The morning after Hurricane Sandy hit Philadelphia, I noticed something strange in the leaves that coated the parking lot.
I was still the new girl in the 15th-floor center city office when the Digital Integration Specialist stuck his head into my cubicle.
“Fire drill today at ten o’clock,” he said.
I was oddly pleased to carry this ritual of my elementary school days into my career – the welcome break from the day’s work, the shuffling in line through the hallways with our ears plugged against the alarm, the waiting on the grounds while our teachers counted us, and the knowledge that should disaster befall the school, we’d know what to do.
But about ten minutes before ten o’clock, everyone in the offices and cubicles around me began putting on coats.
The assistant account executive on my left explained. Fire drills happen every six months, and since the elevators are out of service during the drill, instead of walking down fifteen flights of stairs, everyone flocks to the elevators and goes out for coffee about ten minutes beforehand.
Once we crowded into the hallway outside the office suite, the company president took charge of loading the elevators. After I stepped out of the building and crossed the street, I watched the entrance, which was teeming like a flooded anthill. Twenty floors of office dwellers had done exactly what we had. Soon the faint, totally unheeded screech of the fire alarms could be heard over the noise of the city.
After the fire drill (such as it was) concluded and the workers crowded back into the elevators, I stayed behind to ask the concierge about it.
He said that he is a former fire marshal, and he shook his head with helpless, long-lived frustration at our response to the drills.
He explained that they have actually made some recent progress by setting the alarms to ring throughout the exercise, as the firefighters check each floor. Previously, office workers would refuse to interrupt their work for the drills, and simply stay at their desks throughout. Now, the prolonged, ear-shattering noise drives them out.
Once I returned to my floor, I asked our office manager what he thought of our studious avoidance.
He shrugged and eyed me with what could have been a hint of annoyance. “I think anyone who’s sane would make sure to go down in the elevator,” he said.
I wondered how sane we’d all feel if a fire we explicitly refused to prepare for caught us in the middle of a meeting.
But sometimes, one man’s disaster preparedness is another man’s disaster.
As Hurricane Sandy approached last fall, my apartment complex’s superintendent was determined to protect the four-story building he manages. According to one of my neighbors, he noticed a tiny old chimney of sorts in the building’s roof and worried that the rain would get in. So, as tree-snapping winds approached, he chained a ten-pound metal gym barbell to a piece of wood and used the contraption to block the hole in the roof.
A storm like this is no match for a ten-pound weight…right?
The weight flew right off the roof on the wings of the storm, and demolished the windshield of a car belonging to a resident who is handicapped. The hurricane blasted into her vehicle all night, filling the interior with broken glass and soaking the dashboard, before the accident was discovered. I’m very sorry my neighbor’s car got smashed. But I’m thrilled that the weight hit an empty car, and not any of the people, including my husband and me, who frequent that parking lot in all weathers.
I’d hazard a guess that disasters are defined by our perennial unwillingness to anticipate them in any reasonable way.
In 2011, my computer crashed, and I lost a majority of my files. I wept with rage. But had I anticipated this fairly common occurrence by backing up all my documents, the crash would have been an inconvenience instead of a crisis.
I know – it’s crass to compare the loss of my files to something like a tsunami or a tornado. And of course, many true disasters are wholly unpredictable. But if my former office building were to catch fire, the episode would hardly be called a calamity if well-practiced staffers filed quickly and calmly out the door. If panic and ill-informed escape routes led to injuries or deaths, it would be a different story.
Having totally failed to visualize the reality of hurricane-force winds, my superintendent’s notion of preparedness was placing an unfastened barbell on the roof. My subsequent sense of intellectual superiority probably could have powered my fridge, had my electricity gone out (I’m convinced it didn’t because of my ready stash of batteries, flashlights, charged gadgets, water and non-perishable food). But when I followed everyone else in the office to exit the building by elevator ten minutes before the fire drill, did that add up to a smarter way to prepare for disaster?
I’ve been lucky for several years – and by lucky, I mean that by eking $350 a month out of my tiny salary, I have had access to most of the medical care that I need.
I worked a decent job my first year out of college (this was 2007, mind you, right before everything went to hell) which offered an insurance plan. When I left that job, I continued that insurance through a provision of US law known as COBRA, which allows people to retain their health care for a certain number of months from a former employer, if they pay the full cost of the insurance. It’s expensive as hell, but when you have a tricky chronic illness like I do, better than nothing.
So I paid COBRA til I landed my next job, which, happily for me, came with health insurance. Eighteen months ago, I lost that job without warning, but continued the insurance policy out of pocket. Now my time has run out.
I know some of you, my valued readers, are joining us from outside the US, from places where, perhaps, there is a modicum of humanity and reason in the health care system. Here’s how it works over here.
Got health insurance through a traditional job? Great.
Are you self-employed? I’m sorry. I hope you have several hundred dollars – or even thousands, if you want to insure your family – per month to spare for insurance premiums with deductibles of at least a few thousand dollars. Oh, you’re not rich? Hm. Well, that’s too bad. I hope you don’t break a leg or get cancer or anything.
Because here in the great United States, you’ll probably die before you can come up with the money for that care on your own.
What a lot of people in my position do is cross their fingers and wait. But most of my impecunious twenty-something friends have fallen under the health-care axe sooner or later – often through bike accidents or broken limbs. When folks like them can’t pay the bills, these costs get spread through the system, causing higher costs for care and insurance for everyone else.
My husband is uninsured, but he’s only been sick twice in about five years.
I brought him to my own doctor once, even though he was sans insurance, because he was having chest pains (fortunately it turned out to be a muscular injury). The appointment involved the doctor listening to him with a stethoscope and asking him questions for ten or fifteen minutes. The bill was $170.
A few years later, he got a severe case of tonsillitis. He had a high fever and couldn’t eat. We were in South Africa, so we found a neighborhood clinic and he got a doctor’s consultation, an immediate penicillin injection, a course of oral antibiotics, painkillers and restorative vitamins all for about the equivalent of $40.
That’s less than the copay for one prescription fill of my daily medicine on my current insurance policy.
My husband doesn’t like being uninsured, but he takes it in stride. The prospect of losing my insurance next week is terrifying, because medically, I ain’t doing so well.
I don’t engage in dangerous activities, smoke or drink. But I have a very painful chronic illness whose symptoms are manageable with daily medication. I’m currently trying to stop taking it every day, in preparation for when I may not be able to get it at all. Because that’s another common gem of the American health-care system. You had that condition before you bought this policy? Sorry, we don’t cover any of THAT care.
Next week, if all goes well, I’ll be purchasing a new policy with a premium of a few hundred dollars a month for my husband and me. This’ll cover five doctor visits per year (with a $30 copay for each). If one of us ends up in the hospital, we’ll be responsible for 40% of the total cost, after a deductible of a few thousand dollars, of course. Non-generic medications? As if! Maternity care? Don’t be ridiculous. But this is the reality of what we can afford (and there is no guarantee another plan will agree to cover me at all or that I could pay what they decide to charge, based on my history).
