My girlfriend and I use technology to augment our relationship. When we spend long periods of time apart we write each other text messages and send photographs of ourselves to each other, often photographs of a sexual nature. Late one night, she sent me such a photograph and I was certain, based on the quality of light in the photograph, that the picture had not been taken recently. I pressed for details about when this picture had been taken and she eventually confirmed my suspicion that, yes, in fact, this was an old picture, taken before we had begun seeing each other. I was hurt and made it clear to her that I expected the photographs of a sexual nature that she sent me to have been taken specifically and exclusively for me; after all, I would do the same for her. She claimed—and I agreed with her—that it was a good photograph and she simply wanted me to see it. After all, there was no guarantee that she would get that kind of light while also experiencing a very sexual mood while we were together, the future being largely out of our control. I was still upset, but it was getting late and my girlfriend and I are adamant that we not go to bed angry and so I was willing to resolve this another day. Before saying goodnight, I began typing her a text message. All I want to do is kiss, and my phone suggested your neck. I accepted this suggestion: All I want to do is kiss your neck. How was the software in my phone able to correctly guess where I wanted to kiss my girlfriend? Of course the answer is that, embedded in my phone’s text messaging software, there is an implementation of a simple language model which keeps track of frequent sequences of words that I type. The software uses this language model to make suggestions as I type, thus further technologically augmenting my relationships. In other words, my girlfriend was not the first person whose neck I’d wanted to kiss, as I’d typed this sequence of words many times before. It is possible that future updates to my phone’s operating system will involve refinements of this algorithm, down-weighting the relevance of word sequences I typed long ago or maintaining language statistics conditioned on the recipient’s identity, thus giving my girlfriend a statistical tabula rasa. It is impossible for me to say. I explained this insight to my girlfriend and said that the photographs of a sexual nature were not so different. We are all like crabs gathering debris and sea-floor detritus in a frantic effort to construct a Self, she typed. I started to type I couldn’t agree more, but after typing I my phone suggested the word sequence love you so much and I accepted this suggestion before telling my girlfriend goodnight, don’t let the blue light bite.
When the virus started spreading, we learned it was spreading to many countries and steadily if unevenly into their territories. We knew that the tool needed to detect the presence of the virus in a human, the testing kit, had not yet been manufactured in sufficient quantities to provide a confident measurement of the spread. There was also the matter of inconsistent symptom presentation: many who had the virus in their bodies seemed not to display readily observable signs of infirmity and would therefore be unlikely to get tested for the virus even if the test were more widely available which, recall, it was not.
Responses to the reported spread of the virus included measured reassurance, various forms of panic, and denial. These responses were easier to monitor than the virus itself, being legible and right there on the computer—you just had to go and look for expressions of the responses, and they could easily be found on the virtual social networks to which most of us had convenient access.
Many more children than usual were at home because schools were closing in large numbers to contain the spread. Curiously, it seemed, children could carry the virus but were unlikely to become sick from it, making their potential as carriers all the more pernicious. Suddenly a hug offered by a child seemed like something to regard with more caution than before. Indeed, hugs became something one had to approach with a great deal of caution across the board.
For my part, I still hugged the dogs, it being my understanding that dogs could not host the virus or transmit it to a human, even though the virus seemed to have originated in some other animal, presumably domesticated. My girlfriend and I hugged throughout the day, especially after arguments, which luckily became less frequent during the spread of the virus, the prospect of widespread and painful death seeming to put things into a new perspective that diminished our commitment to our opinions about what specifically transpired in the quotidian manifestation of our life together.
We avoided crowded places even more than usual, though if you know my girlfriend you will also know that she was never one for crowded places anyway. But we embraced the new injunction to avoid unnecessary contact with other humans, and we paid for two jigsaw puzzles to be delivered directly to our house, disinfecting them with a liquid spray upon their arrival. We took the dogs on hikes, reasoning that, even if the trails were to become a bit crowded, as they often did, the virus would quickly disperse and could not concentrate into problematic density, the outdoors being what they are, namely very open and large, at least by our judgment.
