It caught me by surprise. It was a nice skiing day in Flachau, and I had taken my six-year-old daughter for her third day of ski school. “She is excellent!” the ski instructor had said the day before. “Tomorrow we can go to a real slope!” So I had brought her to the school the next morning and tucked a child ski pass in a pocket of her pink jacket. “Just show this pass when you go to the button lift,” I explained. She nodded. We sat down and waited for other kids to arrive. After few minutes of silence, it started.
“Daddy!” she said.
I turned around and saw tears streaming down her face. I hugged her tight and tried to comfort her.
“What is the problem, sweetie?”
“I don’t want to go to school today. I am afraid of the button lift,” she wept.
Here we go, I thought to myself. Fear of the button-lift monster, the one that suddenly crosses your skis on the way up so you fall and get dragged by the lift while spectators laugh at you. It’s funny because it is harmless—nobody gets hurt on the kids’ ski lift. Landing your butt in the snow doesn’t really hurt. But I knew my daughter’s fear was real—because the same monster has been chasing me.
Some people are born lions and some deer. I was born a chickenhearted deer. I was shy and scared of being hurt. Hurt physically or, even worse, socially. Therefore, while other kids were playing outside with balls and sticks, I was reading encyclopedias at home. I especially liked the “R” section because it had rockets. Some encyclopedias put rockets under “S”, in the space article. As a kid, I always thought such amateurs shouldn’t be allowed to write encyclopedias; rockets deserve a separate article. I was quite a happy child, doing my exciting and non-scary thingies. But adults were not happy about me. I was too shy.
“I am really afraid,” my daughter cried. I was holding her, while tears were relay racing down her cheeks.
“Don’t worry sweetie; everything will be fine.” I tried to comfort her. “Look at all these kids around; nobody is scared.” True, there were five kids in the same group. A younger kid was looking at her in surprise: “Ski school is fun!”
She was not always like that. As a baby she was loud and she started walking early. She would fall down, bump her head, and in a few minutes try to walk again. But then, after the age of three, kids in kindergarten separated into loud ones and shy ones. She went to the shy side, same as her father. I read later it was something genetic connected with the amygdala. I felt guilty.
“I am going to be there next to you. Your ski instructor is going to be next to you. And the guy running the lift is going to stop it if you fall down.” It didn’t help. If it’s easy, why are there three adults helping her?
Like when I was five and I had cut my eyebrow in an amusement park. I was bleeding but not scared while my parents drove me to the hospital. Once inside, the doctors had me lie down on a bed and put a local anesthetic over the cut. They told me it would not hurt but I didn’t believe them. If it is not going to bloody hurt, why are two doctors holding my head and a third one leaning over with a light on her head and large stitching needle in her hand? I totally flipped. Fortunately, a few weeks before, I’d spent a weekend with my grandparents in the countryside. My grandpa was disappointed that such a big boy still didn’t know how to swear. So he took a weekend to teach me every juicy Croatian swear word he knew. I could now defend myself. By eyewitness accounts, with every stitch that went into my eyebrow, my profanities increased by an order of magnitude. By the time the last stitch was in, I was combining the doctor’s vagina with slutty farm animals and her mother’s vagina and well-known religious figures. Christian religious figures. The hospital staff had never experienced anything like it. Neither had my mother, who was standing in the hospital room. We lived in a small city and for the next month she pretended not to recognize acquaintances on the street if they worked at the hospital. My father checked if my comic books had any swear words. He only found “@#$%&!”
Back on ski slopes, my daughter was still in tears. At least she is not making a scene like me in the hospital. I decided to play it cool. “You are crying for nothing. It’s easy. You will see.” The ski instructor said we could start walking toward the slope, which was five minutes away. It looked like my daughter was crying less as we walked hand in hand. She just needs to cry it out, I was thinking. She can’t quit now. What kind of life lesson would that be—to just quit every time you have an irrational fear? The other five kids are going to learn skiing and she will never learn?
Similar as singing for me. I always found it dreadful. Our music teacher in primary school had demanded that each of us sing in front of the class to get our mark. She would randomly open the class register and read the name of an unlucky bastard. When it was me, I refused to sing. No matter if the three previous kids sang, I didn’t want to do it. Just give me an F and continue with it. One time we learned how to intonate rhythm, which was quite easy because you sing te-ta sounds instead of words. When it was time to sing, she looked at me. She skipped the usual class register routine, so I didn’t have time to start panicking properly. I decided to give it a try. With a lump in my throat, I started singing: ta te ta fa te fe, ta fe te ta ta te, ta te ta fa te fe. I finished without a single pause or error. Then she said to the whole class, “Zeljko did it without an error. Which means that all of you can also do it—it’s that easy.” My cheeks blushed. I guess that everybody’s good for something, even if it’s just to be a bad example. To this day I refuse to sing.
My thoughts moved back to the present time. My daughter was still crying and I was getting annoyed. Is that the way she is going to lead her life? Hiding from irrational monsters while everybody else is having fun? I decided I would not let that happen. No way. “Stop crying. You are just being a baby!” I raised my voice. I needed to push her so she could overcome her fear. You always need to push yourself. Don’t give up to the fear, fight that monster. I pushed myself that way when I was younger.