We’re willing to scrape about $3,000 a year out of our budget so that, God forbid, if one of us ends up in the emergency room, it’ll be a crisis to the tune of $350, not bankruptcy.
Of course, a lot of Americans are foaming at the mouth right now because the infamous President Obama thinks he can patch things up. The US Supreme Court is now debating whether Obama’s new healthcare law is allowable under the Constitution.
Obama and many liberal allies want to improve Americans’ quality of life (or, depending who you ask, take over the world in his dastardly big-government socialist grip) by making sure that the rich or those with job-related insurance are not the only ones with health care. Obama also wants people to be able to access care for conditions that existed before they obtained their current insurance policy, and he’d like to prevent insurance companies from taking people’s money while they’re healthy, and then revoking their coverage when they get sick (another shining gem of health care in America).
Sounds great, right?
NO! Say conservatives.
To help insurance companies realistically bear the costs of better access to care for everyone, no more would people like my healthy husband be able to opt out of buying insurance. Everyone would be required to buy it, with government subsidies available for those who can’t afford it on their own.
Excellent, say most liberals. A huge influx of healthy new insurance customers will balance the increased costs of sick people’s care. And besides, nobody ever makes it through life without getting sick or hurt. When it happens to uninsured people, those costs are still borne by the larger system and ultimately passed on to all of us. Let’s make every individual responsible for this human inevitability.
This is an American tragedy! Say most conservatives. How can there possibly be a Constitutional basis for forcing every American to buy a certain product? It’s an unprecedented government intrusion.
Federal legislators narrowly passed Obama’s law. Individual states with conservative majorities challenged it in court. And now the nine justices of the US Supreme Court, five of whom lean conservative, and four of whom lean liberal, are going to decide the issue once and for all.
Political writer Paul Begala, in a recent Newsweek Magazine/Daily Beast column, applauds Obamacare – or at least denigrates the conservative Justices (no surprise there – his pieces are usually a mix of liberal cheerleading and big-time political name-dropping).
He echoes what a lot of commentators have noticed about the Justices’ arguments. Conservative Justices see a slippery slope: if the government can force us to buy health insurance, who’s to say it can’t then force us to buy cell phones, burial insurance or broccoli?
It’s bad enough when your parents tell you to eat your vegetables. But the President? Ouch.
Begala points out an obscure 1792 law signed by George Washington requiring every white, able-bodied man between 18 and 45 to purchase a musket and ammunition. Clearly, the Founding Fathers imagined a Constitutional precedent for forcing us to buy something for the good of the nation.
Begala says it’s ludicrous to compare burial insurance to health insurance in this context: “we don’t have a burial-insurance crisis in America.” A lack of burial insurance is not bankrupting American families, eating up 17% of our national budget each year, and leaving Americans to die – as in one recent California case Begala cites, of an uninsured man whose appendix burst when he put off going to the doctor, afraid of the cost – because they can’t afford medical care.
I’m glad the Justices are there to decide this question in the best interest of the American people, according to our laws.
Were I on the Supreme Court, I would have to recuse myself immediately. In fact, I’m so personally biased I probably shouldn’t even be writing this blog post, in case my simple, self-pitying, ham-handed analysis influences anyone’s opinion.
Unlike the impartial Justices, I lose a lot of sleep to dark worries about what’s going to happen to me when my current insurance runs out. On bad days, I wake up to a forest fire under my skin and lie there wondering if I should take my medicine today, or save the limited supply for a day that might be worse.
The Justices, as well as their legislative colleagues, probably don’t have these worries. As Begala points out, the health care of uninsured people in America adds over $1,000 per year to the policies of those who buy insurance, but Justice Samuel Alito dismissed this as a “small” concern.
Perhaps he only thinks it’s small, Begala says, “because as a government employee his health-care bills are paid by We the People.” Indeed, the ones in charge of the nation’s health-care policy enjoy remarkable health-care themselves.
As Congress furiously debates the so-called Buffett Rule, a liberal election-year stunt which would up millionaires’ tax rates to thirty percent, I watch and shrug. Between my federal, state and local taxes as a self-employed person, thirty percent is about what I pay. As a freelance journalist, I suspect that that 30% hits me a little harder than it would hit Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who paid about 15% last year on his $250 million fortune. I’m putting off grocery shopping till my next check arrives, and he’s installing an elevator for his cars in his $12 million villa.
But when I pay my taxes every quarter, I imagine myself paying for police and traffic lights and sidewalks and Grampa’s social security, and I don’t mind too much.
Congress and the Supreme Court Justices apparently have no problem with requiring us to pay taxes. Since our taxes support their top-notch health-care plans, I guess the principle is this: it’s ok to require me to pay for YOUR health-care, but heaven forbid I be required to pay for my own.
When I whined intemperately about my woes on Facebook this week, a friend replied sharply with her own suggestions, including getting family to lend money for my care, or pawning my belongings. Or I could “register as poor and go to a free clinic.” She also suggested going to Canada or England so I could get my care for free.
My generous parents have helped me to get care when things were really desperate, but that’s not a sustainable solution, and I’m an adult who doesn’t want to ask. I do have some nice wedding gifts stashed away – maybe a lovingly given crystal pitcher could pay for a round or two of meds, but the thought makes me sad. I bet a free clinic could patch me up if I sprained an ankle, but even experienced practitioners frequently know nothing about my medical condition – it’s not very common and is poorly understood. I respectfully doubt that a free clinic is equipped to deal with me. Maybe another country would take me in, but airfare’s pretty expensive. Plus, on a system-wide level, I bet taxpayers in those countries wouldn’t view my care as “free”.
I do deserve a lecture, for making such a public show of my problems while also shooting down well-meant suggestions. But I’m writing this because I bet many people can relate to my situation, and no-one – from my Facebook friends to my doctor, who recommends physical therapy at $100-$400 a month (from a practitioner who does not take insurance at all) – has provided a viable answer.
Good luck, Supreme Court. You could never trust me to figure this out, and besides, I have enough to worry about.
A mother and daughter at the Philadelphia vigil for Trayvon Martin on March 26th.
Last week my husband texted me from his jobsite. He said America was a country he didn’t want to live in. He was listening to coverage of the Trayvon Martin tragedy in Florida, and I couldn’t blame him. All I could do was point out that America shouldn’t be judged on the killing alone – he should also consider the widespread outrage and realize that a majority of American citizens will stand up for what’s right.
For international readers who aren’t plugged into the American media cycle, here, briefly, is the situation.
