It’s Halloween the day after tomorrow, that most perplexing of holidays, when everybody nice and safe puts on the mask of danger and death, and everyone laughs in the face of the very scariest things.
In some ways, though, every day is Halloween, because the world is always masked: that is, everyday life conceals great risks. And we don’t usually laugh about these everyday dangers, especially if there are toddlers in the house. Instead, we safety-proof our homes. Because the modern world of big experienced grown-ups really is very dangerous for little innocent kids. We can issue dire warnings to try convince children to keep their precious fingers out of electrical sockets, or toasters, or sink food-grinders, but it’s up to the dire cautionary tales we tell, to clarify what might happen if kids disobey our “safety first” injunctions.
Peter Rabbit ignores his mother’s warning to stay away from Mr. McGregor’s garden and ends up in a scary chase, followed by a stomachache (his father hadn’t been so lucky and was put in a pie). Curious George causes trouble for the fire department by playing with the telephone, and spends time in jail before landing in a zoo. The moral of such tales is clear: do as you’re told or suffer consequences.
Chris Van Allsburg’s hilarious Two Bad Ants appears on the surface to be just such a cautionary tale. Two friends leave their group to indulge forbidden desires. They gorge on sugar, fall asleep in the sugar bowl, and awaken to a terrifying morning caught in the midst of what we readers understand is a human family’s normal breakfast ritual. The two ants are inadvertently dropped in coffee, dumped into the sink-grinder, shot out of a toaster, shocked in an electrical socket. They escape this dangerous kitchen battered and bruised. The cautionary moral seems clear: stay with the group, do as you’re instructed, or else. (Good advice for trick-or-treaters seeking sweets!)
Van Allsburg tells the tale from the ants’ standpoint, using an ominous and highly dramatic narrative voice that ignores the human reality of the situation, focusing on the fearful and strange structure of this weird kitchen universe in which the ants suffer their horrible experiences. It’s up to the ant’s-eye-view illustrations to reveal to readers what is in fact happening to our charming central characters: seeing our ordinary world from the ants’ miniature standpoint provides the book’s humor. Children adore seeing close-ups of a massive whirlpool of coffee, a super-gigantic English muffin, a huge burst of water gushing from a faucet.
I’ve always loved performing Two Bad Ants at storytimes, and a few years ago I had the terrific opportunity to present a performance of this book for the author himself.
The occasion was The Carle’s December 2004 opening party for Chris Van Allsburg’s gallery exhibition here, which was timed to coincide with the release of his movie, The Polar Express. I knew that my audience for this performance would be composed of adults.
I found myself puzzling over the deeper meaning of Two Bad Ants, starting with that punster title (“Two Bad Ants” or “Too Bad, Ants”). Yes, the story can be seen at two levels—human and ant—but is there also an additional level—the level where the reader sees both perspectives simultaneously?
I started thinking about the premise of tiny creatures in a world composed of gigantic structures and systems that make no sense. Unlike Jack in the giant’s house, or Lemuel Gulliver in the land of the Brobdingnagians, these two ants have no comprehension of the world they have entered: their experience of toast, sugar, water faucet and electricity doesn’t make sense to them before, during or after their terrifying travail.
I remembered Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann’s remarkable book that attempts to explain the physics of sub-atomic particles, and how these strange things form the material of which our world is constructed. In The Quark and the Jaguar, this incomprehensible subject is clarified from a number of different angles. I began to search the text for a passage that might unmask for the ant characters in Two Bad Ants the nature of the kitchen universe, and thereby help them understand the unlikely travails they were enduring. A text that the ants would like to read.
I found a passage that seemed in some abstract way to perfectly match up with the text and story of Two Bad Ants. I imagined a show in which, as the action proceeds, one of the ants is rapidly reading The Quark and the Jaguar to the other ant, as if this book were a fascinating instruction manual to the crazy world they have entered.
Here’s how the performance went.
On the movie screen in the museum’s auditorium, we projected the illustrations from the book, in sequence, as background to the action on stage.
Steve Angel—our visitor services manager, and a terrific actor—played one of the ants: a daredevil-ringleader tough guy. Steve’s task, while enacting the action, was to speak the text of the book, narrating in a bewildered way the events passing moment by moment.
