Thursday, August 27, 2009

On Being in the Public Eye

So last night I slept terribly, even though (perhaps because?) I'm completely exhausted and because I couldn't make my brain shut up. This only happens to me rarely. Normally, I'm a very good sleeper. It's one of my finest qualities, I think.

But so anyway, I think part of this is that this week it's finally hit home that the work that I'm doing on MUWCI isn't just something I'm puttering along at behind the scenes. People are Noticing. In ways that are good - and that has lots of good points - but it also freaks me out.

What it reminds me of a bit is something that freaked me out at my 10-year high school reunion. All of these people "knew" me who I seriously didn't have a clue who they were. It's not like I had amnesia or something - it's that while I was visible to them in high school, they were invisible to me. They weren't in my circle of friends, and they weren't really "public" people. I, on the other hand, was a pretty public person in my high school. I was editor of the school paper, active in the drama club, in choir, blah blah blah. But so anyway, it was strange, and it made me a little uncomfortable. Luckily, there was an open bar.

Since high school, I've never been public like that again. Not in my day-to-day life. Probably the closest to that experience in my professional life has been conferences - but those only last for a few days, and what "public" status I have is relatively minor. Sure, a lot of people know who I am, because I'm social, and because I've written some things that people have read. But I'm in no way a superstar. (Actually, an aside: perhaps I feel very similar discomfort about publication, too, as evidenced by my freak-out just before the book appeared, when I realized people would be able to read the thing. That was horrifying to me. But then I came to terms with it by convincing myself that I was totally disconnected from the book once it came out, and by distracting myself with other things.) Again, though, that sort of public persona isn't something I carry with me every day.

But all of a sudden, I've Appeared on the Scene at my university in a way that is pretty overwhelming. It's not that I've been invisible to this point, but in terms of university-wide stuff, I've only been on the periphery of the campus community. Most of my work has been confined within my department and within tiny programs that don't get a lot of recognition or public play. And it's also not that I'm uncomfortable "in the moment" with the public role that I'm taking on. In the moment, I'm pretty good at what that entails. Actually, if I'm honest, I'm probably very good at it and naturally suited to it and naturally inclined to take that kind of role on. I'm not shy about speaking up, and I'm not nervous about being a public face for the work that I'm doing. What freaks me out is when people actually focus their attention on ME as opposed to on the thing I'm working on.

And part of my feelings of discomfort probably also stem from the fact that I feel like a lot of what I'm doing at the moment has little to do with "expertise" or "training" or something, but rather with traits inherent in my disposition and personality. And that has me thinking a lot about my dad, who is by and large the source of those traits. My dad, for all his flaws, could work a room. He was this person who just naturally tended to be a leader in social situations, and who was very, very good at rallying the troops. Now, my dad never really had a professional outlet for these talents, in large part because he didn't have my ambition or work ethic - things that I got from my mom. He tended to use these abilities for things like putting together a bar-league softball team. But in his own way, he exemplified those skills of negotiation, enthusiasm, outgoingness, and teamwork that are really the ones I'm drawing on most right now. And if he were around to address the stuff I'm agonizing over at the moment, he'd probably just tell me something along the lines of "Quit your bitching, Crazy, and get over yourself." He'd also probably be ridiculously proud of me. Of course, if he were alive he wouldn't be around to talk to about any of this stuff anyway, since he was a jackass who wasn't really in my life, but since he's dead, I have the luxury of thinking about him fondly as opposed to with resentment.

And then I wonder whether some of this discomfort comes from not being able to take a compliment. On the one hand, it's nice to have one's good work (and hard work) acknowledged, but on the other, well, it also skeeves me out a little bit. As much as I hate criticism (and we all know that I do, and I don't necessarily handle it well when it first comes my way), I do have a lot more faith in criticism than I do in praise. Praise sets up all of these expectations, if it's honest, and if it's not honest, well, then you have to be suspicious that people really think you're a lame blowhard. Praise is a funny thing that it's really difficult to put into any kind of objective perspective. So is it good that various deans and people in the provost's office and colleagues across campus appear to think I'm fabulous? I guess. But it also means that if I fuck up that will be just as public, just as noted. It's scary. Scary in a way that sending stuff off for publication or teaching a class or whatever are just not scary.

Now, I'm not going to do anything differently because I'm scared. Ultimately, the fact that I'm freaked out probably means that I'm feeling challenged in ways that are good for me. The only thing to do is to keep doing what I'm doing and not to allow myself to give in to this self-consciousness. I know - even if others don't seem to - that I'm not really the point here. The point is MUWCI, and the point is that somebody - whether it's me or somebody else - needs to work the crowds in order to get people on board so that the whole thing doesn't just fall apart. Since I really care about this a lot, and since I'm naturally inclined toward the working of crowds, well, I should be doing this. And if other people acknowledge that, I shouldn't feel awkward about it, because really, they just have the same estimation of my abilities that I have of them. That shouldn't cause me discomfort. That should, ultimately, be validating.

Knowing that and feeling it are two very different things, though.


Susan said...

I think it's really nice to think of your father living on in your ability to work a room, bring people together, etc. And great that you're doing it for MUWCI rather than a bar league softball team. But just a note: while your ability to work a room doesn't come from your training, that there is substance there about MUWCI IS a result of your training.

Another lesson for girls? When people say you have done something well, you say THank You! I'm glad it worked for you.

Dr. Crazy said...

That is SO a lesson for girls. And one I have a hard time practicing.