One month ago a self-professed neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman spotted a black teenage boy walking in a Sanford, Florida neighborhood. Zimmerman, who is apparently half-white, half-Hispanic, called 911 from his car to report a suspicious person, declaring that the boy, who was walking down the street with his hooded sweatshirt up against the rain, was “up to no good”. As the 911 dispatcher urged Zimmerman not to approach the boy, he got out of his car and, in a chilling prelude to a fatal attack, began to following the teen, muttering, “they always get away.”
The details of the ensuing encounter vary according to the source. The indisputable facts are that Zimmerman, who was armed with a gun and has a history of assault, shot and killed the teenager, whose name was Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman, who apparently confronted Martin, claimed that Martin began beating him and that he was acting in self-defense. Martin, 17, was on his way to a family member’s house and was holding nothing but an iced tea and a package of candy.
Police took Martin’s body to the morgue and failed to identify him or notify his parents for several days. They tested Martin’s body for drugs and alcohol and found none. Zimmerman, however, was not tested. Neither has he been arrested, due to a law active in about half of US states that says citizens have no obligation to retreat if they are threatened in public, but have the right to use deadly force in self-defense.
Outrage over the case has exploded across the US. We’re arguing about the continued prevalence of racial profiling and racism in America, the obvious dangers of the “stand your ground” laws, and the proper role of citizens’ neighborhood watch groups. We’re in fits over the National Rifle Association’s powerfully evident lobbying for the “stand your ground” laws, which, in essence, make it much easier for civilians to pull guns on each other with impunity.
Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera instigated yet another layer of public fury by saying that Martin wouldn’t have been shot if he hadn’t been wearing the wrong outfit: the “hoodie killed Trayvon Martin as surely as George Zimmerman did,” Rivera wrote. Rivera claims that anyone seeing a black or brown person in a hood would automatically cross the street, because everyone knows people of color who wear hoods are “ghetto” or at least “low-brow wise-ass”. Despite the fact that it was raining when Zimmerman pursued Martin, Rivera called Martin’s outfit “a sign that says ‘shoot me’.” To Rivera, if America’s brown parents could just stop their kids from wearing hoods, regardless of the weather, these shootings wouldn’t happen.
I had an undiagnosed panic disorder when I was a child and teenager, and I remember the feeling I got when the anxiety overwhelmed me: I saw myself falling down, down, down into the deepest pit, desperately grasping at ledges that crumbled under my fingers. Knowing that the Sanford police have failed to charge Zimmerman with a crime reawakens that feeling in me, though now it’s on behalf of my family.
Racial profiling is definitely at work in the US, as my husband can attest. I can’t describe the depth of my frightened, impotent dismay at my black husband’s many run-ins with the police over the years. He’s been pulled over and forced to sit at the curb by cops who gave no reason for stopping him. As he shoveled my grandparents’ driveway one winter, a policeman stopped to question him. One day, waiting in his car for the start of his workday as a contractor in a client’s home, a neighbor called the police. He was questioned and had to have his boss vouch for his presence in the neighborhood. Another time, as he walked to work in the neighborhood of his alma mater, where he’d lived for four years, police stopped him to ask where he was during a recent car theft by an unknown black suspect. Thank goodness my husband needed a shave at the time: the policeman admitted that the suspect had been described as clean-shaven, so ultimately my husband wasn’t taken into the station.
But I don’t want a shave to be only thing standing between my husband and an arrest for a crime he didn’t commit.
The Travyon Martin shooting has sparked an outpouring from black parents in the American media: they describe the Black Male Code, handed to their boys when they become teenagers. The Code emphasizes the likelihood that their sons will be stopped by police no matter what, and urges a much-heightened standard of interaction to ensure that the black men come out of these inevitable encounters safely. As a wife to man who’s never broken the law and charms every senior citizen he meets, and yet is stopped by police on a regular basis, I wonder to myself what kind of fear I’ll feel for my future children. Worrying that someone else’s prejudice – especially racial profiling by police – will endanger my family feels like a real-life version of that bottomless pit.
That’s part of why I decided to attend a vigil in Philadelphia on Monday night for Trayvon Martin. I don’t think I have anything new to add to this discussion about the importance of acknowledging the hold racism still has in our society, but I came away from the vigil feeling as if I have a duty to talk about the situation in a public way, share what happened at the vigil, and urge others to think about it.
Vigil attendees signed large posters of Trayvon Martin's face, as a gesture of support for his family.
Hundreds of people of all races gathered in the famous Love Park, just northwest of Philadelphia’s City Hall. Unfortunately, the sound system didn’t work. But the crowd closest to the podium overcame the difficulty by repeating the speeches in unison, phrase by phrase, so that everyone could hear what was said.
We heard from activists, pastors and mothers. One speaker contrasted the Trayvon Martin case with that of professional football player Michael Vick, who was jailed for animal cruelty. As long as Martin’s killer remains free, the speaker said, it’s as if a young black man is worth less than a pit bull.
Speakers emphasized the importance of voting and political action, and urged residents angry over this Florida shooting to remember that Philadelphia has had over eighty murders so far this year, and many local mothers have never had justice for their children’s deaths. If we’re outraged over Martin’s case, we should face the problems right in our own backyard. Pennsylvania has its own version of the “stand your ground” law, and if citizens are unhappy about it, legislators need to hear from us.
Many people in the crowd had brought their children, and many waved packs of Skittles, the candy Martin was holding when Zimmerman decided to pursue him. It was a chilly, windy March night, and at the exhortation of several speakers, the crowd “hoodied up” in solidarity, pulling their hoods on in response to the idea that Martin’s killing was justified because he was wearing “suspicious” clothing. There were implications that if anyone wants to talk about the dangers of wearing hoods, we should discuss the Ku Klux Klan.
“No justice, no peace!” the crowd chanted.
Speakers urged the crowd not to let their feelings fade tomorrow, but to keep the desire for a just society strong, participate in our political system and join community efforts to combat racism, violence, and dangerously lax gun laws.
I hope this blog post will be one tiny piece of an America that my husband can be glad to live in. Thanks for reading.
I’ve gotten this far without paying too much attention to former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, but now that he’s done well in a January poll, everyone says he’s going to start getting a lot of scrutiny, so I figured I better get on it. Honestly, part of the reason I sometimes hold off on blogging about America’s political circus is because I know a lot of you, my valued readers, are not from the US. So why go on and on about US politicians, especially when most of them make me embarrassed to be an American?
For anyone who hasn’t been following this Presidential election season, the Republican party candidates are the rodents in a whack-a-mole game, and the liberal media is holding the mallet. Every week or two another mole pops up – Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich and so on – and we gleefully whack ‘em with an avalanche of reporting on their racism, anti-intellectualism, homophobia, economic knuckle-headedness, megalomania, sexism, extramarital affairs, and so on.
Santorum’s mole just appeared, and the rules haven’t changed a bit.
