When I'm feeling weary and put upon, I generally grab a book and a pot of tea and retreat to a comfortable chair for a bit of literary therapy. One of my favourite authors is EB White, probably best known as the author of such children's classics as Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. White spent a large part of his career as a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, where he wrote intelligent and witty commentary on life's little dramas. No matter how serious the topic, he handled it with a deft touch. White was also a master of lucid prose. In fact, he collaborated with one of his teachers, William Strunk Jr, on the revision of Strunk's The Elements of Style, the classic style guide for students and conscientious writers. I always come away from White's writings feeling that at least one person has got the world sorted out and that maybe there's hope for the rest of us.
'I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.' - EB White (1899 - 1985)
I came across the quote above just as folks in my city are preparing to alternately welcome and do battle with Brood X, our local periodical cicada population. These insects spend most of their 17-year-long lives underground feeding on the roots of trees. Then in their last year, when the ground reaches a temperature of 17° C, they emerge and take to the trees, ready for love. Thousands of the males sit in the trees, 'singing' for all they're worth to attract the females. (If you had only one shot at love, you'd be singing at top of your lungs, too.) The noise is incredible. If you walk in a cicada-infested wood on a warm summer afternoon, you're tempted to cover your ears because the racket is almost painful. And the mess is incredible as well because, after their brief summer of love, the females lay their eggs in the bark of the trees and they and the males die. Millions of cicada corpses litter our yards and streets, fermenting in the hot, humid summer air. While this is going on, the young hatch and then make their way down the sides of the trees and into the ground, where they'll spend the next 17 years. The cicada's lifestyle doesn't have much to recommend it.
'It's down to this, Larry: 17 years wasted if we don't get lucky tonight.' - male cicada
One of my brothers got married during the last invasion of Brood X in 1987. My family seems to make a habit of staging weddings whenever a plague or other natural disaster is in progress. Guests arriving for my other brother's wedding had to wade through flood waters to get to the ceremony. A cousin took his new bride on a honeymoon trip to the Philippines, just as Mount Pinatubo was getting ready to erupt. Occasionally a minor war breaks out. (Kinda gives the term 'shotgun wedding' a whole new meaning.) My friends have told me to warn them if I get engaged so that they can flee the country1. If you plan to attend a wedding in my family, it's smart to bring bottled water, ammunition, and plenty of towels.
'Ew, there's a cicada swimming in the punch!' - cousin of the bride
You'd also better bring a sense of humour. There's nothing like a solemn occasion to bring out the Mayhem Fairies; toss sex into the mix and you've got the recipe for a disaster. We humans don't like to admit that sex often gets the better of us and so we study and analyse the beejeebers out of it, hoping to pin it to the mat where it can't do any harm. Back in 1929, according to EB White, 'doctors, psychiatrists, and other students of misbehavior were pursuing sex to the last ditch', an activity that struck him as misguided at best. There's nothing like humour to take the wind out of a blowhard's sails, so White and humourist James Thurber collaborated on a gem of a book titled Is Sex Necessary? or, Why You Feel the Way You Do. Containing cartoons by Thurber and wry observations by both men, Is Sex Necessary? spoofs the serious and lugubrious medical books of the era. It's as funny today as it was in 1929, showing that no matter how modern and sophisticated we may feel ourselves to be, sex can still send us right up a tree, howling.
As I said, bottled water and towels.