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.


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.

Greta Thunberg

Transcript: Greta Thunberg’s Speech At The U.N. Climate Action Summit : NPR:

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!

You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.

When I see Ess tonight after work, I could apologize, but she wouldn’t understand. I’ll have to find a better way to apologize.


A few weeks back, Essie found an egg at the base of one of our front yard shrubs — we haven’t seen the mom of the egg at all, and Mykala and I are pretty convinced that this egg isn’t going to hatch. Why should we share that guess with Ess, though? We don’t even know what animal it is from. Then recently, another one appeared by the base of one of our tomato plants.

I just love the enthusiasm and hope and joy Essie takes in little things like this. We’ll keep checking every day.

This Life

James Wood wrote a tremendous review of Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom called If God Is Dead, Your Time Is Everything. Since I’ll be quoting a review that quotes the book, we’re two degrees removed from the source, but I don’t have the book yet and there are tons of ideas here I want to mark. Here’s one:

The problem with eternity is not that it doesn’t exist (Hägglund is uninterested in the pin dancing of proof and disproof) but that it is undesirable and incoherent; it kills meaning and collapses value. This is a difficult truth to learn, because we are naturally fearful of loss, and therefore attached to the idea of eternal restoration.

So you could write a book (or, heck, a novel) about this one point, but Hägglund is going to continue to pull the threads of this logic and see what we can learn both about how to live our daily lives and how to conceptualize life itself.

The great merit of Hägglund’s book is that he releases atheism from its ancient curse: its sticky intimacy with theism. Hägglund has no need for a parasitical relationship to the host (which, for instance, contaminates the so-called New Atheism), because he’s not interested in disproving the host’s existence. So, instead of being forced into, say, rationalist triumphalism (there is no God, and science is His prophet), he can expand the definition of the secular life so that it incorporates many of the elements traditionally thought of as religious. Hägglund’s argument here is aided by Hegel’s thinking about religion. For Hegel, as Hägglund reads him, a religious institution is really just a community that has come together to ennoble “a governing set of norms—a shared understanding of what counts as good and just.” The object of devotion is thus really the community itself.

These two ideas together force one who has grown up in religion (could be any religion, could be many religions, doesn’t matter) to ask themselves (a) which of their human anxieties are they salving with religious conceptions and (b) what societal ills are quelled by the existence of religion. Asking these questions allows one to recontextualize religion in life: only then can you choose or reject religion itself. In the absence of this deconstruction, you are simply choosing or rejecting religion’s idiosyncrasies, specificities, and people, not the ideas put forth by it or the social institutions buttressed by it.

And to sidestep the fact that I don’t have the time to read Ludwig Feuerbach’s “The Essence of Christianity”, I have to avoid Wood’s deep dive into Feuerbachian thought and instead head to this conclusion:

Feuerbach wanted to liberate human beings from their harmful self-deceptions, but Hägglund sees no imperative to disdain this venerable meaning-making projection, no need to close down all the temples and churches and wash them away with a strong dose of Dawkins. Instead, religious practice could be seen as valuable and even cherishable, once it is understood to be a natural human quest for meaning. Everything flows from the double assumption that only finitude makes for ultimate meaning and that most religious values are unconsciously secular. We are meaning-haunted creatures.

Dayum. I’d wear a t-shirt that read MEANING-HAUNTED. So let’s look at meaning more:

Savagely compressed, Hägglund’s argument goes something like this: If what makes our lives meaningful is that time ends, then what defines us is what Marx called “an economy of time.” Marx is, in this sense, probably the most secular thinker who ever lived, the one most deeply engaged with the question of what we do with our time. He divided life into what he called the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom. Hägglund adopts these categories: the realm of necessity involves socially necessary labor and the realm of freedom involves socially available free time. Rationally, Hägglund says, we should strive to reduce the realm of necessity and increase the realm of freedom. But capitalism is systemically committed to exploiting most of us, and to steadily increasing the amount of labor at the expense of our freedom. Capitalism treats the means of economic life, labor, as though it were the purpose of life. But, if we are to cherish this life, we have to treat what we do as an end in itself. “The real measure of value,” Hägglund says, “is not how much work we have done or have to do (quantity of labor time) but how much disposable time we have to pursue and explore what matters to us (quality of free time).”

So at this point, with these enormous excerpts, I’m just providing thin and ill-informed color commentary on Wood’s great piece of writing. I’ll stop. Just go and read the thing! I have to leave with one more quote, though:

…as Hägglund puts it, “our own lives—our only lives—are taken away from us when our time is taken from us.” We are familiar with the secular charge that religion is “life-denying.” Hägglund wants to arraign capitalism for a similar asceticism. Religion, you might say, enforces asceticism in the name of the spiritual; capitalism enforces asceticism in the name of the material.

And one more thought: ask yourself why capitalism works. Sure, it’s a way for us to specialize, to agree on a system where we barter our effort and our skills not onesie-twosie by individual transactions but rather in service of the whole scorekeeping system called money. And what happens when there’s a system of scorekeeping? We get to declare winners and losers, villains and heroes, us and them. Humans LOVE “us and them”. It’s like their favorite thing in the whole world to do: exclude and judge. So while I love love these ideas of annihilating fundamentally inhumane capitalism, doing so means you still have to solve a tougher problem: replacing the human need to count dollar by dollar why they are winning a game (only some of us agreed to play) with something else, to satisfy the desire to score-keep.

It sounds tautological, but we love games and capitalism persists because it is a game we love. You have to find a game that’s just as pervasive and distracting to the human animal, without being so harmful. And then: world peace, right?


Hi, Ess. I really should check in more often here, but of course I have many excuses: all those little things I’ve been working on that seem big now and I’ll forget in the future. In between those, I get to see you. I’m not always there, though. For that, I am very sorry.

Sometimes you dress up as Super Essie:


And sometimes you dress up as a cat:


Or you tuck Poppy in for bed:


But sometimes you fall and lacerate your forehead so badly that, when your Mama looks at it, she immediately knows that it is time to go to Children’s Hospital:


And you then endure days of heat and constant applications of Bacitracin:


After which your Puppy Surprise named Missy, whom you received after doing a spectacular job listening and holding still at the hospital, comes with you for removal of those stitches, but has her puppies at the doctor’s:


And even though she’s having a big day herself, Missy still has time to comfort you when you’re waiting to see the doctor.


I’m not going to forget driving straight from work and coming in to see you at your room at Children’s, wrapped up in your Mama’s hug, new stitches in your head, wanting nothing more than to show me the colorful rainbow popsicle you were eating.

And I’m really really not going to forget that when we were all leaving the hospital together, you wanted to ride home with me, and that I drove around town, watching the sun get lower and lower in the sky, listening to your gentle breathing while you napped away the troubles of a long, long day.