I played the other ant: a maniac-brainiac geek. My task, while also enacting the action, was to be obsessed with reading aloud from The Quark and the Jaguar. That is, as we ants were battered and bruised and knocked all over the stage in turmoil and hazard, I, the crazed intellectual, was oblivious to the danger. I only wanted to read aloud to my friend from this amazing book I’d gotten my hands on.
What words was I, the ant, reading aloud so rapidly? What did I find so fascinating that I couldn’t spare an instant even to save myself from catastrophe? What does The Quark and the Jaguar have to say to an ant living out his terrible destiny inside the story of Two Bad Ants?
I can’t include the complete text of Two Bad Ants, alternating with the text from pages 16 to 20 of The Quark and the Jaguar, juxtaposed in exactly the way we did. But here is the first half of the performance: perhaps, just as my ant-character was able to unmask his terrifying world, you will find, via Murray Gell-Mann—the man who invented the concept of the quark—that the universe is a place that can be unmasked as well.
Steve Ant: The news traveled swiftly through the tunnels of the ant world. A scout had returned with a remarkable discovery—a beautiful sparkling crystal. When the scout presented the crystal to the ant queen she took a small bite, then quickly ate the entire thing.
Andy Ant: A wonderful example of the simple underlying principles of nature is the law of gravity, specifically Einstein’s general-relativistic theory of gravitation (even though most people regard that theory as anything but simple).
Steve Ant: She deemed it the most delicious food she had ever tasted. Nothing could make her happier than to have more, much more. The ants understood. They were eager to gather more crystals because the queen was the mother of them all. Her happiness made the whole ant nest a happy place.
Andy Ant: The phenomenon of gravitation gave rise, in the course of the physical evolution of the universe, to the clumping of matter into galaxies and then into stars and planets, including our Earth. From the time of their formation, such bodies were already manifesting complexity, diversity, and individuality. But these properties took on new meanings with the emergence of complex adaptive systems.
Steve Ant: It was late in the day when they departed. Long shadows stretched over the entrance to the ant kingdom. One by one the insects climbed out, following the scout, who had made it clear—there were many crystals where the first had been found, but the journey was long and dangerous.
Andy Ant: Here on Earth that development was associated with the origin of terrestrial life and with the process of biological evolution, which has produced such a striking diversity of species. Our own species, in at least some respect the most complex that has so far evolved on this planet, has succeeded in discovering a great deal of the underlying simplicity, including the theory of gravitation itself.
Steve Ant: They marched into the woods that surrounded their underground home. Dusk turned to twilight, twilight to night. The path they followed twisted and turned, every bend leading them deeper into the dark forest.
Andy Ant: Research on the sciences of simplicity and complexity…naturally includes teasing out the meaning of the simple and the complex, but also the similarities and differences among complex adaptive systems…
Steve Ant: More than once the line of ants stopped and anxiously listened for the sounds of hungry spiders. But all they heard was the call of crickets echoing through the woods like distant thunder.
Andy Ant: …functioning in such diverse processes as the origin of life on Earth, biological evolution, the behavior of organisms in ecological systems, the operation of the mammalian immune system, learning and thinking in animals…the evolution of human societies, the behavior of investors in financial markets, and the use of computer software and/or hardware designed to evolve strategies or to make predictions based on past observations.
Steve Ant: Dew formed on the leaves above. Without warning, huge cold drops fell on the marching ants. A firefly passed overhead that, for an instant, lit up the woods with a blinding flash of blue-green light.
Andy Ant: The common feature of all these processes is that in each one a complex adaptive system acquires information about its environment and its own interaction with that environment, identifying regularities in that information, condensing those regularities into a kind of “schema” or model, and acting in the real world on the basis of that schema. In each case, there are various competing schemata, and the results of the action in the real world feed back to influence the competition among those schemata.
Steve Ant: At the edge of the forest stood a mountain. The ants looked up and could not see its peak. It seemed to reach right to the heavens. But they did not stop. Up the side they climbed, higher and higher.
Andy Ant: Each of us…functions in many different ways as a complex adaptive system. (In fact the term “schema” has long been used in psychology to mean a conceptual framework such as a…being always uses to grasp data, to give them meaning.)
