25 August 2009

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again (Pt. 2)

It was a July Sunday morning, hot but not too hot. We arrived at the small airstrip at the appointed hour, a carful of eager. We found the metal Quonset hangar and parked behind a small RV sitting up on cinderblocks. It had grimy windows covered over with anti-Obama and heavy metal rock band stickers. From somewhere underneath it, I could hear a cat mewing.

About thirty or so people were sitting in folding soccer chairs on the hangar's apron facing the runway, chatting, smoking cigarettes, and occasionally glancing up into the sky. As we walked toward them, I naturally looked up. Large white cumulus clouds let in patches of sky blue sky. Just at that moment, I saw something about the size of a deer tick on a Lipizzaner's rump . It was the figure of a man falling in a puff through one of the clouds directly overhead. Whoa!

I craned to see him. He grew larger and larger as he plummeted directly toward me. Soon, others came into view. Then, after what seemed like a really long time, the first man opened his chute. A black and grey canopy with some sort of military insignia unfurled above him. Right behind him the other black figures opened identical chutes, probably a jump group from the local army base. I watched them sail down, spiraling round and round toward the drop zone about a hundred yards from where I was standing, swooping in one-by-one between two lines of colorful banners fluttering in the breeze, tugging on their controls and pulling up, stopping in mid-air about two feet off the ground, and setting down gently and precisely on a marker in the grass between the runways just as the plane that had, apparently, taken them up landed. Wow!

No one there, the regulars apparently, seemed particularly moved by this incredible feat. No applause. We, on the other hand, watched the men, who were all dressed in black coveralls, land, gather their parachutes, and stride back to the hangar, our mouths agape, staring back and forth at each other in disbelief. "OMG, we're gonna' do that," Wisdaughter said, clapping her hands.

"We better go in to register," I said. My neck ached. The others in my group, Wisdoc, Wisdommy, and Wisdaughter, could hardly contain their excitement. They chattered as we stepped into a dark room, the blinds on its windows pulled tight to keep out the glare of the sun. Its walls were lined with sofas and vending machines. A young woman at a plexiglas window confirmed our appointment and handed us out some forms—kind of like at the dentist's office.

This seems like a good place to explain how we got there in the first place. Wisdaughter had just turned eighteen and had declared that the one thing she could legally do on her birthday that she couldn't have done the day before was to skydive. So, she said, that is what she would like for us all to do—as a party and her present, our last family outing (ex our long-awaited scuba diving trip) before she had to head off to college. Wisdommy, who's a tad older was gung-ho and couldn't believe he hadn't thought of the same thing on his birthday last year. Wisdoc said she didn't want to jump, but was supportive and would cheer them on from the ground. I had said, "Okay, here's what I'll do: You guys go ahead. I'll suit up, strap into the gear, go up in the plane with you, and make a decision at the door whether to jump. I can't promise anything." If nothing else, I am sufficiently self-aware to at least suspect I might seize up at the last second.

Now, before you are allowed to skydive, you have to fill out a number of CYA forms absolving anybody and everybody in the known, civilized world of any and every kind of legal liability, real or imagined, whatsoever henceforth and forevermore, including, but not limited to the airport, the owner of the land under the airstrip, the air traffic controllers, the airplane manufacturer, the parachute and parachute paraphernalia manufacturers, the skydive company (its employees, owners, subsidiaries, heirs, and assigns), the pilots, the people jumping with you, the chute packers, the owners of the Quonset hangar, etc., etc. Understandably. The skydive company, itself a limited liability corporation, by my reading, was hidden in a maze of like sixteen other limited liability corporations each with different places of doing business from like Michigan to Florida; they weren't going to make it easy if you decided to go back on your entirely voluntary agreement not to sue: it would take thousands of dollars of discovery just to figure out whom to sue and where to locate their assets.

But I'm a lawyer. I'm used to that stuff, though, admittedly, I'd never seen quite such a defensive shell game. And, from my preliminary research, in all the thirty-plus years the skydive company had been in business, they'd only had two serious accidents: one when a paraplegic flipped over and fell through his tandem harness and the other when a just-married couple's chutes had gotten tangled on the way down.

