29 April 2020

the unimportant comes pouncing

During the last two hundred years the blackbird has abandoned the woods to become a city bird. First in Great Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, then several decades later in Paris and the Ruhr valley. Throughout the nineteenth century it conquered the cities of Europe one after the other. It settled in Vienna and Prague around 1900, then spread eastward to Budapest, Belgrade, Istanbul.
From the planet’s viewpoint, the blackbird’s invasion of the human world is certainly more important than the Spanish invasion of South America or the return to Palestine of the Jews. A shift in the relationships among various kinds of creation (fish, birds, humans, plants) is a shift of a higher order than the changes in relations among various groups of the same kind. Whether the Celts or Slavs inhabit Bohemia, whether Romanians or Russians conquer Bessarabia, is more or less the same to the earth. But when the blackbird betrayed nature to follow humans into their artificial, unnatural world, something changed in the organic structure of the planet.
And yet no one dares to interpret the last two centuries as the history of the invasion of man’s cities by the blackbird. All of us are prisoners of a rigid conception of what is important and what is not, and so we fasten our anxious gaze on the important, while from a hiding place behind our backs the unimportant wages its guerrilla war, which will end in surreptitiously changing the world and pouncing on us by surprise.

Milan Kundera (Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1975)

We always knew what we were doing. We were so arrogant. We just thought we could get away with it.

24 April 2020

Simply lit
Often toward evening,
after another day, after
another year of days,
in the half dark on the way home
I stop at the food store
and waiting in line I begin
to wonder about people—I wonder
if they also wonder about how
strange it is that we
are here on the earth.
And how in order to live
we all must sleep.
And how we have beds for this
(unless we are without)
and entire rooms where we go
at the end of the day to collapse.
And I think how even the most
lively people are desolate
when they are alone
because they too must sleep
and sooner or later die.
We are always looking to acquire
more food for more great meals.
We have to have great meals.
Isn't it enough to be a person buying
a carton of milk? A simple
package of butter and a loaf
of whole wheat bread?
Isn't it enough to stand here
while the sweet middle-aged cashier
rings up the purchases?
I look outside,
but I can't see much out there
because now it is dark except
for a single vermilion neon sign
floating above the gas station
like a miniature temple simply lit
against the night.
Malena Mörling

One of the friends who so generously go shopping for us told me that her children are eating so much more, too much, she says, now that they are locked down. But what can I tell them, she asks, cut the sugar while there's a virus?

Another friend tells me how her two teenage daughters are trying so hard to be calm und understanding she wonders if they'll explode one day. I wish they would go back to arguing and banging the doors.

Yesterday just before sunset, I started to clean windows, splashing and wiping, whistling my confusion through my teeth. It was dark by the time I was done with it all.

My father asks that we stop calling him every day, as if there's an emergency, he complains. Just stop being so emotional about everything, he admonishes me before I can say a word and puts down the phone. I know all the things he is afraid of and hospitals are on the top of his list.

When R was a college student, his mother had a car accident as a result of which she had to spend six months in traction, that means six months on your back looking at the ceiling, not knowing whether she could walk again.
I first thought someone was telling me a very bad joke when I first found out, years later, during my first winter in Dublin. It had snowed and she was outside with a gang of kids and dogs throwing snowballs.

So, you see, I know we can do this. Nice and steady.

21 April 2020

so much

The night,
In which
the fear's all

Has also
And the

Mascha Kaléko


The dawn chorus, my early morning bird friends wake me. I like to think so. Indifferent as they are to mere humans. I lie there feeling like the first, the only person awake, listening, letting my mind take me to my first thoughts. There is so much I need, want, have to accept. So much. 

It feels strange. But also simple, acceptance. Almost a relief. 

Life is easy, I must be honest about this. Not having to go to work and still being able to work, without problems, from home, this is truly wonderful. There is no other way to describe it. And yet, being told that should I insist to be allowed back to my office on campus, I cannot do so without prior arrangement and that I can only attend meetings in person if all attending wear face masks - something I don't even want to consider asking for. That I need to accept. We are not talking about weeks here.

