The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

Just Saying.

According to an old saying fish and houseguests start to stink after three days, although that seems like a pretty fishy saying to me because ideally fish should be cleaned, gutted, and served all in the same day and the same goes for houseguests, and neither should be warmed up in the office microwave. That saying obviously predates modern refrigeration and freezing techniques which mean you can keep fish for a lot longer than three days, especially if it’s the stick variety, and if your houseguests are stinking after three days that’s when you should start dropping really strong hints that they’re welcome to use the shower and they can even use those fancy little soaps that are there for, you know, guests.

That saying has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin who also famously said that a penny saved is a penny earned which is even more ridiculous because the only way you can earn a penny by saving a penny is if you’re getting a one-hundred percent return on your investment, and if you are I’d really like to know where you’re putting your money because I’d like to put in my two cents.

Also while we’re on the subject I’d like to change it entirely and point out that just because you lie down with dogs you won’t get up with fleas and even if you do maybe you’re the one who had the fleas to begin with and now you’ve given them to your dogs. And while most of what goes up will come down sooner or later so far the Voyager spacecraft is zooming along through space with no sign of coming down, and also to get back to the fish there’s another saying that if you give a man a fish he’ll eat for a day, although I think it depends on the size of the fish because if it’s a really big fish then maybe you can feed him for up to three days before it starts to stink. And the saying goes on that if you teach a man to fish you’ll feed him for a lifetime. Maybe that was true at one time but now if you teach a man to fish you’ll just encourage him to need to buy a permit and a rod and reel and if you’ve been to the sporting goods store you know there’s at least fifteen different kinds of fishing line and expensive lures and flies, depending on what kind of fishing we’re talking about. And also that same guy you taught to fish is going to get tired of fish sooner or later and want to use that fishing rod for something else like maybe stabbing small mammals.

All this is just a reminder that everything is relative, especially when your relatives have been staying with you, and that everything you think you know is subject to change. At least that seems to be the case for now. It may be completely different tomorrow.

 

To-Do List.

At home Billy Joel maintains a large garden and does many of the household chores himself. “It’s very relaxing,” he says, “and helps me take my mind off the big things for a while.”

-Philadelphia Post, June 31, 2017

Mow the lawn, pull some weeds, time to plant the spring seeds,

Patch the brickwork, seal the deck, now replace the back door screen,

Cut the bushes, prune the trees, thank goodness for a cool breeze,

Paint the shutters, fill the feeders, trimmer needs more gasoline.

Yell at squirrels, mulch the beds, why are all my roses dead?

Move the rocks, spray for pests, time to take a little rest,

Clean the gutters, feed the soil, now the mower needs some oil,

Spray the rails, step on snails, watch out for that wasp nest!

I didn’t start the dryer!

The clothes are in the washer and they’re full of water.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

Cut the lettuce, pull the beans, squash is looking real keen,

Now it’s time to hoe the row, zucchini is a no-show.

Check the pumpkins and the chard, broccoli is really hard,

Onions, those are beets, when did I plant cilantro?

Cabbages should start to sprout, marigolds keep rabbits out.

Cauliflower’s growing great and I think I saw a snake.

Peppers are up in smoke, I thought this was an artichoke,

Get the sprinkler and the rake, this tomato is a beefsteak!

I didn’t start the dryer!

I did the laundry so it’s ready.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

Hang some pictures, make ‘em straight, and the foyer’s looking great,

Clean the blinds, take down the drapes, throw away those plastic grapes,

Get the polish, move some chairs, put new carpet on the stairs.

Clean the windows and the panes, time to get more duct tape.

Time to clean the fireplace, chaise lounge takes too much space,

Make a list for the store, put the flashlight in the dresser drawer,

Dust the table, feed the fishes, gotta wash those dinner dishes.

Scrub the toilet, mop the floor, I can’t take this anymore!

I didn’t start the dryer!

I did the laundry so it’s ready.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

The laundry needs tending

Because it’s never ending,

I didn’t start the dryer!

I did the laundry so it’s ready.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

Circles And Streets.

