Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Dreaded Mother-Induced Fear

This is a good post to introduce you to the way I see the world. I wrote it many years ago (it was originally published in the Chicago Tribune, May 20, 1983).

It is said that we live in an age of fear. Never has the world been in such a volatile state. But I maintain that there is one category of fear that has been with us from the beginning: Mother-Induced Fear. The objects to which these fears are directed have changed over the years, but its characteristics remain unchanged.

The first characteristic of Mother-Induced Fear is that one never outgrows it. This is not true of Mother-Induced Rules such as "Don't sit on public toilet seats." As we grow older, we are able to assess the validity of this rule. As I matured I came to understand that some public toilet seats were okay to sit on while others were to be avoided. Toilet seats per se never became a feared object.

But no amount of maturity allows one to outgrow a Mother-Induced Fear. Examples:

For breakfast I often enjoy a toasted bagel. The problem is that most toasters are not built wide enough for half a bagel. On those occasions in which the bagel gets stuck, I am forced to undertake one of the most feared procedures known to any human, putting a fork into the toaster. I tell myself it is unplugged, but my palms moisten my heart races and my breathing becomes irregular. It is not until I have extricated the stubborn carbohydrate from the toaster that I can again relax. I suffer from a Mother-Induced Fear of toasters.

Why are these fears so long-lasting? I became aware of the answer when in a fit of guilt I admitted to my mother that in the seven years since I last lived under her roof I have often stuck a fork into the toaster--unplugged of course. She then proceeded to recount numerous newspaper articles in which some other mother's child toasted more than the bread. She claims to personally know some of these mothers.

All Mother-Induced Fears [MIFs] share this characteristic; any mother can immediately bring to mind examples of the feared object causing great harm and all mothers use these same examples. I have the feeling that there is a book somewhere that only mothers are allowed to read. This book is right next to the book of mother's expressions like, "If you keep making that face your face will freeze like that," or "You'll poke out someone's eye with that stick."

If mothers are to be believed, a burned match that has been out for several days is capable of igniting a seven-alarm blaze. While growing up I was sure that a burned match that was not first run under water would cause any flammable objects it came into contact with to burst into flames.

Can there be any object more fear-provoking than the razor-sharp disc of metal one removes when opening a can? Surely this piece of metal has the ability to fly off the kitchen counter and head right for your throat. This object is so universally feared that I have often felt the Russians would quickly sit down to negotiate if they were told we were stockpiling these lethal discs.

There also are objects outside of home that are subject to Mother-Induced Fears. Stepping off an escalator demands total concentration. That space at the top where the steps disappear into the floor is capable of devouring people up to their waists and probably whole small children. I take the steps as often as possible.

I am sure many other Mother-Induced Fear objects exist. These are the ones I grew up with. I hope that in speaking about these fears freely, I will give others the strength to go on, knowing they are not alone.

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