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Omicron

Happy Thanksgiving weekend! I hope you are all well and recovering from an excess of butterfat and tryptophan.

Speaking of tryptophan, some of you may have heard of the discovery of a new Covid variant that originated in Botswana or Covid B.1.1529. The various news media sources are reporting a “horrific number of mutations”.

Yes, first they scare you into a self-imposed lockdown and then they tell you they’re going to keep a close eye on it because it might not have more than a few cases.

Omg. What should we believe??

Well, if my MacBook Pro wasn’t a decade old, I’d fire it up to take a look at the sequences and structure because it depends on where those mutations are located, how different they are from the original Covid structure sequence and how different they are from the vaccine sequences.

Let’s take that one at a time.

The mutations are located on the spike protein. 32 mutations are a lot but the spike protein is hundreds of amino acids in length.

Those mutations could make it easier for the spike protein to latch onto cells, though it’s hard to imagine that it would be more efficient than the delta variant.

The mutations could be “conservative”. That means a mutation is similar to the original amino acid and doesn’t change the structural integrity or function of the protein in any significant way. Sometimes the mutations do make a difference as in the case of delta. But sometimes, just a single non-conserved mutation in the right place can screw up the protein making it more floppy or closing off an area that makes it harder to interact with the target. If you have 32, that could make it a really screwed up protein and not in a more infectious way.

But what about the vaccine? Could these mutations make the vaccines less effective? Yeah, this is a possibility. If the mutations are different enough, then the protein segments that Pfizer and Moderna have included in their vaccines might not trigger the production of the right antibodies. The genius of the mRNA vaccine technology is that they can be changed relatively easily. There could be a new vaccine on the horizon sooner than you think. And there is usually a pattern to which amino acids are more apt to mutate than others. So you can probably make some predictions.

So, does omicron freak me out? A little. It just demonstrates how important it is for us to get the rest of the world vaccinated asap so variants do not arise. On the other hand, it’s not like we don’t know how to slow down the rate of transmission by wearing masks and observing social distancing guidelines.

I’ve always wondered why we greet each other with a variation of “how are you?” in so many languages. It never really made much sense to me since it seemed like a formality. No one really expects us to go into detail about how we are. But it makes sense to me now. There were times in the past when knowing the state of the health of people you met was vitally important. I’m watching all the curtsying and bowing in Jane Austen adaptations with new eyes.

You can never be too careful.

Nursery Rhymes

Apropos of absolutely nothing that I could think of, this childhood rhyme came into my head. “A tisket, a tasket/ a green and yellow basket/ I wrote a letter to my love/ and on the way I lost it/ I lost it…” I probably had not recalled that little poem for many years, but they stay with one, somewhere in memory.

I never knew any more of it, I don’t think. Maybe that was all there was. But while this might seem strange, as a little boy I used to puzzle over those nursery rhymes. as if they were about something, maybe something important. I remember feeling bad about this poem; the person wrote a nice letter, and then he lost it. I have a certain propensity to lose things. I wondered if he ever got the letter back, probably not. Just gone. Maybe his love would never know.

As an only child for seven years, with my parents both working after I was two or so, I did have a lot of time to think about such things. I remember thinking, “What does ‘Hi, Ho, the Derry O’ mean?” I was probably not the only child to wonder what a tuffet was, and I didn’t think I would like curds and whey. I wondered about Mary’s lamb following her to school. I loved plums, so I thought that Little Jack Horner was fortunate to have nabbed a plum in his pie. I was very concerned about the pussy which fell into the well; how could that happen?

I pondered the meaning of “Hey, Diddle Diddle/ The Cat and the Fiddle/ The cow jumped over the moon/ The little dog laughed to see such sport/ And the dish ran away with the spoon.” How could a cow jump over the moon? Dishes and spoons could not ambulate. And what did the cat and the fiddle part have to do with any of this?

I am not saying that I believed that everything that was described in the nursery rhymes was actually real. But I greatly pondered why these rhymes were written. Did they have a meaning? What was the writer trying to say?

I have thought from time to time about “Mary, Mary, quite contrary/How does your garden grow?/ With silver bells and cockle shells/ And pretty maids all in row.” That had to have meant something. It is such a haunting rhyme. It has to be about something else. Bells and shells and maids cannot grow in a real garden. Is the rhyme telling us something about a real Mary? “Bloody Mary,” English Queen, and the sister of the later Queen Elizabeth? She was a tormented person. Mary of Scotland? Was the mention of the maids meant to imply lesbianism? Or are they ladies in waiting?

You could research it, and read that the first known published version of that rhyme was in 1744, almost two centuries after the two famous Queen Marys. But that does not assure that one could not have been the original subject. More research might show that some hypothesize that there is religious imagery, maybe even about the schism between Catholics and Protestants. Or a reference to Mary, the mother of Jesus in the New Testament.

The haunting thing about such rhymes is that we often do not know the origin, which might have come out of jealousy, spite, admiration, insinuation. That origin is obscured, and then we have centuries of little children repeating the rhyme.

Who or what was Humpty Dumpty? Charles I of England? A cannon his forces used? When did London Bridge fall down? Who is the fair lady to be locked up?

Agatha Christie knew the power of nursery rhymes, and she titled some of her murder mystery novels based on them “Hickory Dickory Dock.” “A Pocketful of Rye.” “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.” “Five Little Pigs.” (based on “One little pig went to market…” I was so innocent, that I thought the piggie was going shopping). “Three Blind Mice.” (that one always upset me, with its gratuitous cruelty).

Dame Agatha knew that the juxtaposition of what might seem to be an innocent children’s rhyme, with dark motives and acts, could be very unsettling. Sometimes the rhyme would be played out in some way in the story, sometimes it was just a bit of backdrop.

But those were great titles to pick up and read for the first time. There was a sense of ominousness which the title created, even before the story began. And usually the novels began harmlessly enough, before the darker events occurred. So like the nursery rhyme can be initially seen as innocuous, but one might then consider more unsettling aspects of it, so did the stories potentially follow that path.

Now, what may seem very obvious to you, but never was so much to me, is that most of the rhymes were just rhymes. They could be alliterative or assonative, or with interesting imagery. They may mean nothing at all beyond the words. The mouse never ran up the clock. Dishes do not run away with spoons. There was no Johnny and no fair that he stayed too long at. But then again what happened to all those people who went to Widecombe fair, with a grey mare? And there is an elegantly scary movie from 1951, “So Long at the Fair.”

The old nursery rhymes do have a power. They can be lighthearted, or perhaps not. Which are which? Their brevity almost inevitably causes one to wonder about them, because it is never all spelled out, some of them just end. We have all read stories or seen movies where a few lines, or even one letter on a torn scrap of paper offer the key to an otherwise indecipherable set of events. What was he trying to tell us?

We hear or read something once, and the nature of how it sounds or the images it creates, does not vanish. It has been passed down through hundreds of years. Why? There is virtually never a definitive explanation as to why the words of the rhyme are what they are. Maybe if there were, it would be dated, and locked into a particular period, like marching songs from wars hundreds of years ago which no one sings now.

But simple but evocative words can seem to be about something deeper and perhaps archetypal. Or maybe we wish that we could go back in time for a brief period, and solve the mystery. Maybe we can rescue the lady from the tower, or restore Humpty-Dumpty, or find Johnny for the woman missing him. Otherwise, they might remain as shards of collective memory which we cannot put together and mend.