On earthquakes and other certainties

Not that there's any sense to be made from the senseless, but we might as well try.

I’ve been coming across the word intractable a lot recently. I first saw it in a book, then in a newsletter, then in an article, then in a tweet. I know it’s a Baader-Meinhof-type thing: I looked up a word whose connotation I understood but whose precise definition eluded me; now it’s everywhere.

I experience this sort of cognitive bias commonly and mildly enough. My sense of reality isn’t under assault, as it is with déjà vu. On the contrary, such sudden ubiquities usually assure me of my newfound knowledge: I can trust that this word, phrase, brand, whatever, exists in the world like so.

But this time I was missing that closure. What gave me pause — why I’m starting this issue here — is that the connotation I’d understood didn’t actually fit the word’s precise definition. The Oxford American Dictionary says intractable means “hard to control or deal with.” Simple enough, right? Yet I had thought the word indicated finality, the shutting of a door. I inferred a certain hopelessness from an adjective that in reality describes only a present state of affairs.

In an important sense, I wasn’t wrong. In the context of medicine — the context to which we now all defer — intractable has a separate, specific meaning: incurable. Intractable pain is the diagnosis when the usual treatments fail; intractable pain, in other words, modern medicine will never fix. The tag makes sense: treat and tract share a Latin root, tractare, meaning to “manage, handle, deal with.” When something can’t be managed, can’t be handled, can’t be dealt with — that’s when it’s intractable.

Then there’s intractable conflict, which Columbia psychologist Peter T. Coleman studies. (The usual examples are ethnonationalist land disputes.) In a recent Poltico anthology, which asked “big thinkers” to predict how coronavirus will change the US, Coleman meekly argues that this crisis could reduce the political polarization that currently divides the country. He cites the historical record: “strong, enduring relational patterns” tend to transform “after some type of major shock destabilizes them.”

I’ve already stepped beyond my ken, but there’s a lesson here. We use words like intractable to negotiate life on the razor’s edge of despair; to find balance as we teeter between giving up and trying again. If it seems paradoxical it’s because we are paradoxical. Because we need to straddle both sides of the imagined chasm separating the difficult from the impossible — a distinction that always exists, until it disappears.

Gerhard Richter, Plattenspieler (Record Player), oil on canvas, 1988

Thanks for reading Sintext VI. I’m sorry it’s been so long.

For this issue, originally meant for the first week of March, I wanted to write a “Why Bernie?” piece. The twist was that I would plead my case in a single sitting. I planned to write without links or ad hoc research — “to take as my material only what I would have available in conversation,” I’d phrased it in one false start — because the goal was to model how hard it is to actually talk politics in person. (Little did I know we wouldn’t be doing any talking in person for a while, or that by the time I published the primary would look the way it does.)

See, a few days before Super Tuesday, when Californians voted, I had dinner with my dear friend Rachel. After catching up, we got to the election, and I soon got to arguing why she should vote for Bernie instead of Warren. I don’t remember what I said, exactly, but I do remember noticing how Rachel was looking at me. I remember the moment when I realized I sounded like a stranger to myself, too.

I heard myself then. Regurgitating words like “rigged” and “grassroots.” Presuming a belief in the centrist corruption of the DNC, in the untenability of capitalism. It’s not that I don’t agree with that phraseology or those premises — I do, I really do — it’s that they prohibit nuance; it’s that they miss the point; it’s that they’re not mine. In borrowing those readymade chains of propaganda, I’d lost track of why I was so proud to have voted for Bernie: my vote was an expression of my deepest-held values.

So I tried to find my own words to focus my message for you. I landed on a metaphor.

Rachel and I ate at a Panda Express test kitchen near her house. While waiting to order, we’d sampled the chef’s choice, a sweet-and-sour-style chicken sliced into thick strips. It was delicious — appropriately tangy, only lightly fried — and very obviously fresh. Instead of choosing that dish for our meals, we both went with the Orange Chicken. It tasted far worse: the pieces were more breading than meat; each bite was crunchy and soggy and dry all at once. Not that we were surprised. We could tell that it was an old batch, still baking under a red heat lamp in the chrome bowl furthest down the line. For whatever reason — our aversion to risk, or our desire for name recognition, or (just speaking for myself) our tendency to self-sabotage — we failed to choose what we actually wanted, even though it was quite literally right in front of us.

