As a one-time supervisor—whom I once lampooned in a skit I wrote and enacted—would have said, “I am not a fan”. He will have been speaking of a once marginal psychoanalyst named Masud Khan, who in my pseudonym-filled skit became Mesut Ozil, who is a German soccer player, which is an example of…nevermind. Displacement. I think. Anyway, my client was speaking of John Gray, or alluding to John Gray, at least (of whom I am not a fan), by quoting his famous phrase, don’t sweat the small stuff, because she was sweating the small stuff. Meaning, she was distressed over that which seemed inexplicable and trivial, and whose meaning was obscure, and possibly superficial, but not necessarily so. Deciding it was superficial was part of the “don’t sweat it” mandate, which rather forecloses the “think about why you are sweating it” ethos that I tend to encourage. This seems like a waste of time to those to like to imply that they never have a lot of time, as if anyone does, and that I am wasting their time by suggesting they take time to understand why they sweat over that which doesn’t merit sweating. This sometimes results in the kind of exchange that challenges the premise of what is “small”. Does small mean inadequate, unworthy, or insignificant? Or is small that which is subtle, semi-invisible, but nonetheless impactful, even deadly? This latter rhetoric sets up my climactic provocation: are we not in the midst of an H.G. Wells-like scenario, suffering at the hands of that which we had once othered (we thought it was foreign); that we thought insignificant, un-impactful, not close to home. Indeed, are we not suffering more than we ever imagined we would at the hands of that which is microscopically…small?
Which leads me to discuss Cyril the gnat. Cyril has friends, many of whom hover—and I mean hover—about my kitchen, drawn to the compostable cairns that sit within thin cardboard, take-out containers and such. This is the ephemera of our Covid life: the boxes, the cans, the debris; the unrinsed, sugary resins. A few of the gnats venture beyond the kitchen’s entry, towards a dining table that teases with extra plates, plus crumbs that scatter about electronica, or else live camouflaged upon the surface of a beige carpet. When either my wife or I vacuum (Okay, it’s more often her than I), one can hear the crackle of hardened food being swept up, carried along a film of hair that we’ve shed from our bodies. Human beings shouldn’t live like this, but we do, at a distance from the minute dirt, dust and insect-inviting debris, thinking it good enough. It’s not good enough. Time for a deep clean. Meanwhile, the gnats, Cyril and company, are in from the heat. Most of them stay close to the edibles, and it’s Cyril who’s in my face, or else within arm’s reach, baiting me to show my quickness, reach out and slap the air and squash him in a sweaty palm. Cyril is trying my patience, pushing his luck. A risk-taker, he is not socially distancing. He is disrespecting me, tickling my skin with his feathery fly-bys, not giving me space. What is he thinking? And what am I thinking, thinking that he thinks. So, what has the instinct that presses him directed? That he take over? This interloper, this looter and complainer: he is mocking me with his butterfly flutter, his floating in from the dark, followed by his quick dashes away.
It’s a week later now. Most of Cyril’s friends are gone, observing that the food supply has reduced, so they have moved on in acceptance of their transient, itinerant lives. We’ve righted our ship, my wife and I, having cleared away most of the salty chips and other sweet pieces, or else drowned some of the beta gnats in a vat of apple sauce and vinegar. Only Cyril remains, wondering if we’ve really gathered our wits, turned a corner and flattened our curve. There’s a slip backwards afoot, Cyril thinks, still hovering about the light fixture by the television, and dodging the death ghetto that is our kitchen. Can we sustain our better habits, keep up our defenses, recapture our privileged hegemony? Cyril seems more determined than his peers. He’s sticking around, not content to haunt with territorial norms. Somewhere around a nook in our living room he has found a nest. A school of offspring is pocketed within the wood of a coffee table, I think. Cyril has planned for the future, has staked a claim at the frontier of his existence, within the bosom of a home he feels ready to seize. He has been inspired by recent events, after all. A world-wide revolution has occurred and small lives—lives so small they don’t even seem like lives—suddenly matter. They kill. Big lives, my life, are now the roommates, forced to share space with the lesser fortunate. Justice. Cyril the gnat and his progeny are here to stay, and I am sweating. Cyril himself might not see out the win. Not in his lifetime, maybe. No matter, as far as his individual life is concerned. He is down, and he may be downed, for his cause. He won’t even prepare, I think, being accustomed to the sudden, brutal demises of his kind. I will get him, if only him. Yet Cyril is lucky: he lives phylogenesis, lets his reflex govern the present, driving him on behalf of his species, yet there will be no past or present as I think of it; no dignity or lack of it in the face of death, and therefore no composing himself for an audience with God.