A few years ago, I was waiting to get a pedicure when a woman I’d never seen before came up to me, grabbed my arm, and insisted that I go to the hospital immediately. I was visibly pregnant at the time, and she informed me that she’d “had a vision” that I was going to go into labor and give birth any moment. This was around the Fourth of July. My daughter was due in October.
While people leaping out from behind racks of nail polish to portend doom at you is generally well-tolerated in Los Angeles, there is a line. Thankfully, it is “seizing and frightening a pregnant paying customer.” She was escorted out, and I was led shaking to my chair.
As I sat with my feet in a bowl of watermelon-scented water, texting my baby’s father about what had happened, the nail tech, Tom, started giving me little looks. He’s a tattooed young guy who I like because he enjoys being asked about his tattoos, and I have never met anyone else like that. After the first six or so surreptitious glances up at me I asked him if something was wrong; a little warily, because I wasn’t sure if this was about my feet.
“Look, I know that lady was nuts,” Tom said. “But should you maybe go to the hospital anyway? Just in case?”
“And tell them what?” I said. “That I was referred by a psychic at Fancy Tips?”
I turned to the grandmotherly woman in magenta cheaters getting her nails buffed next to me for backup. But she shook her head at me.
“I think he’s right,” she said, a little guiltily. “I’m not superstitious but…Better safe than sorry, right?”
I pictured the drive to Cedars-Sinai. I pictured a nurse saying “Thank God you came in.” I pictured delivering my little girl tiny and premature, and pictured all of my grandchildren telling the story of the nail salon to their disbelieving grandchildren who already think they know the concrete walls of the universe.
But I didn’t go to the hospital. After all, this was my second baby.
* * *
I am, in general, a person who has lots of irrational fears. I don’t mean like, I’m consumed with the terror that climate change is going to cause those earthquakes they used to have in cartoons where a crack would open between someone’s feet and they would fall in. That’s a rational fear.
I mean fears like the one I had in 1992 when I became convinced that the family eating next to mine at a McDonald’s in Delaware, Ohio were of vampires who preyed on other families and that they were going to follow me and my mom to the parking lot. Most people grow out of stuff like that after they turn nine. I did not.
I mostly learned to ignore this stuff in my head but as anybody with kids knows, irrational fears of the McDonald’s vampire strip crop u with a vengeance the minute you are tasked with the responsibility of a small person. After my first pregnancy, I got lots and lots MORE therapy for this and leaned on a few techniques from those days as a delicate child haunted by constant death fancies.
One technique I still use I learned from an introductory book about Buddhism my mom brought home from Borders and stuck in my hands one of many nights I spent as a near-teenager campaigning to sleep with the lights on. I no longer remember any identifying information about the book, except that the author photo was of a bearded man in a bucket hat and whose bio was something like, “Greg Somebody lives in Bellingham. He loves wine and rare Charlie Parker records too much to be a Bodhisattva in this life.”
Here is the technique: since everything living is of one piece, when you feel fear, you must stop and remind yourself that that thing you’re afraid of is also part of the universe. Like you are a part of the universe, but in no greater or lesser way. In this way, the book suggests, there is room to have compassion for all things, and compassion can be a powerful antidote to fear.
Okay, I didn’t say this technique was helpful. Sometimes it’s like trying to pull out one of my own teeth with my fingers. I only try for compassion, because it feels better than being afraid. As a kid, I would try to use it like, That man sitting across from me on the train is just coming home from work like I’m coming home from school. And I don’t have any nuclear weapons in my bag!
Now I try it like this:
The wasps flying by my son are also living things, and they were once babies.
The president was once a baby.
In what way am I like this scary person on Twitter who thinks Prince Harry eats babies?
In what ways is a person who refuses to wear a mask and/or visits a water park during a pandemic like me, a person who enjoys abbreviate books on spirituality for white teenagers? We were both babies once!
Letting all emotions come and be met with equanimity: how can I not be frightened and angry when I can’t see the actual sun because human beings are dildos hell-bent on destroying the only place we live? This one is hard because catastrophic pollution was never a baby.
* * *
A few weeks ago I was running in the hills in Los Angeles and a man popped out behind a bend in the road and attempted to hand me a flower he’d picked. I was wearing a mask, he was not. I will resist further descriptors of him here but suffice to say he was 1) wearing a camouflage hat and 2) likely the kind of audience member Pixar was attempting to seduce when they cast Larry the Cable Guy in the “Cars” franchise.
In times like these I have to weigh my natural tendencies as a fearful person against the very real things there are to be afraid of.
Naturally I assume every strange man who tries to do something “nice” when we’re alone together is doing so in a prelude to burying my body someplace so he can later dig it up and put unflattering makeup on it. I felt this with the flower guy, compounded by the fact that the aggression demonstrated in touching a stranger has secondary and even tertiary dangers in this particular moment.
This is a situation when women normally have to do a quick analysis and decide whether they’re being “rational” scared or “silly” scared, and it’s a dumb awful calculation we have to constantly make anyway even when we are THIRTY-SEVEN WITH THREE KIDS AND SWEATY AND WEARING A MASK.
