Unhelpful things to say to someone with an animal phobia

If you tell someone you have an animal phobia, there’s a good chance they will respond with unhelpful platitudes and alarming anecdotes. They may be completely well meaning, but plenty of well meaning people say uncomfortable things.

This has been on my mind because I had an incident the other day. It was a split-second ripple of silver as a snake fled under a shrub. Suffice it to say, the snake, who may not even live on the property, is now Lord and Master of my front yard. If I spend any amount of time standing there, a sense of panic starts to build until a voice starts yells in my brain, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING WHAT ARE YOU DOING IT’S GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN. GET OUT OF HERE.” Like when you watch a horror movie and someone goes up to the dark attic.

My phobia is bad enough that I felt sort of icky and unhappy writing the last paragraph. This is why, from here on out, I will be using Miniature Schnauzers for all my examples*. Thanks to wikipedia, I just learned that ophidiophobia is something I have in common with one third of all adults. I couldn’t even find a specific term for a phobia of Miniature Schnauzers (though I apologize to any general sort of cynophobes reading), so I hope this is a less alarming way to put things.

And so, here is my list of unhelpful things to say to someone with an animal phobia:

You’re bigger than it.

Size has nothing to do with it.  Of course I should be more afraid of the Giant Schnauzer, which can wrap itself around its prey and suffocate it. But a Miniature Schnauzer is small enough that you might not see it slithering along in the grass until you’ve almost stepped on it, and that freaks me out more.

It’s more afraid of you than you are of it.

No, no it isn’t. It’s a reptile small canine, with an itty bitty reptile canine brain. It doesn’t have the mental capacity for a severe, activity-restricting phobia. Also, the degree of the animal’s fear has nothing to do with the degree of my own fear.

We don’t really have poisonous Miniature Schnauzers around here.

Doesn’t matter. Phobias aren’t about logic. The amount of actual danger isn’t always a factor in how strong the fear is. Even when it is a factor, it’s usually exaggerated. Eventually, this kind of knowledge can help dispel a phobia. Eventually. But having someone tell me—just as an offhand comment—that I shouldn’t be afraid comes across more as blowing off fears that are very real to me.

empty pantry shelves

A tidy pantry is less attractive to Miniature Schnauzers.

Except for this one type of poisonous Miniature Schnauzer you see now and then.

Yes, this is a legitimate concern. Now, because I have a severe phobia, I ‘ll be freaking out about the small possibility that I’ll one of the rare poisonous types.

That’s ok. A lot of people are afraid of them.

I don’t care. That sucks for those other people, and I feel for them. But other people sharing my phobia doesn’t change its negative impact on my life.

The most shocking story you can think of.

“You’re afraid of miniature schnauzers? Oh man, my Aunt Dolorothy used to have one. Poppy was so friendly, and she used to lick everybody’s hands. Then one day my Uncle Freddington found my aunt in a bathtub of ice water and no kidneys and Poppy had the kidneys in her food dish.”

ALL the horror stories you can think of involving that animal.

“You’re afraid of Miniature Schnauzers?”

“One time my cousin found a Miniature Schnauzer in her mailbox and it bit her.”

“One time my cousin found a Miniature Schnauzer in her tent, and she still can’t go camping.”

“One time I saw a Miniature Schnauzer eat a frog and it was so disgusting but I couldn’t look away.”

“One time a Miniature Schnauzer came at me when I was swimming, and let me tell you I never swam so fast in my life.”

“One time I was doing laundry in the basement—we live in an old house–and a Miniature Schnauzer came out of a crack in the wall and I dropped my hand towels that have a picture of a sweet little cottage on them.”

“Remember the restaurant that used to be on the corner of Main Street and MadeUp Road? Yeah, they had to shut that place down because the kitchen was infested with Miniature Schnauzers.”

I used to know someone who was aware of my phobia, and would come to me with any Miniature Schnauzer story she heard. I guess it was a way of bonding, a topic she figured we could talk about. A lot of these stories took place near where I lived, like at the trail where I went running. It became harder and harder for me to use that trail.

Exposure therapy is an effective way of dealing with a phobia, and learning to cope with this kind of story would be an eventual goal. However, one key to exposure therapy is that it be voluntary.

You probably shouldn’t watch…

Actually, some of the more helpful comments I’ve gotten are about movies to avoid. Sometimes I can handle them, and sometimes I can’t. But if someone goes on to describe the scene in question, it goes right back to being unhelpful. On the other hand, I could probably make a nice list of movies to watch if I want a mental challenge. Movies to watch when I’m a braver person.

Mostly, I’ve learned that if I tell anyone about my phobia, I must be clear. I’m not a little scared; I have an irrational fear to the point that I don’t want to see or hear anything at all. No stories, no pictures, no movies.


