An Outlook

Though it seems difficult to believe, by the time this issue of the Peninsula Pulse reaches you there will be only one week until Memorial Day Weekend. And like most of you, this means that my life has become rather frantic in the mad rush to accomplish all the things on my To-Do List that were supposed to be finished before the traditional beginning of the tourist season.

Still, in the midst of this chaos I found time to be distracted by two perplexing questions that have troubled me. On the rather remote chance that you, too, have been kept awake puzzling over these questions, I offer the answers below in the hope that this will provide the solace you require in order to complete your own personal To-Do List.

Item #1:  I subscribe to a magazine called “The Week,” which is a compendium of news stories from publications throughout the world offering a wide assortment of perspectives in a condensed, easily read format. One of the features of this publication is a weekly section that highlights real estate for sale across the country (most well beyond the price range of an average citizen, but fun to look at, nonetheless). A property in a recent issue featured a New York penthouse, which started me wondering where and when the term penthouse originated.

During the Victorian era, a popular parlor game was called “Dictionary.” The essence of this game involved a word (preferably obscure) being selected from a dictionary. A moderator would announce the word and give one person in the parlor the exact definition of the word while two or three others had to fabricate a definition. Each person then read their definition aloud and the remaining guests had to try to choose the correct definition (Note:  Interestingly, this same game, transformed into a “board game” version, is available today under the name “Balderdash”).

So if I was playing “Dictionary” (or “Balderdash”) and I was asked to define “penthouse,” my answer would probably be something like this:  literally “pent,” as in confined or caged, and house, because the luxury apartments reminded people of castle Keeps, i.e. the towers where prisoners were held.

This sounds pretty good, and if we were actually playing the game I might even fool a few people with this definition. The real answer is much more mundane, however.

The word “penthouse” comes from the Middle English (approximately 14th century) word “pentis,” meaning shed. The more expansive meaning is any building that is attached to a larger building and/or that features a roof with a single slant.

When the luxury apartments on the top floors of building began to appear around 1900, people thought that, because of their location, they resembled the small structures that covered the top of stairs leading to the roof. “Pentis” became “penthouse” and, before you know it, a shed became a luxury apartment.

Item #2:  Recently, I was wondering around my yard checking to see what plants looked like they would be coming back this year after a very long and cold winter. In particular, I checked on the peonies that are planted along side the driveway and was reminded that, several years ago, someone asked me why ants are so attracted to peony buds.

Hardly one to shirk a challenge, I set out to answer the riddle of the ants and the peonies and this is what I discovered.

Despite appearances, the ants that you see on your peonies are not actually eating any portion of the bud or plant. As the buds develop they exude a substance that is extremely rich in sugars and, as we all know, ants are readily attracted to sugar. An “old-wives tale” holds that ants are necessary for the peony buds to actually bloom, which, while it sounds wonderfully symbiotic, is simply not true. Scientists have proven conclusively that peonies will flower just fine in the absence of ants.

If there is any symbiotic relationship between the peony and ants at all it may be that the presence of the ants keeps other, more harmful, insects away.

The material I found stated that ants have a particular fondness of the exudates of peony buds because they are an excellent source of energy, but my own observations seem to belie this assertion.

More often than not, when you see ants that have discovered something particularly tasty, you will see a steady stream of ants coming to, and going from, the delicacy. Spill a can of soda on your patio and within 20 minutes the unsightly spill will be a main feeding station for a veritable caravanserai of ants from a nearby ant hill you never even knew existed.

Yet the ants on my peonies, once comfortably situated on a bud, stayed there. I know this because a few years ago one particularly large black ant, located on one particularly large peony bud, also happened to have only part of a back leg. Thus he was easy to recognize, and every morning he was there, on the very same bud, feverishly drinking down the sugary exudates.

Since I have had some personal experience with addiction, I began to speculate that the exudates from peony buds were not simply a food source but were, in fact, an intense narcotic affecting only ants. And, of course, once I begin to speculate I begin to imagine…

Queen Ant (calling her faithful, though rather frail, man servant):  Melvin! Melvin! Have you been able to locate my big, strapping Seymour yet? Our colony needs more workers and I can’t make more workers without my big, strong Seymour.

Melvin (rather sheepishly, if an ant can be sheepish):  Your Majesty, I regret that we have found him but we have not been able to convince him to come in. You see …

Queen Ant (aghast):  You don’t mean…

Melvin:  I’m terribly sorry to report that your consort of choice has chanced upon a peony and has succumbed fully to its enchantments. He sits atop the highest bud, through wind and rain. No matter the condition, he remains steadfast, licking and licking and licking; growing bigger and bigger and …

Queen Ant (with dismay and a trace of titillation):  I, uh, understand your point. What do you suggest?

Melvin (with shrug of two of his three shoulders):  There is nothing we can do until the bud flowers, your Highness. Then, if he hasn’t killed himself with his nectar, and we are lucky enough to catch him, we can possibly convince him to enroll in Peony Addicts Anonymous, better known as P.A.A. Even then, he may never fully recover. And next spring, when the first buds appear …

Queen Ant (impatiently):  Yes, yes, I understand your point. (After a pause, with a rather dreamy voice) Melvin, just how big would you say Seymour has grown?

Obviously, at this point, my imagination has gone far enough. When I begin to imagine a somewhat familiar acronym in a new and rather disturbing way, the time has come to return to some real work, and (hopefully) the real world. After all, my To-Do List awaits!