On Panicking With Dignity

July 8th, 2010

Dear Charles,

I derived much enjoyment (on my work-place’s dime) at your email exchanges with Rechelle. As I was so engrossed in your written words rather than focused on productivity as a good little worker bee should be on a sunny Friday afternoon in June, I feel obligated to charge you for my time. Please send me a check in the amount of $32.68 (I’m giving you a break b/c it’s a sunny Friday afternoon in June and productivity was lower than normal even before I became entranced by your emails.)

Along with the check, I’d like your thoughts on the following issue. As a microbiologist, I assume you know about germs. How do you ever leave the house? I can only imagine the process you much go through in choosing fruits and vegetables from open bins in a grocery store. How do you deal with restaurant workers who handle your dollar bills or change and then your food? You can’t be married because the first time your wife put her purse on the floor of a restaurant then on the kitchen counter at home, you’d most certainly commit the murder you had, until that moment, so negligently forgone.

I currently picture you in a white, sterilized jump suit with a gas mask covering all external orifices being forced into seclusion with just your computer and an a can of Lysol at hand. If this is not a correct picture of you, please let me know and while you’re at it, please tell me how to avoid shrieking in horror and causing grievous bodily harm to people in my vicinity in my attempt to run away when a small child playfully puts his tiny little hands on the floor of a subway car.

Thanks so much,
Worker bee

Dear Worker bee –

I seldom encounter an uprightness of the sort that compels a person who shirks work in order to derive much enjoyment from online entertainment to charge the providers of that entertainment for lost productivity, and I naturally hate to discourage such decency, but I’m afraid that it’s your employer who’s out that $32.68 and that it would therefore be inappropriate to send the check to you. Please have your employer invoice us directly.

I’m not a microbiologist but am only involved in publishing materials about microbiology (I never fully comprehend these materials), so my fear of germs is not much more intense than that of the average chimney sweep, although your guess about my day-to-day attire is eerily accurate (it never occurred to me that that ensemble would protect me from germs).

However, I have met some microbiologists, and they don’t seem inordinately fearful of germs either; I believe that if you put a group comprising microbiologists, lawyers, and construction workers in a subway car, the microbiologists would be just as likely as the lawyers and construction workers to playfully put their hands on the floor of the car.

With regard to your question about your conduct in a subway car when a small child does this, although it may not be possible to keep yourself from shrieking in horror, you can make sure your shrieks are muffled by wearing a gas mask whenever you ride the subway. To avoid causing grievous bodily harm as you run away, take care to push the people in your path into other people instead of into hard objects. Taking these courteous measures will enable you to maintain some of the respect of the people who weren’t pushed and will make the remainder of the ride to the next stop a little less awkward.

Wishing you a pleasant commute,



Dear Charles,
Yesterday my dog came in, from being out in the backyard, with dirt all over her snout. As she has not given in to the ‘must dig’ instinct in quite some many months, I knew that there was a darned good reason for her investigative snout to be poking around in the earth.

Sure enough, there is a hole under my gate. Not so big as to compromise the structural integrity of the gate or adjoining fence, but I’ve deduced it to be a home for……..something. I used my shod foot to fill in the hole only to find it re-opened an hour later (sans canine help).

In my neighborhood the hole could be made by a snake, a gopher tortoise, an armadillo….or something else I’m not familiar with. Although I am not too fearful of any, there remains the picture in my head of strong claws or fangs.

My quandary is two-fold:
1. I’d like to encourage this beast to re-locate to a more suitable location. Perhaps the large empty field behind my fenced yard would allow for a burrow or three for it to choose from.
I’d like to see what is taking up residence under my gate but am a bit wary as to how to chase it out without it coming out of the hole and up my leg, or jumping onto my face or …….something equally startling.
2. If I get it to come out, while remaining out of it’s path, and then lob a handful of mothballs into the hole, ( I hear that keeps most anything away) How do I direct it to the back field, and not under my house as it’s next location?

This falls a bit into the ‘Be careful what you wish for’ category. I could get the critter to leave its present location, but the possibility exists that it will choose a worse (for me) location next.

Any ideas?
Be Lovin’ Tunes………(not burrowing critters)

Dear Be Lovin’ Tunes –

I think I may have read somewhere that the sort of problem of which you write dates back to the year 217, when burrowing animals and gates first appeared together in the same hemisphere. Fortunately, in this day and age, we have many more methods of dealing with this problem than did the people of whatever hemisphere the problem originated in back in 217, chiefly because there has been a lot of time for the development of such methods between the year 217 and this day and age.

