Saturday, June 6, 2009

Saturday stroll down memory lane: Dead gerbils and tasty cicadas

So for the past two months, on the first Saturday of each month, I have been discussing excerpts from the personal journal I kept in college that date back to four years prior to the post. Looking back to May 2005, most things that I recorded in my journal fall into two categories: 1) way more details about playing KotOR and KotOR II than I ever should have bothered recording and 2) stories of college reunions and graduation (my brother and I went to the same college, and he graduated that year) that would kind of blow the not-so-carefully guarded secret of where I went to school. Really, the most interesting stories in the May 2005 section of my journal were all things that had happened before I started keeping the journal that I suddenly felt the need to record, despite them being out of chronological order. These are longer stories, but not as overtly geeky as in my last installment.
Date of story: January 2005
Remembering back to my Garden State-like experience, burying poor Hapa [an adorable, beautiful nutmeg gerbil; I have had nine gerbils throughout my life] during my winter break. [If you've seen the movie Garden State with Zach Braff and Natalie Portman, I'm referring to the somewhat comical but also sad scene where Sam's mother hands her a hamster of theirs that just died and she goes to bury it in their little pet cemetery in their backyard.]

She was the first pet of ours that died in the winter, I guess. Well, at least the first we tried to bury when the ground was frozen. I felt so bad when she died. I had noticed maybe two days before that she had looked sick, and I had tried to care for her. Their [Hapa and her sister Kukui's] cage hadn't been cleaned for well over a month because they [my family members] don't seem to be able to clean the gerbil cage without me home. So I cleaned the cage, thinking maybe the air was really bad in there. But she died the next day, and I feared that having cleaned the cage had done her in. Maybe she was too cold without all the fluffy chewed-up egg carton bedding... but then again, she had been avoiding any nest-like structure in the cage, apparently seeking coolth [this should be a word]--maybe she had a gerbil fever. Anyway, she died the next day, and I was so sad. She was the first one I had to shovel into a check box myself [having had seven gerbils die on us before, we knew check boxes to be the perfect size coffin]. Then there was the matter of burying her. When I pointed out the difficulties that we would encounter, Mom suggested just throwing her out. I think that's what they did with Bitey, but he was my first pet to die, when I was six, and none since then have had the same poor fate. I would have none of it.

The ground was covered with about two feet of snow. It had been a very snowy month. So first, I had to go back there, guess about where I'd want to shovel (not too close to the trees, not too far, and not where another pet was already buried), and then shovel away the snow. That was the easy part. The tough part was digging the hole. Now, it's not like it needs to be six feet deep or anything; just one foot is sufficient for our needs. But the ground was frozen. I tried chipping at it with the shovel we usually use, then tried the snow shovel, then tried the gardening trowel. Nothing worked. So I turned to the ice pick. I didn't use the pointy side, but the sort of flat-edged side. That was somewhat useful, in that it effectively chipped away the frozen dirt and could do it in the shape of a check box if I aimed properly. The problem still was that the progress was very slow (maybe a tablespoon of dirt at the most was removed with each chip) and the dirt went flying a couple feet in all directions when chipped. But I was determined to have Hapa buried like the others.
It was cold and I was miserable, sad that she had died, sad from the guilt, and sad that Mom had suggested I put her in the trash. So there I was, knee-deep in snow, chipping away at the ground with the ice pick, frozen dirt flying in all directions, including at my face, crying but also nearly laughing at how ridiculous it all was.
Poor Hapa. I am a big fan of gerbils. Hamsters are the more popular pet, but that fact kind of mystifies me. I guess they have short stubby tails, and a lot of people don't like the longer gerbil tails, but I really don't understand what's wrong with a tail. I understand that rats' hairless tails are kind of unappealing, but gerbils have cute fuzzy tails--I mean, dogs and cats (usually) have long fuzzy tails too! Anyway, I firmly believe that gerbils make better pets than hamsters for the following reasons:
1) Gerbils don't pee as much as hamsters, so the recommended cage cleaning frequency is a week longer.
2) Gerbils are diurnal while hamsters are nocturnal. This means that in general, gerbils will be cute and active during the day and quiet at night. Hamsters will be noisy at night and boring during the day.
3) Perhaps most importantly to me, gerbils are social. You can buy a pair of brothers or a trio of sisters (best not to mix genders unless you want a LOT more) or really any gerbils that have been introduced to each other at an early age and they will be adorable friends. They snuggle together and groom each other and play together. There was actually a sad story of when one of my gerbils died and his brother was so depressed that he started eating and eating and eating and blew up like a tennis ball before dying a few days later. It really seemed that he was just so sad that his lifelong friend wasn't around anymore that he gave up living. So that's kind of sad, but it means that they are that much happier when together. Hamsters, on the other hand, have to be kept separately or they will get all territorial and attack each other. Not so cute.

So yes, if you're looking for a cute, sweet, and easy pet to take care of, I recommend a pair of gerbils!

I don't have any pictures of Hapa on my computer, but she looked a bit like this, only even cuter and prettier!

