I’m telling the world: He said he fired his Chinese employee for beating him at ping pong!

It was a joke, though.

ping pong

I’m at the gym, gliding along on the elliptical with my brain set in writerly mode, looking around and observing people. That guy on the treadmill in front of me, could he be a Marine? Oh look, there’s my friend from church, the one who speaks with a lilting accent, I must try to remember where she’s from, is it Panama? And behind me, a man with a booming voice is having a jokey conversation with a friend as they walk along the main corridor.

I miss most of the conversation, but when the man says “I’ll fire her!” in his booming voice and he and his friend burst out laughing, I swivel my torso around to get a look at him. It’s an awkward swivel if you’re on the elliptical, and what do I gain from it? Nothing, only This is what two businessmen sharing a laugh together look like, this is what the man with a booming voice looks like. He is a rather slight fellow with a mustache, as it turns out. His build doesn’t match his voice at all.

I pedal on and forget about him until a few minutes later, when he suddenly appears at my elbow, lightly touching it. At first, I don’t recognize him.

Excuse me ma’am,  just want to make sure you know I was kidding.

Kidding about what? And who is this guy? I wonder.

You know, when I said that about firing my employee.

Oh, that guy. I didn’t hear the whole conversation, I say. I was just being nosy, pay no mind, I don’t say.

Well, I was telling my friend my Chinese employee beat me at ping pong. She beat the pants off me, actually. But I wouldn’t fire her anyway, she’s the best employee I’ve got.

Oh, I say. I laugh a little, and he is gone. It takes me a moment to figure out that when he boomed I’ll fire her!, he was referring to her thrashing him at ping pong. Now the joke makes sense.

But his behavior astonishes me. After reflecting on his words, he came all the way back across the room to the woman who had turned around on the treadmill to listen to him–me. To explain himself. As though he had to. To me, a nosy nobody.


Did he think, Who is that woman who swiveled around to look at me, could she be a friend of my employee’s who will tell her about the conversation?

But even if that were the case, the employee would surely get the joke. That she might worry her boss would really fire her because she beat him at ping pong doesn’t seem like a realistic possibility to me. I’m sure they joked about it at the time, especially given his jovial, outgoing personality.

What else, then?

He wants to make absolutely sure nobody ever thinks he would fire his Chinese employee for beating him at ping pong. Not even the nosy lady on the elliptical whom he’ll probably never see again–nobody.

Because you possibly could, if you were particularly obtuse, interpret his joke as a racist or sexist remark. And racist and sexist are about the two scariest epithets you can hurl at someone these days.

I want to run after him and shout, Wait, it’s a joke, I get it! I want to shout, It’s none of my business anyway! I want to shout, Even if you meant it literally, don’t apologize, you have freedom of speech!

But it’s too late, he’s gone, leaving me wondering, as I pedal on, about freedom of speech and what it means. Doesn’t it mean some people have a right to express their racist, sexist opinions, even if they are highly offensive to other people?  If the offenders aren’t at the workplace, where their comments have a direct effect on the people who work with them, the answer is yes. We have the right. But what good is it if we’re afraid to use it?

This guy was not only not offensive, he was so worried about being perceived that way that he felt he had to explain himself, to protect himself. Presumably against the possible pc patrol on the elliptical.

And if we feel we have to police ourselves from people at the gym, how free are we?





The Pumpkin Man

The Pumpkin Man

Every fall in the Seattle neighborhood where I live, pumpkin vines begin to sprout all across the lawn and up the front entrance of the house of the Pumpkin Man.

The vines are fruitful and multiply, and in the weeks leading up to Halloween, the Pumpkin Man’s yard becomes a child’s dream of giant orange and white delights.

Big pumpkins–some weighing up to 500 pounds. Messy pumpkins, sprawling willy nilly all over the place like toys that refuse to be put away. Pumpkins that suggest your front yard does not have to be a place of carefully-tended rose bushes and grass that must be weeded and mowed and leaves that must be raked. No, it can be fun and wild and free, like the setting of a Dr. Seuss book.

Well, maybe not your actual mom’s lawn. But maybe your lawn, maybe someday. The potential is there.

In reality, growing a yard full of huge pumpkins that later must be mulched or recycled or buried is a lot of work. Why does the Pumpkin Man do it?

“I like seeing people enjoy it, I like seeing a smile on their face,” he says.

But exactly why he got started, even he is not sure. It was back in 1970, and Greg Shaw, who was not yet the Pumpkin Man, had just left the Army. He was a tenant in a small house and planted some jade plants in the yard. Then he built a small greenhouse for them.

“I just liked growing things,” he says.

He had never grown pumpkins before, but for no particular reason planted some Big Max pumpkin seeds in a pot. They grew to a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk height of 20 feet. They produced a 100-pound pumpkin. Shaw was hooked.

But he had to leave his new hobby behind for several years while living in an apartment and attending the University of Washington. Then in 1981 he moved back to the Magnolia neighborhood where he’d lived before, and this time, planted Big Max seeds in his yard. Big pumpkins came up. They were even more unusual a sight then then they are now, and he got quite a reaction. Every year, his pumpkin patch grew larger. Then he moved into a different house across the alley and started again.

Shaw became a real estate agent. He told a successful colleague what he was known for, and asked the man’s opinion.

“Do you want to be thought of as a Pumpkin Man or a Realtor?” the colleague asked.

He abandoned his pumpkin growing for four years while growing his career as a realtor. Then he started planting his seeds again.

His pumpkins are an eye-opener here in the city, but when he took one weighing 170 pounds to the rural Puyallup Fair one year, it failed to win a prize. The winner was a 569-pounder. Since then, Shaw’s pumpkins have hit 500 pounds, but he doesn’t enter competitions anymore. Some growers have now produced fruits surpassing a ton.

Size is not the point for Shaw. For him, it’s all about the reaction he gets.

One year, some 30 years back, there were pumpkin thieves afoot, and he placed a baby monitor in his yard to watch for prowlers. His footage didn’t show any, but it did expose plenty of people screaming and yelling with excitement at his pumpkins.

Cool!!! they would say. Or Holy ____!!

The Pumpkin Man does not use expletives. But he understands how his yard causes others to do so, and it’s OK.

There’s something magical about the pumpkins, and it’s not just their size, it’s their rate of achieving it. When Shaw says he likes watching them grow, he means it almost literally.

“There was one around 20 years ago that grew ten feet in 24 hours. That’s half an inch an hour,” he says.

The hardest parts of pumpkin growing are weeding the plants, and cleaning it all up when the harvest is over.

Shaw can’t quite claim to be an organic gardener–his fertilizer contains a fungicide–but he uses no pesticides. His two cats take care of rats. Occasionally he has a problem with squirrels who don’t quite get what a pumpkin is.

“They think it’s a big nut or something and they try to chew on it.”

The Halloween harvest ends with a ghoulish chain saw massacre as Shaw cuts up the fruit and fills his truck with over 2,000 pounds of it, headed for the yard waste recycling center. Or sometimes he buries it, as he did last year. One year, he donated pumpkin guts to a food bank to make pumpkin pie.

By April 21st, he’ll be ready to sow another year’s crop. As long as he’s able, he’ll keep doing it.

One time a man came by with his child, and Shaw heard him say, “When I was growing up, my parents brought me here to see the giant pumpkins.”

That’s motivation. Two generations so far, and the Pumpkin Man’s still growing strong.

To sell your house or get free pumpkin seeds, contact Greg Shaw at 206.579.5475206.579.5475, gregshaw@windermere.com.

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