Literary Spotlight: Mike Stewart

Literary Spotlight: Mike Stewart

From WTP Vol. VI #2

Pinky Swear
By Mike Stewart

My writings are different. I pinky swear it.

I will talk of many things, but here will limit my discussion to only two—uniqueness and bees.

I am unique. This is a source of pride to me—false pride. You see, you are also unique. We are all unique. None of us are perfectly normal. Maybe I am wrong about this—the false pride part. Our uniqueness is valuable, important, or, at least, interesting. Why shouldn’t we all be proud of our uniqueness?

A lifetime of experiences gives us our strengths and weaknesses. Some of my strengths may help you. Some of your strengths may help me.

When I worked for IBM, the corporate motto was “Think.” As I have grown older, I appreciate more and more the importance of “Thinking Longer and Harder.”

There was a time when I liked science fiction. Here I will not talk of science fiction.

There was a time when I found insects and biology fascinating. Here bees and a dog are moved forward.

There was a time when I was interested in the stock market. I was not writing then and, after a long time, I concluded that I had only learned a lot of useless things. Now I am not so sure. Nevertheless, I will not discuss the stock market.

There was a time when I was interested in the physical sciences, everything from the smallest atom to the vast universe. And beyond. What I write here is influenced by this time.

There was a very long time when I was interested in business. The relationship between people and technology is complex and intriguing. What I have written about people and the internet could make one a better salesman and financially more successful. Yet, I am only concerned here with what bees want to sell.

What is this small memoir segment about? What is its genre—fiction, non-fiction, creative writing, mystery, or some strange mixture? I think of it as primarily non-fiction, but speculative. I have tried to think “outside the box” while keeping at least one foot in the box. My foot is looking around our universe, searching for support for my unusual thoughts.

What I write here is about the power of thought. Einstein imagined what it would be like if he were riding a beam of light. This thought experiment lead to the theory of relativity. Einstein changed the world. Maybe all of us are capable of even more sophisticated, in-depth, revolutionary thought experiments. This story seeks to encourage this kind of thinking.

People, for example, want to write about what they consider important. Why would you want to write about something unimportant?

I have thought a great deal about this. How do our minds, on a cellular level, decide something is important. When, how, and why do we decide something that we once thought was critical is now irrelevant? Our worldview and what we think is important can change. In some sense, what we write today may reflect a different person than the person who writes even a short time ago. In this story, I only hope I indicate how long-ago thoughts of bees can influence my thoughts and writings today.

One strange thing about this story is I don’t think of it as having an end. We can always think more about any subject, look at it from a different angle. I would only like to reach a point where there is a logical pause. I am desperate to reach this logical pause. I fear that one day my reasons for wanting to write this story will disappear.

Even if we are all unique, there may be common traits that we all share. Perhaps, we all want to be important. Perhaps, we all want to feel important. Yet we are unique—if we had to list, in order of importance, from most to least, one hundred things, ideas, or values, I doubt if any two people in the world would produce identical lists.

I can feel important if I can think of thoughts or ideas that no one has thought of before (by this I mean what I and a lot of other people consider a substantial thought—not silly thoughts like “Would George Washington have become President if he had had Rudolph the Reindeer’s bright and shiny nose?”).

My journey to feel important is made more difficult by the fact that hundreds of millions of thoughts are created every second. A thought would have to be weird or strange to have a chance at being unique. A thought could, however, be almost completely false or based on facts that are not true and still qualify if it contained a small kernel of truth.

Don’t feel guilty if you learn something new about bees. My hope, however, is that you see something that no one ever recognized before, something about the way we think.

~

We are all grains of sand on a vast, lonely beach. Listen closely. Every grain is screaming. Desperately screaming “Notice Me.”

I was sitting on my son’s patio one warm spring afternoon. This was a time when selling was important to me. My thoughts were not on the beautiful day, but on so-called practical matters.  Half dozing, I daydreamed of being a better salesman, making more money, getting more out of life. Then something happened that made me see a bigger picture.

