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The Whippet #137: Please don’t make me fight a fire ant

McKinley Valentine — 10 min read

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Hello, welcome back, new year!

As I was approaching New Year’s, I wasn’t feeling particularly new-yearish because of, you know, 2021, but we’ve finally had some actual warm days for the first time this summer* and since I’m a simple animal, this means I’m currently feeling pretty positive and forward-looking.

* It’s a La Niña year — La Niña is a weather system which has all kinds of effects globally but in south-eastern Australia, it makes the summer rainy, grey and cold. So I don’t love her. But last week has been warm.

Here are some animals whose existence I learned of in 2022 so far:

  • the Sarcastic Fringehead
  • the Stoplight Loosejaw
  • the Silken Windhound

You see why I group them together. You could just keep fabricating animals with this naming pattern if you wanted.

The first two are horrible deep-sea fish with upsetting mouths and unconvincing excuses (“When two fringeheads have a territorial battle, they wrestle by pressing their distended mouths against each other, as if they were kissing. This allows them to determine which is the larger fish, which establishes dominance.” — Wikipedia)

The Silken Windhound is a breed of dog descended from a borzoi and a whippet:

“If you’ve ever dreamed of a small, curvy dog something like a tiny Borzoi, with a long, flowing coat and soulful eyes, then you’ve dreamed of a Silken Windhound

buddy that is not as relateable a dream as you think it is

No one knows why the Rasberry Crazy Ant is attracted to electrical equipment

It’s named after Texan exterminator Tom Rasberry, but you can call it a Raspberry Crazy Ant if you want and no one will notice I bet.

The Raspberry Crazy Ant, for some reason, loves electronics, so it will come and chew through wires and get electrocuted. When an ant dies, it releases an alarm pheromone which makes other ants rush to the scene of the crime,* which in turn causes more to be electrocuted, and if enough of them gather then it can short out electrical systems.

This is not why they’re called ‘crazy ants’ by the way — that’s because they move in a darting, erratic way. But if the tiny shoe fits.

Like your ordinary ant, raspberry crazy ants secrete formic acid which stings a bit when they bite. But unlike your ordinary ant, they figured out that formic acid neutralises fire ant venom, which would normally paralyse them. So if they have to fight a fire ant, they cover themselves in formic acid first. In one of those upsetting-type scientific experiments, researchers tested this by painting over raspberry fire ants’ formic acid gland with clear nail polish, and then making them go fight some fire ants, and being like “wow they lost”.

[Wikipedia page]

* all ants do this, so squashing ants is not a good method of getting rid of them

‘Forensics’ comes from ‘forum’

I always assumed it was linked to ‘crime’ but it’s evidence you debate in public

Amazingly, forum, forest, foreign, forfeit, hors d’oeuvre and thyroid all come from the same root: for meaning ‘outdoors, outside’.

  • Forum in Ancient Greece was outdoors
  • A forest is obviously outside
  • A foreign person comes from outside the borders of your country
  • To forfeit something is to lose it because of misconduct, but originally forfeit meant the misconduct itself: something outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour
  • An hors d’oeuvre is a little snack served outside of the normal meal

And these all come from the proto-Indo-European root dhwer, meaning door (door —> outdoors).  Your thyroid gets that name because it’s vaguely door-shaped.

-oid always means ‘shaped’, as in humanoid, android (man-shaped) and asteroid (star-shaped)

Thank you for joining me on this etymology spiral

My all-time favourite advice column letter

This is from Care and Feeding, Slate’s advice column for parenting-type advice. The advice-giver is Nicole Cliffe, who co-created The Toast with Danny Lavery (formerly Ortberg).

November 22, 2019

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m 15, and three years ago I was adopted by my Uncle “John” and his husband “Greg.” My parents lost custody of me because my dad put me in a coma (and went to jail for it), and my mom defended him because I’d been “provocative.” There’d been a lot of abuse over the years, but that was when police got involved and I went to stay with my uncles.

I was so happy when they adopted me—and then I kind of lost my mind. I behaved terribly: stole their money, deliberately broke things, skipped school, wrote homophobic things about Greg on Facebook (he found out, which was awful), and just generally acted like a nightmare brat. I genuinely can’t wrap my head around why they put up with me and didn’t throw me out of their home, but I’m so grateful to them for how kind and forgiving they’ve been to me.

A few months ago, I suddenly got some perspective on how I’d been behaving, and it felt like waking up from a trance. I apologized a lot and have just been trying very hard to be better and nicer to them since. I’ve started actually being honest with the therapist they get me to see, which is helping a lot.

My issue is that now that I’ve started behaving like an OK person again, Greg’s adult kids have started inviting me to family events that I previously would definitely have ruined or refused to go to. (I used to do a thing of complaining that Greg had “nothing to do with me,” which makes me want to curl up and die thinking about now.) There’s an event upcoming in November, and they’ve asked if I want to join them for a meal with Greg and John, and if I want to go in on a present.

I absolutely do, but I hate the thought of intruding on his family time. He hasn’t had any time with his real kids in months. I think he won’t really want me there, considering how I’ve treated him in the past. I know that he and my uncle would definitely tell me I was welcome if I asked them, but that’s because they’re too nice to say anything else. But if I skip it, they might think I’m lashing out at Greg again. What should I do? Do I go and risk intruding on his family time, or not go and risk him thinking I’m being awful again? Is there another option?

