Fear itself

I’m suspicious of emotions. Always have been. Seems to me they’re more likely to make you say the wrong thing, date the wrong guy, or believe the wrong idea than they are to bring you joy, give you peace, or improve you in any way. The downside of anger, jealousy, and distress vastly outweighs the upside of joy, contentment, and compassion.

At least I’ve always thought so. I’ve discovered, though, by asking friends a rather peculiar question, that I’m probably in the minority. Here’s the question: If you could trade half your emotional amplitude (that is, feel everything, good and bad, at half the intensity) for ten IQ points, would you do it? And no quibbling about what IQ points really mean. The question is whether you’d trade emotional intensity to be just a little smarter.

I would, in a heartbeat. Not without regret, of course; I’d lose some important pleasures. But half the anger! Half the envy! Half the anguish, anxiety, and distress!

I think it’s probably a win before you even get to fear. And fear, in my book, is the worst emotion going.

Not that I’ve known much of it. I’ve lived a lucky life. I was born into a middle-class American family, and never knew want or threat. Up until the last few years, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I experienced actual, genuine fear. There was an unfortunate incident involving a capsized canoe and a fifteen-foot dam, back when I was in college. There was 9/11, when I stood with Kevin in a doorway and hoped the south tower didn’t fall on us. There was the day I was diagnosed with an incurable, and potentially lethal, heart disease.

But that’s the worst of it. All in all, my life has been safe and uneventful. Until we bought a boat.

The water scares me. Given that water can kill you, that’s not so unreasonable. But it scares me more than it should. It never did, when I was a kid. I grew up swimming, and spent as much time in the water as out of it when my family vacationed on Cape Cod. But, after that canoe incident, I was never quite the same. I still enjoy the water, but my threshold for dangerous conditions is lower than it ought to be.

Between oyster farming and fishing, Kevin and I spend a lot of time on the water, and I have had, more times than I would have liked, to try and deal constructively with fear. Fear, though, has a way of defying your efforts to deal with it constructively.

Yesterday, we were out on the oyster grant, and we made a mistake. Conditions were bad – almost, but not quite, bad enough to keep us at home. It was very windy, out of the south. The tide was at its lowest about an hour and a half before sunset. It was raining. But the temperature was in the 50s, and we wanted to take advantage of the relative warmth to finish buttoning the farm up for the season. We had to consolidate the oysters we were planning to leave out for the winter, and bring in the empty trays.

When we got out there, we saw that there was ice damage from a cold snap the week before. Some trays had been tossed around, and the two big, raised baskets we use for what we cull to sell – the gifted and talented, my stepson calls them – were missing. We anchored the boat and got out to survey the damage.

The mistake was where we put the boat.

Our farm is on a sand bar that’s intertidal – dry at low tide, covered with about 8 feet of water at high tide. Abutting it is a channel that doesn’t go dry, and that’s how we get out there. We leave the boat in the channel, do our work, and then get back in the boat to go home. But if we get out there early, everything’s still wet, and we can leave the boat on the edge of the farm while the tide is still going out. The water flows out from under it, and it’s grounded until the tide comes back in.

We often do this deliberately. If we’re going to be moving oysters or equipment to or from the boat, it’s helpful to have it as close as possible to where the oysters and equipment are, or need to be. And, even if we don’t need the boat to be close, if we’re going to be out there for the entire tide, we don’t have to worry about whether the boat grounds because we’re there for the duration, regardless.

If, however, it’s important to leave before the water comes back (because it’s getting dark, or bad weather’s coming), we have to be careful not to ground the boat. If the wind’s out of the north, it’s not a problem, since the boat gets blown into the channel from where we anchor it. If, however, the wind is out of the south, the boat gets blown into the shallows.

Yesterday, we knew the water wouldn’t be back before sunset, and we should have left the boat a good twenty yards away from the edge of the farm. But the gifted and talented baskets had been the closest to the channel of all our equipment. Since they were gone, and we had already taken in the rows of trays closest to them, we had no frame of reference for where we ought to put the boat. And we put it too close in.

Dead low was at 3:00. Sunset was at 4:30. Under normal conditions, that wouldn’t have been a problem, even though the boat was high and dry. The water does come back, and we should have been floating an hour and a half after low. But a fierce wind out of the south can slow the tide, and it was clearly behind schedule.

The actual danger was minimal. We had a phone, and a GPS. We were wearing appropriate gear – neoprene waders and float coats. It was windy and raining, but it wasn’t cold. Although there was fog and it was getting dark, and those things can make it really hard to get home, the most serious threat out there on the farm is if the boat gets away from you. If there’s an upside to grounding your boat, it’s that it can’t get away from you. The worst-case scenario was an engine that wouldn’t start, in which case we’d either anchor or let ourselves be carried, by wind and incoming tide, on to Sandy Neck, the barrier beach between the harbor and Cape Cod Bay, and call for help.