The other story that I recounted dates back to May 2004 and is centered around cicada Brood X. These cicadas have a 17-year life cycle. Their eggs are laid in the bark of trees, and when they hatch, the larvae drop to the ground where they burrow. When their 17 years is up, they dig their way out of the ground, molt one last time, leaving their last molt stuck to the tree trunk or whatever plant they were sitting on at the time, make a whole lot of noise, mate, and then the cycle begins again. There are some cicadas every year, but some years are MUCH bigger than others (and thus every 17 years after that also is a much bigger year). In the region I was in, late May 2004 was peak season for the cicada brood known as Brood X. They were EVERYWHERE, and they are big bugs. You could hear the droning even inside buildings, their exoskeletons covered the trees, and their smooshed bodies covered the sidewalks. Luckily they don't bite or anything, so when they'd land on my arms or in my hair (an unavoidable occurrence) I'd just brush them out. I was at college still, though it was after exams had ended and most of my friends had gone home. There was very little going on on campus at the time, and there were no meal plans. This will provide some context for my story.
Date of story: approx. May 25, 2004, and the following weeks
I had been talking to Seth online, and he was all drugged up from just having had his wisdom teeth taken out. I told him that I'd eaten cicadas. Thanks to IM which makes it easier to improvise and unnecessary to keep a straight face, I elaborated on the story a bit. I said that Charles and Jo (who were also still on campus with me) had had a chicken they were storing in the fridge in the dorm kitchen (entirely plausible), but someone had stolen it. So we'd used all the seasoning and stuff on cicadas instead. Seth made some comment about how it sucked that the chicken was stolen. I realized that he had kind of taken me seriously, so I said, "No, I was just kidding!" He said I shouldn't have taken advantage of his drugged-up status. I, however, immediately regretting admitting to the joke so readily and decided that the next person I would talk to online I would really try to convince I had eaten cicadas, though it would probably be harder because they wouldn't be on painkillers like Seth was.

The next person who popped up on IM was Calum. We talked a bit, and I finally worked into the conversation the story that I had told Seth. Calum was the one who had originally told me that cicadas were good to eat (he had read an article online) and when the best time to harvest them was (late evening, when you could look up at the trees and see the tender white cicadas that had just molted). He asked me when I had harvested them, and I told him just what he had told me to do. He asked what they tasted like, and I said that while you might expect them to taste like chicken, they actually were more like shrimp. I wasn't sure he believed my story, but I refused to tell him it was a joke. The next time I talked to him, he said his mother was interested in my recipe. Had he believed my story? He couldn't have! But I wouldn't give up the joke. I said we didn't really have a recipe, just the seasoning for the chicken, adding a bit of this and a bit of that as we went along. So the charade continued.

The next time I talked to him, online again, he said that he had told Kari about my eating cicadas and that she was very... amused. I responded with something like, "WHAT? YOU TOLD KARI???!!!" and he said he had indeed. [You see, Kari had been my dance teacher and was a mutual friend of ours that Calum and I both new before we met at college. She is about the most hilarious person I know, somewhere on the border between brilliance and madness, who has the most inexhaustible store of ridiculous stories that she loves to tell to her dance students and probably anyone else. In short, the story of me eating cicadas was potentially very dangerous in her hands.] I demanded to know exactly what he had told her, and how she had responded. I was kind of freaking out. Memories of Kari condemning my friend Leigh to the nickname "muskrat" for all eternity swimming in my mind, I imagined Kari turning the story into something big and humiliating, leaving me with a reputation as a cicada-muncher forever. I still didn't cave and tell Calum that I had made up the story [what discipline I had!], but at the same time, I found my friend Catelyn online and explained my predicament, as she's my only friend who knows both Calum and Kari and could appreciate my situation.

The end to this story is somewhat less exciting than it deserves. When I saw Kari at the dance concert that summer, she didn't mention the cicadas. Perhaps she had forgotten, or she was too busy to remember. I ran into another dancer friend who did bring it up, seeming very concerned about the rumors she had heard, but I assured her they were not true. I spent a good bit of the summer wondering if Calum had figured it out, but it turns out that Catelyn had broken the news to him that I had been kidding. I still haven't brought up the cicada non-incident again to tease poor Calum. But some day I might.


Anonymous said...

I hate those damn cicadas...they're so noisy ALL summer here.. it's just like a never ending buzz in your ear!

Sebastian said...

Ooh, maybe that's actually what I heard in Italy! I thought it was thousands of birds up a tree, but I couldn't see any birds (though it was very dark...)


And now I really want some pet gerbils. I had no idea they were social creatures! I never had any small pets -- just cats. And looked after a dog for a week or so once.

I preferred playing with my chemistry kit, LEGO and Meccano...!

Guinea pig story for you:

Eleni said...

Pink, maybe if you tried cicadas and found out how delicious they are, they would cease to be a nuisance and just become a tasty snack!

I remember during Brood X, our chapel organist had been practicing all morning and the song just didn't sound right, and he finally figured it out, announcing to those who were nearby, "The cicadas are in E flat!!" (I assume the song he was playing was in D or something particularly bad for having a background E flat drone.)

Seb - I like this excerpt: "Thus in Lima and Cuzco churches still show Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper dining on roasted guinea pig." Mmmm.

But don't eat gerbils! Probably way too small for it to be worth it anyway. Though I do recall reading a book once that included a recipe for mouse. But gerbils are too cute. They're less personable than dogs or cats, but they are much easier to care for and still fun to play with, if you like small furry things crawling on your arms and shoulders.