Choices During a Pandemic – Soliloquy on a Glove

A Lacking Pair

When I think of my time during the coronavirus, I think about this photograph. As I began to ride my bicycle, I suddenly realized that this geography, wholly unappreciated in a city I had spent six years in, had plenty to offer. And so I began to bring around a camera, as heavy as it was, as I felt that taking photographs with my phone to be something that a tourist would do (though a DSLR camera looks no better).

On one such bike ride along the trail, I came across a work glove. This is the glove you see above. Strangely, I had gone biking days before – and would I believe go biking days later – and each time the glove was no longer there.

Something haunting there is that does not have a pair.

The left-handed glove rests along a branch, dangling the fingers. I try to imagine the fingers hanging, the blood pooling along the appendages. And now I try to complete an entire person attached, imagine the body suspended in air from the vanishing point of the glove at its wrist. I think of the context of the glove and how just one could be left all alone. Strangely, where there should be signs of road work or construction, whereby a detective could reverse engineer the scene, here there is no such thing. Perhaps the small tree it rests on was the task, which is a metaphor all its own.

But the right, where is the right hand?

In all talk of hands none can be at the forefront of one’s mind like the one from the New Testament.

But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.

Matthew 6:3

To which the original intent was concerning giving anonymously, or giving in such a way as to do it in secret. This practice of Christianity was something I identified with, coming especially from a Quaker heritage, and despite my “taking off the gloves of religion” so to speak, I was so inculcated into the practice of the church that there is a phantom that resides in me.

Nowadays the bible phrase concerns less about philanthropy and more about who knows what. For example, Don Draper in Mad Men grows irritated after the merger of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, where both halves of the same company managed to pull in their own breakfast juice account, causing a conflict. Bureaucratic bloat often makes the front pages of our thoughts on hands. “The invisible hand of the market” is when the it becomes large enough. Or more likely when an entity happens to be so large that it cannot take into account the various perceptions and idiosyncrasies of the people who reside in it. The result being either the bizarre stories of Franz Kafka or the hilarious antics of The Office.

Perhaps when thinking about the single glove remaining in the park, space is not so much the perspective through which to see but time. We present our “selves” as single entities, never imagining that it fluctuates or is made up of discrete entities, ones that people can claim they “control” like the reins of dogs on a sled. Pink Floyd spoke of hands and eyes best when they sang “All you touch and all you see/is all your life will ever be,” where they dismiss the sacredness of life while at the same time advocating for its agency. “I am touching” and “I am seeing.” This may be true, but what about the other side of the argument. What sees us? And more perniciously, what touches us?

This is where, when we consider the one-gloved resident, and we think of time, we get the sense of life in all its volume as it is lived. I thought that, at a certain point, I would have a total understanding of why I do the things I do, but it seems as though despite becoming an adult, no right explanation exists. No, I cannot explain why I cry at the exact moment that Riley begins to skate and Joy follows suit inside of her own head. Perhaps it is because, for most of the Pixar movie Inside Out, the premise is a horrifying one: we are a bottled up arrangement of emotions that seem to vie for agency of some mission control panel in our “selves,” and anything that occurs to us is far more important than the agency we place on our hands to reach out. Cue the piano music as she skates, and I am in tears.

At some point, the owner had been given the choice to either return the left glove to the place where the glove was left, or risk forgetting for all time. In which case, what is the use of a single glove? Maybe this person will remember, but only weeks later when all memory of the glove’s resting place is forgotten. He or she will look in their toolbox and see only one glove, and they will imagine scenarios of losing the glove that never occurred. As T.S. Eliot wrote of time in The Four Quartets:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take 
Towards the door we never opened 
Into the rose-garden.

T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

It is here where gold is struck. Similar to Robert Frost’s poem, where choices spring themselves upon us in the limited ways we compile them, and when we “take the road less traveled by” then agency can only assert itself retrospectively. The truth of the matter is that we give ourselves far more agency in our past selves than is due. Whether it is to provide what dignity there is left or not, it is certainly better than the alternative, which is nihilism. The kind where, (I go back to Mad Men again) when Betty Draper is stunned to find that her friend Francine realizes that her husband Carleton is cheating on her, Betty pleads with Don, “Who could do such a thing to the person they love?” A test, by Betty no doubt, on the health of their own marriage. But Don will not give into placing blame. He equivocates.

