Memphis has the Blues


The Pyramid – Formerly an arena and convention center. Now, believe it or not – A Bass Pro Shops Superstore

Memphis, Tennessee is, to me, a disappointment. It is unfortunate to come to this conclusion because, you see, I love Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis has so much to offer. It has all the things I dearly love.

There is interesting geography. It sits in a stately way high up on a bluff overlooking the mightiest part of the mightiest river in the world. And their biggest Mississippi River bridge is named after explorer Hernando de Soto. That’s pretty cool, right?

It has history. Sun studios, right downtown, has pictures of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins in the same photo. To borrow a joke from comedian Rich Hall, “If you were a religious scholar, that would be the equivalent of having Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and ….. Carl Perkins in the same picture.”

And Memphis has Food (and yes that is a capital F). There is barbecue and more barbecue and catfish and fried chicken and sweet potato pie and fried okra and did I mention barbecue. There are very few places on this planet where I can say that I never ate anything I didn’t like. Memphis is one.

I have watched school kids doing gymnastics in the street down on Beale. I have ridden the monorail over to Mud Island. I have walked the whole length of the coolest thing a geography buff can imagine (a scale model of the Mississippi River a hundred yards long). I have stood on the balcony of the Loraine Motel in the very spot where Martin Luther King was cut down and was overwhelmed with the intensity of the place. I have walked along the riverfront and watched as the Mississippi Queen hove into sight and docked right in front of me. I have ridden the antique trolley cars down Main Street and up the riverfront to the giant gleaming pyramid (bigger than at least the little ones at Giza.) I have eaten at BB King’s and the Blues Cafe, and the Flying Fish, and Gus’s and Interstate and Corky’s and ……..yes, even the Crazy Canuck. And I have walked past St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital which I think you must concede is about the greatest goddamn place in the world considering how many kids they help every year free of charge.

So what is there to be disappointed about when you are in Memphis? After all, you can tour the Gibson guitar factory. You can listen to live blues every night of the year down on Beale Street. If you are prone to historical self-flagellation you can visit the Cotton Museum and relive the bad old days when slavery was a fact of life and cotton was more valuable than human beings. You can go to a city park named for the First Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan or perhaps go see the toilet Elvis died on (okay, actually they won’t let you see that, although they will let you gawk at the rest of his house and click photos of his grave with your iPhone). And after the guilt and shame there is, of course, barbecue. So why do I love Walkin’ in Memphis and yet, sometimes hate Walkin’ in Memphis.

It’s because I’m sometimes scared of Walkin’ in Memphis. Memphis is beautiful and historical and thought-provoking and, yes, tasty. But it is also dirty and gritty and in-your-face and yes, scary. I do not walk around Memphis at night unless it is with a group and then only those couple of blocks from the hotel to Beale Street. And though I do sometimes walk around alone in the daytime I am, more often than not, ill at ease. I have walked and ridden busses all over downtown Chicago and I have walked the length of Manhattan from China Town to Central Park but in almost no other city I have visited have I been so circumspect simply walking around.

I recognize that I am a panhandler magnet. There is something about my goofy red face that screams “he’s a sucker, he’ll give you a dollar.” And I have dealt with panhandlers from Ottawa, Ontario to Key West Florida (and by dealt with I mean that I gave them a dollar.) But I have never been aggressively followed down the street for blocks by a panhandler in any other city. I did a bit of research and discovered that Memphis has been “battling” these spangers (spare change artists) for years with almost no progress.

A Memphis blogger who lives downtown has documented numerous strategies these panhandlers use to coerce and if necessary threaten passers-by into giving money. There are the squeegee-men who wash your windows at a stoplight and then demand payment. New York famously cracked down on their squeegee-men and made great headway on their panhandler problem. There are the “fake parking attendants” who “charge” drivers to park in metered downtown spots. There is the “tour-guide” gimmick where a panhandler offers to lead tourists around the downtown area to local sights or restaurants and then demands payment once they arrive.

I encountered a version of this scam with my crew on an overnight in Memphis last year. The large middle-aged man hailed us as we walked up the street and told us he was an official ambassador for the city of Memphis appointed by the chamber of commerce and that he was assigned to help tourists navigate the downtown area. When we refused his services he immediately dropped the charade and cursed at us. There was even a young woman, probably early twenties, who came up to us with a clipboard and said she was authorized by the Peabody Hotel to solicit donations for her girls soccer team who was raising money for a trip to New York. As part of her well-rehearsed spiel she said that she understood that there were a lot of panhandlers in downtown Memphis and that I could see her ID and letter of permission from the Peabody if I wanted. When I said that I would like to see those documents she cursed mildly and stormed away.

