Trusting Fear


The other night, I got into an Uber in Marietta, Georgia, and settled in for a ride back to my hotel in Atlanta. I thanked the driver for picking me up, and he adjusted his rear view mirror and said in the kind of low, reverent voice reserved for television serial killers, “Thank you for calling me, and for allowing me this blessing for my family.”

The way he said it, he might have meant dinner on the table, or me as dinner on the table. Who knew?

Then he said, “I’m going to give you a really nice ride. I’m going to play you some good music, and we’ll have the windows down for the night air, and you’re going to just relax and enjoy.”

A couple of years ago, I bought the book The Gift of Fear, but I never finished reading it because it caused me so much anxiety. I was afraid of the book, so I took the book’s advice and avoided it. I was a little afraid of the Uber driver, but I figured if he did anything worse than turn Anita Baker on full blast with the windows down, I could throw myself out of the car. After all, I was in the back seat, and the doors weren’t safety locked.

I started texting my mother. I told her the nice part–about the soft Georgia night, and that I was enjoying it from the backseat of an Uber. You know. Just in case.

The man tried to talk to me a little more, but Anita and the 40 MPH wind drowned out his voice, so I told him I couldn’t hear him, and he turned the radio up louder, so I couldn’t hear him better.

I have a hard time deciding when I am, and am not afraid. I accuse myself of hyperbole and histrionics. Mainly, because I’ve had some bad shit go down, and I have a hard time believing worse might befall me. Also because I have an over-active imagination, and I always assume that I’m just assuming the worst.

In the back of that Uber, I started thinking about that time an elementary school bus driver decided he wanted to keep me.

Today, I called my mother and asked her to tell me what had happened–again. I wanted to tell her what I remembered, and have her fill in the gaps.

What I remembered was the driver not even pausing at my stop, and saying to me, “It’s okay. I’ll take you back last.”

When last came, and he didn’t take me back, I asked when he was taking me home. I remember how he was watching me in his rear view mirror, telling me that it was okay, that my mother had said it was fine, and that I should stay on the bus. He wouldn’t say when I would get to go home, only that everything was fine, and I was going to be okay.

It seemed wrong, and it made me nervous, but he’d been my bus driver for a long time, and if my mom had said it was okay…

But, then he headed onto the highway, and I knew she would never be okay with that. I knew something bad was happening. I remember that I kept talking to him, and telling him he needed to take me home. He kept saying it was fine, and watching me.

My mother first realized something was wrong when the staff at People’s Drugstore at Ward’s Corner, in Norfolk, VA, called and told her that the bus had gone by without dropping me off. I always got out of the bus on the People’s Drugstore side, and they would keep an eye on me (me unaware) as I crossed the intersection to the Dominion National Bank side, where my mother worked. They watched for me, part of the village helping raise an oblivious 3rd grader, and made sure I was okay.

When they called her, my mother started making phone calls to my school. They confirmed I had gotten on the bus. I just hadn’t gotten off. My mother offered (that’s understatement!) to call the police to help track down the bus, if they couldn’t find it, and the school dispatched a search party.

Police were called, as were the bus driver’s parents–a local minister and his wife–and somewhere between the two, he was convinced to turn back home.

I don’t remember where we were, and I have only a very vague recollection of him talking to people on the CB radio. I honestly don’t remember how I got home, only that I was afraid I was in trouble for not making the man take me to my bus stop, and for letting him drive off with me–like I had a choice.

I remember being afraid of him getting into trouble, and I remember feeling responsible when he lost his job. And I remember how stridently, and seriously my mother talked to me about what to do if anything like that ever happened again. We set a password, so I would always know if she was truly the one who had said it was okay for me to deviate from the plan.

My mother talked to the man. Then, my father went to his house and did his own talking.

That was the end of that bus driver.

It hit me as the Uber driver turned out onto the highway, “You could be taking me anywhere.”

Fortunately, he just took me back to my hotel. When I thanked him for the ride, he told me again what a blessing it was to his family. I was glad he hadn’t eaten me.

Then, I worried that I wasn’t afraid enough. I had made light of my own anxiety.

I don’t do that with my child. I listen to those fears when it comes to him. I know I’ve looked like a complete jerk to more than a few people, but I’d rather have people hate me, than have something happen to that boy. I’d rather people think I’m a lunatic.

For me? I need to learn to listen to myself and say, “I’ll pay the $5, thanks. I’ll be waiting for another car.”

 

Invisible Women


I waited a week to write this because I didn’t want to accidentally spoil anything. Now, you’re on your own. If you haven’t seen Ghostbusters, just know that you might get slimed with story points if you read further.

 

I was halfway into Ghostbuster, getting elbowed to death by my excited son, who kept reaching up with his greasy, pizza fingers to grab at my arm, or my shoulder, or my leg (because we went to an eatie theater, as we call them) to share his amusement, or delight, or actual sheer glee, when I realized I’d never seen anything like this before. Not like Ghostbusters because I obviously saw and loved the originals, but like THIS. I was watching an action/comedy with four women—my aged women—who weren’t built like Megan Fox, with hair like Blake Lively, and faces like Jennifer Lawrence. I wasn’t sure what to do with it.