What struck me like a ball peen hammer to the temple, though, on the first page of the stack of papers we received, in something like 36-point bold font, was a centered statement reading something like: "Skydiving is an extremely high-risk activity. You could seriously injure yourself or lose your life even if everything goes right." In a slightly smaller font, but no less attention-getting, it identified the company sponsoring this high-risk company as "The Uninsured [...] Company." This got my Spidey-sense all tingly. What in the hell was I getting not just myself, but my family, into?

I wanted to get up, grab the papers from their hands, and march them out the door that very second.

[to be continued]

23 August 2009

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again

I lead a fairly boring life. No real highs, no real lows. Moderate in most things except, of course, moderation. Emotionally, I'm reasonably even-keeled: no raging, no binging, no cowering, no wallowing, no violence, no dark moods, no self-pity, no spite. Pretty dull stuff, objectively speaking.

Recently, however, I experienced an intensity of emotion that shattered my usual calm, wrung me out like a cheap ShamWow!. Unlike anything else I have ever felt in my entire life, this was as naked and raw an emotion as I can imagine ever having—and living to tell the tale.

It was fear. Sheer unalloyed terror. Petrifying panic. An irrational,* (*I'll qualify this later) existential** (**ditto) dread that made me want to rip off my skin and leap out of myself. And what's more, I brought it on myself.

Let me back up. I've done many things in my life that many people would be afraid of doing: I've played organized American football and disorganized rugby, I've caught a H.S. kid with an 86 mph fastball, I've climbed a 12,000 foot volcano and stared down its sheer inner cliff walls into its vast smoldering caldera, I've bushwhacked through trackless jungle and spent three hours sitting on the side of an African mountain with a troop of gorillas, I've talked my way out of what could've been a dicey situation when a Congolese guerilla leveled his AK-47 at me and demanded to see what my U.S. money looked like, I've played with large (non-poisonous) snakes, on vacation this month I had a tarantula fall out of a tree onto my hand, I've scuba dived with 6-10 ft. long black-tipped reef sharks and snorkeled straight into a school of barracudas, I've swum through a coral cave at a depth of 90ft., I've sat out on the beach on a starless night and watched a heavy lightning and thunder storm, I've been in a plane struck by lightning, I've piloted a glider plane, I've spoken and even sung in front of crowds ranging from a handful to over a thousand, I've acted and starred in stage plays, I've disagreed with and even corrected a federal judge in open court (gulp), I've demanded a raise and a promotion and said if I didn't get it I'd quit, I've quit a job, I've been in the operating theater during open heart surgery and held a living human heart in my hand, I've eaten sushi, I've made a life commitment to my spouse, I've sired children.

All that is by way of saying I'm not a fearful person generally. Have I ever been afraid in my life? Of course; I'm human. Have I been able to get a handle on this fear, contain it, and act in the face of it? Yes (see above). In fact, one motif in my (still unagented and thus unpublished) novel, EULOGY, deals with the protagonist's confrontation of roughly six or seven of the commonly-cited ten most common fears. And what are these fears? According to this site, they are as follows:
  1. Fear of public speaking (Glossophobia)
  2. Fear of death (Necrophobia)
  3. Fear of spiders (Arachnophobia)
  4. Fear of darkness (Achluophobia, Scotophobia or Myctophobia)
  5. Fear of heights (Acrophobia)
  6. Fear of people or social situations (Sociophobia)
  7. Fear of flying (Aerophobia)
  8. Fear of open spaces(Agoraphobia)
  9. Fear of thunder and lightning(Brontophobia)
  10. Fear of confined spaces(Claustrophobia)
(N.B. It's hard to credit that people are more afraid of public speaking than death, unless you're a public speaker by trade trying to pump yourself up.)

But this—the fear I experienced—this was way beyond anything I'd ever felt before. It was an animal terror so pure it consumed me entirely; it took over my body—which, of course, means it took over my mind—and refused to let me go.

And what was the cause of this siege? A doorway. θύρα in the the Greek (transliterated thura- or thyra-), thus thuraphobia or thyraphobia: fear of doors. A doorway about three feet wide and five feet tall. Curved, with a rolling plexiglas door. I was invited to go through the door, encouraged, nearly forced. But I couldn't—not wouldn't, mind you. Could not. My body, at some pre-cortical, reptilian-brained level, simply rebelled. "I"—the rational, conscious self of me that intended, indeed wanted to go through that door—was unable to move.

