Friday, September 01, 2006

brings back sweet mammaries

Whether this video is funny to you will have everything to do with whether you grew up in the suburbs. I'm a 'burbian, so I find this video hilarious. While I never made a dry ice bomb, I've participated in all of the following examples of backyard wackiness:

1. using PVC pipes as blowguns to fire crabapples at friends and my brothers

2. throwing apples from our apple tree at the neighbor's dog

3. kicking soccer balls as high into the air as possible, for no particular reason

4. shooting an arrow straight into the air and running around the yard with no idea where the arrow might land (Dr. Steve was more a fan of this than I was)

5. dirt-bombing wasp nests (and pissing off a neighbor)

6. water-ballooning a giant hornet's nest

7. using PVC pipe to play backyard stickball with apples

8. using PVC pipe to smash fireflies at night

For those who don't know this, fireflies explode spectacularly when you whack 'em hard with PVC: at the moment of death, a firefly's ass will glow powerfully enough to leave trails across your night vision.

Then Dr. Steve made a crucial discovery: badminton rackets make for prettier explosions. When you hit a firefly with a PVC pipe, it shatters in a brilliant shower of sparks, but the deflagration is also a bit... well, chunky. A badminton racket strains the firefly as it kills it, and the resultant spark-shower is more finely grained. Delightful. Simply delightful.

The suburban yard is a little square of turf that epitomizes the Man-versus-Nature conflict. Mowing one's lawn, an activity performed for much the same aesthetic reason as shaving, is a good example of this conflict. Nature is all about unevenness and randomness; it despises closed systems, which is why the surburban homeowner is constantly contending with uninvited guests like dandelions, whose seeds parachute in at the most annoying times.

Humans, on the other hand, seem to admire topological regularity and chromatic consistency: a yard with five kinds of grass in it, all growing in weird tufts and Argentina-shaped patches, isn't as pleasing to the eye as a well-manicured yard featuring the same shade of green all over. In our yard, we had all sorts of grasses, but on mowing day, we strove to promote the illusion that the yard was as disciplined as a soldier's buzz cut. As suburbanites know, such illusions rarely last longer than a week before chaos returns.

Man-versus-Nature applies to the pets as well. You have to show those animals who's boss. My brothers would piss off our dog, Velcro, by playing a "game" called "The Catch the Dingaling Show," which basically involved poking the dog in the nuts with a stick. I tortured the dog by using a stick (probably the same one my brothers were using for their "game") to tap the dog's food bowl whenever he was eating. Most dogs move directly to DEFCON 2 when something approaches their food, and Velcro was no exception: he'd stop eating and start growling as soon as the first tap was made.

(Bizarrely enough, as the dog got older and began to eat less, this bowl-tapping became a good way to convince the dog to eat.)

The suburbs are a petri dish for youthful madness. Case in point: I used to love torturing ants. Perhaps the cruelest torture was to create an "island" of Play Doh, place it inside a wide, shallow dish, then fill the dish with dishwashing liquid (sorry, Mom). I'd plop the ants on the "island" as I caught them, perhaps sprinkling a bit of table sugar onto the surface for their enjoyment. Most of the ants would go into "random search mode," seeking out the boundaries of their new prison. And ultimately, bowing to the mysterious pressures of ant psychology, the ants would try to figure a way off the island. There was only one way off: through the deadly moat of dishwashing liquid.

Nowadays, you've got computer games like "Black and White" to give you the feeling that you're a minor deity. Back when I was young, there were no such games, so playing God really meant playing God. Live creatures were required; sacrifices had to be made. Death was integral to the experience. I would stare at my ant-world, an island of Play Doh surrounded by chemical goop, and ponder my creatures: how little they understood of the cosmos! How unaware they were of the fate that awaited them! Not being an omniscient deity, I became curious, too, often wondering when and how these creatures would realize they were trapped on an island with no apparent way off.

Then it would happen. The randomness would cease-- an ant would crawl to the edge, tentatively tap the surface of the soap-ocean with its antennae... and place a foot on the surface.

At moments like this, ants seem to divide themselves into two psychological camps: those who switch over to "commit" mode, and those who back away and commit later. As a kid, I anthropomorphized this: there were the "brave but stupid" ants, and the "cowardly but smart" ones. I doubt an ant's nervous ganglia are sophisticated enough to house a creaturely quality as complex as bravery, but I do think that they contain enough hard-wiring to manifest "smarts" or "stupidity," if we define intelligence primarily in terms of problem-solving ability.

The stupid ants, then, would gamely step into the muck, start forward, and realize they were caught in something. The struggle would begin, and the soap would act like quicksand: the more an ant struggled, the more mired it became. The more desperate the effort, the more the soap infiltrated the ant's spiracles, hampering breathing, suffocating it.

From my godlike distance, this struggle always amused me. Ants all thrashed and died the same way. As they became more oxygen-deprived, they'd start to convulse, bending in on themselves, legs cramping. Sometimes the convulsions would cease and the ant would vainly take up the struggle again; at other times, there would be a major convulsion, and then the ant would stop moving.

