What Cartoonist Roz Chast Hates, 'From A To Z' New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast says she is sure of two things: that she's an anxious person, and that she knows her alphabet by heart. In her new book, What I Hate: From A to Z, Chast puts her dislikes and fears in alphabetical order, with a full-page cartoon for each of her 26 anxieties.
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What Cartoonist Roz Chast Hates, 'From A To Z'

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What Cartoonist Roz Chast Hates, 'From A To Z'

What Cartoonist Roz Chast Hates, 'From A To Z'

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NEAL CONAN, host: New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast remains certain of two things: She is an anxious person and she knows the alphabet by heart. So in her new book, Chast catalogs her dislikes and fears in alphabetical order, with a full-page cartoon to illustrate each anxiety. Some are commonly shared - H is for heights and E is for elevators - while others are a bit more unusual: A is for alien abduction, and Y is for yellow.

We all have pesky things that make us cringe. What's your irrational fear? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our website too. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Roz Chast joins us from member station WBUR in Boston, her new book "What I Hate: From A to Z." Nice to have you with us today.

ROZ CHAST: Nice to be here.

CONAN: Carnivals and doctors I can understand, even balloons. What do you have against the color yellow?

CHAST: I think it's a kind of - it's - well, it's certain shades of yellow. Pale yellow doesn't bother me that much. But there's a certain sort of shrill yellow that I think some people think is very cheerful, but it's actually a kind of shrill and horrible color. It's also just kind of like - I think of yellow jaundice. I think of yellow teeth. It's a kind of - not my favorite color.

CONAN: I gather that. There's a terrible picture of a yellow jacket there among the things that you associate with yellow in your book.

CHAST: Yeah. It's just - it's one of those things that just has a lot of very unpleasant sort of creepy - I mean, I wish that, actually, the three primary colors were red, blue and green, you know?

CONAN: Not yellow.

CHAST: Not yellow, no.

CONAN: Yeah. The last one is - raises the existential anxiety that afflicts us all: yellow dwarf, which is what our sun is, which means it's dying.

CHAST: Yes. Yes. That is what we learned in school, and that's true. We're all sort of on our way to, you know, the end.

CONAN: (Unintelligible)


CHAST: Yes. Oh well.

CONAN: Oh well. A couple of billion years, and that's going to be it.

CHAST: Yeah, yeah, unless you believe, you know, the Mayan prophecy or something.

CONAN: In which case we better start partying now.

CHAST: That's right. I thought you were going to say packing.


CONAN: I'm not sure that's going to be an option.

CHAST: Yeah.

CONAN: Unless the Virgin Galactic gets off the ground a little sooner...

CHAST: Yeah.

CONAN: ...than we thought. The anxieties, why did you decide to catalog your anxieties?

CHAST: It's actually sort of almost an accident. I sometimes suffer from insomnia. And when I can't fall asleep, I play what I call the alphabet game. My other friends have - do similar things. I have one who calls it categories. And you sort of think - you think of a category that you know, a number of things, you know, in, like – (unintelligible) common. And then you list one for every letter of the alphabet.


CHAST: And, you know, I had done countries and I done Beatle songs and prescription drugs, diseases, you know, appendicitis, bursitis, you know, common colds, diphtheria, elephantiasis, flu, gout, you know, whatever. And I thought, well, what about phobias? And I started out with phobias, but then I realized that this was not really strictly phobias. They were things that kind of - phobias were included under this umbrella, you know? But it was really just sort of loathsome things.

CONAN: There's a category. You get to S. So many disturbing things begin with S: snakes, spiders, sinkholes, sharks. The thing about - then you take upon your subject - SHC, spontaneous human combustion, is that even if you're in an anxious mood and don't want to leave the house, you still aren't safe.

CHAST: Yes, exactly. You know, you kind of, like, get cozy in your, like, most comforting chair, and, you know, you can still just, for no reason at all, just spontaneously combust.

