Light at The End of The Vial
Assorted thoughts from the home stretch
I’m finally vaccinated. Just shot #1, of the Pfizer, but who’s counting? I have a couple of good friends who got Pfizer, one of whom worked as a contractor in a Pfizer plant and told me back in June that they would come out with something good. I don’t think he knew that, but he turned out to be right.
I didn’t shop around much, but most appointments in Fairfax County were booked, so I looked further. (You don’t have to get vaccinated in the county you live in.) There were tons of appointments available throughout rural Virginia. I’m not sure if that’s because doses were over-allocated out there, or if some large percentage of rural Virginians are refusing the vaccine. I ended up getting my dose in Winchester, which, believe it or not, is pretty much the D.C. exurbs these days. I quite wanted to have lunch in one of Winchester’s Chinese buffet—my last indoor restaurant meal was a Chinese buffet in Alexandria the first week of March 2020—but I don’t have a problem sticking this out another couple of weeks after doing it all this time.
Now that we’re finally reaching the end of this very long, very weird year and a few months, I realize that in some ways I feel...older. I wonder if there are other 20-somethings who’ve had the same experience. My wife and I don’t have kids yet, but for the first time in my life I’ve felt what I suspect is a preview of the responsibility and the exhaustion of being a parent.
I remember back in March 2020, or maybe even February, when the best-case scenario was that COVID-19 would barely touch the United States, and the worst-case scenario was something like a catastrophic but brief collapse of supply chains. I was preparing to get our home ready for one of these worst-case scenarios. I counted out 30 days of food and meals in our house, and made emergency meal plans in a notebook. My father mailed us some old N-95 construction masks that he’d bought at Home Depot some years ago for cutting the grass. At that time, the lefties in my Twitter feed were adamant that general masking was counterproductive, and the right-wingers were warning that COVID-19 could be a major crisis. Nobody, however, seemed to be talking about a long quasi-lockdown, the year-long depression to March’s anxiety.
Certainly, the political whiplash, the torrent of information, corrections, and falsehoods, and the anxiety overlaid over everything has had an aging effect of sorts, and not in a good way. But by “older,” I also mean that in some ways I feel more mature. It’s been a revelation to see how much less money my wife and I can spend and still find things to do. We’ve learned to cook a whole bunch of new recipes, we’ve spent a lot more time outside walking and hiking, and we’ve spent a heck of a lot less on gas, restaurants, and other lifestyle purchases. Part of me wants a few more years of the same unattached, carefree autonomy that I felt before this all went down. But part of me is more ready than before to leave that behind, and to be willing to fully become an adult and embrace the responsibilities and the busyness that come with the territory. I’m curious how I will look back at this year when I’m 35 and (likely) a father. In some ways, I may be grateful for some of it.
My wife is from China, and her family was and is extremely concerned about the situation here, and about our health. Given that “normal” activities like restaurant dining, visiting museums, wineries and breweries, and long weekends are not even all that fun under these circumstances, we’ve been happy to go with the flow on the public health restrictions. There was some pressure in my previous job to pooh-pooh the pandemic, and there was never any acknowledgement that as employees and families we were actually going through this, because it was assumed (I assume) that none of us understood ourselves to be going through anything other than external and meddlesome restrictions on a “normal” that we were entitled to. That is not how my family determined to approach it. There was also a sense of growing up in this, in having a duty to carve out a sacrosanct sphere of family life which nobody else could touch.
I’ve been quite frustrated by the me-first attitude a lot of folks on the right have taken throughout the pandemic. Most of my left-leaning readers won’t find much in common with my old colleague Rod Dreher, but I greatly appreciate his approach to the pandemic. Referring to it as “Covidtide,” he’s taken the deprivations of the last year not as bureaucratic usurpation of liberty, but as opportunities to be denied some things we want, in order to grow. Kind of like Lent. I like that framing, and I think it is, and would have been, a much more productive frame of mind to adopt during this ordeal than the attitude of entitlement and consumerism that a lot of conservatives took.
What’s bothered me even more is this same attitude, but cloaked in the language of religion or “human flourishing” or some such. I’m talking about stuff like characterizing masks as a symbol of a secularized society that fears death; the notion that attending church is an entitlement; or the idea that we have some duty to go out of our way to put ourselves at avoidable risk because “life involves risk.” There’s been a lot of this kind of rhetoric from some quarters, and it’s been one of the most insufferable things about the whole pandemic for me, particularly when it’s couched as having something to do with metaphysics or God. Yes, God might ask you to put yourself at some risk. I cannot grasp the idea that He would ask you to endanger others, which is what such a blasé attitude pretty much amounts to.
Whether the complaint against public health rules is framed in terms of civil liberties or metaphysics, it’s the same basic individualist idea. A lot of Americans simply cannot conceive of a problem that is fundamentally collective. Ignoring the pandemic isn’t like smoking or not wearing your seatbelt. It’s more like driving drunk. Those are harsh words, and I don’t quite mean them literally, but the way we’ve dealt with this crisis---and I include the public health profession as well as the Trump administration and the anti-maskers---does not inspire confidence that our country can any longer do great things together.
The one thing we did do right, the breakneck development and distribution of a highly effective and safe vaccine, is being downplayed in some quarters too. A few weeks ago, a piece at Bloomberg Opinion warned about a “permanent pandemic.” It really does feel like some folks are invested in not having this end. However, I don’t there’s anything suspicious or conspiratorial there. It’s more akin to how the FDA tells you to cook your eggs to a puck and your chicken to a crisp. These are metrics designed to eliminate risk. They aren’t advice based on real-world considerations. Public health should be more of the latter.
I’ll wrap this up by noting, unhappily, that we have failed to experience solidarity throughout this crisis. Instead, every possible ideological and temperamental fracture has been widened. Given that we have not had a sense of going through this together, I’m afraid we will not be able to learn from it either.
What should we learn from it? I’ll be doing at least one shorter piece on that soon, and asking for your comments and thoughts too.