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An ounce of snake is worth a pound of fear

Each time I approach my front door, before I put in the key, I hear scuttling in the bushes to my left, or to my right, or sometimes both. It makes me jump every time, initially up, then in the direction opposite of the noise, and finally as close to the door as I can get. I fumble my keys, trying to unlock the door and get in as quickly as possible. Luckily the kids are always too busy trying to find What Made That Noise to notice my strange tic-like behavior. I also hope the neighbors miss it.

It's most likely an anole or a gecko lizard.

But it might be a snake.

One time it was a snake.

Luckily I have a snake-wrangler friend, and she comes over outfitted and geared-up as if she just bounced over from the Australia Zoo.

She laughed at my terror about "a silly and sweet old something something snake" and picked it up with her bare hands.

She clearly had never been a six year old at Naughty Shelly's house watching a very scary movie about snakes and people turning into snakes, in a dark room reverberating with the creepy soundtrack from the movie. Shelly's big sister and brother were supposed to be watching the kids while the parents were having a Night Out. But the sister had a date, and the brother was resentful. So the sister vanished and the brother turned on the scary movie. Even though I had nightmares for a while afterwards, I never told my parents.

Does it ever strike you how many major impact moments from your youth you never shared with your parents? They have no idea about so many things that shaped me. That gives my parent self huge pause.

Shortly after the scary movie at Naughty Shelly's house---while the terror was still fresh in me---our school had a field trip to a zoo. We had a special tour through the reptile house and got to go into the back area and see even more animals. The teacher kept using that YIPPEE! fake tone that told the kids we had a Privilege and ought to be Happy and Grateful.

The tour guide herpetologist lady took us into an examination room, with a wall of drawers and a large metal table in the center. She pulled open one of the biggest drawers, low down, near the center, and slowly pulled out an enormous snake.

She told us it was a boa constrictor, said it could squeeze a grown-up to death, told us it was longer than two grown-ups. She laughed gleefully while she said this, as if we all ought to be as thrilled as she was. And some children were. They clustered around the table while I slowly slipped further and further back, towards the door, where the teacher stood still.

The snake curled onto the table, then twined around the lady's arm, raising its head as high as her own, and swinging around, looking with its beady eyes at the children around it.

From my point of view it appeared to be choosing who to squeeze.

I took another few steps back.

The snake flicked its tongue.

I took another few steps back.

The lady pried open the snake's jaws, and merrily related how it could open so wide to swallow a huge meal.

I took another few steps back, bumped into the wall, squealed and shot forward. Saw my new proximity to the snake, squealed again, spun and tried to run for the door.

The teacher caught me and steered me back to the table.

The maniacally happy herpetologist noticed me, and my fear, "Come here, little girl," she said, "Come here, nothing to be afraid of, come feel him."

"No, thank you," I said, as politely and firmly as I could through my chattering teeth.

"Oh, I can't let you leave here afraid of snakes!" she cackled, "You come touch this snake, see there's nothing to be afraid of...all your little friends are! Nobody eaten yet!" She cackled again. "So come here."

"No, thank you," I repeated.

The teacher hissed behind me, "She told you to come here. When an adult tells you to do something, you do it."

"Yes, ma'am," I whispered, frozen in place.

The teacher grabbed my wrist and dragged me forward. The herpetologist lady clutched my hand and forcibly applied it in a petting motion to the snake. If my teacher had not still been behind me, with my wrist in her hand, I think I would have collapsed.

"See!" the herpetologist said triumphantly,"It's Just Fine isn't it! You and snake are best friends now, right!" She belly-laughed with pleasure in herself. I can imagine her at home, later, notching her bedpost in honor of another convert, me.

"Yes, ma'am," I whispered, then yanked my hand back as soon their grips slacked. I huddled by the door and practically ran back to the bus. I was silent the entire way home.

I never told my parents this story, either. But they did notice my severe phobia of snakes.

It's caused me some embarrassment at times, and is widely known and jested about in my family. In fact, when trading old "Remember that time when..." stories that make one person groan and turn red and everyone else laughs and laughs, it's not unusual for someone to mention, "Hey, remember that time Julie thought she saw a snake when we were on the family hike in Oregon? She jumped forty-five feet in the air and landed SMACK on OSB's head." Amid laughter---which I join in---OSB reminds people he can never shave his head, probably has scars to this day from my nails clawing him in my frantic haste to get up and stay up. We laughed about it the day it happened, and have ever since. I accept the humor in it.

And my friend gets a good eye-roll out of me too. As with the herpetologist from my childhood, she is impatient with my fear, lacks understanding of it. She is insistent that she can make me like reptiles.

