Apocalypse … ow!

Or how I’ve learned not to sweat the big stuff (and it’s all big stuff)

Illustration By Doug Macdonald

Hardly a day goes by that somebody doesn’t issue me a personal warning of one type or another, but the collective fear factor in the people I know reached a bizarre new level the other day. One of them informed me that the morning-glory vines growing in my backyard have LSD in them and that the drug could enter my system through my skin while I’m gardening. I believe “Yikes!” was the exact exclamation used by the bearer of this dire news.

I read an article a couple of months ago about a woman who heavily pruned her morning glories while they were still flourishing and later experienced a hallucinatory sensation that made her ill, so I realize the danger is probably real. I plant these flowers every year but never cut them back until late fall or early winter, when the vines are dead and the bumblebees that thrive on the blooms are gone, so I can’t claim any firsthand knowledge about toxic effects.

What frightens me more than a potential acid trip in my flower beds, though, is the fact that the person who delivered the menacing information did it out of a sense of routine. I’ve come to expect that every time she speaks or e-mails, she’s going to threaten me with another reason why it’s dangerous to be alive, but I can’t remember when this doomsayer attitude first surfaced. I wonder the same thing about friends and acquaintances who’ve warned me lately about cell phones causing brain tumors, people finding black-widow spiders in seedless grapes and a recall on a drug called phenylpropanolamine.

Actually, the recall story turned out to be true. Maybe all the bad news is true. But why do we feel such a pressing need to report it, even before we have any idea whether it’s real, imagined or concocted? I couldn’t help wondering if the Bush administration, 24-hour news and the watchdog rhetoric of the homeland-security program were having a profound impact on the consciousness of these people.

Granted, I’m living in El Dorado Hills, a place where fear is probably the prevailing sentiment. Why else would so many families live in gated subdivisions? Obviously, they’re trying to keep out somebody or something, but whom or what? The animals whose habitats their monster homes have destroyed? The non-English-speaking laborers who built the walls and mow the lawns? The people in neighborhoods like mine, who live in old, unfashionable houses?

I drove my teenage son’s friend to her home in a gated community in Serrano (a pricey development in El Dorado Hills), and we were forced to identify ourselves at a security checkpoint. My husband, an Air Force vet, calls them guard shacks. The way the militant-looking attendant stared us down, you’d have thought we were harboring a stolen cache of explosives. Maybe she just didn’t trust us because our vehicle is smaller than a tank and doesn’t sport an American-flag decal. After we dropped off my son’s friend, it dawned on me that her parents hadn’t bought into an exclusive neighborhood; they’d checked into a minimum-security prison that ultimately protects them from nothing. Can those gates protect them from drought, dwindling fossil fuels or an atmosphere pumped full of greenhouse gases? And what about naturally occurring asbestos?

We’re constantly getting literature in the mail from the Environmental Protection Agency regarding the presence of asbestos at Oak Ridge High School, the school my son attends. Government workers in moon suits even cordoned off areas by the creek near our home while they did their experiments. We half expected to see dead cows strewn by the side of the road, like the scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which government officials try to keep curiosity seekers away from the alien landing site.

A couple I know were considering moving to El Dorado Hills but changed their minds when they learned they’d have to sign legal documentation waiving the right to pursue litigation if asbestos was discovered on their property. “We won’t live in a place where we can’t sue,” the wife said bluntly. Talk about the fear factor!

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been told that a manicure could be detrimental to my health (noxious fumes from nail-polish chemicals), that food allergies can cause diarrhea and that my son’s teeth will rot now that he’s working part time at a pizza restaurant. Apparently, the free soda he drinks is about to jack up our dental bill. Luckily, I don’t get manicures, so at least we’re OK in that department.

But I had to rethink any speculation about the Bush administration inspiring the alarmist trend when a woman told me she woke up one night with a bloody nose and immediately switched on the computer to consult WebMD. She concluded that she could have leukemia and woke her slumbering spouse to report the news. She confessed to me that she uses the Internet to diagnose maladies all the time. At that point, I wondered if the problem is simply too much information.

Or perhaps there’s another reason we’re exaggerating the hazards in gardening, midnight nosebleeds and too many Cokes. There’s a New Yorker cartoon I like that shows two men sitting in front of their computers at work, and one says to the other, “Something was definitely lost when we went from being hunter-gatherers to browser-purchasers.” The cartoon reminds me that while some of us struggle daily in the quest to put food on the table, maintain shelter and pay bills, others have the time and money to watch reality shows, patronize tanning salons and hire interior designers to decorate their homes. Maybe those personal indulgences aren’t enough to occupy our days, so we turn to fears, threats and phobias. We’ve constructed a safe, reasonable existence; now all we have to do is protect it. Will the side effects from a prescription drug, a spider bite or a food allergy wreck our perfect lives?

If these are the issues that consume us, it’s time to start worrying about more apocalyptic catastrophes. It’s time to fret about the kind of disaster that put the dinosaurs out of business. It’s time to realize we’ve outlived our usefulness.