Are you perchance, dear reader, afraid of buttons? If so, you likely have koumpounophobia. Perhaps you’re frightened unnaturally by peanut butter, in which case your condition may be arachibutyrophobia. Or you may suffer from octophobia: fear of the figure 8. Some folks are clinically afraid of gravity. Or ferns. Or the color purple. Or, believe it or not, knees.
My fears – and believe me, I have multitudes – tend not to be established phobias. This blog has already chronicled two of them: my stresses related to gas stations and to salad bars. (See https://mondaymorningrail.com/2016/09/19/panic-at-the-pump/.)
But I’d like to talk about a third condition of mine: “Booth Phobia.”
Right off the bat, I have to admit that I neither coined the term “Booth Phobia” nor identified the condition. Those credits go to my friend Maryl, who recently confessed to the affliction when she told me about a book fair she once attended. After she wandered – at her peril, as it turned out – into a booth inhabited by a children’s book author, the author insisted on showing every page of her book about cats to an entrapped Maryl, who could only stand by, painfully feigning interest, while the woman leafed through the book at a snail’s pace, accompanying each dramatic turn of the page with a long explanation of her creative process and the backstory of each illustrated cat.
At any rate, as I was listening to this story I realized that I, too, suffer from Booth Phobia. In San Francisco we’re blessed with some terrific farmers’ markets as well as (before the pandemic, at least) any excuse for a street fair. What’s odd is that I absolutely love the idea of these events and want desperately to attend them and come away with a raft of sophisticated purchases. But once I arrive, I’m paralyzed with fear of approaching any of the booths.
I think it’s all about performance anxiety, which is something I have in spades.
For example, I began my adult recreational softball career at first base, which is the position I’d played throughout grammar and high school. I was comfortable there and good enough to be nicknamed “Stretch” in the 8th grade by an enthusiastic nun. But early in my Parks and Rec days, my team’s pitcher left one night in the middle of a game to use the bathroom. And she never returned. Ever again. (True story.) So the coach, faced with the task of replacing her mid-inning(!), hollered at me to abandon first base and take the mound, and from that point on I was the pitcher. Unfortunately my wildly successful debut as the team’s ace hurler did not necessarily extend to all of my starts. In that first game I’d had no time to fear that I would stink up the joint; the role was thrust upon me and it was an emergency situation. But my successive games were unpredictable because of my crippling performance anxiety. After all, when you’re a pitcher, all eyes are upon you. So I would famously make a visit to the bathroom before each game, sick with worry that I would cost us half a dozen runs on my helter-skelter walks. Which did happen once or twice. At the end of the season I received “The Pepto-Bismol Award” from my oh-so-funny teammates.
Later, during my early years playing drums in a rock band, my performance anxiety was so bad that my feet would shake like a rattlesnake. One helpful friend who worked for the San Francisco Symphony told me that some of the musicians would take a pill called Inderal before their concerts. Inderal is a beta-blocker that effectively slows one’s heart rate. Well, that revelation was all I needed to hear. I begged my doctor for a prescription and started popping those things like a corner junkie.
Anyway, the point is that my Booth Phobia is related.
As you all know, the artists at street fairs and the farmers (or their representatives) at farmers’ markets usually occupy their booths alongside their wares. And I’m deathly afraid of talking to these people.
The fears are two-fold: 1) that I will hurt their feelings if I don’t buy something, and 2) that I will demonstrate my stupidity by asking a clumsy question.
If – out of the corner of my eye – I see some art that interests me at a street fair, for example, there is no way that I will enter the kiosk and take my time looking around at the paintings. Typically there’s a hungry-looking artist sitting inside amongst his watercolors, and I can’t fathom the thought of assessing his stuff and then strolling out, as if his life’s work is lousy and meaningless. Can’t do it. Instead, I quickly breeze by the perimeter, cast a sidelong glance at the art, and go inside only if I am taken by something so strongly that I can’t possibly leave without buying it. And if I walk in and have some serious second thoughts, well, I buy the painting anyway.
Think about it. We aren’t normally forced to directly convey to painters, or jewelers, or photographers, or authors our judgment of their creations, except at a street or craft fair. We look at, and purchase, their work in galleries or bookstores or other places where the artists are not present. But in these booths, they can see our reactions and sense our judgment. I assume it must be an awkward situation for them, too. And I don’t want to be a cause of their pain!
As far as farmers’ markets go, I simply don’t know how to tell a good peach from a bad one. All I know is that anything at a farmers’ market tastes better than the same thing at Safeway. Beyond that, I feel hopelessly ignorant. So if I do screw up the courage to buy something, I will simply shove the first vegetables I see into a bag because I have no idea what I’m doing. I just don’t know how to talk with farmers about the peculiarities of their cucumbers!
