We’re thrilled to present “On Being and On Being the Right Size” in five parts for the next five weeks. You can read all the sections of the essay here.
I just didn’t feel very good.
It wasn’t turning forty that upset me; birthdays aren’t big deals to me. I don’t need presents or anyone to say anything. It’s another day. I don’t remember being born, and besides, I had little part in it, although it was difficult and painful for my mom; it feels like a day when I should call and apologize to her every year, say thank you, apologize again. Instead, I celebrate all the other things. I surprise people with gifts when I think of them or see something they would like. It has resulted in awkward moments and a peculiar selfishness—what should one do when given a gift with no warning? It puts them out, the recipients, but I never think of that until it is too late and I have already made it uncomfortable.
Birthdays feel at best like a social obligation and, at worst, a sad competition. I remember turning older than John Keats ever did and feeling like a failure. I remember turning older than all those dead twenty-seven-year-old rockers and feeling like a failure. I’m now older than John Lennon will ever be. I’m also older than my cousin who died at six, who didn’t get a chance to live at all. We sat in her hospital room and talked to her, comatose and bloated, pumped full of steroids and chemo and painkillers, body exhausted from surgeries that put holes in her but not much else that I could ascertain.
So I’m not one for birthdays.
And forty didn’t scare or worry me. I figured most of those years were kind of a waste anyhow, working to become someone interesting. Or, if not a waste, then time spent hiding in a chrysalis, working to become beautiful and grow wings, but I had stayed there too long, emerged withered and with muted colors. At forty, I figured I was as beautiful, in one sense or another, as I would ever be. Either way, I wasn’t likely to get much more interesting, only to grow more sleepy and dull.
The issue was that everything itched.
My wife and I had just come back from a date, relieved the babysitter, and settled in to watch a small piece of a movie, to which we expected to fall asleep. But I couldn’t settle in because of the itching. I had been having a hard time getting comfortable. I was taking hair loss pills and every stray strand on my pillow made me readjust my body until I was considering sleeping upright, strapped to a board against the wall. I had also accidentally yanked a chunk of nail from my right big toe. The resulting infection had me on antibiotics and off that foot as much as I could.
My health has generally been good with blips of catastrophe. My first year teaching I had a seizure in front of students. I was thirty-one or thirty-two, old enough to know how to take care of myself and young enough to think I didn’t need to do so yet. I was working all the time, writing lesson plans, grading, trying to stay a day ahead but sometimes only managing a few minutes. I adored my students and they at least tolerated me. Then, one afternoon, my stress levels were so high, my brain broke.
Here’s how it happened: I was lecturing when I noticed the class looking at me with more puzzlement than usual. After a moment, I heard myself, what I had just said. It sounded weird but I couldn’t figure out how. When I spoke again, I understood. All the words were right but they were in the wrong order. The sensation was disconcerting, as if I had begun this essay: “Very just good didn’t I feel.” I spoke a second sentence and the words were in the right order except for the first letters of the words: “Bust ot none jor firthdays.” I forced a laugh and tried to wave away my students’ concern, but then my right side stopped working and I realized I had dropped my paper and pen.
My vision swam. I fell down.
The students in the front row were football players. They were in their jerseys so it must have been a Friday. They leapt from their seats and picked me up, put me in my chair. They wanted to call 911, but I said not to. I concentrated and spoke slowly. I’m fine. Just work on your pages. I’m fine. I’m fine. They worked; class ended. I sat in that chair and waited to feel better. That young, early thirties, I still felt mostly invincible if a bit stiff in the morning when I woke up. But just then I slumped in the chair, breathing and hoping, no longer certain of anything.
The human body is complex. Hoping to restore it through willpower is the kind of nonsense many people believe. For me, it had more to do with desperation than with hope.
Plainly, I don’t much care for my body. It’s a ridiculous and ludicrous machine.
Not long ago, I read the essay “On Being the Right Size” by J.B.S. Haldane. It led me to a collection of his work and a biography by Samanth Subramanian, A Dominant Character. Haldane is as equated with brilliance in England as Einstein is in the United States. But I hadn’t heard of him until I ran into that essay, which I read only because someone else had cited it. In the essay, as I recall, Haldane discusses the sizes of various animals, including elephants, and what would happen if they were dropped from the top of a skyscraper.
