On Farming Ants

Last year for her birthday, Fiona received an ant farm. My friend, who gifted it to her, had purchased two, one for each of our daughters. She gave one to us, she said, so that someone else could try it out and tell her how it was before she tried it. A resounding endorsement.

I’m such a good guinea pig, that I put off trying it until now, eleven months later. Fiona has been pushing me to get her a ” ‘spirment animal” like tadpoles or caterpillars that she could ” ‘sberve”. So, I being a little cheep, thought, “What the heck, we’ll order some lousy ants and let her watch them.”

And so I set up the farm, and wrote a check for a bizarre amount of money. You want $12.95 for 30 ants? I could probably pay the neighbor kids a quarter each per ant and save money. ant_farm_1  In retrospect…


So several weeks pass, Fiona impatiently asks me every day when her ants will arrive. “Soon. Soon,” I assure her.

Have you ever noticed that no matter what happens it will always happen at the worst possible moment? It’s a weird universal constant that the dishwasher only breaks, the sink only backs up, the fridge goes out the day you have people over for dinner. The washing machine only breaks right before an important meeting or a long trip.  I believe that’s why the ants arrived on Saturday.

You see on Saturday I was helping to host a baby-shower for one of my friends. I had to move locations at the last second because of the heat. I had baked a cake and frosted it, decorated, planned games, and ran from the moment I got up. So, at 12:30 when the mailman handed me an envelope as I was running between the outdoor picnic area where we were meeting and my home where I had everything I needed. I hardly paused to glance at it.

Except that it had a giant sticker on the outside, “LIVE ANIMALS. OPEN IMMEDIATELY.”

What? Really? Today? Blah, later. The ants will be fine for a couple of hours while I finish what I’m doing. Right? Right? I don’t want to kill the expensive little buggers.

Okay, well then, oh well. I can’t deal with it at the moment so they’re going to have to be tough.


Five hours later, I was feeling remarkably guilty and frustrated as I had been coerced into an outing to the pool after we were finished with the shower. Jeez. No problem, I’ll just take a quick minute and shove these little guys into the farm. That way I can go enjoy the pool and not worry that I’m being a horrible ant killer.

I pick up the tube of ants, they look pretty lethargic. I pop the top off the farm. I pop the top off the tube.  I begin to gently try to shake the ants from the tube into the farm.  Only ants. Suddenly, lively, active, fast ants are on the move. Lively, fast, FREAKING RED ANTS!  I jump back and recap the tube in my hand while yelling at my husband to grab some cups. We slap cups over the escaping ants.

One, two three, four, five, and five in the  farm. Seriously, what the heck kind of system is this? The mouth of the tube of ants doesn’t fit in the opening of the farm. The ants are wicked fast. And as I stare at the horrible little bastards through the glass wall of a shot glass they wave fierce huge mandibles at me. This is, for the record, not at all what I signed up for. Where are my happy little non-biting black ants? This is not intuitive. I grab the directions.

“When your ants arrive, be sure to read the directions that come with
them. Before you open the tube of ants, put it in the refrigerator (not the
freezer) for about 15 minutes. This makes them less active and much
easier to put into the habitat. They will soon “warm up” to start working. “

Oh. Well then. If at first you don’t succeed, read the owner’s manual.

I put the tube in the fridge, set a timer and tried to fathom how to retrieve five ants from under individual shot glasses while Fiona danced around me nervously, “Are those my ants? Will they bite? Maybe I should go change my dress? What if they get on me? Can I hold them? Can I put them in, Mommy? Are those my ants?”

Jeff meandered over to help. What had been a quick, toss them in, and go to the pool, was rapidly turning into a difficult task.

We found a piece of card stock and working together carefully jostled one ant from the cup into the farm. The next one escaped us and a quick frantic search of the table ensued. After recapturing it under a cup we finally we put those five alarmingly fast ants into the farm.

The timer beeped.

Ten in. Twenty to go. Still, these should go easier, right? The instructions state “less active and easier to put in”. This time it will be fine. We read the directions. No probs.


I would like to note, it was NOT easier. They were NOT lethargic. They were still wicked mandibled little speed demons on crack.  (Uncle Milton, you’re a jerk!)

Still, practice makes perfect. We got many of them in. Only four escaped. This time Jeff waved me away, “Go to the pool. I’ll get them in.”

