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?).

AAAHHH! I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO MAKE SPREADSHEETS.

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.

AAAHHH! I LET MY SON EAT TOO MUCH SUGAR AND HE’S GOING TO GET DIABETES.
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.

AAAHHH! THERE IS A FINGERNAIL IN MY CHICKEN CAESAR SALAD.
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.

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

AAAHHH! A GUY ON THE SUBWAY STARTS SINGING HOW HE WANTS TO MURDER ALL THE TOURISTS.
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.

AAAHHH! I SEE A CURLY HAIR IN THE POOL AND DECIDE IT IS GOING TO END UP ON MY FACE.
[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?
CH:
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?
CH:
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?
CH:
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.

Adventures in free-range parenting: My third-grader walks home alone for the first time

8923046d353a0ce5441683170bedc2bbMy father has often told me the following story: It was my first day of school in the first grade. I was a scrawny little six-year-old, in a flowered pinafore and braids setting off for the half-mile walk to Canterbury Elementary School in our suburban Cleveland hometown.

She (Oh God, do I hate pronouns; my dad is transgender; it’s a long, unrelated story; there’s a book and a one-woman show, if you care to know more; and now I will resume my previous sentence…) could hardly bear to watch me go. “I pressed my forehead to the glass angling my face to see as far as I could, until you were finally out of sight,” she has said, more times than she probably realizes. “I couldn’t stand just watching you walking all by yourself.”

God, do I know that feeling.

I’ve had that shudder of horror just thinking about my eight-year-old son head off to school. But here’s the caveat: I’d never actually done it. Like most of the other parents in my town, my husband and I ferry our kids everywhere—to school, to activities, to playdates. Our eldest is in middle school and walks there solo, although I nearly vomited the first day I let her go off by herself. And she was 11. 

In all honesty, I don’t know what I’m afraid of. I’m a longtime fan of Lenore Skenazy and her free-range parenting site. I mock helicopter parents (I know, I know). I realize the statistics on kidnapping are negligible. I know my son is capable of looking both ways before he crosses the street, even though he lacks a lot of other basic skills like being able to carry more than one thing in his hands without doing a vaudevillian-style pratfall, or to tie his shoes (damn you, Velcro).

So a couple days ago, I told my son, D, to walk home from school by himself later that day. (Alone in a matter of speaking, that is, considering the presence of the crossing guards, and the sidewalks choked with other parents and kids.) I hoped D would be excited to attempt such a big-boy endeavor. Mmm…not so much.

D: Nooooooo. That’s scary!
Me: Walking home from school isn’t scary. You do it every day.
D: It’s scary without mommy or daddy to protect me!
Me: Protect you from what?
D: What if I start daydreaming and wander out in front of cars?
Me: OK, well, don’t do that.
D: But what if teenagers are on the street saying bad words?
Me: If you can survive being in the same room while we watch John Oliver, you’ll make it through this.
D: What if I step in dog poop because no one points it out to me?
Me: We own a hose.
D (increasingly agitated): What if…
Me: Look, I’ll give you a piece of cake if you do this.
D (pleased): Cake?! OK.

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My son, imagining a long walk filled with swearing teens and dog poop.

While D was at school that day, I prepared to worry. Now, anticipation of worry is not the same thing as actually worrying. But I was certain, as soon as the hour of school dismissal approached, that I would become a blithering idiot. I even considered live-blogging my waiting as D walked home, certain as I was that each minute would be nerve-wrackingly, nail-bitingly fraught with tension and angst. 

AND…

Ehh. It was fine. I drank some iced coffee and read a book and then there he was. No drama. No excitement. Turns out, once again, that the lead-up to facing a fear is always worse than the moment itself.

“So are you proud of yourself?” I asked D, as he dug into his after-school snack. “Don’t you feel better now that you can do this?”

“Not really,” he said. “But this is awesome cake.”

Stop Googling your symptoms! Here’s the weird way I got myself to stop

imagesFor years, whenever I experienced the mildest twinge of discomfort, I consulted Dr. Google. If I had belly bloat, I never blamed the five-bean kale soup; I typed “bloated stomach” into Google (a.k.a. WhatsKillingYou.com) and prepared for the end.

This turmoil wreaked havoc on my diet. (When every evening meal could be your Last Supper, you might as well eat the entire pound cake.) It also destroyed my sleep. (Did you know insomnia can be a sign of Parkinson’s? You’re welcome.)

Here, the full essay from this month’s Oprah magazine (buy it, too!):

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23 brutally honest, utterly mortifying and occasionally ridiculous true confessions about my weight

1) Elephants in the room are my specialty. I’ve written about my kids, my sex life, my date rape experience, and my transgender parent for national magazines. And yet: I’ve been more afraid to write this post than any piece in my memory.

2) Why? Because I’m a person of substance and therefore not supposed to care about such trivial matters as weight. And, well, because I have ex-boyfriends and frenemies out there on the interwebs and I would like to maintain the illusion that I look reasonably similar to what I did when I was 24. (I realize this may somewhat contradict the person of substance thing.)