One of the jigsaw puzzles was a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, “The garden of earthly delights”, separated, of course, into many interlocking pieces that we would later attempt to fit together in order to recreate the original, vivid scene depicted by the apparently troubled Dutchman so long ago.
My girlfriend worked on her computer and I read my books in silence, as was my usual habit, though I felt that the phenomenology of reading for me had become more intensely personal, in light of the virus and its uncertain spread among humans. I read new books and classics, books that provided highly readable accounts of popular scientific trends, novels with difficult images and language that I had to plod through sometimes quite slowly, frequently consulting a variety of references to more fully engage with the text. I carried out my daily Zen meditation practice, having in the last few years become something of a devout Buddhist, owing to certain developments in my personal life.
A commonly shared conviction was that our community’s collective efforts to avoid each other should have the result of appearing, down the road and in hindsight, as an overreaction to the virus, their effectiveness causing the virus to seem like a considerably less severe threat than what we had allowed ourselves to believe it was.
I found it helpful to review my high school Latin dictionary when prompted to do so by my reading. After encountering an allusion to St. Benedict, I was put in mind of the English word benediction—good word. We all sought the good word, I thought, whatever meaning this might have for a given individual in a given set of circumstances. Virus, of course, was Latin for poison. Perhaps misleadingly unrelated to virile, virtue, whose etymologies both point ultimately to the Latin for man along their respective semantic and morphological diachronic trajectories. I had a teacher, years ago, who couldn’t stress it enough—language change is atelic, an English word derived from the Greek telos, for end, which we encounter more mundanely (from Latin mundus, or world, i.e., in our worldly affairs, I am tempted to think) in telephone, television, telemetry. Language change is not driven towards some end, in other words, as many once believed, long ago, in this country and in many others.
We know that the English lexicon is rife with morphological overlap with Latin largely due to the conquest of territories populated with English speakers by French-speaking Normans in the 11th century. The result being that English is now a Germanic language with a surprisingly Latin-via-Norman French-derived lexicon. I experience especially poignant reminders of this in the enviable decomposability of many German words. Wörterbuch (book of words) instead of dictionary, Fernseher (far seer) instead of television, Handschuh (“hand shoe”) instead of glove. The still-Germanic morpho-lexical core of English seems to have flown under the radar of the conquest. Hand, shoe, word, see. Words so embedded in the daily lives of people that they could hide in plain sight and avoid contact. Though this metaphor must of course be abandoned, telicity being in the very marrow of what it would mean for the words themselves to be ascribed agency and the will to remain hidden or untouched.
So, too, the spread of the virus appeared to be atelic or at least impersonal, and its apparent lack of interest in children perhaps an unhelpful if encouraging anthropomorphization.
“I’ve lost interest in all forms of self-improvement projects,” my friend Dave said to me as he sprinkled the last bit of fish food onto the surface of the koi pond he maintains in his yard.
Self-improvement projects, according to Dave, always turn into labor, and all labor is bondage. “That’s why”, he explained to me as we sat down on the bench next to the koi pond, “my various projects take such a long time, and why the scope of my projects has narrowed in recent years.”
Dave explained that any personal project—that is, any activity that is not directly related to performing the duties associated with his job or meeting the various demands placed on him by his wife—must consist in activities that he can perform in the evenings from his bed. Dave said that by satisfying this constraint, personal projects cannot become labor and, by definition, cannot result in self-improvement. “My circadian rhythm and melatonin conspire to put a relatively hard upper bound on how long I can pursue a given personal project. I can engage in the personal project for usually ten minutes or so, at which point I doze off involuntarily. I simply do the activity until I become tired, and when that time comes I am, conveniently, already undressed and in the bed and can immediately fall asleep.”
This explains why Dave’s personal projects sometimes take much longer than one would expect, given the complexity of the project and Dave’s demonstrated aptitude in the various tasks involved. Knitting scarves for his siblings every Christmas, reading the most recent popular non-fiction, providing his colleagues with feedback on early drafts of manuscripts: These were all things that—when I first met him, presumably during a time in which he, for one reason or another, was less wary of self-improvement—Dave once did in a matter of weeks or even days. Now such projects routinely took Dave more than a year to finish.