I said “No thank you!” and ran away as hard as a could without looking like I was trying to run too hard.
Later, when I was doing my stupid Buddhist exercise, I wondered how that man was like me, but also, how I could be more like him. How nice it must be to be that baroquely unafraid as him. As that clueless, thoughtless, germy piece of shit in his dumb hat.
* * *
For a while I kept seeing the phrase “a rational amount of fear” or “a reasonable amount of fear” everywhere. As if fear and reason are mutually exclusive!
Behavioral scientists certainly are on my side here. These people, who absolutely love to talk about caves, rape, and cave rape, will tell you that fear and anxiety are actually the wise great-grandparents of reason. What we’ve come to appreciate as “using common sense” is actually the time-consuming and deadly way of doing things.
Way back in the early 2000s, when girls who moved to cities after college, they got “The Gift of Fear” as a farewell present from their most terrified aunts. It’s written by Gavin de Becker, a fascinating person who lost his virginity at Carrie Fisher’s house who now runs security for Jeff “My Moneyyyy!” Bezos. You may know de Becker’s argument already: that all of us, women especially, are being socialized out of their true inborn superpower: being terrified by shit.
Most of us don’t listen when our bodies tell us to be afraid, because we’re too afraid and embarrassed of being seen as afraid.
Lately I feel like the messaging on fear has been what I’m gonna call “real mixed.”
When you are a generally fearful person, is a badge of honor not to be afraid of things like public transportation, getting diseases from public transportation, or the people who you meet on public transportation.
I lived in New York for most of my twenties, and it’s actually pretty easy not to be afraid in public there, because you are constantly surrounded by unfrightened people in a way you are not anywhere else in America. In LA, I was once walking to meet a friend at a bar and a block or so in front of me I saw a shirtless man heading in my direction carrying a pipe wrench. There was no one else to make eye contact with with “that look” — that one that says, “You see it too, and if this gets out of hand we will both have do something but otherwise let’s not freak out and look like assholes.” In LA, it’s just you and that guy and his pipe wrench.
The only time in my life I have ever experienced what I will regretfully call “the pull of gun ownership” was when I moved briefly to the country, alone. I kept a prop machete that was a prop from a zombie film I’d been given as a gift under my bed, and sometimes, when people came to visit they’d stay in my room and I’d forget to tell them about it.
“There’s a machete under your bed!” they’d say, as if I ought to act surprised, as if that wasn’t a normal thing to have under the bed.
* * *
Oddly enough, I didn’t worry too much about sickness as a kid. I was too preoccupied with the terror that my sister’s friend’s dad was in love with me, or that I would, somehow, be stranded in the middle of the ocean with no flotation device one day. I should mention here, again, that I’m from Cleveland.
You know the part in every woman’s memoir where she feels obligated to tell you how much she read as a kid? Like, “While other kids were playing, I was strolling the ivy-covered walls of ‘The Secret Garden’” and other insufferable things like that? I will never write this chapter, one, because I missed my window for that kind of book and I don’t think there’s much interest there, and two, because I was too worried about an imminent alien invasion to really disappear into Victorian England. Sure, it might look like I was reading on occasion, but every few paragraphs I was scanning the room for blunt-force objects heavy enough to injure a French burglar (not sure why French either) but light enough to be brandished by a urine-soaked nine-year-old.
In my twenties, in addition to healthy techniques like “practicing compassion,” I also discovered unhealthy techniques. Like my old compulsion’s cool cousin, Being Self-Destructive.
It is a sad fact that drugs and alcohol can make a person feel temporarily less chickenshit. Of course, it’s a false form of bravery, but boy, does it feel real when you’re climbing a cell phone tower at 2 AM.
I don’t know if this is common knowledge, but Taco Bell restaurants used to have actual bells on their roofs, old-Mission-style. In the dull days before the internet, and it was a thing for drunk people to break roof tiles or their femurs trying to ring (or in some cases, steal), the bell. I know this because when the bell was replaced with a plastic sign on my local Taco Bell and I asked my dad why, he said ruefully, “Drunk people.”
Sex also made me brave. Thanks to sex (or more accurately, trying mostly unsuccessfully to have sex), I did every scary thing from pretending that I also thought George Lazenby was “the best Bond” when I had never seen a Bond film to walking on a rickety suspension bridge in an actual jungle as though I were in one of the Jumanji films (there are multiple now!).
Around the time I turned thirty I figured it was both undignified and terrifying to try new drugs, until one night I found myself on a second date running up Hillhurst Avenue with a chicken wing in my hand and my face full of MDMA screaming, “I FEEL AMAZING!!!!” Good dick imprisons you? I say it gives you wings.
Then, of course, like lots of people, I had kids, and I got scared again. Kids are both terrifying and tend to keep you from freely doing silly daredevil shit, which I fully believe can make and keep you brave. Our babysitter, who is so tattooed that they had trouble finding a place to do a recent allergy test on her skin, put it best: “I don’t jump out of airplanes anymore because I can’t justify my son potentially saying, ‘My mother died jumping out of an airplane.’”
The last time I was in New York, I buckled my seat belt in a taxi. That’s just who I am, now, I guess.
