Monday, October 25, 2010

A Termite War Recalled

Don't forget. On June 2, 1886 Grover Cleveland wed,
the only President to marry while in the White House.
That was 124 years ago!
Anniversaries are important to us personally. We remember birthdays, weddings, even the date we lost loved ones.

The news media loves anniversaries perhaps as much as we do. It's a way of making what is old new and generating fresh headlines. "On this day in history...."

In the west we particularly focus on the first year, the fifth year, and thereafter the decades (sometimes combined with a five, like "25th or 35th anniversary"). The event we revisit may or may not have changed the course of history, but that's not necessarily the point. Just this year we've been reminded that it's been...

- One year since Michael Jackson died.
- Five years since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
- Twenty years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
- Thirty years since Mount St. Helens blew up.
- Forty years since the Rolling Stones released their classic double album Exile on Main Street and forty years since the Beatles broke up.
- Fifty years ago bubble wrap was invented.

What are we to do with this information? Relive it perhaps as an exercise in nostalgia? Maybe learn some lessons? Or, it may be appropriate to take comfort in how we've moved on and humanity continues to endure.

Another possibility is that we're supposed to get excited all over again about such matters. For example, did you know that 95 years ago Ovaltine was introduced to the U.S. market (from England)? Perhaps you'd like to buy some and mix up a hot cup right now. You can sip it while you listen to the newly remastered Exile on Main Street with unreleased bonus tracks included...

Seeking to Commemorate
Today it seems like a Van Winkle thing to do, in lieu of looking at real news, to dig into my datebook and find out what I was doing at this time last year or thereabouts.

I've kept datebooks for around twenty years now. Besides writing down appointments in them I use each year's installment as a bare bones diary to note things I've done or experienced. This includes weather notes (rained 1/2"), runs I've made (25:23), and movies watched (Coco Before Chanel). It's not a very complete record of my life, but it is enough to provide footholds as I walk my memory along the treacherous ledge of recalling something or tumbling into the canyon of its being completely forgotten.

One Year Ago - An Invasion
On a Saturday one year ago, I looked up at the top of the guest bathroom wall and noticed two small holes with delicate out-thrusts of sawdust clinging to them. This was odd. I hadn't drilled any holes. I sighed. House issues seem to always arise on the weekend. I had to wait until Tuesday for the friendly pest control man to come out and confirm what I expected.

Termites, some of the most capable insects around, had crawled beneath the house slab, found ingress via the plumbing pipes, then made their way up into the attic. What followed was a regimen of shooting poison foam into the walls, digging trenches around the house and pouring poison into them, and putting over $2000 on my credit card.

The woodpile whence they came?
A year later, if not for the datebook and the fact that I'm scheduled for a termite re-inspection, I would have forgotten about the anguish of that day. How I blamed myself for a wood pile we inherited when we bought the house that I should have had removed long ago, how I suspected that when I finally had the wood hauled off it was already infested. After that the termites, I'll say it again, some of the most capable insects around, dealt with the foreclosure and loss of their home in their own fashion. By moving into a larger one. Ours.

And a Horror Took Place in the Woods
The other thing I have on my calendar for this time in 2009 was that the following Monday I substituted for a professor who was at a conference. Per his request I taught the extraordinary Japanese film Rashomon to a World Lit Class.

Many of the students in the class were non-English majors. They were not much used to reading literary classics, much less watching foreign films. And here was one from 1950, shot in black in white, and with subtitles. Even more challenging, Rashomon is a work of genuius that is as densely layered with meaning and nuance as a novel by William Faulkner or James Joyce.

Evil bandit assaults virtuous woman,
while husband (tied up) looks on.
Or is that what really happened?
The story revolves around trying to figure out what exactly occurs when a violent crime is committed: a rich man and his wife are ambushed in the woods by a bandit who kills the man and rapes the wife.

The film is deliberately redundant. We see the plot unfold four times--only each time it is from a different character's point of view (including the dead man's!). So it's not always quite the same story. Somebody's lying. Or they exaggerate to make themselves look better. Or they lie to themselves. Or their information is incomplete.

This means the blame for the tragedy keeps shifting depending on who is the teller of the tale. Which leaves us wondering by movie's end, What really happened? Is there any way to know for sure?

Of course, this is a perpetual human question. People can occupy the same space, go through the same experience there, and yet have wildly divergent accounts of what happened and what it means. This has been called the "Rashomon effect."

Second Thoughts from the "Victor"
From my perspective the termites were defeated a year ago and then I forgot about it. Their chance to chew wood to their heart's content was foiled. I protected the value of the investment in my home and that was the main thing. But it is interesting to ponder if there could be an insect perspective on the event. If so, it might go like this...

        A year ago a Mount St. Helens of poison foam engulfed our termite colony,
       a Katrina-like tidal blast of noxious chemicals spilled into our tunnels
       and drowned us. If one or more  of us were more talented than the rest,
       we lost our equivalent of Michael Jackson. As far as the termites of the world
       are concerned, it is the owner of this house who is the villain. He made the
       phone call that brought the exterminator who raped and killed us in the
       innocent eaved woods of the attic.

All this is a tale of classic competition.

     "This place isn't big enough for the both of us."

     "What you have, I want."

     "I'm more worthy than you."

There are always many reasons to seek the final solution, the one that always means "I win, you lose."

Honestly, I don't feel bad about eliminating the bugs who, if left alone, would have eventually brought down the roof upon our family. But I still find Rashomon disquieting. The film reminds me how it's so easy to assume that I'm always in the right or to feel justified in my opinions about what life means or how I believe the best way is for me to get my way.

That's why at this one-year anniversary of the Termite War I'm thinking it would be good if I backed off a bit. Stop worshipping my own certainty and the assumed purity of my motives. See if I can give other people space to be who they need to be. And maybe if I didn't go around over-turning their wood piles, some of these problems could be avoided in the first place. - V.W.


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