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Saturday, July 28, 2012

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The buzz about cicadas


Japan is entering cicada season, so let me start with a modest observation:

Cicadas are the ugliest bugs on earth.

I can state this not because I am an expert on bugs, but rather because I am an expert on ugly. In regards to which, I get an update in my mirror every morning.

In my personal bug evaluations, cicadas grade out as uglier than spiders, uglier than roaches, and even uglier than maggots (yuk). What is worse, unlike spiders, roaches and maggots, cicadas take genuine effort to squish. They rank at the absolute peak of the reverse Ugly-Squishy Bug Index.

Not that they mind. Being ugly is an honor among bugs. It's like winning the prize for biggest pumpkin. Grotesque and gargantuan draw the higher admiration.

Not that people mind either.

This is because cicadas graciously confine their ugliness to the great outdoors. If your typical cicada instead lived its short life flitting about your bedroom, it'd be the most dreaded Japanese creature since Godzilla. Yet it reaps none of the revulsion people reserve for indoor vermin.

And thus this ultimate ugly bug — with its brickbat head, runty little legs, and greasy wings — more often lists as a bugdom favorite, with many Japanese considering it both a harbinger of summer and even — Gasp! — cute.

As far as summer goes, I by far prefer the Western harbinger — bikinis.

Plus I will never understand how Japanese bug lovers will pet their captured cicadas and purr at them, while those same insects squirm and screech for freedom.

If only cicadas would bite. Or sting. Or poop like St. Bernards. That would stop all this cute business at once.

But no. Come summertime, parks are filled with Japanese tykes flapping their bug nets in hot pursuit of cicadas. Which rarely escape.

Because — besides being ugly — cicadas are also stupid. And they have the aerial skills of army boots.

All they can do is screech. Yet this they do well.

The first Japanese school I taught at stood beside a rich bank of cherry trees, trees that produced legions of summer cicadas with "mee-mees" so deafening that classes could not be conducted with the windows open. And this in the day when air conditioning was considered an affront to the samurai spirit.

"Why doesn't someone do something about those god-awful bugs!?" I asked a fellow teacher. With his response being, predictably:

"What? Say again?"

But the school did have a time-honored and effective anti-cicada plan — called "Summer Vacation."

If your eardrums can withstand the decibels, then cicadas and their cries are said to be endearing. Japanese poets, for example, are known to slobber over the hum of late summer cicadas. That's another group that could use some air conditioning.

Cicada aficionados are said to even distinguish between the cries of different species. You have your early summer cicada, your late summer cicada, your about-to-be-eaten-by-a-crow cicada, and so on.

To my unlearned ears, these all sound the same — a sort of panicked trilling. One that communicates the angst the bugs must feel after having spent all those years in the earth, only to at last fly out free . . . into a cramped park full of nerdy kids with nets.

"Life ain't fair." That's what I think they're screeching.

What I hate most about cicadas is that they refuse to watch where they're going. There you are, strolling calmly through the park and the next thing you know have an enormous bug fly up your shirt.

The cicada thinks you're a tree. While you — for one smidget — fear it's a vampire bat.

Fortunately, no one is quick enough with their camera to catch your dance of death. You twist about only till you realize it's just a cicada and will not bite, sting or poop like a St. Bernard.

Plus it is too big to squish.

And why squish the little beast at all (even if it deserves it)? Cicadas have the lifespan of bottle rockets. They soon die anyway.

If their appearance is a harbinger of summer, then the ground littered with dead cicadas is a forerunner of fall.

Every late summer we have one cicada that dies right before our doorway. It lies stiff on its back, with its legs stretched for heaven. Until someone kicks it. At which point it buzzes to life again and unleashes a tirade of screeches, most likely bug profanity.

Frankly, I have long suspected that this cicada is not one of a series, but in fact the very same bug. Where it goes for the rest of the year I do not know. But I think it is slowly casing us out.

Inch-by-inch, it moves closer to being an indoor animal. And escaping the torment of the bug catchers.

I therefore only consider it semi-dead. Which, if you know Japanese, is a play on words.

But — believe me — if this bug should ever slide inside, even a little, the joke will be on it.



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