Richter, Festnahme 2 (Arrest 2), oil on canvas, 1988

That was the sort of thing I hoped to write for this issue. Then I got sick. Not Covid-19, I’m lucky, but sick with what I thought was mono for the second time. The lymph node on the left side of my neck swelled into a hard convexity. I went to the doctor. I went to a specialist. He prescribed antibiotics and steroids. I got blood drawn. I passed a weekend alternating chills and sweats. I had no appetite, no energy. I lost weight and I lost motivation. Days passed. Then I got my blood test back: no mono, just an infection. I finished my course of meds. I got better. Just as so many got worse. I got the care I needed. Just as we were reminded of other medical terms: emergency triage, palliative care.

It’s never nice to feel like nothing is under your control. I argued with my parents about returning to work at the bookstore, which remains open, sort of. I sent my manager an anxious text, dripping with self-reproach, apologizing for missing shifts I had said I would take. I slowly resigned myself to even more free time at home. It’s never easy to acknowledge the fragilities of your body, the contingencies of your wellbeing.

I haven’t handled any of it well. Despite my privilege, which is both relative and absolute, I’ve been a mope these past few weeks. I’ve felt like shit. If I’m being honest, it’s only in the last few days that I’ve wanted to stop feeling like shit. I’ve been sleeping late, watching a lot of TV, reading a little, shirking texts and emails, staying glued to Twitter all the while. When I look back on this time, I will remember being on Twitter and I will remember being unhappy.

I’m not sure I agree, but seeing that there is keeping me writing.

Richter, Jugendbildnis (Youth Portrait), oil on canvas, 1988

What’s happening to people — what’s already happened, what will continue to happen — is horrible. But I don’t count it as a major shock.

Forget for a moment the testimony that reached us from China and Italy in February, which forecasted our own future with precision. Wasn’t the prospect of a global pandemic already imprinted on our collective consciousness? Echoed not only in our offhanded jokes but also in our TV shows and novels and video games? We knew that diseases can spread exponentially in densely populated cities. We knew that structures of support can quickly crumble. Yet we didn’t prepare for what we knew was coming.

Except, haven’t we been ready for a while now? At least emotionally. Here I speak only for myself: I’m not yet intimate with grief, another aspect of my immense good fortune, but I’m familiar with fear. I’ve rehearsed resignation, assimilated existential dread. I’ve accepted that much of American culture is a barrier to the world in which I want to live: one where people come before profits, where shared concern has nothing to do with shared blood. I’ve come to terms with the fact that these have never been the ways of this country, and thus with the fact that what’s happening is perfectly consistent with our traditions.

Or is this just what I think because I’ve been brainwashed by Twitter? Blinded by that same blend of frequency illusion and confirmation bias? I hope this issue finds its way to people who are nodding their heads — because I’d push back. If 280 characters seem like too little to justify calling the GOP a death cult, then consider that 104 seconds is enough time for an elected official on national TV to invoke the same rhetoric of righteous sacrifice that brought us kamikaze planes and suicide vests.

What I’m left with is the certainty that we urgently need to recalibrate our attention. And I don’t know how to do that. Should I point out the tragic irony of the primary medical consultant for Contagion contracting this virus? Or do I quietly dispose of the newsworthy dregs left behind by our morbid fascinations? Should I keep trying to entertain my readers? Or do I replace that verb with distract now that nihilism has slipped out of our screens, started to muffle our screams?

As those movies attest, we excel at imagining future scenarios, including awful ones. But such apocalyptic visions are a form of escapism, not a moral summons, and still less a plan of action. Where we stumble is in conjuring up grim futures in a way that helps to avert them.

Those words are Kathryn Schulz’s. By “those movies” she means disaster flicks, not pandemic thrillers, though they’re of the same ilk. I’m quoting “The Really Big One,” her spine-chilling, Pulitzer-winning article on the peril posed by an overlooked fault line called the Cascadia subduction zone. In brief, an earthquake as massive as the one that hit Japan in 2011 — the one that took over 18,000 lives and cost $235 billion — will ravage the Pacific Northwest sometime in the next decades. The real killer will once again be the tsunami that follows the quake.

Schulz published a follow-up in 2016, a little more than a year after the original wake-up call. The voters of Seaside, Oregon had recently rejected a bond measure to move their public schools out of the tsunami-inundation zone — onto land where their children would be likely to survive. The city would later vote again on a cheaper proposal made possible when Weyerhaeuser Co., which owns almost enough forestland to cover West Virginia, donated 80 acres. This second measure passed.

Last year, Schulz added a third update. The governor of Oregon — a blue state — had just signed new zoning into law that made it legal to build “schools, hospitals, prisons, other high-occupancy buildings, firehouses, and police stations in areas that will be destroyed when the tsunami strikes.” Such construction had been prohibited since 1995, when seismologists first realized the extent of the danger. (Not to be outdone, Trump tried to cut funding for West Coast earthquake early warning programs from both the 2018 and 2019 federal budgets.)

