Monthly Archives: July 2016

A Very Little War

ant banner


A kidnapping in progress

We live in turbulent times. I was reminded last night that, even on the smallest scale, Mother Nature produces no peaceable kingdoms. While strolling through my rose garden, I became aware of a kind of seething movement beneath my feet. Looking down, I observed masses of large, red ants clambering over the pebble path. Large numbers were proceeding, with regimental precision, from a point beneath one of the shrub roses. Each of these held aloft a white egg case (technically a pupa, I guess). At the same time as these single-file rows of pupa-bearers streamed away from the point of origin, an equal number of unencumbered ants were marauding back in the direction of what I discovered to be a black carpenter ant colony under the shrub.

Fascinated, I watched the red raiders swarm the various entrance holes of the black anthill and emerge with their cylindrical spoils. I would have felt bad for the black ants, but they didn’t put up much of a fight, to be honest. Outnumbered and undersized, the adult inhabitants of the colony had fled the mound, taking refuge among the foliage of the bush, where they paced restlessly, watching the carnage below. Such immediate capitulation does not command respect.

One of these ants is not having a good time.

One of these ants is not having a good time.

I followed the red ants as far as I could, across the full length of the rose garden and over the plastic border of the path into the deep foliage beyond. It occurred to me that, in the context of the scale of these determined creatures, the distance they covered from their victims’ fortress to their own is the equivalent of many miles for a human. Moreover, the four-inch path border they surmounted must be an Everest for them. Yet not a one faltered or deviated from its course. They proceeded with steely determination, and no jagged chunk of rock, inconveniently rooted thistle or giant sandaled shoe would deter them. (After the first half dozen crept over my toes, I got the hell out of their way.)

Consulting Wikipedia, I learned that the red ants were likely formica sanguinea, the blood-red ant. This is a slave-making species, which means they raid other ants’ nests and – you guessed it – kidnap the pupae from the brood chamber. They take them back to their own lair, where they hatch and become slave workers for their oppressive overlords. Geez, and those antz from the cartoon seemed like such nice guys.

Don't be fooled by their friendly demeanor.

Don’t be fooled by their friendly demeanor.


And you think YOU’RE having a bad day

The insect world is full of this kind of weird stuff. One summer I discovered a caterpillar on the grape vines that looked like it had grown spikes all over its body. Nope. Turns out the “spikes” were the pupae of some kind of wasp that eats the caterpillar from the inside out. Other parasites are able to turn their host bugs into zombies, controlling what they eat and how they behave. There’s a species that causes the caterpillar they infect to become the invader’s bodyguard, violently fighting off predators of the cocoons, even though the caterpillar-defender is destined be consumed by the baby wasps as soon as they hatch. Talk about ungrateful!

There’s even a parasite that causes its host – an ant, ironically – effectively to commit suicide by climbing to the top of a long blade of grass, the better to be eaten by a cow; the parasite needs to reside a while in a cow’s gullet as part of its life cycle. (There was no data on what sordid things they make the cows do.)

This is in your brain AT THIS VERY MOMENT

This is in your brain AT THIS VERY MOMENT

Fortunately for us higher orders, our brains have evolved beyond the point of being influenced by parasitic Svengalis*. Oh, sure, scientists have made some crazy claims that the parasite T. gondii, which disseminates itself through cat feces and has thereby infected a third of the world’s population with toxoplasmosis, is able to exert subtle control over its human hosts. The theory seems to be that, since infection by T. gondii has been shown to make rodents unafraid of, and even attracted to, cats – their natural predator – it follows that the nasty little beggars can also make us humans overly fond of and ultimately in thrall to our feline life partners.

What nonsense! In fact, I’d offer a mountain of conclusive proof that this isn’t true … but I suddenly feel compelled to go buy a case of Fancy Feast.



*Svengali is a character in George du Maurier’s 1895 novel, Trilby. The character holds an uncanny hypnotic power over his protégé. She is a singer, not an ant.

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Breaking Bat


It was a dark and stormy night …

No, it really was. Last Saturday we had the first real thunderstorm of the season after a hot and muggy day. Around midnight I was lying on the couch with fans blowing on me (no central AC) and watching the flicker of frequent lightning outside. There was a rustling in the sheer curtains behind my makeshift bed, and I reached up in the darkness to pet whichever cat had taken up residence on the back of the sofa.

It wasn’t a cat.

