Number Games

What’s in a number? That’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves a lot lately as we try to make sense of the barrage of numbers that have come to define life in London (and much of the rest of the world too). Some are trivial: we’re supposed to stay 2 meters apart–but why not 6 feet? The English have somewhat endearingly held on to English measurements, especially for distances–yet the public health admonitions always use meters. How many people have corona? How many will never show symptoms? How many have died? How many are going to die? How many people have lost their jobs? How many days until we get to go home?

Obsessing with numbers as we do is a product of our faith in an idea of Progress forged in the crucible of the Enlightenment and annealed in the belief that if we can measure something we can ultimately control it. The numbers in the headlines now are only so much noise, producing a mental static we strain, mostly in vain, to hear a signal through. Someday, numbers will help us make sense of this pandemic, and perhaps even help us be proactive in advance of the next one (when, not if).

If our response to the clear signals we have been getting from the planet for several decades is any guide, I don’t have much confidence in our capacity for proactivity. Some numbers with clear meaning: 416 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere (last experienced more than 2.5 million years ago, when trees grew in Antarctica); the ocean is 28% more acidic than it was 250 years ago, and happening so quickly that the only comparable change led to the Permian Extinction; for the first time on record Antarctica experienced a heat wave, when minimum temperatures stayed above 0 for three days. That’s 0 Celsius.

Speaking of warm temperatures, spring arrived all of a sudden in London this weekend, with brilliant sunshine and a high of 72 yesterday (for the record, 15 degrees above “normal”). We made the most of it, playing catch in the park (it has been strange for the calendar to flip to April without baseball), going for runs, whacking soccer balls with cricket bats, and lying in the backyard hammock. Enjoying the parks could be ending soon, as the government is threatening to close them in response to people sunbathing (which I’ve never categorized as exercise) in large numbers. Neighbors are busy with long-put off home repair and improvement projects, and voices fill the air across the backyards. It feels almost . . . “normal.”

The lettuce starts I planted two weeks ago are almost ready to begin harvesting leaves from, and radishes are growing fast. The lettuce I started from seed have all germinated, but won’t likely be producing before we depart. So I’m transplanting them into vessels for giving away at some point. Garden shops have been deemed non-essential, and so millions of seedlings are being thrown out. The glorious weather the past few days stood in sharp contrast to the weather the last weekend of March and the first few days of last week. We even received some sleet one day. We made the most of a more confined reality by playing Avengers Monopoly and making gummy creatures from a mold and ingredients left by a previous London sabbatical tenant.

Other numbers of marking change: in the blue skies above the traffic bound for Heathrow has declined from a plane every 90 seconds a few weeks ago to one every 15 minutes. London City Airport closed last week, and Gatwick has closed a terminal. Beneath us you can still hear the rumbling of Northern Line trains carrying essential workers to and from work–if photos in the media are any indication it is possible to maintain the social distancing recommendation of 2 meters even at rush hour on most underground trains.

For fun I composed three poems on Saturday. They are in the genre of found poems, and all text is derived from posters and billboards in the neighborhood.

Maximum Distance

Please ensure
that you maintain
social distancing
guidelines at
all times,

Remaining a
of two        meters

from                                            others.


Stay home.
Save lives.
Do not
enter this station
travel unless
you are a critical worker.

If you are
an absolutely essential journey,
please avoid
0545 to 0730 and 1600 to 1700
if you can.

Thank You

Thank you to our
croc wearin’
patient carin’
stethoscope slingin’
bin collectin’
letter postin’
prescription fillin’
shelf stackin’
lorry drivin’
loo roll deliverin’

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