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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    March 2008



What, Me Worry?

Stop fretting! That worrywart streak is genetic.



I was thrilled at the recent news that scientists have identified a "worry gene," since it's always nicer to be able to blame nature instead of nurture for one's flaws. Now when I drive my family crazy with my vexing worrywart-ness (worrywartism? worrywartification?), I can shrug and say, "I can't help it. It's in my genes."

Nature or nurture or a little bit of both, I know exactly where I got my worrywart streak — my dad. It's a good thing that I was seldom what parents call "a handful" when I was growing up, because I don't know how my dad could have survived rearing a genuine hellion. My idea of a wild teenage outing was to drive 60 miles — Interstate all the way — to a college campus in Mitchell, SD, (home of the Corn Palace — not exactly the Woodstock of the Great Plains) to hear a science-fiction writer speak. (It was, in fact, the ageless Jack Williamson from New Mexico, who just recently passed away after writing something like six gazillion novels and short stories.) Other teenagers in the 1970s were dropping acid, dropping out of school and wearing really bad clothes. I wanted to go to a campus lecture an hour away — and to drive my dad's car. What a rebel! Move over, James Dean!

(For the record, my dad's car was not, say, a Maserati. It was a boxy white Plymouth Valiant that I'd nicknamed "White Wind," after the horse of the long-forgotten Western hero the Golden Arrow. When I putt-putted off in this chick magnet, I could holler the Golden Arrow's deathless phrase, "Scratch gravel, White Wind!" Yes, I was a nerd par excellence.)

Anyway, the thought of this reckless act of teenage self-actualization drove my father mad with worry. He forbade me to go; I stormed out of the house. When my mother finally prevailed upon him to allow this wild ride, I think my dad spent the whole three hours or so that I was on the loose pacing and chain-smoking.

Imagine if instead I'd bopped into the living room at martini time sporting a tattoo and dreadlocks to announce that I'd spent my savings on a van and my girlfriend and I were driving to California to join a commune. (Imagine if I'd had a girlfriend!) I think my dad's head might have exploded.

Another memorable worrywart outbreak came when I was in college — still living at home, wild thing that I was — and it got to be after midnight. I was at my girlfriend's parents' house (at least by now I had a girlfriend, who's now my wife), doing what crazy college kids do — playing board games. To my mortification, my dad telephoned to check up on me. After all, at that ungodly hour I could be roadkill or, worse, losing at Scrabble.



Despite such vivid dramatizations of how challenging a worrywart can be to live with, as I've grown older I've slowly turned into one myself. Now at least I can blame my DNA — as well as the results of passing on that DNA by having an offspring. Children make all parents worrywarts; some of us just take it to extremes.

I could tell the worrywart gene was kicking in when we moved to Pittsburgh, where our house had a steeply sloping backyard. This ski slope ended in a makeshift fence that the downhill neighbor had fashioned from wire strung between badly pruned — scalped, really — bushes. All I could see when I looked in our backyard was incipient decapitation. Sledding, rolling in the grass, chasing after a dog — all would end like a Wes Craven movie.

Our own backyard deathtrap was bad enough, but once our daughter began to stray from the known risks of home, my worrywart gene went into overdrive. I won't embarrass her any more than I did during her childhood by detailing my deranged behavior whenever her exact location couldn't be pinpointed. (These days, with the advances in GPS technology. . .) Let's just say my dad would have been proud.

At least I didn't play enough sports when I was a kid to give my dad a whole new arena, so to speak, for worrying. Our daughter tried basketball and soccer, and was just good enough and game enough at the latter to spend most of her soccer career as a goalie. Talk about a worrywart father's worst nightmare!

When your kid plays goalie, there are only three possible outcomes to any soccer game: One, her team can win, in which case the glory will go to whoever scored the winning goal — not the goalie. Two, her team can lose, making the goalie the goat. Or three and most likely in my vivid imagination, she can get hurt. Kicked, pummeled, gouged, stepped on, you name it. To be fair to me and my worrying, quite a good deal of kicking, pummeling and so forth did indeed go on among these deceptively goody-goody-looking suburban girls. We were soon on a first-name basis with staff at all the local emergency rooms. But these actual injuries only fed my worrying over what worse could happen.

I began to see my dad in a more sympathetic light. Not a paranoid, delusional whackjob at all, he was instead a man cursed with a keenly attuned sense of the multitude of ways things could go hideously wrong. That trip to Mitchell I'd gone on and on about? What if the Corn Palace had, well, popped while I was nearby, smothering me and the town's hapless inhabitants in a mountain of popcorn? Stranger things have happened!



You'd think that the advent of modern mobile communications would alleviate much of my angst, but in fact it's had the opposite effect. Now that my loved ones can be in constant contact, I worry even more when they're mysteriously out of touch. No cell phone call? The only logical explanation is a serial killer. (Haven't you people ever watched "CSI:"? This is forensic science, folks! I know blood spatter when I see it!)

My first taste of this technological hell came back before cell phones were ubiquitous, when we tried keeping in touch with pagers. Now, there's a problem with a pager: It's a one-way device. You can page somebody until they look like a victim of St. Vitus' dance, but they have no way of responding unless there's a pay phone (or, duh, a cell phone) handy.

Let me tell you: This is not reassuring to the person doing the paging. From the worrywart's viewpoint, the logic is inescapable: "I'm paging her but she's not calling me back. Ipso facto, she's incapable of responding. Hello, serial killer!"

We discovered this problem with pagers one weekend when my wife, our daughter and my wife's childhood best friend all drove out to spend the afternoon at the Renaissance Faire. I don't know why I didn't go along — perhaps I'd met my quota of jugglers and greasy turkey legs. When the Faire closed for the day, they got caught in ye olde traffic jam. Wondering what the heck was keeping them, I paged. And paged.

Had I been unable to reach out and touch the missing trio in any way, I would have been worried (hey, I'm my father's son!), but not utterly frantic. Far, far worse was knowing that they knew I wanted them to call — and getting no response! I think I'd just hung up from calling the Highway Patrol, inquiring about fatal auto accidents and serial killers, when the wayward trio finally made it to a pay phone.

Nor have cell phones solved the problem, despite their two-way prowess. That's because when the cell phone is out of service range or its battery runs low, the expectation of communication turns into World War Worrywart. At Christmas, my wife had dropped off our daughter at the airport in Tucson and was doing some shopping. She called to update me on her progress, but her phone was dying (and her car charger buried under purchases). With the last electron of battery life, she told me she'd call as soon as she got to where she was staying that night before heading home the next day. No problem — I knew that was about a half-hour drive from her last location.

Except, unknown to King Worrywart, she had some other errands to run first. Maybe 90 minutes later — I can't be sure, time flies when you're pacing and looking up the number for the Arizona Highway Patrol — she finally called. All was well, of course. The serial killers had been thwarted again.

Did I feel foolish? Certainly. But it's not my fault. I've got the worry gene — I can't help myself!

Hmmm, I wonder if the worry gene has any dangerous side effects I should be, well, worried about?



David A. Fryxell's hair goes gray editing Desert Exposure.



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