Magazine April 6, 2020, Issue

Bagel Before You Go?

A Safeway baker puts out fresh bagels at the store in Wheaton, Md., February 13, 2015. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

One of the problems inherent in writing for a fortnightly journal is the likelihood that events will make your points moot or your japery seem unwise. You think you’re being clever writing, “I’d go nuts if I had to stay home for two weeks in quarantine — why, it would be Wuhan Flu Over the Cuckoo’s Nest!” And then when the magazine comes out, CNN is reporting that exhausted public-health officials are pitchforking cadavers into hastily dug pits and setting the heap on fire. 

Hope it hasn’t come to that when you get this. But if it has, it’s interesting that no one’s talking about the carbon impact of those fires, right? Odd how some issues just got whisked off the table when the worldwide fungoo started swinging the reaper’s scythe. In my folder of “stupid Web things to write about, maybe,” there were two pieces that seemed amusing to contemporary eyes. One was a pro-mass-transit piece titled “It’s Time to Fall in Love with Crowded, Stuffy Subways.” That’s great, until you imagine the trains as sealed tubes of aerosolized death-spores. 

The other was from some miserable wretch from the human-extinction movement calmly explaining that he wanted humanity to vanish so Nature could thrive again. His phone probably isn’t ringing often with interview requests these days. You can talk about Trump’s poll numbers, but they’re probably better than Nature’s. 

There are lessons here we ought to hope take root. The first is the cruel, amoral, unthinking indifference of nature. As I write this a cold wind has come up outside, and it seems almost vindictive. But that’s the imposition of human ideas on this automatic massive system we call “nature”; it has no foes, no favorites.

Put it this way: Nature could not care less that you designed the label for Trader Joe’s “Everything but the Bagel” seasoning.

I do, though. We all should care. It’s remarkable that this planet produced a species capable of almost infinite variations on their creative impulses. The fact that we create bagels is almost a miracle, as far as we know; anyone else out there? Any evidence another species even got so far as inventing toast, let alone a bialy? 

Maybe there’s life on other worlds; I like to think so. But if it’s just us, and we not only figured out a way to speak and clothe ourselves and sing and travel, but we also invented the bagel, and so many other things, and got our civilization to the point where someone could be tasked with the job of designing a label for a spice mélange that contained all the flavorings of the Everything Bagel, and this was mass-produced and sold nationwide, and we came to accept as utterly normal the idea that we would have Everything Bagel flavorings on demand, and no one else in the universe did that despite the constant work of nature to kill them — well. For that we deserve a gold star. 

The second lesson is that no one, in a pinch, wants the all-natural cleaning ingredients. At the store all the stuff with bleach is gone. The products that promise the slaughter power of chlorine are gone. The all-natural stuff that promises to use lavender oils to disinfect your countertops and hands? No one wants it. That was all a pose. The extra-special-virtue keister-cleaner from recycled paper was the last to sell out. Push comes to grunt, people will buy toilet paper made from old-growth redwoods.

The third lesson: Maaaaybe it was a bad idea to let China make everything? Just a thought. 

The fourth lesson: Maaaaybe the CDC could have put on a better show in the early stages of the outbreak? We’ve all seen movies about pandemics. Someone smart and attractive gets a phone call, and they promptly type something into a computer while looking concerned. Next scene, helicopters are airborne. Next scene, our hero scientist is showing a PowerPoint to some people, and then everyone leaves the room to order more helicopters and get the National Guard to seal off a small town. 

You wonder if the people in the CDC saw those movies and thought, We got that stuff? We have that power? Cool! No worries, mon.

Then the bleep impacts the fan, as they say, and the shelves are stripped of hand sanitizer in 48 hours. The executive director of the Extremity Purification Division thinks, Well, we’ll just release a million gallons from the Strategic Purell Reserve. We have that, right?

It’s not malice or incompetence, just the usual inertia of bureaucracies. They may be convened to help us, but different agendas evolve. If a bureaucracy is created to help turtles get to their spawning grounds, the first wave of idealistic government servants will design road signs warning people that this is a turtle crossing. The layer above them will spend a year on the sign’s shape and typefaces. Another agency will hold up the signs to see whether they conform to federal regulations on legibility and reflectivity. Environmental-impact statements will be generated on the installation of the signs; someone will question the impact of the installation on the habitat of a tiny worm that lives in the soil. 

Meanwhile, untold numbers of turtles that just want to cross the road and unburden themselves are squashed under semi-truck wheels. This is unfortunate. But eventually the sign goes up and everyone involved has an office party with a mug that has the sign logo. And the mug has a typo. 

We may have invented the bagel, but we’re not perfect.

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