Sunday 3 September 2017

The Wasp Effect

You, my dear and learned friends, are no doubt already very well aquatinted with the "Butterfly Effect", the notion that the gentle flutter of a lepidopteran wing sets off a causal series of unlikely, yet inevitable, interactions that ultimately bring down a long-ruling empire. I would like to put forward to you, my esteemed associates, a similar concept, the "Wasp Effect", the idea that a hymenopteran suddenly flying between your eyeglass lens and your eyeball can set off an existential panic that, in a radically short span of time, will up-end the bicycle beneath you and somersault your entire overweight organism on to the asphalt.

I have recently been educated in extreme detail, indeed some may argue to the point of obsession, in the ways of the Wasp Effect following a recent tour of Upper Lusatia, that landlocked lemon so unfortunately appended to Saxony in recent centuries, with town and village names that no longer appear on maps, and home to a noble yet disappearing west Slavic population, who, if remembered at all, remind obscure historians in dust-ridden academic annexes that many a 19th-century nationalist drive in fact stalled at the on-ramp to the highway of international recognition.

This is but a digression, however. Naturally, the forlorn fate of the false-start Sorbs was not remotely within the parameters of your narrator's immediate mental machinations upon impact with the aforementioned hard surface of the partially paved bucolic byway. The initial lament was far more simple, dare I admit also more coarse vocally, and at first it seemed the limp body might lie there for some time, perhaps for an eternity, or at the very least, for a personal eternity.

And I cannot be completely sure how it is with you, my true friends – and indeed, you must be such to have read this far – but it cannot be too dissimilar from how it is with me, for we are all equal in such moments, I truly believe: in these nanoseconds when the regular running order of our expectations cracks like a poorly boiled egg foaming in the pot, when we're forced, wasp-induced or otherwise, to stare face-to-face at the fragility of our existence, at the tenuousness of our consciousness, lying bloody on the pavement of solid, uncompromisingly gravity-centred reality, when it all becomes shiveringly tarn cold and clear, and as much as we may long for a return to the comforting dullness of the uncounted day-to-day passage of our petty (yet never more pleasing) pace, we know that the stage scrim has been ripped mightily, so that we see the blackened brick wall of the theatre building behind...

Oh, for fucksake, you fractured your fucking elbow. It's not some impossible tribulation. No one's died. No one's even been permanently injured. You’re whinging about self-pityingly like some alt-right loner-moaner whining on 4chan in the wee hours about all the imagined troubles he faces when he’s brave enough to leave his parents’ basement.

Get your clumsy blob off the fucking road before a tractor comes along, wash the fucking gravel out of the wounds, call the fucking ambulance, and get the paramedics to take you to the fucking hospital so the x-ray magicians can tell you why breathing causes painhammers and why your forearm feels like a wet sack of sticks. Buck up, and stop this lengthy insult to everyone out there who has real problems.

But that's a thought that only comes later. Stoicism is a luxury of the aware. After we know more or less what the problem is, then we can start to belittle it. In the first moment, when it's not at all clear, when it's still not yet even possible to connect the micro-events between wasp and ground, that's the true now of the borderline blackout, confusion and fear – with an angle of view that is 90 degrees on edge – not knowing anything but the unrelenting pavement, much closer now than it was but an instant before; the seconds here in this place last for days.

Move? No. Even trying brings back the hammers. Look, blood. It's the four-in-the-morning bed thoughts of the body: the lonely point of panic when everything that can go wrong is imagined to have gone wrong.

Head, helmet – the one you didn't want to bother with this morning – the scraping hard-plastic crackle on roadway proclaims 60 euros well spent all those years ago. Skull jelly remains where it belongs, not mixing with the tar, warming in the late-morning summer sun. That radius, however, a peculiar protrusion. And the rib? If only breathing could be postponed indefinitely…

Why swat the wasp? Why did the wasp fly into this face? Why are we on this road in the middle of this field at this time? Why did we rent bikes? Why do we ever go on holiday in the first place?

On her deathbed a decade ago, my mother told me how I had made the right choice in life to “go out and see the world” rather than sit in suburbia and entwine my fate with the vagaries of sedentary existence like mortgages and real estate prices and savings and investments and on and on into the ever-larger filing cabinets full of documents that occupied so much of her time on this spinning rock and in death mattered not at all. In the humane yet sterile conditions of a northern New Jersey medical facility, such a last-minute rebellion against staid comfortabilities may be common, perhaps, but hers was a long, drawn-out dying that left time for many ruminations, some contradictory. It may have been a distracted longing for a pathway untrodden, but it’s just as likely to have been a wish for another chance at life – any life, this path, that path, another path – anything must seem more appealing than lying horizontal in the mortal cul-de-sac of a hospice.

Or maybe that’s all transference on my part. Maybe it’s all the unbearable weight of nostalgia from a span of days in the part of the world that puts the pot of Mitteleuropa goulash back on the stove top. The region is full of ghosts, we know, spirits of a ruined world that’s all gone, and always was all gone, almost surely, even before Stefan Zweig told us it was all gone – it was a romantic hallucination that fed itself to itself, long past the point when there was nothing left to feed on.

