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Day 19: Viruses? Think Motivated Information Units 

My parents interrupted this morning’s mournful cries to say they’ve escaped to a summer cabin in the Ozarks, so I’ve resumed breathing and sleeping. For once I understand how people feel when their own lives pop up on news screens, sensationalized by idiots. For too many hours the media made Missouri sound like the 10th circle of hell.

While I was freaking out about my family, my girlfriend offered some ‘reassuring’ observations that made me realize how poorly viruses are understood. We wound up arguing frenetically about stuff I didn’t comprehend so well myself. Cabin fever fosters hotheaded debate.

When she started hurling my collection of H5N1 books at me, I took refuge on the Web. In addition to some wretched virus jokes, I found out that viruses might be the missing link! Read on….

AN OPERATING SYSTEM IN SEARCH OF WORKInfluenza may be a fancy-sounding name, but it hides a primitive medieval belief that the sickness was caused by the influence of the planets on our bodily fluids. We now know it as a virus first isolated in 1930 (that one was a swine flu) and then in 1933 (the human kind), long after top scientists had spent the Great Pandemic seeking a bacterial cause.

Our understanding of the physical forces of life is still arguably medieval, reminiscent of when any returning Crusader could become a local expert on foreign policy, geography, and cuisine.

Back in those flat-earth days, the word virus connoted a slimy, offensive, or poisonous liquid, taste, or odor. The vagueness of the description fits an entity that is far tinier than bacteria and which no man could see until the electron microscope was invented. Much the way man’s understanding of earth’s geography was limited—then enhanced—by the tools to explore it, technology defines our progress in charting the viral universe. Here’s a glimpse of painstaking progress by Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, a pioneering microbe hunter who later helped devise the killer virus for the movie, Contagion.

Humans harbor an unfortunate tendency to think that what we know is sufficient. People who admit they don’t know what to do about our problems rarely get to pontificate on TV. It’s expensive and unpopular to concede ignorance.

When it comes to viruses, we’re still flying in a thick fog.

For one thing, viruses don’t please us by fulfilling the positive functions that bacteria perform in soil, in air, in our stomachs. Try googling for benevolent virus. You’ll find loads of entries debating the merits of computer bugs. And a handful about research efforts such as a 2008 breakthrough in which scientists in Japan and Pennsylvania managed to improve the sight of some blind people by injecting their eyes with genetically engineered adenoviruses. A second genetically modified virus was used to create metallic wires for a working nanoscale battery that might power solar cells.

The Joy of Herpes

Some viruses may shield us from unwelcome bacteria. Scientists in St. Louis have established that the family of herpes viruses protects mice from bacteria that cause bubonic plague, as well as a type of food poisoning. Might herpes protect people too? The symbiotic virtues of viruses aren’t so easily established. Anyway, most American adults have already caught herpes, which is associated with blindness, deafness, cancer, encephalitis, itching, and acute sensitivity to disclosure.

An interesting possibility that surfaced during the swine flu pandemic is that catching a rhinovirus—a primary agent of the ‘incurable’ common cold—may protect against pandemic influenza. From Philadelphia to France and Sweden, doctors noted delays in flu's onset among populations struck by an aggressive rhinovirus. One virus is fascinating; the interactions of two are downright obscure.

Some scientists contend viruses blew in from outer space. Others say they’re malignant parasites. A bold few claim viruses are the source of all life on this planet. Experts tend to clear their throats before they try to explain—unless their problem is a rhinovirus. (Human metapneumovirus, a different agent of the common cold, diverged from birds a mere 120 years ago.)

As Frank Ryan details so well in Virus X: Tracking the New Killer Plagues, a virus is a tiny molecular entity that flourishes amid the stuff of life—DNA and RNA—without conducting any of the activities we regard as normal. Viruses don’t even have tails. They require other entities to move them (achoo!) so they can keep replicating, which is all they do. (A Pope’s wet dream!)

Amoral Operating System Seeks Hard Drive

Viruses are hardly primitive. They are as Darwinian as an entity can be.

Ryan takes pains to emphasize that what he calls their “genomic executive intelligence” has no moral values. They are amoral, much the way a digital virus doesn’t care whose PC it infects or how it affects us. A virus is an operating system in search of a hard drive.

