Posted by: itneverrainsinseattle | February 4, 2010

Good in a Crisis

I came to the keyboard tonight to write about [something I’ll write about tomorrow, I suppose], but instead found myself taken aback by a few key phrases in a couple of comments that were just recently posted to my site. One such phrase came from Le Bonheur, responding to my post “Attitude: The Airplane Story“:

“…I really value the ability to keep calm in stressful circumstances…”

You know how we sometimes play phrases over and over in our heads as part of our conception of who we are? One phrase that pops up in my head from time to time is:

“I’m pretty good in a crisis.”

And while Le Bonheur’s comment wasn’t about crises in particular, it immediately brought to mind how this one core strength of mine never came into play with regard to my marriage with Penny. One of the reasons our marriage continued to fester for as long as it did with the stench of rigor mortis was because there was no obvious crisis point to trigger me into any type of, “Act NOW!” mode.

I’m pretty good in a crisis.

When the proverbial poop impacts the rotating oscillator, I’ve tended to snap immediately to an inner sense of calm. What does this mean? What is happening? What are my resources? What are my options? Now… Act!

—–

There was the time I was driving through a snow-bound pass on Interstate 5, when the car in front of ours spun completely out of control right in front of us. Our mini-van was relatively new… as was our first born child, secured tightly in his car seat where he slept. Just me, Penny, and our baby in the van. It was dark. Late at night. Snow coming down in big, wet cotton balls. Traffic was light-ish, but there were more cars on the road than one might have expected, moving a little bit faster than perhaps was ideal.

As the car in front of us started fishtailing, I immediately went to that zone of awareness. Assessment. Response. Foot off the accelerator, but not on the brake. Their car starts spinning. I steer gently (but not too gently!) to the right, threading the needle between the spinning car in front of us (left-most lane) and the sparsely-spaced line of cars to our right. And I jussst get past. But then the road is curving to the right, and the “All Wheel Drive” computer starts fighting me for control of the car. I can feel it as it shifts from front wheel drive to rear wheel drive — I have years of experience with both, in snowy conditions, but they each demand a different kind of driving. I adjust. Then the AWD computer adjusts to my adjustment, and shifts back to front wheel drive. I adjust again. The concrete barrier along the left-hand side is looming ahead of us as I try to maintain control, which the AWD computer keeps trying to take away. I missed the spinning car and the traffic to the right, but I can’t regain control of the van as we slide into the concrete barrier angling ahead. Bump! The front end taps the barrier. The tail end swings around. We’re still moving. We’re spinning. Bump! The tail end hits the barrier. We’re still moving, and still spinning. The engine stalls. We slide to a stop, at a forty-five degree angle to the forward direction we should be facing. I look through the window by our baby’s car seat. Headlights coming our way. I throw the gear into Neutral, turn the ignition, the engine leaps to life, pop it into drive, and slowly accelerate and straighten the car, avoiding being hit by the oncoming traffic. Once I’m able, I slowly make our way over to the right and take the first exit, looking for a place to inspect the damage and make sure we don’t have a fuel leak.

Yes, in hindsight, I was driving too fast for the conditions of the road; too close to the car in front of us when I had no previous experience with how an AWD would respond to adverse conditions. I put too much faith in two decades of experience with Buffalo and Boston winters, where driving is one long, controlled skid. Lesson learned.

But as I walked around the car checking for damage, Penny stood by holding a second flashlight, a sound of awe in her voice. “I never could have stayed calm like that.”

—–

There was the Nisqually earthquake of February, 2001. I was in a meeting with six or seven co-workers when the bones of the building started making a loud clanking noise, like suddenly construction workers had decided to tap out morse code messages in the girders. Then the floor lurched. That’s when I realized what was happening.

“Everybody under the table,” I said. I didn’t even think about it. I’d had training in what to do in emergency situations, but living through that was an eye-opener. When the emergency hits, some people slide right into command mode, while others slide into obey mode. The funny thing is, many of the people who had taken the training with me proved that day to be the people who slip into obey mode.

Before I’d even finished the sentence, everyone in our little room was under the conference table. Everyone but me. I was standing up, riding the wave, making sure everyone was safe, when it dawned on me: they didn’t leave me any room! I managed to get at least the upper half of my body protected, crouching down with my head and torso under the table and my behind extending out past the end. Good times, my friends, good times.

