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.
When all those doctors and nurses came running in, I felt important. Never before nor since have so many people been so keenly interested in my well-being, not at family reunions or birthday parties. Not anywhere.
“What’s wrong? What happened? Did you take something?”
“I’m on antibiotics for a busted toe.” I was embarrassed for the next thing. “And I’m on hair loss pills. I’m losing my hair.”
“Anything else? You can tell us. What else?”
“We need to take your blood. We need to test what is going on with you. You can tell us. We are going to find out anyway. You can tell us what is going on. Save us the time. Come on.”
But there was nothing to admit to.
Maybe it’s sepsis, I heard a doctor saying. Get that blood test right away to find out. I asked what sepsis was. It’s an infection in your bloodstream. Like you’ve been poisoned. I thought about that, a kind of self-poisoning.
Onchocerca volvulus sounds like a spell one would cast to poison a person’s bloodstream, mumbled under the breath while rubbing a talisman, a lock of hair, a piece of paper with blood smeared across it, staring at a photo with some parts of it scratched out.
When scientists measure how poisonous a snake is, this is the scale they use: how many mice could be killed with the venom from a single bite. There is one snake called the Terciopelo, which means velvet in Spanish, but it is also called a Fer-de-Lance, spearhead in French. It is the largest of the pit vipers. A single bite from the Terciopelo can kill over one hundred and sixty-three thousand mice. This sounds like the worst thing in the world but it’s hardly anything compared to the really toxic bites. The Coastal Taipan lives in Australia and has been described as alert and nervous and jumpy. It is quick to strike. One bite from the Taipan can kill nearly five million mice. More mice than there are people in Los Angeles. How many mice would be killed by whatever was in me? How many mice am I worth?
I couldn’t stop shivering. They were piling on the heated blankets. It should have been a tender image. They would place blankets on me and fold the edges under my limbs, covering my feet, like being tucked in by a parent, maybe with a bedtime story. Instead, I felt like a dinosaur sinking in a tar pit, a silt that would become sedimentary rock, with me as a fossil.
Then something blared and everyone took off. I asked the nurse to please stay. I didn’t want to be alone. Please don’t leave me.
I wish I remembered his name. I can see his face, ruddy complexion, red-brown hair cut short and combed over to the left. He seemed sorry to walk away. What was his goddamn name?
My sons sometimes ask to read science books before bed. Rather, they ask me to read science books to them. They flip through the illustrations until they find something they want to learn, with a photo or a drawing or a computer rendering. The books are arranged in blurbs and fragments; each two page spread is about a singular idea but is fractured into little bubbles of print, each in a different font and size. It is supposed to look exciting and jazzy.
“What does this one say?”
It’s about lizards, maybe. Whatever.
We intermittently flip through Bill Nye’s Great Big World of Science. It’s pretty good, keeps their attention for ten minutes when other books don’t last for five. At one point, Nye writes, “As big and complex as our world and the cosmos seem to be, scientists are always looking for patterns and basic ideas to simplify things.”
No shit, Bill. My sons found that page boring and flipped to something better, maybe with volcanoes.
I couldn’t stop shaking. Then someone took my temperature. They put the thermometer in my mouth, and my teeth were chattering so violently I worried I would snap it in two, crack my teeth. What did they say? One-oh-seven? I was boiling. The nurse gasped and yanked away the blankets, shouted the temperature to others who rushed off to grab ice packs for my skin, ice chips to cram into my mouth.
“No! No!” I protested. “I need them. You don’t understand.”
“Your brain is cooking. You are going to suffer brain damage. You aren’t cold. You just think you are.”
“Please don’t take them.” I started weeping. Like a child, begging. The nurse with red-brown hair said he would let me keep a sheet but just so I could squeeze it in my grip. My little space filled up again with staff.
Wait, I was wearing a hospital gown by then. When had that happened? I think it was before the blankets. When I was shown to a bed, I was handed a gown and they snapped the curtain closed around me, pseudo-privacy as I put on a sheet that allowed access to every orifice. I heard the beads in the curtain track clack clack clack. They told me to change and I spasmed out of my clothes, herked and jerked into the gown although I couldn’t hold my hands still long enough to tie it up. I was so cold but was relieved at the idea of progress, eager to take whatever steps led me to healing.
But I’d still had the blankets then. Now they were taking them away.
A nurse lifted me into a sitting position and another pulled my gown away, folding it at my waist to preserve some illusion of dignity. They began to slap monitoring stickers onto my chest, my sides, then sunk IVs into the crook of my left elbow, the top of my right hand, pumped saline to get the lines open. The heart monitor began its thin song but the beat was wrong. My heart had gone into some kind of irregular pattern. They put an oxygen meter on my finger and looked despairingly at the numbers. My lungs were filling up. My systems were shutting down.
I wished I’d asked my wife to drive me, because then she’d be in the waiting room instead of home, asleep. It was a selfish wish. I wanted her not to have to watch this, knew it was something she would never unsee. But I also needed her face. I needed her to tell me she loved me. I wanted that to be the last thing I heard.