Source: Google Maps

The street I grew up on was a cul-de-sac called Tobylynn Circle. Parallel to it was Ashley Court, another cul-de-sac, and houses on both shared backyards separated only by a drainage ditch. When I met Shawn he was on his yard’s side of the ditch and I was on mine and I don’t know which one of us hopped over first but we were immediate friends. We were both eight and lived in adjacent homes so it would be stupid to not be friends although I don’t think either of us thought about it that way. He invited me to his house and I met both his parents. Shawn and his family had just moved to the neighborhood. They seemed nice, but I felt a little uncomfortable with the way his mother asked, “Do your parents know you’re here?” I’d been to other kids’ houses and no one’s mother had ever asked me that before. I felt uncomfortable, though, because I said “Yes” even though Shawn and I had just met ten minutes earlier and I hadn’t thought to tell my parents where I was. Years later I’d realize there might have been a subtext to her question that was “Do your parents know we’re black?” I knew Shawn and his parents were black but I don’t remember giving it much thought beyond that. As a white kid in the suburbs it was easy to be naïve, to think racism was an old problem that no longer existed, or that, like smallpox, it was confined to small, enclosed places. I’d been brought up on Sesame Street so I was used to puppets and people of all colors living in harmony. And before Shawn there were no people of color that I knew in the neighborhood which caused me to develop some weird ideas. Once I asked my mother if I could have hair like Shawn’s because I’d seen his father using a hair dryer–the first time I’d ever seen anyone use a hair dryer–and I thought, “So that’s how he gets his hair all curly.”

I gave Shawn’s skin color, and my own, a lot more thought when he met my friend Troy who lived at the bottom of the hill, on Tobylynn Drive. As soon as Troy saw Shawn he froze then stepped back, then turned to me and said he had to go. I knew what racism was but until then it had been an abstraction. It was something I’d never, or at least thought I’d never, encountered. Shawn and I didn’t talk about it, and later when Troy told me I had to choose between playing with him and playing with Shawn I just quietly accepted it and spent a lot of time after that with Shawn because he was fun and we had some things in common, like a love of the Japanese monster movies that were on every Saturday, and he didn’t try to boss me around. When Shawn wasn’t around I still played with Troy and would keep my dislike of having to keep my friends separated at the back of my mind.

Somehow it never really became a problem, probably because Shawn and his family moved away a few months later. They arrived some time before Easter and were gone before school started. While I missed him he eventually became yet another in a string of short-term friends who moved into the neighborhood and then moved away. Troy and I would be friends for years but, looking back, I think we were only friends because we were close in age, and without a lot of other kids in the neighborhood it would be stupid to not be friends. As we got older, though, we would drift apart. What friendship we had would simply fade away and would not be missed.

As for Shawn, well, it’s awkward for me to talk about this because I’m so white I’d be mistaken for a marble statue if I didn’t wear clothes, and white guys have dominated conversations for so long that I’m reluctant to add my voice to the din. I wish I still knew Shawn so that I could talk to him about this experience, if he even remembers it. It’s likely it wasn’t his first experience with racism and even more likely it wasn’t his last and there have probably been those who make Troy look restrained. At the same time I don’t want to reduce Shawn to a stereotype or stand-in. It wouldn’t be his, or anyone else’s, responsibility to tell me about white privilege and how I’ve benefited from it without realizing it, without being aware it exists even though it has shaped who I am. He was–let me rephrase that. Even though I don’t know if he’s still alive I hope he is so he deserves the present tense. He is a person, and while his skin color may be part of who he is, while it may or may not be part of how he sees himself, he’s an individual. He doesn’t speak for all people of color any more than he speaks for all guys named Shawn.

That may seem obvious but it took me a long time to realize it. Even after that early experience with Troy and Shawn I still clung to the racism-as-smallpox view. If you had asked me, although no one did and I didn’t ever bring it up, I would have said that since we were the same age and lived in the same neighborhood there wasn’t that much difference in our experiences. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that there are differences in our backgrounds and family histories that shape how we see the world. There was a portrait of a relative of mine who fought for the Confederate side in the U.S. Civil War that hung in my grandparents’ house. He wasn’t a slave owner but defended the right of others to keep slaves. For a long time I didn’t think about it, although now I think of it as a part of my heritage I’m not proud of. I don’t know how Shawn would think about it but his perspective might be very different.

It’s been a long time since Shawn and I knew each other and the conclusions I’ve come to here have been the result of talking and, more importantly, listening to other people. I don’t know if my views would be any different if I hadn’t known Shawn, but I still think of them as having started with him, having started with us being friends.

 

A La Mode.

When I was a kid there were certain things about adults that I assumed I’d understand once I became one, like why they’d rather watch the evening news than Sesame Street, although this is one of those things I still don’t understand. Mostly, though, it was expressions adults used, like when they were going on a trip and they’d say they were “going out of town”. We lived in the suburbs which I already thought was outside of town, wherever town was—I’d been to downtown but never, as far as I knew, uptown, and what they really meant was that they were taking a vacation and going to another town and I just realized I was doing terrible observational comedy when I was five, albeit only in my head, but that’s another story.

