Monday, July 4, 2011

Bite Me

I am mosquito bait.  Put me in a 3000-square-foot house, add 20 other human beings, introduce one mosquito.  The mosquito will locate me, bite me, and nobody else in the house will have seen nor heard the mosquito.  In fact, those 20 individuals will think I’m crazy.  “There are no mosquitoes in here!” they’ll proclaim.  “Then how’d I get these bites?” I’ll ask, pointing to my shins, my arms, my neck. 
They’ll squint, they’ll tilt their heads to the side.  They’re assessing my sanity. 
“Maybe you already had them when you came indoors,” one will say.
“Could you have gotten them yesterday, and only noticed them just now?” another will wonder.
“Maybe they’re hives,” another will say.
I’m accustomed to this reaction, and have learned not to engage in further discussion.  There’s no use in saying I SAW the mosquito, tried in vain to kill it.  Conversely, there’s no point in meekly holding my hand out and showing that I DID kill it…after it had bitten me four times.  (It’s a bit distasteful, apparently, to offer the broken bits of a smashed mosquito as evidence.  And I’ve learned that nobody wants to see the smear of blood on my leg after I’ve slapped a mosquito in the process of biting me.) 
It’s not just mosquitoes, either.  Black flies and deer flies single me out.  When Leigh and I take a walk together – something we do at least once a day – she is part companion, part protector.  We’ll be ambling along, chatting and enjoying the sunshine, and I’ll suddenly begin contorting.  I wave my arms, I duck, I dodge, I slap at my own head like an imbecile.  “Just stand still and I’ll get it,” she’ll say.  My choice, at that point, is a painful deer fly bite or a smack from Leigh.  I tend to choose the latter.  She’s fast, she has excellent aim, and usually after one slap the fly is dead. 
The problem, of course, is that it’s not just one fly.  This happens over and over and over.  I can get bitten five or six times over the course of a couple of miles, or I can get slapped an equal number of times.  It’s a weird kind of trade-off, requiring an “I’m doing this for your own good” benevolence on Leigh’s part, and an “I’ll take this kind of pain instead of that kind of pain” acquiescence from me.   Since I’d rather endure the 2-second sting of a slap over the 5-day maddening itch of a bite, it is, I suppose, an easy decision. 
There are all sorts of theories as to why some people are magnets for biting insects and others are not.  Some have to do with carbon dioxide, or lactic acid, or cholesterol.  Some believe that movement and body heat attract mosquitoes, although I am just as much a magnet – in fact, much MORE of a magnet – when I am sitting still.  Last summer, for instance, I went to a nice restaurant with four friends.  We had a choice – dine outside or indoors.  It was a balmy evening, summer had barely begun.  I wasn’t yet, in other words, in full mosquito-alert mode.  When the others unanimously voted for the outdoor seating, I agreed. 
            Before we were even served, I noticed a couple of mosquitoes.  “Oh, I’m going to get bit,” I said.
            “What are you talking about?  There aren’t any mosquitoes,” one companion said.
            “Don’t worry – mosquitoes LOVE me,” another said.  “I guarantee they’ll bite me and not you.” 
            This was very noble of companion number 2, and I agreed to stay outside.  I recalled taking long walks with Leigh’s dog, Fan, when I’d be mercifully spared of mosquito or deer fly pestering because all of the biters would go for the dog.  I’d walk her up and down our road feeling both unusually free and terribly guilty.  Fan was being sacrificed, essentially, for my comfort.  Those were some of the best walks of my life.
            I also recalled, however, a party I’d attended.  It was an outdoor affair and roughly 50 guests were there.  I didn’t notice any mosquitoes and was happily socializing.  At one point, Leigh and I strolled across the wide lawn to look at the nearby lake.  Again, there were no mosquitoes, and I had a wonderful time.
            When I arrived at home, however, my ankles began itching.  All up and down my legs were tiny red bumps.  The itch was wicked, but I could tell they weren’t mosquito bites because of the clustered arrangement and the size.  “What the heck bit me?” I asked Leigh.
            “Oh,” she said, looking grave.  “They look like chigger bites.”
            I appreciated Leigh’s solemnity.  Since for her, I’m the equivalent of Fan – the sacrificial companion – she virtually never gets bit.  She does, however, have to live with me and my tendency to be driven to desperation when I’m covered with bites.  She treads, in other words, lightly.
I had never heard of chiggers, but I was momentarily halted from my scratching frenzy by the prospect of a new word and a new insect.  I immediately looked them up and learned that chiggers apparently like grasses and areas near lakes.  Bingo – lakes, grasses… and me.  Not one other person I subsequently asked – including Leigh, who had been standing right next to me in the grass next to the lake – had received a single bite.
Back at the restaurant, it soon became apparent that Noble Companion had nothing to worry about.  The mosquitoes came for me and me alone.  While everyone else enjoyed their bruschetta and pasta, I spent the evening on high alert, taking a mouthful of food then sitting back in my chair, waiting, watching.  I employed an oft-used method of attack – er, to be accurate, counter-attack – allowing the mosquito to land on me and begin to pierce my skin, then slapping it.  This tactic slightly raises the likelihood of killing the mosquito, as it takes a split second longer for it to dart away.  I ended up with half-a-dozen bites and slightly fewer kills.  My dinner companions – including Mr. Noble – received exactly no bites.

