You know, I have had a lot of strange experiences during my lifetime. Some are shared with other people. Others are not. Until today, I never thought I'd meet someone else who was attacked by a Flying Snake. But folks, here he is:
January's Guest Blog, You Can Choose Your Own Adventure, by David Finch
When I resigned from engineering to write full-time, my first order of business was to convert the spare bedroom in my parents’ house into my own, personal office space. I’m married, I have two kids, and I have my own house, but my parents still work -- my dad is a farmer and my mom a teacher -- so their house is quieter than mine, and thus more conducive to thinking.
Their food is also free, and their neighborhood is prettier. So why wouldn’t I sponge off of them? When I need to clear my head at home, I might go for a walk and see, at best, a dog peeing on one of the scrawny saplings our developer planted along the sidewalk, or half a dozen kids zipping around on motorized scooters. Images that don’t inspire my best thinking.
But my parents’ house is situated in a sleepy rural neighborhood in which sizable new homes are surrounded by impeccably landscaped yards and massive old trees. Down the road a little way is a pond, and beyond that, some woods. At the pond, I’m guaranteed to spot a handful of turtles mingling on a log, a nervous muskrat trolling along the shoreline, or half a dozen hawks riding air currents overhead. It’s peaceful, and my mind can wander as needed, which is usually -- usually -- a good thing.
I was out for my afternoon walk one day last September when I spotted a dead snake lying belly-up on the side of the road. He wasn’t big, this snake, maybe eight or ten inches long if you stretched him out. I gasped, leaping sideways into the road to avoid stepping over it -- leaping without looking into the road where cars drive, to avoid stepping over a tiny, dead snake.
Here’s the thing: I hate snakes. Or rather, I fear them. I always have. In the second grade, my class watched a film strip showing the gruesome manner in which a snake kills and consumes its prey: you’re either bitten to near-death and swallowed, or squeezed to near-death and swallowed. That was it. Those were your options when it came to being attacked by a snake.
From that day forward, I understood that the only thing a snake is supposed to do in life is to kill -- to strike its victim, savagely and horribly, with precision, then detach its jaw, and subsequently devour the twitching body of whatever animal or second grader it just attacked. I diligently limited my experience with snakes to the pages they occupied in my parents’ Encyclopedia Brittanica. Even there, confined to the page as two-dimensional images, I was terrified by them. Their horrible bodies, their vicious fangs, those cold, lifeless eyeballs. I could look at a picture of a rattle snake for maybe ten seconds before I got spooked and had to turn the page, fearful that it might come to life and chase me around the house.
If I had to guess, I would say that the snake I encountered lying dead in the road last September was a garter snake. Totally harmless, not a creature to fear. There was nothing particularly remarkable about him, either, except for the fact that his body, despite having expired at some point, was still perfectly in tact, and, curiously, was resting upside-down. I took a moment to consider how this might have happened, and drew a blank. Was he showing off to his friends when he realized he couldn’t get himself right-side-up again? Had he died while they went for help?
I tossed a small rock at him to make sure he was actually dead and not just trying to deceive me, and when he didn’t react I moved in for a closer look. I felt as though I was walking on a tight rope between two skyscrapers; my hands were sweaty, my mouth dry and cottony. All this, in response to a lifeless snake no longer than my flip-flop.
I expected I might find some guts or gook or something, but there was none. He hadn’t been flattened by a car or bicycle, and there was no trauma on his flesh to indicate he’d been attacked by a predator or pawed to death by a playful neighborhood dog. His body just lay there, his lime green underbelly glistening in the sun.
I continued on my walk, but couldn’t stop thinking about the snake. How did he end up like that? I wondered. And suddenly it hit me: Had he been dropped?
I was halfway to the pond when my theory began to take shape: A hawk must have nabbed the snake and taken him for a little ride before losing his grip and dropping him a few hundred feet to the pavement below. Or perhaps the snake wriggled free in an instinctual and ironic attempt to escape the clutches of his captor, only to realize how screwed he was as he plummeted to his death.
My thinking continued: As light as the snake must have been, a fall from a substantial height wouldn’t necessarily splatter him, but it would certainly be enough to kill him. Wouldn’t it? Yes, he must have escaped the clutches of a hawk, fallen from a great distance, and landed right there where he died. That’s the only way it makes sense.
I was quite satisfied with my sleuthing and had all but moved on when I realized the terrible implications of my theory. If the snake had been dropped by a bird as I suspected, this would mean that at any given point in time, a fucking snake could just fall unexpectedly from the sky and land right on my head. I had never in my life considered this to be a real possibility until that moment, and just like that, I had a new fear.
Suddenly, the road, the ditch, the neighbors’ driveways, the trees—the entire landscape—was just crawling with imaginary snakes—which are, without a doubt, the worst kind of snake. In fact, the only thing more terrifying than a real snake is an imaginary snake, because unlike a real snake, the imaginary kind always appear out of nowhere without any warning. Imaginary snakes never slither off into the grass to avoid getting stepped on. Instead, they chase you at high speeds knowing that, at some point in your panicked sprint, you’ll stumble and fall. And that’s when they’ll drop from the sky to wage their brutal assault.
I knew at that moment that I would have to find a new place to write.
This is what happens when obsessive thinking is married, as it is in my neurological construction, with a vivid imagination. I tend to get pulled into these absurd and terrifying rabbit holes, unable to snap out of it and think about anything else, for hours or even days at a time: What is my hotel room going to look like when I go to New York next week? Kristen said she’d be home at 4:00, and it’s 4:02, where is she? Why was that store clerk so rude to me? And it’s not exactly my brain’s fault when I get stuck on these thoughts, but mine.
I may not be able to control which thoughts pop up at any given moment, but I can decide, consciously, whether or not to indulge them. I can’t choose to never again think about a snake, but I can choose to create a ridiculous storyline involving snakes being launched at me by hawks, and apparently I can even choose to accept that storyline as a likely reality. Even if it means scaring the crap out of myself, despite the fact that I don’t really enjoy feeling scared.
So, why wouldn’t I use my powers of creativity and self-persuasion to imagine a scenario in which snakes don’t fall from the sky? A scenario in which snakes do slither off into the grass for fear of being trampled? In other words, why do I sometimes choose to believe silly, illusory thoughts, rather than reality -- which is, by definition, real?
I don’t have an answer to these questions. Fortunately, though, it doesn’t really matter why I choose to believe one thing and not another; all that matters is that I can choose -- that much I can control.
So I’m working on it. I’m practicing interrupting the cycle of terrible, worrisome thoughts with an act as simple as taking a breath, and I’m also practicing not getting pulled into the rabbit hole to begin with. Two very different endeavors that are equally worthwhile, both of which are totally within my control.
And I must say, it’s going fabulously. I still obsess over hotel rooms for some reason, but no longer am I convinced that snakes can rain down on me from the heavens; I now carry an umbrella only when it’s raining.
About the author: David Finch’s essays have been published in The New York Times, Slate, and Psychology Today. His debut memoir, The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband, was published by Scribner on January 3, 2012. David lives in northern Illinois with his wife, Kristen, and their two children. Please join David on facebook.