Posts Tagged ‘colony’

The Post – Ants, Baby-Boomers, and the Greater Good

January 7, 2011

The BBC Online just published an article: Leaf Cutter Ants Retire When Their Teeth Wear Out. Now given the title of this post I can imagine you’re connecting ants to Baby-Boomers and protesting that we have better dental care so no forced retirement for us! ๐Ÿ™‚ย  But not to worry.

Quite to the contrary, in reading the article, I was struck by a similarity between the two groups that has nothing to do with teeth, but a lot to do with continuing to have a valuable contribution, even as we age.

The BBC article summarizes research done by scientists at the University of Oregon and that was published in the journal, Behaviour Ecology and Sociobiology. I know, sounds like a real page-turner. But bear with me just a bit.

Apparently, using electron microscopes, they were able to verify that pupae of the leaf-cutter ant from Panama, Atta cephalotes, have mandibles as sharp as any razor blade we’ve developed and hence work great for chopping up leaves. Older ants, however, have much duller mandibles, about 340 x duller than pupae and it takes them twice as long to cut up leaves. Some of the older ants only have about 10% of the sharp cutting material left.

The leaves, by the way, are used in food production for the colony. The ants apparently use the sap for food, and they also use the leaf material to grow a fungus, also as food for the colony. (The fungus is a member ofย  the Lepiotaceae family.)

Anyways, given that the most labor-intensive job in the colony is the chopping of leaves, the ants have developed a system where the youngest ants do the cutting, and older ants carry the leaves back to the nest. They have devised a means where an older ant with little cutting ability left, can actually make a contribution to the colony doing a job they are better suited for. This serves the greater good by allowing the younger ones to what they do best – keep on cutting.

I thought about our society where often Baby-Boomers want to continue in a career path well into their later years rather than just heading out to pasture.ย  But often we need to reinvent ourselves a bit – pursue that career from a different angle, use our years of experience as a pro to make the whole effort more efficient. Do tasks we are best suited for.

I have a 30+ year medical and pharmaceutical research background. More recently I wanted to continue using that background but in a new way. I am now volunteering at a local science museum, using those 30ย  years of science, to reach out to the new generation coming up and fire them with a love of science. It is work I am better suited at now. I admire those my age who can still work double shifts or all-nighters at the local hospital lab.ย  It is no small achievement. I have been given the chance to avoid that, so I find my usefulness in other ways.

It carries over into other areas of life too, not just careers. It snowed recently and my husband and I were preparing to go out and shovel the driveway. Our 22-year-old son stopped us and told us he had it covered. In a short period of time he completed a job that I am still able to do but which would have taken me much longer. His willingness to step up to something he was best suited for, allowed me to work inside on things I was better suited to do. I felt tremendous gratitude.

So when I read about the leaf-cutter ants, I think, re-invention, and remember my son and the snow. ๐Ÿ™‚

The Post – Stage Three: Coming Into My Own – Evolution TO a Novel

February 19, 2008

Initially, I was going to call this entry “Evolution of the Novel” thinking I would dig right in to the logistics of writing Under the Pier. But I realized before I could do that, I had to finish the process Uri Shulevitz outlined for the “Evolution of the WRITER.” From that it was clear that this entry’s title needed to be “Evolution TO a novel,” the final leg of coming into my own.

I have always struggled with the fact that others seem to do rings around me. My husband works in a job where not just every day, but every hour, the priorities change, the deadlines change, who he has working for him changes. It’s constant jumping. He has a quick, fast mind. My sisters and friends manage full-time jobs, more than one job, kids, house, pets, and other responsibilities. I thought maybe it’s a writer thing – writers just move at a slower pace. Yet I observe other writers producing novels, while writing articles, while chatting on the writers’ email lists, updating their web sites, promoting their books and doing school visits. It’s like trying to walk with someone who is always faster than you. The best you can do is maybe match them for a little while, but eventually, you always fall behind. For years it bothered me, and the competitive person inside kept trying to keep up or catch up. And I absolutely ABHORRED admitting to anyone, that I couldn’t keep up with them.

The title of last Thursday’s entry for Thich Nhat Hanh’s online course read: “Let Go.” The entry said: “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything . . . we cannot be free.” That was the answer I’d finally come to in the last year or so. Just, let it go. Even playing racquetball – I always fought to win when I was younger. Now I never win, but I have grown to love the process of just playing my best. Coming into your own is the moment you finally choose to be free. You let go of the competition and comparisons and just accept who you are.

I am a plodder. Plodders do not have fast brains. While others are rushing around, plodders just stare at them from the sidelines with their mouths open. Instead of snap conclusions, plodders pull things apart, stare at the parts, put them back together differently, then stare some more. Confronted with a pile of seemingly useless, unrelated bits of information, plodders push them around for hours or days or years, until finally a whole picture emerges. The one thing about plodders is that they never quit. They just keep plodding until they find the big picture and make sense of things. They feel the questions and keep going until they have an answer to the question, “What is it?”

It’s like when I did bacteriology. You start out with a confusing mass of all different kinds of bacterial colonies on an agar plate. You look it over until you spot the one that’s probably the culprit of the infection. You stare at the colony on the plate. What color is it? What’s its size, texture, smell? How does it look on different types of agar? What does it look like under the microscope? You run a battery of 20 or more biochemical tests. You end up with this heap of separate, seemingly unrelated bits of data, and the question – what is it? The answer comes from how all those pieces are assembled by a person too stubborn to quit. Assemble the bits like a mosaic and you have Staphylococcus aureus, or Escherichia Coli, or Enterobacter aerogenes, or my favorite, Campylobacter. ๐Ÿ™‚

Maybe the thing that plodders and at least this writer have in common is the place inside where we carry both the tools to recognize the patterns, as well as the questions that need to be stared at.

I think stories come from the places within us that hold the unanswered questions. Those places hold the deepest hurts, the places of anger, confusion, sadness, the disappointments, the unsettled business, the tangles we never unknotted, the humiliations we’d like to forget, or the ugly things we don’t want to look at. And the happy moments. There’s the ultimate confusion in life: Why are some times happy and others abysmal? Plodders seek answers by picking through all the tangles, like a bag person picking through the garbage can. If the plodders also happen to be writers, they make their moments of picking through the trash, public. They write a story to document their quest for truth.

The story may not even resemble anything from the writer’s life. Last time I checked, no author has lived in futuristic space or slain any dragons. The story doesn’t have to be autobiography. What it must contain at its core are the questions that that writer carries in their heart. Writers then journey through what they write, to the ultimate whole picture, hopefully, the answer to their question. Some writers can express this journey to find their truth in a 4-line poem or succeed in capturing God in five words or less. Some write picture books. And some, like me, need the panoramic expanse of a longer, more meandering path. That means, novels.

It means plots and subplots, woven like twisted threads. It means primary characters, secondary characters, and maybe a few cardboard characters. It means diverse settings and tweaky, idiosyncratic details. I know this now, because I know me, now. I am exhausted and weary of trying to be what I am not. I am what I am, take it or leave it. Some will relate to my stories, some will hate them. No matter. I write, for me.

I’ve spent many, many years trying all different things on for size. I’ve tried to be what others are. Do what they did. I’m tired of that. I’m ready to be me. So I just, let go.

“Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”

Cyril Connolly – 20th Century British literary critic.

UP NEXT: Okay, NOW Let’s Talk About Where Under the Pier Came From