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 noelle@myfearlessyear.com [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.