Sunday, October 31, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 227: Biomythography - Note 4, Eating Ants

A Biomythography - Note 4
by Secret Hippie

Eating a Bowl of Ants

People say that they're a delicacy.

That's what I was told when I was growing up. I didn't know enough to ask questions like, "Who says that?" or "How do you know?" Apparently, someone my parents met when I was seven in College Park had eaten chocolate-covered ants once or said he had. They had reportedly tasted mostly like chocolate. I can believe that.

It's easy to accept because I, too, have eaten ants. It wasn't because someone offered them to me. They weren't chocolate covered or anything nice.

The reason I ate ants is that I got up really early in the morning.

It was four o'clock. I was thirteen, so I was hungry. That's pretty much how I would have to describe the whole year. If I had to recap the age of thirteen, I would say 'hungry.' Now, if you asked me about age twelve, I'd have a hard time deciding between the words, 'horny,' 'surprised,' and 'embarrassed.' But by the time I was thirteen, 'hungry' was a constantly-relevant word.

This was the kind of hunger that could get me up without really opening my eyes. As a sort of zombie, I rose before thinking. My limbs went into action. My feet carried my stomach upstairs to the fridge. The rest of me went along because my stomach had taken over when all the other organs were asleep.

This wasn't a one-time occurrence. This wasn't even a once-per-week occurrence. This was a routine and the rest of me watched my arms and knew what we were going to do. We, the stuff that made up my loosely organized self, were going to grab the first thing that seemed the right color. Orange was usually good, the color of cheese slices, of carrots, of cold pizza, of well, sometimes, an orange or a tangerine but those were fine. When reflexes drive you to food, orange is a good color. Late at night, you might eat a strip of an orange peel in your sleepy-eyed haste. You might not care.

There were no ants in the fridge. They weren't wearing bright orange life jackets or swimming in the orange juice, either. No, I ate ants because we were out of cheese slices.

No cheese. I grunted and searched the sliding drawer.

No cheese. I flapped my hands through the shelves.

Milk. My left hand found the jug handle.

"Uh." My arm, or maybe my stomach, pulled out the cold, slick plastic container. I dropped it on the counter, spun around and reached for the cereal boxes. Grape nuts, no. Corn flakes, ugh. Honey-Nut Cheerios, fine.

Fine. I threw some cereal into a bowl, poured the milk, and started eating. After a while, I sat down. Because I was tired.

At the bottom of the bowl, there were some burnt bits. They tasted funny. I rose, poured more cereal, poured more milk, and faced the pantry door. The pantry was a closet shelf, really. The door was brown. Brown with wood grain.

The new cheerios started out tasting okay. But after a while, there were a lot of little black bits and they spoiled the sweetness. I thought about putting sugar on my cereal but I was too tired. I just wanted to get to the bottom of the bowl.

Spoonful after spoonful. The crunchy bits weren't great.

After a little while, I noticed the black specks in my bowl were wiggling. I woke up enough to actually look at them. Then I remembered that some of my bites of cereal had been wiggling, too.

I had another few bites. More wiggling. I put my face closer to the bowl and stared at the black lumps. They were ants. Big ones, too, not the little teeny ants that are hard to see. These were big enough for you to see the fangs on their faces. Most of them were dead. I don't know why. Maybe cheerios aren't good for ants. Maybe they had drowned in milk. Anyway, they weren't putting up much of a fight.

I'd already eaten a bunch. So now I had to decide: should I continue eating them?

While I decided, my hand and my mouth kept shoveling cereal. I mean, they were under orders from my stomach. With a sigh, I considered putting raisins in the cereal. That way I wouldn't notice the ants so much. As an alternative, I could find the sugar. But I had looked into the sugar jar the other day and found ants in it. Anyway, I was tired. While I was thinking, I got to the bottom of the bowl.

The bottom was just black with ants. There was nothing else, especially after my last two spoonfuls. And I thought: that's a lot of ants. And then: am I wasting food? If I don't finish my ants, am I a bad person?