But worse than the “ambassador” and the “fundraiser” are the aggressive “bums” who demand money and, if you do not give it, will follow you down the street verbally assaulting you and sometimes invading your personal space.

So what is a good bleeding-heart liberal to think about a place like Memphis. “Round ‘em up and lock ‘em up” just doesn’t appeal to me as a solution to the problems that come with poverty and disadvantage. But, on the other hand, don’t honest, law-abiding folks have the right not to be afraid while walking down the streets where they must live and work and hopefully play?

My research has led me to believe that we must make a distinction here. Despite our intuitive response the fact is that the homeless as a rule, are not panhandlers and panhandlers, as a rule, are not the homeless. The old man I wrote about lying on the street in Philadelphia is not in the same Venn Diagram circle as the able-bodied young “grifter” who tried to “show” me around Memphis. People who have looked into this conundrum have found that most of these con artists have a home, even sometimes driving into town to run their scams.

These panhandlers are criminals. Their activity is very little different, and is actually akin to, the ponzi scheme of a scumbag like Bernie Madoff. Their crime is worse, perhaps, than Madoff’s because they poison the natural instinct to kindness and charity that we all feel.

There are truly people out there, like the homeless man on the streets of Philadelphia, who desperately need our help. The aggressive panhandlers of Memphis are a different breed. They deserve our scorn not our dollar. The Memphis blogger who has devoted his time to this problem recommends making your donations to organized charities who run soup kitchens and rehabilitation programs in Memphis and other cities. This seems like a logical approach.

I would not discourage you from visiting Memphis. As I have illustrated there is a lot here to see and do and appreciate. Just visiting the Loraine Motel and nearby Civil Rights Museum is something every American should do. But, as an amateur tour guide (a free one) I would offer the following advice; go during the daytime, walk around in a group, stay at a nice hotel, and use your powers of discernment to avoid the scammers and help the truly needy. There is a difference.


by: Dustin Joy

A Force of Nature

The truth is that I don’t know much about happiness. It’s not that I’m a sad person. I’m not, though I love a good wallow in self-pity as much as the next guy. But, I’m starting to see that I’m no closer to a clear definition or strategy at age 46 than I was when I was a kid.

If happiness is a ratio between things planned and things achieved then I think I should be a basket case by now. My vivid childhood fantasies starred me, the boy genius, as a millionaire by thirty, best-selling author and governor of Illinois by thirty-five, and the genial and beloved, yet tough as nails, President of the United States by forty-five.

Just to keep you up to date I’m a wee bit short in the millionaire department, and if I’m going to be President on my schedule I’m going to have to crack that time travel nut pretty soon. I don’t drive a jaguar, I’m not a good public speaker, and I’ve written no best sellers to date.

Why I’m not a basket case (or perhaps I flatter myself) remains, to me, a mystery. Maybe life’s compensation for dashed hopes is a comforting drowsiness of the spirit that falls over one in middle age. About the time that famous athletes and movie stars become younger than us we begin to make adjustments to reality. Our goals become more reasonable, perhaps. I may not be a millionaire, but maybe I could afford to retire someday. I don’t have a Lamborghini, but I don’t have to drive a bucket of rust, anymore. I’m not married to Claudia Schiffer, but my beautiful and brilliant wife loves me and she’s still here after twenty-four years of my ridiculousness. To sum up life at this juncture I would have to quote the Barenaked Ladies. “I feel fine enough, I guess, considering everything’s a mess.”

What troubles me now, is not my own happiness, or lack of it, but the fact that I am responsible for the happiness of others. I guess I have been culpable in some vague way for my wife’s happiness or unhappiness for years. But, she is a big girl and in most key metrics more stable and sure-footed than me. The problem is these kids. I have discovered, in my new found adulthood, that I have a persistent and powerful desire to have my kids be happy. Unfortunately, I have no clue how to accomplish this and my efforts thus far have backfired worse that a 1972 Pinto in need of a tune-up. In my typical self-absorption I assumed that what made me happy as a kid would make my kids happy. For those of you taking notes this is not necessarily the case.

