Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why do we kill what is ugly?

I was weeding my garden today, and I couldn’t help worrying that I might find another one.

Another potato bug.*

You see, I found a potato bug a few weeks ago. Inside my guesthouse. I’d gone out there to clean and make sure everything was stocked for some weekend visitors we were expecting. I got out the vacuum and started vacuuming up the hoardes of dead spiders. I don’t know why they were dead, but hey, you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. And then I saw it. It was nearly the same color as my speckled berber carpet…all shades of ivory & brown. Just sitting there, staring at me from the floor. What the HELL is that? I wondered. My heart was racing. I got a papertowl…no, three…it’s too big for just one papertowl. I approached the bug with the towels.

Are you serious? Are you seriously going to squish a 3 inch bug with just nothing but a paper towl?

I ran to the house to find something to trap it in, and settled on a sturdy Tupperware with a tight lid and a large piece of cardstock. And my camera. I ran back…and it was still just sitting there. Why the heck was it just sitting there? Didn’t it know that this was the end of it? It was very easy to catch and trap in the Tupperware. I put the lit on. Tightly. And hoped to God it couldn’t eat plastic with those mandibles…I mean, Jaws of Death.

I left the Bug outside on the porch, too afraid to bring it inside in the event of an escape. And anyway, who wants something like this inside her house?

I did what any sensible person would do: I sat down at my computer, with my Magic Internet, and tried to figure out what the heck it was. But where to start?

I am a member of several clothes trading/sewing loops on Yahoo, and they have a large membership, so I posted the picture to the loops and asked if anyone knew what one of these THINGS was. Lo, and Behold, it was not long before I got an answer. And several messages from well-wishers who didn’t blame me one bit for freaking out and one who gently suggested that it might be a good idea to abandon all my belongings and simply leave California for good. Today.

Right about the time that I sent the message, I had a memory from childhood that helped me figure out where to look. I remembered Girl Scout Camp at Oak Park in Stockton. Well, it didn’t used to be in Stockton, but it is now. Anyway, it was a weekend camp, and we all slept out under the stars. Three girls got “surprises” in their sleeping bags, including one who got a squirrel in hers and me. I received…a potato bug. Now, maybe it really wasn’t a potato bug, now that I know what one looks like, but here’s the way it went down. I got in my bag and pulled out my flashlight and turned it on. And THERE IT WAS, just sitting there, across the face of the light. So the light was shining through this giant bug that was straddling the light, illuminating all its guts and every body part. In this order, I screamed, threw the flashlight, jumped up, and started dancing & shaking all around, completely horrified and disgusted. Of course, our leaders didn’t like that one bit, and told me to calm down. “Calm down? Are you kidding? That thing had a face on it.”

And that was my clue, as you see, the bug in the guesthouse had a face on it. A cute, little round face with beady, black eyes. So I typed into Google: potato bug.

DO NOT EVER DO THIS if you are the least bit squeamish. Why? GOOGLE IMAGES, that’s why. My screen instantly lit up with well over a dozen close up images of this horrifying creature. Yup. That’s it. That’s the dingdang thing that’s in my damn guesthouse. I also found a video of a woman allowing one to crawl over her hand and lower arm. ARRRGGGHH!! Are you kidding me? But actually, the more I listened to her coo to this giant bug, the more I thought, you know, it is kindof cute.

Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

After some research, some helpful comments from a loopie with an entomophile (is that a word?) daughter, and a lost afternoon on the computer, completely fascinated and disgusted by this amazing bug, I decided that it was harmless. Now what?

Right about then, my kids got home from school, and I asked my son if he’d like to see the freakiest bug he’d ever seen in his life. “Sure.” Of course he does.

When we got out to the back porch, the bug was still (thankfully) in his plastic prison, but was on his back, legs rapidly flailing in the air, abdomen simultaneously bloated and strangely shortened at the same time. I began to anthropomorphize. To me, he looked like he was suffocating. Like he was freaking out, frightened, in pain. I couldn’t stand it.

Right about then, two neighborhood boys came over to play, and I asked them if they would also like to see the most amazingly horrifying bug ever. They were appropriately amazed and horrified, but had seen one before. They started to regale me with stories about how these things can kill you with just one bite, and to beware of fates that happened to cousin’s cousins from Mexico, and tales of swarms of them under matresses.

