Saturday, May 17, 2008

Fear Itself

"Diplomacy, like seduction, only improves with practice."
Ben Franklin

When I took swimming lessons at the pool up the street, I never "got" the concept of diving off the side of the pool. The first time I tried it, the girl diving before me dove straight down and scraped her face against the side of the pool. She came up crying, bleeding, and scared.

In the process of analyzing and remaking myself, I've come to determine that *why* I fear is more important than *what* I fear. I don't think anything is really scary, in and of itself. Nothing is immortal or implacable. You can charm that stunner at the bar, if you have the right words. You can kill the robber in your house, if you shoot first and straight. You can move the world with a big enough lever, at least according to Archimedes.

To dive, all I need to do is fall forward and down. To let myself go.

If I had gone before the nameless girl who reddened the pool at Blue Hills Regional High School, I probably would have been fine. I wouldn't have had to think about it.

This will come as a surprise if you know me at all, but I am a consummate planner and obsessive worrier. I try to reduce the disparate tendrils of my life into a bound and catalogued series of steps, all laid out like a grand table map in my head. It's how I keep myself company when I'm bored or lonely, or if I can't sleep, or simply when the mood strikes me.

In approximately five billion years, our sun* will have finished converting all its available hydrogen into helium, and will expand to a monstrous size, engulfing all the inner planets, including ours. I used to worry about this. About something so far into the future that the actual number is practically meaningless. It kept me up nights, worrying while my brother (who's always been much more laid-back) slumbered in the next bed over. How would we survive? What would my future descendants do about the slow, inevitable destructive kicks of a dying star?

*The Sun technically has a name other than "The Sun"--it's actually called "Sol". Which means "The Sun". Kind of like the Earth is "Terra", which means "The Earth" and the moon is "Luna" which means "the moon". This is part of a weird syndrome which, I think, maybe be peculiar to America--we'll call something what it is, but we'll need another language to do so.

Eventually, I consoled myself by rationalizing that any future version of humans would have left Earth long before the Sun went boom. That didn't solve more pressing issues, of course. What would I do about a vampire attacking me in the middle of the night? (solution: grab bible and rosary, wake up brother, force vampires out door while chanting "The Power of Christ Compels You!", arm rest of family with facsimiles of wooden stakes)

Well, that's fine, but say there's a bully at school, and he tries to punch me from behind? What then? (Duck punch if possible, kick backwards with heel of my foot, hopefully impacting the shin, spinning elbow to the nose, run away if bully is not incapacitated).

Like I said, I did this for pretty much everything. I tried to do the same for diving.

Go to one knee at the edge of the pool.

Put your hands over your head so that they form a point.

Lean forward, hands first.

Follow your hands into the water.

And, like almost everything else I had planned out step-by-step, it never worked. I always belly-flopped.

I can fall into conversation with a pretty girl with no problem, but ask me to cold approach one and I'll get flustered. I am unimpressed by famous people, but when I interned at a local newspaper, I would stammer when asking people on the street their opinion of the weather. I can catch screaming line drives right at me, but every high popup is an adventure.

This isn't to say that planning is a bad thing. It diffuses and makes ordinary the concept of the lion in the tall grass, or the monster outside your window. But I've come to realize that , while step-by-step instructions are fine for working out and assembling furniture, they'll only trip you up in the end. You replace one fear with a more insidious one: that of unexpected situations. Better to form your plans on the fly, around the pursuit of concrete goals. Get that girl's number. Get a quote from Joe Public. Pluck that popup out of the sky.

Sometime this summer, when the Get Jacked plan is in full swing and producing truly tangible results, I'll find a pool. I'll kneel at the edge, imagine the blood in the water, and dive. Then I'll do it again, and again, and again, until the blood disappears and the blue welcomes me.

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