Or not. On checking again, I discover that Haldane considers, rather, dropping the animal down a mine shaft. I have never stood on the precipice of a mine shaft, but I have been at the top of a couple of skyscrapers. I suppose the skyscraper would be easier to find but it would be harder to get the animals up there, elevators not being suitable for elephants. The mine shaft would be easier to clean up. Just close the mine, leave the carcasses, a mass grave with direct access, a place upon which to drop flares and point telescopes downward. The pavement, alternatively, would be a mess.
Haldane writes that one “can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.” Holy shit. A horse splashes. It’s the most violent thing I have ever read and I have read some terrible things.
Is the difference between a mouse and a rat so great?
Is the man simply broken? Broken things can be mended. A man is obliterated, presumably. The important parts at least. The body may be recognizable, I suppose, way down there, but who is going down to look? Drop him onto the street and someone will amble over to see who it is, horrified but curious.
I found my way to the hospital after my seizure, or whatever it was. I am tempted to call it my episode but that feels too Tennessee Williams to me. In the ER, I called my fiancée, who met me there, and also called my parents, who drove over. Every single person—family, nurses, doctors—upon their arrival asked why I had driven myself, why I hadn’t taken an ambulance.
Or at least a taxi.
It hadn’t occurred to me. My brain was broken. They ran tests and told us that either my brain or my heart were faulty and that soon, they would have to crack open my skull or my rib cage. They just had to take some tests to figure out which and then, I suppose, grab the appropriate saw.
Every test was inconclusive. Something had happened but no one could say what. They decided not to slice me open. Instead, I had a CAT scan, an EKG. I had good insurance, so every test was ordered. Wires were stabbed into my scalp in places designated with a marker. I was asked about a variety of topics while a screen lit up with different colors to create a fuzzy map of my brain. This is called an EEG. Something I just read tells me that a series of metallic discs are placed on the patient’s head. I remember being stabbed. So much of the hospital is hazy but this definitely happened to me.
In an essay called “When I Am Dead,” Haldane writes that if he dies “as most people die, I shall gradually lose my intellectual faculties, my senses will fail, and I shall become unconscious.” It is a perfect description of those moments before the football players picked me up and carried me, not in some kind of victorious end-game ecstasy, to set me in a chair, looks of concern all around.
The EEG was inconclusive. Everything was inconclusive.
“Does that mean everything is okay?”
“It means we can’t tell.”
“So I’m not okay?”
“We don’t know.”
It may have been some freak occurrence, a bolt from the blue, a random lightning storm in my brain. I’m reminded of a woman in British Columbia, Ruth Hamilton, who was sound asleep when others saw a bright light streak across the sky. Hamilton woke to a crashing sound and the feel of something, many small somethings, against her face. A meteorite had crashed into her home, straight through the roof, the attic, her bedroom ceiling, and landed on her pillow. It lay there, stopped by the softest thing in the room.
Hamilton woke in a panic, thinking someone had shot a gun. She called the police. Together, they figured out what happened. The space rock was next to her head. Another few inches and she’d have been obliterated. Asked how the experience changed her, Hamilton said: “The only other thing I can think of saying is life is precious and it could be gone at any moment even when you think you are safe and secure in your bed. … I hope I never ever take it for granted again.”
The interviewer asked if she had any interest now in stargazing or astrology or anything like that.
She didn’t. She had her answers and no further questions. All I had were questions. My fiancée kept wanting me to make more appointments, to seek the answers, but there didn’t seem to be any. I stopped asking questions even though I still had them.
I didn’t have a headache. I was just fuzzy. As is my wont, I looked up some patron saints. Saint Teresa of Avila is for headaches. Saint Peregrine Laziosi is for those who suffer from AIDS, heart disease, cancer, all the bad diseases, a catch-all saint for the worst things. I imagine Saint Peregrine to be very busy … if, that is, prayers are heard.
But of course, they aren’t, are they?
