I occasionally do readings (i.e. Voices Heard) and my pieces are occasionally printed on websites or in magazines. Here's what I've got uploaded so far.
A Boy and His Cockroach
My family didn’t have much luck with pets. Well, I say that, but the reality is that the mortality rate of pets in my home was so hilariously high that my family didn’t have luck with pets much in the same way that Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t have luck with women.
Here are only a few examples: my four-year-old sister poured an entire gallon of milk into my father’s tropical fish aquarium, killing every one of the small fish, because “they were baby fishes, and babies need milk.” This same sister also once left a “homemade blanket” in her hamster’s aquarium; the rag cloth became hopelessly tourniqueted around the hapless animal’s leg, swelling the limb to four times its natural size and rendering it a dark shade of blue. (My dad tried to euthanize the hamster by holding it up to our running station wagon’s exhaust pipe, and when that didn’t work, he merely released it into the neighboring desert. We later found its remains in our pool filter.) Our cockatiel Sonny was stepped on, hit by a ceiling fan, smothered by a blanket, trapped on our neighbor’s roof various times, and lost in the desert on more than one occasion. Sonny, amazingly enough, managed to survive each ordeal, but became more and more embittered after each one, like some sort of noisy, yellow Rasputin.
Pets had the same survival rate in our house as Kennedys in Washington.
Perhaps it was for this reason that, when I was about ten, my father decided that he knew what we kids REALLY needed for pets: Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches.
Yup. Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches – a three-part name in which every word screams "companion animal."
“Cockroaches are nature’s perfect pests, so it only makes sense that they would be good things to bring into my home and let them live there intentionally,” seems to have been my father’s train of thought.
I’m only poking fun at him, of course. In all fairness, he probably figured that he’d found the one pet that even we couldn’t kill. You can ask anyone that has ever dealt with a roach problem: cockroaches are like tiny little Schwarzeneggers, scoffing at your poisons, laughing at your traps. You might get a few of them, but they will just keep on coming like Terminator sequels. (If you’re ever having a bad day, just imagine a cockroach running around screaming Arnold’s crazy laugh in a high-pitched voice and shouting quotes from Predator – “Do it! Come on! Kill me now!”)
You also have to understand that, at the time, we were living in a small rental house in the middle of the Tucson desert that was frequently invaded by tarantulas, centipedes, scorpions, and worst of all, sun scorpions – arachnids which are different from true scorpions and are so aggressive that they make true scorpions seem like Buddhist monks. I realize now that one reason we didn’t have a problem with cockroaches for pets was that they couldn’t sting us in our eyeballs while we slept.
I still remember coming home from the pet store. The clerk had been surprisingly friendly, considering that his job had just required him to reach his bare hands into a tank full of three-inch-long hissing insects. He pulled out two of them, both males, and I remember them hissing and writhing like mad before he put them into a small paper bag and handed it to me. It was such an innocuous paper bag – from its appearance, it could just have easily held donuts or a piece of fruit. Thinking back, I would have loved to have seen some greedy family member reach into the bag expecting something delicious.
We placed the two cockroaches into a tank formerly inhabited by our Pink-Toed Tarantula, Rosie, who had died from natural causes (we tried to convince ourselves.) The aquarium had dark, moist woodchips at the bottom and contained a few pieces of wood and, as I recall, a section from the skeleton of a Mexican jumping cactus.
For those who don’t know, the upside to having cockroaches for pets is that they are very easy to take care of and require very little. For watering, all they need is a waterlogged paper towel from which they can suck the necessary moisture, and for food they live off whatever fruit and vegetable scraps you care to throw in.
The downside to having cockroaches for pets, however, is that you have cockroaches for pets.
Try telling that to ten-year old me, though. Ten-year-old me absolutely loved these cockroaches. Cockroaches were awesome to ten-year-old me. Why? Because they were, like, the toughest animal in existence. I had read up on these creatures: they could live for weeks without their heads. They could eat almost anything and not die. Glue? Soap? Lunch. Also, they were comparatively one of the fastest creatures on earth, capable of running 50 body lengths in a second; this is the equivalent of a human running 200 miles an hour. “Nuclear War? Nah bro, I’m good,” they could say in the face of Armageddon. You could keep your pit bulls and your rottweilers, I thought – I had cockroaches. Madagascar Mother-Hissin’ Cockroaches.
