Thursday, August 28, 2003

My parents were married 53 years ago today. They were never big on anniversary celebrations; on their 40th, Rick and I broke with their long tradition of non-celebrations and bought them a table-and-chair set that my mother still enjoys using on her sun porch. We often have coffee together there on the rare occasions that I make it to Connecticut to visit her. I'm glad that we organized a small family celebration for that anniversary, since they never had a 50th. My father died two days after their 46th anniversary; his funeral was on my 40th birthday, three days later. And, just last week, the dark skirt and jacket set that I wore to that funeral was among a pile of clothing that I donated to a local charity.

There has been little activity on the blog lately, mostly because of various career-related obligations, all of which require a willingness to tolerate delayed gratification. Among other things, I'm doing yet another revision on a journal article, which has required learning yet another piece of data-crunching software supported only by a few highly technical references. I'm in no way complaining about having this software, which was (a.) free and (b.) an invaluable tool for addressing some reviewers' concerns, but I've spent the last couple of days setting up and performing data analyses that require me to press a few keys every fifteen minutes. Needless to say, little else has gotten done, and I'm very much ready to work on something else.

Just to annoy (or maybe enrich) the pest exterminators who find themselves automatically advertising on my blog: I got Holldobler and Wilson's The Ants as an early birthday present. Now I won't be charged any more overdue fines on this title by the WMU library. (At least they don't charge by weight.) I also recently finished reading a slim novel I found in a remainder bin years ago but had never actually tackled: Bernard Werber's Empire of the Ants (translated from the original French).

I looked up some of the online reviews of the Werber novel, and concurred with most. The human characters are rather flat, and often react quite mildly to events that would have most of us reaching for either the Valium or the shotgun or both. Then again, the novel isn't really about humans. The other characters, members of an extended population of Formica rufa, are much more subtly drawn. There are a few biological howlers in the book as well (not to mention the fact that the translator may have introduced some obfuscation), but Werber did a good job of getting us into the tiny head capsules of the russet ants he clearly loves so much.

My favorite character in Werber's novel is a minor one; an old warrior ant from a satellite colony who accompanies a major character on a crucial expedition. She (the minor character) is deteriorating from a combination of parasites, battle scars, and just plain old age; to her own colony, she's not much good any more. This leaves her with absolutely nothing to lose by having one last adventure, joining a party that's attempting to find the edge of the known world. It's probably not giving too much away to say that she does live long enough to succeed. It's also not giving too much away to remark that Werber's ants react and respond to the presence of death and danger in ways that are mostly unlike ours, but are usually perfectly consistent. The book is grisly in places, sometimes even quite disturbing to read -- and then you realize that you're reacting in a human manner to the messier but completely routine realities of animal life. It kept me awake for part of the next night, but I have to say that I enjoyed it in a way that I almost never enjoy, nor even relate to, human-centered fiction. Bon soir, mes fourmis.


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