Friday, June 24, 2011

Before They Grossed Me Out: Little Creatures, Then and Now

The sun has come up on Shadowglen and the grackles have begun the grim daily task of ingesting those Junebugs too slow to have taken cover. Last night, when J and I were enjoying a nightcap on our back patio, the Junebugs pestered us relentlessly, so they’re getting what my mother, in her down-home way, would have called their “come-uppance.”

The last time I wrote about insects was in an earlier post, when I complained, in true Suburban Squire Style, about my ant problem. Come to think of it, I’ve also written about my New York roach issues. I once wrote a poem that describes a man whose one-bedroom apartment has somehow become infested with flies. One of my best pieces of narrative was the opening of a short story that describes a woman who has just had an exquisite shower. She steps into her living room, feeling refreshed, when a cockroach skitters across the floor, taps her foot, and skitters away again. She sighs before removing her towel and bathrobe and getting right back into the shower.

Does this periodic return to the subject of bugs add up to an obsession? Could be. It might not come as a surprise to some who knew me as a child. Obsession is too weak a word to describe how I felt about the insect world as a kid. It wasn’t the exasperated state I seem to communicate in my writing. Instead, it was a real fascination – a scientific curiosity with what the little buggers were up to, moment to moment, day to day. It wasn’t unusual to find me or my buddy Richie Mahoney squatting down over an anthill, or with our faces peering, just inches from a spider web.

We were drawn by the combat of insects, often pitting ants and beetles against one another. Red ant versus black was one of our favorite match-ups, because despite being considerably smaller than the black carpenter ants, red ants were a whole lot tougher, a dynamic we could relate to as children. We were accustomed to being underestimated.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl was one of my favorite books. I loved the idea that a boy could fully enter the lives and stories of bugs. I even had dreams about shrinking down and hanging out with insects myself.

Of my own two children, Jackson is the one who is more like me when it comes to bugs and animals. He’s likely to seek out interesting creatures under rocks and tree stumps. If he sees a gecko, for example, he won’t just remark on it, he’ll go ahead and get it, so that he can turn it around in his hands and inspect it.

Jeanette and Diego fall into the other camp; they’re grossed out and would generally prefer that the world’s wildlife stick to themselves and leave us humans alone.

Not that Diego lacks the scientist’s curious mind, however. Two of his favorite books contain graphic close-up photos, of snakes and reptiles and of insects, respectively.

I often wonder what old Richie Mahoney is up to these days. My hope is that he’s a dad like me, observing the behavior of his children, continuously comparing their experiences to what was a pretty idyllic childhood, looking back on it. Maybe, as I write this, he’s crouching beside a son or daughter, their faces just inches away from a spider web, their eyes wide, as they wait for the action to unfold.

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