Why? Because on the other side of this door was a drop of about 14,000 feet. Some two and a half miles straight down.

(to be continued)

18 August 2009

A Slumgullion

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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Is it me, or does this segment from last night's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart bear a strong resemblance (in POV and substance, at least) to my previous post? With the obvious exception that theirs is funny. I've been a fan of TDS since the Craig Kilborn days. In fact, I remember thinking when JS replaced him that it would no longer be any good. I was wrong. TDS, in the tradition of such political comedians/satirists as Pat Paulsen, early Al Franken, and many others, is a tremendous program which cuts through all the political bullshit. If I were to find out (hint, hint) that one of the writers of the show had actually read my blog and used an idea or was inspired by what I wrote, I would be thrilled!


Here's another idea: let's put all those who tote guns to Congressional or Presidential town halls in "Second Amendment zones" modeled on the "free speech zones" the Secret Service used for protesters against the former president and his party. As a matter of law, I don't believe the Second is any more sacrosanct than the First. There, they can talk amongst themselves, compare their signage, and brandish or whatever it is they do with their firearms.


In other news, you can find a podcast of J.M. Coetzee reading from his forthcoming work—Summertimehere.


If you're into old-fashioned reading, Hunger Mountain has reprinted George Saunders's first short-story, "A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room" here.


The diving in Harbour Island was, on average, about a B/B-; though, one day, the last, it was A- when we swam through a coral arch at 110ft alongside a six-foot barracuda into an outcropping of elkhorn and staghorn corals and giant barrel sponges at about 75ft where huge schools (100s each) of amberjacks and large mahogany snappers and several varieties of parrotfish (including the rare midnight) were feeding, spotting large specimens of all four varieties of Caribbean angel fish(!) (the Queen being my favorite)—85ft visibility, 83 degree water temp. Brilliant! On several dives, we swam across coral 'nurseries' like the one in Finding Nemo with tons of tiny baby fish of many varieties feeding on the coral and hiding out from predators and the currents. The reefs were vibrant, no visible bleaching or damage in the 12 spots we hit. Best sighting: a pair of large eagle rays during a 10 knot (that's fast, by the way) drift dive through the appropriately named "Current Island" cut. I swam right between them!

In my spare moments, I continued my trek through the addictions and obsessive athletics of Infinite Jest; but, on my return, I discovered I was nevertheless behind the Infinite Summer pace. I'm a slow reader (a good man), and thorough, which is a problem when dealing with an encyclopedic text by a polymathic mind. IJ is so chock-full of information, it was making me nauseous (see J.P. Sartre). It's so easy to get lost in all the details, to get bogged down, to lose motivation. Yet, there are some moments of absolutely fine writing that make it worthwhile. Still, I was getting discouraged, knowing full well that if I set it down I would probably never be able to pick it up again.

This article by Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading, however, has persuaded me to keep at it. Thanks, Scott, for pointing out the forest.

I can't go on, I'll go on—though at my own pace.

14 August 2009

ABC: Always Be Closing

Okay, let's be clear about one thing: Say what you will about the former U.S. administration, they were well-versed in the black arts of marketing.

Case in point: Pres. G.W. Bush, the huckster-in-chief, and his cronies sold this country an unnecessary (war of choice, adventure) war of aggression (designed principally to stabilize the price and flow of Middle Eastern oil so U.S. and multinational oil companies could more predictably calibrate their—and their suppliers' and servicers'—profits) as an existential war on terror, just like his father, that cagey old snake-oil salesman, before him. Recall, too: George Herbert Herbert Bush tried to sell tort reform (i.e., putting a cap on the amounts juries and judges can award for pain and suffering of patients who prevail in medical malpractice and product liability cases) as a panacea for health care.

Their M.O. in both cases seems to have been identifying a real (at least for them) problem (Sadam Hussein's chokehold on the price and flow of oil, on the one hand, and "tassel-loafered trial lawyers" who are the bane of corporate profit, on the other [notice a trend here?]) and, instead of attacking the problem head-on, linking it to what they rightly-identified as a more-salable casus bellum (respectively: 9/11 + GWOT and health-care reform), i.e., something the people would buy. Right causes, wrong (pet) targets.

