In the Belly of the Swan

As we go about our daily lives we live an illusion called “normality.” Normality is the assumption that tomorrow will be little different than today. Perhaps the weather will be better or a little worse, or an event we attach importance to will have happened but won’t change our lives much – the way Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers fans feel today after their teams lost in the playoffs. Normality allows us to make predictions about the future but more importantly, it gives us control.

Unfortunately that control is also an illusion, and in the blink of an eye control evaporates. In my time I have undergone many extreme or unusual events, such as a drive during a tornado-spawning thunderstorm discussed in detail here. In that case I overruled my instincts and needlessly risked my life and that of my son. But often an extreme event comes out of the blue without any warning and is completely unpredictable. In the parlance of financial risk, these are true “black swan” events, a topic reviewed here. One could predict trouble driving under stormy skies. Black swan events are complete “bolts from the blue” and cannot be prepared for because they cannot be imagined.

These events usually begin in complete disbelief, as we grasp at straws in a vain attempt to maintain the illusion of normality. For example long ago when I was in college I was working at a video store. As closing time came a man approached the counter with two videos he wanted to rent. I turned my back to him and got the tapes from the long rack behind the counter and asked for his rental card. When I turned around he threw a small folded brown paper bag on the counter. I picked it up and opened it expecting to find the rental card.

At that moment an objective observer would have recognized that people who rent videos do not store their rental cards in folded brown paper bags, but the human mind will go to any lengths to construct a scenario no matter how elaborate in order to maintain a sense of normality. The illusion was completely shattered by the man flashing a chrome plated semi-automatic handgun in his belt and telling me to put the money from the register in the bag and to not try anything funny or he’d “blow (my) f***ing brains out.”

Although this event was technically not a black swan event because being robbed at gunpoint, even in the wealthy town of La Jolla California, could be imagined. Still it was an unlikely event (a “grey swan”), but one at the age of 22 I had not prepared for.

It seemed to me that time slowed down. I looked at my options. The only possible weapon at my disposal was one of those indestructible Ma Bell phones made in the 1970s. In this day of razor-thin cell phones and lightweight portable handsets, young people may not understand how well built and solid those old phones were; in the right hands the phone would have made a formidable weapon. But my hands were not the right ones; I was a 22 year old, 120 lb kid against a man who outweighed me by at least 40 lbs and had a gun. I knew there was nothing I could do except open the register and put the day’s takings – $500 or so if memory serves – into the bag. I handed the robber the bag.

He held it, and this was the moment I felt I was in the greatest danger. I felt him weighing his next moves: would he order me into the back of the store behind the X-rated video partition? In my teens I had worked in a pizza restaurant where it turns out three people had been ordered into the backroom of the restaurant and shot execution style by the robbers. I remembered that incident and drew a line in the sand. If he ordered me into the back, I wasn’t going. He’d have to shoot me in plain sight of the parking lot.

“Walk me to the door,” he said, “And lock the door behind me.” As I came around the counter, he started walking slightly behind me then stopped, reached behind the counter, and grabbed the videos he had me get for him: John Hughes’s Career Opportunities and Playboy Sexy Lingerie III. As we reached the door he said, “Now I want you to lock it then go back to the counter and stand where I can see you. If you so much as breathe I’m going to kill you.” Breathing wasn’t a problem at this point. If I was breathing at all it would surprise me.

I locked the door and he disappeared into the parking lot. I walked backwards to the counter, I couldn’t turn my back on him, and reached the phone. Putting it on speaker so that he couldn’t see me, I dialed the police. When they arrived, I breathed, and sobbed, and didn’t fall asleep for three days. I quit the job soon afterward because every time someone walked in I expected them to rob me.

That brings up a problem with normality: once it is broken, it takes a long time for it to reassert itself. The odds of me being robbed again at that store were astronomical at that point. I probably was safer there with the increased police presence in the mall than I had ever been. But the illusion had been broken and it would take a very long time for it to rebuild. In fact since I quit the job, it never had a chance to.

Fast forward two decades and a black swan crashes through the window of reality, but the process is the same. An objective observer would see that my initial response to preserve reality as almost pitiful. What is different this time is that I am not 22 years old anymore, and I have seen my share of swans during that time. After the call to 911 I have firepower. Even though I am scared, I have responsibilities now and no ugly bird is going to make me break them. I assess the situation quickly and realize that my memory is fallible, so I chuck it. I decide that I don’t need it; I’m not going to waste my time trying to remember anything. Looking back I now realize that remembering is an act for the future. Allowing myself to forget gave me the freedom to focus on the “now.” In the little I have read about traumatic events, focusing on the present is high up on the “to do” list.

Assess the situation. Keep calm. I tend to speak quickly and loudly when I’m nervous so I intentionally slow down the cadence of my words. Keep everyone calm. Crack a bad joke even though no one feels like laughing. Talk about the weather. Whatever it takes to keep everyone – including myself – from panicking. As a writer by instinct I feel myself observing myself, but that is also a task for the future; better to stay in the moment, the now. Time stretches, knees knock, keep scanning the darkness. “Safeties off?” “Yes,” I command. We are locked and loaded. The past is written, the future no longer exists. In the dense fog, in the belly of the swan, waiting for what must happen to happen.

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19 Comments

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