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‘Fer Cryin’ Out Loud’ Category

  1. I Mean You No Harm

    May 21, 2017 by Diane

    I sat alone on a bench in the park having lunch on one of those days when the sky beams blue, nibbling on a chocolate chip cookie, when I heard this:

    “I mean you no harm. I just want to eat my lunch.”

    And a young black man in a green parka sat on the bench next to me.

    A green parka.

    On a hot day.

    I mean you no harm.

    My brain, the lizard part, sort of bolted upright. The lizard part is the deep, dark center of all that gray matter in your head, and when it bolts upright, it sends chemicals zinging through the body. Adrenaline. Cortisol. The stuff that gets the heart pumped and the feet doing a getaway jig beneath the body. It’s the part of the brain that makes you venture out of the cave at dawn and hunt for food in Safeway.

    The lizard brain quickly scoped out the situation.

    I mean you no harm.

    This is something someone will say if harm is exactly what they intend to do. Like the dentist who says, This won’t hurt a bit, and then pulls your lip back and jams a needle into the soft part of your gum.

    I mean you no harm.

    Years ago, in another park, on another bench, on another lunch hour, another black man sat next to me. “Some people stole my stuff. I’m gonna blow them away with an Uzi,” he said, and I believed him. His face was full of angry scars. The nearby businessmen in their suits got up and walked away. The women with their carriages put away their snacks and hurried off. Even the policemen who patrolled the park on horseback had disappeared. I was left alone with an angry black man, and my empty Calistoga bottle. I curled my fingers around it to use as a club.

    Across from that park sat a historic courthouse. The story goes, on a November night in 1933, a crowd of over 6,000 enraged people stormed the courthouse, dragged out two men who had murdered the son of a department store owner, and lynched them. The tree still stood. I was sitting underneath it. That park radiated bad vibes.

    Had my lizard brain been awake at the time, I would have followed the mass migration out. Instead, I tried to talk the angry man out of his plan.

    “You’d be as bad as them,” I said. “Worse. Have you filed a report? Contacted the police?”

    “They won’t do nuthin.”

    We discussed the situation. Something I said reached him. Maybe it was just the fact someone took the time to listen. Park benches seem to invite people to unload on strangers. Free therapy. But I needed to get back to work. When I got up, he got up. When I headed off, he headed off beside me. “We’ve got to stick together,” he said. “We’re alike, you and me.”

    I stopped and squared off,  all 5 feet 4 inches, in front of him.

    “You’re not going to follow me,” I said. Free therapy was one thing, a man with an undisclosed mission was another.

    He backed off, hands raised. His version of  I mean you no harm.

    I didn’t know what the man in the green parka on a hot afternoon meant by his statement, but I felt unsettled, remembering the other park, the other man. I tried to play it cool. Nibbled a little faster on my cookie. From the corner of my eye I saw him reach into a brown paper sack. He started to pull something out. The lizard brain yelled: duck and cover! I scarfed down the cookie.

    The man unwrapped a sandwich.

    The lizard brain settled down.

    I mean you no harm.

    This is something someone will say if they’re afraid the other person is going to do them harm. Like when you come upon a strange dog that may or may not be rabid, but just to be safe, you offer the flat of your palm for him to sniff.

    I mean you no harm.  

    Reassure him, my emotional brain told me. This is the second layer, the one that makes you drop a dollar in the Salvation Army bucket and then cluck the bell-ringer under the chin. It urged me to tell this man he can sit wherever he darn well pleases. Don’t make this about a lone white woman sitting next to a lone black man. Did Rosa Parks say “I mean you no harm” when she sat her tired self down on the bus?

    My rational brain, the outer cortex, told me to leave the man alone. He just wants to eat his sandwich in peace.

    All of this happened in a flash. Sandwich. Rosa Parks. Peace. The time it took to crumple my cookie wrapper. I got up, ready to head back to work, and so he wouldn’t think I was leaving because I felt threatened, I said, “Enjoy your lunch.”

    He sighed. “I’ll try,” he said.

    There it was. The veiled inquiry: is this therapy bench open for business? Or was it something else? A desire to connect with another human?

    I wanted to place a comforting hand on his shoulder, prefaced by: I mean you no harm.

