Why you shouldn’t eat worms

I remember it as if it were just 45 years ago. It’s a Saturday morning and my dad and I are in his blue ’64 Chevy pickup on the way to the dump. I am working a knuckle furiously in my right eye, trying to dislodge some painful chunk of grit that has been bothering me since earlier in the day when I had lit off some firecrackers to scare the cat. I’ve tried everything: grinding the knuckle, the blinking trick, I even tried to make myself cry by imagining something sad, like my elementary school not burning down — but the recalcitrant grit is still in there.

My digital preoccupation stimulates the following conversation between dad and me:
What are you doing?

Trying to get something out of my eye — oh, hey, I got it!

How do you know it’s out?

I can’t feel it anymore.

Is it on your finger?


Well, then it just slid in behind your eyeball.

At this point my dad laughs like Vincent Price, and for the rest of my life, I believe that everything that gets stuck in my eye that I think I’ve gotten out by gouging and blinking and thinking of sad things (like my office building not burning down) is still in there, a black festering mass of decaying sludge shoved back inside my head and dislodging my brain. I imagine flunking out of fourth grade (or law school) because I just can’t hack it and the doctor saying, “We scanned your son’s head and found that about half of his cranial vault seems filled with bits of bark, sawdust and dead gnats. No, he isn’t very bright, but he’ll probably still be able to work at Starbucks.”

Parents are odd. They tell us all sorts of whoppers just to mess with our heads and scare us silly.
Bill Cosby relates the story of his mother warning him to stay in bed: “We’ve placed over a hundred black poisonous snakes around your crib. And if you so much as put a toe out, they’re going to bite you, you’re going to swell up and be dead until morning.”

Other famous parental fibs include: 1.) don’t cross your eyes or they’ll stay that way and you’ll fall down a flight of stairs and die; 2.) you have to wait 20 minutes after you eat to go swimming or you will get a cramp, sink and die; 3.) eat your vegetables or you will grow up weak and spindly and die early; 4.) if you hold in your sneezes your brain will explode; 5.) if you play in the rain “you will catch your death of a cold,”; 6.) you have to be absolutely quiet while we cross the Tappan Zee Bridge or it will collapse and we’ll all die.

Careful study will show two themes at work here. The first is simple: death. Now, as threats go, this is a pretty good one, especially when you’re six and don’t even know what it means. Somehow, parents make death seem so ominous, like it’s the last thing you’d ever want to do. “Little Timmy Spurtle ate worms and he just got all swolled up and died.” And then you say you don’t know Timmy Spurtle and your dad says, “Of course not, because he died.” And so you put the worms back in your pocket.

The second theme is more subtle: convenience. Parents scare the daylights out of us with their nonsense just so they can relax. (Cosby’s mother made up the snake story just because she wanted to watch Johnny Carson.) All our juvenile shenanigans exhaust our parents and they just want to be able to fall asleep in a comfy chair without worrying about us burning the house down or catching pneumonia. And they certainly don’t want to have to make endless trips to the emergency room or explain to the neighbors why your cat has no hair. I’ve been a dad myself now, and I’ve spent half my life pooped from all the excitement and worry, so I get it.

So, kids, please, just be quiet and sit still and don’t touch each other and don’t play with matches and don’t go in over your head and stay off the roof and leave toads where you find them and sneeze heartily and keep your hands in your pockets and eat your broccoli. (Okay, take your hands out of your pockets, and then eat your broccoli.)

And for goodness sake don’t swallow your gum because it will stay in your stomach for seven years and then you will get all swolled up and die.

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