And he did.

So, my friend, Gift-er of Ants,

Having been your guinea pig in the farming of ants, I have advice for you:

1. The ants you will receive by mail are red, biting ants.

2. They are freaking fast.

3. Follow the directions, but I would recommend at least 25 minutes in the fridge.

4. The plastic tube that comes with the farm to connect it to another farm? That thing fits into the openings on the sides of the farm and also slides neatly into the ant shipping tube. I think that using that tube to get the ants into the farm would be a big improvement over the “gently shake the ants into the farm” method.

5. Keep a shot glass (or five) handy.

6.  I love you, Sweetie, so this one is the important part:  Give the other ant farm away. Preferably to someone you dislike. Intensely.


Bedtime! Brilliant!

Getting Fiona to sleep is always an adventure. If we’ve followed our entire routine (supper, play or walk, bath, pj’s, teeth brushing, stories, bed), and it is a good day, then when I lay down with her she winds down in 5-15 minutes and falls asleep.

On the other hand, on a night like last night it was a challenge. She needed more water. She needed more food. She needed to go potty.

All the normal kid excuses came out to play.

Finally she sat up in bed and announced to me, “I can’t sleep! My brain is still full of thoughts!”

“Like what, Baby?” I murmured, nearly comatose myself.

“Balloons!” She says, “And special birthday clothes!”

“Do you need special birthday clothes?” I asked, mentally joking to myself about letting her go to her party in her special, on of a kind, birthday suit. In my defense, I should note here that Fiona goes to bed late. This conversation was occurring at 10pm. I really was partially asleep.

“Yes!” She snuggled back into me, then pushed away. Our lack of air-conditioning combined with a heat wave is making cuddling hard.

“Ok.” I agreed. It’s not a bad idea. “Go to sleep.”

She closed her eyes and tried to fall asleep. After a few minutes her eyes popped open wide and she sits up in bed. “Mommy!” she declares, “I am about to be brilliant!”lightbulb

I chuckle in spite of my self-closing eyes, “No doubt.”

She frowns at me, then continues, “A walk! An alone walk! An in the dark outside walk! I could go by myself!”

I squint at her, “You want to go outside by yourself in the dark?”

“With you,” She says, in that teenager “obviously” voice she uses in moments like these.

“Ah.” I say. “Go to sleep.”

“It would be fun.” She grumbles as she lies back down.

I ignore her and focus on pretending to sleep without actually sleeping.

A few more minutes pass, her body relaxes. She starts to drift.

And her eyes pop open again. This time her voice is excited but sleepy, “Mommy, I’m going to be brilliant! Again!”

“Yeah, Baby?” I murmur, so close to sleep I can taste it.

“Yeah,” she murmurs back, her eyes starting to close, “We could…”

And she drifts off to sleep.  Personally, I think it’s a great idea.


(Warning: This post contains vomit.)oreo

I am blogging at three in the morning again (please forgive me if I’m less than articulate). Fiona is sleeping fitfully on the couch. And I am contemplating the idea of creep.

I think it’s interesting how we let things that have no business in our lives creep into them. I mean the stuff we all know better than to indulge in, self-pity, jealousy, an attitude of entitlement. Still we all do it from time to time. What motivates us? Is it that those things provide us with pleasure. Is it that they meet needs that we’re trying ignore? Are we just lazy?

I don’t have any answers (It’s 3 in the morning!), but I notice that I allow creep in our world in other more tangible ways.

Take Fiona’s food allergies. It has seemed for a while like she really has been doing fine on corn. She could handle a little in baked goods.  A little in french fries. A little in bread. And I’d allowed more and more of it to creep into her diet. Then I realized that she was having tummy pain again. And I kind of brushed it off. One of those, kids get tummy pain. She’s probably fine.

But I noticed myself doing it.

So, last night, in the face of a dreadfully hot day I bought pre-made chicken for dinner and Oreo cookies for dessert. Oreo cookies are not a “little bit” of corn. They are the whole freaking field, they have cornstarch and corn syrup. And I told Fiona she could have them (controlling for psychosomatic responses).

Now, I am blogging at three in the morning.

Because I knowingly gave my daughter something that she cannot tolerate. And at 1:30 this morning she started vomiting.  The exact contents of her stomach were undigested Oreos.