You don’t have to look far to see that Santorum fears and dislikes (possibly hates) homosexuals, that he idealizes a sexist, outmoded vision of society where women would do better to stay home with the kids, and that given the chance, while proclaiming a reduction in government control, he would do everything he could to restrict personal rights that lie at the very heart of our notion of privacy.
His comments on the use of contraceptives are particularly troubling, as he spoke publicly in the fall about “the dangers of contraception in this country”, pledging to make a reduction in the availability of birth control an important part of his mission as President. Contraceptives bother Santorum fundamentally, because they’re “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”
Cue endless references to the “condom police” once, God forbid, Santorum takes office.
In case you think Santorum is just another misguided but well-meaning campaigner for pre-marital abstinence, who believes that removing access to birth control will stop single people from having sex, he believes that married couples shouldn’t have the right to use contraceptives either. He opposes the Supreme Court’s 1965 reversal of an 1879 law in Connecticut which threatened anyone who “uses any drug, medical article or instrument for the purposes of preventing conception” – or anyone (a doctor, etc) who helped someone to do this – with at least 60 days in prison. The Supreme Court decided that invading the bedroom with this law was a fundamental violation of married couples’ right to privacy, the right to privacy being implied in several Constitutional Amendments, especially Americans’ supposed protection from unwarranted search and seizure.
Santorum argues that the states have the right to make and enforce any laws they see fit, including Connecticut’s former law banning contraception, and also declares that the Constitution does not give Americans any right to privacy, sexual, procreative or otherwise. He believes that in this case, the Supreme Court improperly legislated a right that should not exist: it’s dangerous to declare that “you have the right to consensual sex within your home”, because if consensual sex is ok, then we’re also promoting bigamy, polygamy, incest and adultery: “you have a right to anything.” He also offers myriad comments on the evils of homosexuality, from his sadness at the lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to his declaration that homosexual acts are as “antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family” as adultery and polygamy.
It seems fair to me to say that as President, Santorum wants to allow only one form of sex among his citizens: sex between heterosexual married couples for the purpose of conceiving children.
Santorum’s purpose in sticking his nose so far into citizens’ private lives is the ostensible foundation of his Presidential platform: the “traditional” family, a unit of society that, according to his campaign website, is at the root of social, national and economic success. A household with a husband, wife, and their children is the foundation of American triumph.
I wouldn’t be the first writer to point out that Santorum, as demonstrated in numerous campaign stops, is being dangerously blind to the reality of American society. Crime, illness, death and poverty ravage millions of families. When so many families are made of single parents, divorced or re-married parents, same-sex parents, or adopted children, or any example of the endless arrangements of human habitation that have always existed in the world, the promotion of a single version of family as better than all the others is ultimately what troubles me.
I don’t want to overlook Santorum’s many bigoted and often hyper-religious comments (on January 5th he declared that America “always needs a Jesus candidate”) – I’d rather look beyond them to a bigger underlying message, which demonstrates exactly why he’s so poisonous to America. A somewhat less-publicized comment, from a campaign stop in Ottumwa, Iowa, typifies to me the message which underlies every aspersion Santorum casts on Americans whose lifestyle doesn’t match his.
“Diversity? Have you ever heard of e pluribus unum?” Santorum asked, explaining his ire at the former Governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, who, in a debate, claimed diversity was America’s most important quality.
“The greatness of America is people who are diverse coming together to be one,” Santorum says. Fair enough. But does becoming one country mean disavowing our differences? Yes, Santorum believes: “If we celebrate diversity, we lay the ground for that conflict. We need to celebrate common values and have a President that lays out those common values.”
I think it’s worth noting that though Santorum is ostensibly speaking about “values”, he invokes the “conflict” diversity causes in the midst of an intense, deliberately-focused campaign in a state that is over 91% white and 96% American-born, according to Iowa’s 2010 census (apparently he himself is the child of an Italian immigrant who fled Mussolini).
What is more chilling here? That, as President, Santorum envisions the best America as one in which everyone has the same values? Or that he believes that any one person’s values (in this case, his) should serve as the standard for the values of every citizen of an entire country?
A robust embrace of differences is what makes e pluribus unum possible. Writer Merry Farmer, in a recent blog post, noted how dreadful it would be if we were all motivated by the same causes. Isn’t it great that some of us care passionately about the environment, while others work to end poverty, and others care most about civil rights? Take us all together, and we have a whole society that lurches towards the greater good.
I don’t argue with Santorum’s belief in the value of strong families at every level of society. My own nuclear family (which is very much in the style of Santorum’s ideal) has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. But I would never presume that it should therefore be the mold for everyone else’s life.
I don’t mind that Santorum enjoys being a married, Christian heterosexual with seven children. I have fourteen goldfish instead of children and rarely attend church, but there’s room in the US for both of us – as long as he doesn’t tell me to throw out my birth control, and I don’t force him to raise goldfish.
Are many of Santorum’s views repugnant to me? Yes. But what is even more repugnant to me is his assertion that he – or any individual – should serve as the standard for us all, whether on the inside, with the values we hold, or on the outside, with the kind of household we keep. While ostensibly secondary to his views on more practical aspects of national policy, Santorum’s view of the American President as the proper policer of our sex lives gets to the heart of the way he would like to strip individuals’ differences away, even in the most private sanctums of their lives, to re-make them in his own image. It is the worst kind of arrogance.
Is that what America should be?
A slightly more honest version of Santorum's campaign slogan.
My parents always seemed to have stricter rules for me than they did for my brother. They seemed less worried about where he went and who he went with, and what time he came back. As a teenager, I realized the reason.
I’m a girl.
The world is a more dangerous place for girls.
One evening, shortly after I got my first driver’s license, I asked to take the car for an evening run to the local drugstore, a place I’d been going all my life with my parents. My parents consented, but stipulated that I take my younger brother with me, so I would be safe.
It was small moment, and I doubt anyone else remembers it. But to me, it represented an important and challenging perception shift, especially to the mind of an oldest child, used to greater responsibility at home. My brother had reached a level of adult mobility and security greater than my own, not because of maturity, but because of his gender.
To this day, my mixed feelings about this and similar decrees from my parents do not mean that they weren’t right. My work often requires me to walk around the city and take public transit alone late at night. When I’m waiting for the bus at 10pm and a drunken man weaves his way toward me, I would never object to having my brother there, but we live in different states now.
You can hardly go a month downtown without a cautionary news item about a string of assaults targeting women. I’ve seen purses snatched and I don’t listen to my iPod when I walk downtown anymore, lest I seem like a handy target. I often worked late at my former job, and I was supremely grateful to a male co-worker who, without being asked, walked me to my street-parked car after dark whenever we clocked out together.
The world is more dangerous for women.
I don’t usually let this fact get me down. I acknowledge reality, practice confidence and common sense, and accept help when I need it. Lately, however, I’ve been growing quietly distraught over a burgeoning risk to my safety as a woman – and not from lowlifes on the street.