Most viruses seem to display no dismal effects in their hosts. (Influenza briefly gives young ducks a mild stomach disorder.) Many viruses fall apart quickly without a carrier. Others can float dormant in nature until they sense an appropriate host at hand—a cell in which they can copy themselves. Then they swing into play. Varicella zoster causes chicken pox and can then go dormant for many years until it erupts as shingles.

Given its need for a host, influenza has to be regarded as a pretty ‘smart’ virus: People and birds circulate extremely well on our planet and must be regarded as brilliantly chosen hosts.

Scientists fight over how to classify viruses. They’re constantly trying to neaten up the tree of life as our infant tools for genetic analysis force the reconsideration of links among various plant and animal groups. (They’ve found a close kinship between Tyrannosaurus rex and our humble friend, the chicken.)

Again, the confusion reminds me of a map of earth, where my own continental mass is named after a lesser explorer who arrived late. (What did Amerigo Vespucci find?) Other names that once made sense stopped doing so long ago: Greenland is icy (this year) while Iceland is greener (this year).

Our tree of life hasn’t included trunks or limbs for these molecular clusters of protein-coated DNA or RNA. By our standards, viruses are neither alive nor dead. They don’t replicate through cell division.

Lacking the structures and practices that mankind generally accepts as the basis of life, viruses operate like pirates. They hijack cells, inject their own genetic material, and start generating copies. They don’t leave fossils, so we’ve barely begun to study how they mutate over time.

Thus far, we’ve classified some 4,000 viruses. There are billions on this planet. Pioneering genetic researcher J. Craig Venter mounted an expedition that doubled the number of known genes in earth’s biosphere during a single sea voyage.

Mimivirus: Our Long-Lost Mother?

Until very recently, it was comfortably assumed that viruses were subordinate to—dependent upon—the three official branches of life. These are: organisms whose cells have a nucleus; single-celled bacteria that may or may not possess a nucleus; and a very old line of microbes with no nuclei.

Then a stunning viral specimen turned up inside an amoebic bacterium in an industrial cooling tower in England. The sample wound up in Marseilles, where scientists were thrilled to discover a gigantic virus three times the size of any other. It was larger than some bacteria.

Dubbed mimivirus because it was deemed to mimic bacteria, the discovery turned out to contain more than 1,200 genes that can do all kinds of things scientific classification had reserved for the ‘superior’ life forms. More significantly, mimivirus shares seven genes with all three of life’s primary domains (the ones with and without nuclei).

Some very sharp scientists have come to think that a virus such as mimivirus might have provided the missing link in the formation of life on earth. Forget monkeys—mere tools. We may have descended from viruses that drifted in from outer space, invaded primitive cells, and stirred the infamous primordial soup. Unless even those cells descended from viruses….

Everything I just wrote should be outmoded, discarded—deemed laughably ignorant—in 20 years. Or two. That’s how much we know about viruses.

It’s a lot more than my girlfriend knows. She’s still storming around, kvetching about the weeping woman, and pressing me to vacate her keyboard. Done.


Day 20: An American Dreamer’s Best-Laid Flu Plans

Some country folk ask how we manage to share such confined territory. I should explain that under normal circumstances—Sneeky and I occupying three rooms and a bathroom—my home is relatively spacious for Manhattan. It shrinks dramatically when you factor in the loving roommate and the boxes of provisions and protective gear.

It takes your breath away when there’s no leaving it. We change when we’re locked up.

WE AIN'T BURIED YET! (Antoine Joseph Wiertz)My girlfriend is by nature outgoing, an adventuress who instinctively engages strangers. She loves to find out what makes people tick, what they’re good at, how they can amuse. If all else fails, she launches terrible puns, which at least make people laugh nervously.

On the two occasions we left the city together, she was unforgettably lively company. She tells good stories, gets people to open their doors and minds. She dreams of a life well traveled.

I love to take trips, but I don’t mind staying home, reading, researching, playing games, goofing off together. She likes to read, too—on the road.

Now she has contracted a nasty case of claustrophobia. She tries to deal with it. As do I.

I hope the pandemic takes its inevitable break before it strangles her. I reckon the first wave will end in a month or so. In the meantime, I wish she’d stop being rude to my partner. His visits are unbearably tense. They snap at each other’s comments the way lizards zap flies. All that cringing hurts my neck.