 

This wasn’t Denise Richards playing a Daisy-Duke-wearing physicist, whose very name was chosen because it could be the punchline of an orgasm joke.

 

This wasn’t Angelina Jolie running through a video game plotline, boobs bouncing in a tight tank top.

 

This wasn’t even Rebel Wilson making jokes about how gross she is because she’s fat.

 

These were four women I could plausibly meet on the street, wearing clothes I might find in my own closet, doing science-y stuff with believable intellect and interest in the subject, who never once made a fat joke, or worried about having too many cats, or went and had a makeover before finding enough inner strength from their new outer beauty to ask a man to help them solve a problem. It was…I can’t really tell you how it felt because I’ve never felt it before.

 

I kept waiting for the fat joke. I kept waiting for the cat-lady joke. I kept waiting for the lesbian joke. I kept waiting for the biological timeclock joke. I kept waiting for one of them to lament her romantic loneliness. I kept waiting for one of them to apologize to a man for being awesome, or to have to go home to cook dinner for someone, or to break a heel. I kept waiting for the wink to the audience, to let us know that they knew they might be playing Ghostbusters, but they understood that they were only Lady Ghostbusters, not real ones.

 

Those jokes never came, and the only wink was Kate McKinnon’s gloriously daft scene-stealer. It was almost like riding up to the top of the roller coaster, only to have it curve gently and carry you back to the station without the usual drop off. Weirdly, I felt like something was missing.

 

At first, I thought it was the grounding in reality to the Sigourney Weaver, Dana, character. The character, who in the original is possessed by Zuul and does much the same as receptionist Kevin (Chris Hemsworth and his biceps). But other than being possessed and rebuffing Venkman, Dana doesn’t play much of a part. And Kevin gives us both of those—his possession is as crazy ride as Dana’s, and his cool response to Gilbert’s drooling is exactly the male flipside of Dana’s exasperation with Venkman.

 

Then, I thought maybe it was in the character building. Maybe it was because we didn’t have a backstory on anyone other than Gilbert. But Venkman was the only original Ghostbuster who got any kind of work-life-balance story. (I have seen the first two Ghostbusters around 70 times, as those were the only movies the kids I babysat in the 80s ever wanted to watch. And don’t even get me started on the cartoon.) The Ghostbuster characters of today were exactly as fleshed out as the ones of old.

 

Then I thought it might have been because they never “crossed the streams,” and I wasn’t feeling the thrill of the original bromance, but they did their own version of the streams, and these Ghostbusters are immediately sticking out their necks for one another.

 

I finally had to admit that the problem was me. The problem was that I didn’t know how to watch a movie about middle-aged, average looking women, who wear work appropriate gear, do work appropriate things, and are hyper-competent without having to ask a man (or a better looking woman) for help. I didn’t know how to watch that movie because I’ve never seen that movie before.

 

The only other movies I could think of that even came close for comedy, action, or just saturation of female characters were my favorite Drop Dead Gorgeous, but that’s about a bunch of nubile teens after a beauty title (and the reason I forgive Denise Richards for any awful thing she ever makes because—please. Just watch Drop Dead Gorgeous), Thelma & Louise, but that’s all centered around a man, and men, and good lord does that end badly for everyone, and Spice World, which has comedy, action, and is nearly all women, but is hardly a movie. I’m sorry, Spices! You know I love you! Girl power!

 

Something like scales fell off my eyes. What was missing from the movie were the tropes, and the cues I’m used to following, telling me how to watch a woman as either the ingénue, the mother, the lesbian, or the crone. No one was telling me how to see these average women, who in reality would be socially invisible. There were no hooks, so to speak—no reason anyone would normally want to look at these people. I was watching invisible women do incredible things—how does that work?

 

How does it work when we’ve been trained to ignore fat, homely, too-tall, too-dark, too-pasty, bad-haired, poorly made-up, sadly dressed, average women over the age of 35, and suddenly, they are starring in the movie, and are the only people to watch? How do we watch them? No one has told us.

 

So, I’m going to go see it again. This time, I’m going to watch it with new eyes. I’m going to go watch the Ghostbusters vanquish their foes. I’m going to go watch the Ghostbusters do weird science. I’m going to go enjoy an action/comedy, and I’m going to enjoy watching invisible women doing the work. And I’m going to take my kid with me because he’s still talking about it in a way he has never talked about, or responded to the original.  Because these ladies are wicked cool.

 

And when he puts his little, greasy paws on me, laughing, I’m going to enjoy it even more because he’s growing up in a world where a woman really can be anything without apologizing for it. Even a Ghostbuster.