Take the time I had asked a girl on a date for the first time. I was in high school and I had been seeing her every day. We had a really nice communication going on. She would smile and I would get goosebumps. I thought it was obvious I fancied her. I would offer to come and study at her house. She would make me a sandwich. But that is all I would get, no kisses or anything. Not that I tried. I was too scared. So I decided to take it to the next level, to ask her for a date. I contemplated my fear for days. One day I decided to call her on the phone; I didn’t want her to see me nervous. I put my red phone on the floor and sat in front of it. For thirty minutes I looked at the phone digits in silence. They looked back at me. My heart was pounding. The scene looked like an advert for cheap long-distance calls. But I decided to fight the monster. I picked up the handset and dialed the number. She answered the phone.
“How is your day going?” I tried to be cool.
She started talking about homework, as that was often the topic of our conversation. I was thinking, though, this conversation wasn’t going well. I mean, mathematics is sexy but not in that way.
“Do you have any plans for tonight?” I said.
“Actually no, I am free tonight. Why do you ask?”
“It’s a nice day, maybe we could go to the city for drinks?” I replied.
“Well… yes, I guess we could go. Were you planning to invite somebody else?”
She was clueless. After all that math and all those sandwiches.
“No,” I said, “I wanted only the two of us to go for a drink. You know, like a date.”
“A date?! You are kidding, right?”
“No, I am serious.” I decided to go all the way. Fuck being cool. “I like you. I like when you smile, I like when we talk. I think we would be a nice couple. That is why I am inviting you for a date.”
There was a long pause. The beating thing in my chest wanted to jump out. Onto a silver platter, maybe? Then the silence stopped.
“Ha ha ha, ha ha ha!”
She was laughing.
“Ha ha ha ha!”
I really wanted her to stop.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked.
“It’s funny! I’m shocked! Why did you think we had something going on?”
“Well… I thought it was obvious that I like spending time with you. Doing homework, talking in the class. Didn’t you notice?” I asked.
“Listen, I like you as a friend. I don’t want to go on a date. Nothing is going to happen with us. I can’t believe you asked me that! Let’s finish this conversation and talk about it when we see each other.”
That was the end of the conversation. After she hung up the phone, I held onto my handset for some time. It was the first time in my life I had asked a girl on a date. It didn’t go quite as I had hoped.
People in high school noticed I was a bit sad that month. I guess she noticed it too, but she never said anything. She avoided conversation about it. To this day we haven’t exchanged a word about it.
Standing in the snow, I couldn’t understand why my daughter was afraid of the stupid button lift. Even if she broke her goddamn legs on it, that would be minor pain. Physical pain is nothing compared to the pain caused by other people.
She was still crying. My strategy of being tough didn’t help. I realized I was an idiot. Why am I pushing her to go on the lift if she doesn’t want to do it? So I can make her a “strong” person? So I can cure my childhood frustrations through her? I am a fucking idiot. Let’s just ask the ski instructor for a refund and call it a day.
But as I was facing the ski instructor, I remembered something. As a kid I panicked the most when I had a choice, that is, when I thought my panic could stop the scary thing from happening. When I was faced with something certain, I would often accept it.
“You know what?” I said to the ski instructor, “She is only crying because I am here. She knows if she cries a lot I will take her out. What if I go and hide behind that building for five minutes? If she doesn’t stop crying, just wave to me and I will come back.”
The ski instructor nodded in agreement. I kissed my daughter on the cheek, said goodbye, and pretended I was going away. I hid behind the ski storage shack and found a hole to peek through. She was still sobbing. But after a minute she was sobbing less. And after another minute even less. She accepted the inevitable. The ski instructor sorted them out and all the kids went to the ski lift.
She is all good, I thought. The ski instructor will call me if she panics again. I took my skis and went off to an adult ski lift. While she was in school, I was cruising the ski slopes and thinking.
Certainty reduces anxiety. Take my summer vacation on the island of Pag. A friend of mine and I had been spending nights drinking at clubs. Quite fun but we hadn’t met anybody. The last night of our stay, we were determined to split up and cruise around for a flirting opportunity. I noticed a girl I liked, standing in a corner. While I was thinking of what to say, another guy approached her. But I was determined. I waited, and after a few sips of beer, I noticed the guy had left her, disappointed. So I just walked over to her and asked why such a nice girl was standing alone. I was not afraid because I knew I was going to approach her. We started talking.
On the ski slopes, I was getting nervous. It was close to noon and I was wondering if everything had gone well with the ski class. I approached the bottom of the ski lift but nobody was there. I checked my phone. There were no calls or messages. Then I saw a small parade of kids in oversized helmets coming down the hill. My daughter was one of them. She was skiing like a pro.
“Daddy, daddy,” she said with a smile, “It was great. We went on the lift, and we skied down and again and I was not afraid. Can we go again? Please!”
I thanked the ski instructor and went with her on a few more button-lift rides. After five trips, she got quite sad because my ski pass had expired and we needed to go. I couldn’t believe the change in attitude.
But in my heart I understood. The girl I approached that night on the island of Pag was her mother. If I had never had the courage to approach her, my daughter would never have been born. When you are shy, you need to fight your fear monster every day.