What Scares Me

Fear of lightning, jumping, armadillos, and lima beans

Electrophobia     Photo: Chris Buck

Electrophobia

(FEAR OF) LIGHTNING
Here's hoping it never strikes twice
By Katie Arnold

I have a deep
, incapacitating fear of lightning. On occasions too numerous to count I've actually, involuntarily, shrieked aloud at the terror of being struck down by a shimmering electric bolt from the sky.
The first such instance occurred the summer I was eight. My sister, grandmother, and I were alone at our cottage on a lake in Ontario. It's a great old wooden barn of a place, a hundred years old and drafty, surrounded by pines and junipers and blueberry bushes. It could burn down easily—the cottage and the whole island with it.

One night it decided to storm. My sister and I crawled into bed with Granny while long, terrible spears of lightning lit up the sky like daylight, one after another. The thunder was deafening and constant. Through a screen door that opened onto a veranda, we watched a boathouse on the opposite shore take a bolt to the roof and catch fire. I was speechless with horror, envisioning our doomed evacuation should our cottage go up in flames. Outside, a solid crash of thunder shook the house. Then someone screamed, a long, fearsome howl. It was me.

In the morning, we inspected the damage. A 60-foot white pine, with a fresh smoldering scar through the bark, lay wedged between the kitchen and the laundry shed, having barely missed both.

Twenty-two years later, lightning no longer scares me when I'm safe inside four walls (cars count), but catch me outside as a storm moves in and the reflexive terror is always the same. With the first fork comes a silent dread, then a panicky, futile attempt to plot my getaway, followed by the grand finale: my scream.

Managing editor Katie Arnold's house was struck by lightning shortly after she wrote this essay.
(FEAR OF) JUMPING
Sometimes the scariest thing isn't out there, it's inside you
By Pico Iyer

It's not that I'm afraid of falling
; it's that I'm tempted—unbearably, almost irresistibly, tempted—to take a leap. I don't know how or where this developed, but at some point I realized that, whenever I was on a rooftop, all I wanted to do was take a run and then a jump, and feel myself sailing through empty space. I'm not afraid of the emptiness below; I'm afraid of my lack of fear. Some necessary inhibition that most children acquire never seemed to take hold in me.

Fear is, of course, the most irrational, even unreasonable of impulses: Heights and depths are what I tell myself I crave. I grew up in a house on a lonely mountain ridge. I drive, by choice, along ill-paved mountain roads in Ethiopia, Bhutan, Big Sur—a huge drop, and certain death, on one side of me. Yet none of that unnerves me like a hotel room with a terrace, which invites me to go out and look over the wall, see the cars down below, and imagine how I could turn my life around (and the lives of those around me) with a single radical act.

It's bewildering to me that what I fear is entirely within my control. A few months ago, I gave myself up to fate by driving through the pitch-black mountains of Yemen, a precipice on one side, the man at the wheel furiously chewing qat to keep himself awake. Kidnappers prey on foreigners in those peaks, and teenagers waving large guns occasionally loomed out of the dark to flaunt their power at us. I was ready to surrender. But put me on a rock, a ledge, and all I want to do is act, irreversibly. I'm torn the way you are torn when drawn to a woman you know will undo you. I don't want to get too close because I want to get close too much. I feel, I suppose, something of what an addict feels.

My phobia of heights is inherently different from the fear of spiders, or of cats or crowds, because what I'm afraid of is not what some malign outside threat will do to me; it's what I will do to it. What fear can be so abject, and so impossible to cure, as the fear of who you really are, deep down?

Pico Iyer is the author of The Global Soul. His new novel, Abandon, will be published this winter.
(FEAR OF) ARMADILLOS
Some say they're cute. I say they're evil.
By Bucky McMahon

They come in the night
, up from their burrows, out of prehistory, little sinister dinosaurs from South America. Across Mexican arroyo and Louisiana swamp they've traveled, out of the woods and into our Florida backyard, where they dig divots in the lawn, scuffing, snuffling, poking, as if looking for lost change. Genetic freaks—all born in sets of identical quadruplets, and highly susceptible to leprosy—they look half insect, half humanoid. Body of a pill bug, head of one of those poor kids who age too fast. They give my wife, H.B., the creeps.

