Saturday, August 9, 2008

A Flea and a Fly in a Flue by Ogden Nash

A Flea and a Fly in a Flue

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the fly, "let us flee!"
"Let us fly!" said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
--Ogden Nash

Ogden Nash is a master of wordplay. I love how he uses homonyms (including homophones like flea-flee or flue-flew, and polysemes like fly[bug]-fly[leave quickly]) as well as basic poetic devices like rhyme and alliteration. I often come away from his poems thinking that he is just plain clever.

My point in posting this poem today (apart from its inherent cleverness, and the fact that it's been on my list since I started this project) is to tell you about the hassles I've had with bugs this week. You may recall from other blog posts that I often have obsessive fears when I'm stressed, and that one of those fears is of bugs. Rationally, I know that most bugs can't hurt me, and that the few that can probably won't, and if they do, it's unlikely to do any major or permanent damage. At the same time, I was scarred by some experiences as a child (most notably the grasshopper tapeworm incident, the beetles and grubs in my croutons incident, and the whole range of June bug shells and beetles that the boys threw at me), and bugs really upset me.

This week, I've been mildly stressed by spending two days taking care of Grandma while Elizabeth was especially fussy, waking up at 4 the next morning to take Peter to the airport (he's at Wordcon this week), and generally being all alone with all the responsibility for days and days. We still haven't found anybody willing to sell us health insurance, and I've decided to fire our realtor because other than posting an ad on Craigslist (which I could do myself), I can't see that he's doing anything at all for the commission we'd have to pay him if he sold the house.

I woke up on Thursday, and found that the ants, which I successfully fought off a year ago when we moved in, have invaded again. They made an initial sortie on Sunday, but I killed the ten million that were in the kitchen with Totally Awesome Lemon cleaner, and blocked their entry with a paper towel soaked in the stuff while Peter sprayed Raid on their line outside. I started seeing scouts in the computer room the next day, but never more than a couple at a time, so I couldn't find where they were getting in. Well it seems that Wednesday night, the long range scouts hit the jackpot. They came in through the wall of the computer room, marched all the way across the carpet, down the hall, across the kitchen floor, up the side of the refrigerator, and found the honey jar. It was easy enough to dispose of the ones in the kitchen, but it's harder to kill them and wipe out the line on carpet, so they just kept coming.

While I was trying to figure out what to do, I took a break to play with Elizabeth and noticed a tiny black speck in her hair. I brushed at it, and it jumped off onto my pants. I had seen this black jumping speck a few times before, and I had my suspicions, so I used a baby wipe to capture him and put him in a ziplock bag. There I confirmed my worst fear: he was a flea. Our mobile home park has a problem with stray cats (and pet cats allowed to roam free), and most of them think my garden is the nicest litter box in the area. They don't even bother to bury their droppings -- they just leave them on my nice clean dirt. This smells, and attracts flies (I think that's where the stinkhorn egg came from), and now it seems that they bring fleas too. I have only seen one flea at a time, but I have seen one flea on four or five occasions in the last week or two, and it's hard to imagine that it's all the same tiny bug.

So here I am, all alone (except for the baby, which just makes things worse because I have to take care of her, keep her away from poison, and not leave her at home when I go to the store to buy things), having to deal with one of my worst nightmares -- invasion of biting insects. I wanted to just bomb the place, but I didn't have anywhere to go for the six hours that are mandatory, let alone the twenty four hours that the pediatrician said I should wait before letting Elizabeth crawl on the residue covered carpet. I don't even feel comfortable looking online for answers because the ants are crawling all over the floor of the computer room and I don't want to let them get on me. I'm on high alert all the time because every tiny little itch has to be treated as a possible bug-on-me incident, and dealt with immediately.

Eventually, I decided that my first step would be to do what I should have done WEEKS ago: buy some Cat-away powder (it's made of coyote urine and other predator scent markings so the cats think something big has moved in and they should stay away). At the garden center, I also asked the lady about what I could use in the yard to kill the fleas (not holding out much hope about killing off ants), and she suggested Diatomous Earth.

I had seen pictures of Diatoms in my science textbooks, but I didn't know that they're a great natural pesticide. Evidently, the diatoms are like teeny tiny pieces of glass which scrape through the layer of wax on the bug's shell, and that makes the bug dry up. It's safe enough to eat (in some places they just dump it into grain to keep the bugs out), and it's less dangerous to breathe than road dust or baby powder. Since my flea problem is not overwhelming at this point, I decided to give it a try -- and as a bonus, it might just kill the ants too!

I finally gave in and sprayed raid on the spot where the ants were coming up through the carpet in the computer room, and that seems to have stopped them for the moment. So between a lot of cleaning and a lot of worry, and a little pesticide, and a generous sprinkling of diatomous earth and Cat-away, I have averted catastrophe (for now).