I reminded Dave that he had built the very bench we were sitting on. I reminded him that he had borrowed my wife’s station wagon to go and collect the scrap wood from which he would go on to construct the bench, since the car he drove at that time was too small to haul the planks without creating hazardous driving conditions.
I reminded Dave that he had built this koi pond fifteen years before, that he’d dug up a crude hole with a rented backhoe and I’d helped him to refine and sculpt the shape of the hole with mattocks and shovels. I reminded him how I then helped him lay down a plastic liner to create a sealed ecosystem that had thrived all these years.
Were these not worthy projects that improved not only the self, but benefitted others in various ways as well, I asked him. And specifically, by involving and enlisting others in these projects, was he not taking something that, in a certain sense, was not his? Is it not the case that the wellbeing of not only his friends but also the fish were somehow being jeopardized by his refusal to honor the legacy of these projects in our shared lives? “The life expectancy of the fish is not something I fully thought through,” Dave admitted, sighing. He said he wished the fish would simply die peacefully, since he couldn’t justify killing or neglecting the fish, all in the name of not improving himself.
Before we went back inside to have coffee, Dave had to measure the temperature of the water in the koi pond. Every year, he recorded the water temperature each day in a small notebook, starting on Labor Day. When the recorded temperature remained below 55 degrees for seven consecutive days, Dave stopped feeding the fish until spring. For years this felt to me like a dangerous gamble, but Dave had researched the species carefully and assured me that the fishes’ bodies stopped producing certain enzymes related to digestion once water temperatures regularly fall below 55 degrees, and that they could even become sick and die if one were to continue feeding them in these conditions.
As Dave bent over the edge of the pond, holding the thermometer just below the surface of the water, I closed my eyes and pictured Dave finding the fish dead, one by one, floating on the surface of the water. I saw him bury the fish in the nearby forest, pouring freshly-dug soil onto their lifeless orange bodies. I imagined myself coming by one Saturday and helping Dave remember how to operate the backhoe so that he could fill in what had once been his treasured, self-contained pond ecosystem. I saw the dirt piled up where the pond had been, a neat little mound like a tidy unmarked grave. I saw the bench slowly rotting from exposure and Dave finally breaking the bench down with a crow bar, prying the nails loose and burning each piece of the disassembled bench in his winter fires. I saw the fire in the fireplace smolder and the heat in his house concentrate to a finer and finer point in Dave’s bedroom, under his covers, where he would one day fall asleep for the last time, a barely discernible smile playing across his dead lips, as if in wry acknowledgment of the possibility that things had improved at last.
We come to this same town every year to escape the clutter of daily life. Every year we rent the same room in the same building on the main drag through town. When we get here, after unloading my luggage from the covered bed of the truck, we go to the grocery store. This year at the Stop-n-Save I buy three avocados, unsalted butter, pork rinds, one dozen eggs, two cans of tuna packed in olive oil, tomatoes, pre-washed romaine lettuce in a plastic container, chocolate, coffee, bananas, and a pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco.
Marcel waits calmly in the cab of the truck while I check out. I see him address an itch by gnawing gently on his body where it itches.
We always come to this town in spring, when Marcel’s allergies act up. In all of my pictures from our trips, year after year, Marcel’s face grows whiter, and there is always a spot on his left paw, darkened by his allergic licking. I try to keep him from licking but still he licks it when I am unable to watch him.
I bring magazines to read, as well as books. I bring books I feel I cannot easily make time to read at home, owing to the clutter of my daily life. Last year I brought Middlemarch, and this year Swann’s Way. These demanding texts are more manageable during our trips, taking advantage of my employer’s paid time off policy.
I bring my meditation cushions in a big duffel bag I use only for that purpose. I arrange them in a corner of the bedroom. I use a lint-roller to clean off the black buckwheat-filled cushions and plan to meditate for longer periods than I am able to at home, temporarily relieved of the clutter of my daily life.
