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Bugged 

Wednesday, Apr 24 2002
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The ants are back. A little early this year, and not yet in the expected crowds, but definitely back.

Up until a few years ago, the ant world showed no interest in darkening our door, or crossing our sill, or finding its way through the odd crack in the plaster. It didn’t matter how many dishes piled up in the sink, how many jars of jam or jelly were left open on the counter, how deep lay the crumbs upon the floor, the ants did their business elsewhere. They stayed in the yard. They kept their distance. This was fine with me.

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When I was a small fry -- and up until I was a pretty big fry, really -- I was afraid of bugs. Almost any bug, apart from the common housefly, with which I was inevitably familiar and over which I felt a kind of mastery (also known as a fly swatter). Insects of a more extravagant kind were rarely seen in our tidy Valley home; the odd silverfish or spider sent us straight to DEFCON 1. I was a sensitive child, and bugs were the stuff of nightmares, the real-life models for monsters in movies I was too nervous to watch, but sometimes did. I know I am a lot bigger than a spider, except for that giant spider in Tarantula; still, who blames the elephant for fearing the mouse? I am a lot bigger than a germ too (also called a bug), but that hasn‘t kept me from catching cold.

I don’t like bugs, but they keep coming into my life. Or is it that I come into theirs? In 10th-grade Biology, we were forced to perform genetic experiments on fruit flies. (As other classes were cutting open frogs to better comprehend the wonder of life, I considered this a lucky break.) The idea was to breed a blue-tailed, hatch-backed, chicken-winged, cross-eyed fruit fly -- something like that -- and each student was given his very own little batch of bugs to match up, Dolly Levi style. In order to manipulate the subjects, to get them under a microscope, then into the proper bottles, it was necessary to chloroform them -- a skill that would qualify me now as an insect kidnapper, if I had actually acquired it, if I hadn‘t killed them all. It’s more delicate than you might think, knocking out a fly.

A few years later, I went to live in Florida, where the bugs can hardly be called insects. Florida roaches are big and tough -- and can fly, some of them. It was understood that the kitchen was theirs at night. Not that their diet was restricted to food: One lived inside and off of a clock I owned; another actually ate my homework. And there were poisonous fire ants, which, given a certain amount of teamwork, supposedly could kill a cow. (Killing a cow seems to be the standard measure of insect power.) Somehow I became inured to their company, and to that of their countless colorful cousins, as men in war come to accept, you know, bombs and stuff. I got to know them, but I did not like them any better. I kept my head down and thought of Norway.

Sarah, who delights in her garden and all the living world, is always calling my attention to some crawly, squirmy thing. I am always not coming over to look. As with many things that one does not appreciate or understand, my first impulse regarding my bug brothers has been to run away, and my second has been to kill them. Dropping heavy books on the roaches, reaching for the Raid, bombing the house for fleas.

But that was the old me, the old fly-swatting me. While I‘m no less inclined to run, I have grown more tenderhearted. And a little more brave. There is a big wispy something-or-other flying around in here right now, and I am keeping my cool. Now I have trapped it behind the blinds, where it can flit out of my notice and -- oh, now it’s back. But I‘m cool, I’m -- hold on a minute.

I am glad you were not here to see that.

As I was saying, we have ants. (And unidentified wispy flying things.) After so many ant-free years, we must have made their Guide Michelin, because suddenly one summer it was like Grand Central Station in here, if New Yorkers were tiny, could walk on walls and tended to move in orderly lines. Prompted by what local cataclysm, food shortage or brute touristic urge I do not know, they came, the ants, hurrying along their improvised trails, shouldering away bits of cat food, stopping to exchange antish information. (Friskies! Mountains of it!) If the aim of the kitchen detail was quickly evident, it was harder to understand the conga line headed for the stereo, and the scouting parties on my office desk, darting among the unpaid bills, unlabeled cassettes, inoperative computer gear, sweat socks, bits of old string, 9-volt batteries -- and, oh, all right, the occasional leftover half sandwich.

Now we‘re a permanent popular destination on the summer tour. At first I put out ant traps, but something about the way they worked seemed cruel, and besides, they didn’t work. Wary coexistence is my present motto. Carry home your crumbs, little ants. I will possibly not bother you. (Though I will try to keep the kitchen clean, to reduce temptation.) If I can see people as ants -- note metaphorical title of this space -- why not see ants as people? (The pure ant I find too disturbing to contemplate.) I dress them up in the skin and habits they wear in cartoons: going off to work in hardhats, carrying yellow lunch pails. Big sweet eyes and the voice of Mel Blanc. Hi, Joe! Howdy, Ed!

It‘s a flawed concept on several levels, I admit, though perhaps karmically responsible. Nowadays, I refrain as a rule from killing insects, but when I break that rule, thoughtlessly, reflexively, fearfully, or just out of laziness -- it is usually easier to squash a bug than to think of what to do with it -- I do apologize. I consider it a lapse. I spare as many as is . . . convenient, and a few more than that. I am a capricious but generally well-intentioned superior being -- your average God, in other words. I can’t imagine what they say about me back at the anthill, but I hope it isn‘t all bad. (And it better not be.)

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