And the risks, accepting that I am vulnerable, that an infection could - not necessarily but yes, with a high likelihood - be severe and/or trigger a flare up of various autoimmune vasculitis scenarios. That I have to accept. Also, that I have to explain it again and again.

In other words, not only do I have to keep my distance and be vigilant, R has to do it too. Which involves friends going to the shops for us and I need to figure out how to accept these offers for what they are without feelings of being a nuisance.

In conversations I stress that I am not afraid. And I mean it. Or rather, I am so used to being afraid for my health, this is just an extension, another version of what it means to be chronically ill. I have years of experience when it comes to working out my life expectancy, when it comes to withdrawing from, giving up something that felt a part of me, important, life sustaining, because the risks are too high. But watching others having to learn this, that I find difficult to accept.







17 April 2020


(Fun fact: the above sequence of the filming of the concert had to be edited as there was a visible blob of cocain dripping out of NY's nose - I have it from a good source.)

"How excellent that our arrogant species receives this collective slap-in-the-face reality check, waking us two-leggeds up to the simple truth that we are not at all in control, have never really been in control, that we live at the behest of powers—of a complex interplay of powers—far beyond our ability to fully fathom, to predict, or to steer. What hubris to have imagined we could do whatever we want with this exquisitely interwoven wonder of a world! And yet how awful that this lesson must come at the expense of so many unsuspecting human lives, so many innocent souls now shivering with fever and fright as they struggle to draw breath.
We’re finally being forced to recognize that no top-down institution, governmental or otherwise, can fully ensure our safety. That our deepest insurance against disaster is going local—by getting to know our actual neighbors and checking in on one another when we can, participating in our local community and apprenticing with the more-than-human terrain that surrounds and sustains us."

David Abram

16 April 2020

I would like to tell you a few things about this virus and the lessons it should teach us, all the things we should be learning.
I would like to add my voice to the crowd and be heard above it.
I would like to say: fish have returned to the Venetian canals now that humans have stopped polluting them.
I would like to say: the clouds of air pollution over Italy and China have dissipated since people were prevented from causing them with their cars, planes, factories.
I would like to say: up to 80,000 premature deaths which would have been caused this way have probably been prevented in China by the shutdown of the economy.
I would like to say: carbon monoxide levels in the air above New York have collapsed by 50 percent in a single week.
I would like to say: Nature recovers swiftly when we stop our plundering of Her bounty.
I would like to say: lift your gaze, humans.
I would like to say: we can learn from this, we can change.

I would like to say: well, we had it coming.

I would like to say that I know what to do about all this, or what to learn. I would like to teach it to you so that you may learn too. I would like to be a prophet in a time when prophets are so sorely needed.
Unfortunately, I am not qualified for this role. I don’t know anything at all, and I am learning, painfully, that this was my lesson all along.
I don’t know anything at all.

My society does not know anything at all.

Now I will say what I believe: that this civilization will not learn anything from this virus. All this civilization wants to do is to get back to normal. Normal is cheap flights and cheap lattes, normal is Chinese girls sewing our T-shirts under armed guard, normal is biblical bushfires and barrels of oil, normal is city breaks and international conferences and African children poisoning their bodies sorting the plastic we have dumped on their coastlines, normal is nitrite pollution and burning stumps and the death of the seas.
We made this normal, and we do not know how to unmake it, or—whisper it—we do not want to.

But Earth does, and it will.
It turns out that we were never in control at all.
Paul Kingsnorth 

Today the sky is once again so brilliantly sharp and blue, it almost hurts. We are going through the motions, breakfast, work, some exercise, garden, lunch, reading, talking with family and friends, work, dinner. It is not bad, no no. There is little we miss and yet, we miss everything. More than ever I believe we are on a threshold of sorts and fail to see clearly. We are waiting. I think the whole world is waiting.

15 April 2020

the virus and the paddling pool

. . . what happens when we are devastatingly, unequivocally, reminded of our alikeness? Tell me there isn’t something achingly exquisite about scientists—from every corner of the globe—frantically working for one united goal. Tell me this hasn’t reminded you of how honorable and ancient the role of healer is.