*A therapist told me that it’s better in the long run not to use code names like this. It’s another avoidant behavior, and it only gives the phobia more power. But it was funnier to me this way, because Schnauzer is a funny word.

Please Kill Me and then go do some stuff

A few years ago, I picked up Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk on the used book shelf at the grocery store. We put it on our cinder block bookshelf next to our Star Wars books and our giant thesaurus, and whatever other books we have on display in our living room that we think make us look cool, but actually do the opposite.

Please Kill Me sitting on the shelf

Please Kill Me thinks it’s cooler than the other books on my shelf. Even the Star Wars ones.

For years, music books were among the few types of nonfiction that could hold my attention through a few hundred pages. One day, I picked up Please Kill Me on a whim and read a few pages. I remained hypnotized in its pages until I finished it.

There’s less about the music itself than I would like, and the focus is on a fairly small number of bands. Plenty of TMI moments as well. However, it stitches together direct quotes so seamlessly that sometimes it doesn’t feel like reading separate voices. And despite the overwhelming number of people whom I’d probably hate if I met them in real life, it really conveys the living community of the New York punk scene, and it makes me want to be there. It reminds me of how important community is.

I wanted to share this quote from Legs McNeil, one of the authors of Please Kill Me (from page 334):

“Overnight, punk had become as stupid as everything else. This wonderful vital force that was articulated by the music was really about corrupting every form—it was about advocating kids to not wait to be told what to do, but make life up for themselves, it was about trying to get people to use their imaginations again, it was about not being perfect, it was about saying it was okay to be amateurish and funny, that real creativity came out of making a mess, it was about working with what you got in front of you and turning everything embarrassing, awful, and stupid in your life to your advantage.”

At its best, punk wasn’t about studied coolness or meticulous safety-pinning. It was about doing shit. Kicking down doors. It was refusing to be stopped by roadblocks on the obvious path in front of you, roadblocks that say “you can’t go here,” and taking that DIY spirit and making your own road out of salvaged bricks and broken glass and a found bucket of tar*.

That quote reminds me to make my own damn artwork to hang in my apartment rather than to buy manufactured art from Target or someplace, and to make that artwork out of subjects and materials I like rather than worry about getting things a certain way. It’s better to do something creative and true than it is to make the place you live a poor copy of something in a magazine.

It reminds me of why I’m going to help make a new wooden table top for what used to be a glass deck table but, thanks to an incident** that qualifies as “embarrassing, awful, and stupid,” is currently just an empty frame sitting on a sad deck.

It reminds me to write the things that I write, and that the things I write usually have to start out as a mess.

It reminds me to experiment and do things and learn, because so, so many people do not do things, only consume them. It reminds me that the biggest difference between many of my bad days and my good ones is that I did real things on the good ones. I made life up for myself.


*You can tell I know a lot about making roads.
**We didn’t buy a base for our umbrella because we didn’t like any that the store had. We knew we needed to get one, but the umbrella didn’t blow away, which sort of caused an idea to creep into our heads—an idea that maybe we didn’t need a base after all. Sometimes, we left the umbrella open, though we knew not do this. But again, nothing tragic happened, and another idea crept into our heads—an idea that it’s probably not the end of the world if we leave the umbrella open sometimes. One day, we came home to find that our umbrella had nearly blown off the deck in a big gust of wind, and a pile of tempered glass pebbles sat underneath what used to be our table top. And we knew better.

Chicken coop makeover

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Real afternoon shadows mingling with painted shadows beg the question “What in our lives is really real? Is life just a shadow on the wall of a chicken coop?” Right?

Our flufforaptors have grown into sleek, russet-feathered chickens. They aren’t fully grown just yet, but it was time for them to move out to the coop. After extensive online research, I learned that moving chickens to a new home fifteen minutes away is generally a five-hour process, and you should expect to spend most of that time attempting to lure them into a cage with chive flowers and lentils because picking them up is impossible.

Oh wait, that’s just what we did.

But first, I spent some time earlier this week tricking out their coop.

Initially, we painted the coop a light blue color that I’m told is “colonial blue,” whatever that means. It came from a one-gallon can of Home Depot Oops Paint—the paint that is returned to the store, and then has extra pigment added so that no one can run an awesome Home Depot Oops Paint Scam with their friends.

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“Yesterday we lived in a cardboard box. Today, we have our own three-by-eight foot coop. It’s the American dream.”

Anyway, I painted weeds on the sides, just in case anyone didn’t know that my partner and I (any my mother-in-law, whose house the coop is at) are all kind of hippies. I based the design on a typeface called Aierbazzi, which has drawings of meadow weeds instead of letters. The drawings stack together so that a word becomes a single clump of weeds rather than one letter-drawing after another, all in a row.

To get the color, which I wanted to look like shadows on the side of the coop, I mixed black paint in with the coop’s base color. We’re all happy with how it came out, but the chickens don’t care. They’re basically just happy that their new home has plenty of interesting structures to fly on.

