My friend Nick died in March of last year, of an illness unrelated to Covid. It was devastating, for me and for many others. In the time since I have had that interesting experience, as you all have, of discovering ways that you miss someone that you would not have predicted. One petty thing: there was no one else I would rather share a little private mockery with, about someone we found pompous or fake. Nick was well read and well spoken and authentically himself. He was always a consummate “just add water” type socially, someone I could take along to anything and trust that he’d be outgoing and comfortable with whoever I was meeting. He was, like me, a love-it-or-hate-it kind of guy, one who inspired intense feelings and could be very difficult at times. But that’s my favorite sort of person, the kind who isn’t blandly likable and safe to know, but rather extracts a cost to be close to and then repays that cost with rare and complicated gifts of personality. Lately I’ve just been missing the ability to reach out to him as someone who was there for so much of my life, and who had his unique sensibility, his own weird way. Nick was fearless and confident and tortured and gentle and sharp, and I miss him terribly.
He once told me he was going to get a skull tattooed in the center of his palm. I told him not to do it, as it was bound to fade away, which was a bit of a ruse - I actually just thought it sounded really stupid. We argued about it, and he went through with it. (Sometimes I wonder if he went through with it precisely because I told him it was a bad idea.) Maybe six months later he greeted me at a bar by flashing his hand to show how the skull was already badly faded and distorted. I expressed my regrets, and he smiled and said “it looked stupid anyway.” And all I could do was laugh and agree. In sixth grade he told me that he invented sagging your pants. (“That was me,” exact quote.) He was a character.
His family has been unable to hold a memorial service, thanks to the pandemic. Twice it’s been scheduled and twice called off, due to some new wave of cases. I can’t imagine how difficult that’s been for his family. His friends want to mourn too. I often share my frustration and sadness with my friend Heather, another of Nick’s closest friends, over our inability to formally say goodbye to him. I would like to think that in a country where 80% of adults have at least one shot of the vaccine and where hospitalization and death numbers have declined dramatically his family would be able to schedule the memorial with confidence. But those who assess these Covid precautions for the rest of us will have their say, and I’m afraid there are perhaps even more capricious and immovable than the disease itself.
When the time came to lock down, I locked down. When they switched from saying it was selfish to wear a mask to saying it was selfish to not wear a mask I started wearing a mask. I maintain “social distance” even though it’s always been a vague concept of dubious value. I got both vaccine shots as soon as I could and will soon get a booster, even though I’m vaccinated, have had Covid, and I’m 40 years old and healthy. I have no problem showing the app at bars and restaurants to get in. I don’t think ivermectin is an effective treatment against Covid-19; I am very encouraged by the new Pfizer therapeutic. I tell adults to get vaccinated all the time, although I confess that I think the vaccination of young children is mostly a matter of security theater. I am compliant, I guess you might say, which is flattering or unflattering depending on what side of whatever wearying culture divide you’re standing on.
And also the effort against Covid is a colossal social exercise in forcing all of us to submit to the whims of unaccountable authorities who have been proven wrong on elementary questions but who we are still told work only in the spirit of total rationality and science, and our submission to them is enforced by a self-appointed cadre of ordinary people no more informed than the rest of us and whose attitudes are dictated by the rawest and most unjustifiable fears, passions, and desire for control.
There is a new variant, apparently. I know because our newsmedia breathlessly and relentlessly reports on bad Covid news. Unfortunately, they simply refuse to report on good Covid news, at least with anything like equal scale; I invite you to investigate the archives of even the most sober of news sources and compare how they cover cases going up compared to cases going down. Meanwhile, the public health authorities react to every twist of the narrative as an excuse for more fear and greater restrictions, insisting that “an abundance of caution” is always the way to proceed. (No word on whether a correct amount of caution would be a good idea.) Meanwhile the virus does discriminate, despite what you’ve heard over and over again, and in fact it discriminates against very particular and easily-identifiable subpopulations, and most people are not among them, and so every turn of this thing that does not result in mass death and disruption for the larger populace makes that populace feel lied to by the endlessly-panicky media and the abundantly cautious public health officials. We are approaching two years of Covid-19 as a crisis and yet no one in a position of authority has seemed to put it together that the public is exquisitely sensitive to those who cry wolf. Maybe Omicron really is “the big one,” but they’ve said that about every last development in this endless story, so how would we ever know?
Meanwhile we live among a Praetorian guard of busybodies who want everyone to know that the rest of us aren’t taking Covid seriously enough. These are people who are existentially similar to the “Karen,” 2020’s favorite archetype, except that they’re used to calling other people Karens. But they are precisely that figure of clueless white deference to authority that self-nominates as the world’s hall monitor. And while they want you to mask up and vaccinate and obey other rules, what’s much more important to them than regulating your behavior is that they let you know that you don’t feel the right way about Covid. You aren’t taking it seriously enough! You aren’t frightened enough! Who told you that you ever get to go back to normal? It’s not enough that you follow the rules and perform these weird rituals that we’re all compelled to. You are damned if you want things to return to normal. To want that is the gravest sin. To prefer the before times is a mark of terrible unseriousness. Covid is not, to these people, a simple public health emergency but some sort of divine test of our character, and what is weighed in that test is not our actions or their outcomes, but our neuroses, our noble anxiety, our sacred attachment to feeling bad and wanting to go on feeling bad.
These people worship “the science” but have, shall we say, a selective understanding of it. We’ve known for a long time that it’s very hard to catch Covid outdoors, and that children face very little risk, and again most adults are vaccinated. And yet if you took your kid trick or treating a month ago there’s a Greek chorus that wants you to know that it was terribly selfish and irresponsible, and some such thing as the science says so, irrespective of what the iterative, provisional, and antagonistic rhetorical processes of epidemiology might have to say. We have created an entirely new epistemology of public health science in the past couple of years, one that is somehow not a branch of medicine or biology but of public relations. Its vectors are not pathogens but perceptions. It tracks not the spread of disease but the spread of blame.
