I don’t feel this way very often and, even when I do, I rarely let on. I pride myself on being flexible, adapting to situations as they come, taking in new information and adjusting accordingly. People tell me that they admire my calm, that they don’t understand how I can appear to be so relaxed in the face of difficult meetings, challenging personalities or mountains of paperwork. Somehow I manage to remain stoic, composed, cool under pressure through it all. I channel Yoda and Mr. Spock; I don’t let emotion get in my way.1
But this morning, I’m nervous.
I’m sitting on the subway, making my way to a school visit for work. My legs have been trembling for enough time now that I’m slightly worried about what will happen when I try to stand up. My pulse has quickened and I recognize the awkward discomfort in my stomach. I’m still the image of a duck, unflappable to observers, while their feet paddle furiously beneath the surface. I doubt anyone around me can tell anything is wrong just by looking at me, even though I feel like my body is tying itself into knots.
It’s not because of work, by the way. The visit I’m making this morning should be a cakewalk and, in general, work rarely gets me bent out of shape. I’ve been a social worker long enough and had enough people yell at me, threaten me and, in one case, use anti-Semitic slurs toward me, that I’ve come to accept the stressful parts of the job as simply that – part of the job. I enjoy my work because of the interactions with people, even when those interactions are uncomfortable.
My foot starts tapping on the subway floor, making my bag shake as it rests on top of my leg. I close my eyes and take a few breaths, inhaling deeply and counting the seconds as I let the air out, forcing my escalating anxiety back under control. It occurs to me that my current struggle to maintain my composure is fitting, given the piece I’ll be reading publicly in a few days, though that realization doesn’t help me feel much better.
My foot stops tapping as I hear the subway doors open. I open my eyes again to check the station but it’s not time to get off yet.
This is what happens to me anytime I speak in public. Miniature lessons in graduate school, reading Torah in synagogue during Shabbat services, the presentation I made to my entire department at work; the context doesn’t matter. It always starts out the same: my heart feels like it’s going to burst out of my chest, my stomach does backflips and my legs turn to jelly right before I’m supposed to start. Then I breathe, start speaking and I’m on my way.
This is a new experience, though. I’m going to be reading my writing at a blogging conference for dads later this week and, days beforehand, I’m terrified. This conference has a lot riding on it, after all. The connections I make there can open up new writing opportunities for me and different ways for me to support my family. If I trip over a word or two as I’m reading, are these representatives going to think less of me? Are they going to lose sight of the story I’m telling because they’re distracted by my verbal fumbling? Am I going to lose my place and, in the process, the interest of a brand that would have otherwise pursued me?
Then there is the fact that I’m going to be away from home for three days. How are my kids going to behave while I’m gone? Is my wife going to be pulling her hair out and cursing at me while I’m schmoozing with other dads? What if someone gets hurt while I’m busy taking selfies with Chewbacca or test-driving a Kia or talking about football with Von Miller?2 I still remember the guilt I felt when Eitan fell into a wooden piece of playground equipment, bashing his chin and needing to be rushed to the doctor for x-rays. I was only on the train then; how will I feel if something happens and I’m thousands of miles away?
I take another breath. I inhale, hold it for a second, and slowly let it out. Then I do it again. And again.
I tell myself that I’m overreacting. I remind myself that my wife is amazing and that “capable” barely scratches the surface of her strengths as a parent. Plus, I’m only going to be gone for three days, two of which Eitan will be in school for. I remember that I’ve interacted online with many of the other dads countless times and that reading my post will only be five minutes of a much broader experience. I think of the congratulations and other well-wishes I received when the announcement was made about my participation at the conference.
I feel the knot in my stomach begin to loosen and my legs start to regain their stability. I stand, slinging my bag back over my shoulder and move toward the door if the subway. I know that I will probably feel nervous again just before my turn to speak but I feel much calmer now. I hold the bar nearby as the train comes to a stop and the doors open. I take another quick breath and step off the train.
1. My kids are the only real exception to this rule. I don’t become a blubbering mess in crises but there is some sort of glitch that causes my brain to suddenly have difficulty processing new information. It’s the only time I imagine I really look shaken.↩