But you can’t talk sense to fear, and I was afraid. Partly, it was the conditions. Mostly, though, it was because we were the only people out there, a sure sign that we shouldn’t have been. I lifted trays and dumped oysters with a knot it my gut. I was scared, but I was also angry because we had made such a stupid mistake.

Kevin was fine.

It’s hard to deal constructively with fear because you try to do it, inevitably, WHEN YOU’RE AFRAID. I wanted my fear to be commensurate to the circumstances, but I couldn’t make it conform. I wanted to be cheerful, and to make the best of it, and to avoid making Kevin feel bad because I was afraid. But I was afraid. And you’re not at your best when you’re afraid.

The water, as it always does, came in. When the boat floated, we had just enough light to navigate in, without incident.

Kevin knows about me and water. He knows when I am afraid. He also knows that being out on a boat, fishing, with him, is one of my greatest pleasures. He knows the satisfaction I take in our farm and the physical work we put into it. He knows there are conditions in which he is comfortable and I am not. And, in those conditions, he is always ready to stop, ready to turn around, ready to go home – assuming the boat is floating.

When I am afraid, and unreasonable, it comes home to me that my well-being is as important to Kevin as his own. We’ve been together for thirteen years, and I still find it remarkable to be cared for in that way. It makes good things better and bad things bearable. It puts solid ground under my feet, and makes me feel as though I’m operating from a position of strength.

Maybe, just maybe, it does that for Kevin as well. So, while I could do without the fear, and the envy, and the distress, perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to trade away my emotional amplitude. It’s probably better that nobody’s actually giving me the chance.

20 people are having a conversation about “Fear itself

  1. As I read this post, my fingertips went icy cold. Please, let this not be a story of water overtaking the vessel…please let this not be a story, so close to home, of someone I care about being trapped by water!
    My fear, I suppose, is amplified. But oh, relief flows through me like a gentle wave of pleasure! I would not have that, but for the sweet and happy ending of your story.
    So yeah, I’ll keep my IQ. And hug you– and Kevin, too– (were it not for that whole distance thing) with gratitude and the elation that comes after fear is released.

  2. If you’re going to have near death experiences we should at least see each other more often (grin)
    glad it all worked out ok.. and that your steadfast mate is indeed a steadfast mate. he’s a keeper for a reason!

    Interesting your canoe story.. todd also had a near death.. for lack of a better term… experience in a kayak early on in our relationship and it has changed his perspective of the water totally.

    the best part is being brace enough to write about it. Bravo…

    and i indeed would give up emotion for iq….

  3. i still talk about that IQ question, because I am fascinated by it. You found my response so funny, but I still hold to it. Glad you’re safe… you’ve had a few close calls, and it freaks me out each time. Be safe, and get thee to vacation. Suspect I’ll be in your neck o’ the woods sometime in April.

  4. Thank you for sharing such a personal issue. I am sure many of us have similar fears if we would but admit it, myself included. And NO trade for me!

  5. Ah those last two paragraphs brought tears to my eyes because I have a partner who is the same way and it never, ever cease to amaze me and fill me with gratitude. It is the best feeling ever, and one I wouldn’t trade. Although – if I could trade some of those other ones for, say, 8 IQ points I’m in!

  6. If I could go back in time and have a conversation with my 18 year old self, one of the (many) nuggets of wisdom I’d try to impart is that I am, and always have been, a better man when I am responsible to someone else.

    Left to my own, completely independent, I’m careless, reckless, feckless, and often dangerously oblivious. If I have even one person who is counting on me, with no conscious decision required, I become responsible, calm, rational, and infinitely more effective.

    I don’t know why it works that way, but it does, and I probably could have avoided some of my dumbest and most disastrous moments if I’d learned that lesson sooner.

  7. My landlady was deathly afraid of snakes, and since we lived in the countryside where snakes were prevalent, this was a problem. Her husband bought her a rat terrier that kept the snakes at bay. But once every year, the dog would have puppies and be unavailable for snake duty, and the snakes knew it, and wandered back onto her land. I saw her once when a snake was nearby. She literally couldn’t move. Her husband knew the signs (they’d been married over 25 years). He saw her frozen and calmly walked over to her, picked her up, and carried her into the house. That show of love still brings tears to my eyes. As you described with Kevin, fear is much better in the presence of someone who loves you.

  8. Accidental Mick says:

    I was brought up with the strict injunction that showing emotion of any kind meant that the person viewing that emotion was in charge – had won. As an adult, it took me many years and much heartache to unlearn that,

    Stay as you are.

    I agree with Ken, I am a better person when I am responsible for someone else and that helped cure me of my phobia of emotion.

  9. Accidental Mick says:

    On re-reading this post, I am reminded of something. It is just an anecdote so don’t bother reading it if you’re short of time.