Steve Ant: The wind whistled through the cracks of the mountain’s face. The ants could feel its force bending their delicate antennae. Their legs grew weak as they struggled upward. At last they reached a ledge and crawled through a narrow tunnel.
Andy Ant: Imagine you are in a strange city during the evening rush hour, trying to flag down a taxi on a busy avenue leading outward from the center. Taxis rush by you, but they don’t stop. Most of them already have passengers, and you notice that those cabs have their roof lights turned off. Aha! You must look for taxis with roof lights on.
Steve Ant: When the ants came out of the tunnel they found themselves in a strange world. Smells they had known all their lives, smells of dirt and grass and rotting plants, had vanished. There was no more wind and, most puzzling of all, it seemed that the sky was gone.
Andy Ant: Then you discover some in that condition and indeed they lack passengers, but they don’t stop either. You need a modified schema. Soon you realize that the roof lights have an inner and outer part, with the latter marked “Out of Service.” What you need is a taxi that has only the inner part of the roof light illuminated.
Steve Ant: They crossed smooth shiny surfaces, then followed the scout up a glassy curved wall. They had reached their goal. From the top of the wall they looked below to a sea of crystals. One by one the ants climbed down into the sparkling treasure.
Andy Ant: Your new idea receives confirmation when two taxis discharge their passengers a block ahead and then their drivers turn on just the inner roof lights. Unfortunately, those taxis are immediately grabbed by other pedestrians. A few more cabs finish their trips nearby, but they too are snapped up.
Steve Ant: Quickly they each chose a crystal, then turned to start the journey home. There was something about this unnatural place that made the ants nervous. In fact they left in such a hurry that none of them noticed the two small ants who stayed behind.
Andy Ant: You are impelled to cast your net wider in your search for a successful schema. Finally, you observe, on the other side of the avenue, going in the opposite direction, many taxis cruising with just their inner roof lights on. You cross the avenue, hail one, and climb in.
Steve Ant: “Why go back?” one asked the other. “This place may not feel like home, but look at all these crystals.” “You’re right,” said the other,” we can stay here and eat this tasty treasure every day, forever.” So the two ants ate crystal after crystal until they were too full to move, and fell asleep.
Andy Ant: As a further illustration, imagine that you are a subject in a psychology experiment in which you are shown a long sequence of pictures of familiar objects. The pictures represent various things, and each one may be shown many times. You are asked from time to time to predict what the next few images will be, and you keep trying to construct mental schemata for the sequence, inventing theories about how the sequence is structured, based on what you have seen. Any such schema, supplemented by the memory of the last few pictures shown, permits you to make a prediction about the next ones. Typically, those predictions will be wrong the first few times, but if the sequence has an easily grasped structure, the discrepancy between prediction and observation will cause you to reject unsuccessful schemata in favor of ones that make good predictions. Soon you may be foreseeing accurately what will be shown next.
Steve Ant: Daylight came. The sleeping ants were unaware of changes taking place in their new found home. A giant silver scoop hovered above them, then plunged deep into the crystals. It shoveled up both ants and crystals and carried them high into the air.
Andy Ant (Here is where I started to speak directly to Two Bad Ants author Chris Van Allsburg in the audience): Now imagine a similar experiment run by a sadistic psychologist who exhibits a sequence with no real structure at all. You are likely to go on making up schemata, but this time they keep failing to make good predictions, except occasionally by chance. In this case the results in the real world afford no guidance in choosing a schema, other than the one that says, “This sequence seems to have no rhyme or reason.” But…subjects find it hard to accept such a conclusion.
Steve Ant: The ants were wide awake when the scoop turned, dropping them from a frightening height. They tumbled through space in a shower of crystals and fell into a boiling brown lake…..
We continued our travails and our attempts to decode these…but I can’t quote the entire picture book in this blog. (You’ll have to buy a copy.) I think the audience liked the show. At least, afterwards, someone told me that Chris Van Allsburg said he had.
And so, persistent blog-readers, I leave you to your own Halloween maskings and unmaskings, in hope that the world will act more gently to you and yours than it did to those two bad ants. Stay safe!