You may find yourself descending into a broken deck of clouds when unannounced traffic appears at 12 o’clock, climbing up into your descent path. Your captain is talking about scuba diving with someone in the jump seat, so you push the aircraft nose down and to the right and avoid a deadly collision. Babe, if that’s you, good work. Your cockpit is not sterile, but your situational awareness and instinctive adaptability, as well as your courageous bucking of the chain of command, has saved everyone on the plane.
You may find yourself in a Best Buy wearing a KN95 that looks like a cloth beak and smells like chemicals. You may find yourself thus whilst standing in a winding maze made of stacked boxes of air fryers, the walls of which are not tall enough to hide the fact that 95% of the shoppers in the store are not wearing masks. This is in a town where a beloved and fully vaccinated high school principal just died from complications from Covid in the same month that, it was reported, he attended a homecoming dance that was violated numerous Department of Health and Department of Education Covid protocols. Over 60 people were found to be Covid-positive after that event.
You may be walking up the stairs of your workplace with a falafel and you may unthinkingly take off your required face mask because you also took off your hat. Then in a panic, or at least a desire to follow some rules, you stuff your hat over your mouth and nose and pop the mask on the end of a falafel so your sandwich appears to have a nosecone. You may then pause, switch the hat for the mask, and proceed.
What is that thing over there? Who is making that sound? What’s going to happen next? It is important to perceive the data coming at you. The three keys are: perceive, comprehend, anticipate. Tiredness kills, information-heavy visual displays can confuse, and new technologies that remove you from your task can reduce your awareness. You need to focus. Then you need to adapt.
For example, if it is 1538, and you are eating at the pope’s table, you will be present while “the carver holds the meat skewered and swipes slices from it in mid-air; it lends an air of crisis to the mildest repast.*” The meat in question is a capon.
What is a capon?
“A capon is a male chicken that is gelded, or castrated, at a young age, and then fed a rich diet of milk or porridge. Larger than a chicken, a bit smaller than a turkey, but more flavorful than either, capons are full breasted with tender, juicy, flavorful meat that is well suited to roasting. They tend to be less gamey than an intact rooster would, and have a higher fat content. Because of its size, the capon is a good choice to feed a dinner party, or even a small Thanksgiving gathering in place of turkey.”
You could spend time wondering how to feed a male chicken milk. You could dwell on the mode of castration (slotted spoon or loop of horse hair; nowadays it’s chemical). You could wonder: Is the mode of meat carving the threat? No. That is a spectacle. It is information-dense but only suggestive. The real threat is that there are several murderers on the payroll. If you represent foreign interests contrary to the pope’s, there is already a plot to kill you; if you are the cook and a bishop is poisoned at dinner, you, the cook, will be boiled alive. You need a weapon in your hosiery, a friend in the stable, a room on the lower level of the house, and something clangorous to place in front of your chamber door.
What if a colleague is in peril? What if your coworker is using an iron bucket to scoop spermaceti out of the upper part of a sperm whale’s head and something goes awry? You don’t know whether he let go of “the great cabled tackles suspending the head; or whether the place where he stood was so treacherous and oozy; or whether the Evil One himself would have it to fall out so,” but whatever the cause, your colleague, Tashtego, drops head-first “with a horrible oily gurgling” into the head of the whale. Should you contemplate how sweet a death it could be, comparing it to “the delicious death of an Ohio honey-hunter, who seeking honey in the crotch of a hollow tree, found such exceeding store of it, that leaning too far over, it sucked him in, so that he died embalmed. …and sweetly perished there?**” Drowning spurs air hunger and panic, a feeling of choking, and a spasm of the larynx along with spasmodic efforts to inhale. Tashtego is not sweetly perishing; Tashtego is stuck in the spongy tissue of the spermaceti organ and trying to breathe the oil of a sperm whale. Tashtego is turning into a candle.
What you could do is assess the situation and, like Queequeg, dive into the water, make side lunges with a sword near the bottom of the sinking whale’s head, thrust your arm up and into the head, first get Tashtego by the leg, discern that pulling him out by one leg may rip him apart, stick the leg back up there, and then turn Tashtego like he’s a breech baby and pull him out safely.
