Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Of Ants, Grasshoppers ... and Payback (20 Feb. 2013)

            When I was a child, people still read Aesop's fables, and I grew up on, among other stories, "The Ant and the Grasshopper." Except I grew up on a somewhat Disneyfied version.

            The story goes that one warm summer's day a Grasshopper was hopping about a field playing his song — or her song, if you're telling the story in a Romance language where both "Grasshopper" and "Ant" are feminine nouns — but as I heard it in American English it was his song, and the grasshopper was playing a fiddle and having a fine old time. Anyway, Ant comes along dragging an ear of corn, and the grasshopper asks the ant why she's working so hard, and Ant says she's laying in food for the winter and advises Grasshopper to do the same. Grasshopper points out that the weather is still beautiful and goes about playing, while the ant gets back to work.

            Winter comes and the grasshopper finds himself starving and crawls up to the ant hill and sees the ants eating heartily of the food they stored up, leading to the MORAL: "It is best to prepare for the days of necessity."

            Okay, but between the set-up and the MORAL, there's a climax to the story. In the version I heard as a kid, the grasshopper begs the ants for food, and they invite him in and feed him and let him join their winter party, and he learns his lesson. In the original, the ants let the grasshopper starve (although hyperthermia probably killed him sooner).

             I only recently learned the original version, however, and between childhood and my current old age I worked my butt off in school and went on to teach and got to observe a fair number of rich, spoiled, and energetic-at-play (only) figurative "grasshoppers" among my fellow students, and then just my students. I lived thirty-five years in a college student neighborhood in Oxford, Ohio, and around the corner from a consolidated high school, and, in some rare moments, I got a bit bitter. So now and then I retold the story.

            Same buildup in my version, but when Grasshopper begs for food the ant queen invites him in — and looses on him her hit squad of ichneumon wasps, who paralyze him with their stings, inject their eggs, and the hardworking ants and wasps together feed on the grasshopper for a joyous winter.

            MORAL: "Payback is a motherf*#%er!"

            But that story is bitter and overstated and, if you know about ichneumon wasps, a little bordering upon cruelty and the grotesque.

            So I'll switch to a more upbeat story, from the prime of my life, when I was in grad school at the University of Illinois and living in Champaign, IL, sharing an apartment with two other graduate students in what had pretty well been a grad-student enclave.

            We three graduate-student ants worked our jobs and taught and studied and had a good first semester. And then, mid-year, the new neighbors arrived. Undergrads. Undergrads who'd been residents of the dorms; they were, as my more bigoted roommate called them, still basically "Dorm Rats" or, more neutrally, "Dormies." Dormies in their first apartment. Right downstairs of us. Dormies who left with us at the end of the school year the two traffic signs they'd stolen. One was a stop sign, and the other, for a nice touch, was a caution sign showing silhouette-children playing or trying to cross the street.

            The new neighbors were definitely Grasshopper-ish: playing their music, loudly, and singing drunken songs, badly, and having a fine old time in that last term before graduation.

            (The Dormie-hater got a bumper sticker for his car warning, "I DON'T BRAKE FOR UNDERGRADUATES.")

            And then final exam week approached — three-hour finals were standard at the U of IL, essay exams and problem-solving ("Show your work!") in the more respectable programs — and our ex-dormies got quietly desperate as they crammed for their finals.

            We were grad students. We'd worked hard all year and had completed the work in the courses we were taking. We taught courses where you could assign a final paper and have a lot to do the last week of school, but then we were finished.

            So we threw a party toward the end of the last week of classes. And we invited all the neighbors (except the grasshopper crew downstairs), and our guests invited friends, and a couple guys showed up with enough dope to share — dopers in that time and place still remembered their manners — and some ATO's arrived about midnight from hell-'n'-gone in Urbana with cases of beer on their shoulders, saying "We heard you were throwing a party." And the cops arrived about 2 a.m. and said it was without doubt the best party they'd been called to break up at least that month and stuck around until their next call (finally exiting by stepping over the passed-out body of our major dealer).

            And the party went on until we hosts just went to bed, knowing we'd brought happiness to a lot of people — way more people than the fire inspector would've been happy with — and proud to have impressed such connoisseurs of inebriated brawls as the Tau's and the Champaign cops.

            Our neighbors, so we guessed, passed their exams and didn't flunk out of school, got drafted, and sent to Vietnam to die. Anyway, they left us their signs to dispose of, which was recognition of our competence if not exactly a totally unambiguous gift. (My roommates dropped the signs off at a police station very early one morning: on the lawn to be precise, and leaving the scene at a goodly pace.)

            We figured there were no hard feelings from the aging boys downstairs; and we all learned something. Grasshopper in the fable learned, "It is best to prepare for the days of necessity"; as we grad students got confirmed in the belief "'Revenge is a dish best eaten cold,' with some cheap white wine to wash it down, passing a bong, and playing classic rock loud enough for a block party."

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