Skittering, Creeping, and Other Arthropodal Crimes || Lisa Weidman

Earwigs are nocturnal insects, drawn to moist areas. The common misconception about earwigs is that they will crawl into your ear canal and lay eggs in your brain. It is unclear why this is so widely believed. With billions of the tiny creatures on every continent except Antarctica, it seems that we would have had much more than just anecdotal evidence of earwigs crawling into, or out of, ears.

Possibly it is the name of the bug which makes us hold on to the fiction of their behaviors; after all, they must have gotten the name from somewhere. Indeed, it is believed that they are called “earwigs” because when their hind-wing is unfolded it looks like a human ear. Or at least that is what the entomologists say. Personally, I have seen hundreds of earwigs in my life, but I have never seen their wings unfurled. Equally as disturbing as the common name and associated wives’ tales, is the scientific name for the earwig, “Dermaptera,” which comes from the root words for “skin” and “wing.” The idea of a skin wing is somehow so unnatural, especially in the context of the earwig with its forceps-like pincers extending off the back of its abdomen, its long searching antenna, and its nearly uncrushable body.

***

Bingham County, Idaho lies in the southeast part of the state where its largest city comes in at just under 12,000 people. The area never developed into industrial or urban sprawl because the land is much too useful as farmland. This one county alone produces 30% of all the potatoes grown in the United States. The fertility of the farmland is largely due to the volcanic soil with which the valley plains are covered. Of course, left on its own, the environment is only able to support miles and miles of sagebrush. The rainfall is too sparse to invite much else. When combined with modern irrigation capabilities, pulling millions of gallons of water out of the Snake River, the volcanic soil flourishes. This combination of potato plant and water is a perfect environment for the earwig. There are over 1,000 different species of earwigs across the globe, but the common earwig, found in many parts of the U.S., is omnivorous. This easily recognizable earwig will eat plants, ripe fruits, and other arthropods. Some of its favorite plants include potatoes and corn.

As a child, the lawn that my brothers and I played on ended on the north with a canal and on the west and east with the neighbors’ fields of potatoes. On the south side of our property, broken up by a country road, the potato fields extended on for miles. I don’t know what it was that drove the earwigs from the potato fields, where they had an abundance of food and water, to our garden and house. Maybe the fields got too damp in the evening, the six-foot-tall sprinklers spraying a rainbow of water against the violent red and orange of the setting sun.

The first time I remember seeing an earwig I was three. It crawled up my shirt as I shrieked a death cry, watching the pincers on the back of the bug open and close. My brother, so wise and tall at five, knocked it off my shirt and stepped on it with his flip-flop. He lifted his foot, but the creature still wriggled around, heading for my shoes. It took four or five times of stomping and twisting before its body was spread across the sidewalk and it finally stopped moving.

“That’s an earwig,” he said, proud of his superior knowledge. “They crawl in your ears and eat your brains.”

And all these years later, it doesn’t matter how sure I am of the earwig’s indifference to the human ear. Psychologically, I shudder every time I see one, and am unable to sleep knowing the moment my conscious mind lets down its guard a swarm of earwigs will enter any crevice available.

***

One of the most unique things about the behavior of the earwig is that the female has maternal instincts. Twice a year a mother earwig will give birth to the creamy colored, tiny, round eggs. Surprisingly, instead of abandoning them, she watches over the tiny pearls; to her, they have meaning and importance. In fact, they are so important that she will attack any threat to her eggs and continue to watch over and protect them after they have hatched.

This was information I did not want to know. Somehow, knowing that the earwig protects its babies and young humanizes the insect to such a degree that I find it hard to contemplate killing it—crushing its body repeatedly until the legs finally stop running, twitching. Thinking about the mother protecting her eggs, which she lays in a hole in the dirt, makes me wonder how many of the earwigs I have killed were mothers who were no longer there to protect their buried pearls.

