THIS YEAR IN FEAR: 1967, when people were afraid their penises had been stolen

imgresAnd you thought eating pork only ratcheted up your cholesterol levels.

In 1967, the men of Singapore were seized with terror that their love of noshing swine products was causing a condition called koro, which is literally defined as an individual’s “overpowering belief that his or her genitalia are retracting and will disappear.” (Although let’s be honest: Men tend to be juuuust a little more anxious about the relative size of their nether regions.)

According to Scott Mendelson, the author of The Great Singapore Penis Panic (a.k.a. The Best Book Title Ever), a newspaper article stating that some men had contracted koro from eating pork from animals that had been vaccinated with anti-swine-fever meds set off the panic. (Hey, nobody tell Jenny McCarthy about this.) At one point, as many as 500 men were certain their penises had disappeared wholly or partially. They remained convinced until an aggressive public health campaign by the government urged them to believe otherwise. Or until they looked down. Either way, the situation eventually abated.

Singaporean men didn’t invent this mass hysteria on their own. It actually dates way back. In 400 B.C., according to, “the condition was known in Chinese medicine as ‘suo-yang,’ which translates roughly to ‘Bye for now, penis. Hope to see you again soon.’ In his 1834 compendium of remedies, Pao Sian-Ow recommends several methods of treatment for suo-yang, including taking warm alcoholic drinks and rubbing the affected crotch with the ashes of burnt female undergarments.” And during the Middle Ages, the Malleus Maleficarum (the 250px-Malleusguidebook that helped Inquisitors put the screws to alleged witches), warned of a koro-like condition, in which “witches can take away the male organ not indeed by actually disspoiling the human body of it. but by concealing it with some glamour.”

But lest you think koro went out with other pre-1970s fads, like fallout shelters and witch-burning, it’s still around. Outbreaks of koro have occurred in just the last 10 years in West and Central Africa, sometimes leading to tragedy when someone is accused of being a black-magic practitioner-come-penis thief and gets (literally) strung up in the town square. And yes, while it’s unlikely this specific malady will befall American men en masse, we’re certainly no stranger to believing something despite all evidence to the contrary. Once again, I refer you to Jenny McCarthy.

THIS YEAR IN FEAR: 1322, when people were afraid of polyphonic music

Music is scary.

 Polyphony (n): A style of musical composition employing two or more simultaneous but relatively independent melodic lines : counterpoint, according to Merriam-Webster. Also, a super-terrifying thing circa the 1300s. 

Humans are really something: We have an almost limitless ability to innovate new things—and simultaneously, to be frightened of those nifty new things we just came up with.

Take polyphonic music. One upon a time, music was rather monotonous—er. monophonous. Think: Gregorian chant, troubadour songs, and so on. And everyone was perfectly happy with this form of music because they didn’t know it could get any better (like you with your iPod in 2007). Then, in and around the 1100s, someone came up with a “melismatic organum”—which sounds either like something that’s been lodged in your throat or something vaguely pornographic. But all it means is that several pitches were allotted to a given syllable, which had never really happened before.

So far, so good.

And then all hell broke loose. Composers began toying with polyphony—what’s more, they started setting religious music to popular (secular) ballads, and having love poetry sung to the tone of scared music. This enraged the clergy. “Harmony was not only considered frivolous, impious, and lascivious, but an obstruction to the audibility of the words,” says the New World Encyclopedia, adding that “dissonant clashes of notes give a creepy feeling that was labeled as evil, fueling their argument against polyphony as being the devil’s music.”

No wonder then that, in 1322, Pope John XXII banned polyphony:

These composers, knowing nothing of the true foundation upon which they must build, are ignorant of the church modes, incapable of distinguishing between them, and cause great confusion. The great number of notes in their compositions conceals from us the plainchant melody, with its simple well-regulated rises and falls that indicate the character of the church mode. These musicians run without pausing. They intoxicate the ear without satisfying it; they dramatize the text with gestures; and, instead of promoting devotion, they prevent it by creating a sensuous and indecent atmosphere. . .

Pope John XXII: Lover of tall hats, hater of harmony.
Pope John XXII: Lover of tall hats, hater of harmony.

This worked—for a few years anyway. Until Clement VI, a bit of a rogue*, assumed the papacy in 1342 and specifically did not ban polyphony, meaning basically that it was A-OK with him. And the rest is musical history.