It took me a few sighing breaths to decide. No, we hadn't paid for the ants.

A couple of hours later, when I marched up the stairs to have a third bowl of cereal for breakfast, I sifted out the ants at the start. The bottom of the box was mostly a pile of large, black insects but they didn't have it all to themselves. There were still a few cheerios.

Every ant looked fat and full. None of them tried to hang onto an O as I pushed them off my dry cereal.

The third bowl tasted great.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 226: Biomythography - Note 3, Save the Cat

A Biomythography - Note 3
by Secret Hippie

Not What it Sounds Like:
Saving a Cat from a Burning House

For fifteen minutes, I took apart my IBM PC 286 in order to put more RAM chips into it. When I had the RAM inserted, no bent pins this time, I partially re-assembled the computer. I blew a spritz of compressed air over the stainless steel, black-baked wafers, and green substrate.

When I hit the power switch, my system booted up. Finally, I had 2 megabytes of main memory. That was all I wanted to see. On the way to shutting down, though, I decided to test the modem by connecting to a couple of my favorite local BBS sites (bulletin boards, which were full of online chat, risque pictures, amateur writing, and games with primitive graphics). My phone connection was fine. I read up on the latest local computer news. Then, barely, I resisted the urge to stay up all night with games and turned my system off.

Even though the next day was free with no grad school classes on the schedule, I wanted to keep my sleep pattern adjusted to lights out before sunrise. That made class attendance easier.

When I threw myself on my twin bed, I noticed the smell of burning plastic. It didn’t mean much to me. Our next-door neighbors burned piles of trash sometimes. Plus my father always, really always, kept cigars burning around the house, sometimes two or three steaming away with the coals forgotten and nearly cold.

On the rare occasion when there was nothing melting in an ashtray, a stray breeze could push old smoke around the house and make me think someone was burning trash again.

When I woke in the morning, the air was smokier than ever. That was odd. I had heard my father go to bed before me. I hadn’t noticed him getting up but it was a workday for both of my parents. They couldn’t be in the house.

I wandered around to make sure neither of them had taken the day off. When I trudged upstairs from the basement, I noticed a haze of smoke in the kitchen. It was in the dining room, too. In fact, the further I looked in the house, the more I noticed the haze. Squinting down the longest upstairs hall revealed a silver mist. On top of that, I heard a faint buzzing sound. It wasn’t natural.

I marched through every room but I couldn't find out where the fog was coming from. The air smelled stronger upstairs, too, sort of metallic and burning rubber.

Passing through the hall, I heard the faint whining sound again but I didn’t locate it.

Finally, I went back downstairs and got to work. I had to. The grad classes had projects due and I had writing that wouldn't wait. To my surprise, though, my computer wouldn't turn on. It was dead. I clicked the switch a dozen times to be sure. I re-seated the power cable. I popped the surge suppressor. I tested the outlet with a lamp. It was working.

“Damn.” This seemed like sort of an emergency.

So I headed back upstairs. I marched around growing more mystified and more frustrated. Eventually, I decided the silvery mist was real. It looked darker than it had earlier. Also, I located the faint buzzing sound. It was coming from the smoke detector. Due to its feeble battery, it had pretty nearly given up the ghost. But not quite. If I put my head next to it, I could tell that the sound was definitely from the dime-sized speaker.

I decided to go outside and see if anything made more sense from there.

Out the front door and about twenty meters into the yard, since it was a big yard, I turned around. There it was – billows of smoke. Okay. My parents’ house was on fire. Gray clouds puffed from the east side of the house. Not from the chimney, which was fine and clear. Just from one side. Something over there was really burning, probably in the attic.

All my training flooded back to me and I discovered that it was, basically, no training. I had been in fires before, though, so I had memorized the basics.

1) Save the people
2) Call the fire department
3) Leave the building until the fire fighters arrive

So I looked around. My parents' dog had died the year before. There was no one but me and the cats. It was time to give the old heave-ho to our feline force.

“Come here,” I said and made the kissy noises my mother gave them when she had cat treats. There were no animals in sight. I crouched down anyway and put out my hand. “Come on now.”