Although the wide variety of methods now available to us for dealing with this problem are almost uniformly difficult to implement and of limited effectiveness, it would be a mistake to consider the obstacles you will encounter as you pursue the removal of the mysterious burrowing animal insurmountable, for not only are they surmountable, but they can actually be fun to surmount if you approach the project in the right frame of mind. To be sure, it’s not easy to get into a frame of mind in which you will find any part of the project fun—in fact, it may well be the most difficult part of an undertaking that consists of a long series of difficult parts—but something tells me you’re up to the challenge.

The easiest and most widely used method for getting rid of burrowing animals is poison, which would address both of your concerns handily if enough of the poison was ingested by the target animal, but the price of this convenience is an indelible stain on your conscience that will eventually rob your life of all of its joy as you become more and more tortured with visions of the target animal’s agonizing and lonely end, and as you begin to hear the mournful wails of the target animal’s loved ones in gusts of wind and the songs of birds and the laughter of children and the bells or calliope-like music of the ice cream truck, and as you increasingly discern an odor reminiscent of the stench of a rotting carcass mixed in with the smell of fresh bread or compost or talcum powder or the most fragrant flowers until the rotting-carcass stench finally replaces all of those smells completely. And that’s in addition to the cost of the poison.

Also popular with burrowing-animal removal enthusiasts are traps. One factor that would complicate the use of traps in your situation is that you don’t know what kind of animal you’re dealing with, which makes it hard to know what to bait the trap with, so you might want to conduct a surveillance operation before you proceed with this approach. For this, you’ll need to set up with a pair of regular binoculars, a pair of night vision binoculars, and a day’s supply of food and water in a spot with a clear view of the entrance to the mysterious animal’s current residence but far enough away that you’re unlikely to be noticed. Remain focused on the entrance to the hole until the animal makes an appearance (arrange your food and water beforehand so that you can access and consume it just by feeling around for it, so that you never have to put down the binoculars or take your eyes off the hole).

When you spot the animal, there is more than one course of action open to you. If it’s a nonthreatening, clawless, fangless animal and you catch it in the act of leaving, you can hurry over to the hole and stuff it with mothballs, if you brought any to your surveillance station (if you do bring mothballs, be sure to keep them out of reach while you are surveilling, to ensure that you don’t mistakenly consume them), knowing that if the animal who just left does not live alone, at least the remaining occupants of the hole are likely to be just as nonthreatening, clawless, and fangless as their roommate. Take care not to lose sight of the animal while you are loading the hole with mothballs, because you will need to follow it around until it settles on another place to burrow, waving and screaming and kicking dirt in its face whenever it seems to be considering burrowing where you’d rather it didn’t, and nodding approvingly when it seems to be on the verge of breaking ground in a good place for you.

Alternatively, you could go purchase an animal-appropriate trap and put some animal-appropriate bait in it and place it near the animal’s home. Once the trap has caught the animal of interest (which may be after it has caught a long series of animals you are not interested in, necessitating that you release the uninteresting animal and rebait the trap each time this happens), put the trap (with the animal in it) in the car and drive in any direction until you are at least 10 miles from your home and in a place you think you might enjoy living if you were the animal. Take the trap out of the car and release the animal, which will turn around until it is pointing in the direction of your home and then proceed in that direction at a high rate of speed (unless you leave a car door open, in which case it will hop back into the car) but is not likely to make it all the way back.

If you would like to take a more aggressive approach, skip the surveillance and don a dog bite suit (the kind of suit that is worn by the “victim” in the training of an attack dog), a pair of heavy-duty knee boots, some thick gloves, and a combination of some sort of helmet and a beekeeper’s headgear, boldly walk up to the hole, and start introducing mothballs into it. But first, to discourage the animal from relocating under your house once the mothballs have driven it out of the hole, build a moat of fire around the house by digging a small trench and filling it with burning cans of Sterno or deeply buried Tiki torches.

Then, simply go inside, remove all the safety gear, and crank the tunes.

Good luck with your project, and remember, the important thing is to have fun with it.



Dearest Charles,

This week I survived a blueberry picking expedition, in 97 degrees temperature with the heat index at 110 degrees. I know I lost my mind as evidenced by planning to go again next week. Maybe it will be slightly cooler . . . right. I do plan to take even more cold water next trip, as two liters of cold water was not nearly enough. I only had enough water to drink and nothing left with which to drench myself.

So now I ponder: would it be fair to NOT share MY blueberries with my family? They are really good. :-) The blueberries, not the family. The family is totally unappreciative of my efforts to provide freshly picked organic blueberries.

I have realized I would never make it as a farm worker. I am slow, eat while I pick (no chemicals used on these bushes), and like to take frequent breaks on the porch. Oh, and I bitch loudly when the fire ants bite me. Though my hat would fit right in with the rest of the laborers.