~

The boy lived in a black-and-white worlda world of black-and-white TVs, of black and white people, of black-and-white rules.

There was something soothing about the buzz of the power mower as he maneuvered it around the half-acre side yard. It helped him forget his righteous indignation. That morning the librarian had told him he could not get a book from the adult sectionshe had called him a boy. The buzz drowned out another buzz, one that was not soothing, but ominous.

It wasn’t that the boy was a budding young pervert he just wanted to do a good job of replacing Rick. Of course, Rick could not be replaced.

~

I was sitting on my son’s patio one warm spring afternoon. The floor of the patio was concrete. The sides were open to the outdoors. Wooden columns supported wooden beams that made up the ceiling. The ceiling was designed to protect one from the sun, but there was space between the beams open to the sky. All the wood, whether column or beam, was unpainted and weathered gray. This wood was important to our local neighborhood wood bees.

Wood bees, also known as carpenter bees, are common in our area. For a couple of reasons, many people consider them pests, to be poisoned or killed in other ways.

First, the wood bee looks like a bumble bee, which can sting. The wood bee, especially the male wood bee, is very aggressive. Although he cannot sting, no human likes to have an angry bee buzzing around his head.

Second, wood bees damage wood, especially unpainted patio wood that is weathered gray. When my son, Michael, bought his house, and with it, his patio, he and wood bees became mortal enemies.

The female wood bee finds and expands holes in wood. Or she chews new tunnels. She then collects pollen, in the usual bee way, puts it in the tunnel, and lays her eggs. The eggs hatch, the young bees (larvae) eat the pollen, eventually becoming new, adult wood bees. Over time, enough tunnels can weaken beams of patio wood to the point of collapse.

~

The boy had learned from the TV that he lived in the Mid-South. The rest of the world considered it the deep South. He lived on a farm, sandwiched between a two-lane rural road on the north and a railroad on the south.

The farm had probably been cut from a plantation many years beforebut to the boy, the seventeen-acre farm was a plantation. This plantation included his home, a nearby chicken coop, and, a little further away, a third structure.

~

That particular warm spring afternoon twenty or thirty wood bees were patrolling the patio. They were behaving exactly like an epidemiologist (hereafter, bug scientist) would predict. I knew some of the ways my son had tried to discourage the bees—spraying wood with poison, painting over the tunnels.

But suddenly, I knew Michael was going to try a new tactic. He came onto the patio carrying a tennis racket. He promptly served one of the bees well into the backyard. Humans 15, Bees Love.

~

The boy’s home was a large house, although you should probably remember that to young boys, all houses are large. It could have used some new paint. The front porch boasted two white columns. Gothic columns they were not. Each was made of  four, eight-foot-long, two-by-fours, nailed together to form square columns. The porch floor was a concrete slab, painted gray. Also present was a chair and a five-foot porch swing. The boy had spent many hours in the spring, summer, and fall in that swing, reading.

~

I was impressed, but I don’t think the surviving bees felt the same emotion. Also, I don’t think any bug scientist has ever predicted how they would react. The wood bees seemed to quickly come to the conclusion that “discretion is the better part of valor.”

After the tragic death of one of their members, the  bees kept close watch on Michael. Whenever he approached, they would fly close to the wooden columns or up, between the wooden beams. He couldn’t get a clear swing. I believe, at the end of the day, the score was still Humans 15, Bees Love.

~

In the first grade, the boy had learned to read, if it could be called that. His first book, Fun with Dick and Jane, was not very satisfying. He liked dogs, for example, and the book had a dog named “Spot.” The picture showed that Spot did, indeed, have a spot. But when he searched for details, the words only demanded that he “See Spot Run.” Reading seemed pointless.

That same year, for his birthday, the boy received a present he would never forget. That present was not memorable because it was uniquehe received many presents, all but one carefully wrapped in white paper, each with a different colored bow. His birthday “party” took place on a cold, sunny February morning. Important occasions were family affairs. His mother and both grandmothers were there. The men were  at work.

