Smallness and Finitude

I have no wise words to offer during a time such as this. I never dreamed of such a scenario in my life; I always imagined the more mundane disasters: hospitals, accidents, bankruptcy. I’ve had a brush with none, and yet here I am, with all humanity, in this disaster.

Have I, this whole life, been picking my way through a labyrinth, each choice sending me down another corridor of choices? Or was I launched from a canon, my trajectory unknowable, and yet fixed? Am I the latter, thinking I am the former? Do I write silly questions, straw men in dual, false dichotomies, the truth an ineffable middle-place?

Well, anyway. I played tag in our backyard with Essie today. She loves tag. She chases me and laughs. I chase her and laugh. She chases me and laughs. She loves to run, just like I always have. Her doll, Abigail from Spirit, found dandelions and then I had to find her. Find Abigail, find the dandelion. Kneel down, pull the weed. Repeat. Would I’ve done this on a cold spring Monday without a global pandemic raging in the wider world? I have no idea. I don’t even know if I chose to do it, or if it chose to have me experience it.

And tonight: uproarious laughter from Ess as Mykala tickled her in the tub, made funny faces at her wrapped in blankets afterward. Sweet, sweet, sweet.

To see the suffocating intoxication of agency, amplified by the unhinged id, to realize that we may steer the boat, but not control the squall… it is not to relinquish that agency, but rather to be humbled by finitude and smallness. I feel humble today.



Easter Snow

Easter Snow

I trust this will be one of our strangest Easters — the COVID-19 pandemic kept us apart from family and friends; but we could take a walk.



My grandfather Emil Bartylla (we all always called him Bup) passed away this morning. I took this photo of him and my mom at a Father’s Day gathering almost fifteen years ago. Bup was such a fixture in my life — and this picture is at the house I would take the bus to occasionally when I was in kindergarten. It was the house where my mom grew up. The house Nannie and Bup built in the ’50s, when all of Woodbury was just potato and corn fields, an apple orchard, and some radio antennas.

I told Mykala it feels like the foundational bedrock-givens of our lives, those pieces of ground keep falling out from under us, and we land in a hole, and then the bottom of that hole once again falls out from under us. This pandemic means having a large get-together to hug and cry and remember Bup has to wait.

But I can remember a little on my own. I remember the coffee percolator always running at Nannie and Bup’s. I remember Wheel of Fortune on the TV in the evening, shortly after Nannie died, nearly thirty years ago. I remember when everyone came over to re-roof the house. I remember how Bup helped me build a school project in his wood shop. I remember his warm hugs on holidays. And I remember all of our families, all four of Nannie and Bup’s children and their kids on vacation at Wolf Lake… I must have been just four years old. I remember the Christmas when I got this huge Lego helicopter, and how Bup and I marveled at the mechanical winch on it. I remember the story Bup would tell, how he sailed on a Navy destroyer in the Pacific straight through a hurricane, engines on full speed on one direction for a day, then a day in the eye of the hurricane, then another day, engines on full speed in the opposite direction as they sailed out the other side of the storm.

I guess I don’t know where we are now, in the eye of a hurricane, on our way out, or just on our way in. Hard to say. We’ll miss you, Bup.

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tweet - 19 March, 2020

Well, life was quite a bit different the last time I wrote down anything here. Here we are, in the midst of the worst global pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918.

Forgive my poor writing, the parts of my brain that handle reading, writing, and higher order thinking have been exhausted. Here’s a synopsis…

As a part of my job, I take a drill spinning at 200,000 rpm and use it right next to the mucous membranes and oral tissue of patients. This whips up whatever bacteria and viruses are present into a large, invisible cloud. Doing this day in, day out, with many patients per day means I’m going to get exposed to high viral loads in the air. (Per recommendations from our national and state dental associations, I am not working right now.) So, when I return to work, the thing that worries me is this is precisely the kind of environment that hospital personnel are in right now, and it appears that this repeated exposure (when combined with immune systems depleted due to stress) causes a relatively high rate of symptomatic COVID-19 infections amongst them. But I am lucky to be young, here’s why:


This says it is highly unlikely I am going to die from COVID-19 caused by an infection with SARS-CoV-2. That’s good! But my lizard brain keeps telling me it is possible, so I bounce between thinking I’ll be fine for 50% of the time and worrying this will kill me for the other 50% of the time. That’s bad!

