Panic Attack–A Bridge (Way) Too Far



Ok.  Top 5 things I am afraid of:

5.  Dying as a result of mere inattention either by me or some other idiot.

4.  Dying while trying to fix my own plumbing or electrical problem.

3.  Dying at the hands of a crazed, spandex-clad bicyclist.

2.  Dying slowly of some kind of progressive, degenerative disease.

1.  Having to drive my car over a bridge.

Clearly from the list above, mortality is on my mind, as I imagine it is for most members of the over-60 club. The good news is, when you join the junior geriatric set, you get an increasing number of discounts. The bad news–you don’t get to enjoy them for all that long.

Death, however, in all its bizarre and mundane forms, still seems very abstract to me. I do not worry that I am going to die—that much is certain. However, how I go about dying is of much greater concern to me.

The difference between fears 2-5 and #1 is that the former are all somewhat existential concerns that don’t cause fierce heart palpitations, hyperventilation, and a desire to leap out of my car when I am faced by them.

I used to love to talk with my students about their various phobias. I was surprised to find out how many were still living with what we think of as child-like, boogieman fears. It was a revelation when one girl offered that as she prepared for going to bed, she would turn off the room light and leap into bed from the spot of the light switch. For years, when the subject of fear would come up in class I would share that story and always find others who still, even as 17 and 18-year-olds, practiced the same behavior.

I don’t remember many of the fears I had as a youngster or an adolescent. However, I do remember when reading the novel The Exorcist late into the night, I reached a point where I simply could not turn another page. I put the book down, and sincerely prayed that none of the evil spirits that I was convinced were now swirling about me would invade my body and turn me into a head-spinning, projectile-vomiting creature.

And, of course, I was fearful of having my adolescent heart crushed by someone like Theresa, a girl that I met when I was a sophomore and developed a huge crush on. We worked together on a project and I convinced myself that I was somewhere in her league—convinced myself so much that I finagled an invitation to her house on or about Valentine’s Day and gave her a gaudy, Hallmark V-day card. I met her mom, and she seemed happy that Theresa was “dating” a “nice boy.” Theresa traded on that impression to get her mom to let her to go to a dance with me. I was over the moon about the whole thing and still wondering at my luck as we entered the gym and she quickly informed me that she hoped it was OK with me if we didn’t stick together for the whole dance, and before long, she disappeared. She was kind enough to make sure she got back with me for the final slow dance and she managed somehow to hold me closely enough that it almost made up for the whole, slow burn of humiliation that I had felt during the night.

But these are all fears that I would think of as being common human experiences, just as I think we all worry about the onset and manner of our eventual deaths. It wasn’t until I was fully adult that I discovered the white-knuckled, heart-pounding, breath-taking fear that came on me unexpectedly when I was doing something as simple as driving over a bridge.

I don’t exactly remember when I discovered that I had gephyrophobia –yes, it actually has a name. For me, it is truly the mother of all completely irrational fears. I had a hint of it the first time I drove up to Carmel and my new bride and I took the scenic Hwy 1. I could not relax once in that three-hour stretch as I hugged the north-bound lane and hoped to God I wasn’t about to plunge over the all-too-close cliffs and down to the rocks and ocean below.


I do remember that it became an issue for me when we were headed home from a trip to the Napa/Sonoma area. Heading back toward Oakland, I was totally unprepared for the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, which as I approached, began to look like a piece of ribbon about six inches wide. As the bridge shrunk in size it also took on the appearance of a huge roller coaster ride that I had not signed up for. Suddenly, I couldn’t grip the steering wheel hard enough, as if at any moment some (Exorcist-like) force would make me veer off, break through all of the guardrails and send us to our deaths. I tried to find a lane that felt comfortable, crossing back and forth without consulting my mirror or using my signals. I did not give a flying fuck about anyone behind me. I was in full-blown panic mode and was trying to find any comfortable space where I could survive the five minutes it was going to take me to get across this span.

Of course, a fear like this feeds upon itself. I started to study maps of our driving trips and if I spotted a bridge crossing, I’d worry about it for days. Often the bridge would be so short and flat that I’d be over it before I would even notice but one successful crossing did not breed confidence. Once when I was at a conference in Palo Alto, I wanted to go over to Oakland to visit with my son who was living there at the time. To get there, I would have to cross the Dumbarton Bridge or take a very circuitous route through San Jose. I actually looked up the bridge using Google images to find a picture of this beast and see if it looked passable. I made it, back and forth, but not without a lot of concentration and deep-breathing exercises.

This means there are a lot of cities I will never live in. San Francisco, New York, and Seattle come to mind right away. We are currently planning a trip to the Adirondacks and there is just so much water there. I don’t even want to look at a map and start thinking about it.

I’ve come to realize that it is bigger than just bridges. I don’t like to be near the edge of the abyss. If I can see a dramatic drop-off, I start to panic. I don’t like mountain driving, or even hiking on a narrow trail with a steep drop. Strangely, I have gone para-sailing without incident and stared over the edge of the observation deck of the Empire State Building without any problem. I suspect that I could do a parachute jump although I have not yet taken that one on.

