The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Saturday, August 27, 2005

BUGS AND HOW TO KILL THEM: We all have our preferred methods of squashing bugs, of course; this is a free country, after all, conceived in Liberty, a small town over in Sullivan County on Route 17, for those of you who like to keep track of such things, and dedicated to the proposition that all men may squash bugs in the manner that best enhances their pursuit of happiness, the their here being the men pursuing happiness and not the bugs, who are not pursuing anything except a free meal and a roof over their heads and who would, no doubt, rather skip the whole blunt force trauma experience, given the way such an experience can ruin a perfectly good day. There’s nothing that so ruins a freshly washed, waxed, and detailed exoskeleton than some chucklehead slamming his size 11E wingtips down on top of it.

It could be worse, though; you could be scooting along one fine summer’s day minding your own business and intent on getting back to the hive/hill/warren/rotting log that you call home before the rush hour begins and the traffic gets crazy when all of a sudden the day gets considerably hotter. The sun seems to be beating down on you with fifty times the usual intensity and you start cursing the weatherman for not predicting this hot spell, because you left your suntan lotion with the extra-strength ultraviolet ray blocker at home today because the weatherman said you weren’t going to need it. You look up at the sun as you loosen your collar, and your last conscious thought before you explode in a seething fireball is, how can those stupid kids hold onto the edges of the sun like that without burning their fingers?

Well, most of us don’t use magnifying glasses on bugs anymore; it takes too long and adults, for the most part, are not interested in eliminating bugs one by one when we can kill them in the thousands and in the tens of thousands. I suspect that this need for mass slaughter is the end result of thousands of hours watching violent programming on television and in the movies, and nowadays are video and computer games of such appalling violence that you really can’t imagine how a responsible parent would let their children watch such drivel, but I am told that there is no credible evidence to support such a view, although I think that the anecdotal evidence in this case is pretty convincing. When ten men tell you you’re drunk, it’s time to lie down, as Dana Andrews says in The Battle of the Bulge, a 1966 release that manages to tell the story of the great World War II battle without a whole lot in the way of snow, something you would not otherwise think possible, as it smacks of showing The Sands of Iwo Jima without the sands, The Bridge over the River Kwai without the river, or the bridge, for that matter, and They Died With Their Boots On without boots or some other appropriate footwear. There’s something about the notion of Errol Flynn leading the Seventh Cavalry to their deaths at the Little Big Horn whilst wearing flip-flops that detracts from the heroic image Hollywood likes to impart to this sort of military disaster, which leads us back to our subject for the day.

For all the emotional benefit we derive from a good bug stamping, the fact is that shoes remain an inefficient means of squashing most of the insects you find living in the average American home these days. While a good shoe can dispatch your average bug to whatever the next level of bug existence is in a fairly expeditious manner, the human involved in this equation must wait for the insect to crawl, hop, creep, fly, shuffle, or by some other means of locomotion move itself into a position where the human holding the shoe can properly smash the bug into the linoleum. Otherwise there’s not much point to using your shoes, and most bugs nowadays know at the first whiff of your socks that a shoe is now in play and that they should hie themselves hence to the nearest available nook and/or cranny to ride out the rain of frustrated blows plus high winds and temperatures in the high 80’s with a 70% chance of precipitation coming down on their heads. Feet, unfortunately, do not have a regular shape, with some of us having feet that are oddly shaped even by the elastic standards of podiatric oddness, and thus as a corollary to this great truth our shoes cannot guarantee a properly aligned killing surface for use in offensive operations against hostile insects. There are few things more frustrating than knowing that that bug in the corner is laughing at you because you can’t fit the toe of your shoe into that corner to get him/her/appropriate gender designation.

There are other solutions to this problem. The chemical weapons crowd, an odd assortment of equally odd characters who like going to exterminator conventions throughout the country wearing World War I Prussian spiked helmets and almost all of whom have one or two, and sometimes more, photographs of Kaiser Wilhelm II in places of honor on their mantelpieces, yearn for the halcyon days of DDT, when a single airplane filled with the chemical could lay waste to vast armies of creepy crawlies in a single spritz. This is not such a bad idea, really, but at this writing it seems that DDT has gone the way of the dodo and the giant ground sloth, by which I mean the now extinct species of North American megafauna (Paramylodon harlani) and not my cousin Billy, no matter how much he deserves the appellation. A man in his fifteenth straight year of continuous unemployment is simply not trying, in my opinion, and I hope you’ll pardon me for being judgmental here. I know I shouldn’t be, but sometimes it’s hard to do.

In any case, given that shoes do not provide an efficient method of killing insects and chemicals not only harm the environment in general but you in particular as well, which negates the whole point of the exercise when you give it some thought, what then is your average home owner to do? The answer is simple: books. I don’t mean that you can find the answer to this question in books; I mean that books, as physical objects, are the perfect weapons platform for smashing bugs into nonexistence, whether those bugs are on the ground creepies or the more technologically advanced flying models.

