danger ms. robinson
Ryan told me about an interesting icebreaker his team did a few weeks ago.
Now, I have pretty snappy answers to your basic icebreaker questions.
Meaning of your name? Pure. Say it with an eyebrow and it always gets a laugh. Next.
Worst job ever? Telemarketer at a paper company. YEAH. BEAT THAT, SUCKA.
Who would I want with me on a desert island? Bear Grylls, no contest. Don’t even try to give me shit for not saying Ryan, who would also definitely pick Bear Grylls.
But Ryan’s team did a new icebreaker and boy, it was a doozie:
What's the closest you've come to dying?
Oh shiiiiiiit! The sales team brought the thunder!
One guy was in a motorcycle accident, and another guy almost drowned while whitewater rafting. Luckily, Ryan fell off a cliff on Father’s Day so he had a good answer. He self-rescued by rappelling down a rock face with paracord before hiking out and getting stitches in his face from an EMT who was waiting at the trailhead for another hiker who had fallen off the same cliff but was unable to self-rescue. Needless to say I felt good about my choice of mate that day.
(The other guy made it down safely, FYI, I wouldn't joke about it if he hadn't. I'm not a monster.)
I do not have a good answer to that icebreaker. Not one that will satisfy a room. I brainstormed a little bit and here are my best answers:
I've given birth twice. That's pretty fucking dangerous. But this one can be awkward, because it's basically saying, "Feel free to make whatever face you want while you imagine my vagina tearing open. I will be eating lunch alone henceforth forever."
One time I choked on a mozzarella stick at Red Lobster. With the right delivery, this answer could kill.
One time I got lost on a hike after a true crime podcast binge. I hiked 5 miles with a wrist-thick log in one hand and a softball-sized rock in the other. I couldn't decide between making lots of noise to scare off mountain lions and bears, or creeping soundlessly to avoid the sociopaths. I chose the worst possible option, Secret Option #3, "A little bit of both," and alternated between loudly coughing and holding my breath. I made it back to the car and didn't see a bear, a mountain lion, or a sociopath, but I also didn't see any squirrels, and you know what they say. When the squirrels are hiding, RUN BITCH!
When I was in college in New Orleans I used to walk home from bars at night, drunk and barefoot, sometimes alone, sometimes escorted by a male acquaintance who took it upon himself to see me home safely, and who was also the person most likely to harm me. I have fallen asleep on dozens of couches surrounded by people I didn't know.
Compared to near-drownings, high-speed collisions with asphalt, and self-rescue from the side of a mountain, my piddly little childbirths and non-rapes feel like hard, hard reaches. Not dangerous at all, honestly. But dang. Danger is as intimate and individual as turn-ons or ticklish spots.
What feels dangerous to me might not even register as an event to you.
A stranger pulls over next to where you are walking alone on the sidewalk, and asks if you've seen a golden lab with a red collar around here, and can he use your phone?
You inside, maybe:
Me inside, definitely:
And what feels dangerous to you may enter the files of my mind as "A thing that happened that I may or may not text Ryan about later, nbd."
A police officer pulls you over.
You inside, maybe:
Me inside, definitely:
Unless it's an unmarked police car and/or a plainclothes officer, or it’s nighttime on a 2-lane country road, and then I'll meet you right back at:
I would never answer, "What’s the closest you've come to dying," with, "One time I let a stranger use my phone when he lost his dog. I had an uh-oh feeling." Because the end of that story is, “Oh, he used my phone to call his wife, handed my phone back to me, and said thanks. It was fine. But before it was fine I was shitting my pants.”
I wouldn't ever admit how scary that incident was to anyone who didn't already understand. When I tell my girlfriends that story, they see the truck as I did: the knock on the door when nobody was expected, a stranger smiling through the peephole. An innocuous act scored with ominous tones, an announcement that this could very easily be the beginning of the newscaster's tale. "Katie Anthony was just about to get into the shower when she heard a knock on her door. Little did she know..."
My friends get it.
When I tell my husband that story, he sees the truck as a vehicle, not a harbinger. Now, he's not a jerk. He's the opposite of jerk. It's just, the things that threaten me don't always make sense to him. It’s like I’m a chipmunk and he’s a coyote, and we have the polar opposite reaction to the presence of a fox. I’m like FUCK ME I’M DEAD, and he’s like sup.
I am constantly aware of my physical vulnerability, and the way I present as harmless. He doesn't feel that. Even if I were shredded up like a brick shithouse, I'd still be a girl. He doesn't feel that. Because I'm a girl, some people think I can ask her for directions or the time or to use her phone and she will say yes and be nice to me.
Because I'm a girl, other people think she probably won't scream or fight hard.
