Tag Archives: bugs

Head Lice and Shame

I grew up in Alberta. There, the winters are cold enough that the only animal that had fleas would be mangy and often diseased. And head lice were unheard of. Perhaps the cold worked at keeping the numbers down there too.

Then I moved to BC, where there was a plethora of insects and other buggy vermin: spiders that flew in the wind on their spinnerets, spiders the size of your palms, slugs as long as a foot-long sub, moths, aphids, fleas on every animal if the summer was humid, mosquitoes year-round even if they didn’t bite, horseflies, black widows, bugs, everywhere!

The fleas were a horrid revelation and took some getting used to. I was particularly sensitive to the bites and after spending a summer of scratching my legs to bloody, I saw my doctor for something to stop the itching. That, and I moved out from my messy roommates and into a place on my own. Oh yes, keeping things clean can make a difference in the virulence of an infestation. Vacuuming regularly kept the eggs at bay and then it was a matter of making sure the cat was flea-combed or giving it some anti-flea liquid. Fleas are one of a host of vampiric bugs, commonly known as parasites, which include bedbugs, mosquitoes and lice.

Lice have been close buddies of humans for three million years. Which means we may never be able to eradicate them without eradicating humans. Why am I talking about lice? Because I had the utmost misfortune of encountering them. I was once visiting friends who had kids. I slept on the floor, on a mat, in a sleeping bag and played with the kids while there.

A week later, I had a bit of a rash on my neck but I have sometimes got the same thing from mild allergies so it didn’t seem unusual. But one day I was reading a paper, scratching at my head when this bug fell on to the paper. Frantically I began shaking my hair and ruffling it, watching in horror as more vermin fell to the page. Little beige, eye shaped vermin. There is nothing more disgusting than finding live critters crawling on your body.

I don’t remember what I did next but I found out pretty damn quickly that they were lice. Next was going to the pharmacy and wincing as I said I had lice and what should I do. They sold me some tarry shampoo, which I ran home and used. I’ve read you can coat your hair in olive oil, which is supposed to work. Any other oil in a person’s hair and it takes forever to remove. Supposedly olive oil is the only oil that can be shampooed out. Reading the little pamphlet, it said to use the comb afterwards, the special louse comb to remove the nits, which are the eggs of the little vampires. I did but having fairly long hair, there was no way I could be sure that I got them all.

I didn’t relish shaving my head, which is often what happens when kids get lice. So I shamefully called up one of my best friends and asked her if she would be so good as to comb through my hair. I sat outside, luckily in summer and she took a couple of hours to comb through all my hair. I used the shampoo several more times. But I also had to wash any bedclothes or clothes lying about. I had to bag every cushion or anything else of fabric for weeks. I had to vacuum feverishly.

Luckily I got rid of them. But I also did the responsible thing, although I felt ashamed for getting lice and felt dirty. I contacted everyone I had been around and told them what they had to do. I was also extremely pissed off at the friends whose place I was at because they never bothered to warn me, knowing their kids’ school had lice and that their kids had had them several times. That they could be so disrespecting of their friends and so uncaring of their children truly stunned me.

Then about a month later I picked up the lice again because I was around the same people and I had to inform everyone a second time. These people said nothing. Were they too ashamed to admit it? I don’t know but I had to say where I had got them so friends could check themselves. But I can say that I never ever visited or stayed at those people’s houses ever again. 

As far as I’m concerned they should have felt shame for not informing their friends. It’s the same as picking up any contagious disease or illness (like STDs) and not letting the people you came into contact with that they could be infected. That being said, we all manage to pass colds on from one person to the next but by the time you realize you have a cold, you’ve already infected others and with colds all you can do is bide your time. Infestations of vermin are another story and they can get out of hand if not controlled.

Having been fed on by mosquitoes, fleas and lice, I can say I would miss these bugs if they disappeared off the face of the earth. I’ve paid my dues and given enough blood.

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Phobias, Or: Spider Spider Burning Bright

Yes, I am misquoting a William Blake poem in the title. The actual line reads, “Tiger, tiger burning bright…” Yet it speaks just as well to anyone who has ever experienced a spider phobia, known as arachnophobia.

My progression into arachnophobia started as a child. There were two incidences that I can think of that may have been the beginning of my fear of spiders. I’m not sure which came first. We used to live in a house that was a split level. My sister and I shared one of the basement bedrooms and the room was mostly below ground, with 2-foot high windows at the top. Below these windows was a ledge that ornaments sat upon.

I remember I had this plastic bubble bath container in the shape of Pinocchio as well as a plastic piggy bank that I’ve talked about in an earlier post. One night I dreamt that the top popped off of Pinocchio and out poured hundreds of spiders. One other night as I was falling asleep I heard a “plop” upon my pillow. I don’t know if I actually found the spider or imagined it but after that I feared spiders.

Calgary had daddy longlegs mostly, which, depending on where and how they’re described, may be called Harvestmen and are arachnids but not spiders. Still, they’re spidery enough for any fear. The phobia was manageable while I lived in the colder clime that controlled the spider populations. Then I moved to Vancouver.

The first year I moved in with a friend and she was gone through the summer to Greece. And the spiders came a visiting. There were so many creepy crawlies in Vancouver because of the warmer climate that my phobia escalated. The worst were the wolf spiders; large, hairy (at least I think they were) and fast. I was completely freaked out and like a true arachnophobic, I could not kill them because it meant getting too close to them. So my place was littered with plastic containers that trapped spiders beneath them. I put a book on each container for fear that they would get out. When a friend came to visit, he had to dump them for me.