Actually, I didn’t feel anything under the palm that reached out to stroke thin air – but I did feel an abrupt scratch across the back of my hand. “That’s weird,” I thought. Then, in the next flash of electricity through the windows I saw something above my head.

Circling the ceiling fan. Swooping. Flapping.

7026175 - a close up of the small bat. isolated on white.You know the sound a bat makes, that ultra-high squeak that could shatter glass? That’s the sound *I* made when I realized what I had been trying to cuddle. The flash lasted just an instant, and then the room was in darkness again. I lunged for the afghan to cover myself with. Another flash, accompanied by a glimpse of the creature fluttering away in the direction of the kitchen, pursued by a dark shadow underneath it: one of the cats.


Flash! (No sign of the beast.)


The switch for the overnight light was at the opposite end of the room, so I wrapped myself in the afghan and sprinted to it. I flooded the living room with blessed light. Then the kitchen. The hall. Both unoccupied bedrooms (my mother slept through this whole event). Every room in the basement.


I snagged a flashlight and crept back to the couch, flipping off lights behind me. The rest of the night I lay awake, thinking about that possibly rabid bat lurking somewhere. Thinking about that scratch on the back of my hand.

Around 6 am my mother arose and came into the living room to watch her morning shows. I staggered off to the bedroom to try to get a few winks, tossing over my shoulder, “Unless I was hallucinating, there’s a bat in the house.”

Some time later I was awakened by an inhuman shriek. Nope, not the bat. My mom. I raced to the living room to find her 89-year-old self in the middle of the room, a broom raised high over her head. Something brown flopping around at her feet.

Whack! The wounded creature eluded her and sought refuge under the glider chair. My mother retreated to a safe distance while I fetched a plastic container and captured the intruder therein.

Okay, here’s where it gets bad. I have this injured, but still quite lively bat trapped in a Tupperware container. Ordinarily, since I am a live-and-let-live kind of gal, I’d just release the thing outside and wish it well.

But here’s the thing: I had physical contact with this bat. True, the scratch was barely perceptible and I couldn’t find any puncture marks to suggest I’d actually been bitten by the thing. Statistically, the odds I might get rabies from this poor little critter were infinitesimally small.

However, if DID get rabies, my odds of dying of it were 100%*. Now, I’m not much good at math, but that seems high to me.

feel lucky

Hasty research online presented me with two options: Have the bat tested for rabies, or have a series of prophylactic shots to protect me in the unlikely event that I was exposed to the deadly virus. I don’t much like shots. I also don’t much like the $8,000-$10,000 price tag for the treatment.

I pondered my health savings account balance, already likely to be zeroed out by the series of mammograms and ultrasound tests I’d had only days before.

It was Sunday morning. There were no veterinary clinics open. I called the emergency vet line, and was told to refrigerate the specimen and bring it in on Monday morning for testing.

I looked at the bat, crawling in restless circles around the bottom of the plastic bucket. I had no idea how to euthanize it humanely without damaging the head (needed for the testing).

Quietly I put the container in the downstairs refrigerator and closed the door.

You hate me now; I hate myself. My hope was that the bat would just get colder and colder and finally go to sleep and die, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Let me believe that’s what happened.

On Monday morning I carried the well-chilled container into my vet’s office to be express mailed to the Twin Cities for testing. I did not look to see how – or whether – the thing had died. “When there’s human contact, they usually turn these around pretty quickly,” the vet tech assured me. “The lab will contact your doctor directly. You should hear something in a day or so.”

Oh, and by the way, “There’s a $76 fee to send it in.”

7026175 - a close up of the small bat. isolated on white.I spent the first half hour of that day-or-so on the Internet, systematically making my way through the 435,000 results of Googling “bats and rabies.” Every single one of them promised that rabies could be avoided if treatment was started within 24 hours of contact.

Well, crap. It had already been 36 hours. I had taken the precaution of emailing my doctor’s office the night before, inquiring whether it was safe to wait until results came back on the bat, or whether I should begin the shots as a precaution. I didn’t hear from the doctor on Monday.

I didn’t hear from the doctor on Tuesday. Or the testing lab. I called the doctor’s office. Chipper voice mail greeting: “We’re all out of the office today! Leave a message!” I left a message. I called the switchboard. “Is there someone else I can talk to?” I asked. “The internet says I’m going to die if I don’t get shots.” I was put on hold. A minute later the switchboard operator came back on and said the on-call doctor would be in touch.

I didn’t hear from the on-call doctor. I started to panic.

