Sunday was wet, dreary, and short. Nevertheless, I went out for a walk, which is my main form of exercise. (I walk four miles a day).
Sunday's weather had that combination of elements that makes the vapors of the spirit (what the ancient Greeks called pneuma—the soul) more visible than on other days. When I passed what some describe as one of Seattle's "Art Deco jewels," Seattle Fire Station No. 13, the ownership of which was recently transferred from the city to Africatown, a jogger blasted past me. He was not wearing a mask. And I clearly saw the long slipstream of his heavy breathing. Someone even walked into it unknowingly. It hung in the air for a horrifyingly long period of the time. At that moment, at that spot on Beacon Hill, I recalled the music of Howlin' Wolf's "smokestack." The "whoo hoo" of the locomotive. The coal-burning chugging. The devilish discharge of smoke.
At this late point of the pandemic, the emerging understanding is that the real star of the virus are the droplets of the spirit. The consensus in the medical community has been departing a viral model of sanitation that in the West owed much of its power to the sermons of a Methodist preacher ("Cleanliness is next to godliness") and gravitating toward one that, as The New York Times recently put it, centers on "activities that spray respiratory droplets — talking, breathing, yelling, coughing, singing and sneezing." You will not see the soul of a mask-less man or woman jogging in public during a clear summer day. But during the colder seasons, warm exhalations are vaporized by low temperatures into a human fog. The invisible becomes visible. The eyes behold the truth.
But, still, are my eyes deceiving me? The moon looks bigger than sun. The stars seem eternally fixed, but as the great Irish poet, James Joyce, put it, they are "evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures." And yet our sense organs, such as the ones that are informed by light, do not always make mistakes. So, I asked the Seattle and King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeffrey Duchin if jogging, with its heavy breathing, increased the risk of transmission. Here is what he wrote:
The risk for spread of COVID-19 outdoors is generally low, but not zero. Virus that is exhaled is rapidly diluted in the large volume of outside air and swept away by wind, but can linger in areas protected from wind and natural ventilation. Mask use is recommended if a jogger will be jogging within or stopping within 6 feet of other people, but is probably not necessary for jogging alone away from others. I see no reason why condensation would change the guidance around mask use or increase risk outdoors. I'm not an aerosol scientist but I wonder whether the condensation we see with exhaled breath on colder winter days may even reduce the time COVID-19 containing droplets remain airborne since when exhaled droplets condense into larger, heavier droplets they leave the air sooner than smaller droplets found in drier conditions that can remain airborne longer. Either way, if you're outdoors and will be within 6 feet of others, mask use is recommended, especially if in an area protected from natural ventilation.
This is an expert speaking, and part of what we learn from him is that experts are still in the learning process. Recall that masks were not encouraged or were discouraged when we started this seemingly unending misadventure. Public health policies concerning the virus and its patterns have improved considerably but remain at the experimental stage. If droplets from the lungs constitute the main mode of infection, it seems that any activity, be it indoors or out, that explodes an above average number of these droplets into its surroundings must be the cause of concern.
After the jogger passed me on that Beacon Hill corner (which is next to the old fire station), another mask-less jogger appeared, jogged on the spot as he waited for a red light (plumes, plumes, plumes of exhaled exercise excitement). A little down the road, a whole unmasked family (father, wife, baby) emerged from a new a duplex and jogged down the sidewalk, with the father pushing a pram.
This can't be right. It can't be helping. We need to wear masks outside and inside until we have all or at least most of the facts down.
Also, jogging has obviously become the religion of the self. The pandemic exposed that fact. It does what capitalism could only dream of: the spiritualization of individualism. You test yourself. You are yourself. You defeat your limits. Yes. Yes. Yes. But we are still trying to figure out this novel virus. It has, as far as we know, never existed in the world before. Its details are to this day still not well understood. Yet most joggers will have none of it. They must do this thing. They must run as if their life depended on it.
And it is here we see what jogging has always been, and why so many people in Seattle, a town with lots of educated people, can just ignore the state of the crisis and its numerous uncertainties and devote themselves so entirely to what they think can never be bad under any circumstance: jogging is a church on legs. Or, put another way, jogging is a religion, whereas regular walking is like purchasing cheap life insurance.
I will close this post with a paragraph from an essay, "The work/energy crisis and the apocalypse," by an American Marxist, George Caffentnzis. It was written in 1980 and makes the argument that the then increasing popularity of jogging was a response to the dissolution of the post-war Atomic Family and the rise of the service economy.
Take jogging for instance. Men now know that the wife, or even mommy, will not necessarily be around after the open heart surgery, and that the cost of a private nurse would be prohibitive, especially given that the very requirements of a steady job over a few decades (which would make the private nurse possible) call for a care and feeding that only the now nonexistent family can provide. So you jog, you “take care of yourself.” The same is true of women, as there is no insurance, no steady man’s job with fringes, no regular wage coming. Part time jobs just don’t provide. So you jog. Even the kids jog from the start since they’ve learned the facts of life early. At the end of the
day, you invest your hour around the park, reproducing yourself since no one else will do it for you for free any more.