The Mississippi “personhood” initiative, an amendment to the state constitution which is coming to a vote on November 8th, is among the most insidious political movements of American history.
In case you’re not familiar with the controversy, anti-abortion and anti-contraception activists have a renewed chance at a different avenue for their agenda: not specific laws which directly affect funding, clinics, counseling or medical practices, but a broad amendment to a state constitution that would redefine the legal status of the human zygote itself.
Initiative #26, if enacted by Mississippi voters, would redefine the term “person” to “include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”
Lest you think this movement is limited to one southern state, according to a recent Bloomberg article, similar movements are gearing up in Ohio, Nevada, California, Colorado, Arkansas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Nebraska, Alabama, Wisconsin and Michigan.
As some members of the population erupt with the ensuing legal ramifications of such an amendment, pro-personhood initiative groups pretend that the practical human implications are impossible to predict.
For example, a blog titled “Bioethics and Cloning: How Does Amendment 26 Affect Contraceptives and Cloning?” claims that the amendment “does not even attempt to deal with every possible scenario.” The legislature and courts “will still have to wrestle” with “some forms of birth control”. It’s a surprisingly ambiguous statement from a blog whose very title implies answers about the amendment’s impact on the availability of birth control.
The amendment’s likely impact on women’s access to contraception, including some forms of the pill, is a hot issue. But legal and medical professionals also worry about a range of other implications, including a ban on In-Vitro Fertilization and a total ban on abortions even in the case of rape, incest, or danger to the mother’s life, as in ectopic pregnancy. Under strict interpretations of the law, each of these procedures could be prosecuted as murder, with both treating physicians and affected women at risk of being arrested.
Perhaps worst of all, personhood initiatives are beginning to justify prosecuting women who have miscarriages or stillbirths. In June 2011, the Guardian reported on the Mississippi case of Rennie Gibbs, who in 2006 became pregnant at 15, but lost the baby in a stillbirth at 36 weeks. When prosecutors discovered Gibbs had used cocaine, they charged her with murder, though there wasn’t evidence that drugs had caused the stillbirth. She faces a life sentence.
Just this year, Bei Bei Shuai, a pregnant Indianapolis woman, distraught after her boyfriend left her, attempted suicide by taking poison. She survived with hospital treatment, but later gave birth about two weeks prematurely. When the baby died days later, Shuai was arrested and charged with murdering her baby through her suicide attempt.
These aren’t the only such cases, but they are sufficiently chilling.
In their urgency for the so-called sanctification of every human life, Amendment 26 supporters have handily forgotten that women are people too. It seems that the only female people with all of their rights intact would be the the ones who are still in the womb.
It’s easy to see some of the brutal intrusions into personal and family life if women are denied access to contraception and fertility treatments, if they cannot choose to end a pregnancy that is the result of rape or incestuous abuse, or if they’re denied the ability to preserve their own lives and health in the case of high-risk pregnancies.
But other sinister implications are also become clear in a necessary component of the Amendment supporters’ arguments, when they emphasize the separateness of mother and fetus to prove the fetus’s right to full legal status.
The website for Personhood Ohio emphasizes the biological distinction between fetuses and mothers, to propound the view that the issue should not, in fact, have anything to do with questions of a woman’s right to determine what happens to her own body: the fetus is not part of her.
“The new human being is not part of the mother’s body,” the website argues, because how could one woman have “male genitals, two brains, or four kidneys?” Instead, the “preborn human being” is merely “dependent upon the mother for nutrition.” It’s ironic that in forcing women to recognize a fetus as a legally protected person with rights equal to her own, advocates simultaneously perpetrate a systematic denial of a mother’s ideal connection to her fetus, as she becomes a mere vessel for the baby’s “nutrition”: there is no mention of the mother’s symptoms in pregnancy, or the lifelong sense of identity that may be entwined with motherhood.
This reminds me of nothing so much as a tidbit which crossed my hearing years ago about the history of our understanding of conception and pregnancy. Until the late 19th century, no-one yet understood that conception begins when the sperm enters the ovum. Prior to this, one theory actually held that tiny, fully-formed human beings were contained within sperm, which were then implanted to grow in the female’s womb. In other words, men alone are responsible for creating a new person – the woman is just needed to carry it.
I believe that the implications of Amendment 26, and similar developing amendments, demean women in a similar way, not only stripping them of a necessary sense of human autonomy, but minimizing their role in the birth of their own babies.
According to Personhood Ohio, the personhood debate is not about “personal autonomy”, “women’s rights”, or even “what’s most beneficial to women”. Why are a group of people subjected to terrifyingly methodical denials of their own personhood expected to rise up in empathy for the primacy of someone else’s personhood – especially when the personhood in question is buried, invisible, inside the dehumanized women’s own bodies?
Since I was a teenager, I knew that life might hold more practical dangers for me than for my brother, simply because of my sex. At the Christian boarding academy we both attended in high school, boys were given lax curfews and snuck out with little fear of reprisal. But the girls lived by the clock, facing punishments like being confined to the dorm if they were a few minutes late for any reason.
“Why are the rules so different for the boys and the girls?” I complained to my friend in the boys’ dorm.
“Well, the boys aren’t going to go out and get pregnant,” he replied.
I’m sure that’s not how the official policy was worded. But as a high-school dorm student and as an adult woman, the reason I was subject to harsher rules and the reason modern legislators see fit to deny my rights do seem to come down to what my friend said all those years ago.
I can avoid walking down dark alleys by myself when I’m downtown. But I never imagined that the dangers to me as a woman would come from so many quarters, including a statehouse where attendees chanted “Amen” to the announcement of Amendment 26 (on Halloween night – how appropriate). If this or similar measures are carried by voters in the coming years, the United States will become a dark alley which no woman can exit, and no brother or parent will be able to protect her.
In a statement Friday afternoon, NASA astronomers warned that a previously undiscovered asteroid exceeding twelve miles in diameter is on course to collide with the US east coast as early as Thursday, August 30th. An unnamed source at the Goddard Space Flight Center confirms that current calculations place the impact site between Boston, Massachusetts and Raleigh, North Carolina.
Admit it – if you live on the US east coast, you probably believed this for a least a second or two. The reason my blog’s tagline is “Fiction Need Not Apply” is because if you had told me last week that, within the space of six days, Philadelphia would get an earthquake and then a bona fide hurricane warning, I would have told you to get the #$%@ out of town.
Real life usually proves more surprising than anything you could make up.
So here we are, listening to furrow-faced governors and mayors tell us to evacuate the shore. As I said in my last post, I love living in Philadelphia because of its cozy lack of natural disasters by sky, sea or land. But now here’s Mayor Nutter, telling Philadelphians to prepare for the hurricane today, while Maryland, New York, Delaware and Pennsylvania declare a state of emergency and plan to suspend all transit by air, rail and bus.
