Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Fever

On my way back from D.C. this week, where we were part of a vigil-turned-protest to defend DACA, I must have picked up something nasty on the plane ride home because I have spent this weekend with one of the worst fevers I can remember since college – when I was still living amidst the constantly recirculated air of dorm life (and full of the dubious microbes of dorm-mates). This is the sort of agony that can easily be diminished, of course, by a well-timed dash of ibuprofen. I have a private folk medical theory, however, – which checks out well enough, according to my sister and what she was able to find in a pinch on the internet – that the Advil works its magic in part by suppressing one’s immune response (of which fever is one manifestation), and this in turn allows the virus to survive longer. And so if one can spare the time to be incapacitated by fever, it is better to let it run its raging course unimpeded. The sickness will be more uncomfortable, but will be over more quickly.

Yesterday, therefore, I felt as though I were strapping myself into a rocket for blast-off. The totally unsuppressed fever is about as close to the psychedelic experience as I am ever likely to attain, and it was with a perverse sense of adventure almost that I loaded up on supplies for the trip. There is something about sickness that places one back again on the level of sheer survival, the merely human. The superstructures of thought and ideology fall away. I am suddenly just a tube that needs to eat, ingest fluids, and fall asleep. In a poem on the sickness of his son, Hugh MacDiarmid speaks of sinking to “that dread level of nothing but life itself” and how he “longed for [his] wide range of interests again.” With the world as it is currently, however, this seems like not necessarily so bad a respite, provided it is brief. With Trump, with DACA, with Kim Jong Un, with hydrogen bombs, with Harvey, with the fact that my family and friends and childhood home are all in the barreling onward path of Hurricane Irma (all of whom are someplace safe, at least, except for the house, which can’t be so easily relocated), this seems like a fine proposition.

Talking by phone most of the weekend with people in Irma’s path in the midst of my fever daze, the two somehow became confounded in my mind. As I ventured out of the house to stock up on sickness foods, it was as if I was engaged in a kind of sympathy expedition to obtain hurricane supplies. I too was battening down for a natural disaster. I was preparing for prolonged absence from the civilized world until the storm passed. We’re all inside together now thinking, well, all we can do is wait! I was starting to look forward excitedly to the idea. Says the narrator of The Way of All Flesh, Ernest’s godfather: “For my own part I reckon being ill as one of the great pleasures of life, provided one is not too ill and is not obliged to work till one is better.  I remember being ill once in a foreign hotel myself and how much I enjoyed it.”

Between me and this bliss, however, stood the trip to the grocery store that would allow me to attempt this exile from the world without starving. The trouble was that the fever in question had already set in. In a calm, clear Massachusetts day, but with an Irma raging in my head, my car crawled the total of two blocks between my apartment and the Stop and Shop with me in it feeling very much like Leonardo DiCaprio in that scene from Wolf of Wall Street in which he attempts to drive home from the country club on a stomach full of Quaaludes. It occurred to me that this was maybe uncomfortably close to the moral equivalent of driving under the influence, but there was no law to my knowledge against driving with fever, and there I was.

I was already beginning to question the wisdom of the trip, but I had come this far, and I needed to eat. As I made my way through the aisles of the grocery store, walking at movie-zombie clip, I managed to obtain lemonade, orange juice, peanut butter, and cream cheese. But with despair, I realized that the crucial ingredient – the crackers, the thing to eat these condiments upon, was still missing, and was back on the other side of the store. This stretched to impossible distances. I needed to rest, I needed to spread out on the floor. But I had to press on.

When I’d finally gotten the crackers, my arms aching from the handheld grocery carrier that was suddenly the heaviest thing in the world, I got in what appeared to be the shortest line and swayed back and forth in place. There was only one person in front of me. But to my dismay, I saw that her cart was full of seemingly innumerable tiny vegetables and those squeezable vitamin pouches that are all the rage today, each of which had to be individually placed on the belt. When this ordeal was cleared, many minutes later, at last it was my turn. Now I suddenly had to understand words again, coming at me from a great distance. “Do you have a stop and shop card?” Of course not! Oh, please, just let it be over! “Paper or plastic?” Paper of plastic what? What does that mean? What’s the difference?

