THIS YEAR IN FEAR: 1776, when people were afraid of the night air

John Adams had a lot to worry about in 1776, what with fighting the revolutionary war, founding a country, and hating Thomas Jefferson. Despite all the real and genuine perils he faced, though, he managed to find the time to worry about something else altogether: the night air.

To wit: One evening in September 1776, Adams and Benjamin Franklin were forced to share a tiny room at a crowded inn in New Jersey. You’d think they’d be tired, having just won the war and all. But Adams couldn’t sleep.

“The window was open and I, who was an invalid, and afraid of the air in the night, shut it close.” (“Invalid” is no exaggeration: According to historian Jay Winik, Adams suffered from “constant headaches, fatigues, chest pains, visual impairment, night sweats, insomnia, heart palpitations, ‘quivering fingers,’ pyorrhea, skin eruptions and aching joints, memory loss and acute anxiety, melancholy, colds so severe that Unknownhe thought had yellow fever, possibly a goiter, and perhaps even Graves’ disease.” Oh, and near-fatal toxothyrosis. And bad vision.) Anyway, Benjamin Franklin tried to reassure poor Adams that night air was nothing to be afraid of. But apparently his harangue was so boring that Adams fell asleep, never fully disabused of this particular fear.

Adams was no outlier on this. Over the next few centuries, this fear gained ground, as people imagesembraced zymotic theory—in which poisonous vapors supposedly emanated from the ground (particularly at night…for some reason) and spread diseases like malaria. Belief in the deathly threat of the night air became commonplace, as Wired‘s Matt Simon explains:

Even doctors and other educated folk propagated the myth. For instance, Baldwin notes that in 1850 a prominent Cincinnati physician wrote that we ought to close up our windows when we turn in for the night. “Two effects result from” open windows, he claimed, “first, the exclusion of malaria [from the Italian meaning “bad air,” not the mosquito-borne disease], or the poison which produces autumnal fever; second, the exclusion of moisture, which in the latter part of the night, often chills the body.”

So what caused people to stop holding their breath when it was dark outside? The realization that
mosquitos transmitted malaria made people stop demonizing the sky and start hating asshole insects like they should have all along. Understanding bacteria helped, too. Good one, science.

On eating roasted crickets and fearing winged monkeys: A chat with best-selling author Sarah McCoy

I can’t believe I’ve never met the amazing Sarah McCoy in person. And that’s because Sarah—Unknownbesides being the acclaimed New York Times-bestselling author of The Baker’s Daughter, The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico and The Mapmaker’s Children, to be released on May 5, 2015—is one of those people who is so giving and vibrantly expressive that she may feel like a closer friend than people you see every day. She has always struck me as one of the boldest and most forthright writers I’ve had the privilege of editing, so I wanted to learn what (if anything) she was afraid of.
My Fearless Year (MFY): Name one thing you are afraid of. Do you tend to face this fear—or flee it?

Sarah: I asked my husband, who I call Doc B, what he would say I was afraid of. “Spontaneity,” he said, which garnered a wifely swat, a laugh, and an admission: He’s right. However, I’d probably say I’m most afraid of disappointing those around me or myself. I’m my own harshest critic, and I suppose that lends itself to my fear of spontaneity. I like calm order, knowing where all my juggling items are so I don’t drop any… so I don’t disappoint with an egg splat!
     In that regard, I guess I face my fear daily. I keep moving, releasing and catching responsibilities to the best of my ability. But at the same time, I dodge spontaneity as much as possible. Please, no monkey wrenches thrown into my juggling act, thank you very much. Of course, life being life, there’s always something. Maybe not a monkey wrench but a monkey. Crazy, winged monkeys.
mapmakersdaughter_thumbMFY: Is there a fear you’ve conquered in the past?
Sarah: I was frightfully shy as a child. Crowds and meeting new people used to make me shake with fear and anxiety. I’m an extreme introvert, which often surprises my readers. When I was 13, I remember thinking that if I didn’t buck up and engage people, I’d spend the rest of my days cowering. Seeing Mr. Fear as a character—a villain in my own personal story—enabled me to stand against it. I wasn’t going to let it win.
     I started my crusade on what most would consider the most ordinary of battlegrounds: my dentist’s office. My family had just moved to Virginia so everything was a terrifying unknown. My dad dropped me off at the office and instead of walking in sheepishly, I entered with the biggest smile I could nervously muster and said to the receptionist, “Hi, I’m Sarah McCoy, a new patient. I just moved to town. How are you?” That baby step was the first mighty strike.
MFY:  What book, movie, piece of music or other form of art has helped you get over or cope with a fear?
Sarah: Words have always had weighty power over me. Growing up, my mom kept a quote on our refrigerator door: Be strong and courageous and do the work… it’s part of a Bible verse from 1 Chronicles. Funny how a single statement can burn itself into your mind’s eye without you knowing it. It comes back to me often even now— the image of that piece of paper with one magnet holding it strong. A comfort. A battle cry. An encouragement when I’m afraid.
     Being a writer, stories of characters who conquered their fears have always been a source of great inspiration, too. Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables was one of my childhood favorites. I thought, if she could overcome so much—being an orphan, being mistreated, feeling lost, having a temper, wanting so much more but not knowing yet how to achieve it, etc.—I might be able to do similarly. She showed me that perseverance, faith, and hope were keys.
MFY: What common fear (fear of heights, etc.) doesn’t faze you at all?
Sarah: Ninety-nine percent of creepy bugs. I squash spiders with my thumb. Centipedes with my bare toes. Cockroaches with whatever shoe is handy. Bees and flying pests get the swatter. Ants and colonies of itsy-bitsies, the spray. I have no qualms about eating roasted crickets, toasted mealworms, and skewered scorpions. Oddly, there is only one bug in insect nation that terrifies me, and it’s nearly entirely benign: the praying mantis. Blame a naive, childhood viewing of the mantis mating ritual on the Nature Channel. I get full-body shivers just thinking of them.
MFY: Name one person, living or dead, who exemplifies fearlessness to you.
Sarah: Hm, I’m having a hard time with this question because every person I know has had major fears. They were never entirely fearless but made the choice to get up, stare down life’s monsters and say, I choose to be courageous. I choose peace over anxiety. I choose good over evil. I choose to own this fear and not let it own me. choose. We’re only human so if we aim for “fearlessness,” we’re doomed to disappointment (my aforementioned fear). Instead, I believe all of us have the capacity to take action—to be a little braver each day.

