Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/08/2010

Sorting: Marilyn Monroe and Social Anxiety

Music publishers produce organ music (all music) in different formats. Single works. The complete works of one composer. Collections of a single type (Lutheran publishers are fond of volumes of music based on hymn tunes by several composers). Collections.

A great mystery to me is that organists can file their collections so they can find the piece for next Sunday. I cannot. Alphabetically by composer? Fine for single works or a multi-volume set of the complete works of one composer—six volumes of Franck next to twelve volumes of Bach. But collections by different composers? Alphabetical by editor? What if there isn’t an editor. Grouped together by type—Advent collections, Lenten collections, hymntune settings (unless, of course, a volume is hymntune settings for Advent), communion music (unless  a volume of communion music was edited by Dale Wood). It drives me crazy.

Perhaps every other organist, too, but they just don’t let on.

Perhaps I’m lazy. Perhaps I don’t care enough. Perhaps I’m too self-important to worry about such trivia. Perhaps I have “Impaired ability to organize and categorize verbal material,” one of the commonly-listed characteristics of Temporal Lobe Epileptics. Organizing music is a strictly verbal problem, not musical.

But I write. That’s organizing verbal material, isn’t it? So I must not be TLEptic. But anyone who has read these postings knows that organization is not the long suit here. Getting three or four ideas going and then forcing them into some kind of relationship with each other is what I do.

To wit.

Picnic. William Holden, Kim Novak, Cliff Robertson (1955). Bus Stop. Marilyn Monroe, Don Murray (1956) The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (Robert Preston, Dorothy McGuire, Angela Lansbury (1960).

I’m not sure when I first saw those movies. It wasn’t at the Midwest Theater in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, in the ‘50s. Marilyn Monroe? Never! Baptists don’t. But those movies are part of the unconscious language of the arts for my generation. (Most young men saw Bus Stop for Marilyn Monroe. I saw it because of Don Murray—who’s now an older fart than I am—born 1929—but still handsome.) See what I mean about impaired ability to organize verbal material?

Not until my late ex-wife was in graduate school studying theater did I know those movies were adaptations of plays by William Inge. I’m going to use a couple of sentences by William Inge next semester to help introduce my classes to writing about works of fiction.

I have never sought to write plays that primarily tell a story; nor have I sought deliberately to create new forms. I have been most concerned with dramatizing something of the dynamism I myself find in human motivations and behavior. I regard a play as a composition rather than a story, as a distillation of life rather than a narration of it. (1)

A distillation of life rather than a narration of it. A pretty good definition of literature, I think.

A couple of evenings ago, a friend and I were talking about the impossibility of entering a room (say, a party) full of people chatting and joining the conversation as if it were the most natural activity in the world.

I can’t.

I don’t know if I’m one of Garrison Keillor’s “shy people,” but social situations are most often nightmares for me. How does one schmooze? Who are these people, and what does one say to them? Why say anything? Where’s the corner of the room? If there’s one person I know, he or she is the lucky one to have me hanging at his or her elbow for the rest of the evening.

This is not a case of protesting too much. I will attend a social/professional lunch later this week. I know at least the names of most of the people who will be there. I will walk into the beautiful Highland Park home of our colleague who always hosts the lunch and head for—well, somewhere safe if I can spot such a place.

In The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Sammy says in Act II (at a party),

I always worry that maybe people aren’t going to like me, when I go to a party. . . Do you ever get kind of a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach when you dread things? Gee, I wouldn’t want to miss a party for anything. But every time I go to one, I have to reason with myself to keep from feeling that the whole world’s against me. (2)

I get it, Sammy. I’m not sure it’s worth committing suicide over (he does), but I get it.

My friend suggested a couple of evenings ago that perhaps we should meditate on the possible (salutary) reasons that we both (and, we assume, nearly everyone to some degree) have this social anxiety. For some of us, the anxiety (or dislike, or boredom, or whatever it is) can border on—shall I use a perhaps far-fetched term?—social anorexia.