At least at Safeway no one watches me ignorantly squeeze the produce, so no one can cast judgment on my choices. But at farmers’ markets I sense uneasily that the people in line behind me are all manored ladies in vests and visors, with styled hair and fancy totes, staring at me because I have no idea how to purchase escarole.
At the end of my conversation with Maryl, she brought up another source of anxiety: her fear of getting her own drink at a fast food-type venue. Of course, I suddenly realized that I share the same fear and never can figure how the whole process works. I guess that will have to wait for another blog.
For now, though, I would love to hear from you, dear readers, about your own non-clinical phobias. Please don’t hesitate to share them in your comments.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
August 2, 1973 [age 17]:
“I keep wondering if I’ll ever get over Pat Sears. Aw, I guess it’s a common error for immature people like me to think someone is the perfect match in the world, which I suppose isn’t so, but is easy to believe. He is the only person I have ever fallen for. I remember last Thursday Barb said, ‘Oh, Paula, now don’t worry. Someone, someday, is going to love you for what you say, what you do, how you talk – love every breath of you.’ If only she is right!”
August 9, 1973 [age 17]:
“It’s time for my vanity to show through as I give a brief rundown of my current physical condition. My beloved new [wire-rimmed] glasses – my pride and joy – have probably helped a bit, at least to make me appear older. The progress of my diet is up in the air, right now. At this time of the month I usually gain any number of pounds. The thing is, I have been on the brink of ‘this time of the month’ for three weeks now. All weighings are thus invalid for a while. My face looks quite the same – awful. Those vitamin C pills have not done a great amount of good, but perhaps they’ve spared me from a few colds. My ‘tan’ – well, I’m browner than usual but I have a 2” strip across my stomach which is much darker than the rest of me and which looks utterly absurd. The cause of this phenomenon is unknown.”
August 11, 1973 [age 17]:
“One of my many strange quirks is that I simply cannot eat by myself without reading something. Yesterday I dragged out my old term papers, scrapbooks and such and really marveled at their development, especially at the things I wrote in the 3rd grade. It so amazes me how rapidly we progress – at a geometric rate, I’m sure, if it could be calculated mathematically. Even my freshman year in high school produced some terribly ignorant stuff (though now that I think of it, I was only 12 or 13 then). I hate my work. It’s terrible. When will my intellectual maturity come, or – horror of horrors – has it already? I wonder how stupid I am right now.”
August 26, 1973 [age 17]:
“I have a new literary hero. His name is Thomas Wolfe; Look Homeward, Angel was divine, and as soon as I can scrape up the energy I will have to read the terribly lengthy sequel, Of Time and the River, and then on to every other word that he has ever written. Walk Whitman lives in my eyes as the greatest poet of all time. There have been so many heroes in my life: Jimmy Davenport [SF Giants] and Jimmy Taylor [Green Bay Packers] in the world of sports, Spencer Tracy in acting, Paul Simon in music, and in politics Abe Lincoln, U.S. Grant, and Eisenhower.”
September 10, 1973 [age 17]:
“I felt a little rush of ecstasy this morning when B. Dalton’s [bookstore] called to say that The Human Comedy was in, a joy that waned a little when I saw its price ($6.95!). But, I merrily drove over to Eastridge [mall] to get it. I don’t know why books make me so happy – maybe so that I can know what others think about life so that I can quote them.”
September 14, 1973 [age 17]:
“Another wasted day, or so it seems, vacuuming the rooms we always vacuum on Fridays, reading Of Time and the River with love and awe, hungrily paging through books on photography at the public library, desperately scribbling down words of frustration to add to my journal collection of broken dreams, wearily trudging off to work, only to finally return home to devour whatever dinner lies in wait, read with tired, heavy eyes more words of absolute beauty by Mr. Wolfe, and drift reluctantly off to sleep. My life is horrible, unceasing monotony. Someday I’d like to get drunk and thrown in jail.”
October 1, 1973 [age 17]:
“All that happened today was that [my brother] Marc and I snuck out in the truck to pick up Bruce. Mom was gone, and it was 2:00 so we knew Dad wouldn’t be home. But just as we drove off down Suncrest we both screamed in terror because there was Dad coming up the hill! Later, while I was at work, Marc was yelled at, at dinner, but I, thank goodness, missed it. And I guess all had been forgotten by the time I got home. Mamma mia.”
October 6, 1973 [age 17]:
“I still pray at night. I’ve discovered that most of the things I pray for in earnest come true. I’ve always had a problem, though, in that I never know if I should pray for such a selfish thing as falling in love, so I never really do, except perhaps a hasty mention in passing.”