A moment later, the grandmother cat strode into view. She muscled across the carpet to me, arthritic but strong. She was small and she was smart, about twenty years old but not senile. She ruled the house. In fact, she had been the head cat for at least five years. Once I got her out, that would set the tone for the others, I figured.

When I picked her up, she pushed her head against mine. When that wasn’t enough, she pushed again from my cheek to my neck. It was the kind of affection she gave when she knew she was getting a treat. But I walked her out the front door and put her down on the porch. I didn’t hand out any treats.

“Sorry.” Immediately, I pulled the screen door closed. She sat down on the porch and gave me an offended look.

It didn’t take long to find the next cat, a sixteen pound tom. Hands full, I opened the screen door with my foot and swept him out onto the porch.

“Damn it!” The grandmother cat darted back inside and ran away.

Fortunately, she was old and didn’t bother to run far. While she paused to clean herself, I scooped her up. I elbowed through the door and put her down at the bottom step of the porch. She growled as if I’d I'd betrayed her.

“Oh, come on!  The house is on fire. Can’t you smell it?” I pleaded. Then I found another cat, put it outside, and stomped the ground in time to prevent the grandmother cat from going back in.

“Hah!” I grabbed the next cat and paused as I headed out the door. I couldn't see the grandmother cat anywhere. Had she retreated under a bush to sulk? Maybe.

Anyway, there was a fire. I had to keep moving. I pushed the screen door, leaned down with the cat in my arms, and … the grandmother cat darted in out of nowhere.

“Okay,” I sighed.

I stomped around the porch to prevent the next cat from trying, closed the door, and gave up on our pets. The only phone in my parents house was the hallway phone next to the front door. I picked it up and called for the fire department.

“Did you get everyone out of the house?” the lady dispatcher asked.

“There’s just me.”

“Do your parents have any pets?”

“I’m still working on the cats.”

She told me, as I expected, to get everything living out of the house.

“It sounds like, by the time you finish, the fire truck will be there. They’re on the way from Poolesville.”


With a burst of energy, I captured the grandmother cat as she hid from me between boxes under the sofa. After that, there was only one more animal to find and somehow I managed. I was working on the house plants (also living things, after all, so they don't like getting burned up) when the fire trucks arrived. They had brought two, I noticed, a big one and a small one. That seemed like overkill. Then, to complete the set, they drove up an ambulance a moment later.

“Are you the owner?” A man hopped down from the passenger side of the big truck.

“Um.” I tried to explain that I was a graduate school student living in my parents’ house.

“Same thing,” he said, waving off further explanation.

The fire fighters seemed like regular guys to me. They were pretty genial, each and every one, but they were competent with fires, especially the veterans in the crew. Their chief asked me to lead them around the house and show them the possible sources of the fire. I did a lot of explaining. Fortunately, the dispatcher had told them nearly everything I had told her so I didn’t need to repeat myself much.

“Well, first thing,” said the chief. “We’re going to have to cut the roof.”

I experienced a flash of alarm about explaining this to my parents. “Do you have to?”

“Yep. It’s standard.” He gestured to where we were standing. “I really shouldn’t be having my men walk through without that. It’s supposed to come first. But you seem to be doing okay.”

“Well, then you have to.”

“I should warn you, it’s going to make things look worse. The air inside here will actually be better. It’s going to make things safer. But to you, it’s going to look alarming.”

For another twenty minutes or so, I moved pets and plants (including the grandmother cat one last time). After that, I carried out my computer and parts kits, even though it was probably too late for them. I couldn’t really make myself believe that the smoke had damaged them permanently. I carried out data disks. I moved the old CP/M computers.

A couple of times, men stopped by to ask where me where things were in the house. One of them was the chief.

To make sure I was still allowed, I said, "Do you mind if I keep moving stuff out?"

A pair of the fire fighters walked by. The chief patted the closest one on the shoulder. In retrospect, this crew chief was only thirty years old, if that. But he was in his element, calm and happy to talk.

