Bucket of Eels: Heteroconger hassi
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|Rose Eveleth||Apr 29, 2020|| 5|
Welcome to today’s bucket of eels. I’m Rose. Let’s pull out some eels, shall we?
Today’s eel: every edition of this newsletter is named after an eel. Today’s is the spotted garden eel (Heteroconger hassi). To pick today’s eel after searching google for “cowardly eel” since the essay down below is about me, being a coward. The first thing that comes up is something called “Instant Eels” from an episode of cartoon Courage the Cowardly dog called “The Magic Tree of Nowhere.” There is a Fandom for Courage the Cowardly dog, and I would just like to quote from this fandom because it features some Old Man and the Sea level writing. Here is how they describe the eels in question:
They are giant eels with a really long body, which is covered by dark green scales. They have also big jaws with sharp teeth, and barbs under the mouth. On the spine, they have the typical dorsal fin of eels which runs the entire upper part of the body from the neck to the tail. Being serpentine-like, they have no hind legs but only two thin arms near the head. Their eyes are mighty and menacing.
Instant Eels — which get their name, apparently, beacuse they come out of a bag labeled “Instant Eel” which Courage (the show’s titular dog) pours into a moat he has dug to protect the Magic Tree Of Nowhere from his owner, Eustace — and not real. So in the spirit of finding a true eel for this newsletter, I clicked in the second result, which is the Marine Depot blog, and includes this line about garden eels: “They are cowardly creatures that retract into their burrow when anything comes too close.” Excellent.
The spotted garden eel is relatively small, spotted, and cowardly. They are nice in aquaria, but they do like to live in groups so you should get more than one. I’ve seen another species of garden eels in person, actually, off the coast of Bonaire. They’re adorable (and always look grumpy), and they do indeed retreat into their little holes as you approach, but if you float for a while above their little area, they’ll poke their heads out again. Unlike the Instant Eel, they do not sing. At least not in a range we can hear.
Also, apparently you can catch a spotted garden eel in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, which I do not have but now want.
Last year I was talking to a person who has made a name for himself creating distinctly dystopian future worlds. “How are you feeling?” I asked. “Is anything making you hopeful these days?” He laughed, and confessed that in fact, he was feeling downright chipper. Years ago, when he started, very few people were talking about the things he found most distressing: privacy violations, rampant harassment, soul crushing economic structures, climate change. But now, everybody was talking about these things over dinner, at parties, and online. He admitted it was a bit perverse, but he had turned the corner. While the rest of the world wallowed in despair, he felt hope, because of that wallowing.
I relate to this perhaps more than I’d like to. Two years ago, I did an episode of my future-facing podcast about pandemics. I’ve done episodes about the potential rise of masks as a new fashion item and about futures in which it might be literally unsafe to travel to certain states or regions, because the people there have embraced misinformation and eschewed science. And now here we are. It’s not that I feel vindicated or pleased that this is the future we’ve stumbled into. But rather, I’m unsure what I should be doing now. My job is to try and help people prepare for the future. What do I do when that future arrives? What value do I add here, as a futurologist of sorts, when it’s nearly impossible to think beyond the next few days or even hours. I admit that I don’t know.
Try to imagine, for a moment, how demoralizing it is as a writer to be unable to come up with topics for a column whose theme is simply “ideas.” It’s not that I don’t have any — I have a whole list of things I’d like to write about. But none of them seem important right now. None of them really matter. None of you would read them if I published them, and I couldn’t blame you. People say they want distractions from the crushing wave of covid content, and I think that they do in the same way that I would like to learn Japanese or do a handstand or dance on roller skates. In practice, well, when was the last time you had the attention span to read a long piece about something else?
Science journalists spend most of our lives shouting at people that they should pay attention to science. And now, here we are. The dominant story is a science one. Finally, the whole world wants to read science content, albeit on one very specific topic. And I can’t bring myself to create any.
Instead of putting on my big girl reporter pants and trying to find coronavirus stories for you, I have made a long list of excuses instead. Allow me to lay them out for you.