CONAN: But two feet away, you note, a pile of newspapers is not even singed. Nice callout to Spider-Man there.

CHAST: Yeah. Well, have you ever - did you read, when you were a kid, any of those really creepy books about things like this?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yes, I did. Also the newspapers that published these stories.

CHAST: Yes. Yes. It was - you know, Joe Smith in his cottage in, you know, a four-foot circle in which everything was incinerated within that pile of newspapers, you know?

CONAN: The Daily Bugle as it happens, yes. And the - it was also the films like "Mondo Cane." I don't know if you remember that one.

CHAST: I remember hearing about it. It was pretty gruesome, wasn't it?

CONAN: It was very gruesome, yeah.

CHAST: I didn't see it, though.

CONAN: Yeah. They did all sorts of terrible things. (Unintelligible) you got another book coming.

CHAST: Excuse me?

CONAN: You got another book coming after you see that movie.

CHAST: Yeah.


CONAN: You'll be able - a new alphabet worth of stuff.

CHAST: Right.


CONAN: Here's an email we have from Jan in Rochester: My most irrational fear; I have lots of garden-variety fears: flying birds, germs, alien abductions, et cetera, but I am terrified of turtleneck shirts and sweaters. I fear my head will get stuck, my shoulders will freeze up in an attempt to get unstuck and I will suffocate. My death certificate will read death by turtleneck.


CHAST: I'm sorry for laughing at her fear. I mean, I laugh at some of my own ones but I understand it, you know?

CONAN: It's...

CHAST: I do.


CONAN: Let's see if we could go next so Sean(ph), Sean's calling us from Thousand Oaks in California. Sean, are you there?

SEAN: Hello. Yeah. Yeah. My irrational fear is fear of stickers, just any type of sticker sticking to me. I actually was working one time and one of my coworkers stuck a sticker on me. I almost turned around and punched her.

CONAN: A sticker, things that says, like, I voted, for example?

SEAN: Yeah. Whenever I vote, I stay away from the I voted stickers.

CHAST: This isn't like one of those, you know, that sort of permanent glue sort of phobias because I sort of don't like that either. You know, but these are just stickers.

CONAN: Just stickers.

SEAN: Well, glues don't bother me, but...

CHAST: Yeah. Just stickers. That's interesting. That's interesting.

CONAN: You mentioned glue. Thank you very much, Sean. And good luck next election day. The glue, those permanent glues, the crazy glue that sort of thing, those are a little scary.

CHAST: Yeah. They are scary. They are scary. And, you know, just the idea that, you know, you could just kind of - I guess it's like a lockjaw thing. It's just, you know, well, that would be the end of that. You just, sort of, like, get your fingers stuck together and, you know, you might as well attach, like, some sort of, like, mechanical hands to the ends of your hands.

CONAN: Edward Scissorshands. Emmy(ph) is on the line. Emmy, with us from, Reno.

EMMY: Hello there.

CONAN: Hi, Emmy.

EMMY: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

EMMY: My phobia is kind of odd. I don't like it. I get very distracted and kind of focus on this thing when people stand in front of me and click scissors in their hands or - I work in a place where people use a lot of tools. So maybe we'll have a pair of pliers or a pair of cutters. And they'll just talk to me or be walking by with these things in their hands and they'll be clicking them, for no reason, just kind of as a nervous habit. And it's pretty common, and it just creeps me out, makes me feel very kind of locked up. And a couple of times, I've actually told my coworkers, I said, you know, could you stop doing that?


CONAN: How did they respond?

EMMY: They take them and stick them in their pocket or something. They - they're pretty good about it. But I have a friend that has had a couple of times, you know, she's remembered my phobia, you know, my pliers phobia or my scissors phobia. And they sometimes make fun of me, but it draws me to distraction. I mean, I can't think and talk to them if they're clicking scissors of pliers or something, and I'm not sure why. Probably something I read or I don't know. So it's a freaky thing.