I’ve been trolling the weather service website every few hours all day, because bad storms scare me. Tornados roar in my nightmares.
My closest brush with dangerous weather was in the early nineties, when I was a kid camping with my family and some close friends on a small island off the gulf coast of southern Florida. It was March, but suddenly a tropical storm was headed right for us.
The memory is bleary because it all happened in the middle of the night. Fellow campers with a radio in their palatial RV got word of imminent 90-mile-per hour winds and grew concerned about the families in tents next door. They called through our thin, dewy walls to wake us up.
My parents and their friends, who had a baby as well as two young boys, sprang into action. At ten and eight years old, my brother and I weren’t much help. I remember standing on the campsite while my parents shoved tents, bags, food and equipment into the back of the truck in a damp, horrific jumble. I looked up at the clouds and felt the humid, fitful breeze rise while raindrops spattered my face like the juicy spritz of a bitten fruit. Just as everything was loaded and we threw ourselves into the car, the skies opened.
We just made it off the island before the causeway was closed. Once on the mainland, our parents began searching for a safe place to spend the night. They pulled into every hotel and dove into the pounding rain to check for vacancies, but all the rooms in all the hotels were booked.
It was a surreal night. Peering out the car windows, there was nothing but blackness and the roar of the storm, except for when the lightning silhouetted the thrashing, tortured palm trees against a purple sky. A roadside transformer exploded in a glorious flash as we drove by. Finally, our parents realized our search was hopeless and pulled into a Cracker Barrel parking lot, where we spent the night in the cars while the storm raged northward.
In the morning, swollen gullies surrounded the lot but the air was fresh. We picked our way through the puddles to the restaurant, where we had large breakfasts and, to the tune of the Addams family theme, called ourselves “the disheveled fam-i-ly”.
The whole thing cemented my notion that staying in tents made one infinitely vulnerable and foolhardy. I’ve never gone camping as an adult, though the sound of a long, rackety zipper still takes me right back to those damp, restless nights of listening to the raccoons infiltrate the dining tent. When I reflect now on the tropical storm/Cracker Barrel episode, I shudder to think what could have happened had our neighbors not been on the lookout for our young families.
We were at the mercy of the storm, and that’s the whole problem with storms. There’s no controlling them. Several days ago, I listened to a forecaster predict that Hurricane Irene might make landfall in Florida, the Carolinas, or the Chesapeake Bay…or veer off into the Atlantic. This told us nothing, but we instinctively catalogued and illustrated each possibility as if that could somehow rein Irene in. Now she’s churning uninvited up the coast and we can’t do a damn thing about it.
Every time I am anxious about something beyond my control, I clean the house, as if this will help to solve any of my worries.
So tonight I tidied the living room, did the dishes, scrubbed the counters, wiped the walls, took out the trash and washed the dish-rack. I was contemplating the shower-curtain when I forced myself to stop.
Then I threw myself onto the couch with a notebook and pen.
It was time to get out the big guns. It was time to make a list.
I can face Irene with a list. I will be ready with the list:
Get the PECO numbers handy.
Check the flashlights and find the batteries.
Lay out candles.
Charge the cell phone.
Store some water.
I wrote it all down and more. Then I did everything on the list, happily checking things off as I went.
Take that, Irene.
As if in reply, a plump little squall of rain soaked the parking lot. She’s coming, and somehow she’s just as fat and hoary as she was before I scrubbed the kitchen and made a list.
Sorry about my asteroid lies. But at this point, east coast dwellers, I feel as if anything’s possible.
When I got home at about 2:15pm on the afternoon of August 23rd and looked at the sprawling, breathless hive of life’s leftovers on the internet, I felt as if everyone else in the state had had a huge party without inviting me.
Later I read that Northwest Philadelphia, due to its solidly rocky geological foundation, experienced less shaking than other areas. Apparently some people in their cars also missed the trembling. From my SEPTA bus in Manayunk, I didn’t have a chance.
Curse you, SEPTA, for robbing me of this experience. Usually life’s tumult is inside the bus, as overheated riders scream obscenities at each other and the cheeky children of low-income families turn the seats into a jungle gym. I never thought public transit would shield me from a wildly unusual and unsettling event.
The earthquake had entered the Facebook feed tentatively. “Um, anyone else feel what seemed to be a small earthquake in Philly?” “Did anyone else feel that little earthquake?” “Um…house shaking??? Why?”
There were some unnecessary judgments on others’ states: “Pentagon evacuating?? Pansies.”
Exalted or frightened realizations set in.
Philadelphia: “Time to scratch ‘survive earthquake’ off the ol’ bucket list…” Pittsburgh: “never thought i would feel an earthquake on the east coast!” New York: “Holy earthquake NYC”. Philadelphia: “The green fingers of sweet wasabi death” (ok, maybe I wasn’t the only one who missed it). Virginia: THAT WAS SCARY! Wrong time to move to Virginia. 5.8 earthquake. I’ve never felt anything like that before. Whole apartment building vacated to the streets. Now I’m picking up everything that fell over. Man.” Maryland: “I grabbed the dog and ran outside and watched the truck sway back and forth and looked at the water in the pool slosh back and forth. Pictures crooked, boxes fell off the shelves in garage, and the back door doesn’t close easily – weird.” North Carolina: “In a school of 1400 kids, it feels like the earth is shaking every day! Didn’t notice anything unusual…but I’m sure it was followed by ‘Ya’ll need to quit bouncing around and be still’!!!!” Washington, DC: “Earthquake cocktails!”
Apparently downtown Philadelphia had a similar response to my friend in DC. After flocking out of their office buildings to exclaim over the quake, everyone forgot about work and streamed into the bars to get down to the business of discussing Where They Were When It Happened.
Except for me. I had a deadline on the news story that took me to Manayunk. As soon as my cell phone would work again, I began making calls to get an interview I wanted.
I wanted to talk about construction on a new community center. He wanted to talk about the earthquake.
I felt more left out than ever.
But perhaps it’s for the best. I have a low tolerance for natural disasters. At least, I’m pretty sure I would if I lived in a part of the world that had natural disasters. In fact, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t live on the United States’ mid-Atlantic coast.
In Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, a foot or two of snow brings panic to supermarkets everywhere. Five days of temperatures above 98 puts the fear of death in us. Earthquakes are mild and almost unheard of, tsunamis unknown. By the time hurricanes reach us, they’re nothing but windy, depressing rainstorms. One time a small tornado hit my parents’ hometown outside of Philadelphia. My grandparents lost a gutter and my mom spent the next ten years pointing out a few trees that had been scarred to anyone who would look.
When the terrible tornado hit Joplin, MO earlier this year, I made the mistake of watching a YouTube video someone had made from inside a gas station when the tornado hit. I shivered and wept. A long string of nightmares began in which howling columns of wind bore down upon me while I tried to take shelter in skyscrapers.
