Dumb Ideas That Have Taken Hold

I beg to offer up some half-baked fallacies that many people still find plausible. On serious inspection, they are either unworkable, unattainable, or ill-conceived. Still, our society is often moved to accept, even welcome them.

Gun control. Many Americans are up in arms about the recent mass shootings, growing in numbers each year. Feckless proposals are constantly made urging the feds to end the sale of assault weapons, institute background checks, etc. and so forth. No serious reforms will happen while the GOP is in thrall to the gun industry. As long as Republicans keep playing on the obsessive fears of the MAGA masses, they will never give up their guns and the carnage will continue. Even dogs are shooting people.

Danger from gas stoves. We read lots of stories now about the environmental and health dangers of gas stoves. Really, how hazardous are these for most of us? Are cow burps and farts worse? And what about water heaters and space heaters that use 29% and 69% respectively more gas than stoves? Around 38% of U.S. families (124 million of them) have gas stoves, and who’s going to pay for them to convert to electric induction cooking? The average cost of an induction stove is over $2,200 and the needed electrical upgrades average around $1,000.

Netflix. If you love movies and TV series, there are plenty of alternatives to Netflix, which has become truly pathetic. “Netflix pumps out flavorless assembly line Jello in hopes something, anything, might ensnare a fan base.” If you live outside the U.S. as I do, their library is filled mostly with junk offerings, stupid kid films, repulsive horror shows, and comedies that aren’t funny. In 2022 Netflix lost 1.2 million subscribers and not only because it raised its prices.

Classified documents. Pence and Biden are now found irresponsible and guilty of harboring these papers, though Trump kept not a few but hundreds and refused to give them back. The whole process is outdated and unworkable, “national security” notwithstanding. Six years ago, looking at Clinton’s emails, we knew that “the government is classifying too many documents.” And why are government officials permitted to take them home?

The Doomsday Clock. It was created in 1947 by scientists to point out the dangers of nuclear war to the world. In 2007 it also incorporated climate change. Now, as a metaphor to alert people to incipient catastrophe it’s pretty much ignored. Last Tuesday the Clock was set to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest ever, because of the nuclear dangers in Ukraine. Are climate change and Putin’s posturing equal threats? What happens when we get to 5 seconds? The Clock seems to have become an abstract, ineffective way to promote concern and action.

These feel-good concepts still appeal to many people. And yet they are basically ill-conceived solutions for intractable problems. In our sometimes desperate need to fix things we seem to entertain solutions that create more difficulties than they solve. Like electing George Santos.

Aging Is Not a Disease

The NY Times recently published a piece in which a 41-year-old doctor in Boston muses about advances in the science of anti-aging. She is pregnant with her first child and wonders whether aging is really inevitable. Her dad does pull-ups at age 70 and pursues studies on “how he might slow the ticking clock.” Aging for folks like this is clearly something to be conquered, not accommodated.

“Longevity researchers,” she says, “would tell you that aging itself is a disease that we can understand and treat, cancer and heart disease and dementia only its symptoms.” Hmm, if aging is a disease, I must be pretty sick at 88. I do have age spots but no cancer or heart disease—yet—and no crippling ailments or obvious mental disorders, though some might contest that. So I got lucky in the old age sweepstakes.

I’ve been blessed with good health (with some minor problems) in the last few years, and I look at getting older as something perfectly normal. If I can get another year or so, that would be fine. I don’t fear death, though I might if things change. For now, I look and feel younger than my chronology would predict. Except in the morning.

Getting older, I’ve been drawn to feel that so much of what we do as a society works against nature. We humans can’t even manage ourselves, and all our false notions of progress are usually at the expense of the natural world and those less fortunate. How we respond to climate change will be the ultimate test.

So I find that anti-aging and extending human life are like so many other new tools for fighting off or plundering nature and advancing bogus notions of progress. Work proceeds apace on gene modification, CRISPR, AI, and other high-minded efforts to alter our humanity and improve on what nature gives us. I never thought I’d say this, but why is science always the answer?

A good friend in her mid-70s recently had major surgery for an intestinal blockage. She was quite healthy, and this came as a big shock. So did the resulting colostomy. She’s been depressed, won’t eat, and talks about wanting to just give up. The vicissitudes of our health can change everything.

If good health is everything, why are we so cavalier about it? Could someone in poor health rely on an anti-aging program? Will these programs be just for the rich? Of course they will.

