Covid Metamorphoses #6 – Rant

Last month The New Yorker was running a special, $1 a month for four months. And while I’ve never been what you would call “a big fucking fan” of The New Yorker—in part because the phrase “big fucking fan” is a big fucking no-no—they publish enough good writing to make that one hell of a bargain. And yes, I’ve already set an alert to remind me not to renew the subscription.

I’ve read a lot of good stuff this past month, enough to check the site each morning, back when I had part of each morning to myself, before the pandemic brought my household closer together. Now, I get magazines delivered weekly that I get to flip through for occasional 15 minute intervals. The latest issue featured an essay—technically a “reflection” if you go by the column heading— from Geoff Dyer entitled “Existential Inconvenience.” It takes a special kind of writer to knock out 1800 words about this unique moment in history and have all 1800 be incredibly boring and un-unique, but Geoff turns out to be very special indeed. It’s probably because he went to Oxford. Let’s read it together.

This might be the first installment of a rewrite of “A Journal of the Plague Year,” but it will be written in real time rather than with the benefit of the fifty-odd years of hindsight that Daniel Defoe was able to draw on. 

We’re all rooting for you, Geoff. Let’s do this.

If all goes well—or very badly—it might also be the last installment, because although we’re only at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, I’m close to the end of my tether. 

Is “close to the end of my tether” New Yorker-ese for “freaking the fuck out?” Also, when you say you’re writing this in real time, does that mean you aren’t going to go back and edit it after you finished? Because I feel like you should have an idea if it’s any good or not before you send it off to be published.

Physical effects lie in the future, but the psychic toll is already huge—and wide-ranging. At the top end: Am I going to catch it? 

Probably.

This can be answered with a slight rephrasing of Philip Larkin’s famous line from “Aubade”: most things may never happen; this one probably will. 

I liked my phrasing better. You can even quote me. “This can be answered by directly quoting Scott Creney’s obscure line from Covid Metamorphoses #5: ‘Probably.'”

Strangely, that comes far down on the list of worries. 

Dude, you just said it’s at the top.

Dying, that most worrisome thing, occupies less head space than the most minute things. 

Kind of feel like if dying occupies less head space, then it isn’t really the most worrisome.

Don’t sweat the small stuff, runs the advice—and it’s all small stuff. 

It appears Geoff has been going through my grandmother’s library again.

Except the small stuff—so small it’s invisible—is the big stuff. See? 

I see that Geoff’s got some motherfucking virus jokes. It’s worth noting that Geoff has published over a dozen books, none of which have been classified as humor.

We’re getting in a right old tizz, so let’s calm down and itemize our concerns, concerns about the virus which are also symptoms occasioned by it.

“Right old tizz” is an English thing, and even if Geoff teaches non-fiction writing at USC (the one in California, not Carolina), he can’t help being born in England. But his use of “itemize” instead of “list” and “occasioned” instead of “caused” makes me think if you put a lump of Newcastle coal between Geoff’s ass cheeks, you’d have a diamond before he finished walking across the room.

At the moment, the main concern is inconvenience. 

Personally, my main concern is working people who were living paycheck to paycheck not getting a paycheck next week and then being subject to the cruel indifference of the neoliberal capitalist state. But I guess that could qualify as “inconvenient,” so maybe that’s what Geoff had in mind.

When trains or planes are delayed, the operators routinely “apologize for any inconvenience,” as though inconvenience were just a minor thing, as opposed to an “existential threat,” for example. But inconvenience is only inconvenient when it happens to other people; when it happens to you, it feels threatening. 

A lot going on here, Geoff. First off, I don’t find inconvenience threatening. Second, here’s a free writing lesson for you to pass on to your students: Be careful using 2nd-person in essays/criticism, even as a thinly-veiled 1st person, because it’s a real quick way to alienate readers who don’t share your POV. Also, I’ve read those first two sentences a half-dozen times and have no idea what you’re talking about. I don’t understand how the second sentence relates to the first.

For most of us, our actual experience of terrorism, even at its most threatening, is of radical or habitual inconvenience. 

I think most people’s experience of terrorism is being terrorized, up to and including getting blown the fuck up. Do I need to teach you how to use 1st-person-plural as well?