In “On Being the Right Size,” Haldane explains that insects don’t have respiratory systems as we think of them. There is no need. They are so small that they don’t require a complex system to transmit oxygen; instead, their bodies have “tiny blind tubes called tracheae which open to the surface at many different points.” These tubes act like little air ducts. Oxygen can diffuse through their flesh when needed. But there is a limit to how deep it can go, about a quarter of an inch, “so the portions of an insect’s body more than a quarter of an inch from the air would always be short of oxygen. In consequence, hardly any insects are much more than half an inch thick.” I guess I can believe that. Except for that last part. Hardly any insects are much more? But some of them fucking are. How do they breathe? You can’t wave away breathing. Without oxygen, everything dwindles. Haldane says lots of annoying things like this.
The deeper you go in his collections, the worse the essays become. Are they arranged like this in the hope that we won’t read too deeply? Are they chronological and he got worse as he went? None of the essays bear dates. John Maynard Smith is credited as editor. What decisions did he make? What essays did he leave out?
If you have a garden, eventually, if the soil is healthy and you water enough, you will get mushrooms. They might be edible or they might give you a stomach ache or they might kill you. Since I don’t know which ones are which, I pluck them out and wash my hands. Can’t be too careful. I pluck them all out and toss them in the compost bin or in the trash or, shamefully, over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. After doing that, try this: dig up the dirt and see what’s there. It is the mycelium, the body of the thing you have removed. The mushroom is just an appendage, a sex organ sprouting from the ground. The mycelium is the real deal, a system that spreads and creeps, rising up occasionally to spread its spores. There is a mycelium system in Malheur National Forest in Oregon that the National Forest Service claims is the largest living thing by area, covering three and a half square miles. The mycelium looks uncannily like a circulatory system or the tiny little branches and sacs—alveoli—in a person’s lungs, spread out flat. There are cultish groups of mushroom fanatics who feel these similarities signify a connection between us, humanity and fungi. I don’t see it. It’s a common pattern in every living thing. So what?
And what’s bigger? Malheur or the Trembling Giant? Who’s right?
In French, malheur means “misfortune.”
The staff was scrambling.
The blood tests had come back, maybe. They had a new idea, a new theory. They began to pump the strongest antibiotics they had.
“Are you allergic to anything?”
There weren’t enough tubes to put in all the things they wanted to put in. The crook of my other elbow got an IV. So did my other hand. Still not enough.
“Mr. Bowman. We are going to put a port in your chest.”
A nurse objected. Should we get him to an operating theater first? Should we put him under? Should we do this now?
“Yes. We are doing it now. It will be fine.” The doctor was comforting in part because he wasn’t comforting at all. He was a serious man who didn’t fuck around. He was in his fifties, maybe. With a deep voice and a knowing sort of stare. He didn’t care about bedside manner. I was grateful and terrified.
“He can’t watch this,” someone else said.
The doctor got a marker and put a mark on my chest, not far below my right collarbone. He lay a sheet of sterile operating paper over my chest, pulled it away, cut a square out and placed it back on my chest, the cut-out over the mark he’d made. Then he spoke to me directly.
“Mr. Bowman, this will not be comfortable. We are going to put a sheet over your face so you can’t see it. I need you to lie very still. Can you do that?”
It turned out I could stop shivering and convulsing if I had no choice. They put a sterile paper sheet over my face.
“I’m going to give you a local anesthetic with a needle. It will burn.” Someone asked if the doctor wanted to give me a topical for the needle but he said no. The needle went deeper than I would have thought possible; it felt like it went all the way through me.
Then the burning came.
“You’re going to feel a lot of pressure. Don’t move.”
So I didn’t. I heard something wet. Squeezed my eyes shut. I could feel him rooting in my chest, fingertips presumably but maybe some instrument. Whatever it was, rubber-covered flesh or surgical steel, felt enormous, giants spelunking through tiny caverns in my body. It was invasive. There was an uncomfortable intimacy in it, a new kind of sensation and vulnerability. He was touching parts of me no one had ever touched. I didn’t know his name.
There is a stretch of desert near my home where we walk our dog and the dry bushes have jackrabbits living in them. Rabbits don’t frolic, don’t loll, don’t play. They bound in terror, frantic as the dog leaps and runs, smashing random zigs and zags, creating spasmodic new trails.
Haldane has an essay called “How to Write a Popular Scientific Article.” I’m sure he means popular as in for lay people but I can’t help reading it through the lens of being popular at parties, which makes the title hilarious and aspirational and maybe delusional. The piece is written in direct address, a lot of “you,” and it feels a bit accusatory, though that could be me feeling delicate. In the essay, Haldane advises that knowing one’s intended audience is more important than anything else, “even more … than the choice of subject.” He advises that the author of such an article “must know a great deal more about your subject than you put on paper.” To lack this kind of expertise is to “give the impression that the author has looked his subject up, and tried to give a condensed summary of it … [this] will not hold the attention of a reader of popular articles, who does not contemplate severe intellectual exertion.”
Which makes me worry I am doomed.
Haldane tries to sound encouraging and fails spectacularly. “This does not mean that you must write for an audience of fools,” he insists. “It means that you must constantly be returning from the unfamiliar facts of science to the familiar facts of everyday experience.” As he goes on, he explains how analogies work without ever using the word “analogy.” His first example is to compare a scientific phenomenon to the way a bomb explodes.
You know, everyday experience stuff.
But I’m not going to put only a fraction of what I know here. I’ll tell it all and there will be gaps anyway. I will hold nothing back but still won’t know everything that happened. I can’t. There are huge foggy places in my memory.