PASSING NOTES: Light in the Darkness


“When the light begins to change / I sometimes feel a little strange / A little anxious when it's dark”—Iron Maiden “Fear of the Dark”


I am afraid of the dark.

I know that in some ways this is irrational. The proliferation of night-lights in my house probably disrupts my sleep. Human beings are supposed to experience a certain number of hours of darkness to maintain their circadian rhythms, and I simply don’t experience this. At least when I am sleeping, the house is darker than it is the rest of time.

To be fair, I don’t have lots of other common fears. Social fears are the single most common fear in the U.S., and while I get nervous like anyone else before giving a public talk or walking into a room full of strangers, I wouldn’t consider it a phobia. Lord knows I would rather speak to an auditorium full of strangers than engage in political small talk with someone I know I might have to see again in the near future. Even then, I don’t break out into a cold sweat though. 

And I am not, as anyone can surely tell by looking at me, afraid of eating in front of people, as many people are. In fact, if I am uncomfortable with our conversation over dinner, you will find that I rather quickly eat all the dinner rolls. Over the years I have found that the same hole that’s likely to tell you to go stuff your idiotic politics is pacified nicely by fluffy complex carbohydrates. 

I figure I eat in public for everyone’s safety. 

My friend Susan assures me that this doesn’t hide very much. Even with a mouthful of Parker House rolls, I can apparently convey disdain.

“You have a very expressive face,” she says. “If you don’t like someone, everyone knows it.”

But at least it keeps me from actually saying something I might later have to apologize for.

Three of the most common fears in the U.S. are fears of various kinds of animals, like spiders, snakes, and dogs. I have a friend who is so terrified of snakes that she won’t even speak the word, and she flinches if you say it. The word conjures the image, you see. I have another who is equally afraid of spiders, even those little toy spiders that come with fake webbing at the Halloween store. 

I’m thinking of decorating my classroom in a Gothic theme, with castle walls and sconces and gargoyles, and one of my students casually commented that she hoped there would not be spiders and bats. When I asked if spiders and bats were a problem, she pulled herself up to her full height and declared bravely, “I would not like that, but you should do you.” 

I was thinking more Hogwarts and less “Bride of Frankenstein,” so she’s got nothing to worry about. 

Now I don’t want either spiders or snakes (or even bats) actually crawling on me. I have held a large pet snake, and it was a weird sensation, but not what I’d call scary. I’ve had several friends with pet tarantulas, and I’ve never been able to make myself actually hold one, but I think they’re fascinating to watch in their little cages. 

Furthermore, spiders and snakes both provide valuable ecological benefits like eating actual pests and vermin like ticks, mosquitos, and rats. As a child who had to be tick-checked after every summer visit to the yard, I’ll take the trade-off any day. As I’ve said before, I’ll even take the tick-eating opossum, which I actually am a little afraid of. 

As for people who are afraid of dogs, we will speak no more of them. Those people have had some sort of childhood trauma, and while I am sympathetic from a distance, I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life. 

Unless you’re talking about Chihuahuas. Everyone should be afraid of Chihuahuas. They hate everything, but it’s not their fault. You would hate everything too if you were told you were descended from wolves but would never get any bigger than a rump roast balanced on four pencils. Those sharp little teeth are all they have left. Let them have them. 

I am not afraid of flying or of needles, but I do have a somewhat irrational fear of airports and hospitals that has nothing to do with the mission critical activities that go on there. I suppose you could call this fear “bureaucrophobia.” It is the irrational fear of spaces so overburdened by policies and processes that you are usually at a loss as to where to go, what to file, and who to ask questions of while simultaneously being on a very tight and unforgiving clock and either rolling around most of your earthly possessions in a box or carrying a jar of your own urine. And also, you’re shoeless. I have nightmares about places like this. 

When it comes to heights, enclosed spaces, and open spaces, only open spaces bother me. I’m not an adrenaline junky, so I don’t get into leaning out over the Grand Canyon. I could walk across that Plexiglas bridge in Gatlinburg, but I don’t really see the point. Fear of heights is actually an evolutionary fear. Even babies will shy away from the illusion of great height, such as crawling across a clear glass tabletop. Most people have some discomfort related to high places, but it isn’t considered a phobia unless it’s irrational. To quote Sheldon Cooper, fear of heights is irrational; fear of falling, however, is an evolutionary imperative. Make of that what you will. 

I happen to really like enclosed spaces, provided they aren’t so enclosed that I feel physically uncomfortable or constrained. I’ve been stuck in a stalled elevator more than once, and provided the elevator is clean enough to sit down in, I’m fine. I once graded half a set of essays in a stalled elevator in the office tower at UK. It wasn’t so bad. It was more roomy than the cubicles. 

This only applies, of course, if I am alone in the elevator or with someone I happen to really like. Otherwise, it isn’t the enclosed space that is the problem; it is, obviously, the lack of dinner rolls. 


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