Volume 3, Issue 17: Where Do I Begin

"We're so alone. We're never alone."

About a month ago, David C. Roberts, a former diplomat and physicist, introduced me and many other readers of The New York Times to the concept of the micromort.

One micromort, as Roberts explains, represents a one-in-a-million chance of dying from an activity. If something has a one-in-a-million shot at killing you, it has a value of one micromort, and, Roberts writes, “the average American endures about one micromort of risk per day from non-natural causes.” Everything you do in the world that has a higher chance of killing you than that increases that number of micromorts from one. All the decisions we make in our lives both increase and decrease the micromort figure. It is apparently a common tool in the field of risk assessment, particularly when it comes to life insurance.

Life itself comes with inherent risk. Your odds of dying from something—and the micromort measures only odds of dying, not odds of becoming ill or seriously injured, which is very much worth keeping in mind in this discussion—increase anytime you do anything other than stay in your house and watch television, on a regular basis. If you ride a motorcycle for six miles, you have increased your level of risk by one micromort. The same for driving 250 miles, or flying 1,000 miles. Certain activities that we accept as simply normal aspects of a regular life carry much higher micromort counts than we might think. Riding a horse is about two micromorts. (It’s actually just as dangerous as doing ecstasy.) Going under a general anesthetic is worth five micromorts; giving birth, according to Roberts, is a whopping 210 micromorts.

We do not typically think of our lives this way, or at least I hope we don’t: Constantly computing micromorts strikes me a particularly stressful way to walk around the planet. But over the last few months, risk assessment has become a daily calculation; “what will make it less likely that I do something that will cause me or someone I care about to die?” has essentially replaced “so, where we having dinner tonight?” in casual conversation. According to Roberts, contracting the coronavirus, going off the idea that there is a 1 percent death rate (which may be low or high, depending on whatever random news story you might happen to come across while panic-scrolling at 3 in the morning) , is worth 10,000 micromorts, which is roughly the same risk as climbing Mount Everest. As Roberts notes, though, that number is the average risk for the entire population, which has an median age of 38. If you are, say, above the age of 75, or you have a compromised immune system, your risk is 10 times that, 100,000 micromorts, which is “just slightly less than flying four Royal Air Force bombing missions over Germany during World War II.”

More than 2.5 million people in this country have received a positive diagnosis of COVID-19, and the CDC estimated this week that the actual number of infected could be 10 times that. The disease seems to be rampaging out of control in several states across the country, many of which had begun to “reopen” their economies in recent weeks. There has been surprisingly positive progress on a potential vaccine, but even the most optimistic projections don’t see one on the market until the end of this year or the beginning of next, at the absolute earliest. (And even that has always struck me as a bit of magical thinking.) Despite the best attempts from the executive branch and those who blindly, desperately cling to them, wishing away the virus has not proven an effective strategy: It is now clear that the United States is the hardest-hit country in the world. It also still feels like we are just getting started. And the people in charge aren’t just not helping—they’re actively making it worse. This is the reality for Americans right now, and moving forward. This is what we are living with.

This is a bit of an problem, considering I live in the United States, and so does nearly everyone I know and care about. Maybe it’d be different if we all lived in New Zealand. But we don’t.

So: What do we do? I do not mean what we do collectively, as a society. I cannot change who is in charge, not yet anyway. I cannot do anything about the fact that when the task force charged with updating and advising the country’s citizens reconvened for the first time in two months, the country’s citizens were told more often that they should pray (three times) than wear a mask (zero times). (There is nothing wrong with praying. But perhaps we should lead with the masks? What’d the priest in the old joke say? “If he can punch, it’ll help.”) I suppose I could stomp my feet and let everyone know on social media how personally compliant and righteous I am (or at least want you to believe that I am), particularly compared to whomever I’m dunking on at that specific moment, but that’s all performative and useless and would exist mostly just to make myself feel better. (And only temporarily, at that.) As much as I might wish it were so, I do not actually have much power to influence the behavior of wide swaths of human beings in this world, and frankly I wouldn’t be particularly qualified to tell them what to do if I did.

I’m not talking about solving the situation; I can’t do anything about that, and it’s probably too late already. I’m talking about managing it.

Because, as much as I want to keep the micromorts of everyone I know and care about as low as possible, we cannot in fact stay locked in our houses forever. It is not being soulless and/or capitalist to say that the financial ramifications of keeping the economy shut down until there is a vaccine are ruinous in ways that expand beyond just the ravages of this particular virus. (Particularly when, again, there is no help coming from the people who are supposed to be helping.) Kids already fell far behind from the two months of home schooling this spring; keeping schools closed again, for even longer, could be calamitous, particularly for lower-income and minority children. Small businesses are going bust left and right; benefits like PPP and EIDL for most small businesses have already run out, and it’s going to get worse when the weekly $600 benefit for unemployed staff ends at the end of July. People are going to be hurting whether they contract the virus or not. Americans are being forced to choose between their health and safety, and their financial survival … which in many cases is their survival. The safest thing to do in regards to the virus might not necessarily be the safest thing to do for society at large in every individual instance. This is the result of wasting all that time in March and April. The bill is coming due.

