Saturday, September 15, 2007

Time Flies Like an Arrow

Back when I was in college, probably in the first Linguistics class I ever took, the old saying "Time flies like an arrow" was used as an example of syntactic ambiguity, since the sentence can be interpreted in so many different ways.

Of course, long before Chomsky developed his theories about transformational grammars (in which the distinction is made between deep structure and surface structure), Groucho Marx was already aware of the syntactic ambiguity that can arise from only looking at the surface structure, and it led him to make his immortal statement, "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana."

I'll return to the topic of fruit flies in a moment, but first I want to talk about other household pests.

First, let's direct our attention toward the ant. The ant is tireless and industrious and humble, but it can also be a pain in the butt. As you may recall, before I had my retaining wall built, I had an intermittent problem with ants. Because my house was built into a hill, and because that hill was heavily populated with ants and bugs and other tiny creatures, whenever the rain came and soaked the hill, or whenever the temperature rose too high for the ants to bear, they took refuge in my house by crawling through a bathroom window.

I assumed that after I excavated the hill, the ants would find a new place to live, and the next time it got too hot or too wet for them, they'd find some other place to go, since they would no longer be anywhere near my bathroom window. It made perfect sense to me, and perhaps it makes perfect sense to you as well, but it didn't make any sense at all to the ants, because a week or two ago, during the apex of a heat wave, I noticed some ants in my bathroom near the window. I went outside, armed with a can of ant spray and expecting to find a line of ants crawling up the wall. I was fully prepared to murder every last one of them, and the only thing that stopped me was that once I got outside, I couldn't find any ants. I have no explanation for this, which means it can only be magic.

The ants left on their own accord, but a little while later I had a new problem on the other side of the house: A tiny swarm of fruit flies had invaded my kitchen. And this prompts me to ask, what's the deal with fruit flies anyway? I imagine their name comes from their attraction to fruit, and they certainly do seem attracted to it, but I've never actually seen them eating any fruit, or for that matter, even touching any fruit. A lot of them just hover around the fruit until they get tired, and then they rest on my counter top.

So that should make it pretty easy to get rid of them, you might think. If they like fruit so much, all you have to do is hide most of the fruit in your refrigerator or somwehere else they have no access to, and then walk outside your house with an overripe banana or orange. They will follow you outdoors, you can leave the piece of fruit for them, and then you can walk back inside your house.

It sounds simple, but I didn't even try it, because most of the airborne fruit flies in my kitchen weren't hovering around any fruit. They were just hovering wherever they pleased, as though they were completely indifferent to fruit of any sort. So I knew that attempting to lure them away like the legendary Pied Piper of Hamelin once did with rats would be an exercise in futility.

So I decided to kill them instead, by spraying them with a can of Lysol household disinfectant. I didn't know I even had a can -- I don't remember ever buying it, so it's probably ten or twenty years old, but it does the trick. Of course, it smells awful, so I had to turn on a fan and open a window and leave the kitchen until the smell had dissipated, but when I returned, most of the fruit flies were dead. Every now and then I'd find a few who were still among the living, but a quick shot of Lysol soon dispatched them to the world of their fallen comrades.

So now you're probably wondering how I can be so callous about taking dozens of lives without feeling the slightest bit of guilt. And I'm not just talking about the fruit flies. I unreservedly admit that I've also killed my share of ants and rats and mice. But the truth is, I do feel bad about it. I'd much rather not have to kill fruit flies and ants and rodents, but it seems to be the only way to get rid of them.

So as you might guess, I don't consider myself a strong advocate of animal rights. And I never really was, not even during my decade or so of near-veganism. The truth is, animals don't really have any rights. I'm not saying it's okay to engage them in dogfights or cockfights, or to test cosmetics and medicines on them, or to beat them or starve them to death, because all those things are pretty reprehensible. But you have to draw the line somewhere. I have a feeling even the most vociferous animal rights advocate would call an exterminator if he found out his house was being eaten by termites.

But the real issue for me is, why should we grant the animals rights that they don't even grant each other? If you don't want to eat fish, for example, because you think it's cruel, that's perfectly okay. But the fish don't seem to have any problem with it since they eat fish all the time. All over the world, animals kill each other for food. So even though I still don't eat meat, I never thought there was anything morally wrong about it.

And yet I still feel sort of bad about killing the fruit flies. I don't like to kill living things -- I'd much rather see them thrive and grow, but if they want to stay healthy, they should learn to stay off of my property, because I know I will kill again.