When I was a child I loved the company of adults. I needed, at some visceral level, the approval and recognition of these authority figures. The constant stroking of my little ego by my parents and more often by my grandparents made me conclude, apparently in error, that I was really something. My Grandparent’s apparent belief that I was a talented artist, a gifted writer, and an all around boy genius met with my approval from the start. The fact that they doted on me and showered me with laurels seemed to me no more than I deserved. I was going to be the millionaire President. Already, the powers that be (the adults) had recognized greatness in me and were giving me my just rewards.

What they had actually recognized in me (and liked, I might add) was obsequiousness. I was a more subtle Eddie Haskell and my earnest interest in and imitation of their views and values met with their approval from the start. I was able to validate their own notions about what a good boy should be. I sat and watched Lawrence Welk with them, for goodness sake. My cousins, who did not stoop to such obvious flattery, must have found my Grandparent’s favoritism alienating and unfair. I can only say that my cousins were right. In my own defense, I was just a kid.

Now I find, as an adult with kids of my own, that my daughter is a very different child than I was. She is headstrong where I was pliant. She is determined, where I was malleable. She is as eager to assert her own will as I was eager to please. She flies at the world with fury and righteousness. She speaks truth to power. I love her so much but I don’t always understand her.

It is well known that people, at a certain age, begin to live vicariously though their children. I never thought that would happen to me when my daughter was four. At this tender age she did something I have been too scared to do all my adult life. While we were visiting the Library in Muscatine, Iowa on May 5 2003 a local band had blocked off the street and were warming up with a few numbers in preparation for the Cinco de Mayo celebration. The avenue in front of the Library had been roped off for the street dance and nearly a whole city block was empty with pedestrians standing outside the roped area watching the mariachi band playing on the back of a flatbed semi trailer at the head of the street. Before we could stop her my daughter ducked under the rope and ran out into the vast expanse of empty pavement and proceeded to dance. My wife was chagrined and worried as our first born writhed and twisted to the Latin beat and to the gratification of a hundred bystanders. I will now admit that my weak paternal response was not fear, nor embarrassment, but sheer jealousy. I would have given any amount to possess the courage and lack of self-consciousness that celebration of joy required. In her exuberant dance I could see the shortcomings of a life lived on the safe side. I decided I could do worse than live vicariously through this little force of nature.

Now she has purple hair; or is it green today? And she lectures her Republican grandfather about gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose. She is brilliant and tough and unyielding and witty and clever and manipulative and logical and emotional and she loves little kids and she is kind to old people and she gives money to the poor and I watched her warm a little kitten’s cold, lifeless body in her hands and bring it back to life. And she doesn’t give a damn what you think about any of that.

Thinking back on our time as parents my wife and I say to each other, “what are we going to do with her.” I still don’t know. But the idea I’ve come up with lately is this; I’m going to encourage her. My daughter is not me. I desperately want her to be happy, and I know that butting heads is not going to be an easy path. I can only assume that she will get knocked down and bloodied as often as she does the knocking and bloodying.

But I have no monopoly on wisdom. Most of us are able to see the world through our own rose-colored glasses and we accommodate ourselves to the necessities of living. Some people, though, see the world as it actually is and feel a compulsion to tackle it and wrestle it to the ground kicking and screaming. My daughter is of the latter school. It is her nature as surely as grass is green and sky is blue. I have always been a mutable fellow. Why should I fight against this force of nature. I might as well be on the winning team. I love my daughter so much. If she has to wrestle the world, I aim to help her. I hope she puts a full nelson on the son-of-a-bitch.

Back Soon!

Sorry folks,

I realize I haven’t posted for a little while. In fact I’ve been up in Canada with my family on a little vacation fishing trip to Lake of the Woods. To me it’s one of the prettiest places on the planet. In fact, the home page picture from my blog is one of mine that I took on Whitefish Bay of Lake of the Woods a couple of years ago. We had a great time this year, the weather was beautiful, and we caught a few fish. I should be back in the swing of things this week. In the meantime I will try to back up my statement above about Lake of the Woods with a few photos from this year











































Sex in the Garden


Facilitated sex – A Honeybee making future Jack-o-Lanterns


Lewd Tendrils – Green beans have sex, too.

