THIS YEAR IN FEAR: 1997, when people were afraid of Pokémon


There are plenty of reasons to be fearful of  Pokémon: It’s the second largest video game franchise in history. The product line generates over a billion dollars in revenue annually, probably half of that from my son’s third grade class alone. The name means “pocket monster.” (Scary!)

But none of that is why people were petrified of Pokémon in 1997. In December of that year, an episode aired in Japan called “Electric Soldier Porygon,” in which bright red and blue lights strobed across the screen (a technique called, adorably, paka-paka). Within an hour, according to the book Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior, 618 Japanese children went to hospitals complaining of dizziness, nausea, blurred vision, seizures, and more. That wasn’t the end of it: Over the next few days, newspapers reported that as many as 12,000 kids were taken ill after watching the show.

In the weeks that followed, scientists deduced the kids were suffering from Unknown-2mass hysteria, now case of widespread photosensitive epilepsy. But no matter: According to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, TV Tokyo yanked the show, and only put it back on once they’d prefaced it with trigger warnings that the episodes could cause epileptic seizures. Even the nation’s prime minister weighed in, chiding the creators of the show for using animation techniques that had previously appeared in other shows). American parents were told that such an outbreak was unlikely to happen here because we “don’t air the graphic Japanese cartoons known as ‘anime.'”

What stopped the Pokemon panic ultimately? More Pokemon. Japanese kids missed the show so much when it was off the air that once it finally returned, they rewarded it with sky-high ratings.

On overcoming the fear of flying and of sounding stupid: A conversation with best-selling novelist Ann Packer

UnknownI first encountered the Ann Packer in 2003 when, like much of America, I read her riveting debut novel The Dive From Clausen’s Pier. Years later, I had the privilege of editing her essays at Real Simple. (If you want to mist up a little, read her paean to the quotidian pleasures of car-pooling.) Last week, just before a bookstore appearance to promote her new novel, The Children’s Crusade—a gorgeous, sweeping family saga with a pretty scary mother—she did me the honor of sitting down in a noisy Manhattan coffee shop to talk about fear.

Ann Packer  Credit: Elena Seibert
Ann Packer
Credit: Elena Seibert

My Fearless Year: What are you afraid of?
Ann Packer: I’m afraid of flying. It started when I was probably in my mid-twenties and got a whole lot worse after 9/11. It has limited me in some ways. But about three or four years ago, I took a fear of flying clinic at the San Francisco airport and it helped me a lot. It gave me a little more wiggle room—the strategy in that clinic is partly education, and partly relaxation techniques. I had already done the relaxation techniques; I’d gone to cognitive behavioral therapy for it and it hadn’t really made a dent. So for me, the education piece was really important. We had a pilot, flight attendants, we went up into the air traffic control tower and they talked to us for about an hour, we had maintenance people talk to us, we had a tour of the area. My essential feeling was: You’re not supposed to be up there. I still don’t get the physics of it, but I much more trust the experience. My thing is turbulence. Awful. And that’s pretty common. They talked about what it actually is: There’s the analogy of a lake, and that waves can be calm or choppy. One thing that stuck with me was the pilot saying that “As far as a pilot is concerned, we don’t like turbulence because it makes our coffee spill. And we don’t like it because you don’t like it. But really, it’s nothing.” I take a beta blocker, and I last a lot longer. It’s not like I love it though.

MFY: That must be difficult, since, right now, while you’re on a book tour, you have to fly all the time. 

AP: Yes, right now I do. You know, it’s interesting: I didn’t know what to expect from the other students, but I was one of the least fearful people there. There were people who had not been on a plane in 10 years. On the very last day of the clinic, there was this optional flight [from SFO] to Seattle, where you could have lunch and fly back. I didn’t want to spend the extra $300 so I didn’t do it, but there were 10 of us. And of all of us, only two actually got on the plane. Some actually came and left. If you’re able to recognize that you’re not suffering all that much, that’s a good thing. And that was the case for me.

MFY: Do you have any specific writing fears? Anything you have to cope with when you’re writing?

AP: I’m afraid of being alone. I’m afraid of getting things wrong or seeming stupid.

MFY: Particularly in nonfiction?

AP: Well, yeah. That’s why I don’t really write nonfiction.

Is there anything that others are typically afraid of that doesn’t worry you?




There are people who read one bad thing on GoodReads and it ruins their day.