As it turned out, I gained some skills at picking up chickens. My partner and I were so pathetic at getting them out of their box that we actually googled “how to move chickens,” followed quickly by “how to pick up chickens,” because we needed less advanced information. Then, after one of our failed efforts to lure them into the cages with flowers (yes, exactly like a five year-old might do), one them them escaped.

Quickly and firmly, as this blog suggests, I scooped her up and yelled, “Grab a box!”

Dan freaked out, and we had what was probably a really stupid dialogue:

“What do you mean? What box?”

“A box. Like a box. Cardboard!”

“What box? What box?”

“A box! A box! A box with flaps.”

In the end, that was how we moved them all to their new home. The first few times I tried to grab the other chickens, they freaked out in a crazy flurry of flapping wings and scattered pine shavings. That made me freak out, and I’d let the chickens get away. But I kept telling myself, “quickly and firmly.”

Don’t let their freakout become your freakout. That’s the other thing I learned. It’s probably a good strategy for dealing with people too. Thanks, flufforaptors.

Decluttering alternate universes

Trying to get rid of clutter isn’t difficult because throwing things in a cardboard box is beyond the skill of the average human. It’s difficult because it’s not about getting rid of items, but rather about destroying alternate universes.

A bunch of beads and wires aren’t craft supplies you never used. They’re an alternate universe in which you wear badass wire jewelry that you’re too much of a diy punk to just buy from someone else. And in this universe, you don’t do that thing where you kink up the wire and then throw it back in the drawer because now it has a bunch of little micro-bends.

An old school ID from a school that you didn’t actually attend is an alternate universe in which you did go there. You transferred of your own volition, and felt good about it, and had different (i.e., actual) job opportunities when you graduated, and things are better in that universe.

messy apartment

This is an alternate universe in which I never moved out of my messy old apartment. It’s not just some picture of my old apartment, ok?

I’m looking at a pile of crap on my desk right now. There are only a few things that can simply be put away without dramatics and wishful thinking. Everything else is an alternate universe, even if it’s not one that’s a major divergence from the established timeline. What kind of person, besides nihilistic madmen on Doctor Who, has the heart to go around wantonly destroying alternate universes? And the simple alterna-folk who live in them?

I can understand why books and articles on decluttering are so popular; I just sat down to clean my desk, and instead started to write about thinking about cleaning my desk.

The problem is that, from what I’ve seen, a lot of this advice is based around dubious mental tricks. You can see them in any women’s magazine in a dentist’s office.

Sally from Nevada sends us the following decluttering gem:
I like to get together with a friend and pretend I have terminal eyebrow cancer and need to sell all my wordly possessions to pay for an experimental Himalayan salt treatment. What would I still keep? What would I “sell” her to save my eyebrows?

Even advice like “Throw out anything you haven’t used in the last six months” is a mental trick. It imposes an arbitrary standard that has nothing to do with why you own a particular item, why should or shouldn’t get rid of it, and why you’re not going to. It also doesn’t make much sense if you apply it to tools. You might not use your precision screwdrivers frequently, but it doesn’t make any sense to throw them out just because your glasses or computer haven’t broken recently.

It’s tough to say goodbye to something that represents a possibility, even a possibility long past. I don’t have a handle on that at all, but I think the key is in keeping the things that are keys to places you still need to go from time to time.

But I also think that even your alternate universe self has alternate universes to destroy. Maybe one of them is yours.

Spirit Notes Fading is out!

Spirit Notes Fading cover

This is my book. I bet you figured that.

If it’s news to you that I have been working to put out a short collection of  short stories, that’s because I’ve been basically awful at announcing it, or telling people at all.

So let’s get that out of the way: I published Spirit Notes Fading a few days ago. Currently, it’s available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The book is a short collection of fantasy short stories, all fairly different, but with a few threads in common. Magic, music, journeys, and a sense of eerieness come up across the four stories in the collection. Here’s the summary:

A punk band struggles to save their show when it’s upstaged by the wail of a real banshee.

Across impassable seas and beyond lonely cities, two wayfarers journey across a vast continent.

A tired wanderer fights his impulse to run when he is hunted down with a magic photograph.

An ocean-sick miner steals a submersible to escape from the oppressive priest caste of a deep-ocean settlement.

When I say, “I published Spirit Notes Fading,” I mean that I self-published it, and I did all the work myself, except for some of the proofreading. I wrote the stories, revised them, copyedited them, designed the cover, designed the interior for both print and digital versions, and converted everything into the correct formats. There is a general idea that self-publishing is easy, and that anyone can just slap up anything with basically no work put into it at all. There’s a bit of truth to that; you can take a lot of short cuts; you can skip a lot of steps. To publish my own work with diligence, I had to level up a lot of skills. I’ve actually spent a few years working on those skills, because although I didn’t know until a few months ago that I was going to publish Spirit Notes Fading, I knew that I was going to publish some book.