There have been reports about people who had recovered from covid-19 disease but who were tested positive for the virus again. Obviously, scary story.

First, read this part of the sentence again: people who had recovered from covid-19 disease but who were tested positive for the virus again. The publications on this phenomenon all stressed that none of the people were actually sick at the time of retesting.

Next, this is how my favourite virologist explained it to me and a million listeners yesterday.

Imagine a full paddling pool with loads of goldfish swimming in the water. Now take a bucket and with your eyes closed dip it in and fill it up. When you pull it up and look inside, you'll see that you've caught lots of goldfish. Not difficult.

OK, the paddling pool is your body, the goldfish are the corona virus load inside an infected body and the bucket dip is the PCR test. Which is the testing method used the world over to find out whether a person is positive, i.e. infected with the virus.

After about 7-10 days of the body actively working on building an immune defense against the virus, in most cases by being sick with fever and whatnots, the virus load has decreased and will continue to do so for a while longer. Back at our paddling pool this means that if you now, maybe two weeks later, dip in the bucket with your eyes closed, you may actually come up with a bucket full of water but no more goldfish despite the fact that there are still some left in the pool. And a few days later, when you do this again, bucket, eyes closed, dip etc., you do catch the odd goldfish after all. Which is why the PCR test can be negative after 7-10 days and suddenly positive again after, let's say, 12 or 14 days.

I hope that helps. It helped me.

13 April 2020

Beethoven in covid-19 times

We happen to live in the city where Beethoven was born - 250 years ago. The annual Beethoven festival usually brings a lot of tourists and occasionally, the hotels cannot cope with the influx so that once in a while, we have ended up hosting a Japanese violinist or a Korean cellist who came to see a dream fulfilled.

Not so this year, for obvious reasons, despite this being the 250th birthday bash of the master.

But things are happening online.

Last week, the Beethoven Orchestra, the city's symphony orchestra, called on musicians of any skill to join them to play Beethoven's 6th Symphony. Anyone who wanted to participate could download the sheet music and play in front of their home computer or smartphone. Whether violin, bassoon, horn or electric guitar - the choice of instrument was left to the amateur musicians themselves. You can spot some interesting instruments and if you live here, even the odd colleague.

As for the social distancing situation at home, I have entered week five. At least I think it's week five but what do I care. Yesterday was rhubarb crumble day, today was anxiety day with scratchy throats for the both of us, tomorrow should be tax return day and after that possibly whatever else day.

In between all this jolly nothingness, we discuss the way of the world and whether a longer lockdown will bring forth better ideas for a new future and if this will be the end of capitalism as we know it. You know, the ususal plotting of aging would be rebels who remember a thing or two, recognising that what brought us here is not only a nasty virus that jumped out of the thin air somewhere next to a sack of rice that fell over in China, but in many cases the way our countries are run, like cut throat companies, dispensing with the stuff that represents the essential buffer in public organisations, leaving us not only poorly  prepared to deal with pandemics or national emergencies, but also catastrophically unable to provide decent and sustainable livelihoods for vast numbers of people even in normal times.
For some this means that due to the fact that there is a shortage of asparagus pickers here, the sky is falling, the sky is falling.
But I get carried away.

09 April 2020

How are you sleeping these days? Are you having vivid dreams?

I read somewhere that dreams tend to be more vivid in times like these. I can only agree. Two nights in a row I have woken up in tears or should I say, from the discomfort of a wet pillow. No idea what the tears were for but maybe I will find out another night.
We sleep poorly, as expected. I wake up with the dawn chorus, as if jetlagged and make tea. I bring the tea back to bed and fall asleep again, the tea gets cold.

Our life is very cosy and comfortable, R has started to work in various neighbourhood gardens. In return, jars of jam and pickles are deposited by the back gate. A banana bread, a bunch of wild garlic.

We lunch outdoors and sit for a while reading and gossiping. I work in my virtual office and just after sunset, we cycle along the river under the moon's silver light.