To her credit, Dr. Lamas, the writer, is not wholly convinced that anti-aging science will provide a better life: “it is not entirely clear that having a younger genetic than chronological age confers a longer or better life.” If I continue to be blessed with good genetics and health, old age remains something to treasured—until it’s not.

Power to the People

Guy Immega

I started this blog writing on climate change but soon became confounded by two obstacles—one, the complexities of the problem and two, as a non-scientist, trying to penetrate the fog of global politics surrounding it.

 To respond to Bill McKibben’s somewhat rosy case for renewables, my friend Peter Yedidia thought to enlist his former colleague on an Africa project to tell us on Zoom why McKibben’s view came up short. We also wanted to know how he looks at the immediate future of power distribution.

 A retired aerospace engineer, Guy Immega has worked for many years on the problems and the promise of renewables and the electrical grid. Per his bio, “From 1980-1985, Guy was the Renewable Energy Coordinator for the Province of British Columbia (Canada). He contracted an engineering survey of small-hydroelectric sites and organized the first wind and solar installations feeding the electrical grid.”

 Guy is still very much involved in the global aspects of electrical power, its distribution, and its economic dynamics. Here is some of what he told us about these issues, a bit edited and shortened.

 We’ve got to stop burning coal. We must stop it. Stop it now. But we can’t because there are some places like India where you can’t stop it. Probably can’t stop it in China either. These countries have economic pressures that make it almost impossible to stop because they need the cheap energy from coal.

Coal is a fossil gift from the past and we simply have to stop burning it. The problem is you’re not trying to compete using solar. Solar has already won, it’s a done deal. There will be a small refinements in solar where it will get more and more efficient, but the efficiencies will be just small percentages here and there.

The solar singularity has arrived. Solar is cheap. Solar is reliable, but solar will not supply a base load. And that’s what you have to compete with. One way to make power available is to build a coal-fired power plant. Another way is to have giant batteries on the grid. Another way is to have all the Tesla cars plugged into the grid at night. You can’t just say buy solar because solar is cheap. That’s a one-dimensional answer to a multi-dimensional problem. So the real issue is what is the cheapest way to maintain the right mix—so you can always turn on the lights, right?

There are a dozen ways that you can smooth the power out, but they’re all expensive and a little bit awkward and not easy to control. So if you want power at night, batteries are still more expensive than coal. That’s the issue. And so we’re looking at dozens of small tricks to maintain stability on the grid. I’m an advocate for the smart grid though there are lots of politics around the smart grid that I don’t pretend to understand.

You need to be able to absorb renewables like wind and solar into the grid. And one way to do this is to ship the power where it’s needed instantly. If you can move the power around with “power wheeling” (it’s an actual technical term) that means that you can ship power from Maine to California cheaply.

And so if a wind farm is going great guns on the coast somewhere, and you don’t need the power locally, then you ship it somewhere else. One of the problems with Hawaii is that the local Hawaiian power grid turns off windmills when there’s too much extra power. When you install a wind farm in Hawaii, you have to sign a contract that you will shut the turbines down when they tell you because their grid gets overwhelmed with wind power and they can’t control it. They have no way to store it. And there it is, the gnarly problem. I like that word gnarly. It’s a gnarly problem—distributing energy easily and smartly.

In British Columbia we were able to wheel power to Washington state, one of our big customers. Do you remember when you had the Enron crisis in California? They were turning off their local power plants and buying our power. Well, it’s ridiculous what happened. British Columbia gouged California and sold power at the highest possible price because California was desperate for electricity and we wheeled it down there and collected the money. And then later California sued. And we had to pay back $750 million of gouged funds. So, you know, that’s another little power morality tale.

I’m sure the coal industry is putting political pressure on Joe Manchin, but this can’t last. If coal doesn’t make economic sense, then they’ll jump to something that does. But the problem is technological at its foundation, and that is cheap energy storage. We aren’t there yet, and nobody’s come along with a magic bullet.

So the fact that discrete elements like solar are cheaper than coal is, well, that’s nice but that doesn’t get us there. And that’s the big gap I see and, for me anyway, McKibben’s article is really misleading. Well, that’s why I was disappointed with it.

You know, we hear the dire forecasts—basically that if we don’t get off our ass, we’re going to be hopelessly behind and never catch up. But given the current state of affairs, you could have said that a year ago, or two years ago, or three years ago. Now with all the attention focused on the war in Ukraine, how many people are really paying any attention to that IPCC report yesterday?

