A Laugh at the Past

Initially daunting experiences have a way of becoming funny stories.

Laughter is a cosmic conveyance of two truths: The universe is benign, and we should lighten up. Consider calamities.

One day, you're in an overpriced, walk-in closet passing for an apartment in the Bay Area when an earthquake changes your plans. You're a recent arrival from Kansas, and this is your inaugural quake. You freak. You think you're going to die. Your heart races as you try to avoid panic and execute the survival tips you hope you memorized.

Five years later, you're sitting around a table with a group of friends, wonderful food and some great wine, telling the story of your first experience with Northern California's tectonic plates. You laugh along with everyone and realize over time, and with the telling of your tale, that what you believed was imminent death has become a funny story.

With the possible exception of the most uptight, self-righteous and sickeningly serious people, most folks can look back on life's less glorious moments and find humor. It's these precious moments that often provide material for stories we share.

Sal and Gloria are decades-long Tucson residents. As time goes by, Gloria's appreciation of antiques leads to some informal buying and selling. Sometimes, the buying outpaces the selling, so one room in their home houses many boxes full of assorted oldies-but-goodies--and at least one unwanted guest.

When they call their local fire department to report a rattler in their midst, they expect (or hope) someone will show up, snag the snake and return it to a remote part of the desert. Not a problem; just one question: Where's the snake?

People who are about to rescue you from a rattler's potential wrath don't want to hear that you're not quite certain where it's located, but one thing you know for sure: It's in a room with dozens of boxes, and the last time you saw it, the snake was slithering behind several of them.

At last report, Sal and Gloria are confining themselves to the room's perimeter.

While snakes snare more than their fair share of bad press, a casual act can turn an otherwise ordinary evening into a personal horror show.

It's summer in the Sonoran Desert, and I'm in the kitchen. I've got a thing about kitchens. A kitchen filled with a family working on a meal, talking, laughing, kibitzing, is one of life's treasures. Tonight, it's just me. I'm cleaning the counter. As I lift a large bowl to wipe under it, a strange tri-colored creature, a foot in length and with too many legs to count, uncoils itself from the outside bottom of the bowl. Is there anything louder than a scream?

My husband, outdoors and 100 feet from what's going on, comes running into the house. He doesn't know if I am in mortal danger or hysterical over a mere scorpion.

While I'm screeching, "Get it out of here!" he's ooohing and aaahing over the beauty of this sinuous creature with its countless legs and its vivid bands colored red, black and yellow. Certain I am seconds away from an excruciating death, my curiosity goes into overdrive. The next day, I spend hours trying to identify the creature, only to learn there is an uncanny resemblance between my countertop nightmare and a lethal centipede found in Southeast Asia. To this day, I have no idea what it was or how it got here, nor what might have happened had I not lifted the bowl.

It's another night and another Tucson summer. It's late; we're tired. We decide to call it a day and head for our bedroom. In no way are we ready for what's before us.

As we turn on the lights, we see the first one skitter from behind a painting. Thwack. One unidentified, but unmistakably undesirable bug dispatched to bug heaven.

But wait--there's another, and a third, and look: The walls are coming alive with the sound of scurrying scores once hidden behind the drapes. Soon my husband and I are each using both hands to kill hordes of insects that seem to be appearing faster than we can slay them.

After what feels like an hour in the Twilight Zone, but is likely no more than 10 or 15 minutes, we're left with hundreds of dead and dying roaches littering every surface of our bedroom. Since this invasion is unprecedented, we know something is wrong. We start tearing the room apart, flinging sheets, opening drawers, looking under the mattress. There they are.

Our delightful daughter had decided the best place to conceal the evidence of her misdeed was under the mattress: Dozens of candy wrappers were hidden away in the hopes no parent would discover this childish indulgence.

After cleaning the mess and disposing of the bodies, and following the next day's discussion with our young culprit, we were free to use our bedroom again with no repeat incidents, but not without a few restless nights.

As we share our narratives over time, the facts may fade, but the sustaining truth of each is always humor.

In his master opus, The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco writes, "Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth."

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