The Source Of So Much Engineering Angst

One of my childhood memories that hasn’t been blurred by the passage of time and a million cups of coffee is when I ordered an Ant Farm from the back of a magazine. I gleefully parted with my allowance for the chance to watch some ants burrow in sand, oblivious to the fact that I could look in our yard and witness the same miracle for free. But no, I am and was a sucker for good marketing (hence my insistence upon buying wine based solely upon the artwork of the label), and I was adamant that a plastic container filled with red ants would satisfy my scientific curiosity. As expected, when the package finally arrived, and I tore into it with reckless abandon, half of the ants were dead. Undeterred by the casualty rate associated with U.S. Postal Service transport, I eagerly set up the “farm” and dropped the ants in, with the prescribed droplet of water to motivate them. They seemed unimpressed by the plastic farm buildings in there, and mostly just stabbed one another with their antennae for a while. As typical of my attention span, I stared at it for three minutes, then went outside to try and maim my brother with a croquet mallet over some perceived slight.

While I was gone, and sometime that night, those silly bastards began tunneling in their farm, driven less by a desire to please me and more by instinct, I suppose. When I looked at it the next time, there were tunnels leading everywhere and to nowhere in particular. I felt cheated. Why didn’t they work while I watched them? And, in a cruel glimpse into nature’s ways, some of the ants were dead in some of the tunnels, having constructed their own mausoleums in an act of martyrdom. Like a kid might, I shook their tunnels up as an act of vengeance from an unyielding god, demanding that they construct their farm in front of my eyes. More ant death followed.

Clearly I was not cut out to be The Creator.

But my boyhood frustration signified more than just a desire to control and manipulate the construction of a universe…hell, we’ve ALL been there, right? Ok, maybe that’s just me. Nonetheless, what I truly wanted was not to witness the final product, but the effort and construction, the trials and tribulations that it took these miniscule red devils to CREATE their world. If only I had been there to witness it.

If only.

Now there’s a term.

If only I could spare my boys the heartache that will come from the teasing they will get for their clothing choices. If only I could spare them the pain in this life that comes with establishing your own independence. If only I could fast forward in time when the chaos in my own life has settled into some mangled hybrid of inner peace. If only I could get a publication to say “YES” to an article submission instead of dozens of “HELL NO’s!” In many parts of the world, there are those saying “if only there were food on our table.” I have brothers that probably say “if only my friends were still alive, not shot down in some God-forsaken slice of the desert”. A million people pounding out a million “if only’s” across the world and neither the works of Shakespeare nor world peace will emerge. While it’s endlessly infuriating to realize I cannot will the world to bend to my whims any more than I can bend spoons with my mind, there is also a rough-hewn truth that is beautiful in it’s own way lying there.

The sum of the setbacks, the hard times, all the ways that we get frustrated in our efforts to forge forward equals the characters we become. I don’t want a Presidential candidate who’s never tried drugs, not even once in his life….that person has lived in a bubble outside of reality, which hardly makes him or her qualified lead our nation. I’d rather the person that said, “yeah, I’ve been there, rough place, but I slogged through it, and, well, here we are, so vote for me.” The most interesting people we encounter in this life aren’t necessarily the highest achievers, but the characters who’ve been molded by living a life of insatiable curiosity and getting smacked in the face a few times.

I can “if only” for hours on end, and it makes for a good way to pass the time whilst we navel-gaze, but the truth is that my brothers are who they are because of the things they’ve had to witness overseas, and I love them all the more for it. One of my boys comes home with tales of being teased for bringing a bear to school, and although I wanna punch the kid in the face who teased my boy, I realize, it’s helping my son build strength of character, and I love that character. Screw ’em….you wanna take your bear to school, you do it. I got your back, son, but you gotta fight this battle on your own.

Someday when the dust all settles, I’ll still be standing, too, having endured all the things that give us the lines on our faces, from parenting to fuel mileage concerns to how we’ve dealt with all of the other characters in our life. And I’ll be that much richer for the ride….so will you.

I’d like to apologize to the occupants of my short-lived Uncle Milton’s Social Engineering Experiment, also known as the Ant Farm. You didn’t die in vain, you crazy red slaves to instinct; you taught me a lot in our short time together.

If only I hadn’t shaken that thing up.