Fear factor

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June 21, 2004 // UPDATED 2:14 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Julie Landsman
Julie Landsman

Learning to retrain necessary instincts that have become unnecessarily inflamed

Two cars sit facing the river at 6:30 a.m. They have been here for a few mornings in a row. As I pass, I wonder if the man inside is thinking of jumping out of his car and at me, despite my dog's wolf-like appearance. Maybe he has been scouting the regularity of my appearance, the way I walk each morning around the parking area and along the path toward the river and back up to 4th Avenue. After all, I have read those newspaper reports about abductions, rapes and assaults. The perpetrators scout you out, return to the same place for a week or two, and then strike.

What is it in me that can visualize this scenario, and not the one that seems to be the truth? These men are drinking cardboard cups of coffee and eating a breakfast roll in front of the bridges and watching the arc of a city morning on the water because it is a peaceful way to start the day. I have marveled at the same sight, how branches form a green cathedral over picnic tables, how the newly planted dogwoods are iridescent in certain angles of light.

Twenty years ago, when I was teaching full-time, a colleague would come into the building looking unusually calm, unflappable. I finally asked him how he managed to seem so serene during what was then a chaotic time of schools closings, kids fighting and spring restlessness everywhere.

He told me that, each day, he went to the river not far from the rowing club near Lake Street. He took his coffee and sat on a bench for just 10 minutes. Then he headed toward school, into the hallways with their constant challenge. These 10 minutes gave him perspective, he said, a way to know that the water and sun and weather will go on no matter what happens inside the buildings where we teach or work.

So, to the men who sit and watch the sun on the water, to the two cops in their car reading the paper, to the woman who watches the geese strutting along the parking lot before she turns on her ignition and heads Downtown, I am trying to retrain my fear response. I am trying to assume the best of you, who take time to get perspective the way my colleague got his years ago. It made a better teacher and listener out of him. I nod to you then and hope the day goes well.

I know it is a healthy and realistic thing to be aware of dangers, not only in cities, but in suburbs or rural areas. We all have our own versions of kids killed, women snatched, men assaulted. However, the city seems to get the most publicity for these things. Why else the constant: "I didn't know it could happen in a place like this" response of those who live in suburbs and small towns when crime occurs? What bothers me is that media coverage may also have caused me to believe that my city is exceptionally dangerous and forbidding.

It is a hard thing to retrain an impulse, especially one grounded in fear and past trauma. It is important to balance realism -- woman-alone realism -- with knowledge, with 60 years of life on this earth with its foibles and disasters, with the understanding of what we humans are capable of doing to each other.

Yet this morning, when I felt tightness in my shoulders, quickness of step on the path, simply because a car I had not seen before was parked facing the water, cigarette smoke rising from an open window, I caught myself. I did not lose my caution, my initial response, but I noticed it.

Julie Landsman lives in North Loop.