Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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When my husband was in graduate school, we lived in married-student housing and shared a common entrance with three other apartments. One day, our upstairs neighbor was sitting on the front stoop with her young daughter. As a carpenter ant crawled across the cement, our neighbor pointed to it and said, “Look, Kimmy. Bug . . . ick!”
The ant wandered away unharmed, but I’ve often wondered since then how much curiosity and fascination with the natural world was squashed by those two little words.
Rochester Hills, Michigan
There was a roach in my shower this morning.
I believe it was in direct violation of the 1953 Geneva Convention on the Rights of Infestees, which states that “roaches . . . may not appear in unusual places without seeking prior written authorization.”
Oh, there wasn’t such a convention? Pity. There should have been. I expect roaches in kitchens and garages and gardening sheds. I do not expect them under my bare feet in the shower.
I am a large woman of severe mien, and not much scares me. I like snakes and think rats are cute. I routinely walk some of Honolulu’s meanest streets — in the dark. But show me a roach dropping and I start to tremble. Show me a roach itself and I come unglued. I come unglued frequently, for, contrary to the image the Hawaii Visitors’ Bureau promotes, our state animal is not the “beach bunny,” but the cockroach.
We Hawaiians also share our houses with gecko lizards and our yards with cane toads because most people believe geckos and cane toads eat roaches. Who came up with this myth, an amphibian spin doctor? No one I know has ever seen a gecko or a toad with a roach in its mouth. I have, however, seen geckos run from roaches.
This morning, I was unable to kill the roach with either my bare, quivering foot or the soap. So, after dancing around, trying not to shriek, I did the only rational thing: I got out and waited, shivering, until the roach sauntered out and disappeared under the sink. I tell you, they enjoy it.
One day when I was eight, my little sister, Molly, came home with lice, and we all had to be decontaminated with stinky shampoo. The next few nights my mom went over every strand of my long hair with a light blue comb meant for babies. At the time, I thought lice were just something everyone got, like a cold. But after that my best friend wasn’t allowed to spend the night anymore, nor could I sleep over at her house. She explained, “My mom says I shouldn’t come over because the bugs you have are catching.”
A few years later a persistent, scaly sore on my leg turned out to be ringworm, and I was careful to hide it. I knew by then that kids with ringworm, like kids with lice, were dirty; they didn’t take baths or change their clothes, and their mothers piled laundry in the living room, didn’t dust or mop, and bought their kids’ clothes at thrift stores. I knew to be ashamed. Our house was messy and I didn’t have anyone to take care of me because my mom worked all night and slept all day. Maybe I didn’t take enough baths. Maybe I got it from my thrift-store clothes.
My cousin Danny saw the sore one day and pointed to it and asked, “What’s that?”
“A sore,” I answered.
“What kind of sore?” He knew, I thought, and only wanted to humiliate me.
“Just a sore,” I said.
Mammoth Lakes, California
To celebrate the purchase of my first home, I sent my gay friends and straight relatives cards announcing “the arrival in my life of a meeting place for family, friends, and subterranean pests.”
Though I’d meant that last phrase as a joke, I soon noticed a proliferation of what appeared to be carpenter ants in the bathtub. Not wanting my seventy-year-old, wood-frame house to become some creature’s dinner, I called a pest-control company.
I was visited by a large native Floridian named Kenny. He and I couldn’t have lived in worlds further apart — mine being one of frothy musical comedies and his being a world of monster-truck pulls. Yet here we both were, seated at my kitchen table, going over his detailed assessment of my house’s infestation.
“It’s a good thing you called me when you did,” he began. “You got ants, but not only that — you got queens. Lots of ’em.” His voice deepened with the tragic news, betraying that he had no idea (1) that I was gay and (2) that gay men commonly refer to each other as “queens.”
“In fact,” Kenny continued, “you got so many queens, they’re coming out of the walls. That’s why you’re finding ’em dead in the tub. And the worst part is, these queens can crawl into your house in one day, but it can take three months to get rid of ’em!”