Creep. We start to let things in. A little bit doesn’t hurt. A little more. A little more. And we don’t realize how much we’ve allowed in until we’re eating things that make us sick.  (Or worse, feeding them to our children.)

On a frustrating, but more self-forgiving, note, we’ve just trialed corn and it was an abysmal failure.


I am going to shamelessly employ a Harry Potter analogy without explaining it. If you haven’t read the books, go do that instead. They’re way more interesting than this blog.

Avoidance is one of the big features of anxiety disorders. When things scare us, or worry us, we try not to think too hard about them. We try not to talk about them. We try not to focus on them.

If you want to test this, bring up death some Spidertime at a dinner party. Watch as everyone tries to redirect you. They’ll try to talk about almost anything else. They’ll even flatly tell you that they prefer to focus on life.

People avoid what they fear.

As a parent, with anxiety, parenting a child, with anxiety, this is probably more poignantly obvious in our house. We avoid. It was true for me growing up too. There were some things you just didn’t talk about. Illness, disease, death, mental illness, sexuality, or any of a host of other things that are a part of life.

I was thinking about this, as I’ve been reading and trying to figure out how to help my little family build a happy life. One of the fastest ways to break the fear that grips us so often is to face it. Head on and without avoidance.

We can’t pussy-foot around our fears, calling them in so many words “He-who-shall-not-be-named”. We have to face them. We have to approach that queasy, jittery feeling in the center of our chests and chant at it, loudly, “Voldemort! Voldemort! Voldemort!”

So, in this house, we have long conversations about death, about fire, about illness, about choking, about moving, about not being around each other, about not liking each other, about not loving each other. We talk about things that make my chest tight and make me want to tell my daughter to “not think about it” or to “just go play”.  We don’t do that though, because avoidance makes things grow.

Fear grows powerful in the dark.

We shine light on it. We drag the fears of spiders, of being alone, of dying out from their dusty corners and we iterate them. We catalog and investigate and discuss and delve. We talk about probability and inevitability and eventuality. We talk about plans and uncertainty. We talk about that ooky feeling in the pit of our stomach. We talk about avoidance. We talk about reality.

I think that the whole lot of us might need to do this. All of us. Let’s talk about death, poverty, inequality, hate, fear, mental illness, discrimination, war, illness. Let’s talk about it. Let’s face our fears. Not to be morbid or depressing, not to make ourselves afraid, but to see if maybe if we start talking these things begin to lose their power over us. If maybe if we face the world, if we yell “Voldemort”, if we talk about all of the fear and shame and worry, then maybe we can let it go.

It’s always easier to fight the things that you can have a conversation about.


Where the Zombies live

On the way home from the doctor’s office

Fiona looked out the car window at a dirt lot filled with large earth movers and construction equipment. She asked in an aghast tone, “What are they doing?”

I flicked a glance sideways, but kept my focus on the busy traffic, “I dunno, building something, I guess. What do you think they’re building?”

“Zombie Houses,” she answered after a short pause, completely deadpan.

“Zombie houses?” I choke out.

“Yeah. For Zombies to sleep in,” she says, unaware that she is strangling me with laughter.

“And eat stuff,” she adds.

I gather my breath as I picture the construction workers building zombie homes and feel the need to press my luck, “What do Zombies eat?”

“Dirty Stuff. Like yucky,  dirty bananas,” she says, as though anyone should know this stuff, “And dirty chocolate. And dirty sugar.”

“Oh.” I say, at a loss.

She continues, “And dirty Pants. And dirty houses.”

There is a long pause while I process this information.

“Zombies eat dirty houses?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she answers completely seriously, “But it takes a really long time.”

For The Monkey

On the way to the doctor’s office

“We should get a cat.” She says from the backseat. It is a desire not altogether unexpected, given the program on pets that she had been viewing just before we left the house. She concludes, “While Daddy is at work.”

“But where would it live when Daddy came home?” I ask, “If it was at our house Daddy would sneeze and sneeze. Ah-Choo!”

She looks sad, “Oh.”

There is a long pause and she gazes out the window. I wonder what she is thinking about so hard and wish, again, that we could get her a pet. It would help so much.

“We should go to the store!” She announces from the backseat.

There is so much enthusiasm in the pronouncement that, though I cannot fathom what she might want, I ask, “What should we get at the store?”