    But office hours were over.

  2. Counting Bugs

    May 7, 2017 by Diane

    Black ant on white background

    One person’s nightmare can be another person’s walk in the park. Let me explain.

    In the car, I was listening to the audio version of Robert Fulghum’s What on Earth Have I Done?—a collection of fun essays that made me grin like a goofball rather than grind my teeth like a raging American, which is what I usually do when driving and listening to news on NPR. But Fulghum has the soul of a child in the body of a white-haired minister, with a child’s sense of play. So while I drove, I grinned. If you’ve never heard Robert Fulghum read his work in his soft, gentle voice, I urge you to do so without delay.

    Anyway, in one of the essays, he talks about counting the bugs in his home.

    I decided to do the same. I’d perform a census of sorts, on the bugs residing in my cottage.

    The day I counted, I found one ant zipping along the window sill. I squashed it with a tissue. One down. A moment later, I saw one ant zipping along the window sill. The same ant, un-squashed. I’m sure it was the same ant, because there were no other ants as far as the eye could see. Ants don’t travel in pairs. There’s the one ant, scouting for whatever it is ants scout for, who later returns to the tribe to relay whatever information they’ve found. The ant I squashed was the scouting ant. If the scout goes missing, the assistant goes scouting for the scout. I had just squashed the head scout, so technically, he had only been missing for sixty seconds—not enough time to alert the assistant. Which proves my theory: even though I had squashed the scout, it came back to life.

    Which reminded me of that episode on The Twilight Zone where a man flushes a spider down the toilet and it comes back bigger, so he flushes it again and it comes back bigger, and so on until the spider is as big as the house and flushes the man down the toilet. At least I think it was The Twilight Zone. It may have been my vivid imagination.

    Something else: the day I decided to count the bugs in my cottage—a cottage normally overrun with bugs—all I found was one ant. Where were all the spiders and mosquitos and mosquito-eaters and crickets and caterpillars and fruit flies and those little orange things no bigger than a dot? Did I imagine them? Am I like that woman in the movie Gaslight where her husband schemes to drive her mad?

    Are you scared yet? Because I am.

    So, one ant. And several teensy-weensy black thingabees that looked like rat poop, but upon closer inspection were the husks of bugs that had been eaten by some spider nowhere to be found.

    I basked in the buglessness of my cottage, until two days later when we had a heat spell. Suddenly, every flying insect on the planet plastered itself to the outside of my windows. When I opened the door, they followed me in. They batted my head with their hard bodies. They congregated in the upper corners of the ceiling. They swarmed the lamps, clicking against the plastic shade over my bed, and in the glass shade over the bathroom mirror. I spent half the night smashing them, and for every one I smashed, two more appeared.

    But this is nothing compared to what Dave endured.

    He had just gone to bed, and heard a gurgling sound coming from his bathroom. He thought, God, I hope it’s not the sewer backing up into the shower. He flicked on the light, checked the shower. All clear. Then he glanced in the toilet.

    There, blinking in the sudden light, was a giant barn rat.

    That’s right.

    A barn rat.

    In the toilet.

    Having scurried up from the sewer pipes.

    Evidently, the rat was as startled to see Dave as Dave was to see a giant rat peering from the toilet, because it turned tail and scurried right back down the pipes.

    “Wait a minute,” I said a week later when he told me. “You found a rat in your toilet? And you’re telling me this now, a week later?”

    If I had found a rat in my toilet, here’s what I would have done:

    1. Run screaming into the night.

    2. Driven to Dave’s and banged on his door, yelling, “Move over, I’m sleeping with you!”

    3. Never gone to the bathroom again. Ever.

    I’ll take a whole tribe of ants and a gazillion flying insects over one barn rat in the toilet any day.

    Dave will take one barn rat over one snake in the toilet any day.

    And some poor schlub who pulls down his pants and hears hissing will take one snake in the toilet over six half-eaten cockroaches in his cereal bowl any day. Gulp.

    Any day can add up to a walk in the park, depending on what it is you’re counting.

  3. Living Large

    April 30, 2017 by Diane

    The older I get, the more I shrink. And you know what that means.

    Baggy elbows.