A Face Full of Myself


For years, my friends and I have had some good laughs over my inability to identify myself in a line-up, made apparent by the number of times I have pointed out my own reflection in a public mirror as a cute stranger. That number is somewhere between one and happened recently, so let’s not put too fine a point on it.

The best story, one I’ve told many times, is the time I actually walked into a column mirror in a crowded shopping mall. As I was weaving through the crowd, I saw a cute girl coming toward me. I liked her hair. I liked her sweater–the glimpses of it I could see. I thought, “I’m going to tell that girl how cute she is.”

But that girl kept walking right toward me. The closer I got to her, the more het up I felt. She should step to the side to let me pass. I intended to step to the side, but when she kept coming full on at me, I got mad and played chicken with her, setting my jaw as her expression changed to something determined, and a little angry.

She won, because I ended up with a face full of mirror, hitting that thing full force, with my nose and forehead taking the brunt of the blow. It knocked me backwards, and for a second, I thought the other girl had hit me, and I was about to look around for bystander help. It was the oily face-splotch on the mirror that finally clued me in to my mistake. That, and the weird looks from the bystanders.

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I have no idea what I look like.

I think about that every time I am in the grocery store, and someone is coming at me full-on with their cart. I think about how my determination of right of way left me with a face full of myself.

I think about it every time I am trying to exit a door, or an elevator, and people are pushing in on me. I think about how my insistence that I was the more important party left me with a bruised forehead.

I think about it every time I am trying to navigate a hallway, and someone is taking up the middle space, instead of staying to the right. I think about how my nose hurt for days, and how when I sneezed, it felt like my face was exploding.

I learned a good lesson about what happens when you put yourself first in a silly situation, and you come up against someone just as stubborn, and determined as you are. No one wins. My face certainly didn’t win, and that mirror looked like someone had slapped it with a cloth bag full of Crisco.

What would have happened, had I just stepped aside and smiled?

I’d have missed the mirror, and realized I’d been flirting with myself, and I could have had a laugh and felt good about it. Instead, I just hurt myself, embarrassed myself, and never got to tell that girl how cute she was, because by the time I got to her, I hated her on principle.

I think a lot of what we’re seeing in the world is a lot of us hating people on principle. We don’t want to take a step to the right because we think we are right. We are walking ahead, with our brains full of our own intentions. Good intentions! Intentions of compliments and offers of friendship! But we still think the other person should step aside, and when they don’t, we don’t ask about their intentions. We just headbutt them.

Or, we step aside, and when they don’t acknowledge our greatness, we get mad because they haven’t appreciated our magnanimity. We have to get over that. We have to get to the point where we step aside without an expectation of thanks, just because it is the kind thing to do. It’ll catch on. Kindness is just as catching as cruelty–it just takes a little longer to get to a fever.

The next time you have the opportunity to step aside for someone else, think about me and my busted face. Have a laugh, then skootch over.

We Don’t Kill People


Dear World at Large,

Maybe no one every told you, or maybe you’re too upset to remember, but this is important: We don’t kill people.

We don’t kill people.

We don’t kill people.

This is a rule.

We don’t kill people.

This is a law.

We don’t kill people out of offensive anger.

We don’t kill people out of offensive fear.

We don’t kill people because they don’t look right.

We don’t kill people because we want what they have.

We don’t kill people because we are afraid they’ll give us what we don’t want.

We don’t kill people because they believe something different.

We don’t kill people because they come from another place.

We don’t kill people because of the job they have.

We don’t kill people.

Stop killing people.

Just stop.

Please.

Please.

Stop.

Sincerely,

Your Neighbor

 

Hands Off Parenting


Thor: (as we were walking out of the house, and he was trailing his hands over everything in sight) I wonder why I like touching things so much?

Me: Probably because you’re a normal kid. You’re curious and human, and you want to know what things feel like. The trick is in knowing when you can, and can’t touch things.

Thor: Impulse control.

Me: Right.

Thor: I don’t have a lot of that.

Me: Again, because you’re a normal kid. The part of your brain that helps you control impulses isn’t finished yet.

Thor: When does that part get finished?

Me: Somewhere in your early 20s. That’s why you need parents. My job is to be the part of your brain that isn’t finished yet. That’s why I’m always telling you to stop things, or change things, or watch out. I am your impulse control center.

I honestly hadn’t thought about it like that until I said it to him, but I am my son’s impulse control at this point. Without me stopping him, he would have run out into traffic a long time ago. That is just fact.

Thinking about parenting as being someone’s brain made me laugh, but it also terrified me. I don’t always make the best decisions for myself!

We went on to the mall to chase Pokemon and watch a movie, and he leaned against me as we walked. He elbowed me throughout the movie, laughing, looking for my reaction. He pulled my arm around him in the car. He ruffled my hair and grinned.

He tickled, and poked, and grabbed, and hugged, and I found myself hoping that as his brain develops, and he learns to navigate the world without me, he never grows a brain wrinkle that kills his impulse to paw his mother.