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Last week I accepted an invitation to sit on a panel of mystery writers at a book conference in the Atlanta area this coming January.

I'll agree to appear almost anywhere if it's far enough in the future.Earth may be hit by an asteroid, sending the human race the way of the dinosaurs, before January 2010, or a rabid stalker may gun me down.

Either way, I won't have to stand or sit in front of strangers and make a spectacle of myself.I am conscientious about what I write on my calendar.

The number of appearances I've failed to make have been few over the last 20 years.

If I say I'll be there, barring unavoidable circumstances, I show up.

The trick is to ask me way ahead of the date.About 10 years ago, I agreed almost a year in advance to show up in Des Moines, Iowa, to give the keynote speech at an arts festival, knowing very well that it was too far to drive.

When the time came, I was still alive and had to get on an airplane and break a 30-year sabbatical from flying that started during the Vietnam War.With a little help from Xanax, I got on the plane and managed not to panic when the wings had to be deiced before we could leave.

I even survived getting back on the plane that took me to St.

Louis and finding out that the engine wouldn't start.

Somehow, I forced myself to get on another plane and fly on to Iowa, then flew home two days later without a meltdown.As an aside, the downtown Des Moines hotel where I stayed had no drink or snack machines, no cable television or in-room coffee pots.

I couldn't get out on foot because snow was piled chest-high beside the streets.

I hadn't packed an overcoat, because somehow I had the idea that Iowa was sunny and warm, even in February, because they grow corn there.After the Des Moines trip, I made a new rule.

Unless there is someone waiting with a check big enough to make me wealthy, I don't go anywhere I can't drive, no matter how much advance warning I get.

Life is short, and holding up an airliner with a death grip on the bottom of the seat is nerve-wracking.As I have mentioned in the past, public speaking is very stressful to me, right up until the moment I start talking.

As the years have passed, just leaving the house has become almost as stressful as public speaking.

There is a name for the fear of going out in public; it's called agoraphobia, from the Greek "fear of the market place."Many people have a tendency a towards agoraphobia; it's in a branch on my mother's family tree.

A phobia is an excessive, irrational fear, like the fear of snakes or spiders, most of which are harmless to people.

Phobias don't become a serious problem until they keep us from doing things we want to do.With the most extreme form of agoraphobia, sufferers finally become trapped in their own homes, unable to go anywhere.

Since I already know there is a family tendency towards agoraphobia, I refuse to allow myself to stay home if there is someplace I really want to go - or if I have agreed to be somewhere.We're all neurotic, so we just have to go with whatever works.David Hunter, who writes this column for the News Sentinel, is a freelance writer and former Knox County sheriff's deputy.

You may write him at P.O.

Box 1124, Powell, TN 37849.

His e-mail address is [email protected]
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