confessions of an arachnaephobe

my dad hated snakes. he was like indiana jones--practically untouched by the most harrowing of circumstances but a piss-in-the-pants coward when a snake was around. i once flushed a garter snake out of some deep grass while mowing around the shady side of the house. dad was using a weather-beaten edger, the old fashioned kind that resembled a medieval weapon constructed from a warped wooden handle and a number of wheels brandishing long black teeth. when the garter snake came curling out from the grass and emerged onto the pavement a meter from where he labored at the grass drooping over the driveway, he nearly leapt over the hood of the scarlet & grey 1979 Chrysler Cordoba, just washed and drying in the sun next to him. a neighbor had to come out and hack the bewildered snake to death with the edger and then take out a shovel and smash its head just to be sure because my father would not move from behind the car. from the grass near the apple tree where the snake had made its home i cried out desperately, "but it's not poisonous!" or "but it eats mice!" to no avail. the green-black reptile ribbon lay motionless, tattered, as much blood and freshly-mowed grass clippings as snake. through the years i've often wondered what made a man like my father--seemingly carved from molten rock he seemed to eight-year-old me--afraid of an essentially harmless snake. it wasn't just that snake, it was any snake or snake replica. i would hang a rubber version of a copperhead over his bedroom door and wait for the thud of his feet against the hallway floor as he jumped several feet backwards with a gasp. it was as if in his mind a brightly-colored venomous creature would have nothing better to do than to slither up his door jamb and limply dangle there, hoping for prey. i hid even less-real seeming plastic snakes under his morning coffee cup, situated restaurant style, empty and upside-down in the corner of his placemat. i suppose i thought he would eventually become immune to the fear through gradual exposure to innocuous varieties of aggressor, the way our bodies adjust to viruses or histamines through booster shots or allergy medicine. but years later, when i was in college, he might go to an ancient toy box in the basement, rummaging for things to sell or throw away, and come away with a smashed right hand after spying an old styrofoam boa or rattlesnake stuffed deep in the dark corners of the box and slamming down the lid with his left hand in a moment of panic. i fear i am turning into my father. i fear there are signs this is so. as i type this, i have to my immediate left a mug turned upside-down. the mug was once filled with chai, cup after cup of it. crystalized honey now coats the sloping walls of the mug, which is upside-down because i have a spider trapped underneath it. i feel funny even typing the word spider as if the act of placing those letters next to each other imbues the arachnid family with some hideous strength, as if the tiny grey-yellow spider under the mug could somehow lift its prison and skitter across my fingers as they tap the keys, unarmored. intellectually i know that this spider threatens my safety about as much as the military might of greenland threatens the national security of the united states. emotionally, i rather enjoy arthropods--aside from mosquitoes--and admire especially the ability of our eight-legged friends to delicately crawl through mid-air, spin thread as strong as steel, and cull the teeming hordes of insects that trouble our world. but on some other level, some primal level that enjoys indiana jones movies, i am an absolute, piss-in-my-pants coward when it comes to spiders. and i have no idea why i am irrationally afraid of them any more than i understand my father's fear of snakes. but i have a theory. and that theory has to do with anger and machismo and channeling all of one's fear into a loathsome but otherwise benign scapegoat, which one can hack to bits or trap underneath one's favorite tea cup. but somehow that theory translates too nicely into an allegorical explanation for current u.s./u.k. foreign policy--and that makes me suspicious.... it can't possibly be that simple.


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