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MARTHA SEZ: Spiders and the secret life of dust

July 23, 2015
By MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

I have always believed that housework is fundamentally an attempt at control, not just over the order of the immediate household, but over our life in general. If we can't even control the cobwebs in the corners and the dust under the sofa, how are we to stave off the reaper?

Speaking of cobwebs, have you noticed how active the spiders are becoming lately? This is the beginning of spider season. It comes every year, and even though the little terrorists capture and assassinate many bugs that we like even less than we like spiders, we feel compelled to knock down their webs with a broom, just as people have been doing for centuries. Dust and cobwebs are ghoulish symbols of neglect and decay.

If the tone of this column seems glum, what with all of this mention of mortality, it is because I have been reading a fascinating book, "The Secret Life of Dust," by Hannah Holmes. The gist of it is that we come from dust and will be dust, without fail, again. Nowhere else have I seen science and the Old Testament come together so neatly; and yet I think that the author need not have been so glib about it. In fact she seems downright delighted, in that way scientists have, to be spouting her disturbing message so cold bloodedly, or at least offhandedly.

Asthma among children is on the increase, although no one seems to understand why, Holmes tells us. Many kinds of dust trigger asthma attacks, but why are more and more children developing this bronchial sensitivity in the first place?

Some recent studies indicate that children who are brought up in hermetically sealed neat and clean dust free environments are more likely to develop asthma than those brought up amid dust bunnies. A theory is going around that breathing in dust may help us strengthen our auto immune systems.

You couldn't prove it by me. A woman I met recently told me that she has housework attention deficit disorder, and I can relate. I have always found housework to be overwhelming and confounding. Even so, my daughter developed asthma. Perhaps it would have been worse had I been a better housekeeper.

Vacuuming and sweeping cause dust to rise up into the air, where humans breath it in, Holmes writes. This serves to back up my lifelong fear of vacuum cleaning. Still, when compelled to vacuum, I have done so, often practicing the slam method of hostile vacuuming used by housewives everywhere there are vacuum cleaners. Some may call it passive aggressive vacuuming.

By the way, I personally feel that passive aggression has been given a bum rap. What are one's choices in a situation in which one, normally so sweet, begins to feel-not to put too fine a point on it-a little upset?

The choices, as I see it, are passive aggression, active aggression and being nice. Active aggression is worse than passive aggression, and being nice is not always possible. This is why hostile vacuuming, with its loud noise, reckless ramming of walls and furniture, some of it quite possibly family heirlooms, and self-righteous implied attitude "Someone has to do the cleaning around here!" comes in right next to slamming the cupboard doors.

Getting back to the book, Holmes tells us that the dust on our computer screen and beneath the bed is a conglomeration of disparate particles, including star dust from meteorites, desert sand from as far away as the continents of Asia and Africa, lint, bacteria, bits of our own sloughed off skin, dust mites and the tiny so-called pseudo-scorpions that stalk them, and many others.

Far from romanticizing a person's aura-because of course Holmes is a scientist, not a psychic-she writes that we all walk around surrounded by individual clouds of dead cells, moisture droplets, and so on.

In the last chapter she sanguinely reminds us, "Indeed, the entire earth will be dust."

The good part, according to Holmes, is that all of this earth dust may float around the universe until it gathers itself into other planets, just as our solar system was created. New life may begin.

The book ends on this note: "And then, like an old newspaper in the attic, the worn-out universe will gradually disappear under the thickening dust."

Maybe so, but that is no excuse not to pick up your socks.

Have a good week.



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