*This is not my personal editorial commentary. He claimed to have “lived as a sinner among sinners.” So, no letters, OK?

Adventures in free-range parenting: My third-grader walks home alone for the first time

8923046d353a0ce5441683170bedc2bbMy father has often told me the following story: It was my first day of school in the first grade. I was a scrawny little six-year-old, in a flowered pinafore and braids setting off for the half-mile walk to Canterbury Elementary School in our suburban Cleveland hometown.

She (Oh God, do I hate pronouns; my dad is transgender; it’s a long, unrelated story; there’s a book and a one-woman show, if you care to know more; and now I will resume my previous sentence…) could hardly bear to watch me go. “I pressed my forehead to the glass angling my face to see as far as I could, until you were finally out of sight,” she has said, more times than she probably realizes. “I couldn’t stand just watching you walking all by yourself.”

God, do I know that feeling.

I’ve had that shudder of horror just thinking about my eight-year-old son head off to school. But here’s the caveat: I’d never actually done it. Like most of the other parents in my town, my husband and I ferry our kids everywhere—to school, to activities, to playdates. Our eldest is in middle school and walks there solo, although I nearly vomited the first day I let her go off by herself. And she was 11. 

In all honesty, I don’t know what I’m afraid of. I’m a longtime fan of Lenore Skenazy and her free-range parenting site. I mock helicopter parents (I know, I know). I realize the statistics on kidnapping are negligible. I know my son is capable of looking both ways before he crosses the street, even though he lacks a lot of other basic skills like being able to carry more than one thing in his hands without doing a vaudevillian-style pratfall, or to tie his shoes (damn you, Velcro).

So a couple days ago, I told my son, D, to walk home from school by himself later that day. (Alone in a matter of speaking, that is, considering the presence of the crossing guards, and the sidewalks choked with other parents and kids.) I hoped D would be excited to attempt such a big-boy endeavor. Mmm…not so much.

D: Nooooooo. That’s scary!
Me: Walking home from school isn’t scary. You do it every day.
D: It’s scary without mommy or daddy to protect me!
Me: Protect you from what?
D: What if I start daydreaming and wander out in front of cars?
Me: OK, well, don’t do that.
D: But what if teenagers are on the street saying bad words?
Me: If you can survive being in the same room while we watch John Oliver, you’ll make it through this.
D: What if I step in dog poop because no one points it out to me?
Me: We own a hose.
D (increasingly agitated): What if…
Me: Look, I’ll give you a piece of cake if you do this.
D (pleased): Cake?! OK.

My son, imagining a long walk filled with swearing teens and dog poop.

While D was at school that day, I prepared to worry. Now, anticipation of worry is not the same thing as actually worrying. But I was certain, as soon as the hour of school dismissal approached, that I would become a blithering idiot. I even considered live-blogging my waiting as D walked home, certain as I was that each minute would be nerve-wrackingly, nail-bitingly fraught with tension and angst. 


Ehh. It was fine. I drank some iced coffee and read a book and then there he was. No drama. No excitement. Turns out, once again, that the lead-up to facing a fear is always worse than the moment itself.

“So are you proud of yourself?” I asked D, as he dug into his after-school snack. “Don’t you feel better now that you can do this?”

“Not really,” he said. “But this is awesome cake.”

Stop Googling your symptoms! Here’s the weird way I got myself to stop

imagesFor years, whenever I experienced the mildest twinge of discomfort, I consulted Dr. Google. If I had belly bloat, I never blamed the five-bean kale soup; I typed “bloated stomach” into Google (a.k.a. and prepared for the end.

This turmoil wreaked havoc on my diet. (When every evening meal could be your Last Supper, you might as well eat the entire pound cake.) It also destroyed my sleep. (Did you know insomnia can be a sign of Parkinson’s? You’re welcome.)