I will never forget the night that my cousin Diana and I boiled multiple earwigs alive as if they were their arthropodal relative—the lobster. In the late eighties, there were no cable lines extending into the rural Idaho farmland. We had a set of rabbit ears on our TV which, if one person manipulated them into just the right position and then held them without breathing, could pick up one fuzzy, local channel. Diana and I had tired of searching for the television signal. We had told all the scary stories we knew. We had painted all the finger-nails and toenails we could find, but we weren’t ready to go to bed. Instead, we raided the kitchen. I picked up a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese and began preparations. I had been cooking mac-and-cheese for at least two years—there were some benefits to having three younger siblings—and was so excited to show off my skill. We were too impatient to wait in the kitchen while the macaroni cooked. Also, there was the looming risk of being found out by my parents.

The only reason Diana was allowed to spend the night on a Saturday was that she was family. All friends were barred from Saturday night sleepovers because church was the next day and we had to “keep the Sabbath day holy.” Sunday was set aside for spiritual endeavors, rest, and family time; no television, no playing with friends, no shopping at the grocery store, no eating out, no working. Diana and I felt lucky. We were the same age and in the same class at school and we could play together on Sundays. However, we were afraid that if we were caught up late the night before church, the loophole we had been using would be closed.

Somehow, we thought that we would only be liable for cooking food after midnight if we were caught in the kitchen. After waiting the 8-10 minutes for the noodles to boil, we crept back down the stairs to complete making the meal. As we turned on the light and walked into the kitchen, at least thirty earwigs scuttled across the kitchen floor. They disappeared into heat vents and cracks between the cupboards. Undaunted, we walked to the stove to check on the noodles. Six or seven earwigs floated in the boiling water, circling around with the current. I didn’t understand at the time that earwigs are nocturnal and that they are drawn to moisture. I didn’t know that we had created a beacon call, inviting the earwigs to our midnight feast. Diana and I stood, motionless. Horrified.

“Will we get in trouble if we throw it away?” she whispered.

Fear of punishment battled revulsion.

“It looks like they’re whole. Like, I don’t think any pieces fell off them,” I said, as I scooped their soggy, yet brittle bodies out with a spoon and cringingly shook them into the garbage disposal.

We tried, oh how we tried to eat that macaroni, but after a bite or two, we were both running for the trash. For a drink. For anything to erase the thing we had done.

***

Earwigs seek crevices where they can rest until the relative safety of dark-ness brings them out of their hiding places. One of the reasons our encounters with earwigs might be so disturbing is because they are always so unexpected—an old log is pulled from the flower bed and we find our hand resting too close to a quick, skittering body. The only desire of the earwig is to return to it resting spot, while our inclination is to crush its firm body against any available hard surface.

Scientists say that the reason people fear spiders and other similar arthropods (earwigs, scorpions, centipedes) is partially because of the unpredictability of their movements, their dark color, and the angular form of their bodies. Also, we are more likely to have positive feelings for insects and animals that we find more similar to ourselves. We fear that which we don’t understand, even when logic should negate the fear. Commonly held misconceptions—the voices that echo from childhood—feed our fears and shape our feelings and reactions more than we know. More than we would like to admit.

I remember the first time I saw someone drinking a cup of coffee. My step-great-grandmother sat at her white and gold speckled Formica table; the acrid smell of her black coffee swirled around the tiny room. My great-grandfather had died twenty years before, at which point “grandma-great” had moved into town, too old to work their small farm or keep up with the acres of garden and grass. She frightened the grandchildren because of her accent. Even though she had lived in Idaho for sixty years, the twenty-five years of her youth in the Italian Alps heavily colored her tones. The more disturbing thing, however, was that black cup of nauseating smelling liquid which she always seemed to have in her knobby hands. Lacking social discretion, one of my cousins asked about that cup.

“Why do you drink coffee, grandma-great, don’t you know it’s bad?”

Every good little Mormon had been properly educated about the evils of coffee, tea, tobacco, and alcohol. Grandma-great always laughed loudly at this type of comment, her raspy voice (from the cigarettes I didn’t know about until even later) filling the small space to capacity.

