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.