Measured Extravagance

2001-01-18 - 9:09 p.m.

Engaging the Throttle Anyway: Some thoughts about Fear

An Out There! Collaboration

10 Things I Fear:

1. unfounded accusations
2. lawsuits
3. bridges without rails
4. wasps
5. icy road conditions
6. fanatics with guns
7. disfigurement
8. botulism
9. contraceptive failure
10. loss of love

I am more afraid of humans than of nature. If you treat nature with respect, you can frequently dodge trouble, whereas certain humans are intent on havoc and malice no matter what you offer them.

I lost all fear of flying after commuting on Detroit freeways. (Especially after witnessing the local drivers escape congestion by driving backwards up exit ramps.)

Hanging lights for University Theatre helped moderate my fear of heights. I still won't walk across a log bridge, however. I've never been good at climbing trees or maneuvering around the monkey bars; I was the kid who preferred building igloos out of gravel instead.

I don't watch horror movies. I don't mind if other people watch them as long as they let me escape into the next room and read cookbooks instead. My mind is perfectly capable of producing heart-lurching scenarios without any outside assistance. Likewise, I am careful of what I read before bedtime because I am susceptible to screaming nightmares.

"Leave everyone and let them leave you. Then only will you be without fear." - Gwen John

For me, fear and laziness are cousins. I sometimes dismiss my fears because it is too much trouble to acknowledge or solve the problem generating the fear (lack of preparation, dislike of confrontation, etc.). Being afraid can be damned inconvenient when it comes to going home after dark (a/k/a having to finagle rides) or exploring unfamiliar neighborhoods or scrounging up lunch ("this old stir-fry looks okay, but it's been in here two weeks…"). On the other hand, being afraid prompted me to take a basic self-defense course. It's produced some published poems. It means my instincts are healthy - I don't overreact to crime scares like certain non-urbanities I've met, but neither am I as fearless as my partner. He's never been assaulted, whereas I've been attacked once and followed at least twice, and I lived in a building where a woman was raped in the apartment above mine. Such incidents didn't make me more scared than I had been, but they confirmed that I wasn't being idiotically paranoid. The partner and I have had occasional spats over his impatience with precautions and my need to observe them.

There's some upbringing behind this divide -- my mother is suspicious and leery of everything, whereas his mother is fearless(ly naïve) to this day. My mother's obsessive fretting over risks can be exasperating; his mother's blithe complacency can be infuriating.

I don't know if I've helped anyone overcome their own fears, although I've done my best to reassure certain parties that they won't be abandoned and subsequently eaten by Alsatians when they're old and alone.

"What's hard is easy / What's natural comes hard…" - Stephen Sondheim

I was terrified of my own ineptitude during the two-weekend Motorcycle Safety Foundation course. Massively frustrated, too - more than once, more than twice, I wanted just to throw the bike down and howl. It was like being in PE all over again - everyone else already had the skills and the rules down pat, and I was struggling behind in utter misery.

But I wanted that damned license, and I wanted to pass the class on my very first try. So, for the entire week in between sessions, I carried the class manual with me everywhere. I went over the motions of starting, accelerating, braking and stopping step-by-step in my head, over and over, rehearsing each motion with my hands and my feet until I'd gotten it right…and then an hour later I'd realize that I'd already lost the moves. Learn, lose, repeat. Learn, lose, repeat, learn (dammit!), repeat…

Test day. I signed my name in the very last slot of the examiners' chart, and got in line behind the others. As I watched my classmates weave through the cones, swerve on command, brake to a quick stop, turn tight corners, and accelerate through curves, I rehearsed each and every move, step by step and turn by turn.

I missed some cones, but I stayed inside the lines. I did not put my foot down or drop the bike. All of my times fell within the range of acceptability. In short, I wanted to pass that class so badly that I did. I may have the coordination of a stewed bumblebee, but I earned that license.

I proved to myself that I still had guts. And when I'm feeling like the big bad world might eat me alive, sometimes I simply tell myself, "You passed the bloody bike test, so you will certainly get through this" and sometimes that's enough to persuade myself that I'm Little Red Riding Hood with a blowtorch, ready to barbeque any wolf who invades my space.

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