MFY: Is there anything that others are typically afraid of that doesn’t worry you?
AP: I’m not really afraid of what other people are going to think of me.  In my experience, we get upset by the negative opinions that correlate with our own judgments against ourselves, and I’ve kind of worked out a way to–how can I put this?–cut out the middleman.  If someone says something against me I can usually take the insulted or shamed or hurt or guilty feeling, separate it from the other person, and try to figure out what’s getting to me and why.  So when it comes to bad reviews, I don’t like them, and there’s a sting for sure because there’s something humiliating about being the public target of snark, disrespect, condescension–frequent elements of bad reviews.  But I’m not so concerned with the specifics of a bad review, the content.  I’ve already thought so much about the book that there’s very little a reviewer can say that I haven’t considered.  “Your book is slow.”  Well, yes, it’s about the relationship of people and time.  It’s paced exactly as I want it to be paced.  It’s not going to work for everyone.

MFY: There are people who read one bad thing on GoodReads and it ruins their day.
AP: It’s a very vulnerable position, publishing a book, and I don’t want to sound superior or indifferent.  I’ve been really fortunate in getting a lot of public affirmation and that’s made a huge difference.  In terms of other fears, I’m not as afraid as I used to be of not knowing what I’m doing in my writing.  I kind of embrace it. I mean don’t get me wrong, it’s not fun. But in this last book, I did enjoy not knowing how I was going to get from one paragraph to the next. I’ve never been an outliner. It used to be more anxiety-provoking, and I now believe that following an idea that doesn’t sound promising can really be the best way to arrive at something wonderful.

Fear encounter #5: My daughter’s illness pays her a visit today, and scares the crap out of everyone

This is not an emergency. Of the many things I love about Julie, the school nurse at my daughter’s school, this may be my favorite. She starts every phone call this way. And we’ve had so, so many phone calls.

“B’s arm started spasming in her science class and she can’t make it stop,” Julie told me. “She is crying, and scared.”

I’m not frightened, not immediately. I drive to the school in a state of calm, minding traffic rules, even listening to the radio.

That all changes when I see her: B is lying on a cot; her face pink and blotchy, contorted in pain and fear; her left arm clenched and pulsating furiously. She stares at me hard, with that urgent, pleading look I’ve come too know too well over the last year and a half, since she first contracted reflexive sympathetic dystrophy, a vicious condition that corrupts the communication between her brain and her nervous system. It’s a look that means Get me the fuck out of here. And by here, she means her own body.

I hold her. I rock her. I pull back her hair. I note that it needs to be washed, then wonder how I can think about that at a time like this. I dry her eyes over and over.

Today is not 15 months ago. B is not in the hospital, senseless and nearly incoherent from pain. There was the time it took four E.R. nurses to hold her down while they shot her up with enough Ativan to sedate a grown man. There was the time she just screamed. I don’t know how many hours it lasted. I lost count.

I try to still the shaking of her arm. It doesn’t work. I change tactics.

“B, let’s remember this,” I intone, as her arm shudders and vibrates. “This is going to pass. We have beaten this before and we will beat it again. We are stronger than this! We won’t let the RSD hurt you anymore!” Suddenly, I’m Dr. Phil-meets-Suze Orman-meets-Coach Taylor. B nods. I find it maddening that inspirational pep talks—the sort I otherwise recoil at—are the only thing I can ever seem to do for my child.

Today is not 15 months ago. She will not go from having pain in her arm, to pain in her leg, to the other leg, to her back, then her jaw, to almost total paralysis. There will be no more incorrect diagnoses, ranging from some-kind-of-virus to hysteria. This is not the beginning of anything. Today is just today. 

A palimpsest is a piece of paper from which the words have been removed, so that the paper can be reused. But nothing ever gets truly or completely erased. So ultimately, the page contains text from both now and then, and the words overlay each other at random, rendering the whole thing almost indecipherable. That’s what this moment feels like: I am confused, unsure if I’m reacting to what’s happening right now, or what happened a year ago, or both. I’m sitting there, holding her, staring off above her head at the nurse’s eye chart. But I’m also in my daughter’s old hospital room, gazing blankly at the snowy roof just under the window ledge, trying to husband enough energy to get through the rest of the day. And then I’m blinking back tears, trying to maintain some semblance of decorum as gum-chewing middle-schoolers blithely wander in and out of the office. Though honestly, I shouldn’t worry. When you’re a parent, middle-schoolers look right through you. It’s like you’re a filing cabinet, or a ghost.

I tell the nurse I’m going to take B home. Once B is there, Chris and I do the things we do: I make toast. He makes jokes. I call my parents and best friend, and cry. He takes the dog for a walk. I’ll be copacetic in a day or two. He’ll come down with stress cramps in about 36 hours.