Only one thought flashed through my mind: I was about to host a cast party for a local production of the gay farce La Cage aux Folles. Good God, I thought, my guests will never leave.
“Why Nepal?” Asked my worried father. “Why can’t you take a safe, comfortable vacation, somewhere like France?” I told him that to really grow I needed to challenge myself, and eating croissants in a Paris cafe wasn’t quite challenging enough.
But after a few months of roughing it around Asia, I was tired of being challenged. Fed up with my original plan, I decided to end my trip embracing hedonism instead of hardship. I splurged on a beachside bungalow on a tropical island in southern Thailand, where I spent four delightful days swimming, reading, and having coconut-oil massages on the beach at sunset. It was paradise — except for the vicious mosquito that harassed me in my room at night, keeping me awake with its maddening whining and biting.
In the Bangkok airport for the trip home, I started to feel sick. By the time my flight was in the air, I was burning up. Every bone and joint was aching, and I had wrenching stomach cramps and a blinding headache. During a stopover in Singapore, I feverishly flipped through travel guidebooks until I found a disease that matched my symptoms: dengue fever, a sometimes fatal virus transmitted by mosquitoes and common on the island I’d just left.
After what seemed like an endless flight, I made it back to my parents’ house and was soon diagnosed with hepatitis because the virus had spread to my liver. I lost a lot of weight and could do nothing but sleep and wait for time to heal my weakened body.
Though I’ve completely recovered now, I no longer rush around the way I used to. Someone once told me that disease can challenge us to grow. Perhaps that pesky mosquito was meant to be there, in the very place I had gone to avoid suffering.
When I was a small girl growing up on a farm in North Dakota, I loved box-elder bugs — slow-moving black insects with orange lines on their backs. I allowed them to crawl delicately on my hands and legs. My mother also treated them benevolently; the most she ever did was sweep them out the door when they began to overrun the house.
My mother died in the spring of 1992, and that September my father followed. I returned home for his funeral. On the day I arrived, the temperature was an unseasonable ninety degrees and the house was filled with box-elder bugs. I was delighted, but my sister, who was spending the night in the guest bedroom — where the box-elder bugs poured in the most — yelled, “How am I going to sleep with these things crawling on my face?”
In the middle of the night, I heard muffled shrieks coming from the guest bedroom. Then my sister burst out, grabbed a vacuum cleaner, and sucked up all the box-elder bugs she could find. It was as if she were sucking the heart out of me.
After the funeral, we sisters and brothers divided up the household furnishings; I took the vacuum cleaner, its bag still full of box-elder bugs. I have rarely used it. Sometimes I take it out to clean up some spilled birdseed. Something for the box-elder bugs to eat, I think. Of course, they’ve probably turned to powder by now. Maybe, by the time I finally empty the bag, there will be nothing left of this memory to make me cry.
I was twenty-two and living on a graduate student’s income in Topeka, Kansas. Each time I brought a girl back to my apartment, I had to warn the bugs first. I’d leave the girl in the car and run inside to flip on the lights. Immediately, ten thousand black water bugs would scatter. Then I’d calmly return to escort the girl in. Of course, if she needed to use the bathroom, I’d run ahead again to warn the bugs to seek shelter. If she stayed the night, I’d fix breakfast before she awoke, clearing the toaster of the bugs who considered it home. Despite my best efforts, a few dates spotted a bug and screamed in disgust — but not one ever left the apartment because of them. Some left for other reasons.
Ronald L. Riffel
While taking a walk one night four years ago, I came upon a potato bug struggling to make its way across a dirt road by the light of a street lamp. It was smack in the middle of the road and moving extremely slowly; my heart went out to it when I heard a car coming. I found a large leaf, cradled the bug in it, and carefully moved it to the side of the road. “You’re going to get hit, little one,” I whispered as the car came and went.
