I had a little beetle

I returned a call at work today, and the man  started talking about how he lost his job and is trying to recreate his life with more intention than he did twenty years ago. I was interested, but wondered if he thought I was someone else, like a head hunter, as he described his educational and employment history.  He said he’s also working on mood management.  I wanted to ask what that entailed, but it seemed off topic, even though I had no idea what the topic was yet.

I broke in and asked what I could help him with.  Since I barely have my own job at this point, I didn’t have much to offer in the employment conversation.

“Well, I’ve had to move in with my parents, who are in their 80’s.  Their neighbor, who’s my neighbor too now, has a warehouse full of dermestid beetles.  Should I spell that for you?”

I said yes because I was trying to be positive, what with him being unemployed and moving back in with his parents and stuff, not because I couldn’t sound out the word, or needed to write it down.  The kind of beetle in the shed was irrelevant.  Like, OH, Dermestid beetles, yeah, we’ll take care of that. Now if you’d said some other kind of beetle, nothing doing.  But I wrote the name down, and tried hard to listen to his story because that’s what we all need, right?  Someone to stop and listen for five minutes?  Or, in his case, 45?  

“So he raises these beetles because they eat the flesh off of cow skulls.  The beetle dung smells very bad, to a point where we can’t even go outside.”

I could see why mood management might be an issue.  But I was privately wondering if the smell emanates from the beetle dung, or if it could have something to do with the rotting cow carcasses themselves.

I started daydreaming as he described dimensions of various sheds and driveways in great detail, and began to think about R., who I know would have a bunch of questions.  Earlier this week, we went on a 90 minute narrated tour of Western Washington University.  Towards the end, we visited a dorm room, and while there, our guide off-handedly mentioned that the only pets allowed are those who can be under water for five minutes.  She talked about other things, and then asked if anyone had questions.  R. raised his hand.

“Um, could we go back to that 5 minute under water thing?”

I’m laughing in my head, because I know exactly what this is about.  It has nothing to do with him wanting to bring a pet to college, but everything to do with his need for precision in language, which I’ve mentioned before

Our guide replies, “Well, I was trying to make the point that fish are okay.”

“Oh,” says my son, “I was just wondering if this is a flood area or something.  It seems unlikely, on top of this hill, but I am curious about why all the animals have to hold their breath for five minutes.”

I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Yeah, don’t worry, he’ll be going to Evergreen,” but I was pretty sure that would only be hilarious to me.  Also, I totally love this quality in him, and didn't want to be misconstrued in a negative way.  He just really needs to know if she’s got it right – if there’s a rule, have they captured the intent accurately with the language?  Would a mouse in a cage be okay, or must it be able to hold it's breath?  He could care less about bringing a cat to college, but he wonders if a cat that swims underwater would be allowed.

I know that R. would have asked about the mood management strategy, why the man had cow carcasses in the shed, where he got the beetles, if the smell was definitely from the beetle dung, and so on.

I tune back in, and he’s still explaining – “one shed was probably built in about 2004, and I’d say its, wait, let me go look over there, yeah, maybe 12 by 15?  Or maybe 11 by 14, I’m not really sure.  It’s east of the shed I just described, maybe 10 feet.  Not directly east, but a little bit south and east.” 

I think its good customer service to give people a chance to tell their stories, especially when they’re unemployed, working on mood management, had to move in with elderly parents, and have some weird taxidermy/carcass cleansing operation going on next door, and even better customer service if I can actually really listen well.  But it’s really hard sometimes.

I go back to R.’s question about flooding, which I know is him being ridiculous, but not in a rude way; it’s just how his curious mind works.  After the tour, as we back to our car, I commented, “Good thing you asked that question, R.”

“Well, it just wasn’t clear.  If the pets need to hold their breath for 5 minutes, do I need to bring a snorkel if I come here? Should I bring my own oxygen? Angle for the top bunk?”

I tune back in to the phone, and decide I need to try to focus. 

“So, what can I do for you?”

“Well, if you could just clearly explain the regulations.”

“From what you say, the sheds constructed without permits next to the salmon stream wouldn’t be allowed.  There may be health department regulations about the odor and the beetles that I could look into, be we wouldn’t handle that here.  Would you like me to turn in a case for investigation of the sheds?”

"Oh, no, I definitely don’t want to create more animosity in the world.  I’d just like to go talk to him, and let him know that what he’s doing isn’t allowed.  I’ll start there, see if I can offer to help him get things cleaned up."

This is a pleasant twist, because the calls never go this way.  “Wow, that’s excellent.  Let me know how it goes.”

“Oh, definitely, I will.  I think it will be fine.”

Maybe I’ve gotten too cynical, but I don’t have high hopes for the man who raises flesh-eating beetles and pours roundup on the plants next to the salmon stream to eagerly accept input.  “If you can work that out peacefully, you can be the poster child for our mediation program.” I say that as if we have a mediation program and a poster. 

“Oh, great!  And you can be the poster child for government.  You’re really a great listener, this has been so helpful.”

I feel sorry that I was doodling, drawing beetles, and thinking about other things for much of the conversation, because I think I should have tried harder...


  1. You just can't make this stuff up, can you? You are a good person for listening. So often people need most to be heard. Even if it's about strange, icky things.
    I've got one of those precision in language kids, and he's made me really think about the words and especially the cliches I use. It is very hard to explain what the pot calling the kettle black means to a kid raised with non stick and stainless cookware, especially without a cast iron anything for visual reference. The pet rule made me wonder too - are turtles or crayfish ok? What about frogs?
    Thanks for another riveting, funny and thought provoking post.

  2. Oh, thank you Mel! Yes, those precision in language kids are a pretty interesting bunch, don't you think?

  3. Hey! You guys shoulda called me when you were in Bellingham! I would have given a much better tour with much more precise language.


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