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What’s Buggin’ Me May 21, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Travel.
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The weather in England is fabulous, so what could be wrong? I’ve been through two, count them TWO, computer adaptors, and I’m now running on the second battery. T’was not meant to be. But, I just had to post this photo of a poster I took in the window of a shop at Southwold.

I’m half-way round the world and the first thing I thought of when I saw it was, “Bug Girl (on my blogroll) would love this!”

Lesley and I had an outrageously fun day in London. We went to the National Gallery first. Touring a gallery with Lesley is oh so educational.  She studied Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, in which Venus lounges while Mars is having a snooze, and announced, “They’ve obviously just had sex, he’s smoked a fag and is already asleep.” I think these cultural exchanges are invaluable.

When I return, I shall post about our romp through The Portrait Gallery, the Tate Modern, and resting on the crypts of some of Britain’s most historic personages. In the meantime, Lesley and I are conspiring to win the Turner Prize, and there are chickens that need tending. From across the pond.

Always, Jan

Bugs Don’t Bug Me January 14, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Gardening, Teaching.
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I’ve always been fascinated by six and eight-legged creatures. Yeah, that’s me as a kid holding a jar with one of my insect friends.  On a hot humid day in Nebraska, there were bugs aplenty.  I spent a lot of time punching air holes in the tops of jars and stalking grasshoppers out by the tomato plants. I remember watching them “spit tobacco” and especially how my hands smelled after I’d handled them.

After I read Charlotte’s Web, I was all about spiders.  I can’t think of a better way to spend one’s time than to watch a spider spinning its web (though I have yet to see one write a cryptic message).  Did you know that most spiders take down their web every day only to spin a new one the next?   I relate to spiders.  Some days, I, too, feel like I’m back at Square One.

I’m always surprised when a student’s first impulse when they see a bug is to want to kill it.  At my old school, lots of nature wandered (or should I say crawled) into our classroom, as it was on the ground floor.  One of the most coveted class jobs was “Creature Comfort.” Job Description: “Gently return animal visitors to their natural habitat.”  

I hung a stuffed purple spider (with those wiggly eyes that make everything look cute) from the ceiling.  On the counter beneath it were the Tools of the Trade – a clear plastic cup and an index card.  I demonstrated how to put the cup over the insect and then slide the card beneath it.

By mid-year, I’d hear a student shriek then shout, “Creature Comfort!”   I didn’t let any of the girls, some who thought bugs were oh so yucky, off the hook either.  We’d set the cup on the back table and gather round to observe the bug. After a while, my students could identify most common bugs, and we kept a log of the number of “visitors” to our classroom. The bug was then returned to its “natural habitat” – a patch of weeds surrounding one very sad looking tree just outside our door.

I will admit that after living in New York City for 11 years, there’s no love lost between me and cockroaches (See Cockroach Confidential).   And I’m upfront with students about ants in the classroom.  When you see one, it’s the tip of iceberg.  That’s what shoes are for.  

I love to tell students how some indigenous people in South America wore live jewel-like beetles in their hair for decoration.  Bug barrettes but not so French.  How cool is that?  

My friend and fellow blogger, Catherine Sherman (who’s on my Blogroll) shares my interest in creepy crawly creatures and turned me on to Bug Girl’s Blog

According to her About Me page, “Bug Girl has a PhD in Entomology. Her bug research involves using pheromones to try to control insect populations without pesticides. Essentially, she makes male bugs horny, and then prevents them from mating. (Please don’t extrapolate from that more that is warranted.)”  

I have a feeling that Bug Girl has lots of jars with holes punched in the tops and also knows what your hands smell like after you’ve handled grasshoppers.  I’m hoping I just might run into her out by the tomato plants.