CHAST: No. I totally understand. I mean, my husband knows that I hate it when he flicks the light on and off, like, very quickly. And sometimes he'll sort of sneak up behind me. He used to do this more until finally I just told him, like, I'm serious, don't do that, you know? Because I think he thought it was funny, you know, to kind of like watch me jump out of my skin. But, you know, to sort of like flick the lights very quickly makes me act like - if in this room right now the lights suddenly went on and off, I would just be on the floor, be like hiding under the desk.

CONAN: Hmm. Emmy...

CHAST: So don't do it.

EMMY: Yes.

CONAN: All I could recommend is to tell them you could put your eye out with that.


EMMY: Try that.

CHAST: That's true.

EMMY: I have said some funny things like that. And most people are really nice about it, and they realize they're just doing something kind of creepy and they stop.

CONAN: All right.

EMMY: Anyway, thank you.

CONAN: Goodbye. Here's an email from Rebecca in Oklahoma City: My most irrational fear is texture, anything from the little bumps on a basketball to texturized walls. The sight and touch make my skin crawl.

CHAST: Oh, that's interesting.

CONAN: I could see - yeah, that's a nice visual there, too.

CHAST: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, I understand like textures of foods, certain food textures, like, are really very bizarre.

CONAN: Yeah. You don't get into dietary phobias here.


CONAN: Well, except for the Jell-O thing.

CHAST: Yeah. I don't like anything that look gelatinous; really weirds me out. But when I was a kid, I used to get very, very upset if anything had, like, a kind of chalky texture, like, certain kinds of cottage cheese I know have like a weird chalkiness. But I don't know. I mean, I hate them, but it doesn't like freak me out as much as like things that are gelatinous.

CONAN: There's an email from Chris in Kansas City: I hate multilevel parking garages. They're dark, confusing and claustrophobic. I avoid them at all costs.

CHAST: Yeah. I hate them too. They're bad. They are bad.

CONAN: Let's go next to John. John with us from Bountiful in Utah.

JOHN: I have a rather unusual fear. I am a math major and I'm afraid of a particular type of function. It's a function called the Dirac delta function.

CHAST: Oh, tell me.

JOHN: Modeling quantum mechanics, the electron positions and other things like that. But it's very unusual because it's infinitely thin but infinitely tall. So it'd be a needle that would pass right through you, wreak all sorts of havoc. They could be everywhere, and you'd never be able to see them.

CHAST: That's really interesting. What's it called again?

JOHN: It's called the Dirac delta function. It's named for the gentleman who came up with the idea.



CHAST: Oh, I'll look that up.

CONAN: OK. Dirac, probably Serbian, or something like that. But anyway, John, thanks very much. That's really creepy.

CHAST: Yeah.

CONAN: We're talking with Roz Chast about her new book, "What I Hate: From A to Z." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we got a couple of tweets. Farrell Carlson(ph) tweets: overpasses. I used to live in California and strove not to get stuck on or under one. It remains with me here in Iowa. I think that's a little related to the parking garage.

CHAST: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I don't like bridges. I don't actually - cloverleaf highways, highways in general, I don't like. I mean, I didn't want, like, I could probably do an A to Z of specifically driving-related phobias.

CONAN: I don't think that it's a mistake or coincidence then that the most complicated cartoon in the book is getting lost.

CHAST: Yes. Yeah. Well, getting lost, before my GPS, that was a serious, serious fear of mine. I think when some people - when their learning how to drive deliberately get themselves lost because they think it's going to be fun to sort of find - I have heard this, which just amazes me. You know, they think it's going to be fun to sort of figure out a way to get themselves back home. But for me, before my GPS, if I got lost, I would think I will never get home, and I will have to live in this area where I now am. I'll have to find some sort of, like, efficiency apartment and, you know, call people I know from this area and say, well, I don't think I'll ever get home.

CONAN: Apparently living on the corner - if you look at your cartoon, on the corner of Qualms Road and Panic Lane.