Here, the full essay from this month’s Oprah magazine (buy it, too!):


On fearing bananas, indoor plants and fringe moccasins: A chat with best-selling author Julianna Baggott

When I was a magazine editor, one of my go-to writers was Julianna Baggott. And here’s why: She is a bottomless fount of ideas and energy. Get this: She has written 19 books in 12 years. She also cofounded a literary nonprofit with her husband. She also teaches college, and boosts the work of her students on social media. And has four kids. And she can fly. OK, not the last one. But I think that’s only because she hasn’t tried.
     And yet, it’s hard to be too intimidated because Julianna is also really, really nice. Case in point: She was willing to take time out of what must be the world’s busiest schedule to answer a few questions about fear.
My Fearless Year: Name one thing you are afraid of. Do you tend to face it, or flee it?
Julianna Baggott: I’m afraid of death. I flee it. I drive cautiously. I bombard my doctor with questions. I want to know exactly how other people have died so I can take notes and avoid it. Of course, not forever. That’s the thing with death. Super tenacious.
MFY: When I was at Real Simple, you contributed an essay about your mother’s tendency to tell lies—a habit you once emulated. Have you ever pretended you weren’t fearful about something that terrified you? 
JB: I shake people’s hands and pretend that I don’t want to Purell right there in front of them. Sometimes, with great bravado in a full elevator, I’ll touch the button with my bare finger instead of using my elbow. You know… tough guy stuff.
MFY: How did your experience growing up shape your relationship to fear?
JB: I was taught to fear bananas, mugs made in Mexico, indoor plants, the entire outdoors, ticks, germs, chipped paint, bus drivers in fringe moccasins, idling cars, etc.
MFY: Is there a common fear (fear of heights, etc.) that doesn’t faze you at all?
JB: Public embarrassment. I’ll do shitty karaoke. I’ll make bad dance videos at the drop of a hat as gifts … My partner and I really enjoy this kind of thing — in others and ourselves.
UnknownJulianna’s new book HARRIET WOLF’S 7TH BOOK OF WONDERS, out in August includes the story of a woman, a hermit, raised to live in abject fear. Pre-order it here.

23 brutally honest, utterly mortifying and occasionally ridiculous true confessions about my weight

1) Elephants in the room are my specialty. I’ve written about my kids, my sex life, my date rape experience, and my transgender parent for national magazines. And yet: I’ve been more afraid to write this post than any piece in my memory.

2) Why? Because I’m a person of substance and therefore not supposed to care about such trivial matters as weight. And, well, because I have ex-boyfriends and frenemies out there on the interwebs and I would like to maintain the illusion that I look reasonably similar to what I did when I was 24. (I realize this may somewhat contradict the person of substance thing.)

3) As of 9:07 AM this morning, I weighed 159.6 pounds. offending_bustreducer

4) You may have thoughts about what I just wrote. Like: Wow, that’s a lot. Or: Whatever—that’s nothing. Or: Huh. She looks skinnier in her Facebook photos. (Which is why they are my Facebook photos.)

5) I am heavier than I’ve ever been, not counting being pregnant. My BMI puts me in the “overweight” category. These are just facts, not judgments. Not to say there aren’t plenty of judgments, too.

6) I shot up from about 138 pounds last year, during my daughter’s illness. So many kind people brought us lasagna. Some brought brownies or cake. I scarfed it all in injudicious quantities. One generous friend—bless you, Jiming—made homemade Bolognese sauce, right from the Marcella Hazan cookbook. Once I ate it straight—just me and a soup spoon and the Ziploc bag it came in.

7) I probably also gained an additional 10 pounds or so from the following: Wine. Finishing my son’s half-eaten PB sandwiches. Wine. Chocolate chip scones from the bakery in town. Also wine.

8) I told myself that once my child was on the mend, I’d just diet and get back to exercising and lose it again. Just. Two years prior, I’d done a half-triathlon: swimming, biking, running. So no problem.

9) Instead, I spent about 20 minutes a day, three days a week, picturing myself swimming, biking, and running; drinking kale smoothies and eating plain chicken breasts. This almost felt like doing it, but for some reason didn’t have the desired effect.

10) Then I was laid off. Which seemed like a very good reason to eat pasta by the bucket. Still, this would be no problem because soon enough, I’d have all the time in the world to exercise and diet.

11) I did not take into account the fact that once I worked from home, I would have 24/7 access to the fridge. If you are a stay at home parent or work from your house and you do not weigh 300 pounds or more, pat yourself on the back. You are my hero.

12) I also learned (the pricey way) that the mere act of paying for a gym membership, a fitness app subscription or—or all three at once!—will not actually cause you to lose weight. Neither will simply wearing yoga pants.

13) My 17-year-old self would have found this entire turn of events downright shocking. Back then, I was 98 pounds in wet clothes. I couldn’t gain weight. I had no breasts. I had no hips. I hated my wrists. I often wore faux Bohemian clothes—men’s blazers, peasant skirts—that obscured my thinness.