Schulz also took the opportunity to note “the death of Oregon’s landmark climate-policy bill. The bill, which had already passed the House, would have capped carbon emissions in the state and required polluters to pay for greenhouse-gas emissions.” You might recall this news cycle from the Republican senators who fled the state and threatened to shoot the troopers dispatched to bring them back. But what I missed then was that three Democrats had also pledged to vote against the legislation.

Between the passage of the one bill and the failure of the other, Oregon’s message to its residents seems clear: we are turning our backs on danger; we are turning our backs on the future; we are turning our backs on you. That message is particularly upsetting because of how clearly it echoes the register of our times, how squarely it is in keeping with our era of reversals and regression, of failures to do and of undoing.

After finishing “The Really Big One” for the nth time, I wanted to learn more about the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which the piece also mentions. The numbers staggered me: 227,898 deaths. Soon I had a dozen tabs open. Eventually I found myself slowly dragging my eyeballs down the Wikipedia page that lists natural disasters by death toll. I lost my stomach after seeing Haiti: 316,000 gone. That was a decade ago, my bar mitzvah year. How is it that I don’t remember more?

FEMA predicts 13,000 people will perish in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami, and twice as many will be injured. Part of me wants to append an “only.” WHO estimates that an average of 250,000 people will die each year between 2030 and 2050 as a direct result of climate change-related disease and catastrophe. None of those years will be the best year ever; that year will be in the past.

The climate crisis is, of course, the expanse where this current of logic empties out, racing through the lazy river of inertia. The climate crisis is our ultimate problem, intractable in every sense of the word. What can coronavirus show us other than our continued disinterest in proactive change?

When I started working on this issue, I was trying to push my writing towards imagined speech. This has turned into me writing what I’ve never been able to articulate, because it’s never been so clear. I don’t know who else needs to hear this, but: The most important thing in this world is either an individual human life or something else. It either is or it isn’t. I’m inclined to think that it is. It’s up to us to decide and go from there.

Richter, Beerdigung (Funeral), oil on canvas, 1988

I will publish again soon. I’m grateful for all of you reading this, and for the words of encouragement I received during the unexpected hiatus. If you have charities or organizations or resources I should add to the list below, please pass them along or mention them in the comments, which should be enabled for this issue.

In solidarity,


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Related, mostly reassuring, reading

  • NYRB’s Coronavirus Journal. These are personal dispatches from around the world, written daily by, well, writers — poets and novelists and memoirists, not just journalists. Many are beautiful, all provide distinct angles of reflection. I’ve been extremely moved by these entries.

  • Meghan O’Rourke in The Atlantic: “COVID-19 gives us an opportunity to frame our fears not in the context of panic or overwhelming anxiety, but as care. Our interconnectedness is part of the very meaning of life.” (Already outdated, but this is what sank the imperative of social distancing home for me. Read it if you’re wavering.)

  • Sarah Miller in Longreads: “There is nothing to achieve right now except to insist that the only achievement is caring for others, and not caring specially for family or friends, but in caring for every person as our family or friend.” (I particularly liked the title: “What Do We Do With Feelings Now That They Don’t Matter Anymore?”)

  • Michael Sacasas in The Convivial Society, his illuminating newsletter of philosophy and technology: “A world lost in a hyperreal fog may be about break on an intractable reality. Perhaps we can think of it not as a market correction, but an epistemic correction.” (Where I saw intractable, and also the Robin Sloan tweet.)

  • The most recent edition of Future Crunch, another great newsletter that highlights the upside of science and technology: “Masks are a good symbol for this current moment in time. They arrive via planes and container ships, making their way to the frontlines via a global trade network that seemed inevitable, until it wasn’t. News organisations use them as symbols of fear and uncertainty, giving us images of masked figures hurrying across abandoned streets, or swarming around hospital beds… Alongside the anxiety and narrow-mindedness however, the mask also represents a world all in action at once, waves of the same sea, united against a common threat.”

  • Free ebooks from Archipelago (I interned there and would be so happy to point you to wonderful stuff), Haymarket, and Verso. Read, read, read.

  • This Don DeLillo short story, set after 9/11, about the drift that follows disaster, inspired by and titled after Baader-Meinhof, Gerhard Richter’s blurry studies of police and press photos documenting the deaths of Red Army Faction terrorists, some of which I interspersed throughout this issue.

  • Heartening news: Colorado recently abolished its death penalty. Disheartening reality check: most states retain theirs. Nate Woods refused breakfast the morning of his execution, “and for his final meal ordered sweet potatoes, spinach, chicken patties, chicken leg quarters, cooked apples, fries, two oranges and an orange-flavored drink… He ate one bite of chicken and left the rest.”

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