But I speak here of the ghosts that never leave us, the memories forced to the surface by the scents of poppy seed cake and buttered boiled potatoes and dill cucumbers and frosty pilsner and over-ripe apricots whacked out of the tree with a ludicrously long stick wielded by a ferociously hospitable old woman who lived through war as a girl and knows how to collect a bucket of sustenance quickly. The Christmas Eves in grandmother’s kitchen, nearly a half century ago. The walks through dark forests, on the hunt for fungi whose names I still don’t know in my native English, half my lifetime ago. The long summer days seeking shade in countless beer gardens, as recently as yesterday.

A mother’s final approval of her son’s rash twenty-years-past decision to hop on a boat and see where it took him: how can it not spark a thought of what might have been in setting sail on another boat or staying on the dock? Little doubt, the parental endorsement would have been the same, perhaps only earlier, for a shore-bound lifestyle, but where did those other options lead? Would they have meant staying in touch with more of the extended family, those dozens of second-generation immigrants who never went back to see where their grandmother learned her potato dough miracles but instead just got on with their English-speaking American lives? Those who never followed in her pre-Ellis-Island footsteps to become first-generation immigrants themselves? Those who followed what she perhaps sought more than what she herself did?

Even half a century into it – and really, 50 is a big number when you’re thrust over the handlebars in its direction – your narrator still has no idea whether the self-exiled creates the distance, or whether the distance creates the self-exiled. Was internal exile the only other realistic option? And does any of it – immigration, exile, living abroad – even mean anything now that email has envapidated letter writing, Facebook has destroyed greeting cards, Instagram has replaced postcards, and Skype has shuttered the phone cabin at the post office where it used to take the operator some 45 minutes to get an outside line for your international call. If distance is dead, what’s even the point of travelling?

After university, I set out to “see the world” – much against the judgement of everyone around me at the time, including those who would later fondly approve – but Europe became the magnet that held me from further progress. Escape has been possible, for a time, but even a collected century of countries later, the base still settles here. I’ll probably die here, not just in Europe, but in Central Europe. And not just in Central Europe, but here in Upper Lusatia, on this shortcut between the main road and the village, with a tractor belching noisily towards me. It would be easier than getting up or even pushing the bicycle frame off the body at this point.

And past choices seem wholly futile here, possibilities without consequence. If not this wasp and these glasses and this bicycle and this gravel, then surely some other insect and vehicle and unrelenting road surface somewhere else. The Wasp Effect finds you regardless; from Short Hills to Saxony, it’s all Samarra ultimately.

A few decades ago, I thought I’d travel so that, in old age, I’d have tales to tell, but now the sheer pointlessness of travel is too obvious. It’s not just that, within a few short years, virtual travel will be so completely convincing, that the rare few who still do it non-VR (apart from those desperately fleeing horrors) will be rich eccentrics and pure loons, and I will never have enough money to be considered the former. Yes, what good will the collected stories of “Not quite half way around the world in 80 years” be, when there’s no audience in the least bit interested? Just grandpa mumbling gibberish out on the terrace again…

But there’s more to it than that. A long journey is supposed to be enriching – spiritually or mentally or somesuchly – but the more you learn about other people and cultures, and the more you speak other languages, the more you understand how needless it all is. People in distant lands are just as screwed up as the people you left behind in your birthplace: plagued by demons, chained to vices, stuck in destructive relationships, burdened by the sociopathic political leaders they worship, made irrational by the power of imaginary friends, and trying to fill the days without giving the wasp any thought... You can pretend it’s not so for a while, you can wallow in the romantic lies each culture tells itself about itself and imagine you’ve found something special, but it’s just the limited bliss of temporary ignorance. With time, you learn more and more until you realise you’re back where you started: a flawed individual among other flawed individuals in a flawed society on a flawed planet with a particularly hard exterior layer.

And yet, sedentary introspection isn’t any kind of goal either; at least, not as it’s typically described. For at least two and a half millennia or so, we've thought that self-knowledge and inner reflection are important for understanding ourselves. In fact, they're clearly more important for understanding others. Empathy is the building block of society. It makes progress possible. Human evolution is unimaginable without it.

The complexity of our brains grew over the eons not so we could learn about ourselves – what natural selection advantage would that be to our ancestors? – but so we could take what we know about ourselves and forge successful human groups together, understanding each other, working together for common defence and hunting. Sitting there in deep contemplation for its own sake is a good way to get yourself eaten by a predator; thinking about how others in the group might behave as you act together is the way to coordinate to collect the calories and to avoid predation. Including by tractors.

Maybe the deepest honesty comes when we’re closest to the ground: if left to my own thoughts here on this road, why not just let the approaching machine grind me flatter? Neither self-pity nor stoicism help me one bit in this place. Neither stop the bleeding. Neither stop the pain. What’s the use of all this rumination – the two thousand words that rocket through the deep space of the helmeted brain in a microsecond of physical collapse? Unless it’s shared?

Unignorable pain washed over this reflective wooziness far quicker than the length of this recounting would suggest. What happened in the third second I only pieced together later and managed to tap out one-handed: my wife and daughter pulled the bike off me and helped me up, found my scratched glasses and poured the remains of the water bottle over the various abrasions. The tractor driver had seen me fall and had come to help. His local accent was strong, but there was absolutely no indication that he was at any point intending to run over a fallen cyclist.

As for the wasp, he remains at large. As ever.

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