Thanksgiving Day: A Story of Machines and Architecture

Thanksgiving Day: A Story of Machines and Architecture

Paul Shepheard’s Artificial Love: A Story of Machines and Architecture features individuals experiencing their lives in the context of architecture. In the following excerpt, Shepheard takes Thanksgiving Day as an opportunity to reflect on the diaspora of his family and the evolution of human emotional bonds. Download and read A BIT of Artificial Love for free.

John is detailed to look after Juliet because he’s the only one with his hands free. I’m in the kitchen wrestling with the pink corpse of a turkey and my wife B is out in the yard chopping logs for the fire. Once a year we stack the fireplace and ignite it to celebrate the family hearth; it is the time when we compress our far-flung clan into one room and enact the ritual of Thanksgiving.

My piece of the family lives in a huge rented house in Houston, Texas, our temporary home for three years. This is how we know Jaques. It consists of myself and John, my first son; my second wife—the axe-wielding B—and our baby, who is just eleven months old. He still has a patchy shock of baby hair and it makes him look like a chimpanzee. Juliet and her mother and her mother’s new husband, who is as deaf as a post and used to be in aerospace, are now in Switzerland, in a place they call “Zook.” Our old folks live in London, England, a city so dark, as David Byrne’s song says, that people sleep in the daytime if they want to—which is just what the old folks do. The last member of the family is Juliet’s father, my sister’s ex-husband, who wanders the world looking for someplace that isn’t oppressed by hierarchy. Will he ever find it? At present, he lays his head to sleep in eastern Africa, Tanzania, where he grew up. He is in the city of Dar-es-Salaam, Which shares its name, says this postcard of concrete and glass office towers overlooking the Indian Ocean, with Jerusalem: the “city of peace.”

Dear Paul, he writes. I left London and went to Delhi because I could not bear the racism that pervades your country. He is what the English call an east-African Asian. We in the family all call him “Ex.” I left Delhi because I could not bear to live in a democracy so compromised by caste. And now, back in Tanzania, I find that all that counts is your father’s name. Where is left?

London, Houston, Zurich, and Dar-es-Salaam. My literally extended family. Can you call this little diaspora a family? We maintain it using the machines that distort space and time, the airliners, the modems, the ATMs. They are the triumphs of the modern world that enable us to respond to our hundredthousand-year-old impulse to belong to a tribe but still manage the globonomics of plenty. We meet once a year, kiss and give thanks, and then carry that memory of each other around with us the rest of the time like snapshots in a wallet; so when we meet again we are shocked by the realities—by how much our children have grown, by the zits and whiskers appearing on the teenagers, by the lines of age and failure and success on each other’s faces, and by the alarming decline in the old folks. And then we carry on like we always did.

Sometimes when I sit out on the porch in the evening of a hot south-central Texas day, with the fragrant smell of baked chlorophyll still hanging in the air, I fall to thinking of the days when humans lived like the other primates do, roving and foraging in packs. Back then they lived in a plurality in which there were no individuals; everyone was distributed through everyone else. As we lounged in the planetwide forest the strands of family would have glimmered like threads of Lurex in the plaid. And then, in the days of Montague and Capulet I imagine great bricks of bone reared up in extended familial edifices, cemented by the new technology of banking, a literal inheritance. But now? In the Summer Bay wilderness of the present times? When families are loose connections of people scattered across the globe, truly extended, consisting of people as different from each other as granite is from groceries? Good news. We have the possibility of redistributing again. The egalitarian family. My sons and my brothers and my father are versions of myself, living different versions of each other’s lives, at slightly shifted periods of time. We brook no hierarchy, we inherit no power. Together we span the last century. Ex at thirty-six, John at twelve, and chimp still zero; my new deaf brother in law, sixty-five years old, my aged father, sans eyes, sans teeth and pushing ninety, and myself at what B calls Hawaii-five-O: the six ages of man. If I include Jaques, the twenty-one-year-old lover of machines, because he’s in our Thanksgiving clan as well this year, we are the bunch that Shakespeare wrote about. We are The Seven Ages of Man.

The first thunderstorms of the fall burst upon Texas out of hot blue skies, like bombs of rain. They deluge the nests of the tiny chestnut brown ants in our yard and provoke furious activity. John and I spent hours this year watching the ants clear out debris from one of the nests. The entrance was a hole as round as a bullet and about the same diameter as the barrel of a vermin gun. The ants emerged from this hole in a continuous procession, each one carrying a grain of sand the size of its own body in its pincers, holding it high in the air to clear the ground. They were piling these minute nuggets outside the nest in a fan-shaped cuesta about four inches wide and maybe two inches high at the tip of the scarp. Some of the ants would drop their loads on the dip slope of this little hill, while others would clamber all the way up it to teeter on the edge and hesitate for a moment, securing their footing, before casting theirs down the cliff. Then it was back down and into the gun barrel to fetch another grain of sand. The continuous stream of workers entering and leaving the hole meant that queues were perpetually forming, and all the ants as they passed touched antennae with the others who were waiting, affirming their intricate pheromonic pattern of bondage to each other. Ants—and bees, which belong to the same insect order—have an acute sense of smell, and each nest has its own particular odor. Possession of the odor is the password to the nest.

Is this complex social chemistry the evolutionary forerunner of our own human emotional bonds to each other? The social insects’ sense of smell might be concentrated in their antennae or in the thousands of hair sensors that sprout all over their bodies; nobody knows. A similar perplexity surrounds the origin of the emotional triggers in humans. Strong candidates, as you might expect, are the smooth muscles of our hearts and guts. Another mystery about the ants and bees is the different physical forms that they can assume. The drones, queens, soldiers and winged males all hatch out of the same eggs. Entomologists think it is done by adjusting the type and quantity of food given to each larva as it nestles in its sculpted lodge within the nest, all delivered by handmaid insects, by instinct, as though some dietary program were running inside their tiny heads. Can it be so?

The intense social conformity of the ants’ nest, which at first seems so mechanical, so Hymenopteran Fascist, turns out to have the full-blown emphasis of organic life as humans know it. The ants farm like us, they strive like us, they go to war like us, some even capture the nests of other ants and put them to work as slaves like us—and they care for their young ones so much it changes them completely. Just like us.