Friday, March 28, 2014

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Popping the Question (to her Father): A Study in Fear- guest author Ethan Bartlett


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Fear is weird.

The most fear I’ve ever felt was during a conversation.

I admit I’ve not had that adventerous a life. Where friends and students of mine have been in the military, in actual gunfights with people on the other side trying to kill them, or been in the Peace Corps and literally lived in a hut with no plumbing or running water, I’ve spent most of my adult life as a professional English major. I read things, and I write things, and some of the things I read I put a grade on.

What I’m saying is, I haven’t done all that much to be afraid of.

Two of my scariest experiences come from the summer I spent at camp. I remember chasing a kid through the woods on a 90-degree day, knowing the kid had asthma and knowing, too, that I did not have his inhaler, trying to keep up with my runaway and call my co-counselor to bring his inhaler simultaneously. Another time, swimming at the lake, a kid went limp in my arms.

We managed to get the runner his inhaler literally in the nick of time, and the kid who went limp was faking it (making the experience no less traumatic for his counselor, let me tell you). And while I felt fear at both of these times, I didn’t feel that much fear. Later I didn’t feel like I had felt enough.

But maybe that’s understandable: at both times I subordinated the fear to my desire to have the child survive.

Another time I remember feeling fear is when I first asked Karen to go out with me. This was a little bit ridiculous, because she had made it quite clear for quite a while what her answer would be were I ever to ask her.

Scene: We’re lounging, side-by-side, on an obscure set of steps at our undergraduate institution. It’s about one in the morning. We’ve come here after theater rehearsal, and have been talking for rather a long time. A silence falls.

Ethan: Karen, do you want to date?

Ethan’s Inner Monologue: ohshitohshitohshit

Karen: [Silence.]

Karen’s Inner Monologue: Say yes! Say yes!

Karen: Yes.

Ethan (realizing he has left her an out): Do you want to date me?

Karen: Yes.

Ethan: Are you sure?

Karen: Yes.

During that bottomless period between the ask and the answer, an impressive number of thoughts managed to go through my head: what if she knows that I fart when I sleep? What if she just today had a revelation that she actually isn’t interested in me and decided to go out to Hollywood and snag Liam Neeson? What if she’s just figured out she’s too good for me?

Fortunately for me, she apparently hadn’t had any of these revelations, and she didn’t jump at any of the outs I gave her. But, up until this point, this was the most fear I’d experienced in any interpersonal interaction.

Fast forward through the long story of a break-up, a reunion, and a tacit agreement that Karen and I were both in the sort of mental situation which would make a marriage agreeable. Lying in bed, one night, thinking out what would have to happen before a proposal (where the hell was I supposed to get a ring, anyway?), I got to a point that sort of made me feel like I was falling forever: I realized I would have to ask her father.

I don’t know why this is such a terrifying sensation for guys, but based on the random sampling of guys I have asked (approximately five) I can only conclude that this is a universal feeling. Dads are scary.

Certainly I can understand it in some cases. I wouldn’t want to ask Brett Favre’s permission to marry his daughter. Han Solo should consider himself just very luck that Vader died before that became an issue for him. Not that I would want Karen’s dad to die, or anything. He’s a very nice man.

Logistics were a problem: Karen has been living the last several years in the midwest, and her parents live in Colorado, and we are poor. Phones exist, yes, but there was something about the idea of having that conversation on the phone that I just didn’t like. Phones can be terrifying all by themselves.

Over the new year, Karen and I managed to scrape together funds for plane tickets, and to get time off from, between the two of us, four jobs, and we went out to visit her parents for several days. The time was lovely, and her parents were very nice and very generous, and I had an excellent time.

Except there was this big cloud of fear, too, lowering like a storm front at the back of my mind. As may already be apparent, I am excellent at coming up with terrible theoretical scenarios. On its own, my brain had busily devised every possible objection her father could raise. I had broken up with Karen once, after all, and who was I anyway to go around marrying people?

Karen’s parents’ house is very nice, but relatively small. Not crowded, by any means, but when you are trying to have a conversation with only one out of four other people happen in a sort of natural way it becomes… apparently difficult. I look at pictures from our days there, big sweeping mountain-pocked vistas backgrounding shots of us with our arms around each other, and while I am certainly happy I can also see the fear-thoughts backgrounding my expression: What if he says this, What if I mess up and say that, yada yada.

I finally managed to catch Karen’s father alone. I finally managed to spit out my question, though I literally felt like my lips were going to give out asking it (how this would work, I have no idea). Immediately I backed into a thing and knocked it over and we had to spend about three minutes picking it up. I was laughed at. About two sentences later, he said “Yes.”

About two weeks after that, so did she.

At the prospect of putting together a wedding, actually being married, spending the rest of my life with one individual person, I am strangely calm.

Maybe I got all the fear out here at the start. Or sometimes I think the fear was just a marker, showing me how much this was really what I wanted, how afraid I am of losing something that it would be pretty easy, if I were foolish, to take for granted. I’ve found I don’t conquer fear. I live with it, get past it. I make it a friend.

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Ethan Bartlett graduated with a Master's in English Studies at Minnesota State University-Mankato in the spring of 2013. He is getting married in the fall of 2014, and still looking for something to do with his degree.