I know how shocked some of you are at this suggestion; you may be turning to your significant other and asking, but isn’t he a librarian, how can he suggest such a thing, but let’s look at some of the salient facts here and not get off on a tangent that won’t support my weight. First, books are made out of trees and the trees they are made out of are dead; trust me, they’ll never know the difference. Second, if you want to survive in the library game then the one thing you cannot afford to have is a sentimental attachment to books. Entire forests have died in order to make even the smallish but no less egregious mold-pit wherein I labor from day to day possible; if we never threw anything out there wouldn’t be enough space left to hang up our coats in the morning.

But trees keep growing and writers keep writing and readers keep reading, so we have to do something with the books people have read already. Since eating them is not really possible; the non-xylophagous among the literate public, which takes in a majority of that small subsection of the overall population, finds digesting books a bit hard on the system, even when washed down with a stiff aperitif mixed from equal parts of sloe gin, quicklime, and carbolic acid. And cooking the books is a lost art these days; like pork, the chef must cook the books well in order for them to be palatable; an improperly cooked book can put the unwary gourmand out of action for ten years or more, depending on whether or not he cut a deal with the district attorney. So we must do something with the excess that no one else wants.

And frankly, not all books are up to the task. Most nonfiction, all reference books, technical reports, and large coffee table books are simply unsuitable for bug smashing. Coffee table books, for example, although they are heavy and deliver a tremendous punch when used in the proper circumstances, are nonetheless too big for everyday bug killing. To squash a bug using a retrospective book of the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who spent sixty or so years taking those photographs, or some twenty pound behemoth documenting the rise of the Impressionist movement you must wait, as you must with shoes, for the bug to move into the proper position, which limits your ability to be proactive in the matter, unless the bug in question is suicidal and decides to make things easy for you. This is not something you can rely on, however; bugs, as a rule, are fairly well-adjusted creatures, despite their inability to get more than a passing grade on Rorschach tests. No, something smaller is definitely required.

This standard immediately eliminates Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu in either the hardcover or the trade paperback edition, since by the time you’ve decided which volume to use, the bug has not only escaped but has matured, bred, and come to the end of its life cycle as an after dinner snack for that frog whose ribbiting is keeping awake half the night. If you insist on using Proust, though, use The Captive or The Fugitive; if you damage those books no one will really care; those two books are just the Narrator moping about Albertine. Now, people mope, we all know this and we’ve all moped ourselves from time to time, it’s only natural, but nine hundred pages of moping is a bit much, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

The same standard also eliminates almost all of Tolstoy, except for The Cossacks, and most of the other Russians, except for Chekhov, who is too slight to really smash bugs, as well as Shakespeare, Dickens (using A Christmas Carol for this purpose is just a very bad and very sick joke), Trollope, and you can forget about Gibbon—another damned thick square book will get you nowhere, insecticidally speaking. The Greeks are too busy fighting wars with each other and with others in Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides to worry a lot about bugs, and after the hell Sophocles put them through in the Oedipus cycle I think the surviving members of the House of Atreus have earned the right to sit down and think of new and intriguing ways of being dysfunctional without having to worry about bugs infesting the palace as well.

Well, I could keep this going until the cows come home and leave the front door open, because they really do live in a barn, but I’ll spare everyone the trouble and me the writer’s cramp. After years of study in laboratories across the country, years in which thousands upon thousands of insects died violently without a peep from the animal rights people, modern science has determined that the ideal book for killing bugs is a trade paperback copy of Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Yes, I know, after such a tremendous buildup this is an awful let down; I said the exact same thing when they told me. I thought something by Hemingway or Faulkner was sure to be the winner, and if not them Conrad or Greene, or Jonathan Swift, perhaps. I didn’t think any of the Russians had a real chance, except for Pushkin or Lermontov, and so when they made the announcement you could have knocked me over with a lead-weighted feather duster, if they make such things anymore.

Still, when you think about it, the decision doesn’t sound so crazy after all…well, actually it does, but if you think about most things for long enough you can rationalize almost anything away. The trade paperback edition of Notes from Underground is light enough to smash bugs on the ground and to whack flying insects into the wall, knocking them unconscious for the old Ford coupe de Grace, who still wants an Italian sports car for her birthday and isn’t going to get one, not after knocking over half the mailboxes in the neighborhood with the old clunker she’s got now, and the book is small enough to get into those hard to whack places where shoes and fly swatters and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel simply won’t reach. Furthermore, bugs will come away from the existential horror of Dostoevsky’s short novel with a tissue or maybe a damp paper towel, preferably the latter, as it helps wipe the stain off the cover. In any case, I hope this information is of some use to you; scientific knowledge should benefit everyone, I think.


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