A long, long time ago in a life far, far away, I dated a clown. No, seriously, a clown. Well, aspiring clown. Phillip ran away to join the Circus Center’s Clown Conservatory. (Before all the coulrophobics in the audience freak out: he’s more like a Charlie Chaplin clown. I’ve never seen him in the disturbing makeup. It’s more about the physical comedy. And juggling. Love the juggling.) This is the closest I’ll ever get to one of my own running away to join the circus, and I’m damned proud of him. He’s now a certified professional, and he also does comics. Plural. It’s good to see that he did not run away in vain.
Now, it’s probably a moment right now in which you’re saying, “Ah, Dana – that’s an adorable aspect of your past, really, and Phillip is a very interesting and talented person, but this has bugger-all to do with bugs*.” To all appearances, you’re certainly correct. However, there is a reason why this ex of mine will always be associated with arthropods. Clowning had skipped a generation in his family, you see: he was following in his grandmother’s footsteps, but his parents were both biologists.
It is at this point that I need the biologists in the audience to begin paying close attention, as there is a moral in this story.
These were the days just after college, when I was still a recovering history major, and still a bit – okay, a lot – woo-smitten. I’d read up on astronomy, some physics, and a bit of geology, but I was by no means a biology fan. Biology was about squishy things that sometimes smelled bad or did disgusting things, might sting or bite, and could possibly be infectious. It also involved things that might be sticky. Biology and I weren’t cordial. I knew biologists were enthusiastic about their work, and did wonderful and important things, but I preferred they did them somewhere far away from me.
It’s possible that I may have been won over to biology the night I had dinner with my aspiring clown’s parents – I mean, one of them was even a biologist I’d seen quoted in magazine articles, so famous! – but instead of captivating me with the wondrous complexities of evolution or talking about the beauty of beneficial bacteria, this famous microbiologist began by rhapsodizing about how raw sewage looks remarkably like root beer when microbes are breaking it down.
Did I mention this was at dinner?
At a later point in the evening, my beau’s mother spoke a bit about her work with non-microscopic critters. We began discussing spiders, I don’t remember why, and at last I felt I could contribute something to the conversation. I might have babbled a bit, waxing lyrical about the daddy longlegs living behind my bed when I was a child. His mom stopped my stories of admiring generations of DLs by asking, “Are you sure they weren’t solifugids**?” Which left my jaw agape. “Did they have one body segment or two?” she asked helpfully. But I had no answer. I was not the kind of child who counts body segments. I subsided into silence, defeated, and for years after avoided dinners with biologists.
And yet. And yet. They planted seeds. They prepared me to understand that even ugly, stinky things can be beautiful, given a certain point of view.
And when I see a long-legged spider-like creature, I always count body segments.
I will give part of the game away and tell you this is not a solifugid. This much I know: solifugids have two body segments. I will never forget this fact, and have trotted it out to good effect before. Comically traumatic as that dinner was, much good has come of it: I can identify something as not-a-solifugid like that.
Also, I can now laugh at that young self who was overawed, intimidated, and grossed out by a couple of biologists. They’re enthusiastic about their work and will take any opening to discuss it. They know barely-out-of-college former history majors aspiring to be fantasy authors aren’t current on the technical literature. And if I’d admitted abject ignorance outright and asked something like, “What’s the best part of your job?” I’d probably have felt better about the situation. But if I’d done that early on, I may never have learned what a solifugid is…
Which is not this fellow.
It was hanging round on that yummy sandstone at Strand Agricultural Hall at OSU. Here we had a gray arthropod on gray sandstone in gray light – not ideal. But my camera figured the situation out well enough, I think, for you to figure out a possible species.
We can all learn something here, I hope. Microbiologists: you might want to choose different microbes to discuss with strangers at the dinner table. Biologists: body segments did not matter to many elementary-age children. People who are dating clowns whose parents are famous biologists: lighten the fuck up and enjoy time spent with brilliant people rather than worrying about measuring up. Everyone: you can now stymie people by asking, “Spider… or solifugid?” Which is actually awesome. Because, as I have learned, evolution is awesome. And even if biology smells bad and occasionally viciously bites, it fucking well rocks.
As do Charlie Chaplin-style clowns.
*Pedants are asked to kindly stuff it for the moment. I know that “bug” has a particular meaning, thankseversomuch. They are a subset of arthropods, so just go with the literary flow, people.
**She might have been saying “solpugids.” I’m not sure. I didn’t know the things existed back then, much less that there were ten thousand names for the same basic arthropod, nor how any of this might be spelled. All I know is that she has got one named after her.