About two hours after they started, B’s spasms abruptly end. Her arm stops shaking. Her pain begins to dissipate. She looks like she’s been run over by a steamroller. But she starts to worry about homework. That’s a good sign.

We don’t know why she had this relapse today—it’s just the third one she’s had since leaving the hospital last February, though by far the longest and most painful. It could have been stress; seventh grade is soul-crushing on a good day. It could simply be that she has a Machiavellian chronic condition that will, now and then, assert itself, letting us know that we can’t forget about it, or move past it, not entirely anyway.

I wish I could talk directly to the RSD. I wish I could tell it that it doesn’t need to flex its power in front of us. That even when it’s not laying waste to my daughter’s body and her will, it is always with all of us. I also wish that I could let it know that as much as it terrifies us—and it does, more than just about anything—it will never really get the better of us. The pep talk I give my daughter may be cheesy, but it’s also true: We are stronger, in the end. We will prevail.

THIS YEAR IN FEAR: The Middle Ages, when people were afraid of crying babies


Every mother of a screaming infant has probably looked at him, bleary-eyed with frustration and sleep deprivation, and wondered: Did I actually give birth to this person?

Then of course, most of us go on with our days. We don’t assume the misbehaving child is actually an imposter. That was a little different during the Middle Ages. Back then, many people believed that fairies (not nice ones like Glinda, apparently) snatched babies from their cradles and left doppelgängers, known as changelings, in their place.

How did these parents know they had a fake baby on their hands? Well, the changelings wept frequently, and were weak, hungry and often sick, according to Paul B. Newman in Growing Up in the Middle Ages. (This, of course, was a huge change from your average baby, who was always quiet, hale and hearty—and watching his waistline.)

Sometimes parents fearful of trickster fairies would leave out food in the hopes the magical creatures would think, Oh the hell with baby-stealing, I see a bowl of sop! Disturbingly, some who thought the deed was already done would hurt or abandon the baby, in the hopes the fairy would come back to rescue it. (This is especially distressing since some folklore experts have surmised that the changeling legend came about to explain why some children were born disabled, or died prematurely.)

For more depictions of changelings in art, go to Cindy Bruchman’s fascinating blog.

On overcoming rejection, and sticking it to nasty writing teachers: A conversation with author Jillian Medoff