The festivities began with cake, chocolate. The boy loved chocolate. No words were on the cake, just six flaming candles. A wish, kept secret, had to be made and the candles blown out. It was suggested that the cake be sliced and milk be brought inbut the boy would have none of thatit was on to the presents.

The presents were many and varied. Some were cheap, but were full of thought and love. Most were expensive, much more than the family could afford. But six-year-old boys were not aware of or should be burdened by thoughts of finance.

As the boy ripped the paper from each box, his mother, with occasional support from one or the other grandmother, described the wonderfulness of each present and tried to transfer her excitement to the boy. When, finally, the boy tore into the last present, he didn’t notice that his mother had mysteriously left the room. He did notice, just before opening the present, that the box was square and not really a box.

For a moment, as the paper departed, the boy was disappointed to see a thick book appear. Then his mother returned, carrying a small brown-and-white dog, a puppy with a hooked nose. She simply said “This is Rick.”

~

Observing these wood bees made me think they were pretty smart. Perhaps it is not even that weird to think each bee may have a mind of its own. And its own world-view. Being obsessed with sales, which could be defined as the art of getting others to do what you want them to do, I asked myself “What does a wood bee want to sell?”

Before we can explore the mind of a wood bee, we must first admit to the possibility that a wood bee has a mind. You may find it possible to believe I have a unique world-view and you have a different, unique world-view. It is, however, probably more difficult to believe both world-views are equally valid. Or invalid. But it requires a quantum leap to accept that a wood bee has a world-view, and this world-view is just as valid, or invalid, as yours or mine.

~

The boy could not spend his entire life on the porch swing reading. Sometimes the cold of winter (even the South gets cold in winter) would force him indoors. Or he would have to go to school and read about that stupid Dick and Jane. There might be “a call of nature.” Or he had to sleep or eat.

When the boy entered his home, he had choices. He could go straight, past the first bedroom and continue down the hall past the bathroom and the second bedroom. Then, of course, he could go out the door into the backyard. The first bedroom was hiswith his bed, a bookcase, and a small closet. There wasn’t room for most of his toysthey were stored upstairs in the attic. There was a pull-down stairs in the hall.

~

From a very young age, I have been interested in science. At first, I was attracted to it because I believed it potentially could answer any question. Then I read about quantum physics, which was definitely science, but was definitely not definite. Quantum physics, for example, states that one can never know the exact location of an electron, but only the probability that it will be found at a particular place. When quantum physics looked at an imaginary feline (Schrödinger’s cat), it asserted that, under certain circumstances, the cat could be alive or dead, or both alive and dead—until you looked at it, the cat was in this strange quasi-state.

To me, when one asks, as quantum physics does, what does it means to be here or there, and especially when one makes, as quantum physics does, life and death nebulous, you are leaving the world of science and approaching the world of philosophy.

~

The house boasted an indoor bathroom. The boy would not have known there was any other possibility than indoor plumbing except he had visited relatives in Kentucky who were not so lucky.

The second bedroom was his parents’, or rather, his mother’s and his stepfather’s. The boy did not like his stepfather.

When the boy entered the house, he could bear to the left and access the other half of his home. His parents liked to call this the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen. A better name would have been living room dining room kitchen.

The living room contained a comfortable beige reclining chair and a large white sofa with big pillows. There was a single picture in an oval frame on the wall, a picture of a haloed Jesus. A bookcase that reached almost to the ceiling stood between the living room and dining room.

The dining room held one of the more expensive pieces of furniture in the house, a wooden dining room table with eight matching chairs. No one noticed as they were eating the clear view of the back of the bookcase.

The most expensive furniture item, a mahogany china cabinet holding one of the boy’s mother’s prize possessions“the good china,” separated the dining room from the kitchen.

Whenever he thought of the kitchen, the boy could not think of or describe the sink or the stove or the ice box or anything elsehe just thought that his mother was the best cook in the whole world. Even vegetables, straight from the garden, were unbelievably delicious.