Yet that report is such a big shock that nobody knows what to do with it. We’re being told that doom awaits us, and nobody has a solution. If you look at the numbers what the IPCC has been advocating is emissions control. So they’re saying we have to stop burning fossil fuels. All very good, and emissions control is the restraint necessary, but nobody’s doing enough of it.

Nobody’s keeping up. Canada is not keeping up with its commitments. You know, India is going to burn coal because it’s pulling itself out of poverty with coal and they just won’t stop. They will not stop burning coal. And so we’re going to have problems clamping down on emissions. And what will happen is you’ll have more and more wild and extreme weather events. Another reason to stop burning coal is that we can’t further acidify the ocean. Ocean acidification is a huge problem, and cooling the climate won’t stop that.

There’s so much coal in the world that it’s infinite. I’m using coal as a metaphor for fossil fuel. It’s the dirtiest, it’s the nastiest, and it’s the most abundant. Germany decided that nuclear was bad, and they would switch off all their nuclear power plants.

And so they put up some wind farms in the North Sea. Good for them, but that’s not enough. They’ve got to have Russian oil and gas and this is a big problem now with Ukraine in the picture. So they have to get off oil and gas and they want to get off nuclear. So what they do is burn coal. They have huge coal mines in Germany, and coal is keeping the lights on and industrial Germany alive.

So I guess what I’m saying is take it piecemeal. I don’t know of any other way. We had to find as many small fixes as possible. In World War II they had victory gardens, people growing vegetables in their backyard. That was a little piecemeal solution to an agricultural crisis. Conservation is good, finding ways to use less energy, but that’s not enough either. It’s just part of the mix. We need top-down solutions, too. That includes large scale storage—grid scale batteries. We need wheeling of power on a smart grid. We need to use every trick to make it possible to absorb more clean renewable power.

Finally, the IPCC should reconsider geoengineering solutions to actively cool the climate. But that’s another topic.

The Good News for 2022

Every new year begins with hope for a better one. This is traditional and expected. After the disasters of 2021 there seems to be a greater push than ever for optimism and change—even while we all feel the negativism out there. So how do you balance hope against realism, wishful thinking against despair? How can anyone account for the unpredictable path of the pandemic?

Some rely on the pseudo-science of forecasting, like the folks at Vox. See “22 things we think will happen in 2022” which features a fairly pompous introduction justifying the imperfect discipline of polling. They see the end of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Bolsonaro reelected, and the overturn of Roe v. Wade. Not too hopeful, is it? Most prognosticators like Brian Sullivan of CNBC focus on the economy, predicting a series of booms in areas that a majority of climate activists hope won’t happen—things like more babies and copper mining.

The one positive event that many seem to be ignoring is the launch and deployment of the James Webb telescope, a great scientific achievement that will, sooner or later, alter all our lives. Also, if you can believe the NY Times, Artificial Intelligence will begin to be used

to detect and combat algorithmic bias. Last month, 193 countries signed a first-ever global agreement to devise a common framework for the ethics of A.I. More recently, a researcher unveiled technology that might be used to predict breast cancer in healthy people. And maybe next year, robots will make better calls in baseball games.

One should especially pray for the latter development.

The Times also published an essay by Margaret Renkl entitled, “I Just Turned 60, but I Still Feel 22.” In it she doesn’t talk about feeling 22 but instead rambles on about feminism, getting fatter, and how it feels to be 60. She offers bromides about facing the future. I have to say that anyone who feels they are 22 at age 60 is not really facing the future. Or the past, for that matter.

For me, the really good news for 2022 is that a growing majority of people around the world are finally beginning to face the climate problem. Among them are young people, who of course are the best hope for the future. In an LA Times editorial, Tony Barboza writes that “when participants across the political spectrum were told that growing numbers of people are angry about climate change, they were more inclined to express their own outrage and support taking action.”

Anger and focused rage can be big motivators in persuading local officials and federal representatives to finally do something about the climate. 2022 could be a turning point. There’s always hope.

The Nutmeg’s Curse

The reviews of Amitav Ghosh’s new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse, have not always been positive. Some have declared it to be anti-science. Yet others, like Roy Scranton, found that it “elegantly and audaciously reconceives modernity as a centuries-long campaign of omnicide, against the spirits of the earth, the rivers, the trees, and even the humble nutmeg, then makes an impassioned argument for the keen necessity of vitalist thought and non-human narrative.” I’m with Roy, with a few reservations.

