Ticked Off

June 10, 2011

So the other day I went to pick up some dirty clothes to put in the laundry and there was tick sitting right on top of a pair of my underwear. It had its little front arms stretched out like a child calling out for mommy, and I might have even thought it was cute if I didn’t hate ticks so much. Although really "hate" isn’t nearly strong enough of a word for how I feel about ticks. I could say I loathe them, despise them, abhor them, detest them, and can’t stand them, but I’m not sure there’s a word in English for how much I hate ticks. I’m not a violent person by nature. I catch everything from moths and spiders to crickets in the house and let them go outside, but if I find a tick, no matter where it is, nothing makes me happier than applying an open flame to the tick’s body until it swells and makes a very satisfying crackling sound.

Ticks are parasites, which I generally think of as a pretty cool group of organisms. Well, it depends on the parasite, really, and "parasite" is a pretty broad term. Cuckoos are parasites because they lay their eggs in others birds’ nests, killing the young of the other birds before they go off to live in a Swiss clock. Mosquitoes are parasites because they bite other animals, suck their blood, and then fly off. Advertising executives are parasites for obvious reasons. But none of these are really as impressive as, say, a certain kind of fluke that spends part of its life in a cow’s intestinal tract. Then it passes out and gets itself eaten by a snail, but it doesn’t want to stay in the snail so it coats itself in mucus and makes the snail cough it up. Then the mucus ball with the fluke inside gets eaten by an ant. And if that weren’t weird enough the fluke then sends chemicals to the ant’s brain to make the ant stop whatever else it’s doing and climb the nearest blade of grass so it will be eaten by a cow. You’d think it would be easier for the flukes to just to hang out on blades of grass, but maybe that turned out to be too risky, or maybe they got bored and decided to see how many steps they could add to the whole process of getting inside the cow. At least you know now why the term "fluke" refers to both a parasite and a really surprising coincidence. And if you think that’s weird there are wasps that will lay their eggs inside the brains of spiders. The eggs hatch and release a tiny wasp larva that makes the spider do its bidding. Imagine being able to do that with your babysitters when you were a kid. The spider stops making webs and instead builds a cocoon, which must really freak out the other spiders. I imagine a group of them sitting around saying, "What’s the deal with Gladys? She’s been glassy-eyed, she hasn’t built a web in days, and she spends all her time humming lullabies and knitting a weird looking layette." Poor Gladys not only has a larva in her brain but isn’t being invited on any more girls’ nights out either.

Some parasites are beneficial. Leeches are used to prevent blood clots after surgery, which is a lot of fun to demonstrate at parties. And allergies are caused by your immune system going wild. Hookworms suppress the immune system, so some people actually treat their allergies by purposely infecting themselves with hookworms. If you’re taking hookworms for your allergies notify your doctor immediately if you have any of the following symptoms: diarrhea, anemia, a skin rash, or death. Anyway, to get back to ticks, I think my hatred of them might come from getting a tick on my first Boy Scout camping trip. Well, technically it was during my first Boy Scout camping trip that I got the tick. It’s what I got it on that’s left me with a lifelong loathing of them. Some guys come back from their first camping trips with stories about how they were sent out to all the other campsites in search of a left-handed smoke shifter, or how, in the middle of the night, the scoutmaster, wearing only his underwear and wielding a big stick, ran through the campsite and knocked a mouse off the food box like a golf ball into the woods. Some lucky guys come home with poison ivy. I came home with a tick attached to, well, the worst bodily part a guy could get a tick. Because of where this tick decided to stick I’m pretty sure it hopped aboard in the middle of the night when I I got up to water the bushes. The next morning we packed up and left, so I didn’t notice that I had a hitchhiker until I got home later that day and went to take a bath and looked between my legs. I weighed my options. I knew that ticks will, eventually, get their fill of blood and drop off on their own, but I didn’t know how long it would take. And if you’ve ever seen one of those bloated, grayish-green ticks you can understand why I didn’t care for this idea. So I grabbed the tick between my thumb and forefinger and yanked it out. Everything was fine until I woke up the next morning and discovered the swelling. Now the swelling was occurring in an area that almost every man would like to make bigger, but bigger in a general way. I don’t think any man buys those pills or salves or creams you see advertised on late night television thinking, "I’d really like to make mine look like it’s wearing a bright red rubber tire." Fortunately the swelling was gone by the next day, but the memories linger, and they’ve left me with a lifelong dislike of ticks. Or maybe I have a parasite in my brain that makes me hate ticks. Maybe it’s the same parasite that makes me name spiders Gladys.

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