Cockroach Confidential September 20, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Life.
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There were cockroaches everywhere. A biblical plague had descended on the Holy Land – the Holy Land being our overpriced New York City apartment. (Yes, I realize that using the word “holy” in the same sentence as “New York City” amounts to blasphemy.) The final straw came when we found them crawling in the cereal that my sons ate. Cereal killers! Drastic times call for drastic measures. We decided it was time to call in the professionals. Who you gonna call? – (No, not them) – Lady Killers!

I can’t remember how I found out about Lady Killers, but the woman on the phone assured me she could take care of “the problem.” I envisioned a highly-trained entomological exorcist who could banish these six-legged demons that had turned our lives into a living hell.

We’d exhausted the traditional “final solutions.” We’d already sprinkled crop circles of boric acid around the apartment, and all of the Roach Motels had vacancy signs. We’d taken to wiping down the kitchen counter hourly and keeping all food in tightly sealed plastic containers. It was like we were living in a bomb shelter and dipping into rations when we ate.

I eagerly awaited the arrival of the Lady Killer. So I was a bit taken aback when a dowdy, overweight woman arrived and introduced herself as Elaine. This was the Lady Killer? She had an unusually firm handshake. That’s when I realized the Lady Killers were not just ladies, they were lesbians. Talk about a niche market.

As Elaine regaled us with tales of the German Brown cockroach’s superpowers, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the crusty old shark hunter Robert Shaw played in Jaws. All she was missing was the bite out of her forearm. She informed us a cockroach could live off a single drop of grease in the air for a year. And just like those starving Russians during the Siege of Leningrad, cockroaches could survive by eating the glue from book bindings. We had an entire wall of books, which I now realized was a virtual Hometown Buffet.

From her purse, Elaine produced several unmarked plastic squeeze bottles containing a mysterious white powder. Boric acid?  “No,” she scoffed. She informed us that eating boric acid only made THEM stronger. To be honest, I was afraid to ask her what was in the bottles. Although Elaine assured us it was non-toxic to humans, where was the label? This was obviously some home brewed concoction. But we were desperate. Sometimes it’s best not to know.

For the next two hours, Elaine ransacked our apartment squirting the white powder into every nook and cranny. The entire time, we raptly listened as she detailed the down and dirty habits of the German army that had been occupying our apartment and holding us hostage. She informed us the reason THEY were inside the kitchen clock is that they liked the warmth, and it provided an excellent base camp to launch their expeditions. If I’m ever a contestant on Jeopardy, I can only hope that one of the categories is Cockroaches. I’ll take Cockroaches for $500 please!

We wrote out a check for a couple of hundred dollars and waited. Elaine had said it would take a week before we’d see results. My husband was convinced the white powder was plain old boric acid and the “wait a week” ploy was just to give Elaine time to cash the check. He of little faith.

After a week, THEY began dying. Within two weeks our apartment was roach-free (knock on wood!). The down side was that every time we opened a file cabinet or drawer, a plume of white powder would rise up, leaving traces of white powder on our face and hair. This was New York City in the 80s, so I’m sure our neighbors just thought we had a serious cocaine problem. Any New Yorker can tell you that’s not nearly as bad as a serious roach problem.

We didn’t see a cockroach for six blissful months. Six months may not seem like a long time. But after eight years of daily hand-to-hand combat, this was a dream come true vacation. I actually began to relax. We still kept all of the food in plastic containers; but I no longer swatted anything that moved in my peripheral vision, including my children.

After six months, the clock struck midnight and the spell was broken. The roaches began straggling back. So Elaine returned once again with the magic powder. By then, she knew the most intimate details of our lives – as she’d been through every drawer and cabinet in our apartment.

By the time we finally decided to leave New York City, the cockroaches were back in full force. If I had any second thoughts about our flight from the Holy Land, these were put to rest when I saw baby roaches crawling inside the digital display on the microwave oven. Gross! We waved the white surrender flag and were escorted safely out of the combat zone aka New York City.

We were excited to be moving to Mexico. Little did we know that a welcoming committee was already forming to greet us – of scorpions.