The overall best review I found with a contemporary context is here, in The New Yorker.

Ghosh begins with a narrative of how the 17th century Dutch arrived at the Banda Islands in the Pacific to capture, enslave and kill the islanders in order to insure a monopoly on, of all things, the nutmeg, that highly treasured spice. He finds these events a paradigm for how colonialism and the “free” market have come to dominate trade by subjugation. The result is also tied inextricably to climate change and the rebellion of nature it embodies.

The U.S. has led this robust decadence through military and economic dominance. These are Ghosh’s carefully chosen words:

The job of the world’s dominant military establishments is precisely to defend the most important drivers of climate change—the carbon economy and the systems of extraction, production, and consumption that it supports. Nor can these establishments be expected to address the unseen drivers of the planetary crisis, such as inequities of class, race, and geopolitical power: their very mission is to preserve the hierarchies that favor the status quo.

And our New Yorker reviewer Olufemi O. Taiwo finds that

Ghosh sees potential in what it calls a “vitalist” politics, and in an associated ethic of protection that would extend to “rivers, mountains, animals, and the spirits of the land.” Ghosh identifies this ethos, in contrast to the world-as-resource view, with peasants and farmworkers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—places and people long seen as peripheral to history.

So in one way the book is a history of vitalism, culminating in the Gaia concept: “that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.”

In Ghosh’s terms:

The awareness of a Gaia-like earth did not wither away of itself because of literacy; it was systematically exterminated, through orgies of bloodletting that did not spare Europe, although its violence was directed most powerfully at the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Yet, not only has that awareness survived among the Indigenous people of the Americas; many of them also credit their perceptions of the Earth with having made their own survival possible, in the face of exterminatory violence. Never have these perceptions of the Earth mattered more than at this moment when the mechanistically ordered world of modernity is disintegrating before our very eyes.

As I said earlier, I have a few reservations about this really wonderful book. One is that vitalism can be undercut (and often is) by superstition and turgid magical thinking. Ghosh documents this but not sufficiently so.

Also, it’s hard for an old rationalist like me to accept this total spiritualizing of nature. Yet the alternatives seem to have led the world deeply astray. If you accept Ghosh’s arguments about our awful colonialist appropriation of nature, his approach to vitalism, or something like it, must follow.

The book makes you think of the many varieties of human wretchedness and, maybe, of human possibilities for redemption. More than a critique, this is an indictment of much Western thinking. In its way it is finally a religious statement.

Bites That Itch to Be Scratched

I came home from a week’s vacation to find that cockroaches, at least four or five, had taken over my kitchen. Cursing and swatting them ultimately makes no difference, since they will thrive no matter what you do. Just stay out of the kitchen at five a.m.

Similarly, despite your insistent urge to scratch mosquito bites, you know that will only make them worse. The bugs continually remind us of our powerlessness over them. And of course they will be here long after we humans are swept away by climate change or another disaster.

For me and many of you, we now live in a world that seems driven by forces we can no longer control, if we ever did. Nature responds with unmistakable signals. So does Covid; so does our politics.

Trump, the biggest cockroach of all, has created a movement that will thrive even without him. His political opponents keep trying to find new kinds of bug sprays that won’t work. It’s like those who defend growing organic food by claiming they use organic bug sprays—a ridiculous contradiction in terms.

The planetary and political disasters we face are all man-made. They are a consequence of hubris—that is, trying to be godlike, flying too near the sun and, mostly, presuming that man’s law supersedes nature’s. We see it everywhere, from the proliferation of space and plastic junk to political movements denying the will of voters.

We are now in the process of committing one of mankind’s greatest acts of hubris ever in challenging the gods of nature. Climate change may be the final act in response to man’s defiance of the natural world. The punishment is going to be severe beyond our imagining. COVID-19 is a signal warning, its spread enabled by climate change.

I have been harping on this in the blog and referring to Amitav Ghosh frequently, as he is one of the few who sees the impending danger very broadly.

The hubris embodied in our myth of perpetual progress and growth has led modern capitalism to this state. Our myopic focus on extraction, deforestation, paving, overfishing, carbonizing (the list goes on) has made us blind to what we are doing to nature and what this disrespect will lead to. One who does understand this is Amitav Ghosh, whose book The Great Derangement I reviewed here last year.