Some city folk ask how someone who knew this pandemic was coming wound up trapped in Manhattan. Great question! I always intended to rent a place upstate, not far from a UPS center and not close to many people. I acquired an old car so Sneeky and I could ride out the plague in rural comfort. Solitude has its charms.

I was confident I could make a good living by saving lives—selling protective gear from a prudent distance. Still, I arranged some remote work in my profession. (It quickly fell through when the pandemic broke out: Projects were frozen, contractors eliminated.)

 I Fell in Love Instead

You’d think someone who was planning to withdraw from his known world would have enough sense to practice isolation in advance. Well, I did. I wooed the Internet.

I founded a site about the music and life of Gene Clark. (Here’s a site that deservedly outlasted mine.) Clark was the coolest member of the original Byrds and he wrote most of the songs that weren’t rented from Dylan. (Watch his great live vocal performance—amid go-go dancers—on the Byrds’ second-ever appearance on TV.)

Clark was taking home the hottest women and the bulk of the publishing money till the other Byrds made him unwelcome. Clark wrote most of the lyrics to Eight Miles High (hear the band’s original, better, unofficial version) before leaving to pursue a solo career that went unthinkably unappreciated. (My site was unseen, too, but I think I’ll add his music to my already legendary Cultural Merchandise Page.)

I also spent hours every day on the flu boards, signed onto friends’ networks, all that. I might as well slap clichés together—I explored social distancing via social networking. Call it ‘Safe Friendship.’ All those buddies would come in handy on the distant rural pandemic nights when Sneeky didn’t feel like talking.

I encountered a woman in Los Angeles, a friend of a friend of someone or other. She posted smart and funny and unpredictable things and seemed bored out there. We were headed in opposite directions, career-wise. Neither seemed to think the other was wrong.

After pursuing art dance for years, she was developing promotional software for a big bank. I was abandoning my professional avocation to commit to my own dream, my own business. (If I survive bird flu, I’ll reenter that profession with enough to live on for a couple of years while I try to do it my way.)

My new correspondent delighted in mocking my obsession with H5N1. Early on, her grandparents coincidentally sent her some of the masks I sell; she accused me of bamboozling the aged and demanded a refund—in person—in LA.

 Banned in Austin

That caught my eye. Which she then pinned to the screen with a stream of peculiar emails, IMs, and photos she hadn’t posted for the public. (They weren’t obscene, just brimming with character.) Her eyes were dark and suggestive in a wise, angelic face that could otherwise adorn a Jane Austin movie. She’d been cursed with smoldering black holes in a mask of enlightened and accomplished femininity.

She was proud of her refocused ambition and she wanted a lot from her new life. She liked that I was fanatical, too.

By the time we started calling one another, interest was keen. Her voice was breathy, suggestive. I remember dreaming that we met by a river. Rushing waters drowned out what we were trying to say, so we swam together. She was light and shadow in liquid motion. I was happy.

Soon we met here. It turned out she’d been planning to leap to a bigger bank in New York. I hosted her while she cased the institution, which had cheated me badly on credit interest after the first crash.

She left my apartment only to eat and to be interviewed by ever-more-prominent players in the organization. Those bankers loved her as much as I did, although they got more sleep. (I was busy adding color to her cheeks.) She won the job, though it took a few extra days to authorize the salary she was demanding. I was awed by her confidence. She was a high-performing virus who’d found a good cell in their operating system. “A good start” is how she put it.

We celebrated their surrender till after dawn. (Hung)over brunch, it became obvious that I should invite her to live in my apartment while I prepared to head upstate to ride out the plague she didn’t believe in. The longer H5N1 took to cross over from the chickens and pigs, the more I’d visit her here.

She hinted at fleeing with me if H5N1 did break out. But she isn’t the type to run. (She admires Ayn Rand, too.) I turned out not to be the type to run off on her. Here I am.

Heck, let’s call her Nina—short for Ninotchka. She’d like that. She turned me on to the old Greta Garbo comedy when she moved in.

Our isolation began like a low-budget romantic adventure flick. This is the first time I’ve lived with a lover. It’s been exciting.


Day 21: Life in the Cardboard Mountains

When H5N1 actually sprang, I think I was a little dazed. How could I leave Nina? I stayed put, started the blog weeks ago. That’s where you all came in.

Nina’s bank planned for a lot of employees to telecommute during the emergency. Until the dust settles, she’ll work on state-of-the-art marketing ploys from my walkup in a recovered crack house. It’s not as if they’re going to launch this year.