Admittedly, given that only about 6% of bats test positive for rabies, my level of anxiety was perhaps overblown. But by a morbid coincidence, I have always had a special fascination with and horror of this disease. I think it dates to seeing “Old Yeller” when I was really small. And “Cujo.” And that one episode of “House.” In any case, I have developed a dangerous amount of informed ignorance on the subject of hydrophobia, as it used to be called. I even read a book on it during my vacation. (I also read a book on syphilis, but I was less worried about contracting that.)

In the 19th century, there was some debate about whether rabies even existed as a real malady, despite the rather regular newspaper reports of people dying of it. Historical treatments for the disease have included drinking a beverage made from the skull of a hanged man, wrapping with a poultice made from cloth and hyena skin, cauterization of the wound with a heated key, and the remedy popular right up until Pasteur developed his vaccine: the application of a “mad stone” to the bite. This was a stone or, preferably, a hair ball from the stomach of a deer (available from Sears-Roebuck, presumably), boiled in milk and placed over the wound. If the stone stuck to the skin, it signified the presence of rabies, and the stone was said to draw out the poison.

Mad stone … or mad chocolate chip cookie?

I have my doubts about the efficacy of these cures.

On Wednesday, I heard nothing from my doctor, the lab, or the vet’s office. I emailed the vet. I emailed the doctor again.

Wednesday evening I had a terse response from the vet’s office: “We’ll let you know when we hear something.” And an indifferent reply from my doctor: “Let me know when you hear something.”

I began foaming at the mouth – from frustration, not rabies. However, I was sure I felt some burning at the potential site of the infection, and was a little nauseous. The first signs!

Granted, it generally takes months for rabies symptoms to appear in an infected person. But I’ve always been an overachiever.

Thursday came and mostly went. At 4:10 pm, I had a call from the vet’s office. “Test came back negative.”

Great. So the poor bat died (Peacefully! Let me pretend it was peacefully!) for nothing.

If there as an afterlife for myotis lucifugus, the little brown bat, my victim will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that his home invasion cost me $76 and a helluva lot of stress. And though I am no longer worried about dying of rabies, I still have one other bat-borne condition to fret over.

There's a vaccine for this, right?

There’s a vaccine for this, right?

Hear that twittering sound? It’s the bat ghost. Giggling.

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Intimations of Mortality*

13484257 - grim reaper on the road

Since I reached the half-century mark last fall, I’ve been a little preoccupied with my impending demise. Not that I’m planning on shrugging off this mortal coil any time soon, but it’s, you know … out there. Death, I mean.

You see, I’ve reached the stage of life where my own body is beginning actively trying to kill me. It seems Mother Nature figures by this time any offspring I may have produced are old enough to more or less fend for themselves, and I’m not spawning any more, so really I’m just taking up space. Even the very oxygen I breathe is turning my formerly well-disciplined and law-abiding cells into havoc-causing free radicals.

As a spinster, I occupy a higher-than-average space on evolution’s hit list. It seems I may be penalized for failing to fulfil the biological imperative (i.e., reproducing) with an increased risk for ovarian and breast cancers. Protest though I may, Ma Nature simply smirks, “I don’t care how skilled you are at propagating dahlias. Your job is to propagate your OWN species, slacker.”

Mother Nature’s opinion of me:

It doesn’t help that I’m 1) kind of a hypochondriac; and 2) morbidly fascinated by deadly disease. I tend to diagnose any twinge or twitch as some exotic malady I spent two hours observing on YouTube the night before. Sleepless night? Must be Fatal Familial Insomnia Syndrome. A nosebleed has me wondering how on earth I got exposed to Ebola.

You get the idea.

Despite my fascination with horrible things that can happen to me, I strenuously avoid any opportunity to actually find out if something’s wrong. Thus it was with extreme reluctance that I went in for a physical exam – my first in eight years – a couple of days ago. My doctor poked and prodded in the usual ways, probed all of my orifices (this is why they get paid the big money) and pronounced me apparently healthy, if not fit. Then she sent me downstairs for a mammogram after extracting a promise to schedule my next exciting adventure, which involves a lot of laxative and a flexible hose, sometime soon.

The next day I got my test results in my personal “My Chart” online account. Under mammogram, I found the following: “No suspicious mass, asymmetric density, architectural distortion or suspicious microcalcification in the right breast.”


Then: “Small area of architectural distortion in the outer left breast middle depth.”

Oh. How could this be? My left boob has always been my good boob; my right boob is the problem child, subject to cyclical soreness and random burning sensations. Leftie, by contrast, has always just hung their quietly, minding its own business.

