On the morphology of the virus

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.

Paid time off

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.

Some informal hypotheses regarding the decline of automotive repair facilities in our town

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.

Journal entry: A man named Daniel

I went for a drink at the Old Toad tonight after seeing Midnight in Paris.  I was sitting outside with Melissa when a man walking by with a bike stopped at our table and asked me if we would be there a while, intimating that he wanted someone to watch his bike.  I said I would watch it.  He asked what I wanted to drink and I told him I didn’t need anything.  He said I did.  I told him to surprise me.

Several minutes later he came back with a drink and I introduced myself.  He had a Scottish accent that sounded fake and he said his name was Daniel.  I told him my name was Alex and he said, “You already said that”.  Melissa went inside to go to the bathroom, brushing my shoulder as she passed, and he still had not let go of my hand.  He told me to squeeze as hard as I could and I said no and he said right answer.  This was the first of many bad signs.

Daniel told me I was failing and wanted to know what at.  I tried to think of something and I told him that everyone fails at something.  He told me not to be coy and I said I wasn’t.  He insisted I was failing at something and at one point stood up off the chair and leaned across the table and close to my face to tell me again.  He confronted me with a barrage of related accusations and told me not to look down and not to be coy, that we were not in the movies, which was funny because I had just seen a movie that I imagined during my conversation with Daniel to have been full of such moments.

He asked me to tell him a riddle and I said I couldn’t think of one.  He said of course not and then told me one.  Who can remember these things?  But it went something like this:

“You’re trying to find something, trying to find meaning.  You keep looking and every time you look you go deeper into the rabbit hole.”  When he said this he pointed down into the hole in the center of the metal table where an umbrella could go but there was no umbrella.

“You go deeper into the rabbit hole”, he said, pushing the forefinger on his right hand down into the umbrella hole, “and then the universe pushes you back out”, using his left forefinger, now up underneath the table, to push the right finger back up.

“Then, one morning you wake up in a room full of your friends and you’ve turned into a pink elephant balloon.  And you’re there with all your friends and there’s no way out.  And you despair because there’s no way out of the room.  Finally one of your friends finds a way out.  It’s the slightest pinprick of a hole.  And your friend leaves.  And then one by one the rest of your friends leave.  They’re all gone and what do you do?  Do you follow your friends?”

I considered answering at this point but took a sip of beer to buy time.  Then Daniel continued describing the scenario.

“Because if you follow your friends through the pinprick hole you know you’ll be turned inside out and your insides will be on your outside.”

Eventually the riddle ended, I never answered, doubting whether what he told me really counted as a riddle, and the conversation turned to Daniel’s life history, which included, among other things, having gone to Cooper Union and holding his mother in his arms as she died from injuries sustained in a car accident.  I tried to respond and all of my responses he ridiculed as lies.  When someone feigns access to the otherworldly and the transcendant, the safest thing to do is to take them at their word and listen.  I listened to Daniel and I felt scared but reassured by all the people on the terrace at nearby tables and on the sidewalk walking by.

Eventually Daniel called his girlfriend with his phone.  I noticed that he had an iPhone, which convinced me that Daniel was not schizophrenic and homeless, as I had originally assumed, inexplicably spending his money, stolen from the group home slush fund, buying beer for strangers and then possibly poisoning those beers before most certainly murdering those who drank them.

He got his girlfriend on the phone and I could hear her voice.

“Should I sleep in the back room or crawl into bed with you?

“You’re not gonna tell me where to sleep?  Well so then I should continue doing whatever the fuck I wanna do?

“I’m at the Old Toad.  Talking to a young guy I’m trying to get into a fight with.”

Then he handed me the phone.


Her name was Lauren.

“Hey man, you should just put down the phone and walk away”, said Lauren.


I handed him the phone and without saying another word to Lauren he pressed “End”.

I swallowed the last bit of my beer and thanked him.

“Thank you for the beer, Daniel.  I appreciate it.  I don’t want to fight.”

“There won’t be any fight.”

We shook hands and I went inside.