“See! See! See!” the Dukes kept telling me. Wherever they pointed, there were ants: under the door of a microwave oven, crawling out of the electrical outlets, heaped in the flower beds where I mistook them for fresh topsoil. It was shocking, and the Dukes seemed vindicated by my shock. “You don’t feel them crawling up your clothes?” Melvin’s wife, Sharlene, asked me at one point. She was walking around barefoot and in shorts, and I could see ants trickling across her feet and ankles and legs — spelunking between her toes. She clutched a can of a pesticide called Enforcer Instant Knockdown to her chest, more as a security blanket than as a weapon, and constantly swept her hands over her calves.
Soon ants were spiraling up the tongues of my sneakers, onto my sock. I tried to shake them off, but nothing I did disturbed them. Before long, I was sweeping them off my own calves. I kept instinctively taking a step back from some distressing concentration of ants, only to remember that I was standing in the center of an exponentially larger concentration of ants. There was nowhere to go. The ants were horrifying — as in, they inspired horror. Eventually, I scribbled in my notebook: “Holy [expletive] I can’t concentrate on what anyone’s saying. Ants all over me. Phantom itches. Scratching hands, ankles, now my left eye.” Then I got in my car and left.
The Hungarian-born philosopher Aurel Kolnai gave the horrifying qualities of bugs some serious thought. Kolnai ultimately decided that what upsets us is “their pullulating squirming, their cohesion into a homogeneous teeming mass” and their “interminable, directionless sprouting and breeding.” That is, it’s the quantity of crazy ants that’s so destabilizing. As the American psychologist James Hillman argued, an endless swarm of bugs flattens your perception of yourself as precious and meaningful. It instantly reduces your individual consciousness to a “merely numerical or statistical level.”"
‘We have a more complicated understanding of football than we do genetics and evolution. Nobody thinks just the quarterback wins the game’
They ask for something like the rejection a century ago of the Victorian-era ‘Great Man’ model of history. This revolt among historians recast leaders not as masters of history, as Tolstoy put it, but as servants. Thus the Russian Revolution exploded not because Marx and Lenin were so clever, but because fed-up peasants created an impatience and an agenda that Marx articulated and Lenin ultimately hijacked. Likewise, D-Day succeeded not because Eisenhower was brilliant but because US and British GIs repeatedly improvised their way out of disastrously fluid situations. Wray, West-Eberhard and company want to depose genes likewise. They want to cast genes not as the instigators of change, but as agents that institutionalise change rising from more dispersed and fluid forces."
And sitting right at this interface of the bodily and the imaginary are our photographs. Nowadays, family members expecta nearly continuous stream of baby images. What my Aunt Chiquita wants to see is not merely that our baby is alive, but to get some sense of who he is. And the stream of photographs allow us to craft an identity for a child that cannot communicate his own just yet.
In “real life,” he is a tiny, speechless, motor control-less creature just getting used to life outside the womb. But in his photostream, he’s moving adroitly from sleeping lump to baby gorilla to active participant in the human world. The real-time existence of this record is a new thing in the world.
A friend, the writer Jon Mooallem, once told me that the things that are hard about parenting are easy to talk about, while the great things about kids are nearly impossible to describe. I think that’s one reason that the lingua franca of new parents is trading miseries.
The photos we take and post, though, try to get at the other (good!) layer of the experience. That is to say, there is truth in the neverending baby photostream. The stories we tell ourselves about our children, on or off Instagram, are as real a part of becoming mothers and fathers as the diaper changes and sleep deprivation: they’re how we make meaning of this grueling, beautiful experience. Parental life does work at these dual levels, time moving both too slow and too fast."