When I vacuumed I’d moan and shriek as the spiders hung from the edge of the long nozzle. Every once in a while I’d dropped the vacuum cleaner’s wand and run back if I thought the spider was crawling down the pipe. I’m sure it would have looked hilarious to anyone watching but the phobia was very real. Camping was a real issue. My tent was zippered tightly shut and if there was a spider someone had to get it out or I couldn’t sleep.

The worst that first year was this monstrous wolf spider that lived in a hole in the wall of the house, right next to the door knob. It was all I could do to get the key in the lock and at night I was terrified. (Note, that people with severe phobias can die from fright. One should never find it funny to chase the person with the phobic producing object.) This spider was one of those granddaddy wolf spiders, with a body as long as my thumb. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolf_spider

One day I couldn’t take it any longer. I loaded a spray bottle with super hot water and went out to the spider’s home. I started shooting in sprays of hot water…and all the wolf spider did was leap out to attach the water. I couldn’t kill the bugger. Years later I read that some wolf spiders live in warm underwater currents.

My phobia became so bad that I couldn’t go near any spider. It could be the size of a pin dot but if it landed on me I was shrieking and batting it away, in full hysterics. It wasn’t funny and it was getting so bad that I was about to go to my doctor. In a coastal rainforest you can’t avoid spiders and sometimes they fly through the air on their strands. Even staying indoors wouldn’t help because spiders are everywhere. So yes, the spiders burned very brightly in my life.

Along the way I spent a year upgrading hiking trails. I had to hike in and out an hour each way. I started the job wearing gardening gloves and carrying a stick so I could knock the webs out of the way. Imagine being in the forest and keeping watch for spiders. That meant checking every branch I was under, every log I sat on, every piece of foliage I had to grab.

Then one day, about six months later, a spider was on my hand and I flicked it off, calm as you please. It took a few minutes for it to sink in. My phobia was gone. One form of therapy for phobias is a slow introduction to the phobia inducing item. I’d been doing this by being in the forest every day. I no longer freak out or cry. I still don’t like wolf spiders but I’ll leave other spiders hanging in the window and watch them spin and eat. Somehow that natural therapy probably did the job faster than months of counselling ever would have.

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Scary Tales About Cockroaches

I got to thinking about cockroaches the other day, probably because the news mentioned that some of Vancouver’s apartment buildings are becoming infested with bed bugs. No matter how you cut it, bugs are just creepy. They make our skin crawl, sometimes literally. They’re the most alien of the animal kingdom (besides bacteria, whatever the heck they are) that we can see. And theories are that should there be a nuclear holocaust it’s the insects that would survive. In fact, comparing populations, there are 12 times more insects in the world than the total of human beings (and we’re at 6 billion). It’s a sobering thought and a good thing that most of them are small.

Most places have cockroaches but unless you’re living in a dirty building or particularly slovenly, you may never see them. I’ve never seen a cockroach in Vancouver and only saw a small thumb-sized one in Seattle once. They prefer warm and dark places, with fecund garbage. In colder climes, that means moving indoors where you and I might be.

They leave scents in their feces and pheromone trails so that their buddies can find them. Once you have one, you’re likely to have a whole gang. Cleanliness, wiping up food spills, vacuuming are ways to stop cockroaches from moving in but once they’re in, they’re extremely difficult to eradicate.

The buggers are tough. Supposedly a decapitated cockroach can survive for several weeks before dying of dehydration or starvation. I take it that’s the body and not the head. They live about a year and can produce 300-400 offspring or more. Some species only need to be fertilized once to produce for the rest of their lifetimes. They’re so hardy that they can take 6-15 times the radiation of a human but would possibly still not survive nuclear war, though they’d fare better than fleshy humans.

They can live a month or so without water, longer without food, be deprived of air, frozen or immersed in water and can recover. They aren’t slimy but like many insects we don’t enjoy touching them. And they are just very alien looking. Hence all the horror and SF movies with buggy creatures. Many humans have a natural revulsion. Cockroaches do have a couple of natural enemies; other insects. Certain wasps and centipedes will attack them but if you were trying to get rid of them, you would then just have a new pest to deal with.

I have really only encountered the creepy crawlies twice. Once was in Mexico, in Taxco. I was on an open restaurant veranda, having a drink with someone. A cat was wandering amongst the patrons. Thinking it was the cat rubbing against my leg, I ignored the light touch, but when I looked down there was a cockroach on my leg. I jumped up and stomped so that it dropped. The waiter and my friend both stomped on the three-inch long cucaracha and it just kept running, right over the balcony.

Later I was in Cuernavaca. The adjoining bathroom to my room had two cockroaches hanging out on the ceiling. I was freaked out by this and tried to close the door, though it wouldn’t shut completely. They never moved but I kept a wary eye on them.

The other time was in Calcutta. Every hotel I tried was full and I was looking at worse and worse accommodations to stay in. Finally I found a place. It was rife with cockroaches so I slept with the lights on to keep them at bay. It also had fleas (or maybe bed bugs) and I slept in my own sleeping bag though it was hot and humid, to save my flesh. (I also got dysentery from that place.) They weren’t as big as the Mexican cockroach had been but they were more prevalent.

Thankfully, I’ve had no more experiences with cockroaches. I share that human abhorrence of things many legged. I don’t mind spiders now, even though I was once phobic (See: Spider, Spider, Burning Bright.) Sometimes it’s fascinating to watch how an insect works, but at a distance, not up close and personal and in your home.

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