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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

No Fear

The CN Tower in Toronto has a glass floor at the base of its SkyPod, 113 stories up. The whole glass floor area is only about 15 feet across, with a double row of panes, each about 3'x4'. Stepping out on to the glass, you look down on to the suddenly miniature city below you and try to keep your brain from oozing out your ears when a bird flaps up underneath your feet. It took me a while to get there. I made the mistake of looking down before I took that step, and my reptile brain dug in its scaly heels and howled: "There's no there there. We are NOT taking that step."

This bothered me inordinately. I know I'm as big a sack of neuroses as the next gal, but I'm not especially well-stocked in the phobia department. I don't mind flying; I'm not fearful of being a passenger in someone else's car; spiders, insects, the great outdoors, enclosed spaces, elevators, the number 13, snakes, they're all good by me. Ok, so I'm not wild about down escalators, but I step on them regularly without medication. I scream a girlie scream when a rodent startles me, but I can then move on with my life. So why should that step have been so frightening? In the end, I took it, bringing me inordinate satisfaction to counterbalance---so it's a zero sum game.

Since then, I've been thinking a lot about fear and its eternal tango partner, anger over feeling fear. This preoccupation has been helped along by the remark of an acquaintance (a long-time resident of the US, but a Brit by birth) on Black Wednesday that Americans have got to get over their fear if we're ever to break the country out of its current direction. My initial reaction to this was "Bullshit." That it's more complex than terror about terror, and it surely is. But I realize that that reaction is born of a focus on my fear, which is fairly atypical, I think. (That sounds insufferably smug and I don't mean it to. I am not conspicuously brave, adventurous, kind, or remarkable in any way, as I said, I have the Hefty Tall Garden Sack of neuroses, the contents just differs).

I'm not sure my fears have always been atypical. I was a deeply neurotic kid. At three, I couldn't bear the thought of receiving a balloon from a friend of my dad's because of the inevitable heartbreak when it burst. At five or six, shortly after seeing "The Other Side of the Mountain" I fell and bumped my lower back on a kitchen chair. I lay awake every night, terrified to sleep because I was sure I would "go paralyzed" in the night. At eight, I saw "The Man Who Saw Tomorrow," a documentary about Nostradamus, and my fears went global. I'll never forget when the first generation of thick-barreled EraserMate pens came out, they struck fear into my heart, because they looked like the nuclear bombs in the movie.

I had what I think of as more usual fears, too--your basic knife-wielding maniac breaking in and killing us all and so forth. My fool-proof plan against this was to pile my stuffed animals on my chest over my heart with my favorites deepest in the pile, which has disturbing connotations regarding the limits of my devotion, I suppose.

On the home front, I lived in fear that my parents would get divorced, which was not all that irrational, I guess (though they're at 41 years and going strong, currently). My mother was a vicious fighter and to my child's mind, it seemed like she gave my dad the "sleep on the couch in the basement and be gone in the morning" spiel every other week. We all lived in fear of her "moods," and I don't mean to over-dramatize. My mother was not afraid of corporal punishment, but I was not abused in any way. Nonetheless, there was a certain feeling of freefall to my childhood and adolescence, because I could never predict what would set her off, never know what would get me punished or why.

As I've become an adult (nominally, if not actually), our relationship has failed to blossom into one of mutual understanding, with healthy doses of me realizing how right she was about everything. Our mother-daughter story would make a crappy movie. We still regard each other with wonder on a regular basis, each certain that the other is an alien. We're not so much in an arms race any more. We're not even really in a Cold War, though my perception of that doubtless differs from hers. She wants to understand me more than I want to understand her, though I'm sure there would be some psychic balm if I could. But there is a very real fear gap between us (between me and the rest of my family, really, however ridiculously adolescent and teen!goth-nobody-understands-me that sounds) and I think it keeps such a goal off the table permanently.

When we're not making each other scream, we've had a few conversations that give me some insight into the source of her fears. It seems impossible to overestimate the role that Catholicism has played in so many of them, especially when I take a brief jaunt into my childhood and examine the number of things that find their way into comedy and tragedy. In my childhood world, they just seemed normal.

I'm talking about the dual picture of The Sacred Heart of Jesus/Immaculate Heart of Mary in the hallway, the dress-up Infant of Prague under glass in the bedroom I shared with my brother, and the Emergency Sacraments Administration kit in the closet (a wooden crucifix, the face of which slid off to reveal candles [which one could stand up in holders in the arms of the cross], holy water, and chrism).

I'm talking about my grandmother baptizing my infant cousin in the sink, because my Aunt had turned her back on the Church (the Church would have none of it---she returned and her daughter my cousin was baptized for good measure at age 10). I'm talking about a house filled with fear that the Secrets told by the Virgin Mary to the visionaries at Fatima were coming true in their lifetime. Nostradamus may have faintly scarred the 8-year-old me, Our Lady of Fatima (and the Vatican's stereotypically patriarchal decision that the world was not ready for the revelation of the third secret in 1960) filled my mother's adult life with genuine terror.

Other fears that drive her, though, that I don't have any reference for, and I don't know why I seem not to have internalized them. When she first came to visit the house after we bought it, she was over the moon. She loved the house itself, she loved the neighborhood, she was homesick for the house in which she'd raised her family. They moved to the suburbs when my dad retired, and thence Westward for the winter and South for the summer (which sounds far grander than it is). As we sat on my porch, she asked, "Why couldn't Kolin [my childhood street] have stayed like this?" I couldn't resist a snarky "Because in Beverly, white folks didn't pack up and run the first time a black family looked over a house." Recommence screaming.