One of those expressions I never hear anymore, one I even stopped hearing long before I came an adult, and that I kind of miss is “like it was goin’ out of style”. This always described someone doing something really aggressively. “I was so hungry I sat down and ate peanut butter and crackers like it was goin’ out of style,” I remember an adult saying, or “Vernon was raking up those leaves in his yard like it was goin’ out of style.” Based on our yard in late fall I think most people would guess that raking leaves really has gone out of style, and if eating peanut butter and crackers has gone out of style, well, I guess I’ll just be a fat fashion faux pas. It was a weird and kind of funny expression that even now doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why would someone start really plowing into something because it was going out of style? Did going out of style mean it was in danger of going away? And if so why not just let it go? I guess it all depended on why it was going out of style in the first place. Some things—bellbottoms, teased hair, and shoulder pads—went out of style because they were really bad ideas, and good riddance, although I realize sounding so makes me sound like a cranky old guy standing on my porch telling you damn kids to get off my leaves. And if I complain that we’ve lost some genuinely good things because we put too much stock in what supposed stylemakers tell us I’m going to sound like an even crankier old guy and you’d be justified in wondering what kind of leaves I’ve been smoking. While the society I live in still has a long way to go toward true egalitarianism there does seem to be a looser approach to style and a greater tolerance of individuality than there once was. Tattoos and hair dyed all the colors of the rainbow used to mark a person as an outsider, but now, well, it’s not just the Isley Brothers who say it’s your thing, do what you wanna do.

Maybe that’s why the expression “goin’ out of style” is no longer fashionable and why I don’t hear it anymore. I’d still like to bring it back, and I plan to start using it myself. I’m going to use it every chance I get. You might even say I’ll be using it like, well, like someone who says it a lot.

He Also Had A Hammer.

From: Kevin DuBrow, CEO, DuBrow Grains

To: All Staff

Subject: Company Morale.

Hello Everyone,

Word has gotten back to me that most of you are unhappy with my decision to fire James Alger, better known to everyone in the company as Jimmy. Well let me be perfectly clear about something: I liked Jimmy too. He’d been with us a very long time and from what I heard was always a good employee. Stories about his practical jokes got back to me. I’m glad he played a part in cheering people up even though I had to speak to him about not doing it on company time. There’s nothing wrong with a little fun. I know that better than anyone. I’m the one who hung up that poster of the cat hanging from the tree in the breakroom, the one that I then had to take down after someone wrote a bad word on it. But let’s make sure we focus on work when we’re working, people.

That brings me to my main point: the reason I fired Jimmy. His actions were bad enough but what really disturbs me is how the rest of you also acted. As you know we had a two and a half ton shipment of corn that Jimmy, for some reason, decided to run through the auxiliary mill. Now first of all every one of you knows the auxiliary mill is exclusively for wheat and millet, not corn. We have never used the auxiliary mill for corn and Jimmy’s decision resulted in extensive and costly cleanup. The corn was supposed to be delivered to the customer whole, since it was popcorn, and I’ve had to try and find a new buyer. If I can the corn will still be sold for a lower price. That will be reflected in everyone’s paychecks for the next quarter.

I’m really sorry about that but Jimmy used the mill when I wasn’t here, and I feel like everyone bears some responsibility. Nobody acted to stop Jimmy or tell him not to move that shipment of corn. No one stopped him from operating the mill by himself. Do I have to spell this out? Jimmy cracked corn and no one cared because I was away.

Everyone, we need to pull together for the success of this company. Please remember what my grandfather, who founded this company, used to say: There is no I in cooperation. We used to have a banner that said that in the breakroom, although I had to take it down when someone wrote a bad word on it. Maybe I should get another one made but banners are expensive. That’s why we only have one every year on my birthday.

I hope you will all reflect on this and I hope I can trust you. Don’t forget that my door is always open when I’m not in a call or really busy and I am always here if you need help or want to talk. Except next week when I’ll be at a conference in Duluth.

Thank you, and let’s all pull together to do a better job.

Kevin DuBrow, CEO, DuBrow Grains

P.S. Casual Fridays are cancelled until further notice.

The Feast Of Stephen.

My cousin Stephen had a bee in his ear.