—I’m Not a Monster Anymore

Dear INaMA,

I think that you will be surprised at the amount of love and forgiveness people are prepared to show a 12-year-old who has been placed in a literal coma by their “parents” and weathered years of prior abuse. Your uncles are, as you know, wonderful people, and although I’m sure your actions were deeply painful for them, they did not boot you out because they understood why your trauma and anger might spill over onto a “safe” target. Kudos to them.

I would write a letter to your uncles. I know you have apologized, and are trying to make amends, but there is much to be said for getting everything out in a medium where no one will cut you off and say “it’s OK, it’s OK.” It’s not OK, you behaved badly, and you will feel better if you can truly get it all out on “paper.” (I assume you’ll email them, I know it’s not the 1800s.)

Once you have covered your gratitude, your behavior, your sorrow at it, and your wish to make amends, I would ask Greg if he is comfortable with you attending events with his kids, and ask him if he needs more time. Emphasize you do not want him to just say yes to make you happy, that you genuinely want to take your time proving that you are now a safe and better person.

Then trust him when he answers you. You’ll be in my thoughts.

[via Slate, second-last letter on page]


January 6, 2020

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am writing to update you on the letter “I’m Not a Monster Anymore.” The writer, “Owen,” is my adopted son, and he referred to me as “Greg” in his letter. I think Owen must have forgotten that I am the person in our household who reads Slate advice columns and originally showed him this page! I came across his letter last week and ended up crying on public transport.

I thought you would appreciate knowing that he took your advice and wrote us a letter (with pen and paper, 1800s-style!) in which he apologized for the anger he’s expressed toward me specifically over the years. It meant the world to me. He didn’t end up asking about coming to the meal because I beat him to it and asked if he would like to come when we were having a big conversation about his letter to us—I’d honestly thought he would say no and was thrilled that he seemed keen to come for a change.

We’ve talked a lot and, after discovering his letter here, my husband and I have had a long talk with him about using kinder language to describe himself and about his place as being very much one of our “real kids.” He was not a monster, for the record—just a handful, and we understood why. Thank you so much for the thoughtful response you wrote to him!


[via Slate, last letter on page]

Christ, I put these into the issue before writing anything else, and re-read them obviously, and now I’m too emotional to write about the raspberry crazy ant. Rookie error!

Are you still crying? Hang on I’ll give you a minute.




Thanks for reading! Next issue will be a regular-length Whippet, and I hope you will join me 🙏

If you would like to support The Whippet, which I would certainly appreciate a lot, you can do that by becoming a paying subscriber with this button:

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You can also yell at your friends about how they should read it, if you think they might like it (and by yell I mean, maybe use an extra exclamation mark in the group chat or something).

Silken Windhound
Silken Windhound

Sarcastic Fringehead photo (horrible) | Stoplight Loosejaw photo (horrible, note stoplight) | Raspberry Crazy Ant photo (just a little guy)

Cross stitch pattern with text reading, "The world might be full of despair and broken promises but it is also full of brightly colored poisonous frogs." image of a blue and yellow poison dart frog
[Cross-stitch sampler which you can buy here.]

Meta/process stuff, not necessary to read

Lastly, I have been thinking a bit about Whippet Cetera [extra paywalled issues] and what shape that wants to be.

A reader gave some very astute feedback — very roughly paraphrased, that it’s not really clear what it’s trying to be, so they don’t know how to mentally categorise it when they’re looking at their inbox, in the way that you can go “oh yep, The Whippet, I’ll read that on Sunday” or whatever. And I think, yeah, that’s how I feel too: I like to know how to place things.

There is a bit of a tricky paradox — I obviously want it to be something that is actually of any interest or value to readers, otherwise you’re just burdening their inbox, but it is also very important to me that it not be better than The Whippet, because I want The Whippet to be fundamentally free and accessible to anyone who wants to read it.

People don’t really subscribe for ‘transactional’ reasons (“I pay you $X in exchange for Y product/service”) but because they want to support the whippet, and keep it free for other people. I don’t want to change that and turn it into a transaction (and I think people would be rightly annoyed if I did).

So it has to really be bonus/extra, like director’s commentary on DVDs, not something unpaid subscribers would be ‘missing out’ on. But also somehow not just pointless clutter.

Maybe it will turn out there’s nothing in that Venn diagram overlap!

But here’s what I’m trying next:

My plan is to make Whippet Cetera themed issues — same structure as regular Whippet, with a mix of articles and my own writing, but all around a single topic or theme that I’ve been thinking about a lot. That way I can still explore specific things I’m fixated on, and it will still be a bit more personal, but the structure will hopefully have a place that fits in people’s heads.

The next Whippet Cetera will be themed around the idea of closure, which I think might be a fake idea, and ways a few different people have dealt with the idea.

There are two ways to do new things: a) plan them out perfectly and launch them in glorious ideal condition, and b) just try them and reshape as you go, as you start to see what things feel like. Sometimes a) is really the way to go, especially with a high-stakes, one-off event, but if it’s a regular thing that no one’s life depends on, you can afford to be iterative.

Here is the very first issue of The Whippet if you want to see what I mean.

Thanks for bearing with me through the iterations, which may not be done yet!

Thoughts on this whole complexity are welcome! (also thoughts on other things, i’m not setting any rules)

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