Monday, October 28, 2013

Day of Darkness

A colony of ants lives peacefully in the nest they’ve industriously built in the grass, a few feet away from a suburban sidewalk.  They are happy there and go merrily about their business, metamorphosing from larva to pupa to adult, caring for their queen, maintaining and growing the nest, foraging for food.

Meanwhile, at one of the homes on the same suburban street, Kyle, 15, and his brother Jeff, 12, get ready to go to school.  They finish their breakfast, grab their book bags and head out the door.  Their school bus picks them up at the corner, so they need to walk half a block.  They hit the sidewalk and start walking.

There is much activity at the ant colony.  Leaves brought in by foragers must be cut into pieces to be placed in fungal gardens.  Larvae must be fed.  The nest needs constant maintenance.

As they walk down the sidewalk, the boys push each other around, as brothers are wont to do.   They playfully jostle each other all the way to the bus stop.  As they near the stop, Kyle gives Jeff a hard shove, causing the 12 year-old to stumble off the sidewalk.  Jeff’s sneaker comes down...

Suddenly, day turns into night at the nest.  But it is much too early for that, and it happens much too quickly.  The ants look up in astonishment and wonder.

… and lands right in the middle of the nest.  

Catastrophe.  Devastation.  Unspeakable destruction.  The darkness that impossibly descended from the sky hits the nest with indescribable force.  Most of the nest is destroyed.  There are millions of casualties.

The school bus arrives.  Kyle and Jeff climb aboard.

As they slowly rebuild their nest and mourn their dead, the devastated, bewildered surviving ants try to make sense of what happened.  Some say the crushing darkness from above was sent down by their Creator, in punishment for their non-belief.  Others are convinced that the ants that were killed must have been targeted by the Creator for their non-traditional ways, or non-traditional thoughts (in the case of those who did not display any wayward tendencies).   Although a small number of ants do not subscribe to either of those theories and fervently hold that no ant truly understands what happened or why, they are drowned out by those who believe in the various punishment scenarios.  

The minority of ants who refuse to believe that the “Day of Darkness”, as the event is now known, was a divine act are ostracized by the others.   They begin to be called “The Apostates”.  Some of the more fanatical ants begin to circulate a theory: the Creator allowed some of The Apostates to survive the Day of Darkness so that the surviving true believers would recognize that non-belief was its true cause.  The Creator, say the fanatical ants, who call themselves “The Knot of Truth”, made it clear through His actions that there is only one way to appease Him and make absolutely sure that there will never again be a Day of Darkness.  The ants must “purify” the colony by eliminating The Apostates and their heresy.

Although the “Purification” plan put forth by The Knot of Truth is initially met with some opposition, the fear of another Day of Darkness trumps everything else.  The Apostates are rounded up and summarily executed.  The Knot of Truth becomes the spiritual leadership of the colony.  Belief in The Creator becomes law.

The colony’s new dogma states that the ants had strayed from their Creator’s teachings, with the Day of Darkness the inevitable consequence.  They have purified the colony and are now living their lives in accordance with their Creator’s plan (as interpreted, in detail, by the Knot of Truth).  They will therefore never face another Day of Darkness.

The next morning, Kyle and Jeff walk out of their house on their way to the bus stop.  As they walk down the sidewalk, the boys push each other around, as brothers are wont to do.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Shamed at Dunkin'

I enjoy a small coffee (plenty of cream, no sugar) at a table by a window.  There’s a Starbucks across the street, but I like Dunkin’s coffee better, and, more importantly, Dunkin’s Internet connection is far superior (which is not saying much, but still).  While sipping the thick, creamy beverage I read “A Wanted Man” (Jack Reacher #17) by Lee Child, which, as usual for Reacher, is going much too fast.  In the book, Reacher muses, while driving, about numbers.  The number three, in particular.  “Take any three consecutive numbers, the largest divisible by three, and add them up, and then add the digits of the result, again and again if necessary , until just a single number is left.  That number will be six.”

Obviously I have no choice but to stop reading, switch over from the Kindle app on my Nexus 7 to the Calculator app, and check this out.  Amazingly, it works.  Every single time.  Pretty cool.  

While marveling over this mathematical quirk, I notice the homeless man standing in the sidewalk across the street.  Filthy.  Mumbling to himself.  Passers by swing wide to avoid him.  The homeless man crosses the street and walks into the Dunkin’ Donuts.  Sits at a table.  Just sits there.  Blank eyes looking forward, at nothing.  Still mumbling.  Hair tangled and stuck in place by its filth.  The skin on his face like old, yellowed paper.  His mouth partially open, revealing a handful of rotting teeth.  His stench fills the restaurant.

There are a few other customers sitting in tables, and a few more in line.  No one pays much attention to the homeless guy.  At least it seems that way.

I go back to Reacher.

I am once again distracted, not by anything in the book this time, but by someone speaking loudly. I look in the direction of the voice.  It belongs to a man that was in line when the homeless guy came in.  He hands the homeless guy a Dunkin’ Donuts brown paper bag, and a paper cup.  He says, “Here you go, buddy”, and walks out the door with his own paper bag and paper cup.

The expression on the homeless guy’s face reflects at first incredulity, then delight, then appreciation.  His demeanor while opening the bag is not unlike that of a child opening a present on Christmas morning.  The contents: ham and cheese on a french roll.  He gulps it down in four large bites.  After a few minutes he leaves the restaurant, sipping the contents of the paper cup.  Eyes a bit less blank.  No longer mumbling.

By no means are any of his long term problems any closer to being solved than they were a half hour ago.  But, for a few moments at least, maybe more, he is satisfied and happy.  

My feelings are complex.  I’m happy that the homeless guy got a good meal.   I wonder if he comes here often, sits down, and waits for someone to take pity on him and give him some food.   If so, I wonder how often he is successful.  I admire the man who took it upon himself to simply do the right thing, without making a big deal out of it.

But mostly I feel shame, because, upon seeing a fellow human being clearly in dire straits, my own reaction was to go back to my book.