Monthly Archives: February 2022

What’s good

One morning last month, like so very many other mornings, one of the first questions posed to me was, “Is the dishwasher clean?” Most mornings, this roughly translates to “Did you run the dishwasher last night?”, in which case the answer to both questions would be one and the same. This particular morning, however, was unlike most mornings because we’d been without electricity for three days and three nights, so there was no way anyone could have run the dishwasher without a surprise visit from the Generator Fairy. And since there is no Generator Fairy (as far as I know), no magical alternating current had delivered a source of electrical power into our possession. By this point in our experience of going without power for half of a frigid January week, I’d developed a system wherein a pot of water was always on the stovetop so I could light the gas with a candle flame and heat the water for whatever purpose necessary throughout the day: cooking oatmeal or Ramen, brewing tea or cocoa, or warming things like bags of frozen edamame we were keeping in the flowerpot full of snow on the porch (or, as we referred to it that week, “the outdoor freezer”). In the evenings, after the sink had collected the fallout of the day’s mealtime preparation and consumption, I’d heat the water in the saucepan to use while handwashing the load, thus making the experience far more enjoyable than on that first night when I’d only used the chill-you-to-the-bone-temperature water from the faucet. After washing, rather than waste time drying all of those clean dishes, I just loaded them into the dishwasher-turned-dish drainer for them to air-dry overnight so we’d have a dishwasher full of clean dishes in the morning, just like usual.

That morning, on the fourth day with no electricity, heat, or hot water, when my child asked, “Is the dishwasher clean?” the answer was, indeed, yes, but only because they’d been washed before going in there. I said as much, just in case these people hadn’t noticed the extra work and energy all of this powerlessness had required of me, and the response I received was this singular word: “Good.” Good. As in, you washed all of these dishes by hand in the dark by headlamp with water you’d boiled on the stove after thinking about what to prepare for us to eat, considering that the only method of heating food was on the gas range, and then purchasing the items necessary to that end, obtaining them, bringing them into this house, and putting them away (even if that meant burying them in a mound of snow in a flowerpot out back). Oh, and then you actually prepared the food and served it. Those were the steps leading up those aforementioned dirty dishes.

As parents, we frequently have thoughts like these. But it’s important to remember that for children, it’s hard to appreciate exactly what all of those machinations really mean in a practical sense. This is why, in that moment, while I watched my daughter take a clean bowl out of a dry dishwasher, I considered all of the steps–literal and figurative–leading to the eventuality of that clean cereal bowl in her hand. And I thought, you know, it really is good. Here we have a gas range I can light to heat water and food. Here we have a faux fireplace warming at least this part of the house using batteries that I bought on sale at Costco. Here we have a headlamp, a creature comfort our forebears could merely have imagined. Here we have a cell phone I can charge using a USB port in a flashlight lantern, from which I can access cellular data to order groceries which I can pick up without even leaving my car. Here we have a dishwasher, a modern amenity only affordable by a small sector of humankind, which works beautifully as a draining rack for all of these colorful melamine bowls from which we can eat food conveniently preserved in a natural freezer. And here we have the awareness that taking a bowl from a clean dishwasher to use rather than selecting one from the shelf is a kind of shortcut that essentially saves at least a few iotas of energy, even if this child’s motivation for the choice might have been that it’s easier to reach the bowls in the dishwasher than the ones higher up in the cabinet.

So, after that split second in which I’d bristled at what sounded like entitlement, in that one word I heard genuine gratitude. I felt it, too. And someday, baby, you’ll understand just how good that really is.

A compound interest

Our school held a “remote learning day” last month, which is basically defined as “one Infernal ring away from fresh hell”. The two older kids managed it on their own for the most part, thank goodness, but the six-year-old first grader needed one-on-one attention for the entire seven-hour process. At one point we were on the living room floor detaching and reattaching compound words he’d cut out of a worksheet, and I’d just explained that although the word “doctor” was on the list, it wasn’t actually a compound word. He said, “But ‘dock’ and ‘tore’ are both words!” After some more discussion and explanation about how “doctor” must have been included by mistake, we decided to set that word aside and focus on the others. After the reassembling process (which took extra time because he identified “teacup” as a mashup of the original words “teapot” and “cupcake”, as well as “hairbrush” as a fusion of parts of “haircut” and “toothbrush”, but using those new words would have left us with “toothcut” and “potcake”), he was supposed to take a photo and post it to the school-moderated app aptly named “Seesaw”. I was drinking coffee at the time, naturally, and out of pure coincidence, my mug du jour boasted a snarky language-snob slogan. I didn’t make this connection until my pupil showed me the picture he’d taken on his iPad as proof of assignment completion, an image in which both of my knees and my cup of caffeine were featured, but after seeing my mug juxtaposed with his homework, I couldn’t miss this photo-op setup:

