My youngest, 7-year-old Ezra, is afraid of volcanoes. I don't know what image nested in his brain and hatched as fear, but for as long as I can remember, every time we visited a new place, he asked the following question:
"Are there volcanoes there?"
I've had to explain that there are no volcanoes in Philadelphia, the Poconos, the Jersey shore, Lego Land, Florida, Vermont, North Carolina or London.
So it came as a surprise that he wanted to visit the Pompeii exhibit at The Franklin Institute. Every time we drove by on the way to school, he asked when we would go.
Now, there are certain places in this city I sort of OD'ed on when the boys were younger. The Franklin Institute is one of them. I wasn't exactly racing to return, but then along came spring break. With no vacation, no plans and no schedule, we headed to Pompeii.
Ezra was trepidatious the entire walk up the ramp to the exhibit. He felt funny. He didn't think he wanted to go in. What was that noise? He wanted to turn around. I reassured him, reminding him of another time he was panicky and overcame it ('tis a theme), and we walked inside.
The beginning of the exhibit doesn't offer many frights, unless you are scared of statues, frescoes or artifacts. However, at the halfway point there is a video presentation that takes you through the volcanic explosion hour by hour.
Once in that room, Ezra paced nervously, trying to decide where to stand. He chose a spot behind me, poking his head out from behind my back. The lights darkened and the video began. The room thundered with explosions and sounds of falling debris; the screen lit up with fire and lava; and smoke poured onto the floor as the images of fumes and ash consumed Pompeii.
In the moment, I questioned my judgment. If anything was going to make Ezra's anxiety worse, it was that video. But he didn’t take his eyes off the screen. He didn’t beg to leave. He even bent down to touch the smoke.
When it was over, we were let out to the end of the exhibit: casts of the people buried in ash who died instantly from volcanic heat. Ezra studied their forms, some not much bigger than him, then trotted proudly into the gift shop and begged for a $20 Mt. Vesuvius snow globe.
We spent another two hours in the museum overcoming more anxiety. Maxon boldly rode the sky bike, facing his fear of heights, and Ezra didn't run screaming out of the IMAX theater despite his fears of getting dizzy or throwing up. He sat next to me, his heart beating like a hummingbird's, as the screen filled with snow-capped mountains and massive wooly mammoths.
Anxiety isn't exclusively a Jewish trait, but the narrative of the neurotic Jew is popular enough. I can't stop our boys from having anxiety, but I can do my damnedest to keep anxiety from stopping them.
In my mind, the Franklin Institute is a pretty innocuous place. But in smaller minds, it's possible to be consumed by fiery lava during a video, topple to your death off the sky bike and have vomiting convulsions inside the IMAX theater. So when my boys piled into the car and joyfully exclaimed, "I faced my fears!" I knew they really had.