THIS YEAR IN FEAR: 1630, when people were afraid of stealthy Frenchmen

Bongiorno! Imagine you are a townsperson in Milan, Italy, circa 1630. Sure, you have 24/7 access to delicious pasta and focaccia, and have a swell view of the stunningly beautiful Duomo as it’s being constructed, and you get to ride your horse, Luigi, down adorable cobblestone roads. And this would all sound perfectly lovely except that alas, the Plague is cutting a swath through Europe, so you’re pretty much on a red terror alert all the time.

Remember when fermenting yeast was all you had to worry about? Those were the days.
Remember when fermenting yeast was all you had to worry about? Those were the days.

You keep trying to chill, and focus on normal life—getting Luigi some new horseshoes, brewing beer, mocking local spinsters—but your leaders are skittish and not helping things. Case in point: Just last year the Governor of Milan told the people to be on lookout for four Frenchmen who’d escaped from prison and were hellbent on spreading the plague by rubbing poisonous ointments all over Italy.

Besides sounding gross, that worries you. You are in 17th century Italy, and touch unidentifiable sticky things all the time! For God’s sake, you pee in the street! How are you to know whether that patch on the wall is an olive oil mishap, or the evil anointings of a homicidal Frenchman?

You don’t know. Which is why you and all your friends pretty much lose your shit. Your leaders have basically said, when you see something, say something. And you see a lot of stuff: You see smears on doors, smears on walls. You see them on the cathedral and on park benches. Some super-crazies start beating or even killing anyone handling sticky stuff in a public place, according to Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior. 

In this fear-mongering moment, three either foolhardy or oblivious French guys chose this moment to visit Milan. They were spotted admiring the Duomo’s architecture, which naturally incited the Italian crowds.

Worse, “they reached out their hands to touch it. This was enough. They were surrounded, seized, tormented and urged by blows to prison. Fortunately, the hall of justice was not far from the cathedral, and by still greater good fortune, they were found innocent, and set at liberty.”

Eventually, you and your fellow Milanese calm down and come to grips with the fact that the French will not spread a potentially toxic poison throughout the world until 1985:


Nonetheless, you are still (rightfully) wary of French men, or truly anyone in a beret.

In this cruel summer, why fearlessness still matters

imgresSo I haven’t blogged in about a month. I could blame vacation brain; the complex algorithm involved in figuring out how one gets the kids to camp and oneself to work on the same day; my sudden and quixotic need to master French on Duolingo; and the absurd effort it takes to mold the summer into a peach-picking/beachcombing/barbecuing/firefly-capturing romp in order to a) create precious childhood memories and b) pass muster on Instagram.

But those aren’t really the reasons. These are the reasons.

Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Jillian Johnson, Mayci Breaux, Sandra Bland, Brionna Boddy, Zachary McGee, Valerie Jackson, Alison Parker, Adam Ward.

In this summer of devastating shootings and Black Lives Matters, it has been hard to feel fearless.

Besides which, in a world in which people can be killed while watching a movie, praying at church, or reporting what Charles Pierce calls a “happy-face morning feature,” it feels frightening enough sometimes just to live. Who needs to go to the trouble of skydiving, or bat-cave spelunking when ho-hum American life is apparently riddled with danger? And I am a white woman of some privilege. Whatever I fear, real or imagined, is truly nothing compared to the genuine peril that people of color, in particular, face every day.

I was dumbstruck, speechless.

But here is the thing: Fear breeds inertia. Inertia breeds hopelessness. And lo and behold, nothing changes. They say hope is a muscle. So is fear. And the more you exercise that muscle and find that you can survive what comes, maybe, just maybe, the easier it gets.

So here I am again. Because, I have decided, a little less fear in the world—whatever type of fear, whatever shape it takes—is only a good thing.

The kick-ass Bessie Stringfield, first African-American woman to ride a motorcycle across the US solo
Fearless goddess Bessie Stringfield was the first African-American woman to ride a motorcycle across the US solo. She got hit by cars—who targeted her on purpose—and kept on trucking.

