I’m a cautious person, so nothing bad ever happens to me.
I’ve never broken my arm. I’ve never lost my wallet, or accidentally set myself on fire, or any of the accidents and happenstance that seem to afflict so many people.
I’ve developed rituals to help prevent bad things from happening. Stepping out a cab I pause before closing the door and scan the seat, to see if I’ve left anything behind. I suppose that creates a different risk—the cabbie driving away while I’m holding the door, tearing my fingers off, a reminder that trying to skirt one peril sometimes puts you in the path of a worse one, like somebody who jumps away from a speeding bicyclist into the path of a truck.
But in general, being careful pays off.
It must be genetic. My father was always a very cautious man. He would no sooner ride a roller coaster than take heroin. My older son, when he learned to walk, would mutter “keh-ful, keh-ful” as he gingerly placed one foot in front of the other.
But even a careful person manages to bumble into harm’s way, eventually.
Such as Monday night. Guests were coming over after dinner. My wife suggested a fire. This being a cool summer, we’ve had a lot of fires in the fire pit in our back yard—a dish of bronze set on a cast iron base that people admire as if it were some exotic accouterment, even though it cost 50 bucks.
Anyway, lots of fires, going through lots of firewood. The pile was almost gone after I stacked wood up for the fire; down to kindling and one half hollow log, a curving piece of what had once been a large catalpa tree that blew down, years ago. Picture an arc of bark, maybe a foot wide and a yard long. I looked at it, and thought, “I can break this apart and use it to feed the fire while our guests are here.”
So I stepped on the log, hard.
It broke easily because of all the wasps living inside.
For a guy who has trained himself to immediately blurt out quips on the radio, the thought, I’m being stung by wasps was actually slow in forming. I think I was halfway to the house, operating on some limbic fight-or-flight response hard-wired into the cerebellum, before it consciously occurred to me that something bad was happening.
I burst into the kitchen with a shriek and a cloud of wasps—okay, two or three—in hot pursuit. My wife, who has her own reflexive instinct, that motherly ability to shift instantly from the mundane to full crisis mode, took charge, ordering me to strip off my shirt, while the younger boy went after the wasps with a fly swatter.
“Windex,” she decreed, and within three seconds was spraying me with the blue substance on the bites, which were limited to my legs, arms, torso and face.
“This … really … hurts,” I hissed, arms out. I had often used the term “jamming my arm into a wasp’s nest” to describe the reaction to a column. Now I see what an exaggeration that was. Right wing revanchist trolls have nothing on actual wasps.
I thought the whole Windex thing was a joke propagated by “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” and said words to that effect.
“It’s the ammonia” my wife explained, hosing me down. It did feel better.
Actually, it’s a placebo, I later found.
“Windex is just folk lore,” said Dr. Anju Peters, an allergist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “Rubbing with aspirin, copper, none of those has been scientifically studied. There is no data. For a local reaction, ice is best.”
Peters said that the important thing is, if you have trouble breathing, or feel lightheaded, or your throat is closing up, call 911 immediately; 50 people a year in the U.S. die of anaphylactic shock from insect bites.
My wife asked if we should go to the ER. I asked myself if I felt as if I were dying: no, we’ll ride this out.
The boy for some reason stood gawping at one of the wasps as it progressed across the kitchen screen. “Kill it!” my wife cried
“No,” I said, reaching for the swatter. “Give it me. He’s mine.”
I slapped true, and the evil thing fell among the drained dishes. Distinctive black-and-yellow stripes — a yellowjacket.
The funny thing is, despite the utterly random nature of the mishap, even though it didn’t involve any particularly risky behavior — I stepped on a log — it bugged me that I let it occur. It seemed to mean something. Human nature. People have the tendency to assign meaning to random fate, whether viewing their good luck as somehow being an earned reward, or bad luck coming as a kind of punishment. Neither need be true. Sometimes stuff just happens.
Photo -- mayflies, not wasps, at Put-in-Bay, Ohio