I am officially on vacation! So why, you might ask, am I out walking around in my yard at 6:30 in the morning instead of curled up in bed as my sweet and sensible wife is? Well, two reasons really. Firstly, I like getting outside in the morning to hear the wrens chirp, the cardinals sing, and the pheasants crow. It is one of the rare times of the day where nature has the upper hand on man and it is interesting to see what it feels like to be “just another guy” in this vast and complicated community. And, secondly, I have been getting up at 4:30 AM Central time every day of my last four-day trip and for some reason, as I get older, it is hard to adjust the knob on that old internal clock. But as my retired dad, who insists every day is Saturday, can tell you, there are compensations for getting older, too.


Corn Sex – Okay, not that titillating, but apparently effective.

What I found in my garden,  yard and little prairie this morning was nothing short of disgusting. There were brazen exhibitions of sex everywhere with plants openly fornicating with each other, lewd tendrils and vines slithering everywhere, insects “getting it on” or trying to, and pollen enough everywhere to literally make your eyes water.


Cowbirds – The lazy coworker of birds.

People talk a lot about Spring but this is truly the exuberant time of the year. It is when the plants and animals live it up (I’m thinking of those raccoons who harvest my sweet corn for me just about one day before it is perfectly ripe) and the more sober members of the community (honeybees) work their little tails off saving up for the long Winter ahead.

I find these plants and animals to be uncanny metaphors for a lot of the people we encounter every day. You have the spendthrifts who live on the edge of solvency and depend on the good will and hard work of others. We all have coworkers like this cowbird who lays her eggs in the carefully constructed and maintained nest of another bird and lets the other couple raise her young.

There are the careful and diligent savers, like the honeybees, who “make hay while the sun shines” and set aside part of their bounty for that cold and rainy day to come.


The Thrifty Savers – Honeybees wait anxiously to get the day started. Note the cluster near the entrance fanning their wings to move air through the hive and evaporate the nectar into honey.


Exuberant Humping in the Yard!!! Okay, so maybe that is an overly sensational caption, but even moles need love.

We have the extrovert; the tiny little Wren who sings exuberantly from whatever stage he can find. And then there is the hermit- the mole who humps up mounds in my yard but makes his solitary way, never showing his face in public.


Prairie Sex – Even plants use many different pick-up lines.

There are the heartless killers: the spiders, the snakes, mantis. And there are the useless parasites on society. Owww! Damn mosquitos!


Making the beast with two backs (and twelve legs) – Japanese Beetles doing what Japanese Beetles do (unfortunately!)

And finally, there are the “twenty-seven club” members of our natural community who live fast and die young; mayflies and Japanese Beetles come to mind.

But whether these creatures are borrowers or lenders, shining stars or wallflowers, this time of year is truly when nature’s fancy turns to thoughts of sex. Not all, but most, creatures and plants have figured out that exchanging DNA is a pretty good strategy for perpetuating the species and maybe a bit of fun, too.

by: Dustin Joy

all photos by: Dustin Joy


I have sometimes heard people say, “I will remember that if I live to be 100.” It’s one of those statements that breeze out the mouth and disappear into the air without meaning much. Or, somebody might say, “I will never forget the time …..” Again, the listener, with no prior investment in the story may or may not retain it for five minutes. But it is doubtless the teller does remember, with a vividness that the original event may have lacked.

We all remember things that, indeed, we will remember if we live to be 100. Some are remembered because of their novelty, or due to some physical impact which left us shaken, or elated, or ….. name your emotion. Strong ones are remembered. This, according to the Fundamentals of Instructing, a flight instructor’s handbook, is called the Law of Effect. We remember those things which, for us, have a strong emotional impact, usually pleasant, but nearly as often unpleasant.

We also remember things which are vivid. Flight instructors call this phenomenon the Law of Intensity. A student learns more easily how to fly an airplane by flying an airplane than by an equivalent period of time reading a book about flying an airplane.

The Law of Primacy is another which effects our learning and remembering. It says, “Things learned first create a strong impression in the mind that is difficult to erase. For the instructor, this means that what is taught must be right the first time.” This, too, is common sense. We see it in ourselves daily as we continue to do a thing incorrectly despite understanding our error. After all, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

We remember things well which are nearest us in time. This is the Law of Recency. It is elementary that one remembers a magazine article that one read yesterday better than the details of a book read last August. Memory, to be sure, is a volatile substance and it tends to evaporate and diminish with time.