Unknown-3I met Jillian Medoff back when we both lived in Park Slope, and our daughters both attended Beansprouts preschool. For her daughter’s birthday, Jillian threw an art party in her home, and kids got to fingerprint and draw on large sheets of paper tacked to the floors and walls. I recall picking up my five-year-old B, her hair mussed and cheeks delightfully smudged, who breathlessly gushed how that was the best party everevereverever all the way home. And I remember thinking: Wow, that mother is really brave.
     And she is! Not just for throwing an art party in her apartment for preschoolers—although I should say again: KUDOS—but for writing beautiful (and often hilarious) fiction that traverses intense, challenging emotional terrain. Jillian’s most recent bestseller is the sublime I Couldn’t Love You More.
MY FEARLESS YEAR: Name one thing you are afraid of. Do you tend to face it, or flee it?
Jillian Medoff: While I’m unabashedly, almost perversely, honest on the page, I find it excruciating to be as forthright in real life, particularly when I’m angry. I could tell you this is because I’m polite (partially true), or because after 30 years in corporate America [note: Jillian has a corporate day job], I’m trained to temper my reactions (also partially true). Or I could lie and tell you I’m just an easy-going, live-and-let-live kind of girl. But the real reason I can’t speak my mind is because I’m petrified of offending someone,  and having them—God forbid—dislike me.
      As a writer, my rage fuels my art; my novels are free of artifice, risky and raw. As a person, though, I accommodate and equivocate. I rationalize, I let things go. as I get older and more centered, increasingly I find myself saying, “Wow, that was rude,” and “Stop taking advantage of me,” and “You’re standing on my foot.” I’m getting so bold, in fact, someday I might even say this out loud.
MFY: Your last novel dealt with a woman facing a parent’s worst fear (a Sophie’s Choice moment;iclymcover-hthumb I still get chills thinking about it). How do you keep the process of writing about something terrifying from tumbling over into your real life?
JM: If I write about my deepest fears, they can never happen in real life. Thus, I’ll never have to choose which of my children to save in a freak accident. Nor, for that matter, will I ever be betrayed by my closest friends, watch my family implode, or experience the death of a family member. My plan is to write a novel about immortality so that I’ll never die.
MFY: What book, movie, piece of music or other form of art has helped you get over or cope with a fear?
JM: Years ago, the act of creating art—of pushing through—helped me cope with terrible anxiety. In my first year of college, I applied to study with Robert Coover (very eccentric literary writer, Professor Emeritus at Brown, wore offbeat bolo ties and cowboy boots despite hailing from Iowa). He accepted me into his seminar, despite even though I was only a freshman. “I never accept freshman but you have a brilliant imagination,” he told me, which was thrilling until he added, “but at this point you can’t write for shit. Hopefully one day you’ll grow into yourself.” The class was a nightmare. My stories—admittedly, purple and overwrought—were eviscerated week after week. I was scorned and laughed at, but Professor Coover just shrugged, as if to say, What did you expect? I told you so. I probably should’ve dropped the class, but instead I stayed and stewed, embarrassed at being such a lousy writer and also petrified. God, I was petrified—of him, of the class, of being humiliated by all those juniors and seniors. But every time I got that fluttery, panicky feeling, I’d think, “You know what, Coover? Fuck you. Fuck you and your odd neckwear and stupid boots. Just watch me. I am gonna be great one day.” Even now when I’m too nervous to write something especially risky or revealing, I remember Professor Coover and his bolo tie, take a deep breath and press on.
MFY: What common fear doesn’t resonate with you at all?
JM: I have no fear of meeting new people or finding my way around/moving to an unfamiliar city. I moved a lot as a kid—17 times (seven elementary schools, two junior highs and two high schools)—so I just bear down and deal.
MFY: What’s the scariest part about writing?
JM: Early in my career, I believed the scariest part about writing was rejection. Now I believe it’s—wait, before I tell you, a vignette:  My first novel, Hunger Pointwas my MFA thesis that I sold to a famous editor for a lot of money. I had a feature-film deal (the novel was eventually made into a Lifetime movie), invitations to book parties and movie premieres, requests to write for film and TV, and dinners with celebrities (ask me about Billy Bob Thornton’s teeth). Most of all, I had the promise of a grand life ahead—a real writer’s life—which makes what happened next so poignant: my then-agent couldn’t sell my second book, my third book sold and promptly tanked. I couldn’t sell my fourth, and I spent the next 10 years writing novels, getting rejected, trying again, failing again. I was exhausted, resentful and desperate to quit. (The irony, of course, is that throughout these painful, punishing years, I was living a real writer’s life, only it wasn’t anything at all like the life I’d imagined or wanted.)
       I offer this story to illustrate how, as a novelist, I was forced to face my deepest fears: I was rejected (countless times), my promising career was derailed; I failed, basically. And yet, having gone through this experience and survived, I still believe the scariest part about writing is rejection. My husband thinks this is crazy: What’s the worst that could happen? You’ve been through this before. But the act of showing my writing makes me panic. Maybe if I always wrote the same book, maybe if I hadn’t fallen so far and so hard, maybe if I wasn’t so anxious to push forward, it wouldn’t feel so frightening. But if you’re not shaking in your boots [when you write], then you haven’t bled enough on the page, you haven’t risked anything. So for me every novel I write is its own crucible.
      I’ve been working on my current book for five years. Not only is it a new direction for me, I’m broaching issues few women have covered fictively. It’s big in scope, a risk and a reach and the kind of novel I’ve wanted to write my entire career. And I am utterly petrified. Petrified. And yet—look at me Professor Coover! I’m about to jump.

Fear experiment #4: A confrontation with my fear of confrontation (with special appearance by an anti-vaccine cheesemonger)



I hate confrontation. How much?

This much.


Partly, it’s because I am shy. Partly, it’s because I am wussy. Confrontations, no matter how monumental or minor, make my heart beat faster, palms sweat, weird chills zig-zag up and down my back. I develop tics, suddenly, out of nowhere. Who is that cracking her knuckles or messing with her hair? I don’t do that! Normally, anyway. It’s like the merest thought of conflict makes my entire body start to fall apart. Not that avoiding confrontations is particularly healthy either. My guess is that doctors don’t recommend my general M.O.—quiet roiling with outrage, followed by loud venting on social media—as a stress-reduction strategy. Thinking back, there are so many confrontations I could have had, but didn’t:

Scenario #1: NJ Transit guy sets his coffee cup between us on the images-2seat.
What I should have said: “Hey NJ Transit guy? I would like you to remove your cup. Here’s why: It might spill! Which is a possibility that you obviously haven’t considered. And while we are on the subject, why would you even set a cup there? Is it because you think it’ll keep your drink warmer? However well-insulated my ass may appear, it is not your coffee cozy.”
What I did say: Nada.