* * *
As of this writing I live in LA. In the past six months this has meant a few not insignificant earthquakes and fire that has effectively turned off the sun and more than a few reasons to be scared shitless. Some motherly instinct in me is desperate to pack my babies into the car and drive them somewhere that’s green and quiet where the earth doesn’t tremble like an overbred little dog at unforeseen intervals.
“How am I supposed to know what I’m being a pussy about and what is a rational amount of fear when we live on a fault line and getting a haircut has risk potential?” I ask my husband. And he takes his earbuds out and says, “What did you say?” And then I feel bad for being a pussy and I walk away without repeating myself.
I grew up in the suburbs, in the Midwest. It’s always been hard for me to reconcile raising my children somewhere that was considered “unsafe” where I grew up, because it’s the same place where Sean Penn lives. Now it’s even stranger — at first we couldn’t go to the playground, and now we can’t even go into the backyard. I am in charge of three small people who cannot reasonably expected not to lick things everywhere they go.
In times of great stress I’ve often felt my childhood hysteria returning, but the thing that’s kept it at bay now is worrying on behalf of my children. I’ve tried to keep that at bay too, because if I’m not careful I will become the kind of person who doesn’t let them eat Hostess products or roll around nude on the formaldehyde-soaked rug I bought from China via the evil online retailer that will eventually microchip them.
After more than a few incidents in which the whole neighborhood was roused from their sleep at an uncivilized hour, my husband barred me from setting the security system in our house. Sometimes in the evening I take the dog out into the yard and together we make sure that the back door is locked and that no new methods of ingress to our fenced yard have suddenly appeared for the savage and pillagy. I do this quietly and without telling anybody, because I don’t want them to see me do it.
* * *
A thing I’m unreasonably proud of is that, against the odds, I enjoy swimming in the ocean, even where it is cold and deep and opaque. For whatever reason, the joy of it outweighs the small and nagging potential for things to swim up and bite, and I am grateful for this small personal contradiction. When I go to the beach with my kids, I let them play and swim in the water, too.
I always thought, or hoped I guess, that as a mother I’d fall somewhere between Sharon Sedaris and the mom on “Malcolm in the Middle”: my children would both love me and submit to my sovereignty. I’d comfort them when they were really hurt and make fun of them when they weren’t THAT hurt. My toddlers would watch David Chase shows, maybe not “Treme,” and eat unnaturally blue foods stuffed with GMOs. And now, well, here we are! And of course it’s not like that because I’m not George Carlin. But if being stuck in stasis with small children for half a year has taught me anything it’s that ordinary moments of uncertainty and risk are the propulsive forces of existence. It’s the only way they change.
As baby, my first son would scream if we ever laid him on his back. Infants are only supposed to sleep on their backs. So neither of us could sleep. In order to get him to rest at night, I had to sit upright with him on my chest, and I would often fall asleep that way, for hours, the way I once read 18th century French courtiers did to keep vermin from crawling into their elaborate, dirty hairdos.
I didn’t get much sleep — even though he was “not somebody I’d be friends with if we weren’t related,” the fear of dropping him kept me up. But the fear of something happening to him if I didn’t stay up was worse.
The pediatrician told us he hated being put on his back because it was a reflex all babies had to lesser or greater degrees. “In the cave days” — caves again!— “women carried their babies constantly, and if they were set down, it meant that they had been accidentally or purposefully forgotten.” Our son just had a very highly developed desertion reflex. Who can’t relate? She also told me that children can smell their parents and can tell when they are afraid. Oh, boy, do I think about that one a lot, nose-deep in my own armpit, sniffing for fear behind my useless aluminum-free deodorant.
I think the subterfuge is working. My second son, who is a baby now, never stops smiling. I set him on his back and he smiles and smiles. He eats a piece of dryer lint when my head is turned, he smiles. One of his siblings cold-cocks him with a plastic bowling pin, he smiles.
But all this smiling causes me to picture, horribly, my little baby among early man, wrapped in burlap or whatever material we used when we were still inadvertently dropping our babies as we hunter-gatherered. Instead of screaming for me wherever I am pulling berries off of a bush with my pendulous museum diorama breasts scraping the forest floor, he reaches out to touch the furry face or a smilodon. Perhaps, hopefully, they will see this as bravery and raise him as one of their own.
It’s the “gift of fear,” again. I don’t know any parents right now who don’t experience daily waves of terror. (Except for absentee dads, whom as a group, I fully encourage to walk into the ocean until they are dead.) The whole first year I was I was frightened — of SIDS, of choking, of falling, of sickness. I made myself turn it off, to not let myself believe that woman in the nail salon, because as a parent and a person that’s all you can do or your children will not know how to navigate the world better than you did. And that’s basically the whole goal as far as children are concerned.
I worry that people will hear me say things like this and think to themselves that this is why there will never be a president who is the mother to small children, because people like that can’t be trusted with nuclear launch codes. But really, wouldn’t this make us the perfect candidates for it? Who better to watch over, lovingly and maternally, a shiny, bald, baby warhead? To be brave for it, protect it, and keep it from the wobbly and sunless world?