Omicron Has Lessons for Us. We Refuse to Learn Them.

By |2021-12-02T13:29:09-05:00December 2nd, 2021|Election 2020|

As we approach the two-year mark since “coronavirus” became a household word, I get the frustration, the impatience, the exhaustion. I feel and fight them myself. I want to know when I can make travel plans without first making intricate assessments of risk, when I can stop ordering masks in bulk, when I can rip off the one through which I strain to be heard by the students I teach, when I can breathe free.And my initial reaction to the coverage last weekend of Omicron — another new strain, another head-scratching and soul-abrading expansion of our medical vocabularies — was a quiet version of the louder rage that I heard in comments from people all around me: How dare we be warned that there’s a potentially grave new threat without being told just how grave it is? What kind of epidemiological sadism is that? And what the hell are we supposed to do with it?We’re supposed to live in ambiguity, that’s what. We should have learned how by now. But we haven’t. We’ve let many key lessons of this pandemic go to waste. And for me, that’s sometimes the most frustrating part of all.There are teachable moments and teachable epochs, and since the beginning of 2020, we’ve been slogging and teetering through the latter. This historic pandemic came with urgent reminders and remonstrations about our individual and communal lives, but we haven’t heeded them to the degree that we should have, grown from them to the extent that we might have, wrung the fullest possible good from all the bad.At the outset and ever since, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated our interconnectedness, in terms of not just how much each of us needs from others but also how much our actions affect everybody else. One person’s recklessness is a dozen people’s possible sickness. One town’s irresponsibility is an entire state’s economy.And yet I’ve heard as much crowing and ranting about individualism as at any other point in my American life. And Republican leaders have gone from indulging to encouraging that mind-set, which is often just selfishness costumed as liberty.Some Republicans in Congress have threatened a government shutdown to prevent any federal funding of President Biden’s vaccine-and-testing mandate for large employers. Some Republican governors are just about venerating the unvaccinated. As Catherine Rampell noted this week in a column in The Washington Post: “At least four states — Florida, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee — have recently extended benefits to workers who are fired or quit over their employers’ vaccine requirements. For context, workers who are fired for cause or who quit voluntarily are usually not eligible to receive unemployment benefits. With limited exceptions, only those laid off through no fault of their own have been able to receive such aid.”Also for context, Republicans have generally blasted Democrats as being too generous with relief for the jobless. But if the cash is flowing to the inoculation-averse, great!The Americans resisting the jab aren’t the only stubborn ones. Many of the rest of us still refuse to accept what the pandemic has insisted we must. While the complaints are loudest on the right, I notice grousing across the political spectrum about some of the miscalculations that scientists have made or about their inability at various junctures, including the current one, to tell us exactly what we’re in for, precisely how to respond to it and what the timeline of the danger and its dissipation will be.An article last week in a generally liberal publication took a we-really-botched-it tone in asserting that the first two jabs of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines should have been spaced farther apart and advertised as links in a longer chain, so that we weren’t tossing this misleading “booster” language around now. What a screw-up!No. What an inevitability. Science doesn’t usually figure everything out all at once; it’s a steadily growing body of knowledge, and its application, especially in the face of new circumstances, can amount to an educated guess, imperfect but invaluable. In the case of Covid, there was no awful screw-up. There was, instead, astonishing speed: These vaccines, powerfully effective, were developed and distributed in record time.So why aren’t we saved? Why isn’t this over? Americans press these questions, which assume a precise beginning and a definite end to things. But we’ve been told and we can see that the Covid story may not have an emphatic last page, after which we close the book and tuck it back into the shelf forevermore. It demands patience. It calls for sustained caution, in waxing and waning measures. It contains lingering uncertainty.But then much of life is caution and uncertainty. Much of life is lockdowns — tiny ones, big ones, metaphoric ones. Much of life is educated guesses, and setbacks for which there’s no one to blame. Blame: That word more than any other ricochets around my brain, because the pandemic has so vividly underscored our quickness to pin our hardships on a limited cast of villains and list of decisions. It has also exposed the folly of that.There are indeed better actors and worse actors, but there is also muddle. That’s not epidemiological sadism. That’s just reality.For the Love of SentencesMetro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures/United ArtistsIt has been two weeks since our last prose-a-palooza, and that means a surfeit of nominations (and an extra-long segment this week). Even so, I’m compelled to include more than one snippet from A.O. Scott’s delectable review of the new movie “House of Gucci,” from which I could easily have plucked half a dozen.He writes that casting Jeremy Irons and Al Pacino as siblings “is a witty move,” because the actors “exist at opposite ends of the thermal spectrum. If Irons were any chillier, he would crystallize. If Pacino ran any hotter, he’d burst into flame.” (Thanks to Charles Whaley of Louisville, Ky., and Kay Birdwell of Austin, Texas, among others for nominating this.)And he has this to say about an especially vivid supporting player: “To complicate the kinship network, and to prevent a potentially dangerous outbreak of understatement, Aldo has a son, Paolo, who fancies himself a fashion genius and who is played by Jared Leto. You’ve heard of ham? Leto goes full mortadella.” (Bob Rappaport, Arlington, Va.) Having seen “Gucci,” I can assure you that “mortadella” is kind. Leto goes full soppressata and culatello as well. It’s an entire antipasti spread in one singularly grating performance.A separate review (of “Diana, the Musical”) by another Times critic (Jesse Green) also generated many nominations and, at one point, took a similarly meaty tack: “Musicals, like laws, are often compared to sausages: You don’t want to know what goes into them. In this case, you don’t want to know what comes out, either.” (Lester Raff, Riverwoods, Ill.)Sticking with Times culture coverage, here’s Kyle Buchanan on the actor Jamie Dornan, made famous by the “Fifty Shades of Grey” franchise but poised to be seen differently, and maybe even pick up an accolade or two, after his work in the new movie “Belfast”: “The last time Dornan went to the Oscars, as a presenter in 2017, his very presence was a sop to the viewing audience: Here was the handsome, frequently naked guy from an S&M blockbuster that most Oscar voters wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot whip.” (Peggy Sweeney, Sarasota, Fla., and Valerie Hoffmann, Montauk, N.Y.)Here’s Lisa Birnbach on the little-known fact that Clare Boothe Luce was an early and avid consumer of LSD: “The discordancy is so intriguing — like learning that Katharine Graham went to nude encounter sessions at Esalen, or Alan Greenspan was once in a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band.” (Dan Weiller, White Plains, N.Y.)Here’s Alex Witchel, reviewing “These Precious Days,” a new book of essays by Ann Patchett: “I considered the absence of paragraphs freighted with adjectives to be a mercy. I don’t care about the hue of the sky or the shade of the couch. That’s not writing; it’s decorating. Or hiding.” (Chris Warsaw, Carefree, Ariz.)And here’s Elisabeth Egan, reviewing the children’s book “Long Road to the Circus,” by Betsy Bird: “Props to our aptly named author, a librarian who purées factual information into her story without a hint of spinach aftertaste.” (Sharon Haupt, San Luis Obispo, Calif.)In The Atlantic, Graeme Wood wrote an impassioned protest against “land acknowledgment,” which is the practice of “preceding a fancy event by naming the Indigenous groups whose slaughter and dispossession cleared the land on which the audience’s canapés are about to be served.” It is “what you give when you have no intention of giving land,” he wrote. “It is like a receipt provided by a highway robber, noting all the jewels and gold coins he has stolen. Maybe it will be useful for an insurance claim?” Wood later added: “If you enjoy moral exhibitionism, to say nothing of moral onanism, land acknowledgments in their current form will leave you pleasured for years to come.” (Brian Harral, Crofton, Md.)In The New Yorker, David Remnick sized up the reputation-cleansing new book “Republican Rescue,” by Chris Christie, this way: “Christie is going to the literary laundromat because he may want to run for president in 2024. It’s hard to see how he has enough detergent.” (Michael Lavine, Durham, N.C., and Sherman Hesselgrave, Vancouver, Wash., among others)Also in The New Yorker, Paul Rudnick, writing as his movie-critic alter ego, Libby Gelman-Waxner, takes the measure of the “Dune” star Timothée Chalamet: “Timothée’s been created from the most secret journals of tween girls everywhere — he’s beautiful without any sexual threat, with his soulful hair (tween heroin), yearning eyes and the body mass of a poet action figure made from pipe cleaners.” (Cathy Kruchko, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico)In The Boston Globe, the book publisher David Godine told his interviewer, Mark Shanahan: “Publishing poetry is like dropping a rose petal off the rim of the Grand Canyon and anticipating the echo. It’s Dante-esque in the purity of its hopelessness.” (John O’Brien, Waterford, Maine.)And in The Washington Post, Kathleen Parker had this to say about Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, an intensely ambitious Republican: “Why is it that the guys who look as though they’ve never so much as pushed a lawn mower are always the ones who want to saddle up and save the womenfolk?” (Hugh Ellis, Baltimore, and Tom Morman, Leipsic, Ohio)To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here, and please include your name and place of residence.On a Personal NoteA house in Hopewell, N.J., decorated for the holiday season.Jared Douglas MartinOut on the lawn there arose such a clatter.I mean the lawn across the street. This was on Sunday. I heard banging and thumping and rustling and huffing. Sure enough, it was St. Nicholas — or, rather, work being done in his name. My neighbors were getting ready for Christmas. Mom, Dad and the kids were in a merry flutter, stringing lights, positioning decorations.“Sorry,” one of them said when I went out to investigate. “It’s going to be kind of bright around here.”Sorry? No need for that. They’re putting color into the neighborhood. They’re adding sparkle to it.“Actually, I should Venmo you money for the electric bill,” I responded, sincerely. “I get the benefit with none of the investment.”Every year around this time, there’s a frenzied adornment of private homes and public squares, and every year there’s discussion of whether that adornment is sufficiently ecumenical and sensitive. It’s a fair conversation. It’s an important one.But amid the back-and-forth, something gets lost: the beauty and big-heartedness of the impulse — the effort — to embroider the world. To fashion enchantment for the sake of enchantment. To declare a special moment in time. To make that moment glow.I have long been a sucker for it: the tree at Rockefeller Center, both before and when I was a Manhattanite; the arches and tendrils of white lights over the cobbled byways of Rome, where I lived in my late 30s; the incandescent plastic reindeer on the roof of a house in the New York City suburbs that my mother would drive me and my siblings past when I was a child. Initially she insisted on it; then we did. Visiting and revisiting that house became a ritual as surely as opening presents did. I wish I could remember its address and figure out who owned it back then. I’d send them a thank-you note, for never letting us down.This newsletter is my thank-you note to my neighbors across the street here in Chapel Hill, N.C., and to my neighbor next door, whose enormous wreath, bejeweled with illuminated bulbs, hangs over her garage door, squarely facing the cul-de-sac. It’s there for her but also for the rest of us.Up the street and around the corner there are more lights, in more colors, and that surely won’t be the end of it. Some people get to decorating early, some a little later.And some not at all. I never rise to the occasion. So this is an apology as well as a thank-you. Right now I’m taking more from my little corner of the world than I’m putting into it. But I get the sense that no one around me is keeping score. That’s the big-heartedness I’m talking about.