My friend David Martin is a heck of a storyteller. He’s a heck of a writer too, but it was in the oral tradition that I first became acquainted with some of his more bizarre and hilarious anecdotes. One of these days he might just put them all together in a memoir tentatively titled Larry, Your Chicken Is Dead: Growing Up Normal in the Sixties. You should read it.
Anyway, of the many stories I remember Dave telling—the unfortunate incident of Nard’s chest, the horrifying tale of the rat and the python, the sad fate of the aforementioned chicken—the one that resonated with me most is that of Archie and the croquet set. Archie was a little dog owned by the Martins when David was a boy. I don’t remember what breed Archie was, but it was something short enough to be easily tripped by croquet wickets. These wickets, disguised by longish grass, lurked treacherously in the Martin yard, and when Archie started running around in energetic small-dog fashion, sooner or later he’d catch his paw on one. He’d fall, bewildered, then pick himself up and look behind him to see what had brought him down. But by now the wicket was lying flat, invisible even to a dog who was really looking. So Archie would get up and start running again, and again a hidden wicket would lay him low. Again he would look behind him; again he’d see nothing.
Animals can do only so much to make sense of the baffling contrivances of the human world. Archie did his best, but the cause of his tripping in the yard remained a dark mystery to him forever. He couldn’t see what was knocking him down, but he knew it was out there, waiting, mocking, and eventually he came up with a coping strategy. As he ran, he would randomly leap every few steps or so, hoping to clear whatever it was that kept tripping him up.
He kept up this behavior long after the croquet set was put away.
I listened to Dave tell this story, and I thought, I am exactly like that dog. Over two decades later, I am still thinking it. I can see the thing perfectly from Archie’s point of view. There he was, minding his small-dog business, running about the yard, and every so often some mysterious force of nature would catch his paw and lay him low. This M.F.O.N. was not confined to any one spot in the yard. It could not be seen, felt, or detected in any way; it was completely unpredictable. He might run a good bit without incident, but sooner or later the M.F.O.N. would get him. This was just the way life was.
From earliest childhood I have felt out of my depth. I grew up with a brother and a sister eleven and eight years older than myself. They were entrusted with things—mystifying, awe-inspiring things like operating the record player, heating things on the stove, and walking to the TG&Y without being accompanied by an adult. They were even allowed to take me to the TG&Y. My brother owned a truck and he was allowed to drive it. For all practical purposes I considered them grown up, except for the part where they still had to obey Mom and Dad. They did all this impressive stuff with such casual aplomb, like it was no big deal. They were so very competent, in fact, that it was a lot easier for my parents to have them keep on doing things than to teach me to do them. At the time I suspected this was because I was less capable than other children my age. (Yes, I actually spent time and energy suspecting this. Even as a child I was a habitual overthinker and worrier. Throw faulty assumptions and inadequate information into a mix like that and you get some wild conclusions. I remember hiding and crying in my room one December 31 because I thought this “New Year’s Eve” thing everyone kept talking about signified the end of the world. Later I thought the same thing about the Fourth of July, though for different reasons. The sky was on fire, for crying out loud. How could these people take this so calmly?)
My suspicions about my intrinsic inadequacy were reinforced when I entered first grade. I felt small and young compared to other students. (With a late August birthday, I actually was a little young, and thank you Malcolm Gladwell for confirming that this does in fact make a difference.) The others knew things I didn’t know, like their zip code. They plainly considered me ignorant, and I agreed with them. They had amazing capabilities—not so godlike as my brother’s and sister’s, but impressive. They were able to sit in desk seats for long periods of time and do tedious work like copying words from the blackboard. They could throw and catch a ball. They could jump rope.
In retrospect I think a big part of my problem was an overactive imagination coupled with extreme absentmindedness. I lived inside my own head so much that at any given moment I had little to no idea what was going on in the physical world around me. Learning practical skills was an arduous process for me, and whenever an object broke or malfunctioned or behaved in a way that was at all unexpected, I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do about it unless I had been previously instructed (and maybe not even then). A more enterprising child might have taken initiative and figured it out, but I was far from enterprising. I figured anything I did would only mess things up worse than ever. Better to wait for an older, taller, more competent person to do it for me.
