Monday, October 12, 2009

Fearing Fear...

I talk about my fears and others' near constantly. It is a big subject in Park Slope, probably like anywhere except we are a communicative bunch, all of us at least desiring if not acting on our impulse to share at length our greatest anxieties. If not, we wouldn't live all huddled together, 62,000 of us in roughly one square mile.

For parents, the bulk of anxiety is directed toward schools, how good they are, whether they give too much or too little homework, how attentive the teachers are, how talented or not, whether private institutions offer enough to warrant the prohibitive cost, whether public ones offer enough to challenge little minds in between teaching to the necessary unnecessary tests. The anxieties and worry plague each and every one of us as if it, all of it, every bit of what keeps us up late or gets us up early, matters as a course of life or death.

I wonder to myself about my own beginning-of-the-year concerns about my cute little around-the-corner public school, my worry about if it is enough, if it needs to be more, if I shouldn't be doing more. Then, sometimes, I shrug, remembering my own not-perfect public school education, the fact that I remember most, more than almost anything else, my elementary school groundskeeper's sweet greeting and his lovingly tended rose garden. And, of course, the new library I saw get built, where I worked on my first newspaper articles for the Fruchthendler Firebird and where I sat, for as long as the librarian would have me, pouring through books that gave me a sense of belonging like little else did.

My parents were worried about a lot of things, about money, about buying groceries, my Mom about controlling her curly hair, my Dad about his golf handicap. But where we went to school? Not so much. We walked ourselves through the desert shortcut alone, even in kindergarten, to the sweet little school where Halloween was made much of, almost as much as Rodeo. Yes, that's right, in Tucson, Arizona, the rodeo coming to town is a marked event, something even we non-cowboy Jewish kids celebrated with dirt-laced pancakes in our sprawling schoolyard and square dancing on our basketball courts.

I try to remember to think as my children think, to appreciate the little things they appreciate, like the community they are surrounded by, the little interactions with the teachers and faculty who all know them by name, who know me. Those are the important things. They will learn to read, to write, to figure numbers. It is up to me to make them feel less afraid, to make them feel secure in being in the place they're in, whether it be their home, their school, their community, the Universe.

I gave a gold star this morning to a great mom brave enough to host a gaggle of boys in her home during a day off school. She was glad to have the chance to do it, having closed a show she had been acting in for a while, that took her out of the loop of her boys and their friends and their friends' parents. Good for her for sending out the invitation wide. It is always lovely to entertain at home, offering people coffee or tea and a little chat. It is what makes a community a real community if we let it. I don't do it nearly enough, she reminded me.

We talked, as usual among parents, about schools, and I posited out loud whether all these little details matter. They seem to, most assuredly in the moment, we make much of them. We can make positive changes through the PTA, through our attentions, for sure, but...I don't know.

The problems weren't going to get answered and Eli nagged me to stop talking, as usual, and take him to Barnes & Noble as I promised to buy the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, out today. Eli has been waiting for months, Oct. 12th stuck firmly in his mind as a special day. It had arrived at last and he nabbed the book out of the front window and stuck his nose in it for the next few hours. I tried, as well, to garner enthusiasm for a thought-provoking, amusing read. I lighted almost immediately on an orange-colored cover, on The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner. Loved the title and the sub-title: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain.

Wow. A must-read for all of Park Slope, all of America, I imagine. The prologue alone had me gripped, giving as it did the oft-overlooked statistic that 1,595 people died in car accidents seemingly, according to one researcher, as a direct result of 9-11 scaring people away from air travel and into their cars.

The last line of the peskily-true prologue offered up the idea that while the families of all of these people thought these deaths were part of the "regrettable cost of living in the modern world", in reality, Mr. Gardner said, "It was fear that stole their loved ones."

A chill went down my spine along with the realization that I come to in many ways almost daily: we are focusing on the wrong things, doing the wrong things, simply out of fear. It is the big oops of our time and rectifying it is not so easy. It requires putting down the GPS and paying attention, not to the fear-mongering media or to other fearful, biased sources (those breathing and technological both,) but to history and to our own real-life experience.

In his first chapter, Mr. Gardner cited two of my own personal inspirations out of history, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Hundreds of years apart, they both preached the same wise words: the thing we should be most afraid of is fear itself. "Unreasoning" fears, he suggests, will prevent us from prospering, they will paralyze us.

Gold star for Mr. Gardner. I can't wait to read the rest of the book if the prologue and first chapter provided so much fodder for thought!

Walking out of the bookstore, I hit the Radio Shack for new headphones for my iPod. I have been putting it off but could no longer, wires exposed, broken bits of plastic poking in my ear, one earpiece totally out, it was time. I bought, at the suggestion of the nice employee behind the counter, the best of the middling quality headphones and, at his urging, paid $3 extra for "insurance" should my $14 headphones fail me in the coming year. Wow. Insurance for headphones? Never heard of it, likely won't use it, but to assuage my worry for $3? Why not? I can't exactly figure whether Radio Shack is making money by offering this, by playing off the fears of its customers, or if it's just good customer service. I stick by my theory that the house must always win or why would they do it, but, either way, I reasoned, this was a reasonable fear. My headphones would indeed likely malfunction in the coming year. And even if they didn't, I wouldn't be out much money. It seemed like a relatively safe gamble. I gave the guy who encouraged me to get the insurance and explained it to me as I demanded, at length, a gold star, which he took with appreciation. We'll see if I see him again before too long or not. It's a slippery slope, fear.

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