Ideas Fly Up My Leg

I don’t worry about running out of ideas. Ideas are everywhere. Take today, for instance. I clipped on my mp3 player with Hungarian vocabulary items and went out for a brisk walk before starting my writing, along the Willamette River, where Himalayan blackberries grow along much of the path. I saw some lovely plump fruit and left the path to pick some.

Picking blackberries can take concentration. I had to reach through the brambles for the ripest berries, playing a game of steadiness in which the reward is a berry but the penalty for jerky movement is a pricked finger.

I felt something moving inside my pants  leg. There are they little lights inside my brain, the little lights that signal that my attention needs to be elsewhere. They all turned on.

I looked down. Ideas were swarming around my feet and legs.  Little black and yellow ideas, each about a centimeter long.  I was standing on a yellow-jacket nest.

More lights turned on in my brain. The flashing red ones. I ran thirty meters down the path, then lifted my pant legs to find several yellow jackets there. One was trying unsuccessfully to sting me through my sock. Another was having better luck on my shin. Two more were just getting their bearings.  I plucked the insects off, dashed them to the ground, and stepped on them. Another yellow jacket made a punctuated announcement of its presence on my sternum. I unbuttoned my shirt, noticing that I had crushed the blackberries in my hand and was now liberally dying my clothes. I swatted and killed this yellow jacket, too.

A woman coming from the opposite direction stopped. I told her what was going on, and she asked if I was allergic. “I don’t know,” I said. “We’re about to find out.”

She was a Australian doctor. Unfortunately, she noted, she didn’t habitually carry epiphedrine.

I took my mobile phone out of my pocket. At least she could call for help. “And,” I said, “you always see on television that someone does an emergency tracheotomy with a pen.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’ve seen what that looks like. Not pretty.”  She thought for a moment. “I do have a pen, though.”

She stood with me, waiting to see what my immune system would have to say. After a minute or two, another yellow jacket arrived. Whether it was looking for me in particular or was just in an aroused, stingy state, I can’t say. But paid no attention to the doctor. It seemed to be hunting me. I hunted it, too. The doctor served as my field spotter, telling me where it had gone when it retreated and made another run at me from a different elevation or angle. As it came in low at my feet, I stepped on it.

I didn’t seem to be swelling up anywhere but at the sting sites.

I asked the doctor if I could walk with her a little while. I just wanted to talk to her, satisfy my curiosity about the Australian doctor who hadn’t had to save my life. She had been to Saturday Market the day before — the essential Eugene experience. She was headed for the community gardens. I lamented that I didn’t have a business card, but I told her that I hoped she’d remember and look up my stories. We talked about learning phrasebook Spanish — she’s heading through Mexico next, and on to South America. We talked about Hungarian. I saw her off near the gardens.

Buen viaje, Anna. It was nice meeting you. If not for the wasps, you would have been just someone walking the path in the opposite direction.

At home, I looked up yellow jackets. The species that stung me was probably Vespula pensylvanica, though my field observations were hasty, and I didn’t look for the distinctive yellow ring around the eyes.

In looking up yellow jackets, I also discovered the Schmidt Sting Pain index, which reads like a wine-taster’s review of hymenopteran aggression:

* 1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.

* 1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.

* 1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.

* 2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.

* 2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.

* 2.x Honey bee and European hornet: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.

* 3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.

* 3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.

* 4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.

I don’t imagine that Justin O. Schmidt actually poured hydrochloric acid on a paper cut in order to verify the accuracy of his scale. But his descriptions are effective at getting me to imagine what these other stings are like, particularly now that I have been recently calibrated. I remember quite well where 2.0 is on this scale.

I had no trouble, then, finding something to blog about today. And as for story ideas, yellow jackets are a good device for introducing two people who would not otherwise have met. “Hi. As you’re the only other person here right now, would you mind sticking around to see if I’m allergic?” Talk about an ice breaker! And as we walked by the still-buzzing nest, I asked Anna if she was allergic to stings. She didn’t know. Ah, the possible plot complications!

The Schmidt index gives me all kinds of ideas about pain scales, aficianados of pain, and extreme undertakings for the sake of curiosity.

Finally, a new vocabulary item: the Hungarian word for wasp is darázs.  DAHrazh. If you want to say it properly, begin with the English words “doll rash.” Now remove the els and voice the ‘sh’ to make it ‘zh.’

I’m adding darázs to my flashcards, even though I don’t think I’ll have any trouble remembering the word or how I came to learn it.

And there’s another story idea: a list of words and the experiences by which the character came to learn them.


  1. While I’m sure that will make a great anecdote next time someone asks you That Question, most of us would, I think, prefer you to get your ideas in a less dangerous fashion.

    Glad you are OK.

    • hollandrogers

      This is definitely an exercise that I don’t want to repeat!

      When I was twelve, I went to survival camp in Utah. I was teased because, leery of things crawling into my pants while I slept, I tucked my pants legs into my socks. My nickname for the duration of the camp was “Socks.”

      It has taken me nearly forty years to demonstrate the wisdom of habitually tucking ones pants legs into ones socks.

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