Friday, August 29, 2014

The Bargain

By Jean Roberta

"Or perhaps in Slytherin,
You'll make your real friends,
Those cunning folk use any means
To achieve their ends."
- The Sorting Hat (in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)

“Jeanie, do you know what to do if a snake bites you?”

The grownups in my life asked me this question every time I wanted to leave my grandma’s house in Myrtle Creek, Oregon, when we visited there in the summer. The thought of rattlesnakes in the long grass rattled them. My relatives probably didn’t have a phobia, exactly, but they seemed obsessed.

I never actually saw a rattlesnake in the weedy patches of small-town Oregon. I suspect they stayed away from humans, accurately sensing that they wouldn’t get a warm welcome.

In the spirit of making friends with the monsters in your head or under the bed, I once imagined a conversation with a talking snake:

“Hello, snake.”


“Am I in your way?”

“Not now.”

“Are you planning to bite me?”

“Not unless you pissss me off.”

“Oh, good. Thank you. I’ll just leave you alone. Have a nice day.”

That was it. I stayed away from the places where I thought rattlesnakes might hide, and they left me alone. It seems we had a pact.

As far as I know, I’ve never had an irrational fear, called a phobia, but I’ve had several fears that seem entirely rational to me: fear of drowning when out on a lake in a tippy boat, fear of catching fire if too close to a flame or a hot burner on a stove, fear of suffocating when I had pneumonia at age eleven. Fear of being bitten by a spider in a dank basement or stung by a wasp in late summer, or by any other poisonous creature. Fear of an angry man who thinks the world is too full of women who are just asking to be raped and killed.

To calm my fear, I always use the negotiation techniques shown above. Strangely enough, most animals, insects, and even physical elements or processes seem more logical in these discussions than many humans.

“Fire, do you want to burn me?”

“I love to eat, and I love oxygen. Come near me when there’s a breeze, and see what happens.”

“Good warning. I’ll keep my distance, and keep something nearby to smother you.”

“Water, do you want to swallow me?

“Not you in particular, but I’m not fussy. If you can’t breathe in me, it’s not my problem.”

“Okay, I'll always bring an inflatable object.”

Deep breaths, caution, awareness, and some useful props – those always seem comforting.

In the long run, of course, nothing will protect me from dying. All living things are eventually defeated by something. So in some sense, the most debilitating phobia seems more rational than the baseless faith that keeps us going, day after day, as we tell ourselves the lie that the world is a safe place.

People with phobias, as distorted as those fears may be, are probably just more in touch with reality than the rest of us. For the meanwhile, I’ll keep telling myself that non-human forces are willing to negotiate.


  1. These sample negotiations made me smile. I do that, and I do it out loud, and sometimes even in front of people. At a recent stay in a cabin in the woods, I audibly outlined my "terms" to the spider in the corner—she could stay in that spot and make a web under the following conditions...

  2. Maybe she agreed to your terms. :)

    1. She didn't catch as many mosquitoes as I'd hoped she would, but otherwise we got along quite amicably. :)

  3. Jean:
    But maybe at some level non human forces do 'negotiate' or can at least be directed. In the movie "Phenomenon" John Travolta played a person with that gift. Sad to say but our shadow government, through a variety of projects, investigated all sorts of paranormal forces in the hope of developing a legitimate psyops (mind control) weapons arsenal.

  4. Communication between species happens all the time. A recent f'rinstance:

    Momma started picking up one of our cats to feed him on the counter, his usual place to eat. After some days of the royal treatment, the cat refused to get up by himself. This is a healthy, energetic cat, in the prime of his life, perfectly able to make a much higher leap. Was just a matter of pride? Habit? Whatever his obstinate self decided, he was going without food to spite us until somebody lifted him up. Yesterday, I got fed up with his BS before Momma woke up, and I bent down and said; "Pinky Lee, I'm *not* going to pick you up!" in no uncertain terms.

    Well if the asshole didn't look up at the counter then jump up, no more questions asked. Now he's back to his old self, jumping up happily. He just needed to be told!

  5. I talk to the wild critters, too, but I know I'm actually talking to myself to keep whatever physical emanations there ay be that alert them to fear and/or danger. (Well, okay, when a bear approaches my bird feeder before dark, I loose a full scale "Get out of here!" plus banging on things, and if it's juvenile who doesn't yet realize how big he's grown over the summer, as has happened lately, he (or she) will run and I'll detach the feeder and bring it in. If it's after dark, and especially a mother with cubs, I lie low and wait till morning to fix things.) But with outdoor spiders I apologize if I bump their webs, an take a long way around to avoid destroying them. And with bees, I work placidly among them in my garden, and have been known to say, with apologies to Kipling and The Jungle Book, "Good hunting, sister, We be of one blood, you and I."

  6. I still remember my first encounter with cockroaches, when I got my first one-person apartment in graduate school. (I grew up in middle class suburbia, blissfully unaware of this urban species!)

    My kitchen in the old brick apartment building hosted a small army of the critters. When I flipped on the light, they'd skitter away, making faint scratchy noises as they squeezed their chitinous bodies back into the cracks from which they came.

    I wasn't really afraid of them - except for the notion that they might crawl on me while I was sleeping. (Like many grad students, I slept on a mattress on the floor.) I surrounded my bed with "roach motels", but as far as the kitchen was concerned, we had a deal. They could have the kitchen when it was empty and dark. With the light on, that was my domain and they'd better stay clear.