Fear experiment #3: I conquer my fear of sleeping at home alone


I was happy in my new house. As long as I had company, that is. Anytime Christopher had to leave—even for 24 hours—I would dragoon someone into staying with me. It was embarrassing to feel so dependent. Plus, I was envious of my friends who relished their time alone (“Yay for me time!” one pal posted giddily on Facebook), as it offered ample opportunities for late-night wine swilling and assorted other guilty pleasures. For these reasons, I decided to try to shake off the bogeyman for good.

—From a piece I wrote for Real Simple a little while back. Click here to read the rest.


THIS YEAR IN FEAR: 2003, when people were afraid of rainbow parties

Toward the end of 2002, pediatrician Meg Meeker published a book alerting us all to a heretofore unknown scourge sweeping the nation: Rainbow parties.

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No, silly, not those kinds of rainbow parties.

This kind:

[Allyson] had heard some kids were going to have a “rainbow party,” but had no idea what that meant. Still, she thought it might be fun, and arranged to attend with a friend. After she arrived, several girls (all in the eighth grade) were given different shades of lipstick and told to perform oral sex on different boys to give them “rainbows.” Once she realized what was happening, Allyson was too stunned and frightened to do anything. When a girl gave her some lipstick, she refused at first but, with repeated pressure, finally gave in. “It was one of the grossest things I’ve ever done.”

See, from our perspective as denizens of the year 2015, this seems obviously absurd and overblown (sorry). But in 2003, this was cause for much media handwringing.

Miles O’Brien on CNN:  “Do you know what a rainbow party is? If you’re parents, you better listen up. Your teenage daughter might know. She’s reading about it in a sexually explicit young-adult novel that puts an emphasis on ‘adult’ to say the least.”

Tucker Carlson on MSNBC: “Thirteen-year-old girls having oral sex? Everybody knows it happens. But according to a number of recent press accounts, it happens a lot. Not just in bad neighborhoods but in your neighborhood. Probably in your child’s school. Scared yet? If not, you don’t have a 13-year-old daughter.”

The panic reaches its 2005 zenith with the publication of the novel, Rainbow Party, by Paul Ruditis, in which the world’s weirdest group of teen girls plan an oral sex party. (Really?! Girls would plan this. Shelve this one under Fantasy, male.)

The craziness only begins to die down once people stop flailing their hands long enough to really wonder whether or not hordes of teenage girls across the country would be willing to band together and use their mouths to paint brightly colored stripes on a boy’s penis. And then that teenage boys, after receiving oral sex several times, would manage to sustain erections long enough to compare “rainbows” with each other. That this had ever happened, you know, here on planet Earth.

As Tamar Lewin of the New York Times wrote, shortly before this “phenomenon” started being reclassified as horse pucky, “Many say rainbow parties are just a new urban legend—suburban, actually—not much more trustworthy than the old stories about alligators in the sewer.”


Actually, maybe even less.

Fear experiment #2: I bravely take a Pilates class with septuagenarians

Around the age of 37, I had an epiphany. I wasn’t going to magically morph from a slothful thirtysomething who got winded climbing subway stairs into one of those adorably fit senior citizens. You know the kind: You see them jogging gleefully through gloriously autumnal parkscapes in prescription drug commercials, and dancing awkwardly—but with verve!—in cruise ship ads.


No, I was on track to become an old old person.


