Monday, July 16, 2007

Don't worry Mom - I can take care of myself

Sometimes my reflexes scare me.

Reflexes are supposed to be what your body uses to override your scheming brain to make you jump up, squat down, dodge, jerk, run for cover, duck, zag, zig, wag, grab or skid in an effort to avoid some potential danger or even save your life. Some people’s reflexes have are suggestive of certain defenses made popular by the animal world. I’ve knowing parrots who let out deafening screeches in response to the least provocation, the grizzly bear who roars his fearsome displeasure, the antelope bounders, geckos who are likely to leave their tail behind in their escape, and even squids – watch out for the ink. My own dear college roommate was a hedgehog: her reflex had a penchant for squeak-tuck-curl.

My reflex is a stoic Mac truck.

When endangered, my body simply stops and stares whatever it is in the face. I’m not sure if this is an actual reaction so much as maybe my fight-or-flight impulses surging from opposite ends of a nerve pathway and meeting in the center only to completely cancel each other out. This chemical reaction not only leaves me frozen in place, it usually also cancels out my fear, which plods along like a water buffalo resolutely chasing my turtle brainwaves that are contemplating a future point when they will inform my conscious self that there might actually be a threat to my well-being. And I know my reaction is not the much scoffed deer-in-the-headlights reaction either, as whatever the reaction going on in my body also triggers some kind of facial expression which by itself often causes would-be assailants to give way.

First, I am happy to say that in my life I have never had to use this reflex in a real danger situation – most of my reference points some from foolish boyfriends running across campus lawns to tackle my roommate and myself. The first found himself nosefirst in a snowbank when my hedgehog friend simply squeaked into a prickly ball beneath him, the second found himself much regretting the move when my reflex was to turn to concrete just as a fairly sensitive area made contact. I’m sure there’s a lot of scenarios when this will do me a lot less good than the tried and true duck-and-cover routine, but it’s what I’ve got.

The reason I’m thinking of all of this today was a specific incident on the road during my after-work decompression walk – one in which the reflex did serve me well. Or, it served my physical well-being, though I’m not sure I can say the same for my diplomatic existence.

I was walking around a green corner in an entrance to a quiet street on a part of my walk I particularly enjoy. I’m sure the guy who came at me on his motorbike only meant to be goofy – except that this is the second time he has done this, in the exact same place, but on the opposite end of the day. As I walk up the last of a rise around a bit of a turn, he sees me and shifts his trajectory to intercept. He, an almost-middle-aged man on a 250 cc motorbike seems to think that it’s de rigueur to play chicken with a 20-something foreign female armed only with running shoes and an MP3 player.

What he also doesn’t seem to realize is that when I’m walking I may have my eyes open, I may be looking in his direction, I may even be looking him in the face, but that does not mean I see him. As I myself learned at the tender age of four with the sacrifice of a large chunk of the skin on my forehead, just because a dog has his eyes open doesn’t mean he’s going to realize it’s you who is petting him when he is startled awake.

The first time around he was the obvious chicken loser as he veered away just at the second that my body seemed to register that there was a guy on a motorcycle RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME. I didn’t flinch until he was well behind me, and the only thing I managed to do then was shout something in English over my shoulder and give him a really nasty look.

Well today he surprised me again. But this time he decided to see just how far he could get with playing chicken. This time I registered he was there much earlier – but the freeze instinct took over. He came right at me and sidled just enough to one side not to have a head on with me. My feet stayed frozen – but my hands flew up – not to protect me – but to GRAB HIS BIKE. What the heck was I doing? Well, I kept doing it – I released the handlebars in favor of his shirt and soon I had his whole sleeve in my fist and I had practically pulled him off his bike. Actually, I would have, except his momentum had him leaning away from me (he was leaning out and away rather than to actually hit me), so the effect was I actually kept him and his bike upright by counterbalancing the fall. I held him long enough and, impressively I thought, a Vietnamese phrase actually came out of my mouth. Accents right or wrong, who cares, my point was made: “Mister, you are EXTREMELY CRAZY.”

He stopped and I released him. He glanced over my shoulder and I turned to see that he had stopped in front of the only habited place on that corner – a wooden shack eatery with a bunch of middle-aged shirtless guys probably drinking beer just staring at us. I have no idea how much they saw – they my have seen the whole thing, but my fear is that they only really witnessed my grabbing a handful of sleeve of a passing motorist and screaming at him. The guy on the motorbike smiled (not exactly sheepishly, but not really flirtatiously either) and said, “Okay, you can get on now,” patting his bike seat. Right. Not sure if he was trying to save face in front of the beer-swilling witnesses or just be silly, but it came across as you would probably expect. My reaction? Snort derisively, pull out a little more Vietnamese and say, “No way, you scare me,” turn on my heel and march off.

Then the adrenaline caught up and I started shaking. More though, I wonder what the witnesses thought. And I wonder when one my reflex moves are really going to get me into trouble. I’ve used the same move (freeze feet, hands grab) to catch several would-be pickpockets (loose-fitting clothing isn’t something you want to be wearing if you’re going to grab my wallet) and a couple of wanna-be drunk drive-by gropers in Madagascar (watch out for market day – bad things happen). I’m not really pretty when my reflexes jump in – and at some point that probably isn’t going to win me friends. But in the mean time it serves me well in the land of strange ideas of fun and petty crime.

And I wonder if Mr. Chicken-Bike is going to think third time is the charm? And if so, what exactly is the charm he has in mind?

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