having nothing to do with that; for me, the time had come for the cornerstone of any relaxing weekend: a hot bath accompanied by wine and book. With a self-satisfied grin, I bid Marty good-bye and began to fill the tub. But alas, the smile dropped abruptly when I walked in the bathroom five minutes later and saw that the recycled well water spewing from the tap looked like someone had not only peed in the tub, but crapped in it as well. My stomach lurched to the left. But then denial snapped firmly into place. I had to get in this bath. I would get into this bath, even it spelled dysentery. I poured in lots of bubble bath then, steeled myself and slid into the bilge. And, it wasn't that bad -- the poo juice. If it touched your lips, it made them numb, I discovered -- but that was ok. What wasn't ok was the temperature. The water, it turned out, was about as warm as a mug of A&W root beer. I downed my wine like it was a shot. That helped quiet the involuntary gasping.

A few hours later, with the cabin aglow from the fire, Marty and I dropped off into a Zenned-out sleep, expecting our next waking thoughts to arrive about 10 hours later, containing sentiments such as: "Ahhh, the healing properties of the wilderness!" Instead, those thoughts came in just three hours, and included phrases like: "What?" and "Oh, shit."

At 2:30 a.m., my eyes flew open in alarm and my pulse spiked from coma level to jogging pace. It wasn't anything I saw; it was what I heard: click-suck, click-suck, click-suck -- the sound the water pump made when someone in the cabin was using water. I felt around in the bed -- was Marty up taking a leak? I found his arm, warm, filled with the paralysis of sleep. He was right there.

Ok, so then who was using water? Who had activated the click-suck?

My heart lodged itself in my throat. Really, there were only two possible explanations: either it was a ghost come to taunt us, or there were murderous hooligans spraying a hose on the outside of the cabin as a mean-spirited prelude our violent murders, which would likely happen in the next 30 to 45 minutes.

"Hear that?! Hear that?!" I scream-whispered to Marty, waking him up then regaling him with my theories. Marty was not acceptably panicked.

"Relax," he said wearily. "I'll get the flashlight and check it out. And I'll look out the windows. But I bet it's the cabin's water system trying to suck water from the well, and maybe it can't because of the weather."

"Or maybe it's Jack from The Shining," I trilled, not kidding, envisioning Dave skulking around near the back deck. As Marty crossed the cabin in the dark with only the eerie, amber beam of the flashlight lighting the way, I stayed in bed with the musty comforter pulled up to my clavicle. I tracked him carefully, expecting at any minute to see an ax come out of nowhere and slice his torso cleanly in half. When that didn't happen, I took to passing the excruciating minutes peering out the skylights in the cabin's vaulted ceiling. Through them, I saw only innocent objects like the dusty-purple sky, the luminous moon and the tops of the pines. But I assumed it was only seconds before some manifestation of the Mothman revealed itself, flapping its wings and hovering out there peering in. We were, after all, in West Virginia.

No matter how much Marty stared at the pump, the unexplained click-sucking kept on unabated. I flashed back to the scene earlier in the evening, one that now seemed rife with wanton disregard for safety and common sense: Marty out walking alone in the snow and me in the cabin alone, in the bathtub. My god, were we trying to create the perfect horror movie scene? Were we trying to invite Jason?

Marty returned to the bed, unable to remedy the matter or see anything of note.

"I also checked for monsters," he said.

"Shut up," I snarled.

Just then, we heard a sound like twigs breaking outside. I lay there gritting my teeth and feeling so sorry that we'd not heretofore become members of the NRA, or at least the North American Pepper Spray Club. We were sitting ducks out there, stooges. My god, it was terrible in the country. Why do people do it? I wondered. Why do they come to isolated places where bad things happen -- terrible, evil things -- and you can't call the cops and even if you could, it'd take at least four days for them to respond? I couldn't sort it all out in my head. I just hoped against hope we'd still be there in the morning to say to Dave: what the hell?

Nothing came of the twig noises, but the click-sucking was unceasing. Reclining there stiff as a board and amped to the gills on adrenaline, my central nervous system spinning wildly on its axis, the metered noise was starting to sound an awful lot like an old ghost woman pressing down time and time again on the peddles of an ancient, broken sewing machine. Click-suck, click-suck. Click-suck. She was tired, but persistent -- would keep at it through eternity. She had to get those socks darned, those pantaloons mended. But she couldn't, not with us mortals there eating spaghetti, taking baths and invading her space.