“Don’t you know that it’s not what goes into your mouth but what comes out that defiles it?” she would ask, pointing her twisted finger at the offending child.

Yet we were unfazed by this logic. We already knew this was used by the weak, those who couldn’t live a higher life, to give an excuse for their evil ways.

***

Since moving to Washington, I have only seen a couple of earwigs. I would have expected them to propagate here like crazy with such a moist home for them and no killingly cold temperatures. Maybe they have predators here, or maybe they stay in the woods, their need to seek food and moisture from humans negated by the life-filled forests. One recent morning, I chose a chocolate-brown owl mug from the cupboard and looked inside of it to check for cleanliness (with children washing dishes, you never know).

Inside, trying to crawl up the slippery, ceramic side was a large earwig. I initially shuddered, and then laughed, remembering the ruined pot of macaroni, knowing how close I had come to pouring a stream of boiling water on this one. I know enough about earwigs now—like the fact that they eat spiders— that I no longer need to bash them until they are dead. Now, I help them to a dark hiding place, away from my house, and hope that they find their pearly, little eggs so they can get back to cleaning them.

After dumping the earwig under a large maple leaf, I returned to grab a clean mug. Then I sat on my front porch, drinking my steaming cup of coffee. I wondered what sort of stories grandma-great could have told if I had been able to look beyond the silly thing which separated us: her choice of drink, and my belief that this somehow made her a bad person. Sometimes I long for the feeling of home, for the simplicity of lifestyle, for the snow drifted higher than a car. Then I watch my husband spread a thin line of oil-based marijuana on a vitamin to dull the pain of his locked shoulder so that he can sleep. I hear that my uncle refuses to let my aunt try medicinal marijuana for her Parkinson’s because it is a sin to use drugs. My stepdaughter, Kennedy, now wants to be called Ken. At church they ostracize him; nobody understands. I don’t fully understand either, but that’s okay.

This was originally published in Spring 2018 edition of The Helix.

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Your Order is Up || Grace Jasmine

A while back I was having an exchange with my brother in which we were
discussing how we would like to leave this earth—the trappings, the fripperies,
if you will. How we would like to be boxed up and sent away on the Disoriented
Express.

I said cremation was the right way to go because once enough family
members died you would have enough raw material for a charming garden
bench or a small koi pond. You could simply add water and stir. Chuck felt
sure that burial in the ground was the only way to go. I am not sure if it was
our Catholic roots or the need to have a location of remembrance that made
him feel this way—I only know that he did. We discussed potential burial
markers and pithy sayings we would like to have on our tombstones. I suggested
he could have “Your Order Is Up,” which would be a fitting nod at his years
as a professional chef and his current state of “deadness” when it arrived. We
both chuckled. And the subject changed.

But he took me seriously, or took the discussion seriously, and on a
fine summer day one year in late August with his beloved son by his side, he
entered the beautiful crystal blue waters off the Balboa shore and had a heart
attack. His son and the efforts (or the lack of effort) of all the lifeguards on the
scene couldn’t save him. And so he died.

He was dead. Dead. I remember at the time I kept repeating the words
in the hope that they would eventually they would mean something to me.
He liked the Grateful Dead. He liked to trip and go see them. He appreciated
and enjoyed music—real music from the 60s and 70s. Through the wall of our
adjoined bedrooms in a long-ago suburb, I got my first taste of The Who, Iron
Butterfly, The Doors, The Stones, Led Zep, and more.

My brother lived in a time where he just missed being old enough to go
to Vietnam. While he was too young to go and die for his country, he was
definitely old enough to explore the music and enough of the counterculture
of the 60s to give him a taste for the experimentation that went along with the
age. So experiment he did, to the chagrin of my mother and to the loss of some
very important aspects of coming of age mentally. All things that he would
have to do later—eventually.

There were many years during this time of experimentation that Chuck
wasn’t so easy to get along with. His rebellion took many forms. He experienced
all the hell that sometimes marks teenage years. His actions made me
fear him and avoid him—and I did, with a vengeance.