Sometimes I pretend that I’m some kind of rare delicacy to these insects, the most savored of desserts or after-dinner liqueurs.  To mosquitoes, I’m Drambuie, I’m flan, I’m the sweetest apricot mousse.  But when I’m lying in a darkened room, in the middle of the night, and one determined mosquito is planning its attack on whatever centimeter of exposed skin it can alight upon, I’m not thinking about my good blood.  I’m strategizing with the stealth and steadiness of a professional assassin.  I’m trying to save my own skin.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hummers and Snappers

Every season seems to bring with it an obsession.  One year it was a rogue sunflower seed that had become embedded in a cut log.  Rather than dying, it sprouted a shoot right out the side of the wood.  One summer it was fresh peaches, which were so delectable I almost didn’t want to eat anything but.  Last year it was art, or my version of art.  I took a class, set up a second desk for my non-writing work.  I tried to make things.  I had fun being bad at it.

This year, starting in late spring and continuing to date, my attention is split.  On the ground, I’m in love with snapping turtles.  In the air, hummingbirds have invaded my consciousness.

These aren’t new interests, exactly.  I’ve loved turtles since I was small, and started being interested in hummingbirds when I lived in Arizona.  But this year both the birds and the turtles are more there.  I don’t know why the snappers have suddenly materialized, but I spot one almost every day.  In previous years I’d be lucky to see just one – more often, it’d be none at all.  The hummers have been ever-present since Leigh bought me a canister-style feeder which she hung outside my study.  Each May a couple of birds adopt the feeder as their own.  This year, however, we have four birds.  I don’t know if they’ve paired up, but they are fierce.  One will zip in, begin to drink.  Another will zoom close, buzz the first, and hover.  It appears to be a challenge, and sometimes the first bird will ignore the challenger and fly away.  Other times, however, the two will go breast to breast, appear to almost bounce off each other.  I can hear their wings tangle, and then they retreat.

The turtles are significantly less flashy.  I’ve observed two primary behaviors: lumbering (moving) and waiting (not moving).   The ones I’ve encountered close up have been rather large – imagine the biggest dinner plate you’ve ever seen, then extend it by a few inches.  A friend recently came across one in a pond; she said it was two feet across.  She doesn’t tend to embellish, so she may have been lucky enough to see a turtle that was quite old. 

For all practical purposes, I leave the hummers alone.  About every 3 days, I fill the feeder with a sugar/water mixture and then listen to them battle and court one another.  All day, every day, I hear their buzz through the open window as I sit at my desk.  They’re so close it sounds like an active beehive.  Once in a while I swivel around and watch them for a few minutes.  Sometimes all four are trying to get their licks in, but more often it’s just two.  I see them in the yard, as well, darting their long tongues into a flower or just speeding from one resting site to another.  Sometimes one will execute a series of deep, swooping arcs – part of their courtship ritual.  I watch, I marvel, but I don’t talk to the hummers, don’t attempt to interact, nor interfere with their antics. 

I don’t bother the turtles, either, in large part because I take their name seriously.  They can snap, and I don’t want to get snapped at or on.  I’ve read that they will latch onto a finger or hand and hold tight.  Even if they’re not attempting to take a piece of me as a souvenir, I don’t like pain and would prefer not to mess with a snapping turtle jaw. 

What I do, with the snapping turtles, is usher.  I have become a turtle crossing guard.  Whenever I see one in the road, I stop my car, get out, and direct approaching vehicles around the turtle until it has safely reached the other side.  It gives me a certain amount of pleasure to be a good Samaritan in the turtle realm, but I mostly do it to avoid the alternative: dead turtles.  So far this year I’ve encountered four, all hit by cars.  One morning, right down our road, I saw a big snapper. I stopped, made sure it crossed okay.  That evening, as I headed out for dinner with friends, I saw it on the side of the road, quite near where I’d earlier observed it.  It looked like it was resting.  On my return trip, it was in the same spot and I realized it wasn’t resting.  I felt broken-hearted --- I’d enjoyed that turtle.  We’d spoken a bit, as I waited there in the road for her (him?) to make the journey from one side of the road to the other.  That morning, she’d decided to pause mid-way, settling down to think or rest or just see what this human was up to…  After a few minutes she grew bored with me and headed west, into a swampy and wooded area.

