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War of the Wasps

4 May

The hedges in the back yard are out of control and we can’t see through any of the windows. All is a blur of variegated green and white. My wife blames me, but the real culprits are those devious wasps. I knew they were there ever since I saw a few dead ones floating in the pool. Their thick papery nests were stuck to the soffeting and I repeatedly shot them down with the hose. I thought they had left.

I heard nary a buzz until the day I bought an electric hedge trimmer at a garage sale. I was determined to finally clip those overgrown hedges. After running the extension cord through a window, I started cutting the hedge nearest the dinning room. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds, the air gradually thicken with wasps, until suddenly I was in a cyclone comprised entirely of wasps. Only then I noticed that my electric hedge trimmer was three inches away from an enormous wasp’s nest right in the middle of the hedge. That’s were they had gone. They did not seem to appreciated the violent shaking the trimmer created. Before I could apologize or retreat, I felt five simultaneous stings on my arms and back. I jerked up on the trimmer, cutting clean through the extension cord.

In panic I abandoned my equipment and made for the house. I could see the wasps buzzing around the decapitated extension cord in a frenzied dance of victory — the little bastards. Of course this meant war. I dressed my wounds and took a handful of Benadryl as I started swelling up like a bratwurst on a hot grill.

I sat in the dinning room studying my enemy through the window. My helpful and comedic wife, amused by my humiliation, suggested that I dress up like a giant wasp to fool them– a tactic once employed in a famous Donald Duck cartoon about honey bees. Although I rejected that plan and its accompanying sarcasm, it did suggest another strategy– I would make a bee-keeper’s suit and teach those wasps a much needed lesson.

I went out to the garage and concocted a spray bottle of the most deadly insecticide ever devised. The environment be dammed, this was war. Then I took my heaviest winter coat and fortified it with two sweatshirts. I pulled on two pairs of sweat pants over my bluejeans. And then I took my son’s pith helmet and put a double layer of sheer cloth over it, tucking the ends into the coat. Old thick leather gloves completed the insane ensemble.

Barely able to see and dribbling virulent poison all other the house, I made my way out the sliding glass doors, towards the hedge. The pathetic wasps were overwhelmed and soon saw that they were out of their league. In keeping with my scorched earth policy, I stumbled to the hedge with the wasp’s nest and pumped enough poison into it for it to be toxic for the next thousand years. My revenge, however, was short lived.

I had made just one fatal miscalculation. I forgot it was July. With the ambient air temperature like a sauna, the internal temperature of the improvised bee-keeper suit was about the same as the fiery furnace into which Shadarach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown. My profuse sweating interfered with my vision to such an extent that I tripped and spilt the venomous insecticide all over my ersatz bee-keeper suit, which now resembled a portable gas chamber.

I started choking and things were going dim as I struggled to get to the house. Had I really poisoned myself or was it the Benadryl kicking in? With my last reserve of strength, I peeled off the malignant clothing and crawled into the shower. Through the window, I could see the surviving wasps rejoicing — They were sure they had gotten me this time.

As I lapsed into semi-consciousness, I wondered if the EPA Superfund would pay for cleaning up my house and if a shish-ke-bob skewer would work as a stinger for a wasp costume.


Pomp and Circumstance

15 Apr


                      Last year  I attended a double graduation and sat through  four hours of national anthems, platitudinous advice, and the mispronunciation of names. The four hours were only interrupted by a brief foray into the blazing hot sun to take pictures of sweating graduates. I would rather have attended a double murder. This large public university held four separate graduation ceremonies in one day to process all the graduates. I attended the first two. Although I suppose such rituals are necessary  to help people mark major life transitions, this is one passage I  would have  just as soon avoided.

            Graduations are intensely emotional  events. It’s like attending one of  those old Moonie  weddings with a thousand  brides and grooms. Feelings of joy, relief, and anxiety intermingle  while vague despondency charges the air. The faculty and staff share these feelings but mostly seem fatigued and can hardly wait for the ordeal to end.

             As each graduate’s name is  read for their ten seconds of immortality,  their personal  mini-fan club  erupts in applause, yelling, or even stomping. I  wonder about the students who get a real loud response. Do they have exceptionally large families? Are they very popular? Promiscuous? And I always feel sorry for those who don’t get any fuss made at all. What’s with them?  Do they feel rejected or upset?  At college graduations the people are so loosely connected, that even surrounded by thousands of revelers, each celebration  is still private.

            The first of the two graduations I attended was the liberal arts and sciences crowd. As a group they were serious and pretentious. Their featured commencement speaker was a fading local politico who tried some standup comedy and  superficial sensitivity — like Jay Leno meets Rod McKuen. I felt embarrassed for him, since he obviously didn’t have the sense to feel embarrassed for himself.

            Hundreds of nurses and social workers graduated in the next group. They were a  much rowdier bunch. It was as if they actually knew and even liked each other.  The crowd booed vigorously  when a stick-in-the-mud  security person  removed the giant beach ball that had suddenly appeared and was  batted around during the speeches. At one point of high emotion the nursing student section erupted into a massive free-for-all of silly string and confetti.

            The guest speaker this time was a feckless social services bureaucrat who was also a big shot fund-raiser for the university. In his precise introduction the university president diplomatically neglected to mention that this man was also a notorious slumlord. This bozo didn’t bother to make any sense at all. I wasn’t even embarrassed for him, just annoyed.

            Despite the inane speech I liked this ceremony better. The students showed more spirit  and the faculty  sported more dramatic threads. Some faculty wore silk gowns of  bright gold and red and most of them wore those classy soft caps, instead of the usual mortarboards.