That is all well and good and we are all familiar with these phenomena. Having said that, however, one is compelled to observe that not all memory is like that. There are indeed episodes in our lives that we will remember with incredible detail until we die and nobody, not even the almighty and intrepid flight instructor, can explain why. There seem to be outliers, memories that stay with us no matter when they happened, no matter what they consist of. One assumes that they follow the Laws of Learning in some complicated way that is not clear. It can only be said that the particular anecdote in question flips a switch in the mind that all the others have not. Some very vivid memories fade with time. Others, which seem to have less import, are retained throughout life.

When I was seven I broke my finger. Actually my good friend struck the blow which broke it with a little shovel as we were digging together in a sand pile. I retain the scar to this day. This experience should live prominently among the memories of my childhood. Why? Well, for one thing, it was presumably painful. Not only would the initial blow have hurt but there were complications with setting the bone. After weeks in a pseudo-cast the bone was not healing properly and had to be reset with a metal pin protruding from the end of my finger. All this would seem significantly vivid and emotional to trigger the Laws of Intensity and Effect. But I remember very little of the experience and much of the detail I do remember may have been supplied by my parents. I don’t remember getting chopped by a shovel and I don’t remember two hospitalizations. Granted, they are there in the little gray cells, but they are foggy, shrouded, and patchy. Oddly, though, I remember in great detail a trifling episode which happened concurrently involving my third grader teacher.

Mrs. Spence had sent me to the office with a note of some kind, not concerning me. Instead of delivering the note promptly, I got sidetracked and spent considerable time talking to my second grade teacher, Mrs. Pinger, in the library. When I did not return with the expected response Mrs. Spence came looking for me. I will always remember the words she used when she finally found me. She said, “Mr. Joy, I have a bone to pick with you.” There are a number of theories I have developed to explain the retention of this meaningless experience for forty years:

1. I had never been addressed as Mr. Joy before, it was a novelty.

2. I had never heard the term “bone to pick” before. Perhaps I took it to be a more menacing phrase than it actually is and remembered the incident with fear.

3. It may have been the first time I got “in trouble” with a teacher. Perhaps the reproach of an authority figure, whose approval I sought was traumatic enough to etch the incident in my memory.

4. Perhaps my undeveloped social sense had for the first time recognized a crack in the previously monolithic world of adults. I definitely understood that Mrs. Spense was not only angry at me, but also at Mrs. Pinger. This may have constituted a remarkable discovery.

All these theories contain possibilities, but none seems more substantial than having your finger mashed by a spade and being put to sleep in an operating room. Certainly the event meant nothing to anyone else. Mrs. Spense, if she remembered me even, would never recall the incident in the hundred years that I will retain it.

If you think I’m exaggerating a bit, consider this. My Grandmother often related to me the story of an insult she fancied had been made against her by a teacher in high school. That would have been about 1935. Until dementia overtook her in her nineties she could describe in exacting detail the stitches her home economics teacher made her cut out of a garment she was sewing. That was almost eighty years ago. People who can’t remember their own blood type will have such incidents seared into their memories until they shuffle off this mortal coil. Sometimes these trivial incidents are all that are left for an Alzheimer’s patient when even the names of their loved ones have faded.

Memory is a fickle student. Try as I might I cannot retain certain facts that would serve me well in my career. Yet I’m sure that on my deathbed I will be able to sing the theme song from Gilligan’s Island. Neuroscientists tell us that it is possible to train the memory for improved performance. Techniques exist to organize information in the mind for recall of facts, figures, and even faces. The resilience of Gilligan’s theme song tells us that this can happen naturally. If one person could demonstrate the focus required to replace the cobwebs and augment the trivia of daily life with useful and pertinent information he or she would be the literal King of the World. In the meantime, “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip…”

Postscript: I am very interested in these memory conundrums. I would be interested in your experience, also. Please feel free to share in the comments section of this article any odd experiences you might have had with memory (insignificant incidents which were burned into your psyche, or vivid and impactful events which didn’t make the cut.) And, if you want, speculate why this might be. Thanks for reading.

Spiders, Ewwwww!

by Robert Frost (1922)
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

I have an illogical prejudice against spiders. I’m not sure I understand it myself. Other bugs? I can take them or leave them. As a beekeeper, I have been stung by bees on occasion. As a fisherman, especially one who spends time in Canada, I have donated a pint or two to those !@#$% mosquito bloodsuckers. My kids and I all love snakes and it is treat for us when we spot a Milk Snake or Garter in our yard, especially if we can catch it. Centipedes, O.K., pushing the limit a bit, but I can deal with that. I even had a 5” long praying mantis land on my arm once and only levitated a few feet above the ground. But let a spider run up my leg and, much like the Roadrunner, there is a puff of smoke in the shape of me and I am gone.