14) In an attempt to become more voluptuous, I spent one month the summer before my senior year eating a pint of Haagen-Dazs every single day. (I’d melt it in the microwave and turn it into a shake of sorts.) Miracle of miracles, I did not become diabetic. Neither did I gain weight. I actually lost five pounds.

15) I was universally praised for my thinness:
“You have the smallest waist in the show—except for the girl they brought up from the middle school!”—A costumer in the Music Man, during my senior year of high school
“Oh my God, you are so tiny, you practically look anorexic!”—Saleswomen in the mall (yes, this was meant as praise)
“We don’t actually have to weigh you in. You’re good.”—Agent at the local talent agency I joined when I was 18 and an aspiring actress [they routinely weighed teen girls when we came for appointments or auditions]

offending_skinny1-216) By age 22, I was 105 pounds. Once, after having sex, my then-boyfriend told me my thighs were too fat and that he had a hard time looking at them. Also that they didn’t look like Victoria’s Secret model thighs. He said this in a sweet, mournful voice, like a doctor delivering bad news to a patient. I threw him out, and broke off our relationship. Still, the criticism, however absurd, had left its mark: I joined a gym.

17) My metabolism, age 26, died in or around September 7, 1998. It left behind a poochy area right around the belly button. R.I.P.

18) Around this time, people stopped calling me skinny. And I began to realize that weight impacted my identity to a powerful degree. Unconsciously, I’d thought of myself as a thin person. And I continued to think of myself this way, even as I became less genuinely thin.

19) In the years following, I came to work in women’s magazines. While at Conde Nast, publisher of Vogue and Glamour and Allure, curious friends would ask me if it was true that women would size up each other in the elevator. And I would reply that I didn’t really know, because those diva-types kind of looked through me. It was so obvious that I wasn’t bona fide competition.

19) Before I did my triathlon a few years ago, I had spiked up in weight a bit. So I went on the Atkins diet. But I didn’t want my daughter to know about it and grow up to develop an eating disorder. So one night after dinner, when she demanded I eat an Oreo with her, I put it in my mouth, shot her a pursed smile, and quietly exited to spit it out in the kitchen. It occurred to me, as I was bent over the sink, that in the effort to keep my kid from developing unhealthy feelings about food, I was doing a magnificent impression of an eating disorder.

20) So… hello, cookies! Look, I was doing it for the kids.

21) In the last few months, I’ve started exercising again. And I tried a new approach to eating more healthily (which yes, is a euphemism for dieting but also happens to be true): I’ve been upfront about it with both of my kids. Here’s what I’ve told them: Mommy is trying to lose weight because she wants to fit into her pants. Because Mommy is cheap and hates shopping. 

22) In response, my son told me that it was fine if I was going to eat more salads and stuff, but to keep one thing in mind. Just don’t become less of a fluffy pillow, he cautioned me, because I love your fluffiness.

23) I promised my son that I wouldn’t forget.

THIS YEAR IN FEAR: 1997, when people were afraid of Pokémon


There are plenty of reasons to be fearful of  Pokémon: It’s the second largest video game franchise in history. The product line generates over a billion dollars in revenue annually, probably half of that from my son’s third grade class alone. The name means “pocket monster.” (Scary!)

But none of that is why people were petrified of Pokémon in 1997. In December of that year, an episode aired in Japan called “Electric Soldier Porygon,” in which bright red and blue lights strobed across the screen (a technique called, adorably, paka-paka). Within an hour, according to the book Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior, 618 Japanese children went to hospitals complaining of dizziness, nausea, blurred vision, seizures, and more. That wasn’t the end of it: Over the next few days, newspapers reported that as many as 12,000 kids were taken ill after watching the show.

In the weeks that followed, scientists deduced the kids were suffering from Unknown-2mass hysteria, now case of widespread photosensitive epilepsy. But no matter: According to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, TV Tokyo yanked the show, and only put it back on once they’d prefaced it with trigger warnings that the episodes could cause epileptic seizures. Even the nation’s prime minister weighed in, chiding the creators of the show for using animation techniques that had previously appeared in other shows). American parents were told that such an outbreak was unlikely to happen here because we “don’t air the graphic Japanese cartoons known as ‘anime.'”

What stopped the Pokemon panic ultimately? More Pokemon. Japanese kids missed the show so much when it was off the air that once it finally returned, they rewarded it with sky-high ratings.