"Yep. Keep going. If you feel bad, get out. Otherwise, we’ll ask you to come with us sometimes and point things out."

The cats had long ago gone into hiding in the bushes around the house. Although I searched for a few seconds, I didn’t see any of them. On one of my trips to the front yard, though, I noticed that the fire crew had finished cutting the hole into the roof. What the fire chief had warned me about was spot on. The hole made things look way, way worse. There was more smoke than ever. It billowed out in thick, dark clouds.

By that point, our activity had gathered a crowd. I was surprised to see so many people, actually, nearly a dozen, because my parents didn't have many neighbors. There was a football field or more between houses and many of the lines of sight were blocked by forest.

The smoke looked dramatic, though. It really had gotten worse, I judged. The fire, regardless of whatever weird way it had started, was getting stronger.

"You're not supposed to go back into the burning building!" someone called, a neighbor. I looked at her hands. She was wringing them. It’s not often you actually see someone do that.

"Well, the fire fighters are letting me." I didn’t know what to tell her. It wasn’t like I intended to stop. Everything that I could take from the house was an item that potentially didn’t have to be destroyed by the firemen or the fire.

My neighbor, though, seemed more than worried. She was scandalized by the fact that I was pulling out all of my parents' possessions and putting them on the lawn.

“Are they supposed to let you do that?” she said.

“I guess I could ask again.”

As I strolled through the house, the crew chief pulled me aside and said, "Where is the switchbox?"

"For electrical power?"

"Yeah.” He snorted. “We need to shut it down."

I forgot about any other questions I might have had and led him to the switchbox in the basement. To my surprise, smoke was now visibly wafting down the hollow shaft in the wall above the switchbox.

"Uh huh," he said with a half-smile, as if this confirmed something. "Can you hit the main breaker?"

"It'll turn off all the power in the house."

"That's the idea."

"You're not using any?"

"Not any more."

With that, I turned and shut off the house power. We went our separate ways for a few minutes. At some point, I started lingering on my parent’s front lawn. I had run out of possessions I could easily move. It seemed crazy to pull paintings off of the walls. It seemed trivial to rescue the vacuum cleaner.

That’s why the chief marched out to find me on the lawn.

"We found the source of the fire." he announced. "We had to go into the attic. Then we blocked airflows and watched what happened. It's an electrical fire."

"But I didn't see anything."

"Electrical fires are inside the walls, sometimes. We found the wall that's warm. It’s hot, actually, really hot in places. When we turned off the power to it, the fire kept burning."

"Oh, shit."

"We're cutting into that wall right now. I just wanted to warn you. We're going to take care of it and really put it out. But it's going to ruin the wall."

I watched black smoke continue to billow out of the hole his men had cut into my parents' roof. All of this had gone on without my parents. But it was their house, their stuff. Now that it was under control and I had time, I was going to have to call them.

"Well, you've got to, right?" I said.

He knew what I was thinking. "Right."

"Okay, then. Thanks."

That evening, with holes in the wall and the roof, with some of our family possessions destroyed, and with the wind picking up, I sat down with my parents to re-tell them the events from beginning to end. They had heard from the fire department. They had called their insurance company. They gotten out tarps for me to put over our furniture still sitting on the lawn. They had strategically closed doors and taped plastic barriers over holes. It had been tough few hours.

“Are we missing any cats?” my father asked.

“I got them all outside.” We all turned to look at the grandmother cat. She was sleeping on the sofa. “I don’t think they’ve all come back inside but they were all safe today.”

“You didn’t bring in all of the plants.”

“Well, they’re the one type of thing that won’t get ruined it if rains on them.” Plus I was tired.


My mother nodded. “They can stay out overnight, Bob. The plants will be fine.”

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 225: Biomythography - Note 2, Revisionism

A Biomythography - Note 2
by Secret Hippie

Accidental Revisionism

Rarely do I remember how different things were. Coca-Cola, when I was nine years old, was so fundamentally different that I enjoy my occasional flashbacks to 'the best soda I ever had.' The event took place after I swam until I was exhausted, begged for vending machine money, and drank a small bottle of soda.