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Not all girls are afraid of snakes

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A cute little creepy-crawly – A Tiger Salamander from our yard

Most creepy crawlers don’t bother me and, indeed, some I really enjoy. My daughter and I were elated to find a tiger salamander crossing our road one rainy day and we inconvenienced him for some time with our examinations before sending him on his way. I even walked out on my patio in Florida one morning and was excited to find a Coral Snake casually crossing our threshold. Google Coral Snake to appreciate just how momentous that was.

There is something about spiders, though, that I literally can’t put my finger on. (Won’t put my finger on.) I could say “they are killers.” And they are killers, quite skillful and remorseless killers. But that cannot be the sum of it. As I said, I love snakes and they are, by definition, cold-blooded killers.

How about the mantis? These gals are such callous assassins that they make the Terminator look like Wall-E. They not only eat other insects alive, they eat their own mates alive. As a husband I just can’t sanction that sort of behavior. Check out photo below to see one of these ladies depopulating my bee hive one morning. She would sit up on the landing board and pluck bees right out of the air with her lightning reflexes as they approached the hive. Then she would carry them down below and chew their heads off. A real sweetie.

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A Killing Machine – A Large Female Mantis stealing my honey, indirectly. Of course I was kind of stealing it from them first.

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Eaten alive – Funny, they didn’t show this in the Lion King! (notice the fly whistling past the graveyard)









But I can appreciate the beauty and efficiency of the mantis and the snake and the peregrine falcon . These are all amazing creatures at the apex of an evolutionary pyramid millions of years old. The fact that the little brown bat darting over my head last night can weave in and out among the trees and catch mosquitos on the wing by bouncing sound waves off of them is an achievement I can hardly fathom. Spiders’ strategies are just as remarkable. I have decided that I must come to terms with these amazing hunters. Firstly, of course, so that I don’t look like a sissy every time I encounter one and secondly because they deserve our grudging respect and yes, appreciation. I have almost never been injured by a spider but the insects they dispatch have done me and my garden much personal harm.

I got up early this morning while the dew was still on and took a walk around our yard. The first thing I noticed, aside from a mosquito bite, was the pattern of funnel shaped webs scattered about in the grass. I suspect they are probably there every morning during the summer months. The water droplets from the heavy dew really made them stick out today, however. The webs are the endless work of the aptly named Grass Spider or funnel web spider (Genus Agelenopsis).


Grass Spider or Funnel Web Spider – lying in wait

Aside here: one has to admire the logical minimalism of spider names. There is the above mentioned creature who lives in the grass and builds funnel-shaped webs. In addition, in Illinois, we have the Black and Yellow Garden Spider which is, get this, black and yellow and lives in the garden. We have the Crab Spider (more about him later) who looks like a crab, the Ant Mimic Spider which looks very much like an ant, the Long Legged Sac spider which has a big sac-shaped abdomen and, yep, long legs. Knowing how descriptive spider naming conventions are could lead to some arachnophobia if one thinks about it. For example, also in Illinois we have the Spitting Spider, the Jumping Spider, the Grey Wall Jumper, the Black Widow, and the ominously-named Mouse Spider (How the hell big is that thing? Does it eat mice? Is it as big as a mouse? Ewwwwww!)

As research for this post, I decided I would try to identify all the spiders I see around our place. There is, of course, the Common House Spider (real imagination in naming that one.) The most common (by a factor of 10) spider that I see in our house, though, is a wispy, frail looking little spider that I find in our cellar anytime I want to look. They have long-thin legs, a long body, and they hang around up in the joists on disorganized, sort of drunken-looking webs, and don’t seem to do much. I went to some effort in my search, finally discovering the very cool website And I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that this long-bodied spider living in my cellar is called – The Long-Bodied Cellar Spider.