That’s not a figure of speech, like when someone says they want to put a bug in your ear about something, an expression that always bugs me, or when someone is said to have a bee in their bonnet, an expression that’s even worse because having any kind of stinging insect trapped inside headgear sounds like a nightmare. Anyway my cousin had a literal bee in his ear, crawling around like it was looking for a lost contact lens. It didn’t sting him because as we’ve all been told since we were small a bee won’t sting you unless you annoy it, and my cousin was letting the bee go about its business. In fact he seemed completely oblivious to the bee in his ear while I was completely freaked out by it.

We were picking blueberries in a field near my uncle’s summer cabin which was perched on the edge of a lake in northern Maine, an area known for long, brutal winters and short, intense summers with long days which causes the local insect population to work overtime to grow, feed, and reproduce. It was there that I learned that the name “horse fly” is a bit of a misnomer—they’re really closer in size to a small pony, but still big enough that we’d have to run for cover when the shadow of one passed over. It was a fun place to stay and I enjoyed picking blueberries with my cousin Stephen, although I think I would have enjoyed it more if he weren’t feeding every bloodsucking insect within a five-mile radius. The bee in his ear, which he eventually prodded out with his finger, was merely passing through, or at least I think it was since I’m pretty sure there was no pollen or nectar in my cousin’s ear and bees don’t build their hives out of earwax, or if they do they get it out of their own ears. He was also surrounded by swarms of gnats and mosquitoes so he always appeared slightly out of focus and it’s a wonder he wasn’t anemic by the end of the week. The insect attention never seemed to bother him, although later that week we would have lobster which is basically a giant aquatic bug so maybe while he was tearing into a crustacean’s carapace he got some kind of revenge.

The real mystery is why the bugs were so drawn to him when they more or less ignored me and other family members. A whole group of us trooped out each morning to pick blueberries and while a few mosquitoes and gnats would go after one of us the vast majority would zero in on my cousin Stephen like he was The Pied Piper of Anopheles.

This is something I’ve noticed in other people too. My wife isn’t nearly the mosquito magnet my cousin was but if we’re outside she’ll draw the attention of ten mosquitoes for every one that lands on me. And I don’t want to complain, but still, hey mosquitoes, what am I? Chopped liver? Maybe I am since every mosquito I’ve ever met has called pate overrated, but that’s another story.

Why insects are drawn to some people and not others is a subject of serious scientific inquiry somewhere, or at least it should be. I know that in laboratories where mosquitoes are studied there’s usually a lucky grad student who gets the job of offering up an arm to feed the subjects and surely scientists have noticed that some are preferable to others. When I was a kid I was told that eating sugar makes you attractive to mosquitoes and swallowing a spoonful of vinegar will drive them away which I would think was a ploy to keep the dental bills down if vinegar weren’t at least as hard on the incisors as a popsicle.

For now, though, it remains a mystery, one that may not be fully solved until sixty-five million years in the future when humans have become a shadowy mystery, a subject of intense study and debate for the insects who dominate the planet and perform a reckless experiment, extracting DNA from an ancient ancestor trapped in amber, so they can revive the hominids who once ruled from pole to pole. I expect the clone of my cousin Stephen to be a major attraction at Cenozoic Park.

Lost And Fined.

Thank you for replying to my question with “That’s fine”. I just wanted to know where the bathroom was, but you reassured me that it wasn’t a question that violated some obscure rule of etiquette that I’m unfamiliar with. And while I’m at it let me also thank you, a completely different person who told me “That’s fine”, when I brought you your package. I didn’t think it was fine that the delivery guy left it at my office, three floors below yours, but rather than wait at least twenty-four hours to give it back to him I thought it would be easier to bring it up to your office. Maybe that’s what you meant was fine: that a stranger went out of their way to make sure your overnight package got to you on time. And also, thank you pharmacist, for assuring me “That’s fine” when I told you I wanted to pick up my prescription. I didn’t realize it might be a problem—I kind of thought it was part of your job description to fill prescriptions and dispense them–until you said that, but I’m glad it wasn’t. I’m glad it was just fine.

When did “That’s fine” replace “Okay” as a way of saying, “I am responding affirmitavely to acknowledge my understanding of what you have just said”? For that matter when did it replace “Thank you”? Or maybe I’m the only one who’s noticed this. Maybe it only happens to me. I do occasionally get a little flustered in social interactions with complete strangers and sometimes that causes me to babble out lengthy explanations of what’s usually obvious with the result that I sometimes include completely superfluous information.