After the shaking subsided — the building’s shaking, I mean — I led our group to the staircase, directing traffic as other groups merged with ours, and then sweeping the area for stragglers, checking for injuries, and so on. Of the four floor-captains and four assistant floor captains for our floor (this was a large office building in downtown Seattle), only two of us seemed to remember any training, or manage to keep any kind of control as the aftermath played out. Fortunately, that was all that was needed.

—–

There was the time I was a teenager, separated from my camping buddies in the Canadian National Forest. Our campsite must be just over that hill. No, well, over that next rise over there. No? Well…

It was the height of summer. Hot and sticky. The mosquitos — Ontario’s provincial bird — were out in force. By the time I realized that I was lost, I was very, very, very lost. I could feel the panic start to rise up in me. And that was when I found it — the centering calm. This may well have been the first time that I discovered this little survival mechanism within me, that before panic could take over, I would just… calm.

Okay. I can not trust my sense of direction. I can’t even trust myself to go back the way I came. (Yes, I tried briefly, and discovered it was hopeless.) Don’t panic. What do I do?

Use the sun and the moss on the trees as my guide. Pick one direction and head that way consistently, until I hit a road or a stream. Then go from there.

I found a dirt road. I wasn’t sure whether to turn left or right, but it would either take me either to the highway or the camp grounds eventually. Turns out, I chose the direction that took me to the camp grounds. I’d been gone for a few hours. Nobody had noticed.

Later, I learned just how fucking big the Canadian National Forest is. I’m glad I never had to put any of that boy scout training to the test.

As with my driving story above, I learned that the best way to deal with a crisis is to head it off if at all possible by not getting into that situation again.

Fuck camping.

—–

Then there was the time I was married to Penny.

There were danger signs, sure, but nothing… urgent. No crisis point. Nobody had an affair; nobody got violent; nobody had a complete break-down. The cops were never called; no intervention was staged. Rather, our sexual dry spells went longer and longer; we did fewer things together; dissatisfaction gave way to sadness, which gave way to mild depression. Slowly, we tapered off spending time with friends. We pulled back from the outside world, and from each other.

When I finally worked up the nerve to demand something more — when I finally wrote Penny the Letter — she announced she was pregnant. That overshadowed, for a time, the low level discontentment of our marriage. But it didn’t solve it.

I’m pretty good in a crisis, but something I’m going to have to get better at is recognizing and acting upon warning signs.

Because it turns out, you can have a disaster without having a crisis.

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Responses

  1. Great post!
    And also, I really hope you’re the guy sitting next to me if I’m ever in a plane crash. 🙂

  2. By which, I hasten to add, I do not mean to wish a plane crash on either of us!

  3. Wow. Great post. I love how you brought the whole thing together. You have a gift, my friend. You know this. I’m just going to be a nudge and insist you use it.

    I have big plans for you…

  4. “Because it turns out, you can have a disaster without having a crisis.” BEST thing you’ve written in “Death of a Marriage Foretold.” Bravo.

  5. Itneverrains,

    Master stroke with your …keyboard here. We men apparently excel at problem solving. Let me be clear, I am not saying women do not. They are equally gifted. We men overdo it. It is our nature.

    When you partner comes from work telling you stories about the workday: She does not want to hear your solutions or recommendations to solve them (even if as is my case solutions just pop right and left, screaming to be heard). She wants us to empathize be sympathetic and listen. She wants to be understood and letting her know we know how she feels is the best one can do. If She wants more, well WE need to figure it out, but they are usually pretty good at giving clues (I know is not as easy as it sounds, but no matter how you say it, it is hard for others to understand that we are not mind readers, specially when emotions get in the way).

    Jumping into problem solving mode when what our partner wants is closeness pushes them away. Learning this dance, distancing from each other to then get close is something you two never learned to do well. Your blog documents this consistently enough (as you describe it) for me to say that while you realized the problem, Penny did not.

    A solution for us men is to get in touch with our feelings and being more expressive…but it sounds to me you are doing rather well in that department. Penny’s receiver was not working well it seems; for a dialog to occur there must be a two-way communication.