Inevitably the clutter of my daily life re-emerges, takes new forms when refracted through the lens of my paid time off, grows from the seeds of disorder that lie in my heart. Socks and underwear accumulate on the bedroom floor. Olive pits and empty cans of tuna start are left on the kitchen counter. Within the context of my paid time away from the clutter of my daily life, daily hikes provide a respite from the chaos. Each day we hike between five and ten miles in the forest. Black bears are not uncommon in here, and we sometimes see bear scat on our long walks. To date we have not seen a bear in person, so to speak. I do not bring a gun on our trips.
I sometimes mutter to myself, Just for once I’d like to see a bear out here. Maybe then, if I experienced the big fear that would presumably arise in me as a result of seeing the bear, the little fear from the scat would dim. Then I wouldn’t be so cut off from everything, I say out loud to myself as we are walking on a trail near town, marked with blue diamond trail markers. Maybe then I’d notice the socks and underwear accumulating, and maybe then I’d just put them into a plastic grocery bag, saved for that purpose, that I could carry home and empty into the hamper in my bedroom, or directly into the washer.
What can one do to bridge one’s separateness from the natural world? Going on a long hike on my paid time highlights my alienation from the natural world. I end the hikes in the midst of an imagined dialogue with my enemies, defending an obvious rhetorical position to the people lodged stubbornly in my nervous system. Trudging through a national forest, looking at my feet, lost in thoughts, I’m more tired than when I started, my chances of sleeping improved, but the rocks, streams, trees, and turtles remain silent and concealed.
At church, when I was little, my Sunday school teacher told us that to be in Hell is to be forever separated from God’s love. In trying to move closer to God’s love, since then, amidst the clutter of my daily life, I feel I have been only further ensnared in what I sometimes imagine as the Chinese finger trap of solipsism.
During my paid time off, I bring my dog to suicide country, where despair claims the men and women in large numbers, having separated the souls of the men and women from God’s love and taken them with it to be devoured in Hell, the way a lone coyote baits a house dog into chasing the coyote back to the waiting and hungry pack.
I get up on the last day of my paid time off and take Marcel for one last walk, watching for coyotes. I do not bring a gun on our trips.
Many of the new businesses in our town operate in buildings that once housed gas stations or automobile repair shops. Some of us wonder why there were once so many gas stations and automobile repair businesses in our town that are no longer needed. It does not seem to be the case, for instance, that the gas stations and auto repair businesses have moved into new facilities; what gas stations and auto repair businesses I am aware of all appear to be housed in rather old buildings. Moreover, there are now more reasons than ever to drive one’s car in our town. There are new restaurants, parks, and offices, too many to count, and by all accounts these are successful enterprises. Given their success and their locations, which are not proximal to the main residential areas of our community, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that people are driving to them. My own experience is consistent with this. Their parking lots seem to always be nearly full.
Perhaps this apparent contradiction can be resolved by the simple fact that–in our town and indeed throughout the world–recently manufactured automobiles are both more fuel-efficient and of a higher quality than those manufactured in the past, and therefore require less maintenance and gasoline. Everyone with whom I have discussed this matter points to a common underlying mechanism: the newer cars combust fuel in ways that incur less damage to the material of the engine. In addition, recently-manufactured cars are very often equipped with the sorts of features that bring the car’s operation into closer alignment with the human cognitive endowment, reducing the risk of accidents and therefore the demand for automobile repair businesses. If the residents of our town drive such automobiles at higher rates, the puzzle is likely solved.
The people in our town reap the rewards of these technological advances. At the same time, we must acknowledge with gratitude that, if circumstances were to suddenly change–if, say, human cognition were to undergo rapid and unexpected changes, rendering the newly developed features ineffective–the buildings that once housed the automobile repair businesses are still available. With minor adjustments and renovations these buildings could once again provide the infrastructure necessary for repairing automobiles in the same way that they once did, more or less.
I got all my personal data as a CSV so I could understand my grief.
I developed a sensible grief metric and submitted the metric to a variety of innovative but well-established statistical analysis and data visualization techniques.
The file containing my personal grief data was too large to be stored locally and so I configured a remote database to store my grief data using new and affordable cloud-based technologies.