    Many years ago I was attending a shore based course to pass the theory part of the yacht-master qualification. I met a lady with whom I got on very well and we decided to practice navigation by dead reckoning. We were both fairly experienced sailors and her partner, who was coming with us, was a sailing instructor but had promised not to interfere.

    We set sail to get as far as we could (bearing in mind we only had a 4 day weekend) into the Atlantic so that we were out of sight of land. We independently calculated a course south into the bay of Biscay then east to the coast of France. Apart from the fact that, being more cautious that Elly, I had allowed a bigger offset our way-points and courses were within spitting distance of each other and we were very pleased to arrive at the coast of France, as intended, about 10 miles SE of our destination. (You always do this with dead reckoning so that when you reach the coast and cannot see your destination, you know which way to turn.)

    We spent a lovely day in a very pleasant little French port, albeit a bit tired having sailed through the night. We all had an early night so that we could catch an early tide the next day. (I have never understood how it is that, although the time of the tide changes twice every doing any journey by boat ALWAYS involves the early hours of the morning.)

    The weather forecast for our home run was ideal The wind was from the west gradually dropping and backing to a southerly.
    That was exactly wrong. The wind veered to become a head wind and increased to a near gale but, by this time, we were to far from land to run for cover.

    An enduring memory of this trip was of Elly sitting up on the windward deck with a bottle of beer in one hand, a packet of chips in the other and steering with her ankle draped over the tiller whereas I was slumped in the leeward side of the cockpit thinking that breakfast had been a bad idea.

    It occurred to me on reading your post that sea-sickness might be mother natures way of making the idea of death seem so attractive that you forget that you might be in actual physical danger.

    • Mick, thanks for that story. And I’ll buy your seasickness theory!

      Also, belated congratulations on the landfall, dead reckoned.

  10. Glad it all worked out well in the end. Tamar, it seems silly, but I have to ask-did you find the baskets of the gifted and talented? Do you atl least have a chance at getting the baskets back? The oysters are oysters. Released into the channel is fine with them, but a loss for you folks. The equipment AND the oysters gone…my Scottish anscestors would haunt me.

  11. Your project is so Romantic. Reading your posts I think on the American Romanctic tradition, much of it made on the water or at the water’s edge in New England. Read Melville’s chapter on Nantucket (in Moby-Dick) to appreciate what a hard and noble life you have found there. So, it’s no wonder the binary you cling to like a lifeboat, or a kite string in a lightening storm, fails you. Franklin & Co. are of little use when reason is a castaway, but why suppose that reason, IQ, or the intellect is superior to emotion? That emotion is not reasons better half? Courage is an emotion that rightly judges that some risks are worthy, others not. The Romantics loved these dark and troubling tales, castaways, outcasts, lost souls at sea because the sublime, the beautiful and frightening, terrible, awesome power of nature, of the water, of the darkness on the abyss …are tappings on the chamber doors of our mortality. We think therefore we exist. But emotion is our tell-tale heart under the floorboards. Nether is to be traded for the other, for they are, paradoxically, one in the same. How does he know your fear? How do you know he knows? The water spoke and you listened. That is what I call Grace.

  12. I can relate to this on many levels. It gets worse as I get older – it’s like “The Fear” (as I like to call it) came in like the tide, somewhere in my mid-20s, and decided to hang out. I’ve been actively working on it and I’m making progress.

    That said, I’ve always been terrified of water. I can wrangle all other elements with fearless aplomb, but water is my kryptonite. If you dropped me in the middle of the ocean, I’d have a coronary long before I had the chance to drown.

    Did you find the gifted and talented?

    I miss Cape Cod. I should come back out to Wellfleet for a visit.

    • Stephanie — We did find one of the gifted and talented baskets (they were empty at the time), but the other is MIA. We also found other people’s equipment, which we returned to them. And you should come back to Cape Cod, even though it’s surrounded by water.

  13. Goodness – fear is one of those impossible emotions, isn’t it? It grips – the heart, the blood, the brain – and when it comes rushing in, I can pay attention to nothing else. My fear has been mostly a beast of early childhood, when my home situation was a question mark… and the fear of *not* knowing what and where home might be… or if I would ever figure it out.

  14. Marcia Gohman says:

    Ok, where are you? Spring is coming! How are the oysters doing? Have you been getting frozen to death? Will you have turkeys this year? Do you have any adventures planned for this year? New fish to catch? Deer to go find?

    I’m missing your stories! Get on it woman!



  15. Friends! Thanks for your kind inquiries. Kevin and I are just fine — we opted to get off the Cape for a while, during the worst of what turned out to be a really grim winter. We went to Austin, Texas, and had a most excellent vacation, which I will tell you more about when we return to the homestead in a couple of days.

    Looking forward to getting back to it all. If only it were just a wee bit warmer …

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