July 12, 2013
One of the best things about living in the country is how little you care about “city” issues such as the Peruvian Kraut who killed a gangster’s son or a bunch of savages rioting halfway across the world. Here in upstate NY where nature’s tranquility meets summer’s heat, you sweat the small stuff.
My kids were recently playing in a river near Hudson, NY, and as my four-year-old son piled some wet sand onto a rock, my old high-school buddy Steve put his head in his hands and said, “That’s my worst thing.” Steve is petrified of sand rubbing against things. Twenty years ago, he would have been wringing his hands and screaming his head off. “I”m getting better now,” he told me . “I don”t have to leave.” When we were teenagers, we would camp at a Canadian vacation spot called Sandbanks and to avoid sand rubbing against his feet, he would wear high-top sneakers and basketball socks on the beach. He has no idea what started this aversion and every time I try to get to the bottom of it, he tells me to fuck off.
That’s what I find so fascinating about these phobias. Nobody who has them wants to talk about them. My gut says it’s nature not nurture, but confirming this theory is a pain in the ass.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders calls such quirks “specific phobias.” I call them hilarious. What causes such an intense aversion to such random things? Can they stop it or do they have no choice? Experts speculate it may have something to do with a childhood trauma, but the evidence seems inconclusive. One thing seems clear: People are rarely born with these phobias. They usually appear when children are between 10 and 13 but when they hit, they hit hard.
The most amusing place to watch specific phobias in action is on the white-trash shock show Maury. Not only does host Maury Povich feature guests with intense fears of birds, pickles, flowers, chicken, Jell-O, gum, dogs, cats, crabs, balloons, cotton balls, mustard, and plastic foam peanuts, he terrorizes them. Maury doesn”t pretend to want to help these people. He just chases a peach-o-phobe around the studio and eventually taunts them by saying, “You”re 270 pounds, six feet tall, you”re cowering in a corner!”
We all have pet peeves. I hate it when people put their napkin on their plate when they”re done. It’s like putting a cigarette out in the eye of the fish you just finished. Why are you desecrating your meal like that? My opponents say they”re just trying to help out the waitstaff, but we already tip this person. (I don”t like it when the waitress does it, either.) However, I don”t throw up when people do this. I just take their napkin off their plate, stuff it under the side, and feed them the fish analogy. If they insist, I sigh.
The phobias that get you on Maury are 100 times more intense and I”ve personally come across at least five cases in my life.
In the early 2000s, my friends and I lived in a punk house in downtown Ottawa. It was fairly gross and that meant finding an old banana under the corner of the carpet would make you shrug and say, “Oh, there’s an old banana.” Aidan, who would have been in his early 20s at the time, didn”t take it so well. He is petrified of all mushy fruit, especially bananas. He nearly had a panic attack when he discovered the banana and called a house meeting to determine who had done this to him and why. We couldn”t convince him his conspiracy theory was just that and he stormed out of the meeting vowing revenge. He caught me eating an apple a few weeks later and as I slurped on the mush inside I could tell he decided I was the Guy Fawkes who planted the banana gunpowder earlier.
Later on, I met a guy named Derek who was also my age and seemed perfectly normal until he found a granule of sand in his sandwich and ran outside to puke. Having his teeth clamp down on even one speck of dirt was enough to ruin his fortnight. He’s a video editor now and recently had to put together a montage of a Russian woman who eats piles of dirt. The piece is about a minute and a half but it took him well over a week because he kept retching. He got through it, though, and when I ask him how, he dry-heaves and changes the subject.