“People do things.”

Is this all we can speak of for our lives? For the glove to rest now ill-used is to contradict the act but for the realization that in order for the glove to rest in this space at all, it must have done things.

So it is this: we create the phantom in the glove, by giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt of control over the luck or hardship we find ourselves surrounded by. Time makes us knights of our own story. We create arcs and chapters, we tag our dialogue, and we retrofit ourselves to an appendage even. We create an identity out of false objects. And this we wear for the future, a kind of composite man, a metaphor that lives all its own like Shelley imagined in Frankenstein’s monster. This identity we construct feels false to those who see us. Even worse, it is found to be silly or dangerous when we ourselves cannot.

Phantom Identity

I have been reading Moby-Dick, and as I have finished, I am shocked by how swept away (pun intended) I’ve become by the writing of the novel. If the book were about whales, then a non-fiction account of nautical terms or its history might be in order. If the book is about philosophy, the works of modernists like Marx, Nietschze, or Freud are not only accepted but encouraged. Instead, Moby-Dick is a novel, so democratic as to offer a reader what appears to be a Rorschach test: a different glove for each to wear. It is as broad as the sea. So broad that the novel becomes an account of how and why people make choices at all. And it turns out that for Stubbs, or Starbuck, or Queequeq, or the peg-legged captain Ahab himself, the rationale for making choices is the one that attempts to answer, “What is sacred?”

Ahab’s obsession with his whale is of the kind that equates him with that of John Calvin. Predestination is the act of being damned or saved before the choices could ever have been made. Call it something profane, then, rather than sacred. The inevitability of the encounter with the white whale is most evident in his confrontation with his carpenter aboard the Pequod. I have reproduced one such part of the conversation here, because I find it to be so powerful in context that I dare not paraphrase it.

Look ye, carpenter, I dare say thou callest thyself a right good workmanlike workman, eh? Well, then, will it speak thoroughly well for thy work, if, when I come to mount this leg thou makest, I shall nevertheless feel another leg in the same identical place with it; that is, carpenter, my old lost leg; the flesh and blood one, I mean. Canst thou not drive that old Adam away?

Truly, sir, I begin to understand somewhat now. Yes, I have heard something curious on that score, sir; how that a dismasted man never entirely loses the feeling of his old spar, but it will be still pricking him at times. May I humbly ask if it be really so, sir?

It is, man. Look, put thy live leg here in the place where mine once was; so, now, here is only one distinct leg to the eye, yet two to the soul. Where thou feelest tingling life; there, exactly there, there to a hair, do I. Is’t a riddle?

I should humbly call it a poser, sir.

Hist, then. How dost thou know that some entire, living, thinking thing may not be invisibly and uninterpenetratingly standing precisely where thou now standest; aye, and standing there in thy spite? In thy most solitary hours, then, dost thou not fear eavesdroppers? Hold, don’t speak! And if I still feel the smart of my crushed leg, though it be now so long dissolved; then, why mayst not thou, carpenter, feel the fiery pains of hell for ever, and without a body? Hah!

Moby-Dick, Chapter 108 – “Ahab and the Carpenter”

There are stories about the neurological research concerning our mind’s relationship to our limbs. In one experiment, as is retold in The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger, a person lays down their arm on a flat surface underneath a table, but in parallel to a false arm that exists above the table. In a brief and violent strike, the graduate assistant stabs the false arm with a fork. The subject pulls their hand back, but not before feeling some degree of pain in their arm, though no stab has been made. How is this psychosomatic response possible? The answer lies in how we borrow the will of the world, how our minds, bred for survival rather than truth, insist upon giving us the pain anyway, because fear and pain is better than what the mind takes to be the alternative, which is death.

Ahab’s phantom limb takes the metaphor one step further, further than I have ever seen in literature. If amputees do report the feeling of phantom limb, occasionally layering over their false one, then why shouldn’t we, perhaps when we are dead (or worse, while living) experience the phantom body, an opportunity for suffering that is endless. 