I don’t know if she ever made it to her destination or if she was, perhaps, making a return trip when she was hit.  I do know that the road is flat and straight, and any driver paying the slightest degree of attention would have spotted the turtle at some distance and could have easily driven around her.  When there’s something in the road here, you notice it.  It’s almost always an animal – a snake, a frog, a darting chipmunk.  Every once in a while a squirrel will do what I call a suicide run – dash halfway across the road and stop, then suddenly change direction.  I’ve accidentally hit more than one – just about anyone who does a lot of driving out here will say the same.  Deer sometimes leap across the road, too, and again, if I asked thirty people, I’d probably find at least one who’s had a vehicle/deer collision.  They can be dangerous, even deadly. 

But there are reasons those animals are hit.  Snakes and frogs can be almost invisible; chipmunks and squirrels and deer are fast and unpredictable.  They flash out of the brush and are in your path in an instant.

Turtles are visible.

Their movement is so slow as to be nearly 100% predictable. 

They are easy to drive around.

We live in a rural area; there is virtually no traffic. 

So why do snapping turtles end up crushed in the road?

Because some drivers think it’s fun to run over them.  Something about the prospect of a crushed carapace turns them on, or maybe they like the bump beneath the tires that a 40-pound turtle would cause.

This might be a good place to say that I don’t understand many things that lots of other people think are fun.  Farcical comedy, excessive alcohol consumption, getting a tattoo, high-risk activities like skydiving, low-risk activities like golf.  The list goes on…

But I really, REALLY don’t understand what could be fun about getting behind the wheel of a motor vehicle and intentionally hitting a snapping turtle. 

A friend – the same one who saw the giant snapper in the pond – recounted a story from her childhood.  She was riding her bike down the road and saw a snapping turtle.  She stopped to admire it, made sure it traversed the road safely.  When it was just about all the way across, she headed off.  A pick-up truck passed her a minute later.  She stopped her bike and looked back down the road, wanting to make sure the driver went around the turtle.  He didn’t.  The truck swerved toward the shoulder, hit the turtle, sped off.

That was over forty years ago.  She hasn’t forgotten.  I won’t forget this summer’s turtles either. 

Right now, however, I am preoccupied with wings – wings nourished, at least in part, by sugar I’ve stirred into boiling water, cooled, carefully poured into canisters and hung.  The hummers’ throats are alit, they flash ruby-feathered brilliance in my eyes which yes, tear up with happiness.

                                                                                                                                               --for MB

Saturday, June 25, 2011


It’s the morning after the New York State Senate passed what is widely referred to as the “gay marriage bill.”  I’m hoping that we can cease referring to “gay marriage” now and simply call it “marriage.”  I’m hoping, to paraphrase Governor Cuomo, that when the term “marriage equality” is used, fewer people get hung up on the concept of marriage, in its traditional sense, and focus instead on the word “equality.”

I’m also hoping that this belated but historic legislation makes an impression on all the teenagers who have felt bereft and alone.  As I watched the vote – which seemed to take forever – I thought of Matthew Shephard, whose murder, in 1998, led to the passage of federal hate crime legislation over a decade later.  I thought of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who jumped off a bridge, one of five teens who took their own lives in the fall of 2010.  Those suicides directly led to an outpouring of support highlighted, most publicly, by the It Gets Better campaign (

I thought of my students, most of them heterosexual, whose easygoing acceptance of homosexuality will, I believe, change the world. 

Happy Gay Pride Week, New Yorkers.  Celebrate, and remember.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Preparing for Class

I’m getting a kind of lesson plan together, something with poetry, aiming to be insightful and sensitive. Downstairs Leigh’s frustrated, trying to negotiate with the roofer who over-charged precisely when she’s feeling broke. No lie, there are at least three feet of snow on the ground, and so when I hear the robins I’m slow to react. Dozens of them in the bare trees. The birds are almost silent. When have we last seen robins in winter? Would you believe never? The sun or what passes for sun around here is visiting for a stretch, so I take off the screen and crank a window open, try to photograph orange breast against snow. They’re not skittish, don’t stir much when I head outside and scatter seed. But the flutter of wings as they roost is audible, like the whoosh of shaken fabric, or a racket stunned against a dusty rug. They poke at berries and ignore the seed, shudder and alight, knock clusters of snow from branches. Half a dozen rush the house then veer away; through binoculars they’re beautiful, heaving and composed. By lunch they’ve gone, but all afternoon I hear, over my shoulder, a promise of return.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Tucson 2011

Because I teach, I tend to divide the calendar into semesters. At the start of this past semester, the big story in the news was “gay suicides.” What that meant: at least five gay teens took their lives. Story after story appeared about how each of them had been bullied, called names, harassed for being who they were.

