A Little Learning . . .
Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk

Fear Leads to Anger

Fearangermoi I dropped a dish today and smashed it on the floor. This happens more often than I like, lately, this dropping things. I've got small hands with short fingers and that often makes it awkward to hold anything that isn't small. The thing is, though, that I used to have what I call as "jar-opener hands." if there was a jar Mom couldn't get open, either Dad or I could almost always get it going, without the benefit of breaking the seal first. If he or I could get a grip on it, it would yield.

The day after I came home from scattering my Dad's ashes in the woods behind our house, I woke up with such an ache in the bones of my hands, from wrist to the tips of my fingers, that I could hardly flex them. The knuckles were swollen and I had to be extra careful picking things up. Those marvelous opposable thumbs humans have weren't working so well, for some reason. The pain lasted for about six weeks and then disappeared, but since then, my hands ain't what they used to be. Arthritis runs in my family and one of my thumb knuckles and the last knuckles on both index fingers are already showing signs of it. I remember my grandmother's bent, knobby hands lacemaking with a tiny crochet hook when I was a little kid and my Mom's hands, though longer fingered, looked the same in later years. My Aunt Laura's hands look just like Gramma's. It never stopped either of them from creating (strokes put an end to Mom's painting and needlepoint), but every time I drop something it makes me furious. Screaming, cussin', frothing-at-the-mouth enraged.

Part of this reaction is echoes of my mother's frustration with herself in her later years, after the strokes, and with Dad, who was always pretty heavy-handed and occasionally, as we all do, broke stuff. Mom had these unrealistic expectations that things would last forever: her dishes would never break, her carpet would never be spilled on, her clothes would always be immaculate, her appliances would never wear out. This only works if you never use anything, which she frequently refused to, with nice clothes you bought her, or with dishes. She had that bad habit of keeping things for "good," e.g., when Prince Philip was stranded in a  snowstorm and stayed the night. We would have broken out the Limoges and silver plate then, the good quilts, the Hudson Bay blankets, the linen tablecloths. Alas, no sufficiently illustrious personages appeared in Greenbush while she was alive. Instead, the Post Office took care of the Limoges as Dad never could or would have.

But part of that cussin' and screamin' and stompin' around is just fear. It's fear of my own mortality creeping up on me, fear of losing my ability to type (which has definitely deteriorated already) and thus write, to being unable, like Mom, to do the art I love, to earn a living. I react the same way when I can't see the f-ing agate type on my black stereo components. I can't imagine anything scarier than not being able to see to read, so it enrages me when I can't.

It took me a long time to understand where at least some of my quick temper came from, that some of it was not just a judgmental voice in my head or sheer impatience but my own very human fears. It's typically geeky of me that one of the things that tipped me off was the Jedi saying "fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering" from Episode 1. Before that, it was Spider Robinson's narrator, Jake, in the Callahan books saying (on their way to Key West) that "anger is just fear dressed in drag." (And if you haven't read the Callahan books yet, as Jake would also say, lucky you, to have that in front of you!) The more I thought about that, the more I realized it was true, and wondered why nobody else had ever bothered to point that out to me. Because once you realize that, it's a lot easier to short circuit.

For years, anger was just a bad personality trait I need to overcome. I shared a quick temper with my dad, while mom's was slow-burning but long. Dad and I, by contrast, were both impatient and easily frustrated, especially with machinery and technology. I still bang things around when they don't work right, even things with solid-state components. That usually doesn't help much, but it's satisfying. That anger is largely the fear of loss of control, the inability to fix things. One difference between my dad's temper and mine is that I worked hard for years to keep mine confined to private moments and not let it loose when people were around. I concluded pretty early that letting it out of the bag in public just made one look like an idiot.

I still get frustrated with things, but my patience with people has expanded exponentially, unless you are intentionally being an obstructive idiot, like the post office manager who spent 20 minutes holding up a line of people waiting for packages while he argued with another customer, then just walked away and left us hanging for another five until someone else came to the window. Then my New Yorker personality kicks in. But with students, old people, pretty much everyone else, I've gotten far more patient than I've ever been. But, Dude, don't scare me. What happens then isn't pretty:

I had a friend staying with me once, back when I lived in Brooklyn, who lost herself in the subway station when I thought we were standing next to each other. She was one of those kind of dreamy people who tend not to pay a lot of attention to things, which is not such a good way to be in New York. On her second or third day here, we were standing on a platform at Atlantic Avenue, waiting for a train together so I could show her how to get somewhere, since she had no idea where she was going and couldn't figure out the subways. The train pulled in, relatively empty like the platform, and I got on, sat down, looked over for her and . . . she'd disappeared. I looked frantically up at the next car, then at the one behind, then jumped off the train, not knowing where she was. I looked frantically around the platform for her, jumping on and off the train a couple of times. I was completely freaked out. Atlantic Avenue was not such a nice station then, and who knew what might have happened to her? How could she just disappear like that? When the train pulled out, I saw her across the tracks on the opposite platform. I had stepped onto the train and she had lost sight of me, immediately gone down the stairs, under the tracks and up on the other side to look for me. Why the hell she had wound up over there was a mystery to me.

My response? Yeah, you guessed it. Cussin' and screamin'. So much so that a guy standing near her on the opposite platform yelled "Whoooo-eeee! Let her have it!" Well, that was enough to embarrass me into shutting up. Even then, I realized all that anger was coming out of fear: fear of losing someone I was in some way responsible for, fear of what might have happened to her, fear of the unknown. I sent her out the next day with a subway and street map and told her she was on her own; she was old enough to be responsible for herself.

The dropping-the-plate snit is the same thing: a fear of the loss of control of my own life. There's only me here; if my sight goes bad, how will I read? If my hands fail me, who will open my jars?

I will, dammit, until I can't anymore, then I'll buy a gadget to do it or get an octopus or something. I'll get decent glasses, good lamps, remind myself to pay more attention to edges, buy a goddamn gilhooley (these things are great!). In the meantime, I'm going to try to learn to step back, accept, and breathe through the fear instead of getting mad. There's not much else to do, really. I don't wanna give give myself a stroke getting pissed off over getting old. That's really stupid.


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