  1. I'm sorry for the june bug shells!

    Feynman on ants:

    "In Princeton the ants found my larder, where I had jelly and bread and stuff, which was quite a distance from the window. A long line of ants marched along the floor across the living room. It was during the time I was doing these experiments on the ants, so I thought to myself, 'What can I do to stop them from coming to my larder without killing any ants?'
    "What I did was this: In preparation, I put a bit of sugar about six or eight inches from their entry point into the room, that they didn't know about. Then I made those ferry things again, and whenever an ant returning with food walked onto my little ferry, I'd carry him over and put him on the sugar. Any ant coming toward the larder that walked onto a ferry I also carried over to the sugar. Eventually the ants found their way from the sugar to their hole, so this new trail was being doubly reinforced, while the old trail was being used less and less. I knew that after half an hour or so the old trail would dry up, and in an hour they were out of my larder. I didn't wash the floor; I didn't do anything but ferry ants."

  2. It's interesting to hear your perspective on the june-bug incident. Do you think your childhood was particularly traumatic?
    There are others events, too, that you've talked about as being traumatic the same way. You've talked before about being held down and tickled-- the way I remember it, that only happened once: we all took turns being held down and tickled, but when it got to be your turn, before anyone actually reached you, your yells were loud enough that Mom came in and put a stop to the game, and we felt it was mildly unfair that you had helped tickle others, but didn't get tickled yourself. It had never occured to us that the rules might be different because you were a girl.
    The way I remember it, there was always teasing at home (Mike had a habit of choking people for a while, I remember), but it was never the kind of malicious teasing that happened at school, and not the kind of sibling hate I sometimes heard about in other families. It was always over, no hard feelings, by the next day at the worst. But it sounds like it was different for you, or at least in remembering it now, it seems different. Perhaps you were prone to develop a terror of whatever frightened you as a kid, no matter how harmless?

  3. There were several times I felt entirely out of control when being tickled -- I don't believe it was particularly malicious on your part, but often I either couldn't breathe (perhaps an early manfestation of the asthma), or found it particularly painful in the armpit area. There was one particularly bad time in a pool when I was sure I was going to drown from the tickling.

    Having read up on asperger's syndrome (which I believe I have many aspects of), I think that that might have had an effect on my perceptions. Stimuli that neurotypical people find harmless or mildly annoying can be overwhelming and painful to other people. I think that tickling falls into that category for me along with certain flavors (melon), sounds (some alarm clocks), lights (led tail lights), and textures (tags on shirts).

    If asked to justify why I should be allowed to do the tickling, but not take it, I can only say that I took a lot, and that on some level you guys enjoyed it.

    I do think that I was particularly sensitive to the teasing, and that I got no more than other people in the house. I don't remember being put upon and singled out for it. All in all, I'd say I had a great, happy childhood in a loving, supportive family. At the same time, my therapist tells me I have nearly all the symptoms of PTSD without a clear triggering traumatic event. She's decided that just being alive and dealing with my brain chemestry weirdness was traumatic for me.

    So anyway, even though you tickled me, chased me with bugs a lot of times, and took full advantage of the whole "White Horse" thing to frighten me, you don't have to feel bad about teasing me -- it was entirely different from the stuff I got at school. I have far more good memories than bad of time spent with my brothers.


  4. Hi,

    What's the grasshopper-tapeworm incident?

    And after reading your blog, I suggest that you don't read my latest post. I don't think you would like it. Actually it might bother you quite a bit. It's called the Cucumber and the grasshopper.

    I'm glad you were able to get the diatomaceous earth. Hopefully it
    does the trick.

    Love, K

  5. In third grade, we had to make a bug collection. I was pretty good at catching bugs -- though I didn't like to touch them with my hands. One day I caught a gigantic grasshopper, but had nowhere to put him except the ziplock bag my sandwich had come in at lunch. I also had no nail polish remover to kill him, so he lived for several hours as he slowly used up the air in the bag.

    As he died, a tapeworm crawled out of him. It must have been something like eight inches long, and a horrible pus colored white. It gave me nightmares at the time -- I was sure it would get out of the bag and crawl up the stairs to my bedroom and get me. I still get the heebie-jeebies thinking about it.

  6. Oh Yuck!

    And it wasn't so much the spoiling cucumbers, it was the eating grasshoppers…

  7. The droppings on top of the soil in your garden are very unlikely to be cat droppings unless you have mutant cats. Cats have powerful instincts to bury waste and will even bury the waste of other cats, if they happen upon it. Cats will leave urine spray to mark their territory. Those surface droppings are more likely to be rodents or even small dogs than cats. The real hassle with cats in a garden is the digging and urine spray. Cat proof plastic fencing is available at most "Home Depot" type stores, ask for no climb plastic fencing. It is not too expensive and will keep most beasties out of your garden except for burrowing rodents, snakes, birds and deer... and of course very determined cats who jump over it and determined dogs who will break it down. It is a relatively cheap fix for this problem. Also try sugar mixed with borax for your ants. Look it up borax does a job on ants and roaches.

  8. Die Fliege und der Floh - ein Klassiker genau wie Holzspielzeug! -