If you haven’t figured it out already, ten-year-old me was kind of a nerd.
So, I started studying cockroaches at school in my free time. I still maintain that most people would agree that the anatomy of a Madagascar Hissing Cockroach is fascinating, if most people could ever get past the “Ick Factor,” which most people never can. The roaches are armored little things, dragging their heavy, tank-like exoskeletons on six tiny legs, and a row of small holes runs down each side of their body, through which they push air to make their trademark hiss. The males also have two “horns” above their heads, which are large bumps and which might have some sort of purpose, but I couldn’t find it within the first page of Google results so I can only assume that it’s one of life’s mysteries.
Cockroaches were awesome to ten-year-old me, and anyone who disagreed could suck it. I would occasionally lay on the ground reading my Calvin and Hobbes books by the aquarium, since this was still the closest that ten-year-me would get to them. I was not brave enough to stick my hand in the tank and pull them out. Ten-year-old me would have called it bravery, but modern me would call it common sense.
For several months, the aquarium remained on the bottom rung of our book-shelf, only a few inches above the carpet. I still can’t believe that my parents thought keeping cockroaches this close to the ground was a good idea.
Which, of course, it proved not to be. About halfway through their time with our family, I went one day to put a couple of vegetable scraps in their aquarium and decided to take a good look at them. I lifted up the pieces of wood and found one, laying quiet and prostrate, right in the middle of a little roach nap. His buddy, however, was nowhere to be found. This was not a big aquarium – maybe two cubic feet. I searched for a good ten minutes, looking between cracks of the wood and underneath the woodchips, actively searching for something that most people hope never to find.
No matter how I searched, the little guy was nowhere to be found. I never saw him again. But – I absolutely swear this is true – the owners of the rental house we lived in, who themselves lived in the only other house around and that lay about a hundred yards from ours, later told me that one Christmas, when Grandma came to visit, a huge cockroach perched itself on their kitchen wall. When Grandma went to kill it, it nearly gave her a heart attack when it hissed at her before running off.
For months, the solitary unnamed cockroach provided me with hours of fascination. All good things come to an end, however, and if I recall correctly, I had eventually gotten bored of my single cockroach and had moved on to something more refined for my ten-year old tastes (Pokémon). Or maybe my parents had come to their senses and decided we didn’t need the cockroach in the house anymore. I’m not entirely sure. The important thing, though, is that I decided to donate the cockroach to the Montessori school that I attended. My teacher agreed to my proposal, and one Friday he allowed me to bring the aquarium to the class for a big reveal.
I had decided to cover the aquarium with a sheet and rip it off for the reveal, because ten-year old me had a flair for the dramatic. Why I thought this would make for a dramatic reveal when the cockroach spent 98% of its existence hidden under a log and the class would most likely see nothing when the sheet was ripped off, I don’t know.
The class gathered around for the announcement. The covered aquarium had been placed on a table, and the children sat on the ground. The teacher directed the class’s attention to me, and I ripped off the sheet. For the first time ever, the cockroach was not in any hiding place – he was actually pressed up to the glass, his little legs clawing curiously and his mandibles investigating. The class of children gasped, got up, and approached the aquarium in excited fascination. The reveal had gone perfectly – the drama-queen within my ten-year-old self was appeased.
The cockroach led a much better life at the school. Montessori schools are known for the freedom they offer to students – like the freedom to stick your hand in an aquarium with a hissing cockroach in it. Some children were braver than I, and after the cockroach became accustomed to being held (after much hissing), several of the children would hold and pet the roach in their free time. The cockroach seemed happier, though that might have just been me projecting feelings onto the bug. He even got a name – Caesar, a name I came up with myself. It didn’t mean anything, but I thought it sounded cool.
And so ended my love affair with cockroaches. Ironically, I eventually became an exterminator.
[Note: The class children even decided to use some of the class funds to buy a second cockroach to keep Cesar company, which they named Salad. Though it didn’t happen, the children wanted Salad to be a female, in the hopes that Caesar and Salad would make lots of Croutons.]