Facing down a bat cave might not be as daunting as facing down the NRA, but hell, you’ve got to start somewhere.

Why I’m more afraid of spreadsheets than shrieking subway guys, and other ruminations on the illogic of fear

If becoming hyperaware of my own fears in the hopes of smiting them has taught me anything, it’s this: We humans are afraid of some pretty bizarre and random things. A cabinet of curiosities, one for each of us.

We're all frightened by an oddball array of things.
We’re all frightened by an oddball array of things.

Take the act of speaking your mind in front of hundreds of strangers. That sounds scary, but for my 13-year-old daughter, it’s a walk in the park compared to the prospect of being near (and by near, I mean in the same zip code) as a construction crane. And that’s such an unusual fear that it’s not even on those lists of 101 weird phobias that Buzzfeed or whoever posts almost every other week. So I thought I’d document a number of things that frightened me over the last 10 days or so, listed here in order of scariness from 10 (Why does Voldemort want to kill me?!) to 1 (Huh, why do I have a rash there?).


Office work=scary
Office work=scary

This has never mattered before in my professional life. Alas, my new job requires dealing with what feels like approximately 18,000 spreadsheets. The other day, wrestling with the fonts on Google Sheets sent me into a rage spiral. Just when I thought nothing could make me wistful for PowerPoint…
Freakout factor: 7.

OK, my son eats sugar. It could be worse.
OK, my son eats sugar. It could be worse.

This is exactly the kind of thing that crosses my mind as I’m in line at the Able Baker, waiting to pay for chocolate chip scones the size of my face. But then it occurs to me that if I don’t get the boy a scone, I can’t really in good conscience get one for myself either. And I comfort myself with the thought that I made him eat grape tomatoes with his lunch.
Freakout factor: 2.

First, I should note: There was no fingernail in my chicken Caesar salad. But once that idea got into my head, lunch became hopeless. I spent a half-hour glaring at my salad, then decided the only logical thing to do was to turn to my bag of chocolate-covered almonds for comfort.
Freakout factor: 7.

See? Someone’s random hair landed on her face, too.

This normally wouldn’t even have fazed me. There is always a guy playing music on the subway, though usually it’s some pan flute version of El Condor Pasa. And who doesn’t want to murder all the tourists? But this fellow was loads creepier, maybe because he plinked out his little ditty with one hand on a toy piano, which gave the whole thing a Child’s Play horror movie feel to it. It made me sufficiently uncomfortable that I moved down the subway car to stand willingly next to the man eating a meatball sub at 8:45 AM, which is not a choice I’d make in my right mind.
Freakout factor: 5.

[swimming] Oh Jesus, what is that? OK, it’s curly. Is that a pubic hair? No, no, no, it’s too long. Well, maybe it is. Do people have longish pubic hair? Eww, is it on my face? [stops swimming] No, don’t be ridiculous. [swimming] Wait, it’s on my face now! [stops swimming] Honestly! [swimming] And it’s not pubic hair! [swims past unidentifiable viscous mass, likely from the nasal passages of a child] OK, that fucking hair is ON MY FACE. [rubs entire face] Is it time to get out? I think it’s time to get out.
Freakout factor: 9.5.

What bizarro thing freaks you out?
Share it with me at [anonymously is fine!] and I’ll share it in an upcoming blog post.

On fearing centipedes, pandemics and people who clip their nails on the subway: A chat with acclaimed author Christopher Healy

Christopher Healy, Fearless Husband.
Christopher Healy, Fearless Husband.

From time to time, as frequent readers of This Fearless Year may have noticed, I like to chat or correspond with brilliant authors about their worst fears. (A little light conversation, you know.) Today’s Q+A was especially hard to pull off, as it required me leaning over the armrest of my chair and informing my husband, Christopher Healy, author of the acclaimed Hero’s Guide trilogy (The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle and The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw), that he was going to be contributing to my blog, or he would really have something to be scared about. Kidding! Though, really, he had no choice.

