October 24, 2008

Some readers have taken time to complain that they”€™ve detected self-referential material and personal anecdotes in my autobiographical humor columns. Week after week, they slog their way through 2,000-word articles which they do not enjoy, by an author in whom they are not interested, with unpromising titles that refer to that author’s destructive household pets, painful medical examinations, and time-wasting hobbies. Then they write thoughtful comments, pointing out that they are not interested in these subjects, and do not appreciate the columns. And they do so, faithfully, week after week after week. Like so:

Dear Mr. Guccione,
I am writing as a parent, a Christian American, and a regular viewer of your company’s pornographic films. It has come to my attention, recently, that these entertainments contain a high degree of gratuitous, provocative nudity. What is more, their dialogue is rife with what I can only term profanity….

To address the concerns of such readers, I am taking time this week”€”at a moment when our country is at war, in the depths of an economic crisis, on the brink of a close election that might yield a political realignment like Franklin Roosevelt’s landslide in 1932″€”to discuss my childhood phobia of the Dutch.

I”€™ve never raised an 8-year-old, and so I really can”€™t imagine what my poor parents and elder sisters must have thought when I first told them my feelings on this subject. Nor had I really the vocabulary yet to express the stirrings in my young soul. I hadn”€™t yet picked up words like “€œcontamination,”€ “€œuncanny”€ or “€œpestilence.”€

It’s true, I used to grab my sister’s copy of Consumer Reports each month, to learn what percentage of insect parts and rodent droppings appeared in the various brands of TV dinners mom used to heat, or which preservatives caused cancer. But that didn”€™t give me the language I needed to convey how strongly I felt on the subject of all things Dutch. For that, I would have needed something more like the terminology of historic anti-Semitism, or the phrases employed by primitive tribes to condemn as taboo actions such as infant cannibalism or incest.

The. Dutch. Those two little words still send a tiny charge of nausea down my skin”€”like the taste of a food or liquor that in the past has made you puke, which still turns your stomach. But I”€™m older now, and I”€™ve learned to handle it. My reason tells me my gut is wrong. But still….

I”€™m not sure where it began. All I remember is that one day I was not aware of any danger arising from the Nether folk”€”and the next, I was blankly terrified. And keenly vigilant. I started noticing tulips, and refusing to enter gardens where they grew. If my parents brought home Holland Farms milk I couldn”€™t choke it down. I”€™d examine bars of chocolate to ensure that they were Swiss.

To my family, this phobia seemed at first a funny, precocious fancy. It imposed few restrictions on their day-to-day activities, so they tried to humor me. This would surely pass, like the fears of an average child concerning monsters under the bed, or the religious statues in the bedroom that are “€œwatching me, and telling God my sins.”€

More than once, attempts would be made to argue me out of my anxieties. I recall my mother squatting down to plead her case: “€œWhat’s wrong with the Dutch? They”€™re very clean people. In fact, you can eat off their front steps.”€ Precisely the wrong thing to say: For years after, I”€™d picture the residents of Rotterdam lolling flat on their bellies, tonguing their meals from Welcome mats.

And so it got worse. In the cheese section of the supermarket, I would poke with disgust at bars of Edom or Gouda, as if I”€™d come upon a maggot-ridden mouse. When my parents bought a ham, I”€™d beg and cry, “€œPlease mom, please”€”Polish ham, okay?”€ When they mentioned a trip to Van Cortlandt Manor to visit the home of Washington Irving, I hid shivering in a closet until they promised we wouldn”€™t go. At this point, their worried remarks were hard to ignore. Discussions were ongoing as to whether or not “€œwe brought home the wrong frickin”€™ kid from the hospital.”€

Soon I was terrified to enter hardware stores that carried signs for Dutch Boy Paint. Eyes rolling, my sisters would leave me outside”€”and I”€™d stand on the sidewalk, trembling, staring through tears and the plate glass window at that… creature. His freakish Doris Day pageboy, those icy blue eyes, and worst”€”dear God, the worst. The wooden shoes.

