Contagion heuristic

Contagion heuristic, a.k.a., Banana Wuz Here

blurry beauty in odd spots
blurry beauty in odd spots

In third grade, I read a list of Old Wives Tales in my family’s copy of the current Farmer’s Almanac that resided in our downstairs bathroom.  The almanac fed my desire for short bursts of useless information, and, unfortunately, the old wives tales fed my growing concern of Things to Worry About, that was not without the tinge of superstition.  One of the legends read that if you watch a person leave, as in walk completely out of sight, disappearing into the distance, you will never see that person again.  I imagined this to have first taken place in some 19th century countryside, some place with rolling hills or moors or some shit. But if it was still true, then, in 1987, I’d need to be very careful watching my loved ones disappear down Williams Road.

Well.  I did not take kindly to that portent at all. Being the youngest by many years of four kids, I had plenty of occasions to witness people leaving. And as I tearfully watched my sister or brothers leave the driveway from my bedroom window, (which I dramatically and often did) I began to make damn sure I never actually SAW THEM AS THEY DISAPPEARED FROM SIGHT. What if my watching them made them disappear? Could I hold that power?  I was afraid to test it, so I just went with it.* For a kid who already had to wear glasses, had been to one funeral, and had seen Poltergeist the year prior, I had enough on my plate.

Here is where proximity and this fear meet:  what killed me was– take saying goodbyes, for example. The moment you said goodbye to a person, then turned and walked away, you would also be walking away from that moment. And right then–when?-THEN–Right then, you’d never be as close to that moment ever again.  And from then on, it would disappear.

And I’ve returned to this subject of proximity lately. What we learn from being around other people, and levels of closeness.  I find it interesting how close and how far we can be from each other at the same time.  When I was little, I never wanted anyone I loved to leave.  That’s an easy one, who couldn’t identify with that?  But sometime around third grade, I began to worry.  A number of things happened the year I read The Farmer’s Almanac: I discovered music on the radio, my neighbor’s house caught on fire, I stopped sleeping well, and I began to realize what I could have one moment could be gone the next.

My struggle with an appropriate segue will probably mirror my readers’ struggle with this post. It might even seem like I’m trying to synthesize things that should be left alone.  Think of it as discussion topics, or writing prompts.  If I did cute things, I’d insert smiley face here.

1) the hand touching hand phenomenon.  No, not Neil Diamond’s hands…touching hands… version.**  This concept, also known as “the boy / girl / individual who I am in love with just touched my hand / cheek / other body part and I will never wash this spot again!” OK, it did not sound that gross in my mind, I swear. But seriously.  Who doesn’t remember being in school, maybe standing in line, and you get to stand next to the person you like? And maybe he bumps into you and you’re all ooooh. Or you stole the pencil from the boy you liked, and his notebook when he wasn’t looking, so you could do a 6th grade handwriting analysis to find out if he liked you back…oh, you didn’t do that?

When I saw Archie Bunker’s chair– Archie Bunker sat in THIS CHAIR?  It actually meant very little to me, because i was six years old and did not really know who “archie bunker” was, but I was at the Smithsonian and was surrounded, as usual, by adults, who I emulated, so I responded with appropriate awe and laud.  In the years that followed, I saw more of these situations that meant more to me, moved me more.  Like the first time you see a celebrity in person.  I actually have a knack for missing famous people, like being the one person in my group who doesn’t see [insert famous person here] who JUST PASSED BY in a crowd.  Most recently, I apparently missed a Hulk Hogan sighting in 2009*** in Miami.  Damn.  But I did go to many concerts from high school on, and I basked in the glory that was sharing the same breathing space three feet away from Ani DiFranco or years later, marveling that my naked eyeballs looked right into Trey Anastasio’s eyeballs, that all the distance, time, and social barriers that separate Talent from Fan were removed– for those brief moments.

2) “the moon above me this morning on the way to work is the same moon that was above…” Julius Caesar, Laura Ingalls Wilder, me when I was 15… famous people, not famous people–that thing.  The same moon??!!  The moon from the book YOU WILL GO  TO THE MOON copyright 1959**** and the one that’s in all those old science fiction movies?  Knowing not much about the moon, other than what it’s made of, this always made me feel closer to people. If we’re many miles or decades or even lifetimes apart, but we both looked at the same thing, it sort of connects us, doesn’t it?