At present, this means asking ourselves if we will be able to go to X or Y and, if we go there, whether we will be able to get back. I can actually answer that quite easily. We’re not going. 

I guess Philip Larkin didn’t write a poem about that question.

We’re not going to Indian Wells for the tennis, because it’s been cancelled, and we’re not going to Mexico, because we’ve cancelled, less owing to fears of catching the bug than to our desire to put an end to the are-we-or-aren’t-we? angst. It was a huge weight off our minds when we jumped ship (a plane, actually) so that we could stay home and contemplate the implications of existential inconvenience.

Geoff definitely isn’t worried about his next paycheck. I also need to point out that Mexico is, from a Coronavirus standpoint, probably much safer than the US right now. 

The good news is that, for many of us, the virus might amount to nothing more inconvenient than the flu. As someone who hasn’t caught even a cold in the past five years, the flu, until recently, seemed a dreadful prospect, but I’d settle for it in a heartbeat now. 

I’d prefer not to get the flu right now, because it shares symptoms with a rapidly-spreading disease that has no cure and can kill people, but now I know what to get Geoff for his birthday (June 5th).

Book an appointment, put it in the diary, get it over with, and get over it! 

That’s not how people get the flu.

That’s basically what happened last year. 

I bet that isn’t at all like what happened last year.

After I turned sixty, my doctor suggested that I get the latest shingles vaccine. As an Englishman living in America, I’m often suspicious whether a new medical product is a genuine breakthrough or just the latest hustle from Big Pharma. 

Definitely not like getting the flu. Also, Geoff Dyer is a vaccination skeptic.

So I quizzed her about the side effects and the price. Maybe a sore arm, she said, and my health insurance would cover the full cost. “Deal,” I said. “Let’s do it!” As advertised, my arm hurt a bit (couldn’t move it). I also went to bed feeling slightly under the weather. The next morning, I woke with a headache, a fever, and muscle aches that lasted for three days. It turns out that almost everyone I know who’s had this shot has reacted the same way. And not only that—you also need a follow-up shot three months later, with similar results. So I scheduled that for a quiet week and, right on cue, went down with this flu-ey thing again, for just two days this time. It was both thoroughly unpleasant—though a lot less unpleasant than shingles—and really quite convenient. 

Cool story, bro.

A two-week helping of something like that at the time of my choosing now sounds very appealing—if it would content itself with being just the flu.

Geoff Dyer’s one fantasy during this pandemic—getting the flu.

I’ll be sixty-two in June, and I’m enjoying the perk of senior discounts while moving deeper into the risk demographic of those susceptible to more-than-flu. None of which seemed, a week ago, to concern the students at the university where I teach, in Los Angeles. 

Geoff seems strangely okay with the fact that his students don’t care whether he dies or not.

They were blasé about the whole thing, understandably, since they’re young and, it seems, permanently afflicted by the colds, coughs, and sniffles to which I have developed the immunity of age—which is not unrelated to the cunning of age. It required surprisingly little maneuvering to make sure that they were the ones opening doors so I could squeeze in or out behind them like a fare dodger at the gates on the London Tube.

I’m sure you could have just asked them to open the door for you, but then I guess you wouldn’t have gotten to  play James Bond, or Austin Powerless.

Colleagues were less easily duped. A friend who teaches Faulkner saw exactly what I was up to as I Englishly ushered him ahead (“Please, after you, Brian”), but he stepped up and reached for the bug-smeared door anyway. Naturally, he was up to something, too, and had taken measures to insure that “As I Lay Dying” remained a literary rather than literal experience.

Geoff’s got Faulkner jokes! Here’s one for you, Geoff. What do you call the weight of Geoff Dyer’s corpse two months after he’s died from the Coronavirus? Light in August! Also, it’s “ensure” not “insure.” Jesus.

He was holding the door for me because he was also, in drug argot, holding. Hand sanitizer, that is. My wife and I hadn’t stocked up on it because we wanted to be good citizens.

Totally makes sense. My wife and I didn’t stock up on toilet paper for the same reason. Now we take turns using our pet guinea pig and washing her after we finish.