There is something about being near the edge though, that continues to haunt me. Maybe that drop-off is somehow metaphorically connected in my mind to the Abyss with a capital “A”—the fear of death that permeates the other four of my top five fears.

Or maybe I just hate bridges and will assiduously continue to avoid them at all costs.





The Dave Matthews Band–My Musical Addiction



“Hi, my name is Tom (“Hi, Tom”) and I’m addicted to the Dave Matthews Band.”

Now, before you stop reading, realize that I’ve been dreading and struggling with writing this piece. I hate admitting to being an avid fan of anything because as soon as I say it out loud, I know that people start to make judgments, that I begin to define myself in their eyes, and inevitably the haters come out.

I was at a bar one night, and the bartender, muscular and tatted up, asked how I was doing. A DMB song had just come on and I said “Great, especially with this song playing.” He listened for a second, recognized the song and said, “Yeah, it’s so easy to bag on Dave Matthews.” My immediate impulse was to launch myself across the bar and grab him around the neck and…and, well I really didn’t have a plan after that. I’m sure the aftermath would have involved ambulances, broken bones, and various lacerations, all at my expense.

That’s the problem with being a devoted fan. It creates a huge blind spot in my brain and a complete inability to understand, or in severe cases, even stay in the same room with someone who doesn’t get it.

My musical tastes got frozen in the music that spanned the 60’s into the late 70’s. I skipped the ‘80’s and 90’s entirely (I mean, Depeche Mode—really?). And then as my son entered college and my daughter was in high school, they began to help me thaw and begin to listen to new music. My son’s partner has taken it upon himself to create new CDs for me every year for Christmas to introduce me to new music that he knows I’m not listening or to fill a gap that he feels is unacceptable for someone who really loves music.

My fascination with the Dave Matthews Band began when my daughter and some of her friends dragged me to my first DMB concert in 2004. I didn’t know a lot of the music but what caught me was the raw energy and enthusiasm of the band. The guys had been on tour all summer with San Diego being one of the last stops, and yet they played as Rolling Stone magazine once described, “as if their lives—and yours—depended on it.” That visceral passion was what initially plugged me into the band’s sound and drew me to collect and listen constantly to the ever-changing concert versions of their songs, some of which are now 20 years old.


My wife dislikes his music commenting, “I just don’t like his voice.” Nobody likes his voice, I think to myself. He’s not a smooth crooner. He’s got a rusty, gutsy voice like a Ryan Bingham or a Seth Avett. He admits he just mumbles his way through some lyrics especially if he forgets them on stage. He says that he feels grateful that he gets to go out every night and scream at the top of his lungs.

In watching some interviews on YouTube, he rates his musical skills negatively compared to others he admires such as Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, but if you watch him closely as he plays in concert he’s changing chords constantly, sometimes syllable by syllable to create the sound that he wants. As he plays the same songs night after night, the band improvises, constantly blending the intro of one song with the body of another and effortlessly weaving in the work of others into his original works. Don’t be surprised if suddenly you hear “Fools Rush In,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, or “This Land is Your Land” popping up in the middle of an old DMB standard. One of my favorite improvisations was the summer he took the popular “Everyday” and gave it a reggae rhythm and then wove in a short tribute to Hugh Masekela’s “Grazin’ in the Grass.” I heard it on that one night and never heard it again.

If you have ever watched him in concert, you know that Dave does not have an easy, bantering relationship with the audience. The first show I saw, I think the only thing he said to the crowd was several variations of “Thank you.” It’s almost worse when he does start talking, often drifting off into nonsensical chatter. It doesn’t matter. His fans connected with him long ago through the music and will wait patiently for him to stop talking and launch into another song that everyone in the audience seems to already know word for word.

While some of his songs have a clear focus and straightforward lyrics, others are mystifying. I still do not know who the Nancies are or why they are dancing. I have seen or experienced or met a “Jimi Thing” nor have I come across a “river of Jimi.” I do not know why there is a warehouse in the song “Warehouse.” I’m a lyrics guy, lyrics matter to me, but when it comes to Dave, I just know that sometimes I have to let the music take me and forget about understanding every little thing. I wonder if he even knows what some of this stuff means.

So, maybe the bartender did not deserve the imaginary beating that I inflicted on him that night. Maybe there are a lot of reasons to bag on Dave Matthews.

All I know is that I would never want to actually meet the guy. As much as his music has been the soundtrack of my life over the past ten years, if I were to encounter him, I’d immediately turn into that oozy, goo of fandom where I would have absolutely nothing to say to him except how, “I really love your music, man! I mean, I’m talking really love it!”

Yeah, I don’t want to see me dissolve into that. For now, I will kindly accept all attempts to get me to broadening my music appreciation while I peacefully ride my inner tube down that river of Jimi for the foreseeable future.