But I guess I should share the blueberries with my family, as I am no longer qualified for any professional jobs! I have an MBA and a year of doctoral level classes. But I have been a stay-at-home mother, gourmet cook, taxi driver, housekeeper, launderer, household accountant, and keeper of the family genealogical records for the past 19 and one half years.

So Charles, what should I do? Share? Or go to work in the fields?

Hoping that all of my commas are in the appropriate locations.
GA in GA

Dear GA –

I’m glad to see you overcame your trepidation about writing to me. As you can see, I’m not critiquing anyone’s punctuation, and I will not unless I’m asked to. Since you sort of asked, I did not spot one inappropriately located comma in your letter.

And now to your more direct question, about whether you should share or not share your hard-won blueberries with your unappreciative family. Are the family members as blasé about the blueberries themselves as they are about your efforts to procure them? If so, you can safely and justifiably keep the berries to yourself, as no one is going to squawk if you stop offering them.

If the family loves blueberries but is not impressed with what you had to do to get them, announce that you are considering making the berries available only to family members who have joined you on a berry-picking outing on a particularly unpleasant day at least once. This stratagem will have the whole family convincingly feigning appreciation in order to keep the berries coming without having to suffer any of the discomfort associated with gathering them, and unadulterated happiness will reign in your household once again (assuming it reigned there at some point in the past).

Bon apetit,



Have a problem that is both oddly odd and insurmountable?  Why not ask Dear Charles?  He just may be the butter for your burning question.

Write to him at Dear Charles at live dot com.  Because you’ve probably suffered long enough.


  • Lee (sometimes known as Another Lee):

    Dear Charles,

    Thank you for taking on the monumental task of ministering to Rechelle’s flock of “people who think, read, are sarcastic, skeptics, weird and smart”.

    I’m thinking of getting some letterhead made up with that.

    Looking forward to growing from your wisdom, and will ponder my list of conundrums for a suitable question.

  • Loverly Charles! Welcome back. Your advice is most astute. I particularly enjoyed the last letter having just braved the thorns of raspberry bushes nearby. My family consumed said berries before I even had the chance to eat more than what I did while picking. The nerve.

    I’m printing out the second letter for my husband in his pursuit of the pesky pocket gophers.

  • Be Lovin' Tunes:

    OH… ow… ooch… my stomach hurts from laughing. Thank you, Charles, for your thoughtful reply.

    I wish I’d had your suggestions a couple of weeks ago but I did manage to spot, then coax the animal out, and re-locate it to the above mentioned field. My methods were not nearly as entertaining as yours but, by golly, the job is done and although my dog still checks daily, the mobile ambassador of our local fauna has not returned.

    P.S. If you ever need to lure a 4″ turtle out of a burrow; using a garden hose to fill the hole with water will do the trick.

  • Anoria:

    Dear Charles,

    I hope you don’t see it as presumptuous, but I’d like to make an attempt at answering one of the above questions based on my own life experience. On that note:

    Dear Worker Bee,

    The one microbiologist I know very well (and by “very well” I mean “was my boyfriend through four of the five years he spent getting his first two degrees) has actually made me *less* worried about Lysol and subway floors than I used to be. It seems that when people are educated about something, they frequently find themselves fearing it less than they did when it was merely an ominous, looming mystery. Whenever I asked him in a panic how likely I was to catch our mutual roommate’s plauge of the day, or stared in horror at him eating the taco meat we’d accidentally left out all night, he would explain things he’d learned in classes that allayed my fears. Salmonella, it turns out, is very sensitive to dessication, so you won’t get sick from raw egg if it’s had a chance to dry out. Gastric illness is almost never airborne and most bacteria which cause it can’t survive more than a couple of minutes outside a host. If you cover hot food soon after it’s cooked, and reheat it thoroughly when you want to eat it, it’s perfectly fine to leave it for a night without refrigeration. I trust my immune system a lot more because of the education I got from living with him.

    I sincerely hope that this will end up saving a few of your fellow subway passengers from being shoved or trampled by your horrified self.

    Best wishes to you,

    and to Charles,


  • Charles:

    Thanks, Anoria! The information you provided has allayed my fear of microbes to the point where I would be comfortable eating off the floor of a subway car, and if Worker bee has read your comment, I’ll bet she would now just sort of edge over to the opposite end of the subway car wtihout causing much commotion if she happened to see me eating off the floor of the car. I still may go to my grave without ever having tasted raw egg that has dried out, though. I’m not afraid of getting Salmonella from it, but it’s just kind of hard to get motivated to try it.