But the thing was really scrabbling around in there. The younger of the two boys asked me why he was doing that. “I think he is suffocating,” I said. “It’s terrible,” I said, “but I don’t know what to do.” The boy suggested that I simply let it out, if I didn’t want to suffocate it. How simple.

“I can’t do that,” I said. “I don’t want him to suffer, but I don’t want him to live, either.” The boys and I all agreed that it was certainly a dilemma, but no one had an answer. I cracked the lid, allowed it to fill with air, and the creature instantly resumed his regular shape, size and uprightness. I quickly replaced the lid…tightly.

“What should I do?” I asked the children.

“Kill it.” They said, eventually.

“I can’t.” The truth is that it simply was too big to kill. It would be like stepping on a mouse. I’m the spider-killer in my house, as my husband can’t stand them. I don’t care about daddy longlegs, but the rest have to go. I can tolerate ants, and even like ladybugs. I apologize to every bug I smash. But I couldn’t even step on this thing. Too much crunching, too big a mess. We sat around and were horrified for a few more minutes. Were we even enjoying being horrified? Who knows.

Right around then, the boys’ mother showed up and they showed her the bug. She is from Mexico, where, apparently, these things are plentiful. I explained that I had a Nino de Tierra. “Ella tiene un Nino!!” they exclaimed. Oh! She immediately raised her eyebrows and looked up at me…they are poisonous. I explained that I’d looked them up and they are commonly believed to be venomous, but actually are completely harmless. They eat decaying vegetable matter and the occasional insect. They have a painful bite if disturbed, but usually don’t bother people at all.

Harmless. But ugly.

What to do? I didn’t want it on my porch, wanted it the hell out of my Tupperware. I certainly didn’t want to let it go, back to the garden for me to run into again. And I didn’t really want to kill it.

The older boy wanted to take it home to show his dad. I was skeptical. I imagined him torturing it, pulling the legs off one by one. I told him he could…but only if he gave it right to his dad and asked him to kill it for me. I didn’t want this kid turning into some psycho bug-torturer. His laughter was a little too gleeful. I hadn’t thought yet about the rest of us. At that moment, his father showed up and we explained the situation.

“Will you kill it for me?” I asked.

He also raised his eyebrows. He also is from Mexico and knows all the stories of cousin’s cousins felled by the horrible beasts. He said, “There are more.”

Thanks, pal. That’s all I need. “I know. I just hope I never see them. Will you kill it?”

He took the container and opened the lid. Shook it around a little and dropped it on the ground. And maybe that’s when it got ugly. Maybe it was before, but I keep thinking about that particular scene. There we all were, like betters around a dog ring, watching my neighbor and this bug, in their deadly dance. Truth is, maybe he was thinking the same thing I was: too much crunching, too big a mess. He kicked it a few times. We all screamed and shuddered in horror as it tried to figure out what the hell was happening to it. I think he was trying to turn it around so he could step on its head. Yuk. Better him than me, I thought. The bug was upside down and he finally stepped on its head. Twice. It took twice. I looked away.

The drama was over, and everyone just simply went back to what they were doing. The body was in my driveway. He handed me my container. They went home. They boys went off to play. You know, now that I think on it, I don’t know what happened to the body. I told my husband about it when he came home that night. Maybe he cleaned it up. Maybe it is still there, kicked to the side, in the weeds and dead leaves.

I thought on that scene, all of us gleefully horrified. I’d like to think that I wasn’t but then why did I even show it to the kids? Why did I encourage the stories, tell the boy to take it home to his father? I really didn’t want the thing to suffer, but I certainly didn’t want it to live. Was I equally guilty in the “scene” that was the death of this completely harmless creature?

If you cruise the internet for a while, as I did that fateful day, you will see bulletins, chat threads and even whole websites dedicated to the hatred of this creature. This ugly, ugly insect. Lots of bugs are ugly. Why this one? No one knows, actually. There’s really no reason at all that I couldn’t simply have shown this amazingly large, harmless insect to the children and then just let him go. Back to his underground life, munching leaves and roots in my garden. But I didn’t.

Why do we kill what is ugly?
You Tube Video 1
You Tube Video 2

*The term bug is used here for any smallish creepy crawly thing, including insects, bugs and spiders.

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