Moments later I was on the phone with the nurse at my doctor’s office.

ME: I just looked up architectural distortion on the Internet–

NURSE: Don’t. Don’t look up stuff.

screaming womanToo late. It is enough to say that what I had learned from Dr. Google was not a day brightener. Additional scans were recommended; I set up an appointment at their earliest convenience. (MY earliest convenience would have been at that very moment, dammit.) For the next two days I avoided further search engine forays, but did spend a fruitless few moments looking for “home mastectomy kit” on Amazon Prime.  Might as well get my money’s worth out of that annual fee.

6154052 - x-ray mammogram

Stunt breast. (Not my actual mammogram.)

I had the follow-up scans. The technician was initially perky and reassuring. “These things are almost always just overlapping glandular tissue,” she explained.

(Did she just call me fat?)

She dashed off to send my films to the radiologist for evaluation, leaving me alone to notice that for follow-up exams they move you from the generic, hospital-green exam rooms to the rather ominous Susan-Komen-pink exam room.  One of my scans was on the screen behind the leaded glass barrier. A dark outline of an oval shape filled with squiggly white lines and blobs, like something colored by a toddler.

I remembered something else from the test result: “scattered fibroglandular densities.”

28155186 - portrait of 4d ultrasound scanning machine operator

These technicians are always very cheerful. And why not? THEY’RE not dying.

The technician returned. “The radiologist would like to see a few more pictures,” she said, just a little less brightly than before. She started pulling out a series of plastic attachments designed to squeeze my ample bosom into various unnatural configurations. “Looks like I’m dirtying up every dish in the kitchen!” she quipped.

Ha ha**.

Off again to consult the doctor. Back again, after a slightly longer interval than the first time.

“Well, we’re going to go ahead and send you on down to ultrasound.”

Awkward pause as I reached for a kleenex.

“I’m sure she just wants to confirm that the area of density was compressed out by the scan,” she said – or something like that. I have no idea what that meant, but I was apparently supposed to interpret it as encouraging.

I changed out of the pink gown and trudged down the hall to Ultrasound Imaging. Was escorted to a dimly lit, all-white room. Directed to put on an all-white gown (slightly unsettling color scheme; invokes associations with ghosts and angels and other DEAD things).

I had forgotten to remove the little nipple sticker with the little ball bearing on it from my last exam. I tucked it into my purse. Might come in handy as part of a costume if I ever decide to get into pole dancing.

Lying on the exam table (draped in white, natch), I contemplated the possible implications of all this testing. Mostly I dreaded having to tell my mom I have cancer. This was partly because she’s been hounding me years to have a mammogram (“I’ve heard buxom women are at higher risk.”). But mostly it was because she’s almost 90 years old and doesn’t need to hear THAT kind of news. My grandmother died of breast cancer that metastasized into her bones, a painful death that gave my mother a particular terror of breast cancer. It was a fear I never really shared.

Until now.

The young woman who conducted the ultrasound was pleasant, albeit less aggressively upbeat than the mammogram lady. She was also, inexplicably, wearing blue scrubs. She had me lie on my side, then smeared me up with some kind of gel. I closed my eyes as she moved her probe over my naked flesh – over the breast once, then again. Pause, and a tap on the keyboard under her screen. Around the suspect area again. Another keyboard click. The probe moved to my armpit. More movement. More clicks.

The technician finished up. These professionals are trained not to divulge anything they may or may not see. So I was surprised – and deeply grateful – when she remarked, “I don’t know what was on your mammogram, but I think you’ll get a good result from the ultrasound.”

“I hope so,” I answered, “because this is scary.”

“Yeah, I know,” she agreed.

relayforlifeBack in my car, in the parking lot, I wept.  Then I drove to my office, where I found the whole place draped in purple. I remembered that it was Relay For Life day, an annual event to raise awareness of … wait for it … cancer. Oh, irony. You so crazy.

Though the mammogram lady had said they’d try to get results back to me by the end of the day, because otherwise it would be all damned weekend, I didn’t hear anything on Friday. I checked my email frequently over the course of Saturday. Bupkis.

Finally, at 5:00 pm today, an email. A report. Findings benign. Come back next year.

You better believe I will.***



*”Intimations of Mortality” is a poem by Wordsworth about death and stuff.

**Really, she was very nice. But I wasn’t feeling terribly jocular at the moment.

**Now all I have to worry about is rabies. Wait for another post on THAT. My life. Oy.



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