Hoofbeats: A Swine Flu Fable

11/02/2009 By Shawn Burns

Those hoofbeats in the distance indicate horses.

It’s possible, entirely possible, that they represent a herd of zebra, and if you live in an environment in which the stories of the elders and the attention-seekers tend, overwhelmingly, to involve a rare, exciting, and terrifying encounter with a zebra then you might suspect, upon hearing the rumble, that the zebra are coming over the hill at any moment.

You might dread it, and in fear prepare. You might hope for it, because such an encounter might make you as special as all of those others who confronted zebra and about whom we still tell stories because people will attend those stories.

But those hoofbeats in the distance indicate horses. They indicate what they normally indicate, in a world unfiltered by thrilled imaginations, in which storytellers tell stories about the everyday instead of only about the shocking and unusual.

I heard the hoofbeats all weekend. I heard them portend a dramatic meeting with a herd of H1N1 zebra. There was no other explanation for what ailed Adrian: it must be H1N1, because every illness in the world right now is H1N1. There are no stories of doctors diagnosing common colds; news anchors relay death tolls from H1N1 but no stories of common experience. Common experience garners no attention: we all have it, so no one needs to point it out to us.

But the exceptional trumps the ordinary, and if you hear enough stories about how the world is then no matter what your ordinary experience of it is you will believe that the stories of other, exceptional cases, are genuinely descriptive rather than particularly unusual.

Adrian, dear Adrian, sweet boy: those hoofbeats indicate horses. All of the worrying and attention has meant that the simple answer was so easy to overlook: your troubles stem from an ear infection, a gift from your sister and her germy friends.

But who ever heard of an “ear infection”? The term is so submerged now that what might have been a reassuring thought (“Oh, Adrian probably has an ear infection.”) wallowed in exile while the H1N1 chorus echoed from television speakers and social media outlets.

I promise to think “horses” from now on.