At work I opened a can of worms. It was a simple mistake and, fortunately, I work in a library where, behind the scenes anyway, most of the work that goes on is relatively academic and abstract. There’s a reason one of the patron saints of librarians is Saint Minutia whose miracle was splitting a hair. The biggest problems libraries face come from outside—specifically stupid people who want everyone else to be stupid too, but that’s another story.
And the mistake I made turned out to be productive because it uncovered some other mistakes made by other people which in turn led to other mistakes, hence the proverbial can of worms.
Why a can of worms, though? Or rather why are we still opening cans of worms? Worms as bait for fishing used to be sold in metal cans, but, being alive, you don’t really want a tight lid on your annelids. By the time I was a kid and went fishing worms were sold in paper cups. Paper is easier to recycle and more biodegradable in addition to being easier to open. It’s also more porous, allowing more air in for the worms. It was also easier to tell which end was up with a paper cup and this made a difference because, while we were fishing, we’d keep the cup upside down. The worms, perhaps sensing the gruesome impaling followed by drowning that was their fate, buried themselves at the bottom of the cup which, since it was inverted, was actually the top.
Paper cups were then replaced by Styrofoam which, environmentally, is worse than either paper or metal, but by then I’d stopped getting my fish with worms and started getting it from the counter at the back of the supermarket instead.
If you’ve ever gone fishing with worms you also know they’re generally slow-moving so opening a can of worms isn’t that much of a problem unless you go off and leave the can for, well, at least a few hours. They’re also not upwardly mobile—as previously noted they’re more dowardly mobile, which makes them a lousy metaphor for anything business-related. The can of worms needs to be retired. After all pretty much anyone who remembers worms in a can has also long since retired and, in many cases, is now, well, food for worms.
To replace the can of worms for a business error, though, I don’t think we need to go any further than their mortal enemies. Someone in your office made a terrible mistake that spread out across several areas? Just say, “Boy, Carl really microwaved the fish this time.”
It’s useful because unless you work in a bait shop it’s really unlikely anyone brings cans of worms to work but in almost every office someone makes the mistake of microwaving fish. The smell goes everywhere, it’s difficult to get rid of it, but, hopefully, the person responsible will never do it ever again.
For a lighter, vegan option—that is, for problems that aren’t so serious, like my minor faux pas, I recommend saying that someone “burned the popcorn”.
Again this involves the microwave—something most offices have in their break rooms or kitchens—and a smell that permeates the entire department, although it’s not as bad.
In fact I remember the time a guy I worked with, for reasons I still can’t understand, put a bag of extra butter popcorn in the microwave for five minutes. That’s enough time to cook a twenty-pound turkey in most microwaves, or start a fusion reaction.
When he finally donned a hazmat suit and pulled the bag from the microwave the popcorn wasn’t just burned. It was smoking like Humphrey Bogart. He threw it in the trash where it burst into flames and we had to douse it with water.
It was a terrible mess but the office smelled wonderful for weeks.
I have to admit, I never thought about the origin of “a can of worms.” But then I’ve never bought worms. As a kid, the pre-fishing ritual was to soak my grandparents’ large garden after dark, then the whole family would go out with flashlights and fill a couple of styrofoam coolers with the nightcrawlers that wriggled to the surface of the wet dirt. Good times.
That sounds like a much better way to get worms than going to a minimart and buying a carton, which is what my family did when we went fishing. I even remember one time at my grandparents’ house after a heavy rainfall their yard and even the street was crawling with nightcrawlers big enough to draw in Jaws. My grandfather often came fishing with us. Why he never thought to soak his own garden to get bait is beyond me.
I hope this isn’t opening up anything stinky, Chris, but here’s an old blog post I wrote 10 years ago:
I think your post smells wonderful.
ANN J KOPLOW recently posted…Day 3703: Only human
I can’t remember when exactly I discovered your blog, Ann, but I’m so glad I did. It makes me feel less alone to know I’m not the only one who’s wondered what would be so bad about opening a can of worms. A tanker of tarantulas, on the other hand, does seem a bit scary, even to a fan of spiders like me.