CHAST: Yeah. Well, getting lost does, sort of - as a friend of mine who has this phobia, she said she would just want to pull off to the side of the road and just decompensate.

CONAN: We have a few more tweets I'd like to get to. This is from Ant Woman. But there's a phobia all of the tongue. I have an irrational fear of rotating doors; that my arms, feet, clothes will get caught. I don't think that's that unusual. This is from Annie: burning my tongue on hot coffee or food. And Ginn Peck(ph) tweets: escalators. They eat people. They're moving stairways of terror. I don't think it's irrational at all, actually.


CHAST: Yeah. Well, that's the thing about most phobias, that there is this tiny corner of reality to them. I mean, I'm not afraid that this phone on this desk here is going to suddenly, like, fly off the desk and hit me in the head, you know? That will not happen. But I can understand why with an escalator. There's a tiny fear that you will just get sucked into that escalator - the same way that if you're in a bathtub on the second floor of your house and you know your house is, you know, 65 years old and, you know, that's a kind of old house, that bathtub could possibly just go crashing its way through the floor, you know, into the floor below. It's not like I'm saying the bathtub is going to suddenly levitate and fly out the window, you know?

So it has to be - there's something about most phobias where there's a tiny, tiny corner where you think this really actually could happen.

CONAN: Let's go next to Sophia. Sophia with us from Charlotte.

SOPHIA: Yes. Hi. I'm scared of total darkness. Like if it's really dark and I hear any noise, it freaks me, and I imagine, like, cockroaches crawling all over me and - just total darkness freaks me out.

CONAN: Even in the movie theater?

SOPHIA: In the movie theater, yeah. I hate it when people munch the popcorn or, you know, candy, trying to open paper. It freaks me out too. But it's just the darkness that I don't know where I'm going, and I imagine all sorts of things crawling on me.


SOPHIA: So I have night lights everywhere.

CHAST: Yes. Yes. That's good idea.

SOPHIA: And lots of (unintelligible).

CONAN: Remind me - send me your movie schedule so I can avoid it.


CONAN: OK. Thank you, Sophia. Your fear of the dark was when they start dimming the lights in the theater, you're going blind.

CHAST: Yes. Yes. Yes. I always think that that's, you know, I'm not sure if everybody else is seeing that or if it's just me.

CONAN: Let's go next to Darren. Darren with us from Roanoke. It's just you. Darren, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

DARREN: Hey, greetings. My irrational fear is appendicitis, you could have started your book with that one.

CHAST: Oh, yeah.

DARREN: Aneurism. I told them - and the fellow on the screen when I called in, I must have seen that when I was as a kid where someone on television had appendicitis, and I thought, well, that is just not for me.

CONAN: Oh, yeah, because those televisions diseases, you mentioned, I think it was rabies is one of yours, Roz, and "Old Yeller," come on.

CHAST: Well, I think, as I said in the rabies thing that I think that children's books should be censored not for references to sex but for references to diseases. I mean, who didn't think after reading "Madeline" that they were going to get appendicitis? Or rabies, you know, reading "To Kill A Mockingbird" with a rabid dog or, you know, "Death Be Not Proud." It's like, you know, every headache is a brain tumor.

CONAN: Yeah. It should've been invitation to a brain tumor.

DARREN: Oh, yeah. Some movies I watched as a child where there was a relatively young character who had an aneurism. Her face just kind of locked, and she looked off into nothing. And I asked my mom, I said, what's going on? And she said she had an aneurism. So for about year, I was pretty afraid that every pain in my head was an aneurism.

CHAST: Oh, of course.


CHAST: And those things never really go away. I mean, they just really do stay there.

CONAN: Darren, thanks very much for the call. We hope you're anxieties are put to rest. Roz Chast, thank you so much and for illustrating your anxieties in this wonderful book.

CHAST: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: The new book is called "What I Hate: From A to Z." Roz Chast joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. You can find a couple of examples at npr.org.

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