Mysteries of Faith

We’ll get back to you, probably…

So I’m 62 years old, yay me. And that means that, as of 8:15 this morning, I was eligible to register for my first COVID vaccine. So I did. Sort of.

I logged onto the Health Vermont portal, using the account that I’d created last week. It didn’t like my password. It came straight from my Apple keychain, I didn’t mistype it or misremember it, but who knows. So I created a new password. Fine. Then I logged in, went to my account page, and there was no button for making a vaccination appointment. A testing appointment, yes, but no vaccination appointment. I opened a new browser window and looked at the video for how to apply online, and THAT showed a vaccination appointment button… but mine didn’t.

I logged out, and logged back in. No button. I refreshed my browser. No button. The phone system was, of course, jammed, and you couldn’t hold, just “call back later.” Logged out, logged back in again. Nothing.

Finally, a little after 8:30, I logged back in (for literally the twentieth or more time) and NOW there’s a vaccination button. So I went through the appointment sequence, verified that I didn’t currently have COVID and wasn’t allergic and wasn’t pregnant, and set an appointment for Saturday 3/27. Great, only two days away. I confirmed, logged out, and a confirmation email had already come into my inbox.

Done, right?

Oh, honey, NO! This is the internet! You’re never done.

Two hours later, I got another email saying that my appointment had been cancelled. Well, what the hell, at least I know how to do it now. So I log back in, go through the sequence again, and make another appointment, again this coming Saturday. No harm no foul.

Confirmation email comes in. Followed ten minutes later by another email saying that my appointment had been cancelled. I go back online, and now nothing’s available any time in the next two weeks!

So I bucked up and called the phone line, intended only for those elderly hermits who’ve never seen a phone that didn’t have a plastic dial on it. (Vermont’s got a lot of those folks.) It rang through, put me on hold… and disconnected me.

I called back, it rang through, and to my amazement, immediately connected me with an employee, a pleasant young man used to dealing with elderly hermits. “Let’s go ahead and get you started,” he said, in that tone used to get Grandpa to come down to the sunroom and work on a jigsaw puzzle.

I explained to him that I was young enough to use a computer, and that I’d already made two appointments that had subsequently been auto-cancelled. “Yeah, we’ve had a lot of technical problems this morning,” he said, “everybody who was making vaccination appointments got routed into testing appointments instead.” But at least I’d verified my online bona fides (bolstered further by my not having a hotmail or AOL email address), and he stopped coddling me and we got on with the job, laughing together a few times at the randomness of the world.

As frustrating as all of this was, it was at least possible, with great persistence, to get an answer, and ultimately to get through the door. There are innumerable things that we apply for that are completely opaque, for which neither answers nor rationale will ever be available.

Apply to a college, for instance, and the answer months later will be either yes or no, in either case with no elaboration. Apply for a job. Apply for a faculty position. Apply for a fellowship or a residency. Yes/No, usually long enough later that we’d forgotten we’d ever applied in the first place. No other options, no further knowledge. No one will laugh with you about the system failures. No one will even talk to you in their grandpa-voice about what’s going on at the call center.

And writers have it even worse. Slightly more than half of the queries I’ve ever sent to literary agents have simply evaporated. The other half: Yes/No. (Actually: No. In three cases, Yes, followed a few weeks later by No.)

I was listening last week to an interview with a writer I like, and she said that before her current big-deal magazine gig and book contract, she’d been writing for an online magazine, and was responsible for writing two or three pieces a week that would get a hundred thousand views each. She meant it as an illustration of the pressures of making one’s private life public, but I heard it a little differently. She, on her own, would never have been able to muster a hundred thousand views. Her magazine’s renown (and its subscription mechanisms and its daily e-mail blast) was responsible for at least ninety thousand of that, and she was responsible, more or less, for not damaging the brand, not squandering the platform she’d been given, adding her marginal gains onto the established endowment.

If you write for the Atlantic Monthly, let’s say, you’re guaranteed to have a couple of million views. As Elizabeth Warren is fond of saying, “You didn’t build that on your own.” You’re borrowing the king’s cloak. But we see that work—just the quality of the work itself, not all the supportive infrastructure—and we think to ourselves, “I can do that.”

That’s the bait we talked about yesterday. That logical sequence from I’ve been well trained and put in the training time to I’ve done a smaller version of this thing and had it highly praised to therefore, I ought to be able to get this thing, right? That sequence of thought is what makes us click on the submittal button and open the portal. But that last step—that word therefore that spans from empirical past to deductive prospect—is where the bridge of logic collapses, where we’ve simply entered into matters of prayer that will or will not be answered. We will enter a world of silence, a limbo in which we are neither guilty nor innocent, merely set aside with all the uncountable others.

I’ve risen to that bait once again. It just looks so good. And the pursuit has given me the excuse to go back to a novel that I’d completed in draft but always knew had some weak areas, so that if I AM welcomed to paradise—by whatever miracle that I can’t invoke myself—I have something to offer St. Peter. But just the clicking of the button was traumatic, reawakened all of the fear of that invisible world. The world in which all the other kids are laughing at me, I just know it. All those other kids who know where the good parties are at, who call one another by nicknames, who’ve hung around each other every summer since they were in MFA together. As the founders of one notable literary journal said, “We didn’t even set out to do this, but we just knew so many people.” As is true for the afterlife, others must intercede on our behalf to get us through the gates.

That’s the difference, isn’t it, between the edible little fish that will nourish you and the balsawood minnow with the barbed treble-hooks that will pierce you and drag you along. If a patron knows you and asks for your work, it’s a fish. If you don’t know your potential benefactor, and you have to ask them to read your work, it’s a lure. But magical thinking comes true every rarely so often, which is enough to keep us imagining causality rather than grand cosmic accident.

It really does look like a fish, though, doesn’t it…