My Fearless Year: What are you afraid of? Name one big thing and one micro thing.
Christopher Healy:
Well, one big thing I’m afraid of is a micro thing: Germs. Bacteria. Viruses. The scariest book I’ve read in a long time was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (although it was also amazing). I can’t watch movies like Outbreak or Contagion or any kind of worldwide plaguey stuff. Those are so much more terrifying to me than, say, a zombie apocalypse thriller. Unless maybe the zombie-ism is caused by a virus. Then I guess it’s a toss-up.
On a less consequential level, I am also afraid of centipedes.

MFY: Who is the scariest person in the world and why?
Anyone who clips their nails on public transportation. Because if they’re willing to do that, they could literally do anything next.

MFY: Is there any piece of music, book, or work of art that makes you feel courageous?
CH: When our daughter was hospitalized with a rare neurological condition last year—which was easily the scariest overall time of my life—I used to feel strangely hopeful and emboldened every time the song “Pompeii” by Bastille came on. I say “strangely,” because it’s a song about the destruction and demise of an entire city and contains the repeated line, “How am I going to be an optimist about this?” But the way I interpret it—and I’m probably completely wrong on this—“Pompeii” is a fight song. It’s a guy who’s in an objectively awful and seemingly unwinnable situation, but who refuses to give in to it. He’s looking for a way to get through it. And when the chorus says, “If you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you’ve been here before,” it reminds me that I’ve survived hard times in the past. This is just one more. Also, that “ay-oh, ay-oh” part in the song is really cool.

MFY: You have written a lot (humorously) about courage, and how people find it within themselves. Which of your characters’ quests for courage do you relate to the most?
In the Hero’s Guide series, Prince Frederic (Cinderella’s prince) starts off as a shut-in who’s afraid of basically everything. It doesn’t matter if it’s an evil witch or a dust bunny, Frederic is cowering either way.  I am, thankfully, not that neurotic. [Editor’s note: This is not 100% true. I have seen him flee from dust bunnies.] But the part of Frederic that I relate to is that he’s a guy who has always wanted an adventurous life. He knows he’s got a bold soul hiding somewhere inside him. But the fears, which have been pounded into him since childhood, are more powerful than his yearnings for excitement. Having to work hard to bust the brave guy out from where’s he’s imprisoned deep inside the shy, timid guy—I’ve been there.

MFY: Is there a fear you faced recently, and overcame it? If not, which fear would you like to confront?
I’d really love to overcome my fear of spontaneity.

MFY: Hallelujah! I mean…oh really?
CH: Yes, I know. I am fully capable of hearing a simple suggestion like, “Hey, let’s go grab some brunch,” and having the mental response of, “Now? Oh, no. I don’t know if I’m ready for this. I haven’t prepared!” My life would be much easier—and probably more fun—if I could get over some of that.

MFY: To that point, do you want to grab some dinner out tonight?
CH: Hmm. I’ll think about it.

Christopher Healy’s next book, The Worst Thing About Saving the World, will be released in 2016. Follow him at @ChristophrHealy.

This Year in Fear: 1844, when people thought they were possessed by demon cats

Just another adorable feline.

First, let’s all reckon with one immutable truth: Cats are scary.

My first cat, Mittens, despite being bitty and having no front claws (please, no emails—she came from the shelter that way), managed to take down several mice, a bird or two and one unfortunate bunny. My third cat, Sappho, despite being named for Classical Greece’s version of Joni Mitchell, was a terrifying vampire who spent most of her time crouching in wait beneath futons and beds, ready to pounce once she saw fresh ankles to dig her teeth into.Once she even pounced on me in the shower, leaping from the sink straight onto my shoulder—her dislike of water apparently nothing compared to the opportunity to give me a Janet Leigh moment.