On Facebook, the lucky, plucky ones who felt the earthquake tried to comfort those who napped right through with the possibility of aftershocks. I am of two minds about this – one mind out on the sunny streets, and one mind in a dark bedroom on the third floor of the house where I am staying all by myself except for one poodle. It’s like watching a heinously scary movie: sounds like fun during the day, but is a terrible idea when you need a drink of water at 2:30 am and all the lights are off.
I am craven enough to say that I’m glad I live in Philadelphia, a city not built on a tectonic fault-line, where two feet of snow is the apocalypse and people shrug at tornado watches.
“Earthquakes strike suddenly, without warning, and they can occur at any time of the year, day or night. Forty-five states and territories in the U.S. are at moderate to very high risk of earthquakes, and they are located in every region of the country,” the Red Cross told me yesterday in a breathless e-mail. I’m going to hazard a guess that, at worst, Pennsylvania is at the “moderate” end of things. I’ll continue to make donations for earthquake relief in Asia or Haiti, and thank the fates that I live here.
So for now, I guess I can make my peace with missing the Great Earthquake of 2011.
Spending the weekend with my family, my husband and I received two gifts. One was from my parents. One was from my younger brother. My parents, noting my husband’s heritage and interests, had given him a portrait of Nelson Mandela for his birthday.
A tasteful gift.
My brother, who has recently returned from a vacation in Thailand, brought me a souvenir: a giant dead centipede, mounted and framed for display in my home. For newer readers and subscribers who may not be familiar with my feelings on centipedes, I invite you to click on the picture below for a link to one of last year’s blog posts.
Secretly, I called it hell. I made a calendar of school days for my bedroom wall and outlined Fridays in purple, because I liked them. Fridays had a double period of art class. But Thursdays were outlined in red, to symbolize the hell of Thursday afternoon: a double period of P.E.
When I look back on well over a decade of P.E., there are a few bright spots. In elementary school, our greatest treat was a massive, ancient white silk parachute. Our circled class clutched the edge all around and flung our arms up, letting the air rush under the parachute while we dodged underneath and plunked to the ground, tucking the parachute’s edge under our behinds. We grinned at each other in the pearly twilight under the giant mushroom of the ballooning fabric. What purpose this served for our physical fitness I never knew, but I was never happier than when the parachute made a glorious interruption in the grinding anguish of P.E.
One of my earliest P.E. memories involves a horrid gymnasium with a shiny wood floor and some kind of game involving piggy-back rides. I slipped and landed full-force on my knees. After a bit of weeping, I was sent back into the game by a teacher whose heart was apparently as hard as the floor of the gym. The wrenching pain in my kneecaps as I hobbled obediently back into the game marked one of my earliest and most enduring realizations that life is not fair.
The pain continued over the years. There was the large rubber dodge-ball that slammed straight into my face – I don’t know if I cried more from the pain and shock or from the mortification of the hit. There was also the time our P.E. teacher decided the 4th-grade girls should learn bar-dips. I got through almost all of one before something seemed to tear loose in the left half of my ribcage. That night I was supposed to go to training class with my puppy, but I could hardly sit up, let alone walk a dog.
Other incidents were less painful than they were humiliating – dangling desperately from the bottom of the climbing rope, or worst of all, a videotaped “tumbling routine” whose sole mitigating factor was that the boys were stationed in the library where they couldn’t watch. I tried for hours to master a cartwheel, but all I could manage was a labored somersault. And then there were the Physical Fitness Tests, whose tortures included pull-ups and running a whole mile within a certain time limit. Lithe, athletic students got the “Presidential” Physical Fitness Award, and their intrepid but less extraordinary peers achieved “National” status. Guess who got “Participant” year after year? The first few laps of the mile were ok. But then the agony set in – my face grew numb, my lungs caught fire, and my heels screamed with shooting pains. Other kids lapped me mercilessly to do the mile in seven minutes, but I could never clock in under eleven, after which I would collapse in the shade, shaking and retching. Just as I’d struggled to learn a cartwheel or finish a bar dip, I forced myself to practice running at home. On one particularly memorable occasion, my left foot got snared by the overlong loop in my right sneaker’s lace. No-one else was home at the time, so I bandaged myself in the bathtub to keep from getting blood on the floors.
Oh, yes. P.E. was hell. If I learned anything on Thursday afternoons, it was that exercise equals pain, disgrace, and unutterable nausea. Last summer I left my early twenties behind, and I still shuddered at the humid, rubbery smell of the gym. I saw the commercials and I knew who was in there – the seven-minute kids, grown tall and muscular, wearing sleek, colorful sports bras. If I were to go in and get on the treadmill or pick up a barbell, I knew what they’d say: “What is that unfortunate, clumsy little tub doing in here?”
A few medical diagnoses in my late teens and early twenties finally helped to explain why forced exercise caused me so much stress and pain. But the fact remained that in one decade, I’d be well into my thirties. A young body might keep relatively healthy without workouts, but what about an older one? Now the P.E. teachers are compelling the next generation up the climbing robe and around the track. Who was going to make me exercise? Nobody, that’s who.
All my life, I had never exercised for myself. It was always a tortuous effort to meet a time, speed or number of reps someone else had set, or to measure up to the other kids: one afternoon a week of enforced hell. But what if I had control? I pondered the concept over many weeks. What would it be like to exercise for my own self?
One of the hardest things I did this year was walk into a city gym and ask for an orientation. I explained my medical issues to a personal trainer. The first thing he showed me was a recumbent, non-impact cardio machine I’d never seen before. Exercise without pain in my feet was a revelation almost as wonderful as the ability to set the time and speed I wanted. I was so enthused that I learned a full roster of weight-training exercises. That was seven months ago.
Of course I worried what the seven-minute kids, now grown up, would think of me. But from what I could tell, none of them minded my joining the gym. But maybe that’s because, shockingly, they were the minority. There was a large contingent of stringy, determined older men. There were the young men I secretly labeled ex-frat boys –sturdy, handsome guys with tattooed arms and a spare tire beginning under T-shirts with crass slogans. I think they graduated college a few years ago and suddenly realized that their beer-swilling ways are catching up with them. There are the graying ladies in faded “Race For the Cure” T-shirts, and chiseled college girls who highlight textbooks in between reps. There’s the obese 40-something lady who cycles in velour lounge-pants and sockless clogs, a Terry Pratchett paperback inches from her nose. There’s the middle-aged man with the Fresh Prince haircut who has admirable biceps but skinny calves, and who seems more interested in chatting with everyone than he does in working out.