~

If quantum physics hadn’t shown the philosophical nature of science, I don’t think I would have seen the evidence that is everywhere, that wood bees and every other creature around us has a mind and, probably, a unique world-view.

The bee brain is made up of about one million neurons. The human brain is made up of about one hundred billion neurons (about one hundred thousand times as many as are in the bee brain) and many more neuroglia (or glial cells) which serve to support and protect the neurons.

When we have a group of neurons as in the human brain, the subject of neural networks arises. We need to consider the many different combinations of “excited”  neurons that are possible, whether these neurons are in bee or man. I would like to have this discussion, in part, because of the current belief that our memories, thoughts, and even our being self-aware, is a product of neural networks. I am going to use the term “neural networks,” but what I say will also apply if it is later discovered that glial cells play a greater part than we now think. I don’t know if bee brains contain something like glial cells (bug scientists may know), but it doesn’t really matter. In fact, what I say would apply if it is discovered (by whatever scientists that studies really, really small things) that large groups of “similar molecules within a cell” are behaving in a neural network like manner.

Such a discovery might support a theory that INDIVIDUAL CELLS COULD BE SELF-AWARE.

~

The boy was mowing near the chicken coop. The ground was dry and lumpy. An old fence had once run through the area and he was near a rotted fence post. The boy, though still pouting, knew to watch for strands of rusted bob wire. Hitting bob wire with a power mower could be disastrous.

The chicken coop was about one-third the size of the house, better painted, more substantial. Since his parents had bought the farm, a time the boy could barely remember, the chicken coop had not known a chicken. It had a good roof—its sides were, mostly, wooden planks nailed to vertical and horizontal two-by-fours. The upper half of one wall was, appropriately, metal chicken wire. When the boy had been inside one winter day, he noticed that this wire mesh was hexagon shaped, just like honey bee comb. The coop was used for storage. Large bags of fertilizer and seeds were neatly stacked, for reasons of convenience and safety, near the door. In the summer, the chicken coop was dangerous.

The problem was those horizontal two-by-fours. Wasps loved to build their paper nests underneath these boards and strongly resented anyone, wittingly or unwittingly, approaching.

~

Living cells, such as neurons, are really HUGE. To understand why I say this,  let me relate something I read recently: If the diameter of a human hair were expanded to the height of the Empire State Building, a DNA molecule (which is made up of a large number of atoms and is usually found within the nucleus of a cell) would be the size of the toenail of a small dog sitting in the lobby. The “similar molecules within a cell” that I was talking about are much smaller, made up of a few dozen or a few hundred atoms.

If a scientist were small enough to enter the lobby of this little Empire State Building residing in a human hair and pet the small dog on the head, he would have to sit down at a table and peer through his microscope to see these molecules. In this context, the living cell is very large.

~

For the rest of the boy’s birthday and for several days thereafter, spare time was devoted to getting used to Rick. His mother did not explain why she had named the dog Rick (sometimes Ricky) and no one thought to ask. Having a dog in the house, however, meant that the boy had many questions. What should the puppy eat? His mother’s answer was that new gravy train dry dog food where you just add warm water to get a delicious stew (at least the boy thought that the puppy found it delicious). Next question: why did Rick want to stand in his stew and then track it all over the house? There was no answer, but a partial solution was newspapers on the floor and often confining Rick to a large cardboard box. This solution also helped when the boy noticed that Rick was not housebroken. I could go on, but it was not all bad. Rick was cute, affectionate, and loved to play. The boy could not stay mad at Rick, but the first few days were chaos. Then, one evening while Rick was asleep, the boy’s mother sat down. She was holding the last present the boy had opened, the forgotten book.

~

A cell is so large that, whether or not it lives in a man or a wood bee, it may well be able to support the chemical reactions needed, not just to make life possible, but to actually think. The power of neural networks made up of many cells tied together is close to infinite.

~

The book, his mother told him, was Lad: A Dog, by Albert Terhune. That night, she read the first of the twelve stories in the book, sitting beside the boy, moving her finger under each word as she spoke. The story was so much more than “see Spot run.” For the first time, reading was not just a chore to be endured at school.