    It’s not that my elbows sag. It’s just that I have more skin than stuff to fill it up.

    I Googled How to get rid of baggy elbows, and found several YouTube videos with exercises involving a lot of repetitive arm movements in various directions. Watching the videos left me exhausted, but did nothing for my elbows.

    There must be an easier way. Something that doesn’t involve a knife. Although there probably is a doctor who debags elbows.

    I imagine meeting him at a cocktail party—not that I attend cocktail parties, but that’s the kind of party I imagine an elbow doctor attending. He’s standing next to the artificial potted fern, looking artificial. Mannikin-artificial. Which is why I mosey over and strike up a conversation, because a conversation with a mannikin is all I can handle as an introvert. But surprise, surprise, he responds when I say, “Howdy, stranger. I couldn’t help but notice you from across the room.” We chat, and eventually I get around to asking, “What kind of business are you in?”

    And he says, “Elbows.”

    “Elbows?” I say.

    “I debag them.”

    “Of course you do.”

    And he hands me his card.

    Which brings me to my first point to ponder:

    What do elbow doctors do with all that excess skin? Do they have bags of baggy elbows? Do they donate the stash to medical research, like Henrietta Lacks’s cells, although in her case, her cells were used without her consent? Who knows what anti-aging or cancer-curing miracles might be discovered from baggy elbows.

    Elbows are odd ducks. They come in handy when I’m making my way through a crowd. They’re useful pushing a swinging door open when I’m carrying dinner plates. When I don’t feel like shaking someone’s hand, I can give them an elbow instead. Beyond that, what good are they? Poking out someone’s eye?

    The funny bone is located in the vicinity of the elbow, but when that thing gets whacked there’s nothing funny about it.

    Which brings me to my second point to ponder:

    Why do we keep the funny bone, but yank the wisdom teeth? I can only surmise that we value humor over wisdom. Which is wise, come to think of it. As long as we maintain our sense of humor, we can survive damn near anything.

    Even baggy elbows.

    In the meantime, I get older, I shrink, and my world does, too. Where once I jetted around the globe—okay, not the globe, the country. Once. Where once I jetted, now I shuffle to the refrigerator, which doesn’t require shuffling as much as reaching from my desk chair or the bed, because my cottage is a former playhouse. If I live long enough, eventually my world will shrink to the dimensions of a nursing home bed. I’ll gaze out the window without being able to see what I’m gazing at, and my world will shrink to the dimensions of my imagination. Which could actually be rather large.

    Bringing me to my third point to ponder:

    Why is it, the smaller people get, the larger they live? It’s like they’re trying to fill the space they once occupied. They talk loud. They dress loud, in patterned Bermuda shorts, thick sandals, and black socks pulled up to their calves. They carry big purses. They wear huge glasses. And they have big opinions.

    Don’t get me started on their cars.

    My mother, who’s ahead of me in terms of shrinkage, drives a Chevy Tahoe. It’s a mystery how she sees over the dash. From outside the car, all I see is her forehead.

    While I watch exercise videos for elbows, my mother, who wears a back brace because her spine could crumble at any moment, is carting a dead deer in her little red wagon to the curb for the animal control people to claim. Days later, when even the garbage man won’t touch it, she’s tossing it into a garbage bag and carting it to the backyard and burying it with a shovel. While I ponder the usefulness of elbows, my mother is fishing things from the creek with a hoe, like the opossum skeleton for some nice boy in the neighborhood, and a man’s wallet, crawling with worms. While I daydream about elbow doctors, my mother is feeding every feral cat that migrates to her yard, even the finicky Siamese that insists on dining atop the garage roof. While I wonder if the funny bone is actually a bone, my mother is hauling giant bags of cat food from the back of her Tahoe. And if the handicapped parking space is too far from the front door of Raley’s Supermarket, you can bet everyone in the store will hear about it when my mother complains to the sixteen-year-old bag boy.

    My mother knows how to live large. She knows how to claim her space in the world. Does she have baggy elbows? Who knows? Who cares? She’s got bigger things to focus on. Besides, with all that carting and tossing and burying and fishing and feeding and hauling, those elbows get a workout.

    YouTube’s got nothing on my mother.