I was in a particularly benevolent state of mind that night. I had just walked down from the mountain where I’d watched the city below and prayed to find some sense of direction in my work, some meaning that had been lost for a long time. As a result, I was feeling confused and fragile. The trees and the road and the night sky seemed alive and full of meaning, but the life I lived during the day seemed remote and dead. The strange little creature I could just as easily have smashed underfoot without being aware of it felt more real to me than people I’d worked with every day for years.
Even now I wish that someone would whisper to me, “You’re going to get hit, little one,” and gently carry me to a safer place where my talents are wanted, where no boss will lecture me to stop caring, where my spirit won’t be crushed.
When I was fifteen, my parents placed me in a mental hospital, where I spent the first couple of nights in a padded cell. My glasses, my belt — anything I could possibly have hurt myself with — had been taken away from me. Since I’m legally blind without my glasses, everything was blurred, like a macabre impressionist painting. I was frightened. The cell reeked of urine. When the attendant closed the foot-thick door behind me, I felt a profound hopelessness.
From the other side of the door, the taunts began: “Hey, bug, you poor little bug, they’re gonna squash you, man — just like the rest of us.” (I later learned that anyone spending time in the seclusion cell was referred to as “bug”; I heard that word a lot over the next couple of days.)
After a while, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye — a brown blur. I got closer and discovered it was a small cockroach. I had never been particularly fond of roaches, but I was glad for the company. I began following the roach across the floor. I watched it run up and down my mattress for about half an hour, cleaning itself and searching in vain for even the smallest morsel.
Suddenly, the roach ducked into a crack in the wall and disappeared. It had escaped! There was a lesson to be learned here: if this bug could free itself from hell, then so could I.
Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania
Faced with writing a long and difficult thesis, I assembled my notes on the table in the back yard, out under the orange tree. As I began to write, I felt that I was being watched. I glanced up at a low-hanging branch of the orange tree and saw a praying mantis clinging to it upside down.
The next day, another came and sat on the table. Gradually, one by one they came until I was encircled by six different species of praying mantis. My husband and I searched to see if we had suddenly become overrun with them, but as far as we could tell they appeared only in the area around the table.
For five weeks, I worked ten hours a day on the thesis. In the evenings, I brought out trays of votive candles and wrote by candlelight. Every day, the mantises were there with me: two or three on the table and five or six in the tree and in the ferns. By coincidence, I had recently given my husband A Mantis Carol, by Laurens Van Der Post, as a gift. While he was inside the house reading about a Bushman who considered the praying mantis a deity, I was outside surrounded by them.
The day after I finished my thesis, the mantises disappeared. We’ve spent many hours at the table under the orange tree since then, but they’ve never come back.
In the military, wives often exercise the authority of their husbands’ ranks when dealing with the wives of subordinates. In 1973, my fiancé was a young major recently assigned to a Southern post. Girlfriends had warned me that I would have to pay homage to higher-ranking officers’ wives in order to keep my soon-to-be husband’s career afloat.
In my early twenties and shy, I was terrified when, one hot evening, we were invited to the home of the installation commander, a three-star general. I made my way around the dining room, seeking an ally, and found myself face to face with the grande dame of the post herself, Mrs. Three-Star. She smiled and asked polite questions, and I tried to answer without spitting spinach dip on her.
As we spoke, the doorbell rang, and, urging me to stand pat for a moment, she went to answer it. Just as she pulled the door open, the largest roach I’d ever seen began to cross the hall between her and the newly arrived guests. Without missing a beat, she brought her right foot upward, executed a graceful turn, and squished the huge bug. Then, as she chip-shot the roach over to the wall, she shouted to her husband, “Hey, John, I think I just got Big Daddy; he’s even bigger than the one you killed last night.”
When she returned to my side, I asked her, incredulous, “You’ve got bugs?”
“Oh, honey,” she said, “we’ve all got them here . . . but since I’m the general’s wife, I get the biggest ones!”
San Francisco, California
I was cleaning my kitchen, being careful to get under the dish drainer, the coffee dispenser, and the toaster, when suddenly I found a cricket surrounded by bread crumbs and looking up at me. Without thinking, I swatted it with my dish towel and stepped on it with my shoe.
