June 25th, 2008
The other day, I pushed learning-to-swim Toots into the pool.
I know, I know.
It’s just that she wanted desperately to jump off the edge into the shallow end (I’m not a total monster), hesitating time and again, yearning to jump, really struggling with herself and her fear of the unknown. And, suddenly, I flashed back to myself at that age, and how my dad used to just kind of force us kids to do the things we feared, and how relieved I was afterwards that he did. So I did, and she was.
After that, she kept asking me to push her again, and I obliged, suffering the scathing parental stares of the more reasonable moms and dads around us.
I don’t know if I’ve said this before, but Toots is my carbon copy: overimaginative, overemotional, overdramatic and overanxious. In my view, the first three traits are good things in moderation and, I think, are earmarks of a creative soul. But I also know from experience that if not kept in check, those personality traits will bite you in the ass.
When Toots is afraid to swallow toothpaste because it may poison her, I downplay the fear. When she thinks there’s an eyeball on her ceiling, I tell her it’s a trick of the moonlight. If she refuses to get near the ocean because of the sharks, I hold her hand and assure her that sharks like the older kids with more meat on ‘em. And if she’s afraid to jump, sometimes I push her.
So, I’m trying to manage Toots’ fears with a combination of deflection, humor, and a measure of force. Which, admittedly, is not the best course of action for every child, as my own father reminded me a few months ago. That he reprimanded me for mitigating Toot’s emotions struck me as so ironic, that I burst out laughing. I mean, here was the man who forced my reactions to life for years. And not in an altogether bad way, either. In fact, his way of dealing with my excessive personality worked for me. Mostly because he understood it so viscerally, as I was cleaved from his genes: bone from bone, vice from vice, fear from fear. And so it goes with Toots. I figure because it worked for me, it will for her too.
My dad’s philosophy was “just do it” way before Nike sloganized the tagline. He advised us to get done with the being scared part and just jump over the crevasse of fear and land on the other side. No dickering, no hesitating, no nothing. Just do it. So, it was often that I found my young self behind the closet door, with a string tied to my loose tooth, the other end noosed around the doorknob, with my dad on the other side, yanking the door open in one brutal instant. As my bloody tooth dangled from the string, a flood of relief overcame me so powerful, that I believe it engrained itself in my deepest places — right down to the smallest cell.
When, if the Thanksgiving of ’75, I developed an inability to swallow foodstuffs due to an unnatural fear of choking, my dad shoved food down my throat. To his credit, it took him a good three days to reach that point. But finally, after I hadn’t eaten anything in that time, my dad just couldn’t take it anymore. It was Thanksgiving, for God’s sake! So, he stuck a shelled peanut in my mouth. (Not the best “starter” food to stick into your crazy child’s mouth, when she feels she will choke on water.) But after I let the peanut dissolve in my mouth and dribble down the sides of my mouth, the peanut juice eventually made its way down my throat with the added bonus of not choking me. I was cured! The Thanksgiving of ’75 was saved. My dad was a hero.
And so it was. If I were scared to jump into the pool, my dad would push me. If I were afraid to get behind the wheel of a car, he took me out of the freeway to learn to drive. I realize how heartless and even cruel this all sounds, but it wasn’t done in that spirit. Rather, I know my dad felt he was helping us to get on with life. To live it. Stop dipping your toe in the pool. Get in! Splash! Have fun. Life is too short. Of course, he did all this on his terms, the way he thought best. And like I said, for me, it worked. For many kids, it won’t. But I think my dad knew that, too. His approach varied with my brothers and sister. As for me, I live/d in my head, making monsters bigger, greener, badder than they are, I magnify my fears to mega proportions until they overcome me and I’m paralyzed. My dad showed me that if you jump into the void, it’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be. And I’m forever grateful for that.
When my dad talks to me today, he still falls into the role of minimizing my fears. In fact, he gets downright cognitive with me. He pooh poohs my imagined illnesses, my parental mishaps; downplays my hypochondria, my monsters. He gives them no power, and like a cult member, I follow suit. Hey, he doesn’t think it’s a big deal, so maybe it’s not.
When all else fails, when he knows I’m too far down the chute of anxiety, he makes me laugh. On a trip to Hawaii eight years ago, as my family waited on the runway due to a “mechanical issue,” I shook in my aisle seat from fear of flying. Sensing my rising panic, my dad told me to relax, we’d be up in the air in a minute, “right after the pilot duct tapes the engine.” Soon enough, we were flying. And five hours later, I was in Hawaii. Alive.
Still, I think that fear has its place. Sometimes you need to listen to it. I’m a firm believer that you don’t walk down a closed ghetto alley at 11 o’clock at night. Which is something I did in Chicago’s Cabrini Green area a few years back. My friend and I rounded the street corner at West Division after a movie and saw some rabble-rousing youngsters near our car, which we’d parked on a dead-end alleyway. In the dark, so close to the area where even cabs refused to drive at night. But, we took a deep breath and entered the alley. Right when we caught the kids’ attention, we were in the car, driving away. I don’t know that those kids were anything but kids. Still, it’s something I wouldn’t do today. (Unless my dad was with me.)
My fears continue to walk with me. I still carry my flying phobia. Truth be known, I’m terrified to get on a plane. But I do. (Most of the time.) It’s been five years since I’ve flown and in the Fall, I’m planning to go to New York for my 40th birthday. By myself. Stepping into the void. Because after all, I’d rather jump into the pool, than stand on the edge. And now I push myself.
So maybe this will work for Toots and maybe it won’t. All I can say, is I understand where she’s coming from. And maybe that will be enough. If it’s not, I’ll give her a little shove.