Now, their methodology—and this is what the current administration doesn't quite get—was not to make the end-product crucial to their own political ends (which, of course, it absolutely was), but to convince 50% +1 of the upright citizens of the direness of the threat and screw the rest: scare them to control them.

In other words: FRAUD. Got that?

To their credit, they were incredibly disciplined. They put up a unified front: the PATRIOT Act, DHS's unified control over the intelligence that penetrated the spheres of the decision-makers, the Pentagon. They bamboozled, degraded, and ostracized State, turning it into their PR organ. They cowered Congress. The bait-and-switch they pulled on Iraq was breath-taking in scope: 'we're going to take Saddam out because he's got WMD ("We know where they [Iraq's WMD] are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south, and north somewhat...") and he collaborated with OBL on 9/11'; 'well, not WMD but WMD capacity'; 'well, he had WMD, we know 'cause Don sold 'em to him, but we don't know what he did with 'em'; Saddam was a tyrant: he gassed his own people for pity's sake and he's a threat to his neighbors'; 'it was all about regime change'; 'they'll greet us with chocolates and flowers'; etc.

Think about this: there were literally millions of people protesting the invasion of Iraq in the streets not only of this country, but around the world. No one paid attention to them—not the government, not the media, and hence not the rest of the citizenry. The administration just went ahead and did what it intended to do all along. Today, by contrast, a minuscule handful of shouter-downers at a few, usually-lazy August town hall meetings, because they are getting airtime on CNN, FoxNews, MSNBC, CNBC, talk radio, newspapers, etc., are seemingly having an outsized influence on the direction of health care reform. They might even be able to kill it on behalf of their corporate and Republican sponsors. Why is that? Discipline.

Likewise, the previous administration had timing. Another thing the current admin doesn't seem to quite get. Remember Andrew Card's (GWB's PoS CoS's) great slip w/r/t the run-up to the unprovoked invasion (rape?) of Baghdad? `From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August.'' We are certainly seeing the wisdom of this POV today as a highly-organized and vociferous minority is making a unified attempt to derail health care reform by disrupting congress members' and Senators' otherwise sleepy constituent meetings.

Those guys knew how to run a marketing campaign. I am not being nostalgic, simply observant. They were supply-siders all the way. They knew how to sell their product (that is to say, ram it down our throats), even though people didn't really want or need it. The Obama administration simply doesn't seem to have those chops. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm just saying...

President Obama is, by trade, logical, a rational persuader, a consensus-builder. Yes, health care reform may be what this country direly needs right now. And, yes, his policies may indeed be exactly the right solution at precisely the right moment. But he's not willing to scare people into buying it. He doesn't want to appear to be a fraud. He wants people to accept the rightness of his POV. Base marketing (which so often is tainted by fraud) qua style just seems alien (distasteful) to him.

Today we read that "he's willing to be a one-term president if that's what it takes to get health care and energy reform." How noble. How misguided: self-sacrifice for the good of the country. That's what Jesus was famous for—and look what happened to him.

Being Mr. Nice Guy is not what's going to close the deal. The President has got to make health care (and energy) reform absolutely urgent for the people. Fact is it is, but he's got to overcome the ignorance and intransigence of the mob and the demagogs and drive home what's at stake—the rank, urgent self-interest for these people in having reform. He's got to get down in the mud and make reform as crucial and urgent as the false urgencies of the 'death panels' and 'socialism' and 'naziism' and not letting 'some gov'ment bureaucrat' decide whether to 'put grandma down'.

Maybe he's gulling us (trans. see 'rope-a-dope' ). Maybe he's letting the opposition have its say in the public square. Maybe he's allowing them, rabid as they are, to bluster and blow themselves out, exposing their own ignorance and intransigence in the process. Maybe he believes he can absorb the political blows and still come out on top. Maybe he's planning to compromise. Maybe he's planning to counterattack. It's not clear now.

Maybe he's waiting until September to unveil his true marketing plan... Who knows. All I know is coffee is for closers.

(This post is in response to this fine post by an acquaintance of mine Drew Westen, not that HuffingtonPost needs to be linked to by me.)