Or read the literature. Psychologists have conducted a great deal of research on “social anxiety.” They have come to conclusions such as

. . . those with social phobia interpret social information in negative ways. . . . [and] overestimate the likelihood that negative outcomes will occur for them in social situations and [be] far more costly than individuals who are less socially anxious. (3)

This interpretation is, I suppose, predictable because

. . . when socially anxious individuals find themselves in stressful social situations, their attention is focused inward on themselves and on how they believe that they are coming across to others, rather than on the social situation at hand. (4)

The Sammy syndrome. We socially anxious individuals “worry that maybe people aren’t going to like me.” For me, it’s simply another manifestation of my own discomfort with myself—and my continuing inability to figure out exactly how one is supposed to live on this planet.

It’s a matter of sorting. Back to organ music.

What’s important, what’s not important? What does one share with others, what does one not. Do you want to talk about death tonight? Oh, maybe we should talk about the Cowboys instead—or my Mustangs—and you can read my last two postings if you want to know what I think about the denial of death. But it’s what’s on my mind.

I wouldn’t want to offend you. Who’d want to talk about what’s going on in my mind?

Research has shown that social anxiety and shyness are related to self-deprecatory thoughts . . . and behavioral inhibition during social interaction. . . . [caused by] nervousness could precipitate criticism from others, which, in turn, may increase one’s fear of negative evaluation. (5)

Sorting out what’s happening in any social situation is next to impossible for me. I don’t want to precipitate criticism from others. Honest-to-God, I don’t know how to talk about the Cowboys, and if football is the topic, no one wants to hear about the members of the university football team who have earned “A’s” in my class this semester. Or about William Inge.

So I will meditate on these things. Alone. Not in a stressful social situation. Like here, where I am in complete control. The sorting is mine. The distillation of life is mine. Until I click “publish.”

(1) Inge, William. Four Plays by William Inge. Grove Press, Inc.: New York, 1979 (Foreword).
(2) Inge, Dark, Act II, p. 271.
(3) Ledley, Deborah Roth, and Richard G. Heimberg. “Cognitive Vulnerability to Social Anxiety.” Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology 25.7 (2006): 755-778.
(4) idem.
(5) Bruch, Monroe A. “Cognitive Bias in Men’s Processing of Negative Social Information: The Role of Social Anxiety, Toughness as a Masculine Role Norm, and Their Interaction.” Cognitive Therapy & Research 31.3 (2007): 273-289.


  1. I find most conversations leave me cold because they are banal and shallow. For the work environment, like my staff room, I sit in horrified wonder that people live such lives, and say little. I also find that if I do talk about deeper or more intellectual stuff, one colleague has a tendency to attack me leaving me emotionally raw before class.
    For my other job, I not infrequently have to sit through someone else’s choice of film on DVD and as it’s on a long distance coach, and I am at the front, I can’t escape. I try to keep my disparaging comments to a polite minimum….but High School musical and Hairspray made me brain almost melt….


  2. I hadn’t been in Dallas a week when, standing in line at the supermarket, I was accosted by a perfectly sane and intelligent looking stranger who said, “How ’bout dem Boys?” She said it in a way I soon discovered only a Texan can. I not only did not understand her, but when she explained who the Cowboys are, I had only the vaguest idea what she was talking about. I soon learned—and I don’t mean to sound elitist, although I probably do—that the surest way to start a conversation in Dallas is to offer some factoid about (American) football. Every season I pray that the Cowboys won’t make it to the “playoffs” so the season will end and people will go back to talking about the weather.


    • Over here current topics of conversation seem to revolve around reality Tv shows(I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here) Soap operas( Coronation street, Eastenders) talent(less) shows like Xfactor, American idol and so on, and of course sports. None of these are things I watch, have interest in or care at all and I become almost Asberger’s in my inability to understand why any of these could be of more than passing interest to a person with normal IQ, and perhaps this means I too may come across as elitist.
      At least the weather is something I do find moderately interesting as over here it is always full of safe topics for banal conversations.
      Working with teenagers as I do, I sometimes find it profoundly depressing the level to which their interests drop.


  3. […] horrified to discover it was not there. I could not for the life of me remember the composer or where the piece might be filed in my apartment. I fretted over the dilemma for three or four days, not wanting to tell Viktor I […]



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