Scenario #2: Back when I was editing, a big-name writer gets mad at me for making a few suggestions.
What I should have said: “OK, you said these changes are destroying your voice. But here is the thing: We can’t run 10 exclamation marks in a 200-word piece. You’ll look like a hyper-caffeinated middle-school cheerleader. So really, we’re doing you a favor! Because IMHO, if I were one of the National Book Award judges, I’d ask you to turn in your honor on the basis of those exclamation marks alone.”
What I did say: “Actually, my name isn’t Nicole.”

Scenario #3: While I am phone banking for Obama for America, a woman screams at me because all these mother-fucking calls were ruining her mother-fucking dinner.
What I should have said: “Hey, lady, just imagine how crappy your dinners will be when you have to spend them discussing Vice President Ryan’s latest policy address? Are you nauseous now? Good!”images-3
What I did say: “I am so sorry! We will take you off the list.” OK, in this case, I was right to be meek. I had ruined her mother-fucking dinner.

So the other day, when I was in a fancy grocery store, and another scenario presented itself, I was inclined to avoid confrontation yet again.

In this case, an older woman by the cheese counter, was handing out cheddar cubes. There is nothing better than a free cheese cube.

To my surprise, the woman was pontificating. Not about the many virtues of Humboldt Fog, or the horror show that is pre-shredded cheese. But, for some reason, about vaccines.

“I say, just have measles and be done with it,” she was saying to some man who was blankly nodding (whether in agreement or mere courtesy, I couldn’t tell). “I don’t even think it’s safe to put this sort of thing in your body. Who knows what chemicals are in those shots?”images-4

I felt the slow burn of outrage begin in my stomach and radiate out. And the urge to flee, flee to the safety of the freezer section or the cold cuts, to leave the crazy lady and her (Jenny) McCarthyite propaganda behind.

But damn it, I wanted those cheese cubes.

So I said something. I’m not going to direct-quote myself here, because the whole episode was a minute-long blur. But I made a few points:

• That maybe, just maybe, a high-end grocery store wasn’t the optimal setting for a poorly-informed rant against vaccines.
• That it was just this sort of backwards thinking that was resulting in thousands of children getting preventable diseases.
• That I would take a sample of each cheese, thank you very much.

I’ll be honest. The whole thing wasn’t all that dramatic. She looked mildly surprised and uncomfortable, but the exchange was civil and probably didn’t ruin her day, or even her hour. And I felt triumphant to have stood my ground. I wouldn’t have done it without the prompting of this little experiment of mine. And hey, maybe I kept her from spreading misinformation to other grocery shoppers.

Now, if I could only find that NJ Transit guy.


8 things really famous people were afraid of


1) Alfred Hitchcock was afraid of eggs. “That white round thing without any holes,” he noted to an interviewer. “Have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid?” He also mentioned that he found eggs more menacing than blood.

2) Gustave Eiffel was afraid of heights. So in 1887, he built what was then the tallest structure in the world (984 feet). Makes sense.

3) Judy Garland was afraid of horses. “When I even come near a bunch of horses, they nudge each other and say, ‘This is going to be fun.’  Then they snort and stamp their feet and do everything that’s bad!” the icon said, as quoted in Judy Garland: A Legendary Film Career.

4) Sigmund Freud was afraid of ferns. And the number 62. (And, from what I’ve read, the ladies.)

5) Hans Christian Andersen was afraid of being buried alive. So afraid thatHans_Christian_And_2087619b he posted a sign next to his bed that read “I only appear to be dead.” Andersen was also an adorable head case who traveled with a length of rope in his suitcase in case he needed to escape quickly from a fire.

6) Benito Mussolini was afraid of cats. Hitler was also an ailurophobe. America should perhaps have rethought our WWII battle strategy to include this guy:


7) Audrey Hepburn was afraid of water. Photographer Terry O’Neill told that during the shoot for the film Two for the Road, in which she was thrown into a swimming pool, “there were frogmen standing by to reassure her she wouldn’t drown.”

8) Marcel Proust was afraid of mice. According to biographer Edmund White, he wrote to a friend during the war that he was more fearful of rats than bombs. White also mentions that Proust “had a live rat brought to him in a cage and had it stabbed to death with hat pins as he watched with lust and fear.” Which is amazing and disturbing and, alas, probably not at all true.