What do you do? What can you do? One cannot secede from society. My family is not going to stay away from the entire planet for the next nine months. These kids need to go to school. The societies we love need to survive and not crumble into dust. People need to eat, and work, and live. Our country has mismanaged this so badly, and sent so many contradictory messages, that it is no wonder people are confused and often acting irrationally. They are being forced to make daily decisions of life and death that they are not qualified to make. It is on all of us now.

So you shrug, you pick yourself up off the floor and you do your best. Wear a mask. Keep your distance when possible. Don’t gather. Go down the aisle in the right freaking direction at the grocery store. Be responsible. Get tested when you can. I got an antibody test the other day that came back negative—it was like a lottery ticket, all told—and I’m getting the nasal swab test next week. I’m not sick or showing symptoms or anything like that, but information is important: As everyone slowly increases their comfort level with risk, the least we can do is know where we personally stand.

And maybe we try to give ourselves, and maybe those around us, a little bit of a break. It’s easy, and a little lazy, just to sit back and sniff. Oh, well, that’s not what I would do. Tsk. Tsk. This is not about social capital: It’s about just trying to make it through this. I’m sad to say that we’re all on our own right now, trying to do the best we can. I’m going to get it wrong sometimes, and so are you. None of us are experts.

But if we are going to accept that this is how we live now—and we have no choice in this regard—that means accepting that life is itself an inherent risk. Managing that risk has suddenly become one of the most urgent questions of our time. What level of micromorts is acceptable? What can you tolerate for yourself? Your family? Your neighbors? Your community? This is the battle that stands before us for the foreseeable future. It’s a decision every single one of us must make. How many micromorts is a trip to the grocery store? A haircut? A visit with family or friends? Going to a movie? Opening up your restaurant? That calculus, I suspect, has changed a lot already for everyone over the last three months. (You’re already doing things you wouldn’t have done three months ago, and so am I.) If we’re still here like this for the next nine months, I am certain it’s going to change even more.

It’s unfair and terrifying and absolutely something that could have been avoided. But it wasn’t. So here we are. How much risk can you handle? How much are you willing to ask others to handle? These are fundamental human questions we’ve been able to convince ourselves weren’t all that urgent on a day to day basis, for most of our lives. Now they feel like the only questions that matter. Maybe they always were.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.

  1. We Come Here to Bury the Segway, The New York Times. The Times came to me asking me to write a eulogy for the Segway. I do not know why they asked me to write this eulogy, but I was honored they did and boy did I have a blast writing this piece. The Segway story turns out to be pretty hilarious!

  2. The Only Thing That Can Stop Sports Now, New York. Little mini-essay on sports here: I do not think it is implicitly or inherently terrible or immoral for sports to attempt to come back. I am not sure why, with so much of the rest of the world opening up (for better or likely worse), why sports is supposed to have some sort of unique obligation to stay dark, particularly when it’s an industry that not only employs many, many people, but has so many more safety protocols put in place than, say, meat-packaging plants, or grocery stores, or restaurants, or car dealerships, or banks, or really much of anything. (And unlike many other jobs, if a person decides he or she does not feel comfortable returning to work in 2020, an athlete will not in fact lose their job. Though this is another example of where college sports loses a ton of moral credibility on this, and many other, measures.) Now, sports will have to answer for outbreaks if they happen, as every industry will. But do I think that Adam Silver is somehow a terrible person for trying to make the bubble idea work? I sorry, but I don’t. That said: The New York piece linked here is definitely about the worst-case scenario, and speaks to the rather-awful gamble all sports are taking. It’s just a shitty situation all around.

  3. Better Know a Player: Vince Coleman, MLB.com. Not my favorite player growing up, but probably the one I most viscerally enjoyed watching.

  4. Baseball Year in Review: 2001, MLB.com. The Cardinals came this close to beating that Randy Johnson-Curt Schilling-Luis Gonzalez Diamondbacks team in the NLDS.

  5. What Lessons Will Be Learned From Baseball’s Labor Headache? NBC News. Not many, I bet!

  6. What to Watch Instead: Top Gun: Maverick, Vulture. I’m mostly excited for Glen Powell.

  7. The Thirty: Best Seasons By a Teenager, MLB.com. These children, they have no idea how good they have it, grumble grumble grumble.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, we discussed Babyteeth, Miss Juneteenth and Spring.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week. Taping a show on Tuesday.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“How the Virus Won,” The New York Times. I’m not sure there’s a better way to put it than this. What does this story look like in two months?

Also, I’m not sure how, with schools opening (or not opening) over the next two months, how this NPR story isn’t being read by every person in the country.

Also: Your weekly David Wallace-Wells fix.

PRESENTED WITHOUT COMMENT

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

Send 'em! I’ve said this before, but: I’ve never enjoyed this project more than right now. And I’m not sure it’s ever been more important.

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Punchlines,” Mates of State. I’ll confess a bit of a short attention span for wee indie pop, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Mates of State.

I don’t know if it’s going to work. But man, I’m going to hope and dream.

Be safe, everyone.

Best,
Will