I know lots of people like me who have gotten hurt by bad people. He doesn't feel that. I know lots of people like me who have gone places I go and met people I've met and done things I've done, and gotten hurt. I know how deeply not special I am. So every day I wake up with the sense that my life's good luck has been front loaded, and somewhere in the future, maybe today, the other heavy shoe is waiting to drop, waiting for me to not see it coming.
When my husband came home and told me about this icebreaker, I realized that recognizing what is dangerous to another person is central to understanding their humanity.
What threatens me might love you, or at least leave you alone.
What smiles at me might scowl at you, or even do you harm.
Let's agree to believe each other when we say we're scared. Let’s agree to trust the mammals we both are.
Danger informs the size and shape of a person's life, regardless of whether those threats are ever realized in photographable harm. I make choices that make my life smaller because I'm not willing to risk getting hurt. So do you. So does Ryan. So will my kids, someday, I hope.
As a parent, my sense of danger is even more heightened. I have to be mindful not only of my own life, but of these two satellites, irreplaceable and imperiled. They careen through space unaware of how easily they could be lost to an uncut grape or a pickup truck. They won't understand for decades, until they have their own kids, that if I lost them, they'd take my entire life with them.
But threats aren't quite the same as attacks. They feel the same in our heads and hearts, but they don't leave visible scars and bruises. They aren't actions that can be witnessed and corroborated. Threats are stories you hear and tell, just ideas, just molecules in the air and sparks in your brain that change you inside, and can only be understood by people who have been changed like you. And it's fucking embarrassing to try to justify a threat to someone who doesn't see it, especially if it shakes you badly, and especially if that hammer doesn't ever fall. It's easy to feel crazy, and far too easy to dismiss someone else as crazy, too.
Try to convince someone who is not like you that what doesn't bother them hurts you. If you do, they'll be forced to make a choice between (incoming Matrix reference in 3... 2...)
a) The red pill: Going live in the Matrix of your life, disoriented and alarmed. They'll start to understand that something that doesn't bother them does really hurt you, and that they've been casually dismissive of your totally reasonable reaction to a real threat. They'll start to understand why that was a pretty shitty thing for them to do.
b) The blue pill: Paging Agent Smith. They'll refuse to hear you, roll their eyes, and check their phones. She's crazy.
One of those options forces that person to acknowledge that they didn't give a shit about your fear. That acknowledgement will cost them comfort and self-esteem.
One of those options lets them call you irrational and roll on, nonplussed, and only costs them in units of respect for you, which is to say, you pick up the tab.
They guy looking for his dog doesn't have to be scary to you, but I need you to understand why he's scary to me. I have a sneaking suspicion that my fear is smarter than I am. I'd like you to believe me and my fear. Because see, if you don't believe me, you become a threat, too.
Your disbelief, or worse, your amusement at what scared me to breathlessness, those are threats, too.
I don't have to fear the cop who pulled me over to let me know that my right rear tire was low, but I do understand why he scares you. Your fear isn't crazy. You're right to be afraid. You don't have to justify anything to me.
What's the closest I've come to dying?
The scariest, most truthful answer I can think of is that I have no idea.
I have no idea what decisions have been made in the minds of people around me when I was asleep or drunk or riding in a car with a driver who'd had too many. I have no idea if I've been spared. I have no idea if I'd be here now if I'd had a different midwife. I have no idea if the guy who came into my house to bid on a fence was anything he said he was. I have no idea if he changed his mind.
I have no idea how much invisible mercy has kept me more or less intact.
I have no idea if that guy in the truck even had a dog, if my paranoid caution saved my life or amused my neighbor.
And at the end of the day, I'm not sure that it even matters.
Did you know that when you rehearse a "what-if" repeatedly, your brain starts to encode that fear as a memory, rather than a fantasy? Your nightmare becomes real in your mind.
No wonder I get so scared. Every time I watch CSI and another woman's shapely leg gets zipped into the heavy black bag, I remember how small we are. And I’m not talking about corporeal smallness, because small men hurt women every day, and strong, tall, substantial women get hurt. Every time I watch CSI and another woman’s shapely leg gets zipped into the heavy black bag, I remember how small our loss is.
No wonder you're so scared. Every time you hear another story about a police shooting of a teenage boy, you remember how visible you are. I am not generally scared of police officers. You are not wrong to be scared.
No wonder you’re so scared. Every time you drive by the mountain you remember how it felt to cling to the scrubby tree over yawning space. You remember saying, “Don’t do anything stupid.” You remember thinking, but not saying, “This is how people die.” I’m not scared of falling off the mountain. You are not wrong to be scared.
I think the thing that matters is that I believe you when you tell me you were scared, and that you try to believe me, too.
What loves you scares me, and what loves me is the monster under your bed. Neither of us is wrong to be scared.
PS - here’s a story about a time I tried to convince my body that it was wrong to feel danger, and my body was like Stop being nice. It’s time to go.