    I like the quote Suzanne extracted from your writing:

    “Because it turns out, you can have a disaster without having a crisis.”

    I have a contribution from a slightly different angle here.

    Unlike you, I sort of put my scout “training’ into practice. While camping in the mountains one member of my troop decided to go for a swim across the river while we were taking our morning baths (this is early before 7:00 AM).
    To make a long story short he started drowning while swimming across the river. I dove in first, after him.

    He nearly took me down with him. Luckily I was slightly stronger and taller, just enough to fight him off, while keeping us afloat, or push us both up when we hit the bottom of the river. Three others had jumped in behind me; it took four of us to bring that kid (like us) out of the river. All five of us collapsed exhausted by terror on the stones.

    This was not mentioned, ever, to the adult leadership (it also happened outside the US). I have a slow motion “video” permanently etched in my mind of every second that morning, my running in, diving, surfacing right in front of the victim [bad timing] for him only to cling to my neck [worse case scenario in water rescue]; to my collapsing on the stony ground after getting out. He, the kid, was grateful. We were both young. Whenever he shook my hand and thanked me, I would quickly hush him; fearing the secret would be revealed. What I remember the most is the look in his eyes when he lunged for me and wrapped his arms around my neck.

    Later in life, and as an adult divorcee, I’ve learned to see a similar panicked looked in people. The lost, panicked, hopeless looks of someone about to break up, divorce, or distance her or himself from a loved one. What is terrifying is their seemingly drowning in a sea of loneliness [while surrounded by people!]. Sometimes one can see and “smell it”. These people I’ve learned are drowning.

    You see. I’ve learned that we humans do not need rivers to drown.

    Lending a helping hand, a cheer, an insight, might just be enough to keep them afloat and make it off the emotional deep end across the river of life.

    There is a maxim in water rescue, when you commit to rescuing someone, since you are risking your own life: You must be absolutely certain that if there is a victim, that victim is not going to be you.

    So it has been a long struggle for you Itneverrains in the deep waters of this marriage. Swimming away for the safety of the shore is all you can do now. I think your training has served you well. You have been the best man you could have been. You have learned to see the signs through this experience. Never forget them.

    PS

    Perhaps is time to start camping again, just to keep your senses sharp! 😉

  6. Great story. Great post!

  7. Holy wow.

    I stand in awe.

    This post rocks in so many ways.

    I too have found that I snap into ‘leader mode’ in a crisis. How interesting to apply it to relationships.

    Love this.

  8. “When the proverbial poop impacts the rotating oscillator”
    THIS? Made. My. Night.

  9. This post is so great on so many levels. If I have time after I finish dinner and finish playing with my NEW RED HIGH HEELS! I will send you a long and gushy email about all the things I liked. However, if I get sidetracked by my NEW RED HIGH HEELS! rest assured that I said “yes!” a number of times while reading. Awesome. Thanks 🙂

  10. I am so that person also. Case in point- Plane felt as if it was falling out of the sky. pilot- PILOT- sitting in front of us saying this was the worst flight of his life- Heads bounding off the roof, people screaming and I remain calm. Explaining how we are going to be ok, pointing out the obvious of WHY we would be ok, and we land fine. I am my best in crucial moments. You rock. We rock.

  11. Nice one, INRIS!

    Could relate to so much of it… and you also made some very good points that I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of. Love the ending. Thanks.

  12. Here I was so deep in thought, thinking of how I am like you, (that is, completely calm in a crisis while others are going nuts) and then…. out of nowhere (didn’t see it coming!) I read:
    “Then there was the time I was married to Penny”.

    I laughed so hard I just about fell off my chair!

    I agree with all the others: You are such a great writer! … (and I still think you’d look hot if you shaved your head!)

  13. Reading this really hit home for me. I said in my comment to you that I do remain really still and calm in a crisis. Its something I connected to in what you wrote. But when I read this last post I thought about how when I was in my relationship, which honestly was one big crisis for the last 2 years (no abuse, no cheating, no arguments) but it was bad for me and I just stayed perfectly calm as I watched it unfold.
    I’ve been thinking a lot about that and like you said, I too have to get better about recognizing and acting on the warning signs. Its one thing to be calm but its quite another be passive.


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