My sister tells me that she fears for her sanity, being cooped up and unable to go out for her events and meetings. I try and reassure her. I am the social recluse of the family after all but she waves me off impatiently, chronic illness doesn't count, not even ten years of it, this now is much more serious.

We briefly discuss whether we should attempt to cut our own hair now so that a potentially disaster haircut will grow out in the weeks to come or whether we better wait and try the long hair look for a change. After watching a couple of online haircut tutorials, I resign and search for hairbands. I find myself inspecting the news readers' hair styles and come to the conclusion that the male ones tend to go for letting it grow.

A friend calls with a campaign, she wants me to help her press charges so that hospital patients can receive visitors again, at least those who are about to die. She is outraged how this crisis is shaping our compassion in a "twisted way" with people now having to die all alone. I briefly remember my mother's death and some statistic I saw recently about the lack of palliative care in hospitals and the resulting lonely deaths - prior to this virus - but it's not an easy subject and what do I know. In the end, we both express our hope that, when this "hubbub" is behind us, we will find ways to make sure that those in power look at life and death differently.
When I put down the phone I feel overwhelmed by all the changes I have been promised will happen when "this" is all over. 

And our tiny ancient Irish aunt, the last remaining sister of my mother in law, blind and deaf, she is mostly asleep these days in her small comfortable bed in a nursing home shut to the world, shut because all of the staff have been tested positive. This is all we know.

07 April 2020

So, masks. I've been reading and listening. This is what I learned:
All previous evidence about virus load and mask protection has been based on other viruses, not this Covid-19 virus. What we could read until very recently about virus transmission and protection via masks was based on the influenza virus and a variety of respiratory common-and-garden-cold viruses.

But in the last week, two studies have been published that looked specifically at the corona virus and mask wearing. Hurray for science, yes!

I've muddled my way through the two publications (one from a team in Hong Kong, one from a team in Singapore) and in short, they both conclude as far as I get it:

  • Wearing a mask in a possible early stage of the infection could well protect the virus from being released and passed on. However, a simple mask does not protect the wearer from airborne infection.
  • Only highly technical masks that can filter a pore size of up to 500 nanometers would also filter virus aerosols in the room. 
There was another result from the research team in Singapore, which I found reassuring:

The Singapore team also took samples from wiping surfaces in the hospital room where 30 of the infected patient were treated (one patient per single hospital room).

  • In these 30 patients, the virus swab samples were only positive in the first week of symptoms. In the second week, when the patients were still sick, the wipe samples were no longer positive. So there was no virus left on the surfaces.
  • This is due to the fact that patients gives off less virus in the later course of the disease. This gives us important information as to how long a patient is actually infectious. But it also means that at home where we live in our bubble, we don't have to clean all possible surfaces with disinfectants.
As usual, and I say this after 20+ years working as a language editor in medical science, I am baffled by my limited understanding but if I have learnt one thing, it is that there will be an avalanche of further studies testing and retesting these results in different settings.

Anyway, masks, my take on it is, if you are living, working, shopping in a place with widespread community transmission of Covid-19, do wear a mask when not at home.

But remember to wash your hands before you put your mask on, and then again once you’ve got it on. Don’t touch it while you are wearing it. And, if you do, immediately wash your hands. Wash the mask after every use (hot ironing works just as well) and allow it to dry properly before using it again. 

And keep up with regular hand-washing and physical distancing.

Click on sources: Hong Kong study  and Singapore study

05 April 2020

03 April 2020

This is a temporary state. It helps to say it.

In the late 18th century, Matthias Claudius (poet) wrote the Abendlied (evening song), a hugely popular poem to this day. A couple of years later, a composer of popular ditties at the time, Johann Peter Schulz, set it to music and this tune is part of our national DNA so to speak. It goes on a bit, seven verses.

Last week, the RIAS chamber choir from Berlin met for a physical distancing recording of verses 1-3 and 7 to warm our hearts.

There are many English translations of the lyrics, I just picked this one at random.