1. I genuinely believe that there is too much coronavirus content out there already. Over two months ago now, I saw an editor brag that they had already published 2800 pieces of covid-19 related content. I am a reporter but I am also a totally freaked out news consuming human just like you. I too am playing the game “panic attack or coronavirus” and googling things like “coronavirus survive on flowers?” And when I have that hat on, I’m not sure I need more takes, or frankly irresponsible coverage of preprints, or wild guesses by sleep deprived doctors, or dangerous future precautions (please stop talking about immunity passports), or essays about what a video game set on an island full of animals says about our “current situation.”
Sure, I could add to the pile of testimonials about how life has changed in this industry or that. I could talk to my tattoo artist, about how this might impact such an intimate art form that inherently involves close contact and bodily fluids. I could write about my pottery studio, and the ways they’re trying to figure out how to keep their largely at-risk members safe (6 feet between all the wheels? reservations to use the studio to keep the numbers down?). But whose lives haven’t changed? What industry hasn’t been effected? Is mapping the contours of each change worth doing right now?
2. The experts who are in fact qualified to speak on this pandemic are, in fact, relatively limited and quite busy at the moment dealing with an outbreak that stands to kill millions of people. On top of that, they’re drowning in calls from reporters they already know and trust. Doctors and front line workers are trying to save lives and when they’re not shouldn’t they sleep rather than answer my questions that don’t matter nearly as much as their mental health?
3. Freelance budgets have been slashed across the board, so even if I did manage to find a unique angle and a kind and generous source, the chances that I could sell the piece are far lower than they would be otherwise.
4. The ideas I do have that are related to the pandemic have been covered well already anyway. Charlie Warzel at the NYT articulated the feelings of limbo I’m in. Kendra Pierre-Louis is covering how coronavirus might impact future climate change fueled disasters like fires in California. Brian Merchant is, as always, keeping and eye on Amazon. Maggie Koerth has written about why modeling is so alluring and also problematic and Ed Yong has expertly laid out how we got here and what happens next.
5. Doing something just because you feel like you should do something doesn’t lead to good work.
But really, if I’m fully honest, I just have no desire to report on covid-19 at all. I know this is embarrassing and wrong. On a recent Longform interview, Ed Yong (who came out of book leave to cover the pandemic!) spoke of a sense of duty to the profession and the public. “I have a job that is very relevant and feels very important right now. So like my duty in the middle of all this feels incredibly clear,” he said. Later in the interview he adds: “This is what I think journalists are trained for. If not this, then what?”
Ed is not trying to scold me (or anybody else). He’s talking about himself, a person who has covered this beat deeply in the past, who has trusted sources and unique insights here. But it’s also hard not to feel, as a fellow science journalist, that I should also take up that duty somehow. And yet, here I am, instead of chasing leads and calling up sources and trying to wiggle my way into some unoccupied sliver of space on this story, I’m writing a longwinded newsletter trying to justify why I should do anything else.
Maybe in a few months I’ll finally work up the courage and drive to work on covid stories. Maybe not. For now, I think there are stories I can cover that we shouldn’t lose sight of amidst this panic. There are other futures, non-coronavirus futures we should still be thinking about. Coronavirus is, as several scientists have put it, just the briefest of tastes of what climate change can do to humanity. The inequality that has made coronavirus so deadly to black and brown communities will persist when the virus is gone. The surveillance we’re no longer stumbling into, but instead running at headlong to try and quell our fears will stick around and have huge impacts. The policy changes that come out of this will reshape the world, and it’s not too soon to start talking about them.
I make a podcast about the future. I still believe, even now, when the present feels so incredibly dire, that looking out into tomorrow is really important. That equipping people with the tools to imagine and push for futures they want to see matters. That if more people had just a little more foresight, we might not be in quite as bad a place right now. Training people to flex their imagination muscles can feel trivial at any time, but especially now. But I think it matters. And I’m going to keep doing that.
I filed the Flash Forward BOOK! Edits are back with me, and I’m working through them now.
In case you want a different (more regular) newsletter from me I also write this silly newsletter about fake podcast ideas.
I have made a handful of appearances on podcasts since we last corresponded. Here’s a list:
That’s all. Thanks for reading. Happy eel wrangling.
(Top image via zsispeo / Flickr.)