“A monkey!” She proclaims.

“Oh?” I say, in that strangled voice reserved for parents the world over who have learned that laughing in such situations will stop the flow of the conversation that will follow.

She nods, “We need a monkey, Mommy.”

I picture a monkey added to our already chaotic, impossible life. I try not to cringe. “I see.” I say, “What would you name a monkey if we got one?”

She smiles at me with a glee that I hope stems from the fact that I’m playing along rather than the conviction that we will acquire another primative primate, “Jo-Jo!”

“And what would he eat?”

She looks at me like I’m dumb. “Bananas, of course.”

“Of course.” I laugh, “What else might he eat?”

She laughs, “More bananas!”

“Where would he sleep?” I’m determined to stump her with the practical impossibility of this monkey, but I can feel the situation slipping rapidly through my fingers.

She tips her head sideways and looks thoughtful. After a long, considerate pause, she replies, “On the fan.”

“Over the dining table?” I ask, sounding strangled again.

“Yes.” She confirms, then asks, “But what would happen if we turned on the fan?”

We both begin to laugh. I’m mentally watching a small Rhesus Monkey, named Jo-Jo, careening in lazy circle above my dining table, to the tune of what would rapidly become a screeching monkey and a frantic little girl. I am mentally watching myself lose the last of my carefully hoarded marbles.

She pauses a moment, “What if he came in the car with us? Where would he sit?”

“I don’t know, Baby. Where do you think he’d sit?”

“He could sit on the back of my carseat.” She grins.

“Hmm.” I agree. “He could. He would sit there and run his fingers through your hair and look for bugs.”

She looks aghast. “Monkeys eat bugs?”

“Yep.” I say.

“My hair doesn’t have bugs!” She realizes sounding offended.

“No. It doesn’t.” I frown playfully, “He might be disappointed. We would have to add some.”

“Like spiders?” She asks hopefully.

“You want spiders in your hair?” I ask, appalled.

“For my monkey.” She says, in a tone of voice that points out that I’m being obtuse and skillfully closes the conversation.


Starfish Normal

We spent this Saturday afternoon at the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 in San Fransisco. We had gotten a free pass through our local library’s Discovery Go program and headed out to San Fran for a little fun in the unseasonable cold and fog.Jellyfish

With everything we’ve been dealing with,  it’s easy for me to get wrapped up in the issues and forget to see my daughter for who she really is, a vibrant, smart, energetic, enthusiastic three-year-old.

Saturday helped. We watched sardines swim in glittering schools that turned and spun and flickered in the sunlit tanks. We watched them open and close their mouths, which is both freaky and cool. My husband and I watched Fiona try to unhinge her jaw to make the same faces.Jellyfish

We all loved the jellyfish exhibit. Their beautiful translucent, membrane thin bodies and delicate long tentacles rippled through the water as they moved. Opening and closing like an umbrella, if umbrellas were made of semi-liquid membranes infused with the exquisite grace of living water. We watched Fiona’s face light up as she tried to mimic their graceful motion.  Arms up and down, trying to ripple with the fluid grace of a creature that lacks the constraint of bones.

(Looking over my shoulder, Fiona says, “The jellyfish were awesome!“)

We walked through the underwater tunnels, between schools of swimming fish. We stood for a long time in the shark tunnel watching the sharks and the manta-rays glide in their graceful, predatory way across and over and around us.

And then there was this guy. Starfish

He clung to the plexiglass above our heads with thousands of tiny suckered feet.  Walking slowly across. Never letting go with too many feet at a time, he moved almost ploddingly. Constrained by a protective exoskeleton, the starfish’s slow cautious stability seemed to me a perfect counter-point to the jellyfish’s fluid grace. As beautiful as the jellyfish was, I felt more like the starfish.

My normal is clinging on with as many feet as I can, picking up just enough to move forward.  I cling to the moments where Fiona is doing a jellyfish dance, where my husband and I are sharing a conversation over dinner while she enjoys a homemade dessert, earned by eating enough bites of dinner, where Fiona and I share a snuggle, a joke, an idea, an experience. And I use all those little moments to move forward, slowly.

My normal isn’t the exquisite graceful jellyfish, much as I might wish it was,  my normal is cautious, careful and protected. Mine is a starfish normal.