I visualized my grief for my parents and siblings in a series of charts that I embedded in an e-mail.
can’t get last one to load, my dad replied.
I sent it again but at a lower resolution so the file size would be reduced. I felt that this chart contained important information pertaining to my personal grief which is why I’d saved it at such a high resolution at first. I was happy to re-send the smaller file, even though I really wanted my dad to have the high resolution version as well.
I put them all in the family’s directory on the cloud computer technology I had learned to use and set a reminder on my calendar to print them all out at the library before we all met at my parents’ house for lunch the following Sunday.
I made enough copies for everyone and passed them out, after church but before the ballgames started.
I’ve recently begun working on a translation of one of my favorite stories, “Bahnwärter Thiel” by Gerhard Hauptmann.
Every Sunday you could find Thiel the rail signalman sitting in church, except for the days when he either had to work or was sick in bed. But over the course of ten years he’d only been sick twice: the first time was when a large piece of coal fell out of the coal car of a passing train and tossed him down the embankment with a shattered leg; the second was when a bottle of wine came flying out of the window of a train as it sped past and hit him square in the chest. Apart from these two mishaps, as long as he didn’t have to work, nothing had ever managed to keep him from going to church.
What happened was I shot a bird. I was pretending and my fantasies were varied. I was leading a reconnaissance mission and had basically a whole other unit coming for support to outflank the enemy. I heard movement and crouched down and with my pellet rifle I shot the bird but I didn’t mean to hit him. I shot him and he went off, wounded. I didn’t want to tell daddy but I knew I had to. He’d find out about the bird one way or another. He’d go out tagging trees and see its body lying there dead. Or one of his friends would go out there to build a deer stand and he’d see the dead bird and bring it back to the house and hold it up by its feet and look at my dad and we’d all be standing in the carport and my dad would look at me and say, “Wonder how that bird got hurt?” So it was best to just tell him as soon as he got home.
Pretty much everyone was miserable after the scandal. Several of our friends’ lives were ruined and it was far from over. The mushroom cloud had not yet resolved itself, so to speak.
David said he wanted to come up from Providence so we could talk about it in person while drinking. He came and we talked about the arcane symbolism of the legal documents. David’s girlfriend came too but she went and stayed with her sister, who lives in the same town as me. We sat in a bar in my town drinking Budweiser and talking quietly about the scandal. David said the thing still wasn’t done unfolding. “The mushroom cloud still hasn’t resolved itself, if that makes sense.”
Some people sitting near us in the bar were on a date and they were discussing astrology. The woman was interested in astrology while the man pretended to be. She did not consider herself an astrologer, she said. The man said maybe the word is astrologist. She told him how the big dipper had changed over the years. How it used to look one way but now it looks another way. We rode our bikes home but you can’t see any constellations or Zodiac signs in the town where I live.
The next day we went to some galleries. We saw a bunch of paintings that were just blue paint on rectangular canvases. David’s girlfriend’s sister asked if I liked the art. I had no idea how the art made me feel. She said the paintings really glowed. She said the paintings all had what seemed like very specific dimensions. She said it was funny that they were like that. It did not occur to me that the dimensions were funny. She said, in conclusion, that the paintings were all blue, and that blue is a good color. No way was I going to disagree.
I lived in Germany once, for a year, several years ago. While I was there I took a German course and we took a field trip to an art museum in Stuttgart. We were asked to pick a work of art and write a short essay about it. I picked a painting called “Monochrome Blue” by Yves Klein. Es hat viele verschiedene Bedeutungen, I wrote. I thought this was funny.
I thought about that when David’s girlfriend’s sister walked away. I wondered why none of these blue paintings ever made me feel a single fucking thing.
My therapist wanted to give me a new face. She called and said a nearby doctor had an extra face and now was the time if I wanted it. I went to her office and she performed the in-patient procedure. Afterwards I looked in the mirror and it looked nothing like me. My face had Italian features. Dark curly thick hair, narrow eyes, big nose and lips. I suddenly realized I did not want this face but she had worked so hard and was smiling as she held the mirror so I said, “Dr. Chernotov it looks amazing.”