I wanted to get up and get my little book light from the kitchen table so I could try to read in order to calm myself down. But I was too scared to leave the bed, too scared to even let an arm or leg dangle over the edge of the mattress, because of, you know, creatures, entities. I tried to think of an indirect way of making Marty go get the light, but I couldn't.

Suddenly, an inner voice showed up to berate me. Christ in a sidecar, what's your problem? Twenty-five years ago, you were the little girl who would open up the front door and walk outside at night if you heard weird noises, ready to kickbox intruders. And you walk through the valley of the shadow of death in your neighborhood all the time and you don't flinch, and now, out here, you're scared of ghosts? What gives?

The voice had a point. But I had no idea what gave.

Then I remembered that just a week prior, my sister had put me on the phone with my six-year-old niece, who'd just awakened petrified something mysterious was going to maul her in the night. I had talked her down from her little-girl ledge.

"Brooke, listen, there are no monsters."

"How do you know?" she'd pined.

"I know. I really do know. I promise you, tomorrow you will want to call me and say, 'Gosh, you were right -- no monsters or bad people caused any problems in the night.' "

And Brooke bought it. Now, why couldn't I?

Then suddenly -- sweet Vishnu! -- an hour after the sound had began, it stopped, replacing itself with a roaring silence. For me, post-traumatic stress disorder kicked right in and I had to stay up listening for possible tortured specters fluttering by or young toughs skittering outside. This, while Marty, satisfied all was well, passed right out. After about an hour of torturous hand-wringing, then sweats followed by chills, most of my cacophonous bad imagery faded. Miraculously, at about 5 a.m., so did I.

When we finally woke up, neither bloodied nor dismembered, Marty and I marched right over to Dave's, emboldened by the daylight. At first, Dave stood on his porch scratching at his scruffy hair growth and looking bewildered by our story, which I felt confirmed my sewing-lady theory. As he took time to cogitate, I subtly backed up a few steps to look in his upstairs windows, angling to catch a glimpse of what I thought might be his wife, long dead and propped up in a rocking chair, just like the mom in the movie Psycho. But the windows were reflective and I couldn't see anything like that in there.

"Oh! Whoops," Dave suddenly erupted. "I must have set the water filtration system to go off in the middle of the night. Oh, I'm so sorry!" Then he said all we had to do to sidestep the horror the following night was flip two fuse switches near the bathroom.

Most of me believed the man, but the remaining 22 percent of me remained skeptical. I had to wonder: If his hippy filtration apparatus was set to go off in the wee hours, loud as bones rattling, hadn't guests complained before? Or, had the triple homicide that I suspect took place in that cabin a few years back kept all guests away? Because, come on, why else would the place be available so close to a holiday weekend?

For the rest of the trip then, with my fight-or-flight mechanism idling in first gear, everything took on an evil tenor. The tracks we spotted in the snow by our door -- apparently from deer -- seemed to me to have come from the cloven-hooved one. The tiny single red light visible under our cabin -- which was probably a light attached to a generator or something -- seemed like a devil eye recording all our comings and goings. Everywhere, I saw little Blair Witch twig sculptures in the trees. Inside the cabin, I started to feel that the macramé owl/mini-dress was staring at me, mocking me, as was the old restored photograph of an Indian chief looking pensive with a stuffed quail on his head. And at any minute, I was certain we'd see Dave standing by our car staring blankly but purposefully at the cabin.

That night, our last night there, Marty tried to tune in a game on the outdated radio and what came through instead was our wedding song, Dido's "Thank You." He stood, holding out his hand. I stood, too, accepting the invitation, and we danced in front of a big bay window that had no curtains -- a big giant window, beyond which stretched nothing but woods and snow and the black of night. This is it, I thought, the moment the sniper has been waiting for. But soon the song soon ended. Our lives didn't. Whew.

And Dave, it seemed, was correct: flipping those switches did do the trick. That night we slept 10 hours with nary a visitation, and then high-tailed it out of there in the morning. Back to my city where the sirens sometimes drown out my phone calls and the building manager periodically puts up signs in the elevator that read, "Look out. Someone was robbed at knifepoint one street over," where the young toughs are cocky enough to break into cars at 3 in the afternoon, and where shootouts happen near the corner grocery.

Ah, my lovely, lovely city where cops are abundant and people can hear you scream.

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Burning For You (12/25/2002)
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