A month of enforced intimacy has been tough. I suspect we’re each accustomed to prompting others to leave us alone when we don’t feel like communicating. That’s not possible in three cramped rooms occupied by that many strong-willed creatures.

INSIDE LOOKING OUTA more recent complication is that Nina hates it when I go out. I don’t understand why it makes her so nervous. (She’s not overjoyed when I’m home, either.) She denies that she minds my occasional forays into the real world, but coming home is getting strange.

We take turns working in my living room under looming stacks of protective gear. Nina uses her iMac during working hours; it’s ‘mine’ all night. I cook in the kitchen under piles of household supplies. (She’s accustomed to eating out or ordering in.) Joined by the cat for family hour, we dine in the bedroom under a mountain of boxes she brought from LA. I’ve run out of exciting recipes. Alcohol is no longer much consolation. It’s merely necessary.

I meet the shipping people in the hallway and reenter to scrub off as she taps away on her iMac.

We have principled differences, of course. Nina loathes Sneeky’s array of empty cardboard boxes, calls it Kitty Waco in honor of the Branch Davidian compound that the Feds attacked in Texas. She doesn’t get Gene Clark at all, says there’s no beats. At 19, Clark and the Byrds brought Dylan to the masses—and all she cares about is beats?

Nina finds my breakfast of granola, rice milk (keeps till you open it, no nasty hormones), and dried fruit (tasty, nutritious, and easily stored) unthinkable. Perhaps because she’s got some Russian blood, she favors a diet I call Cream of Bacon, tough to fulfill these days. Does she slip out to forage for bootleg fried chicken while I sleep?

H5N1 has hideously weakened her impact on the bank. My city can’t entertain. Her friends are in California and Europe. She’s working through our wine supply faster than I had anticipated.

He Who Detected it….

Nina had barely heard of bird flu before I mentioned it in an email, had it mixed up with SARS, probably chicken pox, too. I remember her asking if I was a “movie-of-the-week freak.” She loathes hypochondriacs—maybe people who are genuinely sick, too.

I fear I am The Father of H5N1 in her eyes: He who detected it infected it. Subconsciously, she blames me for the whole crisis.

She’s lost interest in chess. She sets romantic comedies up for me to view in bed. I watch actors fall in and out of love and wonder what she meant to suggest as she snores through happy endings. Eyes ablaze with borrowed pixels, Sneeky stares at us from the windowsill. Our neighbor’s dog cries out to distant shut-in pals. Pets on my block want to know what’s gone wrong.

Living with a person is challenging. Having to stay with them 24/7 is deadening, especially when it feels as if they don’t like you.

This disease will turn us into cellmates. I hate it, too, Nina.


Day 22: Coffee and a Smile Cure Me

I couldn’t sleep all morning, certain Nina was reading my sad account of love in the time of H5N1. I cascaded through clicks as she worked, or interfaced, or IM’d her pals. I expected to wake up to a harangue, a torrent of accusations. Or worse, alone.

She greeted me in a good mood, bearing a big mug of my favorite health drink, coffee (which fights liver disease, among its many benefits). I’ve learned to appreciate a happy Nina without asking questions.

COLD, LIQUID ENERGY THAT'S GOOD FOR YOUWe even went for a walk. I’ve been thinking she may be depressed for want of sunlight.

We enjoyed our escape, although the East Village looks shabby and lots of places are closed. I ran into a friend who talked so fast we couldn’t wait to get away. It was almost a relief to discover that everyone else has gone nuts, too. Nina smiled a lot. Gleaming dark eyes lit up her goggles. She took my hand. We couldn’t wait to get home but we took our time anyway.

We bared our teeth and lips, kissed all over the East Village. I’d completely forgotten the thrills of public microbialism.

I shouldn’t have posted all those things about her yesterday. We barely knew one another when we got into this. When the First Wave subsides, I hope she and I recover our souls during the hiatus. We can learn to explore better, trust more, take more pleasure surviving Wave Two.

It really was an excellent day here!


Day 23: Apocalypse? You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

Prolonged rain has turned my abode into a dank sarcophagus. It reeks of still, dead air. There’s no point in sneaking out, nothing to gaze upon below. There’s little news. We’ve stopped talking, meowing, grunting, snoring, playing music. Even the sad woman has lost her voice. Silence reigns. And rankles.

