Learning Life Lessons from Bedbugs

I went to Alabama for Thanksgiving again this year, as I usually do, and I was amazed to find roses still blooming in my sister's garden and autumn leaves still clinging to the trees in her back yar

I went to Alabama for Thanksgiving again this year, as I usually do, and I was amazed to find roses still blooming in my sister's garden and autumn leaves still clinging to the trees in her back yard.

It was 70 degrees every day I was there, an unheard of blessing even in the South. We went on nature hikes in parks filled with golden sunlight filtering through oak trees and squirrels gathering acorns and nuts for winter's lean times. I loved watching them glide along the ground, their muscles rippling, climbing trees in a single bound, playing like Merry Pranksters.

Everybody said it, "What a wonderful, warm fall," especially after the blast furnace heat of the summer. Unseasonable weather has its downside, though. When I got back home — rested, tranquil and serene — I was met with an angry swarm of tiny flat bugs under my pillows, on my quilts. I had no idea what they were.

Of course it was my friend Melissa Mosby who knew them immediately. "Bedbugs," she declared.

"Every place downtown's got 'em. They say they're crawling thick on the carpet in the halls of The Metropole."

I thought bedbugs had vanished with Shakespeare and all those inns and taverns and the vermin that resided in such places. Change is an illusion, though, and urban living still includes inns and taverns just waiting for cheap vermin to check in.

I googled "bedbugs," hoping the insects were a figment of Melissa's poetic imagination, but they were (and are) real.

Harvard University has a Web site dedicated to exploring the common bedbug. As well, products abound for those willing to lay down $129.95 on something akin to snake oil.

I called the Public Health Department. The young woman answering the phone barked "Hello" and began sneezing and coughing incessantly into the phone. She did not sound like a good representative for public health, but she told me the inspectors would be in touch with me in 48 hours.

They weren't. Instead, they sent me a computer printout of the University of Kentucky's Web site on current infestations.

A friend in San Francisco emailed me, "Bedbugs are all the rage out here." Why this re-emergence of an old enemy?

Evidently, when we banned DDT back in the 1960s, bedbugs got a new lease on life. An engineer friend informed me that the science on DDT hadn't been quite as thorough as it might have been, resulting not only in epidemics of bed bugs but in new outbreaks of mosquitoes in Africa, where people are dying by the thousands of malaria.

Bedbugs don't carry disease, but they are insidious. You can carry a female home unsuspectingly in your trouser cuff, and if she likes your blood type she might lay as many as 500 eggs in your carpet.

These tiny critters remain dormant for a long time, living in baseboards, nesting in corners. Once they start to swarm, though, they march across your bed like carpenter ants.

The night I got back from Alabama I was up all night, smashing them, squeezing their blood sacs and saving their lifeless bodies in tin boxes. When I found one in my hair, I felt like I was in a Stephen King novel — I went a little "buggy."

For the next two days Melissa and I washed and bleached everything made of fabric in my bedroom, threw out sacks of magazines and books and old clothes, cleaned the corners of the walls where I suspected they had nested, even dusted the tops of all my picture frames. I was afraid to sit or lie down. The Web sites had displayed pictures of bed bug victims with nasty welts all over their backs from the bites.

My Aunt Dot used to say, "Where spider webs grow, no beaux go." Well, I have no spiderwebs now (nor beaux), but the bugs aren't interested in cleanliness. What draws them is warm-blooded animals.

Once the cold weather came in several days ago, they vanished back into crevices in the walls for a long winter's nap. It turns out the insects didn't care whether my apartment was clean or not, and I'm not enthusiastic about spraying. Maybe the universe was insisting I do a little down-home feng-shui.

I feel lighter from the bags of "stuff" I've discarded. Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say.

I'm guardedly optimistic once again — no one who lives in Over-the-Rhine is ever unguardedly optimistic — and I refuse to let this incident dampen my Christmas routine. While I was cleaning I found a small table-sized Christmas tree made of dried grapevine, which Melissa has strung with cranberries and tiny lights. Its beauty delights me when I come in the door.

I've discovered my own little piece of holiday zen: Get rid of excess baggage.

Give something away this Christmas — your watch, your money, your heart — and watch the magic grow in all the empty spaces in your life.

CONTACT KATIE LAUR: letters(at)citybeat.com. Her column appears here the first issue of each month.

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