The boy’s mother promised to read him the next story the very next night. The boy was taking arithmetic at school. He could imagine one story a nighttwelve nights to read the book. It turned out that the reading was much more sporadic. Rick would not always be sleeping during reading time and Rick was a puppy that demanded attention. His mother was also very busy. She had always had many chores—for example, it was only with a lot of practice that she had become the best cook in the whole world. The boy’s mother also now had to take care of Rick. Occasionally, she would tell the boy that he was responsible for Rick, after all, Rick was his dog. This seemed fair and the boy readily agreed—yet somehow dog chores remained with his mother.

It was more than a week later when his mother finally sat beside the boy and began reading the second story. As his mother read, the boy was very interested in the story. Lad’s mistress had fallen into a cold lake and now had pneumonia. What would happen? But the boy was also interested in the words as they flowed over his mother’s finger as she read. He knew some of the small words from school. He recognized an occasional large word from the first story. He was thrilled that he sometimes knew what his mother was going to say before she spoke.

The next day the boy carried the book outside and climbed into the porch swing. He opened the book to the first story, began reading, and became a nag. He knew most of the words, but when he found one he didn’t know, he would climb down from the swing and go find his mother. Pointing to the word, he would say “Mommy, what did you say this word was?” The boy did not forget that word again. The second story was easy to read—his mother had just read it to him.

The boy looked at the third story. He recognized some of the words, but most were mysteries. Nagging wouldn’t work. His mother was patient, but not that patient. The boy would have to be patient. The boy did not like to be patient.

~

The first bee took to the air 130 million years ago. The first tennis racket was produced about 140 years ago. Even today, you do not see a tennis racket on every street corner. It is a safe bet that the wood bees on my son’s patio had never seen a man carrying a tennis racket. Instinct, whatever that is, could not have told the bees to beware. Only the death of a wood bee made the survivors realize: man plus tennis racket equals danger.

~

A year later Rick was almost as long as the boy was tall. The boy learned, from his mother, of course, that collies were the second fastest breed, being only a little slower than greyhounds. Rick was a collie with a thick brown and white coat—until one hot and muggy July day. Then his mother said “I feel so sorry for that dog” and sheared most of his hair. Rick looked like a muscular greyhound.

Rick was a pure-bred collie even though he had that strange hooked nose. To prove it, his mother showed the boy Rick’s papers, a certificate from the American Kennel Club. Pointing, the boy asked “What’s that word?” The answer was “Dam,” a female dog. Rick’s mother was Bonnie of Amberhill Farms.

Rick loved to run and the boy could not keep up. Rick would run to the creek that split the farm—a creek that was a dry ditch in the summer, three times as deep as the boy was tall, and a muddy torrent in the winter. Rick would run to the railroad tracks and across—until the boy called him back. Rick would run to the chicken coop and beyond to the sharecropper’s house and bark at the old negro lady who lived there.

The boy had never been in the sharecropper’s house. It, and the colored lady and her husband, had come with the farm. The boy barely remembered the husband—he had died long ago. The boy had never paid much attention to the little house. If he had, it was obviously not as nice as his home or even the chicken coop.

Sharecroppers are people who rent land and a house to raise crops. They then give some of the crops to the owner as rent. That is what the boy’s mother would have told him if he had asked.

The little old lady had a nice garden. Her home was what was left a generation after the last crop destined to be shared was harvested.

~

Ancient wood bees liked to tunnel into wood. They had the teeth, or whatever, for it. Each bee was proud of the perfect round entrance and knew his particular tunnel would be the best home for his future offspring.

~

Christmas was the biggest and best holiday of the year. Presentwise, it made his birthday seem like nothing. To a young boy, time always moved slowly, but as Christmas approached, the boy feared that time was passing so slowly that it might actually stop.

