21 May 2010

The Ants Crawl In . . .

I walked down the front walk of home too early this morning. But I came up upon a most interesting sight. In the crack of the sidewalk along the edge where it butted up to the grass line, a small earthworm, about 11/2 inches long and curled about in a spiral. It was overrun with tiny ants, obviously intent on getting that body down the ant hole where it might serve as a repast for a good many ants for who knows how long.

It was clear to me that either the deceased worm was too large for the hole, or that the hole was too small for the ants to easily pull the worm into it. But I was fascinated by the endeavor, and watched for a quarter of an hour while the ants poured over the worm and around the site in some effort to do something. Over the course of the day, however, I observed the steady effort undertaken by this community, and watched as they strategically continued to enlarge the hole until by dinner time (for all concerned, I suppose, even me, though I changedthe meal from spaghetti to mere soup) the ants had created an opening into which the worm had slipped.

Of course, I thought immediately of two accounts of ants that sit in the center of my consciousness. First, is the story “Leinengen vs. the Ants,” a short story I recall reading when I was in school too many years ago. As I recall, the story recounts the losing battle Leinengen fights with a huge army of ants that voraciously consumes everything in its path—including, I think, Leinengen! The second instance is Thoreau’s account of the battle of the ants in Walden, in which he compares these ants to that of the heroic Greeks, not at all complimentary to the latter.

But what intrigues me in the incident I observed outside of my home was the apparent consciousness of these ants. I have a few questions: who planned the strategy? How was it communicated to the others? Who directed the operations? And how many ants finally were called upon to participate in the task? And I am stunned by the absolute success. I might have suggested cutting up the worm into much, much smaller pieces, but apparently someone knew better.

And then there was this article in the newspaper suggesting that physicists had discovered some reason why there is something here (in the universe, that is) rather than nothing. That is, equal amounts of matter and anti-matter were present at the moment of the Big Bang, and theoretically, they should have canceled each other out leaving nothing. (I wonder, would that be ‘nothing’ in the universe, or would there just be nothing and no universe). But clearly there is something here, and physicists have for some time wondered why? I have wondered all of my life why I am here, and now am somewhat relieved that the physicists have answer to my existential query, but I certainly wish they could write it in some form I could understand. Anti-matter? Anti-muons? Mesons, and not the social organization?

15 May 2010


I haven’t put up a post in a good long while—I’ve been reading too many jokes. None of them in the news, though the news is full of them.

But Gary loves this one:

A Jew, we’ll call him Boris, comes into the Communist Party office and asks for membership. The official looks at him and says, “Do you know who is Karl Marx?”
Boris says, “No.”
Well,” says the official, “do you know Vladimir Lenin.”
”Never heard of him,” Boris replies.
Losing patience, the official asks, “And who is Comrade Molotov?”
And Boris says, “I don’t know.”
The official says, “Are you playing games with me?”

Then Boris says to the official, “Do you know Hershkovitz?”
The official says “No.”
“And what about Heschel Abramovitz?”
“Never heard of him.”
Finally Boris says, “And do you know Yankel Horowitz or Nahum Davidovich?”

“Well,” says, Boris, "that’s the way it goes. You’ve got your friends and I’ve got mine.”

Why do I need to explain this joke? In my writing I’m trying to integrate the jokes into a larger narrative, and in order to do so, I think I have to understand the context⎯the subject⎯of the joke. Not what the joke is about, but about what is the joke.

And so I’ve been trying to understand what is funny about that joke. The basis of most good jokes, I always thought, was irony. Not sarcasm so much as irony, the former being mean and too often cruel and crude. And so I guess what is ironic about that joke rests in the discrepancy between the innocence of Boris and the absolute essentialness of that knowledge he is supposed to possess. Boris means to join the Party and he is being asked (though he remains completely unaware of this) to what extent he knows not only the names but the ideas with which these names have become associated. Boris hasn’t a clue about the world, and yet as an innocent he wants to join it, oblivious perhaps of the world he wants to join. In the joke, the party represents the world. It would be similar to a man applying for membership in a radical feminist group because he thinks that such a community is where he might find women to bed. And not only is Boris not familiar with these men, he isn’t even aware that they possess any more importance than his friends. Since for Boris we all move in different circles, why should he be expected to know the official’s friends any more than the official should be expected to know Boris’s friends. That’s the way it goes!

The irony exists in the space between what Boris knows and what the listener of the joke knows—a whole world, in fact, and one thing I love about this jokes (and others like it) is that its telling hurts no one!! It is a good irony and a good joke.

08 May 2010

On questions, answers and conversation

There are more serious disappointments than failing a driver’s test, but for a sixteen year old, perhaps that is a hard fact to accept. Maybe it is because the license suggests some rite of passage, some movement from childhood to something beyond it. Clearly, she wouldn’t be an adult, but neither would she want to continue to be a child. Or maybe the license represents some possibility for freedom, which, of course, is not indistinct from the movement out of childhood.

Sometimes the pains of parenthood outweigh its joys. And sometimes I know the benefits of disappointment, but it doesn’t hurt any the less.

Somewhere in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson says that most conversation is an attempt to avoid a fight. At one time I thought I knew what that meant—but lately I discover not only don’t I understand Bateson’s statement, but that I am having trouble understanding the purpose of most conversation.

Oh, I am being only a bit facetious. I know why we talk—converse, that is, but perhaps I am wondering how the process works. Rather, how do I feel present in a conversation? And I’m thinking that perhaps my presence occurs with the question: not ‘how are you,’ but ‘did you think of anything on down the line.” I borrow that line from Arlo, but it has stuck with me for many, many years now. The question opens the space for talk. The questions opens. And any response is legitimate for the questions any response that takes the questions seriously. As expressing real interest.

Thoreau says that he had three chairs in his cabin: one for solitude, two for company and three for society. Any intimacy in conversation probably would refuse more chairs. Conversation is for thinking, and so Thoreau says, sometimes he and his companion would move their hairs to opposite sides of the cabin in order to make room for their sentences to expand.

So maybe what Bateson referred to is the inability of too many to accept ambiguity and doubt—the prerequisite of the question. And therefore, to insist on primacy of the answer which leaves no space for the question.

How are you might be a real question, but too often lacks legitimacy? But did you think of anything on down the line requires thought and patience and demands conversation.