While lying in Prospect Park, praying a flying frisbee would not land at my feet and force me into the embarrassing position of having to toss it to its original owner, I saw a guy jog across the long meadow. He was shirtless and jabbed at the air vigorously as he traveled. I watched him go and thought to myself, I could never learn to box if it required me to jog around punching at the air. I would simply never relax enough to be that person. This meant an entire form of physical fitness was now off-limits to me. It was a disappointing conclusion, and as I reached it I began making a mental list of other activities I could probably never handle due to the potential risk of feeling some measure of public humiliation. These included, but were not limited to: Tai'Chi, trampolines, Red Rover, Guiness Book of World's Records-sized Simon Says, Moonie wedding, pie eating contest, Twizzler eating contest, cup-stacking race, and the weird outdoor Pac-Man thing that, really, no one should be doing anyway.
In terms of self-consciousness, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the kind of person to dance on the bar at Hogs and Heiffers while the bartenders spray club soda on you, and 10 being someone in a complete state of living rigor mortis where only your eyes dart around occasionally to judge other people, I would say I rate about a 7. This is an average rating. I have moments that rise above and dip below this figure depending on circumstance. For instance, when I'm onstage my self-consciousness rating drops to about a 3 or 4. When I'm reading, it's at about 5. And when I'm standing next to someone cute who I wish I could french, it spikes to about 9.3.
I used to be better. I think, as a child, my self-consciousness rating was 1-2. I didn't care about much of anything, and that includes hygiene. I would take my glass eye out for a nickel, and remove my wooden leg for a Little Debbie Swiss Roll. In third grade, I would write and stage sketches in front of my entire class, totally unsolicited. And once, as a birthday present for an English teacher, I dressed up as Debbie Boone and burst into her classroom unannounced, singing "You Light Up My Life" because I knew it to be her favorite song. (i was 9 years old, i think. whenever i remember doing that, i'm so mortified that my current self-consciousness rating jumps a point or two retroactively.)
Obviously, through adolescence, I could not maintain that kind of care-free attitude. I was preoccupied with trying to stop perspiring uncontrollably, and by age 15 I completely lost track of what to do with my hands. I couldn't even recall what I'd been doing with them for the previous 15 years. I just knew they were suddenly a plague on my conscience, hanging there from my shoulders like heavy cuts of meat, accumulating clammy sweat. Occasionally, I would swing one of them upward to open my gym locker, by twisting my shoulder forward. However, for the most part my hands remained stuffed in my pockets. Here they would stand watch and, as the situation required, be employed to wipe sweat on my pocket linings or reposition my penis when it became stuck at an uncomfortable angle during an inappropriately and inexplicably erect state.
I think you're supposed to become less self-conscious after your teenage years, but I made the mistake of moving to New York City, where acute self-consciousness is rewarded with gallery openings, $2 Rheingolds, articles about you in the New York Times Style section, and snit-inflected backlash to those articles on Gawker.com and other outside-looking-in weblogs. In a city where everyone's and no one's eyes are on you at all times, I began to wage a long battle with my own sense of comfort in public, and I've never stopped losing it.
My therapist sometimes asks me, "Todd, what provides you with great joy? Totally unbridled pleasure?" If I were to answer her honestly, I'd say that being around comedians often makes me really happy. I enjoy a strong perspective. (i guess this is different than a strong opinion, which is something i only enjoy if there's a joke at the end of it.) But I know that's not the answer my therapist is seeking. She wants me to offer up something less intellectually pleasing, like rolling in a somersault down a grassy hill or one of those other "ha ha I'm still a kid let's read Harry Potter books and smell Play-Doh" kinds of activities.
Whenever I try to remember the last time I experienced that kind of joy, my mind has to stretch back several years, when I was visiting a friend after her particularly difficult break-up. It was August, and very hot outside. I remember her sprawled across her couch, with the lights dimmed. Her depression had dried up her appetite and she looked like a refugee: her cheeks were hollowed-out, and her limbs, which were occupying very little real estate inside a tank top and cotton skirt, seemed too brittle to touch. I was nearly afraid of her, and seeing her like that reminded that love can do amazing things to your body. I tried my best to make her laugh and, when it started working, I insisted we leave her apartment so I could buy her some food.
We walked across East 9th Street and, as we did, I could see some of her energy return. As we crossed the Avenue B block, some kids had cracked open a fire hydrant and, using a plastic bowl, diverted its water into a thick arc stretching across the street. The street was crowded with children slapping their frog-feet against the wet asphalt. As we continued toward the hydrant we had two choices. We could cut left to the sidewalk and avoid the stream, or we could proceed directly through it. It was New York Hot and we were experiencing a high point in our friendship at the moment, so I grabbed her hand and we ran directly into the hydrant fountain. It felt excellent, especially since it jolted some life back into my friend's corpse, and I think we both screamed a little because the water was so cold.
Just as we did, and my self-consciousness rating bottomed out, a hip-looking guy on a mountain bike cruised by us and yelled, "Wheeee!!" And I promise, you've never heard the word "whee" invoked with such angry sarcasm. It completely shut down my joy and replaced it with shame. Shame for acting so foolish in public, and shame because I wished I had a cool bike. And maybe that guy had some beers with friends later that night and told them, "Holy shit, I saw these two losers running through a fucking sprinkler. It was awesome. I can't wait to write about it in my zine, TAKE THAT YOU FUCKERS." And maybe if I thought about that a little more I'd realize how totally sad it is for him.
Unfortunately, rather than make me glad for living my stupid life instead of commenting others, It made me an audience to myself and a part of me has been watching, and disapproving just slightly, ever since. And that's why I'm speechless when my therapist asks me, "Todd, what makes you really happy? I mean really, really giddy?" And that's why I don't box. And that's why I'm worried that you're reading this right now, cracking a Rheingold, and giving your Powerbook screen the finger.