I don’t have a fear of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
– Woody Allen
Every time I board the Metro North, I ritualistically choose the window in the two passenger aisle. Inevitably, a Talmadge Hill or Glenbrook commuter crosses my 38th Parallel invading my personal space. We sit, silent sardines packed in the belly of an iron beast rattling toward the city.
As I drift between my blackberry and a depressing NY Times, his leg shifts and brushes mine. He mumbles “sorry”, not wanting me to think he did this on purpose. I retract my leg quickly as if electrocuted. Later, he falls asleep and his foot is touching mine. I must shift my shoe but not so quickly that he wakes and thinks I have some sort of “problem”. So I wait for the proper moment and then, ever-so-slightly, break contact off with his interloping foot. My new window seat position has my back slightly turned to the aisle and my legs are now bent to the window. By the time we arrive in Grand Central, I am hunched over like Golem protecting his “precious” ring. Yes, it’s just another exhausting morning for this mild neurotic.
I am certain I am not alone in my garden of odd peccadilloes. In fact, it is every psychotherapist’s raison d’etri to crawl like entomologists through the jungles of our minds catching and examining the strange paramecium that wriggle in the darkness of our subconscious. The Metro North seat mate contact thing is just one of the many odd little habits that I carry around with me like a tattered blankie. The root cause of my personal defects may never be diagnosed. Did my mother inhale too much foot powder during her pregnancy. Perhaps it is a more deeply metastasized problem arising out of my childhood. Perhaps it was the infamous 1971 Brussels Sprout Affair where my no-nonsense father made my brother eat dog-saliva coated sprouts after he caught Tom shoving them into the maw of our normally dependable canine disposal. Was it having a Democrat and a Republican for parents? Whatever the reason, each of us occasionally dredges our dark mental swamp where weird little ideas and notions swim in seclusion.
Things get interesting when peccadilloes morph into phobias. It is also the DNA of human comedy. Some irrational fears that I have encountered among friends and relatives include: an anxiety over hot liquids, distress about drains, dread of dark windows, concern over clowns (it is real and called coulrophobia), or just a freaking strange obsession when someone with socks touches your feet when you are also wearing socks. There are others I can personally relate to: a fear of the basement, fear of elevators, aversions to taking one’s pulse or even so much as having a vein under surveillance.
My father has lived for years with Bolshephobia ( fear of Bolsheviks ). The aversion resulted in an intense dislike of Democrats, or anyone who ever uses the terms ” redistribution”, “fair” or “equal”. He is terrified of politicians from Northern California. Growing up, we oftened accused my mother of having intensely irrational fears. She had a visceral aversion to sleep overs at friend’s homes when only a teenaged sibling was babysitting. She had hives over our attending rock concerts, riding motorcycles, hitchhiking or coming home with a girl with body tats and an ex-boyfriend who had the mailing address – Prisoner No. 95435, San Quentin, CA. How paranoid can a parent be ?
Phobias often plague the rich and famous. Most are familiar with the chronically misophobic billionaire Howard Hughes who spent the last several years of his life locked naked in a Las Vegas penthouse apartment that was sanitized hourly and meticulously monitored. Less known, is the famous hexakosioihexekontahexaphobic – artist Marc Chagall who feared goats until, on the advice of his therapist, he confronted his demons by painting his horned tormentors floating harmlessly while being subdued by cherubs.
Yes, many suffer from a strange brew of irrational fears: Soceraphobia : the fear of parent in laws. The fear of Germans?Teutophobia. Tuetophobes tend to also fear personal trainers and engineers. Pogonophobes have a great fear of people with beards. Bearded ladies are often used to treat this condition as this mental double negative can snap someone out of their anxieties or in a few rare cases, make them jump out of a third story window. Lachanophobics are normally under the age of 12 and fear vegetables. Selenophobics possess a deep fear of the moon. I do recall a selenophobic event after a college frat party where I was absolutely certain the moon was following me. No matter which way I turned, it was after me.
I have actually invented a few clinical terms for my own private peeves: kareokaphobia – the fear of singing in public. Teshaphobia – fear of John Tesh music and purgaphobia – the fear of shopping with one’s spouse. Many men suffer from Stamaphobia – the fear of being asked to carpool to a birthday party in Stamford.
Angst, paranoia, needling fear — are all merely symptoms of being human. Psychotherapists and psychologists have financed many a ski trip to San Moritz mining the diamonds of anxiety that are littered across the acres of our subconscious minds. In the end, Woody Allen, Monk, Jack Nicholson and a more open society have made it ok to be a tad neurotic. Everyone sees the world through their own unique looking glass. My kaleidoscope sees beautiful colors, odd shapes and the occasional shadow created by fractured perspective.
The aperture of the guy now seated next to me on the Metro North? I am not sure what he sees. I only wish his foot would stop touching mine.