This is to say, I understand why folks might harbor a fear that felines are the devil’s minions. More surprising to me is that, five centuries ago, some people believed evil cats had actually possessed their souls.imgres-1

True story: According to the Discovery Channel, in 1844, a handful of French nuns started meowing every day for hours at a time (and you thought Christian rock was bad).

“The whole neighbourhood heard, with equal chagrin and astonishment, this daily cat-concert, which did not cease until all the nuns were informed that a company of soldiers were placed by the police before the entrance of the convent, and that they were provided with rods, and would continue whipping them until they promised not to mew any more,” according to The Epidemics of the Middle Ages by J.F.C. Hecker. Afterward, the nuns presumably gave the soldiers that dead-eye stare cats are so good at and curled up on the sofa to lick their paws.

Interestingly, this was not the first time that a bunch of convent dwellers thought they were possessed by Satanic animals. Collective nun freakouts were actually pretty common for several centuries: in 1491, a bunch of French nuns started scampering around pretending to be dogs, and in 1560, a set of Spanish nuns started bleating like sheep. Another time, German nuns started spontaneously biting each other—which has nothing to do with animals per se, but is quite interesting. And I’m not even mentioning the Nun Hysterias of 1550, 1628, 1662, 1681, and many more.

The clear takeaway for me: As scary as cats are, convents are scarier.

Fear challenge of the week: 9 steps to having a fearless birthday

20111109-lens-morgue-fly-slide-B4EK-jumboFIRST, acknowledge that you are not Amelia Earhart or even Bear Grylls; you live in the tri-state area with limited vacation days; and therefore will not be piloting a transatlantic flight or eating a grub tasting menu. Meaning your opportunities to be fearless are somewhat, well, limited.

Then take your fearless opportunities where you can find them.

1) Own  your age. Yes, even if it’s the de facto nickname of the Worst President Ever. Even if just saying the words “I am forty-three” simply remind you of the fact that a) you are not now and never will be 38 again, something you’ve been in denial about for (oh shit) five years now; and b) you didn’t finish everything you were supposed to do when you were 42.

Which means, in my case, carrying over all those checklist items to yet another age, some of which have been hanging on there since 2008. Like fixing the garage door. Un-check. Reseeding the lawn. Still un-check. Writing a novel, a YA book, a self-help book, something (even an event listing!) for the New Yorker, doing that fancypants juice cleansing fast that seems as though it would wreak digestive havoc and give me the personality of a Dementor but that I toy with about once a week because it comes in those bottles with the cute font.

2) While you’re at it, say to hell with SCARY NUMBERS in general. That means no fudging your age, your weight, your height, or any other potentially haunting digits you can think of. When you stop fussing over such matters, at least outwardly, it makes you feel that much closer to eventually becoming that cool crone on the cover of When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple, or Bonnie Bedelia in Parenthood, and you begin to picture your future as the kind of adorable elder lady who goes on expensive educational tours to Asia with her college alumni association, and knows how to tie scarves properly.
3) Then do your own thing.

4) Give the hip-hop singing guy on the S train a compliment even though he’s terrible and now probably won’t stop talking to you. (At least it’s a short ride.)

5) Stand behind all the tiny identical blonde girls at the lunch place and get a sandwich (carbs!) with pesto—even though no one is around to tell you if it’s stuck in your teeth. Bonus points for adding a cookie.

6) Choose a spot in the park where everyone seems to be sitting in groups of 2 or 3. Opt to be alone.

7) Step on sidewalk cracks all the way back to the office. Acknowledge this shouldn’t feel daring on any level at your age.

8) Say actual words to one of the IT guys in the elevator who will jump as though you threatened to bite him. (For the record, the words were “Nice outside, isn’t it?”)

9) Be glad you’ve made it this far. Be hopeful you have many more years to make lists, and not finish them, to take chances, to say the hell with it, to be friendly even when it’s not required.

Forget the fear of failure: What I really fear is being mediocre

Lady in contemplation of her fear pyramid.