On the day she came to remove the snake from my front stoop, she paused to give me a snake lesson.

She held up his head and forced his face towards me, "Look at his eyes! Round! So no worries! He's not poisonous. They way to tell if you need to worry is to look in the eyes, check the iris and pupils. If they are cat-like, the snake is poisonous. If they are round, they are not. You can't tell by the markings, because some snakes mimic the markings of poisionous snakes. Evolution! Smart!"

I smiled and shook my head, "You aren't serious. You really expect me to get close enough to look in the eyes? HA! If they aren't round then too bad for me, right? You know what? No risk, no pain! I'll stick to calling you."

She shrugged, laughed and left with her new snake specimen.

I can stand to see images of snakes, now. I also am okay with my children handling snakes at special petting zoo events. This is huge progress.

But at my front door, when I hear the scuttling, I still do my funny little dance.

And I wonder, what won't I know that will fundamentally shape my children?

P.S. Don't forget the Hump Day Hmmm on Wednesday (topic: Accident of Birth) (so get your links over, friends). I know there are quite a few of you who I am really hoping participate because I can't wait to read your POV---based on your regular content and comments.

copyright text and images 2007 Julie Pippert


Christine said…
Oh this was an interesting one today!

First, I don't think your fear of snakes is weird. I think it is interesting how these fears make people want to rescue or change us. But in the scheme of things it isn't debilitating (say like extreme fear of crowds) and just part of who we are, kwim?

That zoo worker and that teacher are awful! They probably thought they were doing the right thing, but it is so clear now that it wasn't.

And your point about how your parents don't know half of what you did. So true! I was by no means a terror as a grade schooler or high schooler, but so many things happened that formed much of who I am . And they have no idea.

And I totally forgot about the Hump Day Hmmmm! I got carried away with my other post. Maybe i'll tackle it another day, it is a very interesting question.
Lawyer Mama said…
I'd never really thought about it before, but you're right. My parents don't know about most of my defining childhood moments. That really does give a parent pause, doesn't it?

I'm absolutely horrified at that teacher & the zoo snake handler! I don't have a snake problem, but I can totally see how it developed in you.

I do, however, have a healthy fear of snakes. I have a photo somewhere of the 7 foot (slanty eyed) snake that crawled out of our drainage ditch last year. Eek!
S said…
Oh, Julie. That teacher was horrendous. What stunning lack of empathy. I'm so sorry.

You might be interested in a post I wrote early on about this exact topic and my own fears:

I wish people wouldn't laugh at what is a very real fear for you.
S said…
Oops. Here's the post:
Julie Pippert said…
Eh ladies, it was the 70s...very different approaches then. It appals us now, but I suspect that even if I had told my parents? They wouldhave felt badly for me but would have felt compelled to echo the teacher about obeying rown-ups.

And we wonder at the abused people who do not speak up and the suppresion of self.

I'm okay LOL about my phobia when it is funny. Being a little light-hearted has helped me get some perspective and work my way somewhat through it LOL.

The expectation that I ought to "just get over it" because it is "completely unfounded" does bug me though, so (for example) my friend's impatience gets me a little aggravated at times.

I think at this point I have a healthy fear, as LM put it. And that is a point to ponder, especially after so much discussion: healthy fear.

LM, I am so thinking about this idea of what shapes you but your parents never knew a lot.

There has to be some space between parent and child. I'm just trying to consider what I didnt tell and why I didn't tell it, and what might have been different had I told...figure out if there is anythign I ought to do as a parent, or maybe as my parents' child, LOL.
thailandchani said…
I don't think our parents ever had a real sense of us as individuals ~ at least not in the 50s and 60s. We wouldn't have talked to our parents about these things at all.

And I hate teasing! That is something that just makes me.. um.. kind of angry. :)


Mike Minzes said…
Great blog!!

I will be back!

Anonymous said…
I grill my children relentlessly because I fear what I don't know will warp them. I'm much more comfortable with my incessant questioning damaging them instead.

Snakes are creepy, but birds are it for me. And no I didn't watch Hitchcock's movie. I have no idea why the extreme phobia.
Unknown said…
Was the movie SSSSSSSSSSSSS with Strother Martin? THAT was a freaky movie!

I am full or "irrational" fears. Heights, confined spaces, tornadoes, earthquakes. I always laugh it off but I get irritated when someone laughs at my fear and tries to reason me out of it. It is not a reasoned fear, you can't reason yourself out of it. You might be able to reason yourself into managing your response, but still. . .

