OF all the noble exclamations in the world, ``I understand'' may be the least understood. It is often a throwaway line denoting impatience or no understanding whatsoever. ``Here, let me show you how to do so and so,'' we say and proceed to explain to wives, teen-agers, uncles, co-workers, neighbors, and others exactly how to stack orange crates in a hurricane. Exactly. Utter clarity. Then they snap, ``OK, OK, I understand,'' and start stacking. Down come the orange crates in a breeze no greater than a baby's breath.
Or we try to explain something new, a concept or insight, and all we get is ``I understand'' when we know there is no understanding.
Consider my neighbor Leland Blod-gett, a usually deft man who once built a house with a room with no doors. ``It's not my fault,'' he said when I said, ``Blodgett, old buddy, this room appears to be doorless.''
In case you're wondering how anybody could construct a room with no doors and then get out, rest easy. Blodgett was building from the outside from left to right and failed to keep an accurate count of the number of walls. (You know, one, two, three, and the fourth meant space for a door. Three was four when four was actually four. Understand?)
``Well, it was a storeroom anyway,'' Blodgett said. ``I could leave a hole in the roof and just toss things in.''
``Face it, Blodgett,'' I said. ``You made a critical mistake.''
``Nonsense,'' he said. ``The mistake would have been to put the door in the wrong place. Understand? Now I have a choice.'' He chose wall two, bashed a hole for a door, and then said, ``No problem.''
This same Leland Blodgett once called me in the middle of the night.
``Help,'' he said calmly. ``There is a large snake somewhere in the house.'' Blodgett's wife, Sympathy, had awakened with a great thirst and strolled to the kitchen for a drink. Moonlight streamed in the open windows. She spotted something long and shiny slither from left to right.
Sympathy screamed the all-time, champion, high-decibel, blood-curdling scream and literally hopped onto the kitchen table. Blodgett rose, bleary-eyed but loving, ready to do battle with a team of burglars or aliens from outer space. All the lights went on in the house. Under the assumption that two heads were better than one, Blodgett called me.
I arrived. There stood Blodgett in the kitchen wearing pajamas speckled with little blue turtles. He wore big boots and carried a broom. Sympathy was huddled on top of the kitchen table. She could offer no description of the night creature except, ``Ugh!!'' and that it was at least 85 feet long.
Logic dictated that we make a careful room by room search, gently using brooms to coax the visitor outside. We opened all the outside doors despite Sympathy's plea that we would be letting more snakes in. ``The night is full of snakes,'' she pleaded.
Nothing in the kitchen, nothing in the spare bedroom, nothing in the living room, nothing in the master bedroom. When we got to the den (near the room with the belated door), I saw the tip of a tail poking out from behind a sofa. ``There,'' I said to Blodgett, who mumbled, ``That's incredible.''
We discussed a plan. Death was out of the question. We wanted the critter out as much as it wanted out. We arranged an interlocking wall of old plywood boards in a semicircle leading to an outside door so that when we lifted the sofa, the snake would have nowhere to go but out the door.
``OK,'' I said, ``let's review the plan. We lift the sofa quickly to the right, step over the boards, and put the sofa on the rug. If the snake doesn't move, we coax it with the brooms. Understood?''
Blodgett nodded and whispered, ``I understand.''
I took the end of the sofa nearest the snake, Blodgett the other. We lifted simultaneously, but I moved like a rocket to the right when I saw the size of the snake. I lost my grip. The sofa crashed into the plywood wall. The snake was huge. It was a nonvenomous python. It was coming slowly toward me as I crashed into the plywood.
``What's going on?'' yelled Sympathy from the kitchen. To my astonishment, Blodgett was chuckling to himself.
He leaned down over the bluish-gray snake and said, ``Well, if it isn't old Macbeth. This is Duncan's snake,'' he said, ``the kid who lives by the park. It wouldn't harm a flea.''
``A flea wouldn't matter,'' I said, backing into the kitchen.
Blodgett lifted Macbeth in his arms and walked into the kitchen with it wrapping around him. Sympathy's mouth fell open and stayed open all through Blodgett's telephone call to Duncan. ``Hey, Dunc,'' he said, ``Macbeth is in my kitchen.''
While we waited for Duncan to retrieve his wandering python, Blodgett stood there talking sweetly to Macbeth, who seemed thoroughly to enjoy a warm body to climb over. Sympathy was no longer terrified. ``Leland,'' she said, ``be careful, honey,'' as she climbed down from the kitchen table but would not go near Macbeth.
When Blodgett asked if I wanted to hold Macbeth, I said, ``No thanks.''
``You don't understand,'' he said, ``This snake is comfortable around people. It wouldn't hurt a flea.''
I said, ``You keep saying that, Leland, as if it was a puppy or something.''
``You don't understand,'' he said. ``This snake is harmless.''
``How do you know?''
He smiled. ``I'm the one letting it crawl over me, aren't I?''
OK, so he understood the snake and I didn't. He wasn't afraid and I was. He knew what I couldn't understand.
That's why I wrote this, to explain a difference between understanding and not understanding, between really knowing something and only saying you know something. Or being brave enough to say, ``I don't understand,'' and mean it.
The night is not full of snakes.