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Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009


Putting a little bug in your ear

Sometimes beauty resides not to the eye of the beholder. Instead, it lives in the ear of the listener.

"Can you hear? Isn't it lovely?"

The speaker is my wife. The time is late on an early autumn night. And the sound is not a lullaby by Brahms, the ebb and flow of gentle surf, nor even the lilting toot of the local ramen truck.

No, it is a bug. A Japanese bell cricket. This one sitting somewhere just beyond our bedroom window and entertaining us with a virtuoso performance of soothing chirps.

I do indeed find it lovely. But the loveliness goes "poof" when my wife adds, "How come you don't have such pretty bugs in the West?"

. . . Pretty bug? Good grief. What an oxymoron. Japanese may be fascinated with wiggly insect world, but my personal philosophy is this: Bugs are much better heard than seen.

"But I didn't mean their looks," she amends. "I meant the sound. American bugs are never so sweet and melodious? Why is that?"

"Nonsense. Haven't you heard of Jiminy Cricket? What did you think he was? Italian?"

"I mean real bugs. How come real American bugs are so flat, musically?"

It is a serious question, worthy of a serious answer.

"Maybe they've been stepped on too much. That will make anyone flat."

Of course, now we are into it, in another round of East versus West.

I inform her that American crickets — even the non-animated variety — have their own legions of hardcore followers. In the 1970s, in fact, thousands of people would tune in to "The Waltons" each week, just to hear the crickets. It's what kept that show on the air.

"Oh that's nothing," she says. "Japanese insects and their sounds are an essential part of our literature. Why, what would 'The Tale of the Genji' be without the chapter on bell crickets?"

My first thought is that it would be shorter. But just then I have my second thought — which is that the bell cricket chapter is the only one Arthur Waley never translated. It must have bugged him.

"Yours," she trumpets, "is a bug-free literature. Thus, it is antiseptic, sterile, out of touch. Meanwhile ours resonates with the full orchestra of nature, which includes the chirp and strum of various insects."

I hesitate and try to comb back through my memory of American literature. We must have some bugs in there somewhere. Melville, Twain, Faulkner . . . Alas, the Great American Bug Novel seems to have slipped beyond their collective grasps. Hemingway? "The Old Man and the Flea?" Poe? Quote the goldbug, "Nevermore?"

She has hit a nerve and she knows it. But rather than quit while she's ahead, she instead charges forward — from lit into life.

"And just listen to the hum of the cicadas in summer!"

"How can I avoid it?"

"But did you know that different cicadas have different sounds? We Japanese can tell the turning of the weeks just by listening to which particular cicada is making what particular ruckus."

I ask her to demonstrate and she dutifully clicks out various bug noises before she spots my grin — and then pokes me in the shoulder.

"Do not make fun of cicadas! They're almost our national bird!"

"Oh? I would have thought that to be the mosquito. And a lovely tune they play as well, when droning above your head. Any hints to the seasons there? Like between the passing of summer and fall blood donations?"

The mere mention of "mosquito" makes her itch. I have her on the run.

"Or how about the harmonious footwork of that most melodic wonder of the nature's orchestra — the roach. Can you categorize them by sound too? Like . . . Ah, that's a Black-backed Spoon-licker! Or . . . Listen, it's a Wall Creeper! How sweet!"

"I don't care what you say, our bugs are better!" And then, with no warning whatsoever, she strikes back with her sharpest argument of all: she sticks out her tongue.

Ouch. Now I fall back in fast retreat. I can only counter with sour grape-type crossfire, aimed to distract her from the topic.

"Well, that was eloquent. As smooth as snot."

"And our metaphors are better too!" Again, she sticks out her tongue.

"I don't know about Japanese snot, but ours is really smoooooth."

Yet it is a point hard to support without physical evidence. At the same time, she seems weary from all her tongue wagging. We are at an impasse.

And then we hear it. From outside.

"Be quiet! And listen!"

To the sounds of silence. Our bell cricket has ceased his night's entertainment.

Or, more likely, he has found listening to us more amusing than rubbing his wings.

"Um . . . Maybe it's his way of saying we make beautiful music together."

She smiles back — wryly. A smile that provides the perfect wrap to our evening's talk and conveys quietly those three special little words known to spouses of every nationality everywhere . . .

. . . Oh shut up.

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