“Ask Uncle Jay: Cicadas,” by Jay Morris

Aug 15th, 2012 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

Dear Uncle Jay:

My friend Irwin went to several specialists to be treated for an intermittent buzzing sound in his ears. They treated him with everything from ear drops to anti-psychotic drugs to electro-shock therapy, but it turns out Irwin just had an influx of newly-emergent cicadas under the tree in his back yard. Now that his mind has cleared a bit, Irwin did some research and says that some species of cicadas bury themselves in the ground near tree roots for years at a time. Is that true? What do they do down there?

                                    –B.W., Racine, Wisc.

Yes, the cicada is an insect that does nothing for up to seventeen years at a stretch, then suddenly goes into a short-lived frenzy of seemingly mindless activity. This is why cicadas often remind people of congressmen.

But what explains the vapid torpor of these time-wasting insects? Who knows? Maybe term limits would help. The cicadas’ behavior has puzzled people also.

One pioneering cicada researcher, Ralph Kramden (no relation to the Honeymooners character), planted a large tree in a specially-built, soil-filled glass tank, planning to devote the next seventeen years of his life to studying the activities, if any, of the cicadas located inside. His study suffered a major setback when the government cancelled his research grant because the $200,000 allocated to him was desperately needed to hire another Pentagon manicurist; undaunted, Kramden relocated the cicada tank to his parents’ modest home. Sixteen years, eleven months, and twenty-nine days later, the study–which cost him his professional reputation, thousands of boring hours staring at seemingly dead bugs, and any number of close interpersonal relationships–was finally nearing the seventeen year mark, and its much anticipated conclusion. Kramden went out to a nearby 7-11 to buy a celebratory Slurpee, and when he came back home, fully expecting to see life’s work justified and the cicadas emerge, he found instead that in his absence his mother had thrown the tank out with the trash because it was “cluttering up the garage.”

Few other long-term, in-depth studies to determine the reason for the cicadas’ puzzling seventeen-year cycle have been attempted, but theories abound. One eccentric researcher, Dr. Betty Grable (no relation to the pin-up), believes the reason is obvious: the cicadas hide underground for seventeen years after reproducing simply because they can. By the time they emerge, their kids are ready to leave for college. As proof, Grable points to a newly-commissioned poll that reports that 97.61% of all human parents currently raising teenagers would rather be underground sucking on tree roots.

Dr. Grable is certainly not the only unconventional theorist in the field, however–something about the unusual nature of cicadas seems to attract unorthodox thinkers, known widely in the scientific community as “nut jobs.” A few scientists even continue to subscribe to the generally-disparaged theories of Dr. Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand Solger (no relation to the German philosopher, born in Schwedt, who was pre-occupied with the polarity of the finite and the infinite) who postulated that only by analyzing the cicada’s evolved physical characteristics could clues to its behavior be obtained. For example, noting that many species of the insect are renowned for their inordinately large, glowing, red eyes, Dr. Solger concluded that the cicadas are either doing a lot of reading underground, or else sitting too close to the television.


Jay Morris is a graduate of LaSalle University, where he was awarded a scholarship for creative writing. He has published dozens of stories in various literary magazines, including Philadelphia Stories and Zahir. He has also written one play, Rude Baby, which was recently produced, and worked for a time as a joke writer for Jay Leno. His new humor book, Uncle Jay’s Unreliable Almanac, is available at Amazon.



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