How dost thou know that some entire, living, thinking thing may not be insivibly and uninterpenetratingly standing precisely where thou now standest

What are we to make of this allusion to our selves living parallel lives? Perhaps Melville may have sensed the need for cognitive behavioral therapy almost two centuries before, a positive psychology that must make our mistakes provisional, in order to keep us from the demon that is ourselves. If not, a phantom resides in us and is a permanent manifestation of our mistakes and what “could have been.” Or the answer resides in its opposite: to Ahab, he is only living as the narrow-minded and ambitious individual that he has come to be defined as, and as such he lives truer than the rest of us. What is the purpose in a full life to Ahab? When one is called to damnation, one must do so standing on the bone of the thing who called you. One must give into their terms. That is dignity.

The pandemic has made phantom limbs out of us all. Our pasts, our choices, they linger with us in a time that seems out of the mind. I can no longer recall with any real accuracy what even the experience of sitting in a restaurant felt like, its nonchalance, and my total unawareness of other people, only looking into my wife’s eyes. Nor can I even feel the haphazard pull of the classroom, an audio blender where students talked over one another to me, and I could feel sweat pooling in my armpits. And now that we are thrust fully in the pandemic, we are hardly knowledgeable of the degree to which these changes may affect us. Who’s to say that we aren’t our best selves right now? Or perhaps, when we make decisions, how are we to even be aware of why these decisions were made at all? After all, this moment is unprecedented.

In the next week, people will continue on with their holiday plans, barely acknowledging the pandemic that has achieved community spread in every single state, city, town, villa, courthouse. We are going to find out if it will enter every home. And while vaccines are being pushed into emergency approval, it is bizarre to find myself carrying the burden of proof on why not to have a Thanksgiving holiday. It feels as though each party pooper is being gaslighted, though we are the ones protecting our families, the ones who are sitting out. I am thinking of the long game: we only expect to socially distance for several months more, before a vaccine arrives or before we accept the virus and take the right precautions. Why risk everything we have stood for right before the end on some air-fried turkey?

In this milieu of family decisions, I have been confronted with the implications of my own choices. How much can we connect our ideas to our identity? Can we connect them at all?

Perhaps it was best answered by the madness of Pip on the Pequod learning his grammar.

I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look.

The amputated logic that nothing is connected to anything. Mayhaps there is no such thing, as Pip’s grammar points out, in a direct object. Nihilism. “People do things.”

I have often taken this tact, and it is hard for me to admit that I am wrong in this regard. Surely there must be more of an explanation? But the other side of the coin, for us all to be Captain Ahab, and come to be defined by our choices, to identify with them to such an extent that we wear the event on our bodies? That is vanity.

So when considering choices, the best model might be in evaluating its consequences, and in this perspective, identity and ideology are not good models. So during this holiday season, the phrase that helps me is:

“You can always be kinder.”

This kindness, which should be extended to everyone, could have thwarted Captain Ahab from his own predestined destruction, and it is the sort of emotional labor that all Americans should commit themselves to. Unfortunately, we seem just as eager to be driven by a fear created out of air. This even Melville predicted. Moby-Dick is a fiction, and though large creatures have existed in our past for some time, none lived quite such a life as the legend has done. And legends have a bad habit of existing on their own.

Take care to not create legends of yourself. Kindness extends to your own self just as much as others.

I try my best to understand these lapses of judgment on socially distancing as an exhausted body of people who are tired of not seeing their loved ones. From this vantage point, I can see the need for spending time with family in the short term, even if that means continuing the spread of a virus. But there is something to be said for my vantage point. The one of forcing myself to stop and look around.

Whether that glove I found in the park was ever returned to its owner is neither here nor there. Because now it is art. My art, inasmuch as anyone claims exclusionary rights over a thing. I love this glove. There is a certain stalwart self-determination in the thing. Elevated from the ground, suspended in air, feeling the crisp breezes on a calm cloudy day. I could imagine Carel Fabritius painting the glove. There is nowhere important to go, nowhere dire to linger. The glove, fortunate as it is to rest in space, has a good view of many things, and that alone is worth the loss of his other.

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