That's a tangible thing. Plus, there's evidence of the drink formulas from various eras. That's why so many people in our society remember the taste once being better despite Coca-Cola ads claiming otherwise. Less tangible and less easy to recall, I think, are the past contexts of our lives like those revealed in the terms we used. Some of them were regional sayings. For instance, I grew up oogling girls.

That was what the old men said. And I definitely did it. I liked to watch girls. Talking to them was more difficult. Sometimes I would freeze up completely. But I could half-close my eyes and just watch. Or watch with my mouth hanging open.

The term was pronounced oogling as in googling or "oooo, look at that."

Later, I learned that the dictionary said this was ogling. It was officially spelled differently and pronounced differently than I thought. (Whoever wrote the dictionary probably said, "oh, look at that.") Nowadays, the oogling form is gone entirely. It's been replaced by the official dictionary decision, at least in my region of the country. But oogling was a better word. You could just hear and almost see the wide-open eyes implied by it, the sheer dumbfoundedness in someone’s face.

Another term that was stolen from our colloquial history, was "yadada yadada." Somehow, perhaps from my friends using Yiddish slang, I started saying “yadada yadada” in place of “and so on, and so on.” I think my changeover to "yadada yadada" happened when I was around thirteen.

There was a childish joy in saying a string of nonsense syllables and having everyone know what you meant. No one could define “yadada yadada” but everyone smiled and nodded at it.

In the late 1980s, though, after I had been spewing out my multisyllabic nonsense for over a decade, a new TV show came out that re-set the standard phrase. That show was Seinfeld. Suddenly, people started to look at me funny when I talked to them exactly as I always had before.

I actually had a few friends try to correct me. At this point, I may not have owned a television. But I was forced to learn about the show Seinfeld. Because whenever I said yadada yadada, which was often, I would get an involuntary education on how funny this program was.

Everyone loved it. I hadn’t seen it and already I hated it.

At this point, I wonder if anyone remembers that "yadada yadada” once existed. As far as I can tell, there's a lot of revisionism about the past that isn't deliberate. It just happens. Everybody backfills their memories with wrong stuff from television shows. ads, or current cultural norms. Little snippets get left out of our national or regional stories. Elements of personal contexts get lost.

Gone forever or radically changed are oogling, ping, flannel cake, twilight, wampum, sneakies, catfish, mixed marriage, sick, thongs, and so many others, yadada, yadada. You know what I mean.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 224: Biomythography - Note 1, Missing Pennies

A Biomythography - Note 1
by Secret Hippie

Missing Pennies

When I was 23 years old and living in western Massachusetts, I made $7000 that year. I saved $1000 in my bank account. I was living a stoic and buddhist life. Or, if you prefer, I was cheap and dead broke.

Another financial landmark that year came when, during one month, my bank statement was off by a penny. I did the math. I checked it several times. The bank had made an error in its favor of one penny. I was mad.

But I didn’t complain

The next month, the bank statement was off by a penny again. The mistake was in the bank's favor. And now I thought that it was deliberate.

I knew that I should complain. I drafted a letter about the problem but I didn't know where to mail it so I kept it for a visit in person.

When it happened for the third month in a row, I was so mad that I had to go to the bank and show them the error of their evil ways. I walked up to the teller window with my paper statements in hand and my complaint letter, signed and dated. I showed the bank teller how the withdrawals and deposits didn’t add up right. The bank teller was very polite and agreed that it looked odd but he said he might not be able to do anything about it.

The teller took my information and promised that, if the bank was at fault, I would be rewarded. Weeks went by. I didn’t hear anything from the bank. Then my bank statement arrived. It had $20.03 extra in it.

The bank had returned my three cents and given me a twenty dollar reward. Or had it? Someone in the bank had been pulling a penny skimming scam. I had to wonder if I had complained to the person who had been pulling the scam. In that case, he must have thought to himself, how much does it take to buy off a person who notices a penny missing each month? Probably twenty bucks. 

And he was right.