It may seem staged, but, my child as my witness, I assure you that this was a very real-life situation. Did the words on my mug appear this clear in the photo my child took? Definitely. Did I catch it in time to have him take another photo without my coffee mug (and my knees) in it before he posting to the school site? Just barely. Good thing, too, because I’m sure his teacher had quite enough of me that day considering that we sent in 39 answers for the activity “find twelve words using the letters in ‘butterfly'”. If she brings it up, I’ll just say that my toothcut into a potcake but the doctor had been put in a compound.

Insect Spotlight (Part 2 of 2)

6. Stick insects put up a good fight, but they do it highly creatively and only on the defensive. When threatened, rather than fight back tooth and nail (they couldn’t, anyway, as they aren’t in possession of nails, per se), they can voluntarily produce a substance from their mouths that’s bitter to a predatory palate, putting their would-be consumer off the meal entirely. They can also summon a secretion from their bodily joints, a smelly potion made of hemolymph, with the intention of suppressing the attacker’s appetite. Some species can repurpose the spines on their legs that they use for climbing, kind of like anatomical crampons, as thorns to prick their enemies, and another can emit a kind of noxious mist to confound the senses of the beast compelled by hunger to trespass against it.

TAKEAWAY: These slender specimen of the animal kingdom may look delicate, but they do not go gentle into the mouths (or beaks) of their predators. In the words of the Bard, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”

7. Remember those stick insect eggs that resemble seeds? Well, those eggs are built even more cleverly than just that. In an elaborate trick of mimicry, each egg is appended with a small, lipid-rich knob called a capitulum, resembling the elaiosome on castor oil plant seeds (and others), which provides a food source for many species of ant. When an ant catches wind of the seed-like end of a stick insect egg with its fatty fixture, it will ferret the egg back to its nest to consume the capitulum (or feed it to the kids, er, larvae). Frequently the eggs are left intact after this, and the ants toss them onto their compost, where the stick insect infants emerge. These nymphs look rather like ants themselves, so they’re able to escape the warren and climb incognito out and onto, hopefully, a tasty plant. Stick insect eggs even have an armor of calcium oxalate which preserves them from avian gastric acid; that’s right, an egg can pass unscathed all the way through the digestive system of a bird and hatch where it lands, having hitched a flight to a new area in which the species can further diversify.

TAKEAWAY: This insect has taken every opportunity evolution has offered it, it seems, in an effort to ensure the survival of its kind. The only threat I could imagine to its perpetuation on this earth is if humans ever take it upon themselves to appropriate some kind of utility from these animals. Nothing is as good at precipitating extinction as that mercenary species we call homo sapiens. As long as we leave well enough alone, the stick insect’s enterprising evolution ensures enduring life potential for countless future generations.

8. It’s no secret that hiding in plain sight is a special trick indeed. Anyone who might claim that Darwin didn’t have his finches in a row would have a hard time explaining camouflage in nature, I imagine. Well, stick insects take it to a new level altogether. They have brightly-colored wings that they keep all folded up, collapsed in on themselves, umbrella-like, hiding the brightness. If an insect senses that a predator has spotted it despite its camouflage, it can flash open those wings to confuse the onlooker and hope to escape notice once the threatening beast has refocused its vision. It’s the animal kingdom equivalent of someone looking at one of those encrypted images in a “Magic Eye” book, but as soon as he’s glimpsed the hidden picture and is tracing a bead on its contours, someone flicks a coral scarf across the page, essentially snapping the visual discovery back into obscurity.

TAKEAWAY: If you’ve seen “The Usual Suspects”, you know what I mean when I say that stick insects know how to play the Kaiser Söze card. Is that a tasty tidbit you see on that piece of treebark, you bloodthirsty rodent? ::wingflash:: Nah, just smoke in mirrors. They keep this hidden weapon, the power of bewilderment, under their vests, as it were, and know to unfold the living color in yet another ploy to escape danger. “Now you see me,” they seem to say, “and now you don’t.” No holds barred for life and limb.