Now we wish that we’d bought a couple of gallons, before panic buying emptied the shelves. (A terrible sight: Is anything more un-American than an empty shelf?) 

Free health care.

In “The Plague” (itself hard to find because of a sudden surge in what the students insist on calling relatability), 

There are over 40 available on Amazon as I write this, starting at under $10. You can buy the e-book for $11.99, or find a free PDF download with just a little bit of effort.

Albert Camus writes that in times of pestilence we learn that there is more in men to admire than to despise. I want this to be true—to go back to Larkin again, I want our almost-instinct to be almost-true—but how does that square with people hoarding toilet paper and face masks in a city where, at the time of writing, there have been relatively few confirmed cases?

A few confirmed cases? I guess Italy, China, Iran et. al. don’t count in Geoff’s world. But then we’re almost to the end of the essay, and Geoff has yet to acknowledge the existence, or importance, of anyone not directly related to himself.

We’ve got just one little bottle of hand sanitizer, which, in another potential contradiction of Camus’s claim, I’ve made clear that I deserve more than my wife because, frankly, I paid for it. “Strictly speaking, it’s not ours,” I pointed out. “It’s mine.” 

Your wife should fucking divorce you, Geoff, if not straight up kill you.

The soap in our apartment is still communal, though, so we’re always jostling at the sink, bleaching our hands like the Macbeths. 

You shouldn’t be using bleach to wash your hands. I don’t care what your weird Scottish neighbors do. But seriously—Larkin, Faulkner, Camus, Shakespeare—Geoff has yet to mention an author I didn’t read in high school. I’m looking forward to some Dickens jokes before this is over.

And what a minefield of anxiety the simple act of washing has become. 

Few things I hate more about the privileged class than when they take something simple & mundane (in this case washing your hands), make it complicated & overdramatic, and then complain about how complicated & overdramatic it is. You know what’s actually a “minefield of anxiety” Geoff? Walking through a fucking minefield. In 64 countries around the world, there are currently an estimated 110 million active land-mines still lodged in the ground. And none of them are in your SoCal apartment.

Wash your hands every time you come in the house, they say. But, having got in and washed your hands, you then touch stuff you had with you in the viral swamp of the outdoors. And although we turned on the tap with a knuckle-nudge, those same knuckles were used to touch the keypad on our way into the apartment complex. Can flawed washing become a form of spreading? And how about the keys used to unlock our door? Should we be washing them as well? Once you become conscious of the tactile chain of potential infection, the ground rapidly gives way beneath your feet. We’ve now got a routine, have established a sort of cordon sanitaire, but how are we going to keep this up? Maybe we started too soon, especially since my hands are already rashy from the unprecedented orgy of scrubbing, soaping, and sanitizing. In spite of evidence of panic buying, it seemed that, in some ways, we were more freaked out by the bug than were other people here. 

I’ll say you are. And please stop using the 1st-person plural.

Had they unconsciously absorbed the lunatic message of the nation’s leader, that the virus will one day magically go away? 

No, it’s called having some fucking perspective. Eliminating risk is impossible, but we should do our best to minimize that risk—for the sake of others as much as for ourselves. But then, part of me suspects Geoff is exaggerating a little bit here for comic effect, or more accurately, “comic” “effect.” Or maybe he’s trying to be interesting. But then Geoff has chosen the most boring, predictable (if I touch the thing, then my hands aren’t clean anymore, am I right?) path.

Or was it part of that uplifting Californian mind-set that says one must never have—let alone express—negative feelings about anything?

Have you heard some of the hip-hop that has come out of California? Also is this The New Yorker or The Los Angeleser?

I said at the outset that this account would unfold in real time, and, sure enough, the situation is constantly changing, and always for the worse. 

I agree with you, Geoff. This essay—excuse me, “Reflection”—just keeps getting shittier and shittier.

Certainly, the mood on campus shifted dramatically this week. Most doors have been propped open so that no one has to touch them. Until at least April 14th, all teaching will be done online using something called Zoom—yet another source of anxiety for older and technologically vulnerable faculty members such as myself. 

I think Geoff’s got more “anxiety sources” than a doctoral thesis written by a psychiatry student! Zing! I guess his humor is contagious! Just like a certain microscopic entity that is destroying our way of life! Whee!