A propitious time to consider Doom!

IS THIS THE NEXT PHOTO YOU'LL SEE OF ME?Odds are that, whatever you believe, you personally feel that the problems we face today are far worse than usual and that some kind of ruinous reckoning impends. You could be religious, secular, Green, Lavender—or Red, White & Blue. Your toilet paper may derive from recycled newsprint, or your SUV might sport a sticker that says Out of Work and Hungry? Eat an Environmentalist!

You may be a born-again Christian anticipating the Rapture, a New Age devotee of the Mayan calendar, an expansionist Israeli Jew, a Muslim awaiting the Mahdi, or a hardcore materialist watching icecaps melt.

You think the end of the world is coming. Soon.

A lot of people have pitched cataclysms over the years. In 1831 an Upstate New York preacher named William Miller started heralding the Second Coming. People sold their businesses and homes to await Christ in accordance with Miller’s Biblical arithmetic. When 1843 failed to yield the Apocalypse he’d predicted, Miller announced that his count was off by a year. October 22, 1844 brought ‘The Great Disappointment.’ As many as 100,000 spent the evening on hillsides awaiting the Light. Miller spent years explaining he’d fixed on that date because his followers had done so; it seemed a sign from God.

The Bahá'í think the Savior did turn up that day, but in Persia.

More recently, Sun Myung Moon predicted that the Kingdom of Heaven would begin its reign in 1981. Moon was an honored guest at President Reagan’s inauguration that January. Things must have seemed awfully promising for the self-styled ‘Savior’ till the Justice Department threw him in prison for tax fraud. Ronald Wilson Reagan had three sixes to his name….

None of the forecasts have come true. So why leave Apocalypse to the professionals? Ordinary folks wish to play an active, democratic role in the process of terminating our pathetic existence.

So it is that missionaries trawl New York’s subways in search of Jews to convert to Christianity because The Book Of Revelation says 12,000 Jews from each of the 12 tribes (good luck, most of those tribes haven’t been seen for millennia) must accept Christ in order to facilitate the Apocalypse. Some Israelis want to blow up the mosque complex that lies atop the wrecked Temple of Solomon so they can rebuild the latter.

The End: Our Only Friend?

Christian American farmers are trying to breed perfect red heifers whose ashes are needed to purify the Jews who would pray in that new temple. Why such ecumenical charity? These dispensationalists think it will bring on the Antichrist.

I know that sounds counterproductive, but it’s supposed to force Jesus to return in the Second Coming. Perhaps annoyed that His followers are so pushy, He is expected to liquidate any Jews who don’t convert. (At least Christians and Jews agree on the first, uh, constructive part.)

Not to be left out, Muslims concur that Christ will reappear, but as an Islamic prophet betokening the Final Judgment. So if Christ does return, either a billion Muslims or a billion Christians will be disappointed in His religious disposition.

It’s easy enough for secular folks, if any still exist, to laugh at all of this. But Karl Marx was an outspoken atheist, and his most positive predictions reek of prophecy and Apocalypse. (After certain tribulations, eternal justice for workers!)

Today’s atheists, agnostics, humanists, and whatchamacallits preach that The End Is Near, too. Secular Apocalyptics assert that their own exciting views of catastrophe are rooted in science and measurable observation. (“But Glacier National Park used to feature glaciers!”)

My favorite path to secular meltdown is as big as anything the Evangelicals embrace. Referring to a quantum physics principle that says particles function differently when we measure them, two Midwestern professors suggested that by noting the existence of dark matter in 1998, mankind may have drastically reduced the odds that the universe will ever stabilize from the Big Bang. (Yeah, it’s complicated.) Since aliens somewhere are gauging matter, too, I’m thinking this particular End won’t really be our fault.

Human society can’t have known many times in which everyone—from religious fanatics to logical materialists—agreed about doom. Bird flu freaks don’t even rate. We regard H5N1 as a passing phenomenon, horrific but endurable (if you’re lucky).

The Book of Revelation does mention four horsemen of the Apocalypse, and one of them is often said to be Pestilence. But only Death is named in the text. The identity of the other riders is, um, guesswork, divination.

So what can it mean for a society—for the world—when everyone but Buddhists and the occasional atheistic Republican who disbelieves in global warming agrees that the game is over?

More on this next time … if there is a next time.

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