NEWS: Essay

outlook springs 4

Humorous, personal, literary essays are an extinct art form , but I nonetheless have one (about my friendships with unusual people) in the latest issue of Outlook Springs. Keep an eye out for it.



I’m an anxious man. A nosey one, too. Combined, the traits have filled me up to the neck with phobias – and made me something of a wizard at spotting them in others. A lifetime of shaky observation, and I’ve concluded that, as a race, we fear – everything. We’re afraid of crowds, of solitude, the dark, the sun, of open spaces and cramped ones, of cats, dogs, horses, guinea pigs …. Some phobias are easily accounted for – becoming squeamish about heights, say, after being shoved out a window by a lunatic – and others just daffy. I knew a woman who feared houseplants so much that if she found herself face to face with one, she’d “seize up,” and practically have to be carried away. At social gatherings, she was always careful to sit with her back to any fern, or violet, and at all costs to avoid eye contact. She had a special dread of Christmas cactuses; they frightened her, I think, more than the devil.
Years ago, I had a doctor who was at once a stellar practitioner – and the worst germophobe I’ve ever met. His combined need to treat his patients, and terror of getting too close to them, gave his examinations a unique piquancy. The first time I walked into his office, it was with a stomach ache. This was likely from too much pepper (I’m always over-peppering) but, a hypochondriac, I had to rule out a twisted intestine, or a tumour, or something equally nasty. I was wondering which it might be, and how long I had to live, when a very small man shuffled into the room. Without a word, he nodded, closed the door behind him, and – stood perfectly still. This was a little outre; but I could tell at once from his calm expression that this was normal procedure to him, that nothing about me, at least, had made him freeze in place. For an examination room, it was a long one, with the door and the table on opposite ends; yet the man made no attempt to bridge the distance between us. He simply stood there, hollering questions from his end, while I hollered back answers, from mine. After a few minutes of this, he shuffled up to a supply shelf, and pulled down a pair of latex gloves. Oh dear, I remember thinking. Once he’d snapped those into place, he pulled a pair of clear plastic gloves from his coat pocket, and put those over top of the first pair. I was, by this point, extremely nervous. And then, with the caution of one walking past a napping grizzly, he came within three or four feet of the examination table – and again stopped. After a long pause – it was clear that he wasn’t budging another step – I slowly leaned forward – the doctor followed suit – until we were close enough that he could, with a little difficulty, and a lot of stretching, reach me. All he did, though, was press down gingerly on the lower part of my sweater a few times with his double-gloved hands, then swiftly retreat to the opposite side of the room. Then he muttered a diagnosis (a dressed-up term, I think, for gas), and vanished.
My own phobia – of owls – is hardly less embarrassing. Something about a bird the size of a badger, with eyes like soup bowls, spinning its head around and around like the child from The Exorcist makes me slightly giddy. I lived in the country for much of my life, and never once took a stroll without being as noisy as possible – rattling branches, and dragging my feet – to prevent being surprised by an old Great Horned. The stuffed ones are even worse than the living – those, of course, won’t budge no matter how much ruckus you make. I’ll confess to avoiding the homes of people with stuffed birds – with stuffed animals, period. As a hobby, taxidermy is only slightly less grisly than dentistry.
I’ll maintain, though, that if phobias are irrational fears, there can be no such thing as a phobia of death – or spiders. After all, if one can’t rationally fear death – the bitter, bitter end of everything – or spiders, which cause death (I mean, the really poisonous ones), then what can one legitimately fear? Tigers? That would be called a phobia, too; but who on earth, to prove his level-headedness, would wrap his arms around a big Siberian? Better to leave ration out of the equation. The difference between a fear and phobia, in the end, is purely one of stickiness. A fear sticks to one for a little while, then drops off, like a bad stamp, whereas a phobia – well, it sticks forever. Like a reputation. And before I earn one for long-windedness, I’d better hush up. I have things to worry about, anyways.