“Hi, this is your package, the delivery guy left it downstairs by mistake and, uh, rather than wait and give it back to him so he could deliver it tomorrow I thought I’d come up here and drop it off with you because it’s just a short elevator ride and I needed a quick break from the spreadsheets I’ve been looking at all day and I remembered what a cool view you have from the plate glass windows up here. My cubicle doesn’t have any windows and sometimes I wish it did. I have to get up and walk to the other side of the office to see any windows and it’s amazing how the view has changed over the years and I remember when we could open the windows. They won’t let us do that anymore because they say it throws off the air conditioning, but sometimes there’s nothing like a little fresh air when you’ve been looking at spreadsheets all day, even though my office is right over the parking garage where some people go to smoke. There aren’t as many smokers as there used to be, though. It’s amazing how that’s changed, isn’t it?”

Granted most of this stays in my head but maybe people sense that I’m anxious when I’m dropping off a package or picking up a prescription although I’m not sure I want to know if, or at least how, people are sensing that I’m in need of a bathroom even before I ask. Maybe “That’s fine” is just a way of shutting me up before I start babbling away like a chipmunk on meth.

And maybe I’m getting cranky in my middle age, although I’m pretty sure I never thought “That’s fine” would be an acceptable substitute for “Thank you” at any age, but I have a problem with using “That’s fine” to replace “Okay”. Sure, it’s the same number of syllables, but it’s twice as many words, five more letters, and an apostrophe. If it weren’t a strictly spoken reply it would be typographical overkill.

“That’s fine” is a phrase used to reassure someone that something really is fine.

“Hey, I’m sorry I ate the last of the leftover pizza and then panicked and burned down the house to hide what I’d done.”

“That’s fine. I was planning to move anyway. Wait, what do you mean the pizza’s gone?”

Replying with “That’s fine” to an innocuous statement or question also seems condescending, a way of dismissing the other person’s statement or question, of haughtily telling them, “I’m in charge of deciding what’s acceptable around here.”

Although if you ask me there’s nothing wrong with being condescending or dismissive or even haughty. In fact if you do ask me I’ll just say that’s fine.

Gumming Up The Works.

So I was in the elevator pretending I was alone when the guy next to me offered me a rectangle of gum. Technically he offered me a “stick of gum”, but I think the flat rectangle that gum usually comes in stretches the definition of “stick”. I took it even though I don’t like gum because I felt guilty about having spent several seconds of the elevator ride pretending he didn’t exist. And I was pleasantly surprised to see it was an old-fashioned brand of gum, one of the ones I remember from childhood, and not one of the more recent, modern brands of gum that come in black packages and have commercials that associate gum-chewing with free-falling in interiors designed by H.R. Giger and other surreally dangerous activities. It’s strange to me to see so much gum and even candy advertising aimed at adults, treating it as something risky when everybody knows the most dangerous thing you can do with gum is fall asleep with it in your mouth causing it to become animate and crawl into your hair, second only to swallowing it because it will stay in your stomach for seven years unless removed by Donald Pleasance and Raquel Welch.

Anyway I swallowed the gum after it had lost its flavor which, with any gum, takes about thirty seconds. That’s also what I always did as a kid because I never had the foresight to save the wrapper so I could dispose of it cleanly. And it brought back a lot of memories. I’ve never liked gum but when I was a kid I always took it anyway whenever it was offered, mostly because I was polite and didn’t think I should say no to grownups, and even though I’d been warned never to take candy from strangers I wasn’t being offered candy. I was being offered gum which technically isn’t even really food. At best it’s an artist’s medium like paint or clay or dirty laundry—in other words things that you should never put in your mouth. That’s how I treated gum when I was a kid, anyway. When I didn’t swallow it, mainly because I found someone else’s gum on the ground of course I picked it up because it could be molded, stretched, and shaped. There’s a now infamous bit of family lore about the time I stretched strands and strands of gum across the back of my mother’s car because I imagined I was building spider webs and she was too busy driving to notice what I was doing.

Maybe I only remember that because the story’s been repeated so many times but I also remember that whole day building gum webs on trees and bushes and under the neighbor’s deck and in an art gallery where one sold for five figures. How I managed to find so much gum on the ground is still a mystery and maybe it’s all been exaggerated in my memory because when I was a kid time seemed to stretch out so much longer. An hour could last as much as three days. There are probably genuine psychological reasons for this. When we’re young every experience is not only new but we have so little in the way of other experiences we can relate it to so it’s a lot to take in. That flood of information can be overwhelming and make it seem like time is moving more slowly, especially to a developing brain. And I find I miss that feeling. Is there any way of getting it back, and does it require interiors designed by H.R. Giger?

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