The moon is risen, beaming,
The golden stars are gleaming
So brightly in the skies;
The hushed, black woods are dreaming,
The mists, like phantoms seeming,
From meadows magically rise.

How still the world reposes,
While twilight round it closes,
So peaceful and so fair!
A quiet room for sleeping,
Into oblivion steeping
The day's distress and sober care.

Look at the moon so lonely!
One half is shining only,
Yet she is round and bright;
Thus oft we laugh unknowing
At things that are not showing,
That still are hidden from our sight.

Lie down, my friends, reposing,
Your eyes in God's name closing.
How cold the night-wind blew!
Oh God, Thine anger keeping,
Now grant us peaceful sleeping,
And our sick neighbor too.
So much for music on a Friday. (RIAS btw stands for Radio in the American Sector, one of Berlin's radio and tv stations during the cold war, discontinued obviously, but the choir continues to this day).

Who would have thought that working entirely from home can be so tiring. I had been dreaming of a scenario like this as a super good thing for years and now?
I fly through the first two hours in my PJs with the bowl of cold porridge and the pot of tea for company before I take the shower-and-back-exercise-and-getting-dressed-properly break and let me tell you, it's all downhill after that. I am doling out the stuff and keep track of it all but, whoa, it's a struggle.
And we all know (because we are realistic and grown ups, aren't we) that this will go on for a bit.
Anyway, this is only the first week, there is room for improvement.

The garden is coming along gloriously, not just with all the fruit trees in flower and tulips lined up in colourfull formation, but also because R is there on his knees hour after hour fine tuning the weeding and replanting and literally carving out neat corners. It's Kew Gardens standards, honestly. Every so often, we cram into the greenhouse to get high on the flowering lemon trees and to nip the fresh spinach leaves and dig up a crunchy radish or two.

I could go on in this chatty vein but no matter what, there's this serious dark heavy stuff sitting on my chest. I try to compare it to the weeks and months after Chernobyl but that time was infinitely more dangerous and we were utterly helpless. Which is not the case now. And when I get as far as this in my thoughts, I feel almost stupid. First world impatience etc.

Because what do I have to complain about? I can't go out and shop. But, but, but. I never do that anyway. I can't go out and meet friends. But instead, tons of friends and others have been in touch one way or another, much more than ever. The larder is stacked. We even have fresh asparagus.
Basically, the only thing I could complain about is that our comfortable life is currently somewhat repetitive and that the seaside is an awful long and, let's agree on that, impossible drive away.

Meanwhile, this here from Louise Erdrich's blog:

When people say "this has never happened to our country before" I want to say, "yes it has."  Indigenous people suffered wave after wave of European borne epidemic diseases, which killed 9 of every 10 people.  The trauma continued through the Flu of 1918 and the scourge of tuberculosis.  When treaties were made it was thought that Native people were going to vanish, but no.  We are still here.


Unhealthy anticipatory grief is really anxiety, and that’s the feeling you’re talking about. Our mind begins to show us images. My parents getting sick. We see the worst scenarios. That’s our minds being protective. Our goal is not to ignore those images or to try to make them go away — your mind won’t let you do that and it can be painful to try and force it. The goal is to find balance in the things you’re thinking. If you feel the worst image taking shape, make yourself think of the best image. We all get a little sick and the world continues. Not everyone I love dies. Maybe no one does because we’re all taking the right steps. Neither scenario should be ignored but neither should dominate either.
Anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst. To calm yourself, you want to come into the present. (. . .) You can name five things in the room. There’s a computer, a chair, a picture of the dog, an old rug, and a coffee mug. It’s that simple. Breathe. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. In this moment, you’re okay. You have food. You are not sick. Use your senses and think about what they feel. The desk is hard. The blanket is soft. I can feel the breath coming into my nose. This really will work to dampen some of that pain.
You can also think about how to let go of what you can’t control. What your neighbor is doing is out of your control. What is in your control is staying six feet away from them and washing your hands. Focus on that.
Finally, it’s a good time to stock up on compassion. Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways.  (. . .) be patient. Think about who someone usually is and not who they seem to be in this moment.
David Kessler