I think now about that cricket and how cute it was, just sitting there, and how it hadn’t uttered a chirp all morning. It reminds me of everything innocent that somehow dies without having done anything wrong.
Takoma Park, Maryland
My cat, Loomis, was about to have her first kittens. Loomis had lice; all the cats had them that summer. There were lice everywhere. I called the vet, who said, “Delouse her before the kittens come, because the insecticide will kill new kittens.” So I rushed out to buy louse poison and came back, only to find Loomis in a suitcase in my bedroom, with her new kittens.
At first it seemed OK. Then the lice discovered the kittens, and the kittens started crying. They cried all the time, day and night. They cried so much their voices grew scratchy and they couldn’t nurse. I called the vet again and he said, “Don’t put the louse powder on them yet.”
The kittens got weaker and weaker. They weren’t growing. They were all bloody. I picked the lice off them with my fingers, but there were too many lice and the kittens were too small. Finally, I figured the babies were suffering so much they had nothing to lose. So I took Loomis out, powdered her up, and brushed out all the dead lice and powder I could. Then I put her back in the suitcase.
Within three hours all the kittens were curled up and sucking for breath. I took them out behind the house and held a kerosene-soaked washcloth over their little noses. Then I powdered Loomis to within an inch of her life and burned the suitcase. I buried the babies in the dark.
Maria lived in the poor part of San Diego. She had two sons, eight and ten years old, who wanted bicycles, but Maria wouldn’t buy them any. It wasn’t just the money: Maria worried her boys would get hurt while riding their bikes. She was afraid of having to take the boys to the hospital, because she didn’t have a green card. In her mind, giving her boys bikes could get them deported.
The boys didn’t have many toys, but they kept themselves amused. One day I saw them playing with what looked like radio-controlled airplanes buzzing in circles above their heads.
When I came closer, I saw that the planes were actually two green beetles with threads tied around their bodies, trying to fly away.
My housemate refused to kill insects. He’d herd even mosquitoes into cups and release them. I admired his patience.
I’ll occasionally let a spider (provided it’s under a certain size) live in some obscure corner of my home. On days of great patience, I will rescue certain insects, such as bees. I once shared my porch with a nest of them. We got along fine. But a year or two later I tried to coexist with hornets and received a nasty sting for my efforts. The maintenance man exterminated them.
A creature’s home is its private domain. If I trespassed in a bear’s den or hornet’s nest, I’d suffer consequences. Why should my home be any different? Granted, we humans have usurped more than our fair share of this earth and routinely evict creatures and destroy their homes. When I till my garden, myriad homes are disrupted or destroyed. Still, I have a right to eat, no?
I’d love to be compassionate enough to allow flies to buzz unharassed in my kitchen, to let ants, cockroaches, and even mosquitoes find sanctuary within my home. I admit that much of my effort to eradicate them is based on fear and a distaste for what I perceive as ugly and creepy. Yet a nonviolent philosophy about pests seems more a product of right thinking than true compassion.
When my young daughter, Emma, began collecting potato bugs, I was happy to see her pursuing scientific interests. Occasionally I would find boxes of dead potato bugs in her room and would tell her firmly that she should not bring bugs into the house without permission, reminding her that the bugs needed to stay outdoors to survive. Still, I was pleased by her commitment to her investigations.
One day, Emma came to me and said, “I’ve been really bad,” and she began to cry.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know why I do this, but I do. It’s like I can’t help it.”
“What do you do?” I asked, wondering what she could possibly have done to bring on such feelings of guilt.
“Sometimes, after I catch the potato bugs, I pull their legs off,” she said, sobbing.
I took her in my arms and held her. “Why do you do that?” I asked quietly.
“I don’t know.” She held out her empty hands as if to show her lack of motive, then covered her face with them. “I know it’s wrong. I don’t know why I’m so bad.”
“Well . . . everyone makes mistakes and does things they regret. Just don’t do it anymore, OK?”