Later, when it came time for me to enter high school, I made it very clear
that I wasn’t like my brother. I wanted to be known as a straight, good kid. I
wasn’t into drugs or any of the experimentation that went with it. It scared me.

My militant stance about his lifestyle created a gulf that I needed for my own
protection, so we were estranged for a time. He went his way, and I went my
way too.

Luckily, after years of struggle and separate lives, we came together and
shared a rich and intense adult friendship—one that never left behind the singsong
madness and fun of our early years. We spoke almost daily. Thank God.

It’s been a long time now since that fateful morning that Chuck and
I were sharing our usual early-hour conversation. As we both drove in our
respective cars to our respective jobs in different states, he got hit by someone
who ran a red light in an intersection as he was turning left. His truck flipped
several times and was completely totaled—all while I listened, horrified, on my
end of the phone. I heard someone call 911 and hold the phone up to Chuck’s
ear so he and I could hear the operator state, “The paramedics are on their
way.” I heard Chuck say in a confused and annoyed voice that he was “pissed
off” because he had just paid in full for his truck. And then the line went dead.

The adrenaline in every cell of my body exploded. My blood pressure shot
through the roof, and for a few moments I had one of the worst headaches of
my life. I stopped my car in a parking lot and rocked back my head to prevent
the blood from pounding through my skull. I called a coworker who was kind
enough to come rescue me from where I sat, franticly disoriented, in a parking
lot. We went to Starbucks, the cure-all for everything from mild annoyance to
the potential death of a loved one, and I finally calmed down. I got to work
and called hospitals. Finally, four hours later, Chuck called me. My darling big
brother was alive and in one piece and he told me proudly that he had lifted
himself out of his totaled truck much to the amazement of the shocked witnesses.
He was very excited about how “studly” he looked pulling himself from
the wreckage—and then we talked.

We had the chance to say all the things you say to someone you thought
you had lost but through the grace of God and a twist of fate, you find you
didn’t. We told each other how we felt about each other. He was my adored big
brother—the person who laughingly called me “The General” and thought my
bossiness was darling. He was the big brother who had saved my life as a baby.
He made me laugh. He annoyed the hell out of me. He was infuriating and
loving and kind and mean and confused and stubborn and magical. He was
just so much. He lived out loud. He was like the ocean. Sometimes terrible and
fierce, or wild and free, playful and crazy, calm and beautiful, gentle and nurturing.
He was constantly changing. He had a saying: “You’re not sick, you’re
just changing.” Wise words, and true words too.

He was my first friend.

Once, when I got in trouble for attempting to use my baby teeth to sever
my newborn brother Chad’s toe in a fit of toddler jealousy and rage, I was duly
punished and stood in the corner behind the green chair in our living room,
sadly chastised, but still raging. I remember Chuck coming in and trying to play with me—which my mother prevented because I was currently in exile. I remember that moment decades ago like it was yesterday.

He is intertwined in all my earliest memories. He is part of the tapestry of
my family. The who-I-think-I-am. He is in my blood, my heart, and my soul.
He will never be something I can extract by processing, or coming to terms
with, or anything else.

On August 25, 2008 at 3:25 in the afternoon, on a perfect day in the
ocean at a Southern California beach we both loved, I lost my first friend—forever.
I also lost the only person who ever thought of me as his “little sister.” I
lost the person who named me the endearing and somewhat awkwardly fond
nickname, Teeny.

Nothing will ever be the same.

After several years of denial, I eventually got a stone for his grave. In lieu
of the pithy “Your Order is Up” marker we laughed about that long-ago day, I
asked his then-teenage son for a phrase that had meaning to the both of them.
He chose these simple words: “We had a blast!” It’s been almost nine years
now, and even though I have never actually been there to see it—I just can’t
bring myself to—each year I visit the beach at Balboa, where every boy with a
surfboard looks strangely like Chuck, and I can commune with his spirit by the
ocean he loved so well.

This was originally published in the Spring 2018 edition of The Helix.