In most cases, this meant the ant was dead. But ants are tough little bastards (technically, these ants were all female, so perhaps I should say "tough little bitches"?), and I remember reviving quite a few "drowned" ants by rinsing them in water and placing them on a piece of toilet paper. The highly absorbent paper quickly wicked away the surrounding moisture, and lo: a miracle of resuscitation not unlike the raising of Lazarus! The ant lives again!

This miracle was, as you might imagine, followed by a second round of torture.

The ants that were unfortunate enough to fall under my cruel purview were put through a variety of trials: they were frozen, heated in frying pans, and plunged into rubbing alcohol. That latter torture, by the way, kills the ant dead. There's no reviving an ant that's been dunked in alcohol. A tick might survive, but ants aren't quite that durable.

Eventually, all the ants on my island would try to escape. Perhaps ants have a built-in "desperation" algorithm. Whatever the internal cause, it never took long for my island to be surrounded by tiny corpses floating in soap. The macabre story played itself out the same way almost every time, and as morbid and freakish at this may sound to you, Gentle Reader-- it was, for me, a sort of accelerated history lesson. What I was learning, through these iterations of death, was that living things cannot defy their own natures; they always act according to what they are and how they are designed.

An ant realizes the only way off the island is to swim. In doing so, that ant has had a moment of self-transcendence, but what you, the deity, discover in witnessing death after death is this: all ants are capable of the same self-transcendence, but they all suffer the same sad fate, a fate determined as much by their own nature as by the cruelty of the scenario into which they've been thrown.

An ant's mind must be a dim, foggy place. It never occurs to an ant to just wait the deity out. Worker ants aren't clever enough to imagine cooperative strategies for escaping the island, and I've never seen an ant try to suss out the properties of the surrounding death-moat through systematic probing and remembering. Individual ants, it must be said, are pretty damn stupid. Randomly collected individual ants are, alas, collectively stupid. It would seem that an ant qua ant makes sense only when it is functioning as a normal part of a colony. Plucked from that singular context, the ant's existence ceases to have meaning, and it dies an equally meaningless death. The colony, meanwhile, soldiers on, for the individual is nothing. I've noticed over the years that there are plenty of people who think that way, too.

Youth wasn't just about ants, though. Cage matches involving larger insects were also a staple of that time in my life. Praying mantis versus cricket? Put those bad boys in a glass jar, and the mantis is sure to win. Mantis versus spider? Probably a win for the mantis as well. What surprised me, however, was a spider versus cricket match: nothing happened while I was watching the jar, but when I came back a couple hours later I was amazed to see that the cricket had triumphed. That spider hadn't been a slouch, either: it was a small wolf spider, one of the more fearsome suburban predators-- fast, decisive, dangerous. But somehow, the cricket had gotten the better of the spider and had eaten its abdomen. I was pretty disappointed in this outcome, but I learned something about crickets in the process: they are eternally hungry bastards, and their armor plating is easily a match for smaller spiders.

I used to own tarantulas, much to the delight of my childhood friends. No cricket-- or grasshopper-- was ever a match for any of my spiders. Despite their size, tarantulas don't have to eat that often to stay alive. But when they're hungry, tarantulas move with frightening quickness. Crickets are fast little boogers, but not as fast as a famished tarantula. The spider is a hunter, a stalker; it gives little warning, and when it's ready, it simply pounces. It can do this from up close, or even from a distance (something my dad once said he'd witnessed while watching the terrarium one night).

For me, the fascination lay in the fact that a cricket, once caught, wasn't so much sucked dry as crushed by the large fangs and chelicerae. This must have been what it was like to be a Christian fed to a lion. Perhaps the coolest arena moment came when one of my spiders nailed a large green katydid I'd caught. The katydid was huge and had powerful legs, but the tarantula had snared it in mid-body, right at the thorax. The katydid's feet were useless and the spider, intent on its meal, wasn't about to let go. The fangs tightened, and the katydid was bent in half. Imagine a car being crushed by a falling telephone pole. Irrevocably mutilated, the doomed katydid continued to struggle. Eventually, the flailing ceased and the katydid joined its fellow insects in some chitin-lined, insect Valhalla.

It might not be clear from the above, but rest assured that I don't torture insects anymore; boys eventually grow out of that stage (the truly fucked-up boys move on to torturing larger animals; some of them probably move from animals to people). But I do often wish I had a tarantula; I'd certainly take better care of one now than I did back then. My spiders all died young (except for one, which was old when I acquired it), but tarantulas have life spans similar to horses: a thirty-five year-old tarantula is not an impossibility. Tarantulas also look extremely cool when molting (see below)-- you find them on their backs, taking hours to slip, ever so slowly, out of their old skin, then flipping right-side up to sit there, soft as silk and white as a corpse, waiting for the air to bring color and hardness back to their carapace. An awesome sight.

Ah, suburban remembrances.

While you're at MetaCafe, you might want to check out this footage of the world's most adorable cat.


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