Another thing that bears repeating and repeating and repeating —- look up at that chart again, where its data originates. It’s not from the CDC. It’s not from the United States. It’s from China. And their neighbor, South Korea, is currently testing nearly as many people PER DAY as the United States has tested IN TOTAL. Here’s Derek Thompson writing at the Atlantic in a piece called “America Is Acting Like a Failed State”:

Finally, large nonprofit organizations are stepping up to fill the void left by the administration’s testing failure. Amazon and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have offered to provide testing kits to people in Seattle with coronavirus symptoms. Yesterday, the Jack Ma Foundation, a charitable organization established by the founder of the Chinese retail company Alibaba, announced a donation of 500,000 testing kits to the United States. Acute state failure has reduced the richest nation in world history to a charitable cause.

Taking into account total population and time since outbreak, that means South Korea is testing people at a per-capita rate about 200 times that of the United States. Testing is so SO important because it helps us track the asymptomatic people who are infected! And with this virus, those asymptomatic people exhibit viral loads comparable to symptomatic infected individuals. We need to know where (and when!) the asymptomatic infected people are!

Without testing, we don’t know where this is spiking, we don’t know the true number of cases, and we don’t know when or where it is going to spike next. We can’t see trends. We can’t see curves. We do not have the public health data we desperately need to track this. Our best hope to contain the first spike (what everyone is, accurately, calling ‘flattening the curve’) is to try to do what Italy did (drastic isolation and quarantine measures) sooner than they did (before our hospital system is overwhelmed). The United States’ inability to test for this is a catastrophic failure.

At the same time, my grandfather Bup is dying in the hospital. He lived at home, the same home, since my mother was about five and of course for my entire life. He lived there until only a few days ago, when he was admitted to the hospital, with symptoms of dementia, delirium, and metastatic colon cancer in its most common form: multiple myeloma. He has a few days left. I can’t visit him because of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic; hell, we may not even be able to have a timely funeral because the current recommendations are against a gathering of greater than ten people… and on the coasts that has evolved into a recommendation against leaving one’s house unless absolutely necessary. This is, without a doubt, the strangest, most extreme, most stressful constellation of uncontrollable, bad, tragic, scary things that has ever happened in my life. I’ve been at home, not working, for just two days and I literally can not believe how the British people mentally dealt with The Blitz for 8 goddamned months. Oy.

And on the other hand: Ess just blossoms when we pay her attention. She loves to share whatever she’s doing or imagining or watching with us. These moments, watching a silly show on Netflix, or playing an invented marble game in the basement, or taking a walk as a family — these are the ones I hope I remember from this time. But hearing your five-year-old say she’s “tired of everyone talking about coronavirus all the time” makes you realize how impressionable, sensitive, and attentive one’s child can be. But she is loved, and I think, I hope, she knows it.

Patriotic Millionaires

Sheelah Kolhatkar writing in the New Yorker; The Ultra-Wealthy Who Argue That They Should Be Paying Higher Taxes:

In the U.S., executive compensation has increased, on average, by nine hundred and forty per cent since 1978, according to one estimate; during the same period, worker pay has risen twelve per cent. Income inequality hasn’t been this extreme since the nineteen-twenties. Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman found that, as a result of cuts to estate and corporate taxes, as well as the 2017 G.O.P. tax bill, the four hundred richest Americans pay a lower over-all tax rate than any other group in the country. In a Times Op-Ed, Saez and Zucman wrote, “This is the tax system of a plutocracy.”

First off: 940%. Wow.

Saez and Zucman’s research continues to provide evidence of the extent and damage done by runaway inequality, which is of course the aforementioned plutocracy. The hard, numerical reality of inequality was first presented to me by Paul Krugman, which made me very interested in the exhaustive review of historic, global inequality (and government’s role in curtailing it) by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. My point: it is incontrovertible fact that inequality hurts societies. But here’s what the wealthy think about it all:

When I asked Payne how hard it was to persuade rich people to join [Patriotic Millionaires, a group of wealthy people who support hiking taxes on the rich], she said, “I think the last time I checked there were about three hundred and seventy-five thousand taxpayers in the country who make a million dollars a year in income”—there are now almost half a million—“and we have a couple hundred members.” She laughed. “If you ever needed a back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many of America’s élite are concerned about the basic well-being of their fellow-citizens, that should give you a rough estimate.”

Let’s do the math. That’s just over 0.06% of millionaires who see enough of a problem to join a group that asks for higher taxes. So I think it is very very safe to say that essentially all millionaires feel that they have, to use the old expression, earned every penny. And they intend to keep them.

After that, you get a series of tired old expressions to justify stupendously low taxes:

And then you get the books written by these people:

And the narrative corollary from those millionaires: “I earned so much money in my life, it must be solely because of the things I did and not at all because of my luck.”