            Several years ago at my graduate school commencement, my elderly advisor appraised the rakish university president, decked out in a color coordinated brown velvet cap, and said, “Damn, I got to get me one of those hats.”  I hope he did.  The chic president was fired about a month later for putting massage parlor bills on his state credit card. I can only imagine what he would have done if he didn’t have a Ph.D. The story was so popular  in  all the local newspapers that  when I told a colleague that I  had just shook the  president’s hand at graduation,  he said I should have worn a rubber glove.

             No medieval rite of passage would be complete without some old fashion humiliation.  Throughout my life I’ve been  repeatedly embarrassed about my gender bending name– “Terry Lynn.” Like Johnny Cash’s  mother, mine  had an odd sense of the appropriate. My nominal distress culminated at graduation. I thought it was pretty impressive as the hung a hood on me, until  the  announcer said, “And now will Terry Lynn Stawar and her advisor come forward.”  Even the largely indifferent crowd found this mistake highly amusing and it’s something I will remember always—Graduation Day.

The Great Canoe Death Race

15 Apr

I had worked with Allen for about three years when he invited my wife, Diane, and me on a canoe trip. Allen had just become engaged to an icy divorce and fellow canoe enthusiast named Thorne. He thought a canoe trip down Ichnetucknee Spings was a good way for us all to get acquainted. Like most of our encounters with other couples, Diane and I were immediately overwhelmed. Somehow we always end up in a game of bridge with Charles and Omar, Monopoly with Donald and Marla , or name that tune with Steve and Edie. No matter what we try, it mutates into a fierce competition in which we get totally demolished. In retrospect going on a canoe trip with two self-proclaimed experts was obviously self-destructive, but our desperation to make friends overpowered our reason.
While we admire the notion of canoeing, in truth the last canoe we paddled was a bright orange inflatable pool toy five years ago. We planned to leave the landing at 8:00 A.M., have lunch along the way, and finish up in early afternoon. We were immediately struck by the pristine beauty of the run, but by the time we could turn around, Allen and Thorne effortlessly slide into the first canoe and shot off like a cannon across the water. Like sheep to the slaughter we followed, Diane in the bow and me in the stern. But before we could get our paddles in the water, Allen and Thorne out of sight. We paddled furiously to catch up. Lacking any coordination in our effort and not knowing a ”J” stroke from a heat stroke, I over-paddled on the right while Diane paddled ineffectually on the left, beginning the first of many unintentional humiliating circles
Being someone who values competence, Diane was completely frustrated by our lack of control. And since it seemed to her that the problem was emanating from the stern, she communicated as much. In return I politely suggested that perhaps she needed to speed up her paddling using maybe a pry or draw stroke. She courteously replied that it was a miracle that we moving at all with my paddle at that angle and my thumb in that position. Instinctively she knew that the sternman was responsible for steering the damn canoe and she was not about to let me forget it.
Before our deliberations escalated we caught up with, Allen and Thorne, who were waiting for us where the run widened slightly. They were doing the canoer’s equivalent of pacing back and forth. They just glared at us as if we were dim-witted children spoiling their fun. “Come on you slowpokes”, Thorne forced herself to say in a mockingly cheerful fashion, never knowing how close she came to getting a prefrontal lobotomy performed by the blade of Diane’s paddle.
Unbelievably they rocketed off again, leaving us in their wake. As we did our feeble best to keep pace, it didn’t take long to decide that we hated Thorne and that we hated Allen too. We also hated canoeing and weren’t feel very good about each other either.
We didn’t see Allen and Thorne for several hours by which time we had learned to almost coordinate our paddling. They had finished their lunch on the run and took off again as we approached them. Their shiny canoe irritatingly knifed through the water like a silent torpedo. It was a cruel playground game of keep away and we were the monkeys in the middle. The innocent canoe trip had insidiously degenerated into a life and death struggle for supremacy. The “Long March”, “The Trail of Tears”, and “The Battan Death March”, now was joined by the “Great Canoe Death Race”, another venue in which Diane and I would get clobbered.
In hot pursuit, we came to a shallow section of the run where our canoe kept bottoming out. Desperate to catch up, Diane suggested that since it was my bottom which was causing the problem, I should pull the canoe through the channel. As I surveyed the swampy shoreline, images of toothy snakes filled my mind. But there was little choice since we weren’t moving at all and we could hear tubers behind us threatening to pass. I very cautiously threw one leg over the gunwale, slipped, and violently plunged into the icy water.
After my heart resumed beating, I rationalized that getting dunked wasn’t so terrible on such a hot day. But suddenly I heard screaming from the tubers behind us, something about a snake in the water. Just then Diane pointed to an object swimming rapidly towards me. I just knew it was an enormous water moccasin about to attack. The snake appeared to be holding its head above the water and seemed to have long white whiskers. It was actually an extremely large river otter. Mr. Otter ignored me and swam right by, a few feet away which was fine with me considering his numerous needle like teeth.
The experience along with glacial water evoked a sudden rush of emotions. Swimming freely in the cool pristine spring water near the beautiful wild otter induced a mystical sense of communion with nature. But it was also like finding a large rat in your bathtub. This rat feeling prevailed and I scrambled out of the water as fast as I could. Diane beached the canoe and we abandoned the chase to watch the otter swim upstream.
After the otter encounter we finished the run less embittered and found Allen and Thorne waiting for us with a smug look. Relieved that the ordeal was over, we didn’t speak to each other or Allen and Thorne on the way back to our car, which was just as well, since we probably would have said things we would later regret.
Later that night Diane and I received a lovely parting memento when we broke out in large red splotches. We learned the hard way, why you should be cautious about swimming in any body of water whose name starts with the letters “I-C-H”.