But Emma continued to cry. “I knew it was wrong, but I just kept doing it.”
I held her and stroked her head as she cried, and then I began thinking about the sins that I continually repeat even though I know they are wrong. What could I tell my child? We are all human, driven somehow to commit wrongs, even when we know we shouldn’t. But does this always make us bad?
L. C. F. Shaw
The Peace Corps had just assigned me to a remote village in Rwanda, and after two days alone at my post, I had yet to sleep: I was too busy killing every creeping thing in the house.
I had seen plenty of bugs during my training in Burundi, but at the time I’d been with other Americans. With friends, it had been fun to smash bugs. Alone, I feared their squashed souls would come back to haunt me.
On the third day, a torrential rain began at three in the afternoon, turning the sky almost pitch-black. My body begged for sleep, but the rain drove the bugs in. Spiders came down from the roof. Ants made a trail from my bag of rice to the bucket I used for washing dishes and bathing.
Then hundreds of strange caterpillars came pouring through the gap under my door. They looked like fuzzy brown worms with pointed wings. Attracted from the nearby lake by my candlelight, they paused under the door, then plunged at me with great force. They attached themselves to my clothes, my head, my feet, my hair. They didn’t sting, just clung. There was no way to kill them all. I screamed and swung at them and took off my clothing to get rid of them. I wet my hair, but that only trapped them there; I could feel them crawling along my scalp.
It was more than an hour before I got rid of them. Still feeling their tiny legs making tracks on my head, I began packing to go back to the States.
When people asked why I’d returned, I gave them many reasons: the language, malaria, the war. Everyone understood, and even praised my attempt to help humanity.
How could I ever tell them the truth — that it was the bugs?
In 1959, when I was six years old, my father was killed in an automobile accident. Afterward, my mother moved us three girls into a small house in a middle-class neighborhood of Redondo Beach, California.
Times were hard, but we girls didn’t feel deprived. We were three blocks from the beach, the climate was warm and mild, and we attended school in sandals and sun dresses. What more could a child ask for?
The only drawback was the bugs. Taking milk bottles in from the back step, we first had to knock off fat garden slugs with a spoon. To discourage silverfish, we had to line the kitchen, bathroom, and dining-room drawers with grayish white paper that smelled like aspirin. To prevent cockroaches, we took all food out of its original packaging, wrapped it in plastic wrap, and stored it in closed containers or put it in the freezer. Every summer, the house would be invaded by sand fleas, which meant sprinkling the floors with salt and sweeping or vacuuming every day.
The worst bugs were the ants. If we let our popsicles drip on the patio, we hosed it off immediately. We carefully scrubbed kitchen counters, stove, table, and sinks, and poured bleach down the garbage disposal.
Mom worked as a waitress and hostess from 4 P.M. until well after midnight — the tips were better on the late shift. She would come home exhausted, but instead of crawling into bed she’d sit up reading until it was time to take us to school. We never saw her defeated; she was always cheerful. I don’t think I realized how hard raising us alone was on my mother until I was in high school.
One night when I was fourteen, I woke to the sound of my mother sobbing. I quietly got out of bed and walked down the hall to the kitchen. She was sitting at the table, her head down, crying in heaving gasps. On the table was a can of bug spray. An inch-wide trail of black ants stretched from the door, across the floor, up the cupboards, over the counter top, and into the sink, where the ants were busy disassembling a moth that had died there. Mom had sprayed them. Not all the ants were dead yet; some were still alive but spinning and reeling jerkily. The kitchen reeked with the minty gasoline scent of the spray.
I didn’t know what to do. I had never seen my mother this way, as if things were too much to bear. I went back to bed but couldn’t sleep. When I got up again about ten minutes later, Mom had stopped crying. I poured two large glasses of iced tea from the fridge. While she drank hers, I took the big sponge from beneath the sink and wiped up the dead ants and poison spray before my sisters got up for breakfast.