Which reminds me of David Robert’s evergreen piece in Vox, “The radical moral implications of luck in human life”:

It’s not difficult to see why many people take offense when reminded of their luck, especially those who have received the most. Allowing for luck can dent our self-conception. It can diminish our sense of control. It opens up all kinds of uncomfortable questions about obligations to other, less fortunate people.

Nonetheless, this is a battle that cannot be bypassed. There can be no ceasefire. Individually, coming to terms with luck is the secular equivalent of religious awakening, the first step in building any coherent universalist moral perspective. Socially, acknowledging the role of luck lays a moral foundation for humane economic, housing, and carceral policy.

To rephrase Roberts: if we can not sit down and reflect on our lives and conclude the frightening degree to which luck has shaped our selves and our circumstances (to say nothing of our monetary assets) then we are completely blind to the role of luck in other’s lives.

And, honestly, read that piece from him. It include an outstanding discussion of genetics, epigenetics, nature, nurture. Here’s a bit more:

So, then, here you are. You turn 18. You are no longer a child; you are an adult, a moral agent, responsible for who you are and what you do.

By that time, your inheritance is enormous. You’ve not only been granted a genetic makeup, an ethnicity and appearance, by accidents of nature and parentage. You’ve also had your latent genetic traits “activated” in a very specific way through a specific upbringing, in a specific environment, with a specific set of experiences.

Your basic mental and emotional wiring is in place; you have certain instincts, predilections, fears, and cravings. You have a certain amount of money, certain social connections and opportunities, a certain family lineage. You’ve had a certain amount and quality of education. You’re a certain kind of person.

You are not responsible for any of that stuff; you weren’t yet capable of being responsible.

And of course Roberts includes the necessary rebuttal of those who would claim that assigning luck the large role it deserves undercuts our free agency. Of course it doesn’t. But! Understanding luck reorients your understanding of everyone else on earth and better prepares you to exhibit the compassion and generosity that people deserve.

Hanya Yanagihara

Shelf life: novelist Hanya Yanagihara on living with 12,000 books | The Guardian:

Yanagihara may love her apartment, but she doesn’t love New York. “I hate it, and more with each year,” she says. “The reason you stay here is for the thrill of constantly encountering people who are smarter and more interesting than you. But almost everything else about the city – the weather, the poor infrastructure, the overpriced and mediocre food scene, the subway system, the traffic, the idea that what you do is who you are – grates.”

Here’s the first question we ask kids of a certain age: “what do you want to do when you grow up?” Inevitably, the answer comes in the form of an occupation.

So this is not a question about what kind of person the child wishes to become, no. Rather, the rote call-and-response tells a truth about American thought: your job is who you are.

Yanagihara is right: reject that notion.


*The opening montage of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron begins playing*
I just HAVE to run at this part, Dada! I have to run when the horses are running!
*Essie runs many laps around the first floor of the house.*


I see people. Every day, I see them. Ostensibly, they’re there for a dental appointment but of course everything’s connected. I hear of sudden deaths, grinding mental illnesses, slow goodbyes. If I release the exigencies of those days from my mind, it leaves me with this low note: there’s not a lot we can do to make sure we are here tomorrow. We have the time we have, and nobody, no-thing knows when that time will run out.

Does this knowledge help me rise to meet the challenges of marriage and fatherhood and personhood? So far, not really, no. This is perhaps because I have assembled a logical progression: if we take A premise as true, then B and C must follow and thus life is precious. When you build your life and your thinking around the opposite, assuming you’ll be there indefinitely, it takes time to restructure from a new, actual, real and true premise: finitude. After all, youth is for the young.

So I’m trying to build a foundation of gratitude. Not gratitude de novo, not one derived from first principles — for that would be exhausting and is likely beyond my lilliputian philosophical understanding and reading. Rather, a gratitude growing from neither abstract reasoning nor current conditions — which is to say, well, one condition: that of being here. I don’t always meet challenges with any sort of composure or big-picture calm. I rarely perceive the grace, the luck, that put me here. But trying to do it is important: I don’t know how many chances I have to get it right.



We got a Siberian Fir tree this year and the smell is SPECTACULAR. Mykala said the smell is slightly fruity, which is precisely what the articles online say. Essie is helping to trim it here. It’s our first Christmas season in the new house. More to say, more to write, more to post, but she’s sleeping soundly upstairs and we’re watching a Christmas movie down here and maybe it’ll all be alright.