3) As of 9:07 AM this morning, I weighed 159.6 pounds. offending_bustreducer

4) You may have thoughts about what I just wrote. Like: Wow, that’s a lot. Or: Whatever—that’s nothing. Or: Huh. She looks skinnier in her Facebook photos. (Which is why they are my Facebook photos.)

5) I am heavier than I’ve ever been, not counting being pregnant. My BMI puts me in the “overweight” category. These are just facts, not judgments. Not to say there aren’t plenty of judgments, too.

6) I shot up from about 138 pounds last year, during my daughter’s illness. So many kind people brought us lasagna. Some brought brownies or cake. I scarfed it all in injudicious quantities. One generous friend—bless you, Jiming—made homemade Bolognese sauce, right from the Marcella Hazan cookbook. Once I ate it straight—just me and a soup spoon and the Ziploc bag it came in.

7) I probably also gained an additional 10 pounds or so from the following: Wine. Finishing my son’s half-eaten PB sandwiches. Wine. Chocolate chip scones from the bakery in town. Also wine.

8) I told myself that once my child was on the mend, I’d just diet and get back to exercising and lose it again. Just. Two years prior, I’d done a half-triathlon: swimming, biking, running. So no problem.

9) Instead, I spent about 20 minutes a day, three days a week, picturing myself swimming, biking, and running; drinking kale smoothies and eating plain chicken breasts. This almost felt like doing it, but for some reason didn’t have the desired effect.

10) Then I was laid off. Which seemed like a very good reason to eat pasta by the bucket. Still, this would be no problem because soon enough, I’d have all the time in the world to exercise and diet.

11) I did not take into account the fact that once I worked from home, I would have 24/7 access to the fridge. If you are a stay at home parent or work from your house and you do not weigh 300 pounds or more, pat yourself on the back. You are my hero.

12) I also learned (the pricey way) that the mere act of paying for a gym membership, a fitness app subscription or weightwatchers.com—or all three at once!—will not actually cause you to lose weight. Neither will simply wearing yoga pants.

13) My 17-year-old self would have found this entire turn of events downright shocking. Back then, I was 98 pounds in wet clothes. I couldn’t gain weight. I had no breasts. I had no hips. I hated my wrists. I often wore faux Bohemian clothes—men’s blazers, peasant skirts—that obscured my thinness.

14) In an attempt to become more voluptuous, I spent one month the summer before my senior year eating a pint of Haagen-Dazs every single day. (I’d melt it in the microwave and turn it into a shake of sorts.) Miracle of miracles, I did not become diabetic. Neither did I gain weight. I actually lost five pounds.

15) I was universally praised for my thinness:
“You have the smallest waist in the show—except for the girl they brought up from the middle school!”—A costumer in the Music Man, during my senior year of high school
“Oh my God, you are so tiny, you practically look anorexic!”—Saleswomen in the mall (yes, this was meant as praise)
“We don’t actually have to weigh you in. You’re good.”—Agent at the local talent agency I joined when I was 18 and an aspiring actress [they routinely weighed teen girls when we came for appointments or auditions]

offending_skinny1-216) By age 22, I was 105 pounds. Once, after having sex, my then-boyfriend told me my thighs were too fat and that he had a hard time looking at them. Also that they didn’t look like Victoria’s Secret model thighs. He said this in a sweet, mournful voice, like a doctor delivering bad news to a patient. I threw him out, and broke off our relationship. Still, the criticism, however absurd, had left its mark: I joined a gym.

17) My metabolism, age 26, died in or around September 7, 1998. It left behind a poochy area right around the belly button. R.I.P.

18) Around this time, people stopped calling me skinny. And I began to realize that weight impacted my identity to a powerful degree. Unconsciously, I’d thought of myself as a thin person. And I continued to think of myself this way, even as I became less genuinely thin.

19) In the years following, I came to work in women’s magazines. While at Conde Nast, publisher of Vogue and Glamour and Allure, curious friends would ask me if it was true that women would size up each other in the elevator. And I would reply that I didn’t really know, because those diva-types kind of looked through me. It was so obvious that I wasn’t bona fide competition.

19) Before I did my triathlon a few years ago, I had spiked up in weight a bit. So I went on the Atkins diet. But I didn’t want my daughter to know about it and grow up to develop an eating disorder. So one night after dinner, when she demanded I eat an Oreo with her, I put it in my mouth, shot her a pursed smile, and quietly exited to spit it out in the kitchen. It occurred to me, as I was bent over the sink, that in the effort to keep my kid from developing unhealthy feelings about food, I was doing a magnificent impression of an eating disorder.

20) So… hello, cookies! Look, I was doing it for the kids.

21) In the last few months, I’ve started exercising again. And I tried a new approach to eating more healthily (which yes, is a euphemism for dieting but also happens to be true): I’ve been upfront about it with both of my kids. Here’s what I’ve told them: Mommy is trying to lose weight because she wants to fit into her pants. Because Mommy is cheap and hates shopping. 

22) In response, my son told me that it was fine if I was going to eat more salads and stuff, but to keep one thing in mind. Just don’t become less of a fluffy pillow, he cautioned me, because I love your fluffiness.

23) I promised my son that I wouldn’t forget.

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

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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.