Who knows when we will return physically to classrooms? 

Nobody.

On the plus side, L.A., generally, is a far healthier city than New York or London. It’s more spread out, and the worst thing about it—the relative lack of public transportation––might turn out to be one of the best things about it. On the minus side, I ride the Expo Line train all the time—another reason why I need the bottle of hand sanitizer more than my wife does. 

If you hands are that fucking filthy, you might want to share that hand sanizitizer with your wife. I mean, if you want her to ever touch you again.

Besides, as a writer, I am uniquely at risk. 

Medical professionals are also uniquely at risk, and for more interesting reasons.

Although it’s a wretched life in some ways, I’ve always been heartened by the all-redeeming advantage of spending one’s days writing at home: the freedom to pick one’s nose whenever the urge takes hold—which is pretty much all the time. 

It’s true. He typed this essay with one hand.

That’s got to stop. But the writer’s finger is vocationally programmed to go up the writer’s nose. 

This writer’s finger is vocationally programmed to flip you off.

Even now, as I press these keys, a dangerous counter-gravity is urging hand toward face, nose, nostril.

Class, please turn your attention to the syllabus. In week five we will discuss How To Make Picking Your Nose Seem Dramatic, or as I like to call it: Commas, The Building Blocks of Tension.

Keep typing, keep pounding the keys (which I’m touching now, seconds after sending a text to my tennis partner, on the very same phone that I checked while out having breakfast, before washing my hands when I got back).

Please stop. Stop pounding the keys.

Some changes are easier to make, though not necessarily more effective than others.

Some ideas are vaguely expressed, though not necessarily more abstract than others.

My tennis partner and I have abandoned shaking hands at the end of a match—but, since I’ve touched the tennis balls that he has touched, what’s the point? Also, like many men of my generation, I have a fondness for paying with that filthy, contaminated stuff called cash. (Speaking of which, does anyone, even in London, a city of proud and determined caners, still snort coke through shared banknotes?) 

Things Geoff likes to do in 2020: tennis—he really likes tennis. Things Geoff used to do: cocaine in London. He probably picks his nose so much because he’s trying to find some stray cocaine particles up there.

I’ve got to start paying with a card, but, weirdly, America seems less contactless than the U.K.; you’re always having to touch screens, trying quickly to choose the No Tip option while the barista is looking elsewhere. 

God, you’re an asshole. And the worst kind of asshole, a cowardly one who shits on the poor.

And why get anxious about screen touching when the cutlery has been touched, when you’re drinking out of cups that have been handed to you by the hands of others? Especially when my wife points out that I’m holding the cup not by the aptly named handle but with my fingers round the cup itself in some residual affectation of or longing for the French style of drinking coffee out of a bowl, as if we were back in those idyllic times before every day was spent as both victim and suspect in the ongoing forensic investigation into this hand-to-mouth crime scene called life.

I think your wife points that out because she has a lot of hostility towards you, Geoff.

No wonder we’re conflicted. I say two things to my wife all the time, one pitiful (“What will become of us?”) and the other Churchillian: “Be of good cheer.” 

I am now imagining Geoff saying either of these after he finishes fucking his wife. And now, so are you.

It cheers one up, saying this, but while I’m saying it I am inwardly clutching my head like Munch’s screamer. There he is, stranded in the midst of a blazing pandemic, gripped by the existential realization that shops are out of face masks and sanitizer and—this is the killer—that, while screaming, he’s also touching his face. Aaargh! 

That’s the end. Munch’s painting has been said to represent the terror of human existence. Geoff Dyer’s work, at least in this essay, only represents the tedium of the comfortable writer-professor who, in the face of an actual crisis, tries to create high drama (and low entertainment) from its most trivial and mundane moments. But instead of drama, or entertainment, all we get is solipsistic masturbation, followed afterwards, I’m assuming, by the furious scrubbing of hands.

I can’t wait to read the next installment, where Geoff quotes Thomas Hardy while bemoaning the lack of quality television.

About ScottCreney

Scott Creney lives in Athens, Georgia. He is the author of "Dear Al-Qaeda: Letters to the World’s Most Notorious Terror Organiztion".
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