A few months later, they were staying at the house again. I think the boys were working on installing a ceiling fan. We lay upstairs on the guest bed together talking in the dark, and her worries came pouring out: "We've been running our whole lives from them [non-whites]. And now, we have our big, beautiful house and we're living next door to them." By all accounts, they have a cordial if distant relationship with their current neighbors (which applies to relationships with our very white neighbors while I was growing up, as well---we are not joiners). And she can't articulate the problem beyond, "Other. Different. Dangerous. Not Us." She can no more articulate it now than she could articulate it when she told my 10-year-old self that my friend Gina had "black blood" in her. When I asked her (in all innocence, I was years yet from adolescent challenge and defiance) how she knew and why it mattered, she had nothing other than a grim conviction that difference must be noted.

My older brother has surpassed my parents' wildest dreams of race fear and hatred, moving his family to Arizona where he could "go to a Diamondbacks game and not see one black face in the crowd." I have no way to account for him. My sisters have internalized the fear of difference, although they are at least conscious of the need to keep it under wraps in polite company. I love them, obviously, but I also LIKE them. I want to be friends with them. I want us to do better and be kinder to one another than my mother's family is able to be. But this aspect of them is frustrating and heartbreaking.

Last year, the older of the two of them was suffering from persistent migraines, something she'd never had before. I was trying to help her out with research on some medications and coaching her on ways to approach her doctor, who was not being helpful. I asked her if she wanted to meet downtown and have lunch, to give her a break from some of the stress. So she and my niece met me and we spent the day doing some shopping and then heading up for lunch at the Cheesecake Factory. This happened to be shortly after America invaded Iraq (again) and a group of Muslim men and women were demonstrating (peacefully and obviously with a permit) against it. The men chanted slogans and hoisted banners while the women prayed.

My niece was curious (she's a suburban kid and had never seen the likes of this) and I tried to explain what it means to be Muslim (not a task I'm especially well-suited to, I'm sure), what a protest is, why they're allowed to block the street, and so forth. My sister was silent, even when my niece asked her questions directly. I eventually realized that she was positively shaking with fear. A stiff drink later at lunch, she said, "I guess I just can't take the city any more." It was another "you're an alien" moment.

I really don't have any nationalism in me. I believe that some of the principles on which America was putatively founded have merit, but they're not a source of pride and identification for me. After all, as the good folks at AmendforArnold.com have kindly reminded us, one doesn't choose their nation of birth. But I do have Metropolitanism, if such a thing exists. I love Chicago with my heart and soul. My common claim that I hate people is revealed as a blatant lie whenever I throw myself into the downtown crowds.

Everyone has a September 11 story. It's the event that defines this generation as Kennedy's assassination defined my parents'. Mine is not remarkable. I worked. On a floor full of head-down academics, many of the immigrants to the US, no one was glued to the television or abandoning the labs to be with their loved ones. I listened to the radio and watched a single sailboat glide down the Potomac behind the smoldering Pentagon (and I couldn't help but wonder if maybe the sailor had left so early that the news hadn't touched him) via a CNN webcam.

And throughout the day, I thought to myself: "I hope this is one of ours. I hope this is domestic. I hope this is Oklahoma City." I couldn't bear to think about the inevitable string of events that would happen (did happen, are still happening) when we knew it was bin Laden. I feared the fear that I didn't have but that I knew was all around me.

I don't think I cried that day, or at least not much. It had that unreal quality of time when something happens that is more terrible than should be possible. A lot of the world lives with that unreal quality most of the time.

The next day, I taught. I handled calls from students in the National Guard who had been called up. I wondered whether we'd make it to California on the weekend for the wedding of two friends. It was a lot like normal until my drive home. I took the Skyway, one of my favorite urban totems. It's a raised road connecting the Blue Collar south side of Chicago to the Indiana steel mills. It's been a spectacular failure as a toll road, and it's been in increasingly good company as the mills have been abandoned one by one. The margins of the Skyway have always profoundly moved me---the burned out, bloody scars of industry coloring an otherwise brown, scrubby, nondescript landscape. It amounts to so much failure and carelessness, but I could never help but be awed by the sheer hubris of the undertaking.

September 12 was a bright day here, and as I made it to the steel bridge, it was clear enough that I caught my first view of the skyline, still a good 10 miles from that point. I imagined that view being irrevocably changed, its heart ripped out. Then I cried. And when I stopped, I wondered if that would make the fear real to me. Would it have me cowering, feeling like I'd never be safe? Would it keep me off the streets that I love? Would it steal the joy I feel when I'm in a crowd of people in saris and daishikis and short skirts and black suits and stupid big pantz and all?

I don't know. I don't think so. I dearly hope not. But second-guessing myself doesn't get me any closer to understanding the fear, and I feel like now---especially now---I need to understand. There's an aisle to reach across, and I feel like I'm stuck on the margins. It's the wrong place to be. I can't afford to be here, but I've got really old blueprints of this place and nothing looks familiar.

That might give me some more of that good, old-fashioned smug self-satisfaction if that Santa's Magical Bag of neuroses weren't so obviously full to the brim. I'm desperately afraid of the mental illness that runs rampant in my family; the smell of pot has me curling into a ball, crying, shaking, unable to deal; woe to the person who tries to pin my arms.

Irony of ironies, I was in the middle of this entry, a coworker came to tell me that our Violent Stoner Lab Manager (fear made to order for me, and I've worked with it 5 days a week for almost four years) had been fired. He asked me to change the pertinent passwords and then get the hell out of there. I did. And when I walked out of the building and came face to face with him (flanked, thankfully, by two campus cops), I ran and I ran. I borrow trouble, too. I let fear rule me. I'm full of small-time fear and I've got nothing to brag about.

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