Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A germ of grievance

Read the news, and you can’t help but learn about the unrest at many college campuses over myriad offenses…some perfectly justified, some contrived. I can sympathize. There’s much to complain, after all, about an insular institution where the cost of room, board, and other essentials is borne by others, and most activities are set according to a schedule—oh wait, that’s jail.

But because protests at Yale, Princeton, and other top colleges seem trivial compared with, oh, ISIS chopping off Christians’ heads, the collective term for students’ beefs has come to be known as “microaggressions.” Oops! Even my use of the word “beefs” in the previous sentence could classify as microaggression to a vegetarian. Ah, for my salad days. (Better?) You should know you’re overdoing things when even the President says to grow up.

All this thought about everything I could never again say in once-casual conversation made me seek out one place I’d be safe: the living-room sofa. I would just lie down for a few minutes and clear my head. Soon after I did, though, I heard high-pitched, staccato sounds from the kitchen. Elena was working in the other room, so it wasn’t anything she was doing. Nobody else was home.

I couldn’t see anything, but the sound was coming from the trashcan. I opened it and saw nothing inside the liner but a sponge we’d tossed out. Picking up the sponge—from which the sound was coming—I put it close to my ear. Yep, that was it. I dropped the sponge back into the can, deciding that what I’d heard was the sound of air escaping from the sponge. Then I decided to wash my hands.

Once in the bathroom, I opened the vanity door to get another bar of soap. And heard the sound again, only louder. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it sounded like the tiniest of people chanting something over and over. The sound came from near the can of scouring powder, the one with bleach. I grabbed a bar of soap, closed the little cabinet and washed my hands. But behind me, once I shut off the water, I heard the sound again. I opened the shower curtain and leaned in. This time, it was coming from a little shelf on which was a bottle of body wash. Anti-bacterial body wash. I could almost see what I was hearing.

It took a few minutes to find the old microscope from my elementary-school days, but before long I’d rubbed off some sort of specimen from around the base of the bottle. I prepped a slide, clipped it down, and look a good look:

You’d never guess that bacteria had language skills, but there they were on display. I still couldn’t make out what they were saying, let alone how they spoke at all. But their little signs—apparently ultra-nanofine markers exist—decried our various offenses, such as tossing a sponge, cleaning with bleach and committing the ultimate sin: murder by triclosan. By further adjusting the focus, I could read the largest signs. The spelling wasn’t perfect (whattaya want from one-celled organisms?), but the messages were clear:


In other words, we multicellular imperialists needed to apologize, remove the hateful cleaning products from the premises and preserve their ancestry (formerly known as “icky kitchen sponges”) in the utensil drawer.

I had met the microaggressors, and they were us.

With a shake of my head, I realized that I’d fallen asleep, and all those little protests were but a dream. Still, I thought as I sat up, there was no point in taking chances. “Hey, Hon,” I called out to Elena. “Let’s eat out tonight. I’ve just the place! Chipotle’s….”

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