Lack of power is foundational to anxiety, and lack of understanding is closely related to lack of power. Anxiety is as much an issue for animals as it is for people, and when you are managing livestock, avoidance of stress is as big a deal as food and water. In Pastured Poultry Profits, Joel Salatin says, “In a way, animals are much poorer at handling stress than are people because they can’t think through the problem.” Chickens in particular have a low threshold for stress. Overcrowding, undercrowding, loud noises, sudden movements, and any excessive human intrusion can have significant effects on weight gain and even mortality.
Even big tough predators feel the effects of stress and have to be closely monitored for it in captivity. I once watched some footage of Steve Irwin at his zoo doing something or other for a crocodile, maybe giving it food or doing some sort of maintenance on its enclosure. The croc didn’t like having a human in its home, but Steve did whatever he’d come to do, and when he was finished, rather than just leaving the enclosure, he let the croc chase him out. This gave the animal a feeling of control over its environment. In its mind, it was having success at protecting its territory and driving away intruders. Without this sense of security, the crocodile would feel anxious and helpless. It did look awfully smug as Steve scrambled out of the enclosure, but then crocodiles usually do look smug.
I am more proactive than a chicken, and less emotionally fragile than a crocodile, but that only means I have different limits to my comprehension and ability to control my environment. When we can’t see what’s tripping us, we get anxious, and we randomly jump, hoping against reason to time things just right and avoid getting knocked down. Before long, we’re jumping pretty much all the time. Whoa! Didn’t see that coming, and I sure wouldn’t want to be taken by surprise that way again. I will safeguard myself against a recurrence by feeling extremely anxious! Gah! Now something else is tripping me! What kind of world is this?! Jump! Jump! Jump!
(This is as good a time as any to say that I don’t mean to imply that Archie the dog lived a troubled existence marred by constant crippling anxiety. I never knew him, but I’m sure any dog owned by David Martin must have been well cared for and emotionally secure. Yes, he tripped a lot, but he figured out a system, and although it wasn’t a very good system, the wickets did eventually come down, and like Steve’s crocodile, Archie probably congratulated himself on his success. He didn’t understand that correlation does not equal causation, and that’s okay. A little logic goes a long way for a dog.)
Eventually I grew up and decided it was high time I learned to do stuff for myself rather than always waiting for someone else. I’m fairly knowledgeable and competent now, but I remember what it was like not to be, and I’m always absurdly pleased with myself whenever I accomplish some practical task. Yep, that breaker tripped and I got the switch flipped back. I totally know where the breaker box is and everything. The internet age is a dream come true for me. All that knowledge there for the taking! All those articles and original texts and step-by-step numbered lists! Wikipedia and eHow are my friends. People, too, are somewhat less baffling to me since I learned to discern their patterns of behavior, motives, and innate temperaments. I have a better understanding now of why people do the things they do and of what to expect from them.
But in spite of my best efforts, I am not omniscient and never will be. I still get taken by unpleasant surprise. People are still mysterious far beyond my ability to quantify them. Weird stuff still happens in the world, stuff that even the brightest and ablest never saw coming.
The thing about being blindsided is, you never do see it coming. That’s what being blindsided means. Anxiety doesn’t really safeguard us against anything; it just robs us of the precious emotional energy we’ll need when—not if—some random crisis does hit us out of the blue. We can never be vigilant enough to effectively guard against any and all eventualities. We would do better to remain in the present, grounded in the actual rather than the imaginary, focused on what is rather than what may be.
I haven’t arrived by any means, but I do think I’m a little better than I once was at rolling with the punches. At the very least I’ve come to see that my anxiety is exactly as useful as randomly jumping to avoid being tripped. The realization in and of itself isn’t much, but it’s something.
The truth is, there are wickets hiding in the grass, and there always will be. Some days I’m just going to get knocked down. But I’ll get up again, just like Archie did.