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To Smoosh or Not to Smoosh

by on May 01, 2019 6:00 AM


‘Tis green season, tra-la, tra-la, which means that it is also bug season, the time when our tolerance of the littlest among us is put to the test.

As a child, I feared creatures with six or more legs. I assumed that anything that could bite or sting would bite or sting — that they were predators and we were prey.

Entomophobia, I now read, may be hard-wired: When bugs land on our bodies or burritos, we don’t know where they’ve been. And we can be sure they haven’t washed their befouled extremities with antibacterial soap beforehand. Pests, according to this view, are bringers of pestilence.

Their size also is worrisome. Big creatures with claws and teeth scare us because they look like they can rip us to shreds, even devour us. Little creatures scare us because they can crawl under our clothes or, worse, into our bodies through one or another orifice, maybe even devour us from within, one tiny bite at a time, without our even knowing about it.


Over the years I’ve mostly gotten over my fear of bugs, just like I’ve mostly gotten over my fear of people who look different from me. Like me, and like people who look different from me, bugs just want to eat, mate, cruise around and make their modest contribution to the colony.

Or as a Brooklyn pizza guy said to me when I apologized for dropping a dime on a pie, “Don’ wor’ ‘bou,’ won’ hur’ nob’y.”

Most bites and stings, I decided, are like fender-benders: They happen when two bodies inadvertently try to occupy the same space at the same time, and not because one of those bodies is intent on mayhem. So I’m mostly cool with bees and wasps.

Eight-legged creatures, as we all know, feast on six-legged creatures, so I’m mostly cool with spiders as well – though in New Mexico once I bolted from a low-ceilinged cave when I saw tarantulas inches above my head.

As for mosquitos, fleas and ticks, yes, they too are only trying to make a living, but they’re specifically trying to make a living off of us, which makes them fair game. Cockroaches, meanwhile, are the very Avatars of Filth and can be smooshed without remorse.

Except for the really big ones. We called them water bugs when we lived in NYC, but I think they were just XL roaches. Whatever they were, the sound that squishing them made, and the crime-scene look of them post-squishing, were entirely too ghastly.

My preferred extermination method, therefore, was to chase them around the apartment with a can of hairspray until, like the curls on my grandmother’s head, they were completely immobilized. Then I would wad up half a roll of toilet paper and, with a shudder, consign them to a watery grave.

How we react to bugs may depend on how vulnerable we’re feeling. Take the other night. I groped my groggy way to the bathroom, flipped on the light and saw something small moving down the wall.

It belonged to the bug family, obviously, but I wasn’t wearing my cheaters (or much else) so I couldn’t make out whether it was a spider, a silverfish or some other skittery creature of the night. Whatever it was, it was moving as fast as its many little legs could carry it.

Its speed struck me as purposive and to that purposiveness I ascribed malevolence, in large part because it was heading in the general direction of my bedroom.

I remembered a couple of occasions when I’ve awakened with a mysterious trail of welts on my body that itched too much and for too long to be mosquito bites. I concluded these were spider bites, though I didn’t know for sure, but if they were spider bites and this was a spider now racing from one side of my bathroom to the other like it was late for a very important dinner date at Chez Rousselle, by God, I was going to intercept it.

Gentle soul that I am, my usual procedure when I would prefer that a many-legged creature make its living elsewhere than in my house, is the cup-and-cardboard method: Trap intruder in drinking vessel, slide cardboard between vessel and wall, fling intruder back outside where it belongs.

On this occasion, I dispensed with such niceties and swooped in for the smoosh.

Safely back in bed, I lay awake, pondering my wicked deed. The assumption that this creature, whatever it was, was out to get me, I decided, was unwarranted.

My guilt did not prevent me from falling back to sleep.

In the morning I saw that wasps awakened by spring were using my back deck as their own private day spa. Live and let live or call the bug guy?

‘Tis the season of moral dilemmas.


A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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