Someone in my daughter’s class had pinworms, so the school sent home an information sheet about them. “An easy way to check for pinworms,” it said, “is this: During the night, check your child’s anus with a flashlight. The females lay their eggs at night so you will be looking for the eggs or the adults laying eggs.” Easy, maybe, but I didn’t savor the prospect.
Todd and I watched a bit of TV, then got a flashlight and went into the kids’ room, where they were sleeping. I’d asked them to wear nightgowns or shirts to bed so that we could check them for pinworms, and two of the three had obliged. Todd pulled our littlest boy’s underwear down to his knees and shone the light at his bottom. We parted the cheeks and stared, hoping not to see any eggs or worms moving around in there. Nope. Nothing except a sweet pink flower. It felt so strange to be looking at this while he was sleeping, like a breach of etiquette.
We went on to look at the others. They sort of groaned but remained sleeping as we separated buttocks and lit up holes. I can’t come up with a good description of the way the hole moves: sort of like a sea creature, an anemone, undulating.
No pinworms tonight; just sleeping, breathing flowers.
I recently read that there are more than three thousand species of cockroaches. I have experience with only two: the common German cockroach and the giant palmetto bug of the South Carolina coast. When I was a kid living near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I’d find the latter everywhere — drawers, closets, bathtub, bed. I remember opening the silverware drawer only to have one shoot past my face like a missile. A fan of Japanese monster movies, I delighted in the thought of legions of Godzilla-sized palmetto bugs chasing sunburned Yankees from Myrtle Beach, with its crass commercialism and overdevelopment.
As I grew older, cockroaches became my imaginary threat toward everyone I distrusted, disdained, or just flat-out hated: rather than dwell upon the wrongs people had done me, I would simply imagine their homes overrun by cockroaches. The image never failed to lighten my mood.
Later, I heard about cockroaches’ ability to multiply at phenomenal rates and withstand insecticides, and, of course, their legendary capacity to not just survive but thrive in the fallout from a nuclear attack. While other people would speak of these traits in hushed, fearful tones, I would smile inwardly. In some strange way, the thought allayed my fears of nuclear war: I could trust roaches to take care of things after the humans were gone.
Cockroaches will always outnumber us humans — whether we like it or not. Their singular talent for survival and their dogged persistence in the face of absolute human enmity inspire me. Those are virtues that I would do well to strive for — a reminder that sometimes we must look to the lowliest places to find the loftiest ideals.
Hail the mighty cockroach!
Samuel W. Gaines
Greensboro, North Carolina
Channel-surfing one night, I came across a view of three ants sitting on a leaf. The camera was so close the ants appeared dinosaur-sized. They were quietly eating when down came an enormous-looking raindrop that hit the leaf, turning it into a springboard. The slow-motion shot showed the ants thrown into somersaults and back flips, little legs flailing as they were bounced into the air. They landed back on the leaf only to be hit by another gigantic raindrop. I could almost see them flinch and duck their little heads. If this is how rain appears to such tiny beings, I thought, how do people look?
Now, when I see an insect, I pause and imagine what life is like on its scale and remember that it is a small part of this big old world.
Wendy Jordan Saffel
About a month ago, while reading on the couch, I felt a tickling sensation on my left breast. I peeked inside my shirt to find the cause: a small ant. Though annoyed by the interruption, I decided that the responsible thing would be to find him a more appropriate hangout. So I put down my book, unbuttoned my shirt, and attempted to relocate him onto my palm. But he wanted none of it. For the better part of ten minutes, I tried to wrangle the errant rascal as he crawled up the side of my neck, down my shoulder, around my stomach, and back up my chest. Finally, the ant deigned to comply, and, cradling him in my cupped hand, I stepped out the front door and deposited him safely on a moist green leaf.
One week later, I walked into the kitchen for my morning cup of tea and was taken aback by the sight of a jar of honey on the counter being swarmed by ants — hundreds and hundreds of them. Without a second thought, I picked up a sponge, wet it, and, with a few sweeps, killed them all.