What people of this school demand is not sound public health policy or compliance with common-sense Covid regulations, much less an end to the epidemic. (That would end the fun.) What they want is for the world to stop. They want Covid to matter so much that we all look around and realize that something is fundamentally out of order and thus grind human life to a halt, in much the same way that they said “this is NOT normal!” when Trump was elected, as if that were true, as if the world would care if it was. And thudding around in the background is the palpable sense that they are attached to this condition that they say frightens and disturbs them, that they need it, as they imagine that finally something has come along so extreme and so wrong that it will arrest the world’s progress, stopping the ride so they can get out and cluck their tongue at the ridiculousness and injustice of it all.
But the people are voting with their feet. They’re going about their lives, fitfully but unapologetically. I look around and New York is awake and alive. And the question as to whether all these people returning to normal is good or responsible or sound public health practice just isn’t relevant, isn’t meaningful. People were not going to rot in their houses forever, and this was and remains a statement of fact, not of value. The world is reawakening. Whether it should reawaken is angels dancing on the head of a pin, a trolley problem, a dorm room pass-the-bong puzzler. It can’t be answered and doesn’t matter. Time only spins forward, for good and for bad, even during a pandemic, even when THIS. IS. NOT. NORMAL. No time stays special forever, and people like living life. It’s no more complicated than that.
The world doesn’t stop. The world never stops, and it’s never fair or humane to tell people that it will.
I look at athletes who have recently taken breaks to address their mental health - Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Ben Simmons. I’m glad for them, that they felt empowered to take that time, and I hope they all get the rest and treatment and consideration they need. But I also want to tell them that the world never slows down for your mental illness, and the way it spins on while everyone is telling you to focus on yourself is disheartening and hard. “Take all the time you need,” people always say, but when someone comes back from taking the time they need they’ll find that their workplaces and social circles have gone on without them nonetheless, and challenges and setbacks will afflict them because of it, like soldiers coming home from war to find that all of the ribbons tied to all of the trees didn’t stop the world from marching on. I would give those who need time all the time they can use, but it’s not mine to give. None of us can make the world stop for others. And so true compassion requires that we say to them, “you must take the time you need, but the world tumbles on regardless, and if you take all the time you want your life will not be the same when you return.” As sad and unfortunate as that is, that’s life, that’s how it works, for me and them and everyone else.
Find a newspaper from ten years ago and you will be confronted by conditions and events that seemed transcendent and unchanging and which now could not seem more trivial and pointless. Those events that have true, permanent consequences and deep human stakes stay important but can’t remain vital, not the way they once were. Even the Holocaust, if we’re being honest, has receded from its singular and unique role in our civic imagination in my own lifetime. There are vast industries devoted to ensuring its memory does not fade, and for good reason. It’s essential that we try to keep it alive in public consciousness as much as we can. But public consciousness is a distracted and fickle thing. Younger generations simply can’t absorb the feelings that accrued to those who occupied a world where most people held it in present consciousness. When I was a child in the 80s a survivor came to school and talked about it, and that was someone who was in the camps as an adult and could comprehend them with adult eyes. Now all the survivors who are left were children then, or near enough, and soon even they will be gone. And while we will light the candles and whisper at the memorials and teach the children, in time the victims will seem no more real than those of Genghis Khan. That’s just how history works.
This was the central message of Kazuo Ishiguro’s brilliant, underappreciated The Buried Giant, that even genocide succumbs in time to the relentless disintegration of human memory, and that nothing endures the passage of generations and the fog of time.
Hell, people began preparing to fight the declining salience of 9/11 on 9/12. That was one of the weirdest aspects of a very weird time. Everyone seemed invested not in having the right response but in insisting on the permanent and unalterable specialness of the moment. “We will never forget!” they said from the very beginning. Then we forgot. Because that’s what we do. Forgetting is our nature; it’s necessary for the survival of a species that regularly endures atrocities. They tell me that forgetting is not a biological error, but a survival mechanism, that we are not meant to remember forever that which we could not really endure in the first place.
And my heart rebels. I want the world to stop every time I see that a baby bird has dropped from a tree, to demand that everyone stop what they’re doing and comprehend that injustice. At the same time I know that the world will never stop, not for war or genocide or plague. That’s where we live, between our feeling hearts that see every life and death as sacred and our thinking minds that can't help but render all of it ordinary over time. Covid is a very big deal, a true international emergency, and our systems of governance must direct an effort of shared sacrifice that only the people, communally, can realize. You must take care. (Please, get vaccinated.) But a response to the pandemic that demands that the world stop, that everyone climb into their holes forever and act like life will never go on, is bound to fail, a fundamental misunderstanding of our nature. We can demand certain restrictions and behaviors, but the demand that the world stop will generate only resentment and resistance, and not just from conservatives or anti-vaxxers. You cannot declare that all of time will be special from now on. That was another lesson of 9/11, that there is no such thing as constant vigilance, that the concept is a contradiction in terms. Abnormal becomes normal. Life goes on.
Every few days it will strike me that Nick has never had a formal goodbye, and it will anger me all over again. It seems like such an aberration, such an error. I want to stand in the middle of the busiest highway and command all the traffic to stop; I want Congress to declare a national emergency; I want to light a signal fire so bright it offends the sky. Attention must be paid. I'm sure everyone who's lost someone in this pandemic feels the same way. But they can't do those things, and neither can I. All we can do is try to make peace with an indifferent world and a calendar whose pages demand to turn. That's it. We drop dirt on the coffin, we sing kaddish, we say “domani, brother,” and then we say goodbye.