One September day, the boy stretched a cotton clothesline across his room and attached one hundred clothespins, one for each day until Christmas. Each day, he would remove one clothespin and reassure himself that someday Christmas would arrive. On Christmas morning, the boy removed the last clothespin and ran in to the living room, to the Christmas tree and the presents.

During a different season and several clotheslines later, the boy pushed his mower through a cloud of dust near the chicken coop. The sweat that pored down his face turned muddy. The mower tore into a tuft of heavy, brown grass that had died from lack of water, its clump of roots half out of the ground.

That Spring, a single bumblebee had built her nest under this clump. This day, under this clump, she lived in what she considered her home. She shared her home with many daughters.

That Spring, Rick ran into the rural road in front of  the boy’s home and died.

~

A wood bee flying around a young Abe Lincoln’s Log Cabin a couple of centuries ago would have felt proud of his particular tunnel home. The neurons in his wood bee brain had changed little from those that lived in his ancient ancestor. When he saw a gangling young man walking around, he felt anger. He could imagine the giant monster stepping on him or eating his mate. Wood bees can’t sell. They can’t speak English. The only way to sell the monster on the idea he should leave was to buzz angrily around his head. And it usually worked.

~

The boy at school was one person, at home another. At school, his main desire was to be quiet, be unnoticed, to never be called on. Yet if he was, he was polite and usually knew the answer. He was the kid that, once gone, his teachers would not long remember.

At home, he didn’t mind screaming and crying to express his righteous indignation. He was indignant a lot. His mother always understood, always tried to make it better. After all, the boy was right, the world wrong. Only rarely was a different view expressed. His stepfather, behind a newspaper and when his mother could not hear, would quietly mutter “spoiled brat.”

Yet, when Rick died the boy did not cry. He only said quietly “I told him not to go in the road.” You would have thought the boy was stoic or uncaring. Maybe he thought that Rick’s death was too important for tears. The boy had always been lonely. The boy did not know that he had been lonely until that day. The boy knew his view of the world had changed. He would never again be as happy as he had been.

The second the bumblebees swarmed up, the boy knew he was in trouble. Abandoning the mower, he dashed behind a large, nearby bush, getting as far as possible into the limbs and leaves. Peeping out, the boy thought he was safe—the bees were settling down, returning to their damaged home. Soon they were all gone—except for one bee.

This bee was flying what you had to call a search pattern. Flying from one end of the yard to the other, looking over and behind every bush in the yard—then she came to the boy’s bush.

The boy tried to run, but immediately felt the bee tangled in his hair and then the sharp pain. The boy ran crying to his house. The bee did not follow.

~

When my son served a wood bee into the backyard, the surviving wood bees’ anger probably increased, but a new emotion, fear, instantly appeared. To any intelligent creature, the solution was obviousfly close to the beams, don’t give the monster a clear shot.

~

His mother held his head in her lap and gently applied wet baking soda to the sting “to draw out the poison.” As the pain receded, the boy’s first thought was “that sure was one smart bumblebee.”

The boy sat up and looked at his mother. He was thinking about something else, but just said  “I wish Rick had been as smart as that bee, he would have known to stay out of the road.”

The boy returned to play and to grow older. He often thought sadly of Rick, but he was also haunted by another thought: Maybe all of God’s creatures are smart!

As time passed, as it always does, the boy thought less and less often of Rick and the bumblebee. His mind turned to more practical matters.

Mike Stewart earned his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. He worked for three years for IBM, in Huntsville, Alabama (part of the Space Program developing the Saturn V Moon Rocket). After returning to Memphis, he founded Data Management Systems, Inc. Initially, the firm specialized in computer consulting, but later moved into Internet marketing.

3 Responses

  1. As an “unknown writer”, I really appreciate being appreciated by the people at Woven Tale Press.

  2. Mike, this story is incredibly engrossing. You impressively wove images and memories together from different time periods and points of view, to create more than one story. Thank you!

    1. Hi Elle – I was just using someone else’s twitter to see what they would see on the WTP site. Anyway, thanks again for your kind comment – Mike

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