Ghosh has a new one out, called The Nutmeg’s Curse, to be reviewed here when I finish it. Basically he argues that western colonialism through centuries of “omnicide” (murderous conquest and exploitation) has now brought us to a crisis not only of the environment but of our culture.

The same thing is true with the crisis in our politics and geopolitics. The recent ills that have come to beset us have a deep and complex history. The many racial, ethnic and religious conflicts, the flaws of capitalism—all comprehended in climate change—are confounded by the predilections of many who believe in lies, rumors and fantasies, and the propensity of tech and media to intensify them.

It would be nice to find a grand solution to all this confusion, but that doesn’t appear likely. Are the cockroaches really going to take over?

The Mad Craziness

Ralph Steadman, Police Convention 1971

To honor the memory of Hunter S. Thompson we’ve assembled some factoids regarding the mental health of the U.S. population. As one who follows such things, I’ll note that it has gotten considerably more hopeless since Hunter’s time.

    • Thirty-nine percent of them believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Forty percent trust far-right news.
    • “In the hours following the Arizona call [for Biden], a paranoid conspiracy theory spread rapidly on Parler and in other right-wing online forums: Voters in conservative counties had been given felt-tip pens that supposedly made vote-counting machines reject the ballots that they marked for Trump.”
    • “It was at a Turning Point USA event at Boise State University Monday that a member of the audience asked organizer Charlie Kirk, ‘How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?’”
    • A US senator [Ted Cruz] loudly defended a man who gave a Nazi salute as a protest at a school board meeting.
    • The unconstitutional Texas law that effectively bans all abortions is now being heard by the Supreme Court. The Court has agreed to duck the constitutional issue and to decide only procedural questions.
  • And we could go on—about Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and the other loonies—but you get the drift, and it’s all historical, of course. Hunter Thompson was our political harbinger, and what he had to say about Nixon goes double for Trump:

Writing about the final days as president of his nemesis Richard Nixon, Mr. Thompson observed, “The slow-rising central horror of ‘Watergate’ is not that it might grind down to the reluctant impeachment of a vengeful thug of a president whose entire political career has been a monument to the same kind of cheap shots and treachery he finally got nailed for, but that we might somehow fail to learn something from it.”

Finally, Some Sense on Climate

The discussion on how to control the out-of-control climate has always seemed to me somehow out of whack. Climate doctors invariably focus on changing our energy sources, but pay little attention to how to cool this rapidly overheating planet. And that is the presenting problem.

Dr. David Keith, a professor of applied physics and of public policy at Harvard, finally addresses this crucial issue in “What’s the Least Bad Way to Cool the Planet?” He offers what will be to many a new framework for addressing our most immediate urgency.

Eliminating emissions by about 2050 is a difficult but doable goal. Suppose it is achieved. Average temperatures will stop increasing when emissions stop, but cooling will take thousands of years as greenhouse gases slowly dissipate from the atmosphere. Because the world will be a lot hotter by the time emissions reach zero, heat waves and storms will be worse than they are today. And while the heat will stop getting worse, sea level will continue to rise for centuries as polar ice melts in a warmer world.

Keith’s conclusion is that we need both to stop carbon emissions and find ways to cool the planet. To do the latter we need some form of social geoengineering, likely in the form of reflecting sunlight. As another report notes, such technologies will likely involve “adding small reflective particles to the upper atmosphere, by increasing reflective cloud cover in the lower atmosphere, or by thinning high-altitude clouds that can absorb heat.” The report acknowledges that there may be “an array of unknown or negative consequences.” And many critics have focused on these. Others have tried to account for them.

The other way to reduce heat is by using carbon removal (capturing it from the air) technologies. This, it seems to Keith, is far less feasible, considering the scale and time required to bring it about.

Planting sufficient trees would require a lengthy and immense transformative effort. Industrial removal methods must confront the challenge that there is just too much carbon to remove from the air in too short a time. The technology is nowhere in place.

The challenge is that a carbon removal operation—industrial or biological—achieves nothing the day it starts, but only cumulatively, year upon year. So, the faster one seeks that one degree of cooling, the faster one must build the removal industry, and the higher the social costs and environmental impacts per degree of cooling.

Geoengineeering—e.g., putting sulfur particles into the stratosphere—sounds “reckless,” says Keith, and will surely exacerbate some climate changes, but

the harms that would result by shaving a degree off global temperatures would be small compared with the benefits. Air pollution deaths from the added sulfur in the air would be more than offset by declines in the number of deaths from extreme heat, which would be 10 to 100 times larger.