3) the “you kiss your mother with that mouth?” phenomenon. I actually looked this phrase up for a couple reasons.  First of all, I wondered how “official” it was.  You know, like it was originally coined in a TV show or maybe an old radio show or something. (No, it’s just an idiom.) The idea being, of course, that the words coming from a person’s mouth are so vulgar, the listener is horrified and can’t possibly believe something so bad could come out of something that’s also been involved in such innocent or good things.  OK this one’s a land mine; moving on.

4) the “while I was gazing into your eyes, you were actually plotting a bank robbery?” / aka 500 Days of Summer effect. I didn’t love that movie but it was important enough for me to reference it here. Two people gazing at the same thing, even, each other, thinking drastically different thoughts.  We all know there’s a world full of people pleasers out there. But sometimes you really think you “got” what was being communicated to you, and boy were you wrong. Always much more entertaining when it happens to someone else!

It all comes down to the contagion heuristic.

which is what? a psychological heuristic (rule people use to make judgements) leading people to avoid contact with people or objects viewed as “contaminated” by previous contact with someone or something viewed as bad—or, less often, to seek contact with objects that have been in contact with people or things considered good. (wikipedia, yes.)

For years I’ve been searching for this term. Turns out if I had not been so REPELLED by psychology 101 and sociology 101 (OK that wasn’t fair I should leave poor sociology out of it. But sociology majors know where they can shove it! Just kidding about that too. Not really.)  which I thought were sort of cute and useless in college, I might have actually learned about this sooner.   Think:  you are young. You brought your lunch to school.  oooh, lunchtime can’t wait for lunch. What’s in the bag?  Peek.  All I smell is banana!  DAMMIT! When the dreaded banana contaminates ALLLLLL the rest of the lunch food in your sack.  How sad.  Memories of eating a soggy PB&J for lunch, the grape jelly having soaked through the bread, parts of the sandwich flat and nearly smooth from riding up against the heavy weight of fruit or LaYogurt on the way to school on the bumpy bus ride.  And all of it–the sandwich, the pretzel twists, the Oreos, even the outside of the juice box–smelling like banana.  Ahhhhhhhh!  It’s like the banana has some sort of resentment over all your other food, and won’t stop until it graffities the shit outta of the place, olfactory-style.

Pause here. crickets?

Sometimes, I speak around a large group of people, or a small group of people. Depends. And sometimes, when I am trying to describe something, I “hit the nail on the head” they say!  My words are powerful, and they hear me, and I get nodding, and “man, she said it!” looks.  Other times, people look at me as though I’ve said: “ni-ki-nunua nyama ya ng’ombe soko-ni, ni-ta-pika leo”***** and I think, damn:  This is like the blog entry that made a lot of sense in my head, that I waited two months to write, and now I may as well be speaking Swahili at the wrong party.

Happens. But boy, is this a weight off my shoulders.  I’m going to invest in one of those plastic “banana suitcases” for my lunch bag. Because sometimes a little separation is a good thing.

For those who love following bread crumb trails:

*I have found there’s actually a name for this: magical thinking.

**Sorry if I just made that song go into your brain.   You might be singing it the rest of the day now.  I’m not even a Neil Diamond fan.  (Shoutout: Hi Beth!) Here are a couple other songs that could distract you from “Sweet Caroline”

You could go all “Mack the Knife”– because Yes, that line forms on the right, babe, Now that Macky’s back in town …

Or you could think Cosby family celebration, 1985, doing Ray Charles’ “Night Time is the Right Time.” Think Rudy: “BABY!”

Or,  you could go with something more modern, say Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” part II remixed by Eric Prydz.  Think: all the words you know, then set to a stronger backbone of a beat. Might be a little upsetting to some of you, but it’ll get rid of whatever’s previously stuck in your head.


****Yep. I said “most recently.” Nope, haven’t gotten out in a while.  Feel free to invite me on a trip. Feel free to also pay for my ticket. I am tremendous fun when traveling. I can provide references.

*****From a Swahili grammar lesson on the conditional: “If I buy cow meat at the market, I will cook it today.”  Right?

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