I will never forget going to Griffith Park observatory with Paul before we were married. We walked up to the roof but the building is right at the edge of a hill and when I looked down, my body immediately went into a crouch position. I could not stand up straight. I felt ridiculous but my body took over and my brain was useless to me.

Later on that same visit, we were inside when lights started flashing and sirens started blaring. A red sign blinking "Earthquake Alert" caught my attention and I just about crapped my pants. Now, there was no earth moving. It was just their fun little way of alerting visitors to the fact that somewhere in the western United States an earthquake of 4.0 magnitude or greater had just occurred. Um. Thanks for the warning. NOT!

I have never returned to Griffith Park Observatory.

(I didn't even touch on the REAL subject of this post, what shapes us that our parents don't know about. Obviously the subject of phobias opened up the floodgates!)
Anonymous said…
Okay, scary snakes aside, what a freaking great topic. Yeah, there was a ton of stuff I never told me parents...why? And how do I get Hailey to tell me?

Damn. That's the real scary part.
Julie Pippert said…
Chani, yeah, absolutely, kids were kind of this generic "one size fits all" lump back then.

Mike, thanks, look forward to it.

Kim, totally legitimate fear (and obviously one I share). My kids will continue to find me all up in their bidness because I *know* what I don't know will warp them. :) Also? Totally get the bird thing. Germs. And those BEAKS.

M-L OMG that was the movie!!!! LOL! Impressive knowledge!

And exactly...that's what a phobia is. It's not rational or reasonable. As afraid as I am of snakes, I am so much more afraid of (as Kim put it) what my kids don't tell me but are warped by.

Jenny, that is probably part 2 of this. I have NO IDEA why I didn't tell my parents half these things. It wasn't a rational reason. I just didn't. Now the sacry movie...I probably chose not to tell in order for all of us to not get in trouble. But like the time I saw a kid get stuck by lightning? How did that not come up? Yes...that is the really scary part.

Maybe Kim and Mary will have some good tips for us. :)
flutter said…
OOOOHHHHH scary as hell. I cannot abide by a snake, they are lovely and freak me right out
Kyla said…
I have a similar fear of bees, wasps, yellowjackets...anything that goes "Buzz, buzz." and has a stinger.

Interesting topics, both the forming of your phobia and the idea of what our children will be shaped by without our knowledge. Great post.
Julie Pippert said…
Kyla, OMG can you stand it...I watched (with the kids no less, there goes my mommy of the year trophy) a special on Dicsovery (?) about killer bees.

I am MEGA freaking out now.

I think this is why the local bees have vanished.

My SIL, gardener extraordinaire, had to hand pollinate her garden.

No bees.

I got stung in my ear by a bee when I was 2. I remember it. Who could forget?

Yeah, I think I will assume my kids have an entire life outside me and will grill them a la Kim about it.

Flutter, yes, absolutely, that is it exactly.
thailandchani said…
I am unable to find the link to your email on your page here. I am a bit confused about a message. Can you please send me a note?

thailandchani at earthlink

Catherine said…
What you said about parents not knowing the things that impacted us...that is so true.

And the thing is, its not always the Big Things...I have one weird memory involving a candy bar that can make me cry even now when talking about it. Yet I'm sure it wasn't even a blip on my parent's radar. Someday, the way I had my child a Kleenex could create the turning point in his life. So strange.

I am now about 0 for 35 on Hump Day Hmms. I always enjoy reading them and yet never seem to get my act together to think through and write one. *sigh*
Aliki2006 said…
I really liked this, and the dicussion that followed. I'm sorry, too, that you were mocked ina way for your fears--so many people do this, out of force of habit, I suppose.
thailandchani said…
Wednesday post is up.

Girlplustwo said…
julie, i hate that i keep missing the hump days. i will be better.

there were many terrifying things in my childhood that i never told anyone. ever. i simply never thought of it.
Snoskred said…
I used to have a terrible fear of snakes.. I must blog about what changed that, it might be useful to you. ;)

Yes, I finally found my way here in the midst of general chaos and blogging chick commenting. :) Adding you to the google reader, sidebar, technorati favourites, etc. Don't laugh, but I have a system going on, it's nothing anal retentive or obsessive compulsive or anything like that, it's what they call "organization" which is spelt with an S rather than a Z in Australia - land of many snakes.
Snoskred said…
And I did blog about that, and managed to tie it into the Hump Day Hmmm as well. Accident of birth - the SCARY country . Hope you get a chance to read it. :)
The smaller the snake the more fear I have of it. It makes no sense. I guess that's what happens when you grow up around teensy garden snakes.

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