For me the repugnance is more personal. Back in my single days as a nightlife reporter in Tallahassee I was "Barmadillo," my byline appearing under a cartoon rendering of an inebriated armadillo. Now I'm just a totem assassin. A typical armadillo whack goes like this: I'm in my pj's and rubber boots, down on my hands and knees under our deck. My right arm is thrust to the shoulder into a freshly dug burrow. I have a nine-banded armadillo by the tail.

It chirrups and grunts—"Nyuck nyuck, nyuck nyuck"—ratcheting itself deeper into the earth. In its element, the beast is immensely strong, like a rototiller run amok, headed for China.

"Golf club!" I say to H.B., who's standing by with varmint tools.

I shove the club blade underneath the 'dillo, then twist and pull. Out it comes like a bad tooth.

And it is hideous, writhing in the flashlight beam, a wizened Piglet far gone into leather and S&M. It scrabbles at my arm with its claws—the horror!—and I let go.

Breaking cover, it corners the house at a gallop, then cowers under H.B.'s car in the gravel drive. H.B. fetches her keys, starts the car, and begins to back up. Alas for Dasypus novemcinctus, its tendency to leap straight up when startled makes it synonymous with roadkill. There's a clunk and a crunch, and the stricken 'dillo makes one last dash, trailing viscera.

Suddenly one of our four dogs swoops in and snatches it up in a great mouthful and lopes off into the woods. Silence, and then the terrible scraping of tooth on nubby bone. In the morning, cranky with lack of sleep, we find the armadillo half buried atop a heaped-up ziggurat of dirt like a Lord of the Flies idol, the dogs arrayed in attitudes of worship. Damn. It didn't have to go down like that.

Outside correspondent Bucky McMahon wrote about Honduras in December 2001.
(FEAR OF) LIMA BEANS
Is there anything more sinister than this hateful legume?
By Bruce McCall

It's easy to be terrified of spiders
and dizzying heights and getting lost in a guano-filled cave, but it takes a certain neurotic genius, I submit, to be brought to clammy fear by the genus Phaseolus, that leguminous plant species commonly known as the lima bean.

My lima bean phobia dates back to a family dinner in my very early youth. That greasy little veggie looked to me like some slippery bivalve from under the sea, of an unhealthy gray-green color at that, and was therefore almost certain to be just as strange-tasting.

Still, I might have managed to choke my portion down as I obediently did the fried liver and other disgusting substances that every kid must learn to live with, were it not for the emotional vortex in which I was first forced to deal with the challenge of the lima bean. That dinner was presided over by my father, just home for the weekend from his job a hundred miles away in Toronto. Our attendance was mandatory, in the way of a roll call. But as we kids dutifully assembled in our places at the dining table, my oldest brother, Mike, was missing.

This threw my father, never exactly serene, into a rage. Half an hour later Mike finally straggled in from whatever diversion had warped his sense of time. Dad banished him from the dinner table amid a fusillade of threats and general contumely, followed by the sickening silence that always settles over the scene of a public execution. I stared down, head bowed, at my plate, and sublimated my roiling emotions onto my lima beans.

Mastodons in the root cellar, fire, heartburn 40,000 years before Pepto-Bismol—primitive man had much to be afraid of. But primitive man probably never came face to face with an ominous kidney-shaped legume. If he had, I bet he'd have developed a fluttery stomach and a desire to flee the vicinity, like me. After all these decades, a lima bean has never passed my lips. But I know what they taste like, without ever having tasted one. They taste like fear.

Bruce McCall's new humor collection, All Meat Looks Like South America, will be out this fall.

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