Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Irrational Fears

When I was a child growing up in Astoria, Queens, New York in the shadow of the Queenboro Bridge, I was terrified of army ants and one that seemed viable to the young me despite my very urban surroundings. I was reminded of this last night as I watched the movie San Andreas on television last night with my daughter and wife.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with reading and animals. I spent hours reading. Back in the late 70s/early 80s every supermarket had some kind of encyclopedia tie in. Each month or week a new volume would come out and I would eagerly await it's arrival. The one I was most obsessed with was The Funk And Wagnall's Wildlife Encyclopedia. I read them from cover to cover, imagining myself an intrepid explorer finding these animals. (I was also obsessed with atlases, but that's another blog entry.) When you think about the natural world, it's a terrifying place. Especially to a kid that grew up in a blue collar neighborhood of Queens, New York. And my hot button animal that terrified me? Army ants. I was genuinely terrified of being slowly and painfully consumed and stripped to the bone by millions of ants. It kept me up at night in a way that I cannot express in words. Completely and totally irrational, right? Not to the five or six or seven year old me though and I was faced with something similar last night.

My wife turned on San Andreas, the Rock-fueled disaster film about an earthquake destroying much of California. I didn't really watch and was starting to fall asleep anyway. I'm not so into disaster porn anymore and think that the 1974 movie Earthquake already did this better with really bad special effects and Charlton Heston telling the earthquake to get its filthy paws off of him. As we were watching, there was a scene where the Hoover Dam collapses and kills a man, among others. My daughter was sort of freaked out about this.

She started asking questions about disasters like earthquakes and tornadoes because she is a lot like me and has an active imagination, the kind of imagination that can put herself in the middle of an earthquake. To most of us, this is absurd, but to an eight year old with an active imagination, it's very real. So we had a very brief and quiet conversation about it so we didn't distract my wife who was watching the movie. (My wife has a practical mind that finds this line of thought absurd.)

I explained to my daughter that we don't get a lot of tornadoes because there are too many hills around us and they need mostly flat surroundings. I know this isn't scientifically accurate, but for the moment it was what I needed to say. Then I explains that occasionally we may get an earthquake, nothing like the movie would probably happen where we live (Syracuse) and the worse we would feel would be like a big truck driving by the house. I told her about the last earthquake I remember a few years back and that's exactly what it felt like. She seemed satisfied with this and went to sleep.

But as I sit here today, I wonder if that's how we're somehow we're wired as some kind of survival mechanism. Or is it some gene that I passed down to my daughter. I still have some irrational fears as a 43 year old man. When I hear a noise outside, I assume one of three things: zombies, Bigfoot or a baby kaiju. I am terrified of moths. Seriously. When my son says there's a monster behind me, I take that seriously. And I'm terrified of being eaten alive. These are irrational fears. I'm old enough to recognize that and maybe that makes them infinitely more irrational than my fear of army ants. Is it hardwired? Is it learned? Is it the product of an overactive imagination? I don't know.

And just so you know, I will will obliterate any sign of ants in my life to this day.

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