And, of course, the “grand challenge is geopolitical.” What countries would get to decide on such a course and execute it? And for how long? Carbon removal is the safest path, but “solar geoengineering may well be able to cool the world this century with less environmental impacts and less social and economic disruption. Yet no one knows, because the question is not being asked.”

More research, and there is very little now, is essential. “Cooling the planet to reduce human suffering in this century will require carbon removal or solar geoengineering or both.”

Boredom, Tedium and Ennui Continues

Have we been able to break out of the Covid blues in the past year? What new rounds of exciting things to do have emerged? I’ve now got a regular weekly poker game with friends, and what else? Our biggest excitement was acquiring the vaccine, and that doesn’t alleviate boredom. Aside from folding laundry, most rely on TV and wine. I wrote the following in August 2020, and it still applies.

Isolation makes some people angry. Some take up knitting or art. Some are just bored to tears. I have experienced plenty of boredom in my life, starting with early formal dinners with my parents. Most classes in high school produced long stretches of stifling tedium. In graduate school my friends and I used to entertain each other by getting drunk and reading aloud from the Oxford English Dictionary. Kids today resort to their phones during lectures.

With the pandemic I find myself sleeping a lot more. I often avoid getting up in the morning, lying in bed and letting the mind wander into frivolous paths. Avoidance of boredom often produces more boredom: watching baseball on TV, trying to get into a boring book, avoiding the exercise machine.

It’s hard to agree on what constitutes boredom. Is the capitalist system at fault? Is boredom a social construct? A built-in human response? Margaret Talbot recently wrote a wonderful anatomy of boredom, which you ought to read. She touches on the many definitions and descriptions of the complaint. Here’s one I like: “a cognitive state that has something in common with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—a sensation that something is missing, though we can’t quite say what.”

Some think it’s inherent in the human condition. Others, like Margaret, see it as a function of how we work and live, part of the capitalist nightmare:

David Graeber, in his influential “bullshit jobs” thesis, argues that the vast expansion of administrative jobs—he cites, for example, “whole new industries,” such as financial services and telemarketing—means that “huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.” The result can be soul-choking misery.

The French call boredom ennui, which adds the suggestion of lassitude or languor. Baudelaire’s great poem “Au Lecteur” (To My Reader) identifies it with decadence and death, calling all of us brothers, tainted with the apathy of evil. The best book I ever read on boredom is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

There’s an old saying from Pascal that most people couldn’t stand to sit alone in a room for fifteen minutes.

O Solitudo!

Here’s a blog I posted on July 4 of 2020. More than a year later I’ve gotten clearer about the benefits (and the downsides) of living alone. As the insanity around us grows, I find comfort with friends. But the routines and rituals I talked about here have helped me gain equanimity if not some tolerance for the irrational behavior of our species. I might write a book about it.

 The morning is easy. I have my routines after waking—breakfast, then the computer for an hour or two, checking out email and the news sites. Besides the usual Trumpcrap, there are always a few uplifting pieces like “Unemployment, isolation and depression from COVID-19 may cause more ‘deaths of despair.’”

Solitude isn’t always bleak. I’ve been living alone for years, mostly liking it, but the virus has put a new dimension on it. Instead of filling up one’s down time with friends, amusements and travels, we are for the most part confined to quarters. My life was bound by solitude before this; now there is more of it and it’s enforced.

Things got more pressing after I finished writing and publishing Moot Testimonies a couple of months ago. Searching for another writing project made me anxious and uptight. I finally gave that over for small bouts of exercise, TV, reading, a lot of sleeping, and music—none of which has proved very satisfying. I couldn’t develop or keep to the routines which are necessary to flatten time.

Occasional Zooms with family and friends didn’t do it for me. Trips to the market I eagerly looked forward to: just give me some masked human contact, for Christ’s sake! Finally I remembered Thoreau, the king of solitude, and “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It wasn’t despair that I felt but a nagging need to fill time with something productive or absorbing. I think we’ve all felt that.

I picked up Octavio Paz the other day, to reread The Labyrinth of Solitude and its search for Mexican identity. The book begins this way:

Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall—that of our consciousness—between the world and ourselves. . . . It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born, but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work.

We do rely on games or work. In the COVID solitude we have to create them, and that is not easy. Yet if you face the prospect of solitude with some equanimity, you will beat it. We can import or create the routines and rituals that have sustained us, and perhaps they will flourish. What we bring to solitude is what grows there.