But through it all, there was the unfevered self within me, coolly observing the fevered self, just as there is always the sober self observing the drunk one. This self was starting to plot out this post already in his head. A passage from Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts came back to me – the unfevered me -- as I was swaying in the checkout lane. The part where the odd, unnamed protagonist and newspaper columnist unplugs his phone and cuts himself off from the outside world and climbs into bed. “This time his bed was surely taking him somewhere, and with great speed. […] Before climbing aboard, he had prepared for the journey by purchasing several enormous cans of crackers.” As I fingered my Ritz crackers, it occurred to me that this was something like the magical mystery tour I too was about to undertake, that I had unconsciously been following my literary models. The fleeting and unfamiliar taste of total irresponsibility would at last be mine.

Back home at last I squatted in front of my couch on folded legs like the Buddha, and placed my groceries before me for the ceremonial departure. Indifferently listening to an audiobook, I spent the next hour taking one cracker and dipping it in peanut butter, eating it, then taking another and dipping it in cream cheese, eating it, and repeating until full. Then followed the long strange night of semi-sleep and semi-wakefulness, partially stretched on the living room floor, partially doubled over with my head cradled in the seat of the futon, which for some reason seemed to be the most comfortable way to be, in the worst of the fever. Along the way, whenever I emerged from the inner fire to listen to what was happening in that audiobook, I learned some things I didn’t know before about the interesting history of San Francisco’s bridges.

The fever was no true escape, however. The fire raging in my head was too reminiscent of the fire and brimstone raining on America. The New York Times had a piece yesterday that tried to capture the Apocalyptic mood of this season of natural catastrophe and unnatural politics. A friend of mine who's Chinese-American claims his father believes with semi-seriousness that this is all a sign from above that the Mandate of Heaven is passing from the United States, and particularly from our preposterous national leadership. As with Gandhi and his earthquake in Bihar, however, one wonders why these cosmic punishments for national wrongdoing so often harm the innocent and spare the guilty.

On the other hand, it’s a nice thought to have the supernatural forces on one’s own political side for a change. Generally I had always assumed that if the fire and brimstone came it would come for me. At the White House vigil last week, however, this was no longer the case. Shortly after we held our morning prayer vigil for DACA recipients and their families, police emerged to tell us we had to clear the park. We were pushed several blocks over onto 16th and I. Why? Because the president was going to church that morning. It was, after all, his “National Day of Prayer.” Oh, the ironies.

From our spot a block away from St. John’s church, we had a good view of the people in their nice suits and dresses coming in to join the president for the church service in this bland and utterly uncontroversial house of worship. It was Episcopalian, but it could have belonged to any number of other interchangeable mainline Protestant denominations. It suddenly occurred to me that whoever was preaching the sermon that morning had an extraordinary opportunity before them that they were almost certainly not going to take. Episcopalian priests in my experience are very nice people, and almost certain to vote Democratic, but by nature conflict-averse. Models of politeness, they are still in that literary mold represented in the satirical sketches of George Crabbe (known to me from their appearance in Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading) and the village priest of Zola’s Germinal) who above all are hoping to get along.

It suddenly seemed to me that I ought to change my entire life plan. That it would be worth years or decades of being a double agent in the role of unprepossessing Episcopal priest, angling my way toward the job at this one D.C. church across from the White House, just so I could one day offer the titanic and earth-shakingly condemnatory sermon I was certain to give before the corrupt powers of the world. Suddenly, the whole panoply of wrathful Biblical rhetoric that I had always spurned before would be opened to me. A whole new toolkit of words and metaphors. “Ye hypocrites!” I would shriek. “Ye nest of vipers!” “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not the things I say?”

Ah, to be able to have this president as a captive audience to one’s castigations. Presumably his dull face would not register what I was even getting at. The nice, polite people in their nice clothes wouldn’t either. They’d be checking their watches, checking their phones and Blackberries, trying to remember why they came in the first place. And this is how storms continue to rage over the land, afflicting not such as these, but those who are already suffering. This is how private apocalypses for families separated by borders and deserts, people living under the constant shadow of deportation, displacement, and exploitation, are allowed to go on. This is why. “Because of the unconcern of men and women/ Respectable and respected and professedly Christian” (MacDiarmid). Because of these.

The fever broke this morning as I knew it would. I awoke to that sticky, sweaty relief that is perhaps the greatest pleasure of Butler's pleasures of illness. But with its passage life can no longer be on hold. Not that it ever was. The struggle continues.  

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