Once this (blatantly obvious) realization hit me, I decided to do something about it. I started attending a boot camp at (sweet Jaysus) 5:45 in the morning up to four days a week. I swam dozens of laps every few days. I even did a half-triathlon, which shocked just about everyone in my life, especially my parents who did, after all, raise a child who considered setting out silverware to be a cardio sport.

Once I got going, I religiously adhered to my exercise regimen. If I went without a gym class for more than a few days, I was pretty sure that would be it. Curtains. Jig up. I’d boomerang back to my unfit, slovenly, quasi-asthmatic self. This sense of urgency—EXERCISE OR DIE, YOU LAZY FUCKER was my pre-dawn motivational mantra. (Deepak Chopra, that’s mine. You can’t have it.)


And it worked! Until it didn’t. First, I got cocky, certain that even if I let my routine slide, no biggie, I’d just get back with the program in a day or two. After all, it had become a habit! Everyone knows: Habits are hard to break. So I let it go a little more: Three days here, five days there. And I’d promise to start again the following week because this week was really nuts at work. Plus, I’d had a headache. Like, at some point in the day. Or the weather wasn’t quite right for driving to the gym—you know, raining, or snowing. Or overcast, when it really made more sense to be at home baking cookies. Or I was too happy to exercise: I deserved to celebrate! Or grumpy: I deserved a treat!

By the year’s end I was, at last, back to square one. Well, more like square negative one. Out-of-shape-37, as it turns out, could easily kick the ass of out-of-shape-42.

I needed one of these in Lamaze class. Also yoga.

I’d promised myself to start back with a gym class, so I couldn’t abort, say, the treadmill session once I started to become engulfed in the existential doom that usually hits me by the 3rd minute. With trepidation, I chose a morning Pilates class. Trepidation, because Pilates has always looked somewhat sinister to me, what with all the straps everywhere. Plus, I heard it involves breathing. I am terrible at breathing. When I was pregnant with my daughter B, I could not do the breathing exercises in Lamaze. Every time I tried, I hyperventilated practically to the point of passing out while other mothers-to-be sat beatifically, looking like suburban white lady Buddhas. But I didn’t realize exactly how nerve-wracking the Pilates class would be until I saw the people inside the studio: About seven older people. I don’t remember what they all looked like, specifically, outside of one gentleman in tube socks, shiny shorts and a Let’s Get Physical sweatband. But they looked awesome. Minus Mr. Newton-John, they could have all come straight from a Cialis shoot.

I almost did a 180 and headed to hide among the weight machines. But no, I told myself, don’t be cowed by well-toned old people. You are going to be a well-toned old person yourself one day! Well, maybe, anyway! In I went.

A few thoughts on Pilates:

1) I do not think it makes any sense to stick your foot into a ring and try to pull it behind your head unless you are on tour with Cirque de Soleil.

2) No one mentioned that balance was required. This was an omission. I tipped over in the middle of several moves. Happily, I received no pitying looks the way I would have in, say, a Crunch gym in Manhattan. Older folks are too nice to eye-roll.

3) There was, in fact, breathing. I cheated on all of it (I can never remember when to exhale or inhale and I refuse to believe it matters).

4) I’m fairly certain I don’t ever want to do it again.

But hey, I’m not afraid of it anymore. One down.

THIS YEAR IN FEAR: 1890, when people were afraid of Kodak cameras

Starting today, I will be posting once a week about a bygone source of irrational fear or mass hysteria. Because back then, people were scaredy cat panic-mongers, not the rational cool-headed thinkers of today. Oh wait.

George Eastman—brilliant entrepreneur, mega-philanthropist, dental health obsessive—invented the Kodak camera in 1888. It was much easier to use than previous cameras, and therefore was an overnight sensation. It took barely longer to paralyze Americans with fear. Case in point: The story, “The Kodak Fiend at Cape May,” appeared in a July 1890 issue of the Indianapolis Journal, and told the harrowing story of a would-be beachgoer who nearly escaped the grim fate having her photo taken.

Unknown-4The panic didn’t stop there:

1891: The Chicago Daily Tribune [subscription required] reports that the founder of the beach at Asbury Park, New Jersey, has issued an order for the arrest of “Kodak sinners” who use their machines in public.

1894: Kodak fiends have been “infesting” St. Cloud, Minnesota, writes the Associated Press. If the Kodak men, who were photographing young women at a band concert were to be caught, the article warns, they “may be summarily induced to abandon the nefarious practice.”

1899: The New York Times [subscription required again, sorry] writes about a “rebellion” in Newport “against the promiscuous use of photographing machines” and the scourge of “kodak fiends” snapping pictures of ladies as they departed from a local tennis tournament.

During this time, President Teddy Roosevelt also banned cameras from national parks including the Washington Monument, for fear the infernal machines would be a violation of privacy.

So what finally settled the rattled nerves of the ladies of Newport and beyond? Ubiquity. Once Kodak Brownie cameras became the rage in 1900 Unknown-3(it was just $1, a massive savings from the original $25 model), and basically everyone had them, the terror abated. Funny, that.