9. Not that this next trick is one played exclusively by stick bugs, but their last-ditch effort upon earning the notice of an insectivore is to drop dead, or appear to. Thanatosis, the defense mechanism employed frequently by animals in that moment of abject distress in which they fear for their lives, allows them to assume the posture of posthumousness. For stick insects, the objective of playing dead is twofold; if they fall from a leaf to the ground, for example, perhaps they’ll be concealed by grass or whatever substrate might make them difficult to spot. Another incentive of this method is that to mimic lifelessness is also to assume the posture of unpalatability. Usually insect predators prefer their meals to be alive at the time of consumption, so encountering dead (or seemingly dead) prey doesn’t enliven the appetite in the same way as a hale and hearty specimen would.

TAKEAWAY: Imagine you’re an innocent cookie just hanging out in the pantry, minding your own business, and a hungry kid comes hunting for a tasty snack. If you could, in that moment, summon the perception of being stale or rotten, would the kid pass over you in favor of something fresh? Almost certainly. I’m not saying I wish I could suddenly appear to not be alive in my own habitat, but wouldn’t it be nice once in a while to appear uninteresting, even invisible, just temporarily? For instance, if these kids couldn’t sense my life force wherever I am in the house, would they resist constantly asking me things, like to help them find the sock that’s on their left foot or a burning question like this one I got the other day: “What if people didn’t have fingernails?” It would feel like such respite to tuck up under an invisibility cloak from time to time, just so our presence wouldn’t be incessantly noticed and capitalized upon. How wondrous, indeed, to be ignored! But, then again, I imagine that’s what it’s like to live with teenagers.

Insect spotlight (Part 1 of 2)

When one of your children is passionate about insects, it’s amazing how much there is to learn. As my young son came into possession of a stick bug last fall, it became necessary to research the care and keeping of this treasured pet, and in doing so I stumbled upon an article that described some fascinating habits of these creatures. Here I will present to you the points of interest in the article so you can see why I think we should all aspire to be more like the stick insect.

  1. Stick insects possess the ability to regenerate limbs. Yes, that’s right: like the starfish, earthworm, spider, and axolotl, the walking stick is bound and determined to keep apace. They use a specialized muscle to detach the limb at a weak joint if it’s in the clutches of a predator, shedding the leg in a defensive gambit called autotomy. The juveniles of the species can then grow a new leg during their next molt. Some adult stick insects are even able to initiate the molting process specifically with the objective of replacing the limb.

    TAKEAWAY: They are resourceful, resilient, and very much in tune with their bodies.
  2. Utilizing the rare process of parthenogenesis, female stick insects can reproduce without the help of a male. Their unfertilized eggs, of which a single insect can lay hundreds, will mature into other females, and scientists have actually identified a species of stick insect in which no single male has been found.

    TAKEAWAY: They are so self-sufficient that one single individual contains within itself the potential not just to regenerate itself, but to regenerate an entire population.
  3. Stick insects are so effective at camouflage that their name is borrowed from the natural element their bodies are built to resemble. Not only do they structurally imitate the form of a twig, but they also can change color to blend even more seamlessly into their environment, some even putting on a mottled look to appear lichen-like. Their movements, too, are dictated by this penchant for mimicry, as they can sway and rock as if being undulated by a passing breeze.

    TAKEAWAY: These creatures are masters of self-protection, practicing their defensive expertise in a way that is at once peaceful, inoffensive, humble, and harmless.
  4. Not only do the bugs themselves borrow their appearance from the botanical world, but also their eggs are designed to look like proto-plants, which is to say, seeds, ostensibly so they’ll escape the attention of a carnivorous predator. The mother stick insect, guided by that eternal beacon of instinct, lays the eggs as one would sow a crop of wild oats, spreading them out to decrease the possibility that a hungrily prowling threat would come upon them and devour the whole clutch in one fell swoop.

    TAKEAWAY: These mothers are doing their best. There’s a lot to admire about that. They also understand that inserting a healthy amount of space in between their children favors survival.
  5. Like all members of the entomological and arachnid orders, stick insects are most susceptible to predation after they’ve shed their exoskeleton because the fresh cuticle on display takes some time to toughen and grow darker. To protect themselves after a molt, nymphs will actually eat the skin they’ve just shed in an effort to destroy proof of the process, removing it from the visibility of hungry insectivores. Bonus: the protein in the shed layer is self-recycled, strengthening the individual from the outside to the inside and out again. By ingesting what they’ve just cast off, stick insects literally feed themselves on themselves. Just imagine if, instead of handing down or consigning clothing our children outgrow, we could feed it to them as a nutritious, power-packed snack?

    TAKEAWAY: Even in their youth, these animals are both canny about self-preservation as well as instinctively predisposed as first-order conservationists. These guys have six legs but almost zero footprint! Humans, take a knee.