Anyone who teaches and, in fact, anyone who has regular contact with individuals under the age of 30, probably hears the word “gay” bantered around in a joshing, informal manner on a regular basis. It’s used to label homosexual individuals, but it’s also used as a synonym for stupid, for lame, for effeminate, for sentimental, for tender-hearted, even for a certain brand of kindness. Young men use it as frequently as they use the word “the,” and young women use it as well. “That’s so gay,” or “Eww, that’s gay,” is ubiquitous in both junior high classrooms and on college campuses. Spend 10 minutes on Facebook and you’ll find at least one post using the word in this manner.

If you were to ask the user of the word why they’d chosen it, they’d be quick to proclaim no ill intent. “I was just kidding around,” they’d say. “It doesn’t have anything to do with gay people,” they’d claim. “It’s a joke. It’s just how we talk.”

Fast forward to January; I’m preparing for a new semester. Another group of people are dead, others seriously injured. It is widely suggested that language has again played a role in this tragedy, only this time it isn’t a word or two, but rather an atmosphere of vitriol, an environment of blame, and the regular, widespread use of careless and inflammatory rhetoric.

This language might start with politicians and the media – I’m not sure, honestly, if it matters where it begins – but it does not end there. Incivility, proclamations of outrage, and verbal abuse of every degree is rampant in many areas of public discourse. Facebook and Twitter light up when something newsworthy is first reported. The New York Times and other newspapers’ reader responses fill with accusatory comments and staunch position statements: I believe this, and nothing anyone says will make me reconsider.

I am not against passionate beliefs and I am not advocating for censorship. But I find it profoundly disturbing when rage meets ignorance and immediacy. Why do we feel the need to comment instantly and emotionally to everything? I lived in Tucson for six years and knew it to be a complex city, yes, with many difficult problems… but it is also a home to many artists, many reasonable political activists, many intelligent and compassionate individuals. For the last year or so, however, the city and the state of Arizona have been held up as models of intolerance, a kind of geographic aberration, as though the rest of the country does not have similar, if perhaps occasionally less public, problems. Shortly after Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on the corner of Ina and Oracle, some of my Facebook contacts opened fire verbally. The immediate response seemed to be something like this: some nut in Arizona – surely a Republican – just killed a Congresswoman, a Democrat. Tributaries of this initial reaction included blame of, in no particular order, Sarah Palin, Republicans, the Tea Party, the state of Arizona, the city of Tucson, the contentious state of immigration policies, the recent ruling on Mexican-American studies, Washington politics, John McCain, and gun control policies.

It’s not unreasonable to question all of these elements; my point has nothing to do with having an opinion, making serious inquiry into contributing factors, or feeling anger about these kinds of events. It has to do with reactionary expressions of outrage, including overt or subtle intimations of violence, often based on circumstances with which the speaker/writer has little familiarity.

It takes effort to pause, and even more effort to think. That’s what I’m advocating for: thinking. Considering. Doing a little research, gathering some facts. Formulating an opinion that advances discussion rather than shuts it down. Simply posting an inflammatory headline or a knee-jerk response does nothing to promote conversation, even of a cyber nature. On Saturday, for a good hour or so on Facebook, Representative Giffords was pronounced dead over and over again. You can argue that this was simply a way of sharing information and, in fact, a way that has become one of the easiest and most popular ways of doing so. You can argue that it was a widespread expression of concern, even grief. But I think it can also be argued that a rush to post that particular information was, at least in part, an expression of reactionary outrage based on no factual evidence.

Some of my students – college students, in their early 20’s – still banter the word “gay” around; many of my acquaintances are quick to condemn the Republican party at any opportunity. I, too, have been guilty of blaming an entire party for some of the ills of our current political and cultural state. I can’t say, with any degree of honesty, that it would pain me to see Sarah Palin fade from the national scene; I found her “target” poster truly horrifying, although only one example in a fairly steady stream of appalling comments coming from her.

But Sarah Palin did not single-handedly create our woes, in Tucson or nationally. Nor did the Republicans or the Tea Partiers. Everyone who responds with hot-headed and righteous anger, everyone who speaks without thinking, anyone who naively believes there is a right and a wrong answer on any given political issue, anyone who gets off on fanning the flames… All are culpable.

As I finish writing this, the nation has just held a moment of silence for the shooting victims. Let’s take that seriously – the idea of pausing to reflect – and keep in mind that words and symbols have power. We don’t have to censor ourselves or others, we don’t have to spin what we really believe – but maybe we can consider using language in a more responsible, dignified and productive manner – a manner that contributes something authentic and substantive. Maybe we can start by recognizing this: despite that childhood rhyme, it’s been proven, many times over, that words can hurt. Proceed accordingly.