November 3, 2001
Monsters


The scariest movie I ever saw was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

I was eight years old when I saw it for the first time, on the Channel 11 Saturday Afternoon Sci-Fi Theater. The scene that left a permanent scar on the delicate Young Secra Psyche is the one where Abbott -- or was it Costello? I never really knew who was who, but in this case I'm referring to the chubby/dopey one -- is wandering around in a cave or a castle or someplace similarly dark and sinister and cobweb-intensive. Eventually, exhausted, he sits down to rest on a huge stone chair ... only it isn't a chair he sits on, it's FRANKENSTEIN, who is in some sort of inert trance-like state. While Costello -- or is it Abbott? -- is settling back against Frankenstein's chest, sighing with relief ...

... the monster slowly opens its eyes. 

HOLY CRAP!  Eight-year-old Secra felt her bowels collapse, right there on the spot. 

Costello/Abbott, unaware of the peril he is in, just sits there looking looking stoopidly comfortable and dopey and oblivious, while the movie audience is shouting Look out! You're sitting on a MONSTER, forcryingoutloud!  It made my Grandpa and my little brother laugh out loud, but it scared the living shidt out of Young Secra, let me tell you. For the rest of my childhood I had nightmares that Frankenstein was outside in the darkness somewhere, lurching up South 134th Street toward my house.

I entertained other fears, growing up. Caterpillars. Playground bullies. Doctors. Satan. Large barking dogs that charged at me from the other side of the street as I walked home from school. During the Dark Shadows years, I feared vampires, ghosts, witches, werewolves, accidentally being buried alive, accidentally being transported back in time to the year 1792 and finding myself standing on a gallows with a noose around my neck ... that sort of thing. As a teenager growing up in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1970's, I went through a Ted Bundy phase (and later, a Green River Killer phase). As I got older -- especially after I started having The Tots -- the fears became more internalized. I feared that I would die in labor. I feared that something would be wrong with my babies when they were born -- most likely because of something *I* did or didn't do during pregnancy -- or that I might not love all of my children equally, or that I might punish them in anger, or that I might do something to damage them irreparably. 

During the actively alcoholic years, I feared my sober self. When I got sober, I feared my drinking self.  (I spent the first twenty years of my life fearing the monsters outside; I spent the next twenty years fearing the monsters inside.)

Reading through my list of fears -- all written down like this, in neat orderly fashion -- it probably sounds excessive. It probably sounds like I've spent the past forty-four years in a state of constant quivering paranoia. But that's not the case at all. I was fearful of things, at various points in my life ... but I was very rarely afraid. There's a difference between being fearful and being afraid, I think. When you're fearful of something, most of the fear still exists outside of you. When you're afraid, you validate the fear -- you bring it to live inside of you -- by acting on it in some way. Laying awake in bed at night, worried that Frankenstein's monster was lumbering up the street towards my second-story bedroom, I didn't actually crawl out of my bed and look out the window to see if he was coming. I didn't tiptoe downstairs to make sure the doors were locked. I didn't sleep with a kitchen knife under my pillow, just in case. Mostly I just fell asleep and woke up the next morning and the fear was gone.

I was fearful ... but I wasn't afraid.

I'd like to think this is still the case.

Yes, it's true that I've washed my hands more often in the past two weeks than in the past forty-something years put together. I even went out and bought a bottle of something called "Hand Sanitizer," a tub of disinfecting wipes and a jumbo can of Lysol, which I keep on my desk at The Dirt Company, right next to my telephone and my letter-opener. I told my boss and my co-workers that it's because I don't want to catch the 'flu bug' that has been making the rounds of the office.  But I think we all know better.

Yes, it's true that I carry a cell phone with me now, everywhere I go.

I work in a dark creepy building in a dark creepy part of town. This will change next spring, when our company moves its base of operations into downtown Oakland proper -- that was one of the conditions for me signing the employment agreement: I do NOT want to work in the Oakland Coliseum area any longer than necessary -- but for a little while, at least, yes it's true that I never venture into unfamiliar parts of the building alone ... that I never ride the freight elevator ... that I never wait for David outside in the dark parking lot at night.

Yes, it's true that I keep a notebook and a pen in my purse, at all times, and that every once in a while, when we're out driving around town, I jot down a license plate number. Yes, it's true that I avoid tap water as much as possible, and that I don't accept leaflets from street-corner strangers anymore, and that malls are back to making me nervous again. Yes, it's true that being alone isn't as much fun as it used to be. Yes, it's true that I give myself a breast self-exam every 20.5 minutes, these days, and that I don't open any e-mail containing attachments, and that lately I've been pricing solar radios and self-defense classes.

Yes, it's true that the idea of getting on an airplane right now fills me with the sort of dread I usually reserve for pap smears or company Christmas parties.

And yes, it's true that you couldn't have PAID me to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge on Friday morning. (Well. Perhaps that's not true: I'm pretty easily bought. Dangle an Olympus C2500L or a pair of black leather boots in front of me, over on the Marin end, and just watch how fast I drive across the bridge. But I wouldn't have enjoyed the drive.)

All of this fear-validating behavior is new to me. I'm accustomed to breezing through life by the seat of my pants, unencumbered by things like convention and common sense and safety nets. I'm the alcoholic who quits cold-turkey in front of an Internet audience. I'm the couch potato who climbs onto a bicycle for the first time in three decades. I'm the woman who marries a man she met in an AOL chat room. I'm the Executive Ass who quits her job without a fall-back position in place. I've spent the past forty-four years living by the motto Do the thing that scares you.

I wasn't afraid a year ago, or a month ago, or a week ago, even. I'm not afraid now.

I'm just slightly less unafraid than I used to be.


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