To my tidy, fanatical mind, shoes made out of wood were an abomination and an attack. Why not make underpants out of mackerel? Grind up hamsters and put them in ice cream? People who conceived the idea to carve up trees to cover their feet seemed capable of…anything.

In school, I”€™d check encyclopedias to find out more sources of potential contamination. When I learned the sheer extent of Dutch involvement in the settlement of what became New York, I actually begged my parents to move. They demurred, and were greatly relieved when I did more research”€”and learned that everything north of the Wall Street area had been constructed by the English. So I begged them not to take me to the Financial District, and they accepted this compromise.

It’s not as if I was impervious to reason. I agreed to a family trip to Pennsylvania Dutch Country”€”once I”€™d seen written proof that they were actually “€œDeutsch,”€ and came from Germany. There was nothing the least bit frightening about the Germans. I”€™d seen them on TV: Hadn”€™t they fought the Communists?

My family at last became a little impatient. My contamination phobia had begun to compete, in a serious way, with my mother’s anxiety disorder”€”which was bad enough to prevent her from working, shopping, cooking, or cleaning. The only activities the poor woman could manage were going to poker and bingo games. Soon she gave me a brand new nickname, “€œThe Bad Seed,”€ although my sisters preferred their old standby, “€œRosemary’s Baby.”€ At length, Mrs. Zmirak conceived the idea of “€œbreaking him of this crap for once and for all.”€

I will never in this life forget that yellow, lingering Sunday. Triumphantly, mom watched my sister open the can on which was printed, in blatant letters: “€œDutch Ham.”€ It even had a Dutch girl on the front, wearing one of those creepy bonnets that brought on in me shortness of breath. The thing took hours to bake, and filled the apartment with what seemed the stench of death. The sickly sweet smell of the slice of canned pineapple on top of it, which slowly caramelized crap-brown, and the cloves that pierced the tainted hunk of flesh like rusty nails. I imagined our family doctor giving the ham a tetanus shot.

When dinner was served at last, my mother looked triumphant, my sisters expectant, my father… just weary. He worked at the Post Office back before they had mail carts, and hauled the sacks of mail on his back like a mule”€”then had to return to a house full of Irish-American lunatics, and their phobias. Transfixed by their commanding stares, I took a chunk of the rubbery pink flesh into my mouth, and chewed. I choked it down. And then another piece. And still one more.

At this point, it would be nice to say that I found the ham delicious, overcame my anxieties, and we all went back to “€œnormal.”€ But of course, encounters with the Other rarely turn out very well (see the public schools of South Boston for historical perspective).

In fact, I found this meal so sickening that I”€™d gag at the taste of ham”€”any ham”€”for the next 15 years. My phobia continued, but I learned to be a little more discreet about expressing it. I was well into my 20s before I managed to drink a Heineken or ersatz Dutch Chocolate milk without a moment’s tiny reflux. And I never quite figured out what it was about this small and harmless country that so filled me with disgust.

But I have my theories. Perhaps it started with a book of children’s stories from the Netherlands my dad brought me home from the Dead Letter Office”€”unaware that this was a Federal crime, or that these stories were thoroughly Calvinist. They were heavy on tales of sinners drowning in canals, or being eaten alive by rats.

Or maybe with the Dutch girl doll brought back from Holland by my sister’s friend, Bridget”€””€œthat filthy tramp”€ whom my mother kept shouting, through a mouth full of Entenmann’s, she must at all costs avoid.

Or it could have been the story a nun told us in second grade about some saint who after a dike broke walked on water in her wooden shoes, floating (as I vividly pictured) over the heads of all her drowned and bloated neighbors.

Or maybe it was just the image of a Little Dutch Boy, his tiny finger in a dike, holding back the unspeakable, the crushing tide of black, deadly water.


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