What if you get a contact-tracing call the day you are going to travel to see family for the first time in 20 months and need to schedule new PCR tests for the next day even though everyone has taken Binax tests (negative) and is as vaccinated as possible? Do not get bogged down on the Department of Health website. Do not focus on the many pounds of food you have already made. Do not caffeinate or fixate on the 9-pound bird corpse you have in your possession. Text your vaccinated but ill but not hospital-grade ill friend slightly less to frequently ask how that’s going because that is tiresome for them and they are achey. There are also two cats whose owner is away, a dog kennel cancellation, then a full kennel on the alternate-plans day. There is a possible long journey, but then also possibly two starved cats and a dog fight. There is a last-minute Plan C opportunity but it’s iffy because an older gentleman whose health concerns are intense but secret will be there, plus you’ve communicated so many switcheroos to two small pandemic-tenderized children that another change of plans might undo them. There is one piece of paper with a handwritten email for forwarding negative PCR tests to so you can eventually send the kid back to school if you did not get bogged down on the Department of Health website. There is phone call from someone at the Department of Health and you should stop anticipating all the questions and talking over the guy and just wait and answer them one by one. There is a staff outing, and you are negative but still awaiting your kids’ results, and those have taken four days, and your colleagues are like: “no big deal, let’s sit together for two hours unmasked” but then, you are not in the pope’s employ and don’t want to kill them so you stay in your closed office with the windows cracked. A marching band comes up the way and plays the Muppets theme. That’s nice. You watch a guy catch a red balloon between his cymbals. Those kids look cold, and the conductor is wearing a… is that a Tigger suit?
Say it with me: My mind is a sterile cockpit. I am going to fly this plane and land it.
This is actually easy. Just focus. The same night you get the call from school, cook the big bird and have an unenthusiastic dinner. One child did sob under a blanket after the announcement of cancelled plans was made, but try not to play that on a loop in your mind. After eating dinner in a too-bright room, go back in time one year and hit the sack fully clothed without saying goodnight to anyone. This is the Irish Goodnight. Wake up dressed and not ready for anything.
For Thanksgiving itself, choose a substitute main meal. A capon is a disturbing testes-free option. Quokka is another option. If you can find a quokka like this one, below, with a baby in its pouch, you can make a kind of turducken except it’s double quokka, or quokka and veal quokka. You can probably sautee quokka, fry quokka, roast quokka, or quietly let the quokka live in one of its preferred habitats: warm heath or swamp with dense riverside vegetation.
An excellent side is the side of a barn. You can hit it with almost anything. You can also use a potato ricer to make your potatoes rice-like and your clean up unbearably fiddly. You can run out of butter but have too much pie and too many cookies. Take-and-bake rolls are nice if you want to forget you have them and store them improperly so they just slump into themselves and develop freckles of mold.
It’s nice to lighten up your Thanksgiving dinner, so make a kale salad. It is a delicious kale salad! It must be massaged with olive oil, like one of those disgraced media executives who still get a $130,000 going-away party after they say they’re sorry if all their molesting was interpreted by their victims as molestation. But kale can’t grope back. At least not the outside of you. Anyhoo. One way the kale salad can go sideways is if you just dump all of the lemon garlic dressing into the bowl and then put the bowl in the refrigerator. You are supposed to reserve some of the dressing. The overabundance of dressing will chill and congeal, and the kale at the bottom of the bowl will get stuck in it, as fallen leaves get stuck by one frill when ponds ice over for the first time in a cold autumn.
Another way to lighten up your Thanksgiving dinner is not to make it, and to go out to a restaurant where there are people whose health and vaccination status you do not know. Mask on, mask off. Mask on, mask off. Mask on, mask off. Like Ralph Macchio if Ralph Macchio just was training one arm muscle or if Mr. Miyagi was swapped out for Larry Sanders. When your child asks what calamari is, get it wrong and say it’s octopus. Then sit back while everybody goes into a whole thing about how we shouldn’t eat things smarter than us, like dolphins, and how long have you lived in this state anyway, that you get the main ingredient of the state appetizer wrong?
You may not be as adaptive as you would like. You may eat the calamari or opt for a sterile placemat, and then you might just confuse guidance on how to be, mentally, and give up on situational awareness and adaptive behaviors and start mentally mood-boarding Things that might as well be Thanksgiving Things, wherever you are, whatever happens.
*page 581 The Mirror and the Light
**Moby Dick, yo, chapter 78