The Long Bodied Cellar Spider – very descriptive

Okay, back to the Grass Spider. Their little funnels are marvels of architecture and each one I saw was designed to interact with and accommodate its local geography. Each had a large platform of web, roughly horizontal and, at one end, a funnel-shaped hole disappearing down into the grass. If one looks closely he is able to see the small spider sitting down in the aperture waiting patiently. Grass Spider webs, unlike those of most species, are not sticky. They are not meant to trap the prey and hold them, but to transmit the subtle vibrations of insects which walk across them. The Grass Spider, who is incredibly fast, does the “leg work,” dashing out to grab the unfortunate victim and administer the fatal bite. There is not much about this evolutionary masterpiece to evoke our human sympathy. The famous song from the Lion King inadequately prepares us for the real “Circle of Life” and how it works. This little predator does a lot of heavy lifting for us and our instinctual response is, once again, Ewwwww!

I like to come out in the early morning when the birds first begin their chorus and walk around doing nothing in particular other than trying to be an observer. This is a challenge for someone whose wife actually coined the word “Non-payattentional” to describe him. Still, every once in awhile I spot something cool. One morning I came out to water the petunias growing in our big cauldron at the end of the sidewalk. What I found was akin to the horror described in Frost’s poem and was, indeed, probably the same creature. Since a picture is worth a thousand words here is the picture:



Imagine yourself the size of a honeybee and approaching this pretty flower hoping for a payoff of nectar. Here, lying in wait, is this little monster ready to draw you into it’s warm embrace. This is the Crab Spider and again, evolution has produced an efficient killing machine here. So effective are these spiders at using camouflage to their advantage that they can actually change to accommodate the flowers they use. says,

“This species is one of the few spiders in North America that are capable of actively changing their body color from yellow to white, or vice versa, depending on the flower they are perched on. They do this by transferring a liquid pigmented material to the cuticle.”

Apparently purple was outside this spider’s repertoire. Still, he blends in pretty well here, looking very much like the stamen of the petunia. Again, a grudging admiration is in order here.

Finally we have the Wolf Spider. This is probably the “scariest” spider we regularly encounter in Illinois. They are active “hunting” spiders who do not spin webs but, like the Grass Spiders lie in wait in a shallow hole in the ground and then pounce on any appropriately-sized prey who happens by (unnerving note: This can include small rodents.) They are the quintessential “scare the crap out of you” spiders. They are big and hairy and have long legs and, in one of the more creepy and odd reproductive strategies in nature, the female carries her hundreds of creepy-crawly babies around on her abdomen for a considerable time during their development. Again, below is a thousand-word photo taken by my Dad of a wolf spider in her den. Perhaps this picture illustrates the reason people fear spiders better than any other.


Care for some spelunking?


That’s OK, I’ll come out to get you, I mean eat you , I mean meet you.

Why do we, and in particular, I, get creeped out by spiders. Why can I pick up a snake or handle beehive frames swarming with honeybees but will almost reflexively “squish” a wolf spider that walks across the sidewalk? I really think, in the final analysis, that it is a matter of eyes. A creature with eight legs is one thing. A creature with eight eyes is quite another. There are very few animals in the world who are not “binocular,” like ourselves.


As open-minded as you might be, if this picture doesn’t give you the willies you are a better person than I am.

Jellyfish, scallops, and starfish have multiple “light-sensing” organs. Some reptiles and amphibians have a remnant “third eye” which is sensitive to changes in light and dark but does not form images. But almost no other creature in nature has the obvious “creepy” grouping of six or eight eyes which are quite clearly eyes. It is hard when you are looking at them not to have a sense that they are looking at you even more intently.

Many other animals bear differences from our family of bipedal, semi-hairy, semi-intelligent mammals. Frogs are different from us in every way, from metamorphosis to the simple fact of greenness. Snakes are cold-blooded killers as we mentioned before. Even our beloved cats will rip the throat out of a cute little bunny rabbit when given the chance (funny they didn’t show that in the Lion King.) I think it must be these weird, foreign eyes that prejudice us against spiders. We cannot conceive of looking at the world from eight different angles at once. Nothing on earth looks so much like our conception of an alien as a spider does. Add onto that their proclivity for killing and skulking around in dark places and they are the perfect spook.

With the right point of view, we might realize that this diversity is what makes nature so interesting and worthwhile. Like with so much of nature, I think it behooves us to learn more about spiders and to try to deprogram our Ewwwww! response a bit, and make an effort to appreciate these amazing and versatile killing machines. At least keep an eye or two (or eight) on them.

By: Dustin Joy

photos by: Dustin Joy and Richard Joy