I started short and light on everything, knowing that my first main accomplishment was the habit of walking into the gym. But as I controlled the progression to higher weights and more sets, with no-one urging me but myself, I didn’t get hurt. In an iPod cocoon of my favorite music, I pretended I was pedaling away from the day’s most annoying customers. My mind, usually racing over a dozen upcoming assignments or responsibilities, threw out everything but finishing twenty minutes at ninety steps per minute, and then later, the sweaty counts from one to eight.
The seven-minute girls might laugh if they knew I’d lost only about ten pounds in six months. But as I was driving home from Pep Boys one evening after my work-out, and I was floating on an unexpected euphoria even after having learned it would cost $700 to fix the car, I realized an even better benefit to the workouts. Further perks made themselves known at bedtime on workout days, when my limbs relaxed in a heavy, contented way and I slipped easily into an early sleep.
In January, I was annoyed to find that the locker room seemed overly crowded. There was hardly a free bench and my favorite lockers were occupied. I had to wait for machines on the gym floor because of the mysterious, pudgy new crowd in pristine, expensive sneakers and shiny, brand-new leggings.
“New Year’s resolutions,” one seven-minute girl giggled to another.
It took a few weeks for the gym to clear out, but we’re back to the regulars again. Did you hear that? WE’RE back to the regulars. For the girl who dreaded Thursday hell, I feel that this should just about wrap up the accomplishment of the decade.
My former jobsite is reputed to be one of the country’s most haunted places. Was I afraid to work at night? The truth? Yes. But I did not fear the nighttime museum. A full-bodied apparition would be welcome compared to the real-life bane of my existence: the house centipede, scientifically known as Scutigera Coleoptrata (as in, It’s scootin’, gerroutofhere, this ain’t the Cleopatra of bugs!).
A bug-lover since childhood, I rescue spiders and right overturned beetles. But when I see a baby centipede in the bathtub, I think, quick, wash it down the drain while the bastard’s tiny.
Many years ago, shrieks filled the dorm room next to mine. My friend had killed a centipede. Nothing was left but a juicy smear of tangled legs, but someone more levelheaded had to fold the departed into a Kleenex and bear it away. My friend got a near-perfect score on her SAT’s and later graduated from Princeton, but I don’t think she’s made a more apt verbal description than the one she gasped that day: “It’s just so leggy! So LEGGY!”
Once, I opened a door at work and a centipede that was hiding on the door frame fell on my face. I was never the same after that.
Broadcast that you saw a centipede and everyone in a twenty foot radius will share the horror of their latest encounter.
“Love your enemies”, the Bible says. I’m sorry, this is an impossible case. But would it help to know my enemy? I began a desensitization campaign of sorts. When I came across a ‘pede, I got within a few feet of it and forced myself to look at it: the cunning brown plates of its small body, the crisp feathery span of its rippling legs, and – YAAAHHH! That sucker can MOVE! Run! RUN!!
Ok, maybe a more academic approach. Several prominent American universities have entomology web pages devoted to Scutigera. Ohio State University advises that “they are sometimes seen running rapidly across the floor with great speed, stopping suddenly to remain motionless, then resuming fast movements.” Never mind that this sentence has more redundancies than a you-know-what has legs; the last part is what will really chill your blood: ‘pedes “occasionally [run] directly toward the homeowner in an attempt to conceal themselves in their clothing.” It’s ok if you need to go lie down and breathe deeply for a moment (check the bedclothes).
“Centipede” is a misnomer. The average house ‘pede has only about a third of the legs its name implies: fifteen pairs, though it hatches with only four pairs, and through several larval stages, gains a pair of legs with each molt. Its front-end legs, horrifically long, are specially adapted into sensitive antennae with fourteen segments that can detect not just objects but smells. Hold on to your hats…Its jaws are another modified pair of legs which connect to poison glands. Its fearsome long hind legs are merely an evolutionary adaptation that makes its hind end hard to distinguish from its front. Multiple sources describe the ‘pedes using their legs to “lasso” prey, and apparently they have also been witnessed using their legs to “beat” their prey. Scutigera can run sixteen inches per second (that’s .9 MPH). This means that a centipede which is a mile away right now can be here in about sixty minutes.
Some woefully misguided scientists allege that the house centipede is “beneficial” to man because it eats cockroaches and spiders, and its bite is no worse than a mild bee sting. Let me tell you, I’m not putting up with the most horrific of bugs just because it eats other, less ugly and brazen bugs, and doesn’t bite unless “carelessly handled”.
Thought to be indigenous to the Mediterranean, Scutigera now makes itself at home across Europe, Asia and North America, a range which, tragically, includes my bathtub. The first ‘pede invaded Pennsylvania in 1849 (how did they know it was the first??) Just as I had discovered a new reason to move to my husband’s homeland, I learned the house ‘pede scurries in South Africa, as well.
Scutigera, I’m sorry to say, can live up to seven years. Females have been known to lie curled protectively around their eggs for weeks – who knew the ‘pede was so maternal? This creepy land- scuttler is cousins to lobsters and shrimp. Perhaps by the time I order my next bisque, I will have been able to put that out of my mind.
I read that the house centipede cannot survive a Pennsylvania winter outdoors, and it is possible to rid your home of centipedes. Just don’t pile grass clippings or compost against the cracked foundation of your house. Then soak your yard with pesticide in a band extending five to fifteen feet around your house, spraying the siding and doors all the way up to and including the first floor windows. Repeat weekly. Being bathed in pesticide is a small price to pay for getting Scutigera to scram.
I may be clutching at straws here, but there is some good news. ‘Pedes don’t usually populate a place in large numbers. They don’t come up drainpipes, apparently. And they don’t chew the drapes.
There is still more good news, and that is that you probably don’t live in Venezuela. There exists a video of a creature called the Giant Bat-Eating Centipede. And I have watched it so you don’t have to. This meaty, translucent king of the ‘pedes, over a foot long, crawls up the sides of Venezuelan bat caves at night. “It has the muscular strength of a small snake,” says David Attenborough with his trademark breathy, genial drama. The Giant then hangs its upper body out in midair until an unwary bat flies too close. “It will take it an hour or so, but it will eat all of the bat’s flesh,” Attenborough intones fondly.
After this film, I had to recuperate by watching videos of women leashing their large, untrained dogs to lawn chairs and then sitting in the chairs just before the dog sees a squirrel. Thanks, YouTube!
I went to bed feeling optimistic that my new-found knowledge will usher in a new era of tolerance for my apartment’s leggiest little denizens.
3am. YAAAAHH!! A centipede has crawled down the bedroom wall and dropped onto my face! I’m up like a shot, heart pounding, hands feverishly flailing the sheets. No creeping battalion of legs meets my panicked fingers. Wait, how did I see the centipede on the wall with my eyes closed? How did I feel its drop in my sleep? It’s only a Scutigera nightmare. I brought it on myself, but at least now I’ve come to my senses. Has all this knowledge only strengthened your dread of the fearsome centipede? Let me know how it goes next time you step into the basement. I’ll just wait up here.