Monday, June 14, 2010

Ants! Rated NFS (Not For the Squeamish) (5.15.09)

The screaming from my six-year-old and her playdate friend had been echoing through the house and yard for the last hour, but this particular wailing took on a different key. Not as playful as "MIA, MIA, MIA, HELP ME TEAR THE IVY OFF THE HOUSE TO MAKE A GIANT BIRD NEST!!" nor as shrill as a genuine emergency call, this time the "MOMMY!" had a tone of thrilled horror.


At the far end of the basement, I see it. A roiling city of tiny black dots. I hold back the gag reflex and try to feel thankful the infestation seems to be contained in one spot in the middle of the rough cement floor.

Years ago, when I first started teaching, I would assign my freshman English students a short story from 1938 called "Leiningen Versus The Ants." Carl Stephenson's tale of a Brazilian plantation owner and his battle against a plague of flesh-eating fire ants is a real barn-burner. Every sentence of dialogue seems to end in an exclamation mark: "They're not creatures you can fight--they're an elemental--an 'act of God!'".... "And every single one of them a fiend from hell!" Bored with the paper-flat characters and over-wrought narration of Leiningen's adventure, I dropped the story off my reading list after teaching it a couple of times. For a time my students had seemed to like it...and the struggle it portrayed offered a simple way to teach the literary concept of conflict. "Man Versus Nature," I would write on the blackboard. In the September heat, my students would copy it down in their notebooks or look out the window at our lifeless view of the roof of the library.

BUT WHAT NOW? I've got an ant invasion in my basement. I'm green but not green enough to want to save these pests' itty bitty lives. Suck them up with a vacuum? Eww. That's just moving the problem to another bothersome location.

To the Interwebs! Within seconds, I've got a cookbook of green solutions to ant problems. Cinnamon, vinegar, baking soda - all repellants to keep the ants OUT of your house. But we are way past prevention - we need intervention! I want an easy and clean way to kill them and then make them vanish. Anteater rental? And it needs to be a quick kill, too. I'm having creepy visions of spraying something on the pile that would make the bugs scatter and scurry in panic...UP MY LEG. Did you just feel a sympathy tickle?

I keep clicking until I find advice of some heavy duty eco-weapons - Simple Green, Borax. I have neither in the house. Finally, a simple suggestion: dishsoap. I grab my big jug of Dr. Bronner's Lavender soap, pour in some water to make it go farther and head back to the basement. Please, please, Dr. Bronner, make it quick and painless. Don't show me their death throes. Don't make them scatter.

The good doctor does not fail me. It's frighteningly easy. I pour on the soapy water and the little black dots stop instantly. The girls squeal in fascination at my side.

Leiningen finally defeats his ants by scorching the earth, literally: he traps the attackers between ditches of burning gasoline, then sweeps them away by rerouting a river. "And so imprisoned between water and fire, they had been delivered into the annihilation that was their god."

I look down at the spots that were alive moments ago and I think about how our tiniest actions can have enormous repercussions. I reach for fair trade at the grocery store. I splash some soapy water and thousands of creatures are dead. Who knows what tossed off comment to my daughter will be savored for years? Or burn in her breast until the therapist suggests she forgive me?

BUT WHAT NOW? I've got a soapy puddle of dead bugs on my basement floor. I hadn't thought past the killing part. "Turn away, children!" Not to worry, the girls remain nonplussed. They start singing the Pink Panther song: "Dead ant, dead ant, dead ant, dead ant, dead ant!"

I go for my new broom, a dustpan and a paper grocery bag, but the tiny specks of dead insect are too small or too sticky, thanks to my soap bombing, to be swept up. Yuck. WHAT NOW?

I try a new approach - a bucket of hot water and a mop. "Ant Soup!" scream my girls in grisly delight as the ant bodies swirl in the bucket water. I mop and douse, mop and douse. I steel myself as I pour the black-flecked water down the drain. It takes several buckets of water to finally sweep up every little corpse and then lots of rinsing and soaking and re-rinsing to finally get the mop clean again. And I need a shower to get rid of the creepy feeling.

Leiningen's last line is a cocky quip about always knowing he would succeed, even if the ant bites left him "a bit streamlined." All he has learned about himself is how much he can endure. Leiningen is what English teachers and few others in the real world call a "static character." He shows little, if any, internal change across the course of the story.

Perhaps the major difference between poor old Leiningen and me boils down to a kind of humility, even though claiming this quality seems like a contradiction. I forget sometimes to listen to the world and what it and my children are trying to teach me, but when I'm on my game, I do try. Because I don't know it all. Far from it.

If I'm going to try to be dynamic character in the story of my life, I guess that means that it's perfectly okay and even necessary for me to be imperfect...a mom in progress. A mom who is going to f-- up at times. A mom who will hate making mistakes, but knows that I don't learn without them.

The ants could very likely return. They have no concept of breaking and entering -- wildlife doesn't see the borders that we try to create between outside our homes and in. And "Woman vs. Nature" doesn't make a lot of sense as the force to drive the plot of my life.

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