Fears are not all created equal. There is a hierarchy.

I think of every individual having his or her own Pyramid of Fear. (Which sounds like a Survivor challenge or a carnival ride, but never mind that.) Think: One singular Ultimate Nightmare at the top—say, Death; followed by an assortment of Major Terrors (i.e. Heights, Spiders, Driving in England); and finally, at the base, a virtual cornucopia of Slight But Persistent Sources of Distress, such as Fancy Restaurant Meals Featuring Obscure Organ Meats and the Kardashians.

For me, very close to the top of the pyramid you would find Fear of Mediocrity. Its cousin, Fear of Failure, gets more press, and certainly I’m not immune to that either. But mediocrity has always seemed more menacing to me—perhaps because it’s quieter, less dynamic, more, well, average. As awful as failure could be in the moment, I could always transform them later into mirthful anecdotes: “Talk about a klutz—did I ever tell you about the time I stapled my finger twice in one day?” “Wow, I bombed the math SAT so badly that I couldn’t have even qualified for a football scholarship.” And in so doing they became a part of my personal mythology. But literally no one is intrigued by experiences that fall into the muddy middle: The time you acquitted yourself just fine at yoga? The fact that you can cook decently, if nothing to write home about? There is no cocktail party so dismal that you can get away with these stories.

The era when average was awesome.
The era when average was awesome.

No doubt that’s why I’ve always gone out of my way to be seen as something other than mediocre. A few examples:

  • At the age of 11, I went on a cross-country flight carrying only the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, despite the fact I couldn’t understand a word of it, in the hopes that the flight attendant could compliment my impressive reading material.
  • At summer camp in middle school, concerned about how weakly I did in the sporty activities everyone else seemed to excel in, I memorized a monologue from Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, donned a burlap sack, chained myself to a corner of the mess hall and performed this opus on skit night. Even the risk of seeming weird or pretentious paled with the possibility of seeming run-of-the-mill.
  • I spent nearly every day during my last year of high school visiting our chorus teacher, a pompous twit, attempting to curry favor with him by learning an array of unnecessary vocal music, all so that I would win the Senior Soloist award at the end of the year. The grand prize attached to this award? The honor of singing the school song, an overwrought dirge, at graduation ceremonies while (and this is true) a small plane with a banner addressed to the assistant principal that read FUCK YOU flew in a continuous loop overhead. This honor also earned me a lifelong earworm (See it’s happening right now? “Fair Orange, we thy loyal ones, where ‘ere in life our journey runs…” Dear Lord, make it stop.)
  • At the DMV, I have rounded up my height from 5’4” to 5’5”, all so that I could tell myself (because no one else cares) that my height is above average.

So it was no small thing to do what I did several weeks ago: I started a new career at a nonprofit. In the course of my days now, I sit in meetings where I understand approximately 35% of what is being said, jargon of various sorts whizzing past my head; This is by no means unusual, of course. My new boss knows I am green at this particular field. Like any new position, a learning curve is expected. It’s normal. Typical. Average!

And perhaps you see where this is going: That is just why it’s been so challenging—I am used to feeling on top of my game; not striving for adequacy. It’s been a long time (probably since 10th grade) since I just sat, nearly struck dumb, thinking to myself, Just say something. Say something that sounds like ANYTHING. (Since this change, it has occurred to me how tone-deaf our public dialogue is on the retraining of middle-aged workers. Politicians always say that 50- and 60-something people should just go learn new professions. Just! As though it’s easy. Not terrifying, or humbling.)

Everyday, I get a lump in my stomach before I walk into work, cowed by the newness and sheepish about being a novice again on some level. No doubt that’s why I didn’t try this change sooner; keeping to the status quo is always easier. But it can feel bracing, invigorating even, to do something new, to be expected to learn all over again. At least that’s what I tell myself as I sit there, waiting for the words to come in the meetings, and until the moments arise when I feel like a full participant in my workday again.