I think about my cousin. My cousin’s daughter, really. The six-year-old. I refer to her in conversation as my niece but that isn’t true. She died of leukemia, and my cousin, a devout woman, prayed so hard her hands bruised. I tried to pray but it felt silly. We were close, the six-year-old and I. We went to the movies, ate junk food. When she died, parts of me withered and died as well. She would be twenty-five now. At the end, the very end, Make-A-Wish arranged for an early screening of Finding Nemo in the hospital, set up a projector and everything. It was all very secretive.
My cousin narrated the movie to her daughter, explaining what was on the screen because the girl’s face was so swollen with steroids that her eyes had been squeezed shut. She was on forced oxygen and the mask was strapped onto her face, not some tube under her nose. It looked like something for an astronaut. The girl’s hair had been that thin and soft hair of young children. It was a kind of honey blonde. But then, after that hair fell out, what replaced it was dark and coarse, and not just on her scalp. She grew thick eyebrows and a beard. A six year old girl with a black beard.
Was it the next day? Two days later? I couldn’t be in the room, sat in the hall.
They turned off her machinery and she died.
Zooids aren’t just a single animal. Or more accurately, they are one animal but function as a system of animals, coming together to create a larger and more sophisticated creature, creature as society. They are sometimes called colonial animals. It’s unclear to me how to distinguish zooids from animals that aren’t zooids. What about ants? They live in colonies and create a unified whole in service of their queen. What about wolves in packs? Or people in, well, nearly everything we do?
Is the collective the zooid?
What does individual mean in this capacity?
There’s an essay in which Lewis Thomas describes an art installation that is basically a bunch of ants. First he explains how insects, like any creature, are different in isolation than together. “When social animals are gathered together in groups, they become qualitatively different from what they were when alone or in pairs,” he writes. I like the “in pairs” part. That I can still be who I am when I’m with another person, depending, I suppose, on who that person is. Maybe you. Maybe together we could still be who we are.
But Thomas is just warming up.
“Single locusts are quiet, meditative, sessile things,” he continues, “but when locusts are added to other locusts, they become excited, change color, undergo spectacular endocrine revisions, and intensify their activity until, when there are enough of them packed shoulder to shoulder, they vibrate and hum with the energy of a jet airliner and take off.” Hold on, locusts are meditative? On what does a locust meditate?
I didn’t know the word “sessile.” It describes an organism that is locked down in one place. Picture a barnacle. It doesn’t move. Though, of course, if it is affixed to the hull of a boat, it may travel the oceans many times over, something I’d love to do. When searching “sessile,” the first result is “sessile polyp.” These are masses that can build up in the walls of hollow organs. You don’t want one. It doesn’t lead to good things. Just more tests. Wires, x-rays, scans.
“Does that mean everything is okay?”
“It means we can’t tell.”
“So I’m not okay?”
“We don’t know.”
The largest ant colony in the world is so big it’s hard to comprehend. It’s in Europe. In a way, it is Europe. It stretches some 3,700 miles from the Spanish coast across the south of France, into northern Italy. If a person were to take an ant from the Spanish end and drop it next to an ant from the Italian end, they could communicate. They would recognize each other as belonging to the same colony. Some researchers believe this colony may be even larger, spreading across oceans to Australia, Japan, and Hawaii. I couldn’t find an explanation of how that might happen. I can’t make it work in my head.
It’s an Argentine ant, the species. They were introduced into Europe only eighty years ago but have been wildly successful. There is an ant colony in Hokkaido, Japan that looks like 45,000 separate nests, but it turns out all of them are connected by tunnels. Meanwhile, I still don’t know how to make and keep friends as an adult.
I’ve tried. I really have.
I think about the cells in my body and the little tunnels and rivulets that connect them, how all these things compose the logic of me. I can’t wrap my head around it. I’m sure most of us have had this thought and outgrown it, but I haven’t managed yet. What if one of those little ant nests were to be snuffed out? What if a bad kid poured gasoline in it and lit it up, like the kids in my neighborhood used to beg their dads to do? They would pour the gas slowly down the hole and tell the children “stand back, stand back,” before dropping the match. Sometimes it didn’t light but sometimes it went with a whump and every so often, it would burn like a ghostly dirt candle, a little flame dancing for minutes as ants crawled out and burned to death. We used to laugh and clap and run around like monsters. If someone burned one of the nests and got it down to 44,999, would the whole ecosystem collapse and fall apart?