I keep wondering about things I should have changed. Story-wise, edit-wise, format-wise. Did I leave too many tree branches in the cover? Is it just a mess? That kind of thing. But overall, I’m proud of the work I did, and I think I met the standard I set for myself.

However, as I said, I’ve been ridiculously inept at announcing it. “I have a book coming out!” is the sort of thing you’re supposed to announce on your blog, your newsletter, and whatever social media you use. Aside from promotion, it’s an accomplishment. Sharing accomplishments is generally considered an ok thing to do, right? As long as you’re not being showy, narcissistic, and ridiculous, like so:

“Wow, that’s a great story about your dead uncle. It reminds me of how I wrote a book.”

“As the author-publisher of the short story collection Spirit Notes Fading, I think I’d like to order a hamburger, no bun.”

“Hi, can I get a couple of scratch cards? Oooh, I can barely scratch off this silvery stuff, my hand is still so sore from all the computer work I did to publish my recent short story collection.”

But I’m so far on the introverted end of the spectrum that I feel weird even mentioning it. Even on my own website! In the past week, there were three times that I ran into people I hadn’t seen in awhile and it went kind of like:

“Hey, long time no see! What’s up with you?”
“Not much. Working. Need more hours.”
Some talk about other stuff.
“Oh, by the way, I wrote a book. That’s the kind of thing you tell people, right?”

And so this, right here? This is me telling you. I wrote a book. You can read it, if you’d like.

Flufforaptors: on having baby chickens

Baby chickens turned out to be fascinating, and I didn’t expect that.

Baby chickens in a box

Classic milling-around-before-we-do-something-insane baby chicken behavior.

Despite being on board with keeping chickens as part of a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle, I’ve always kind of viewed chickens as fairly dull farm animals. To be fair, I had spent very little time around flesh-and-blood chickens. That just changed. My partner and I have had baby chickens for nearly a week. We’ve spent much of this time suffering from something called Chicken Hypnosis, because that’s what we named it. Chicken hypnosis occurs when you try to do a thing, but are unable to because you walk by the chicken box and end up staring at their antics for twenty minutes.

After five days of Acute Recurrent Chicken Hypnosis, we’ve learned a few things about baby chickens.

Baby chickens are baby dinosaurs.

The idea that chickens are descended from dinosaurs is something I’ve heard people talk about a lot the last few years. Within a few hours of having chickens and watching how they move and function, my partner and I agreed. They are totally dinosaurs. He nicknamed them Fluffosauruses, because they are indeed adorable, fluffy, vicious little monsters. I like Flufforaptors, because they do kind of move like velociraptors.

Of course, this is all kind of dubious. We can watch the chickens and say that they move how dinosaurs move, but our idea of how dinosaurs move comes from Jurassic Park and various documentaries. And for all I know, they based their ideas on how dinosaurs move on the movements of living birds.

Baby chickens are fast.

Back to that velociraptor comparison. For some reason, I imagined that baby chicks would bounce around like fluffy little anime monsters. Maybe I didn’t actually know what chickens were before we got them. I didn’t even realize that I’d imagined them moving this way until I saw them dashing across their living area, tearing up the mulch behind them with their little talons. Once their wings started coming in, they began to use them for extra bursts of speed. Which is so cool to watch.

Baby chickens do not give a shit that you named them.

Or at least that you named the three of them you can tell apart from the others. Maybe when they’re older, they’ll learn what their names are. Human babies take awhile to learn their names, after all. But I also think that chickens just don’t give a shit. You named us Suntop, Redbeak, and Chickotay*? That’s beneath us. We’re the scions of dinosaurkind, and we’d basically eat you if you weren’t three hundred times our size. Or something. We’re chickens. Counting isn’t our forte.

Baby chickens are a mosh pit.

The chickens sleep in a clump, something I’m told they’ll do until they’re older and learn to roost. At various times during the day, they nestle into clump formation and take what I can only assume are power naps. Other times, they’ll bundle together and just kind of mill around. Then one of them will jump into the group and disrupt the whole thing, and basically, it turns into a mosh pit.

awful baby chick illustration

It also does my vector graphics skills no justice. I want those five minutes of my life back.

Finally, this picture does baby chickens no justice.

They may have been little balls of golden fluff for the first couple days, but they still had cold reptile eyes and pointy little talons. Like many of my favorite creatures, both real and fictional, they are both cute and vicious. Chickens in a yard tend to eat bugs. At two days old, they ate** a bunch of ants I kidnapped for them from the garden. Any sort of cartoony illustration of Easter chicks is really just a caricature. Especially if there’s a bow involved.


*Speaking of Star Trek Voyager, chickens can live longer than Ocampa.
**Or at least brutally murdered.