Comedian Robin Williams’ famous quip “Reality… what a concept!” has played in my head like a tape loop on steroids during these past—count ‘em—22 months of pandemic pandemonium.
I mean, do we even know what reality is anymore? Do we want to know?
Add to the COVID powder keg a toxic sludge of gun-toting fascists (some of them members of Congress!), a slew of anti-voter laws designed to finish off our crumbling democracy, plus the skyrocketing threat of climate change, and it’s easy to understand why reality has gotten such a bum reputation. It’s not an accident that my local supermarket has stacks and stacks of snack food in every aisle. We want so much to MAKE… EVERYTHING… THE… WAY… IT…USED… TO… BE.
To the point where we run the risk of missing the good stuff that’s right in front of us. The actual hope, the joy, the positive progress. These things do exist. But because our gaze is so often turned backward—to the “good old days”—we’re adding to our stress, undermining our own well-being. And let’s be honest—the good old days were never quite as golden as they appear in the rearview mirror. Ask Ahmaud Arbery. That fabled glass we are always measuring—half empty or half full? There’s no denying COVID has been one tough ride. And it’s not surprising that we mourn who and what has been lost. But the situation is not stagnant. A quick glance back to where things stood a year ago confirms that. So let’s not get trapped in a funk and lose sight of all there is to celebrate simply because…
It’s Not Quite Big Enough
Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law in mid-November, represents the largest investment in decades to rebuild our badly-neglected roads and bridges. It dwarfs the $286.4 billion Bush 2005 bill that was hailed as “whopping”. This new bill undertakes to replace dangerous lead pipes and provide clean drinking water for all Americans. It redesigns our ports and transportation systems with an eye to strengthening crucial supply chains. It provides $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations across the country, making the transition to electric cars on a large scale a reality for the first time. It modernizes our public schools and makes broadband accessible for all Americans.
Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is also the largest investment ever in mass transit and clean energy infrastructure. As a result of its varied and massive projects, the bill will create millions of good-paying union jobs—$45 an hour, the White House estimates, nearly 50 percent above the current average.
So, why aren’t we celebrating this hard-won monumental achievement? A bill the American Society of Civil Engineers calls a “significant down payment on the $2.5 trillion infrastructure investment gap identified in their 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. A bill they say “will benefit American businesses and families for years to come.”
Because it is not as big as Biden originally proposed? Because we are frustrated that the Build Back Better Act—which goes even further in tackling climate change, expanding healthcare, childcare, and workers’ rights—still hangs in limbo?
One may be forgiven for not remembering—it’s been so long—but this is how Congress works. Democrats propose bills to help Americans live better and Republicans cut the allocated aid in whatever ways they can. Compromise is nothing new. It’s the only way anything gets done. The Affordable Care Act didn’t get the hoped-for public option, but it has gone on to provide healthcare for 31 million Americans.
The Infrastructure and Jobs Act is a good thing. It’s not a reason to despair. And it’s certainly not a reason to sit out future elections. Where would we be today if the 81,284,000 Americans who voted for Biden in 2020 had not shown up?
Not Everything’s Available
From my Inbox a few weeks ago: Will Supply Chain Issues Ruin Christmas? (The New Yorker, November 2, 2021). In her article, UK writer Anna Russell describes the “hand-wringing” in her corner of the world as eager shoppers are hyperventilating over predicted shortages resulting from the pandemic and Brexit. These twin powder kegs have created a serious dearth of agricultural labor that is “already causing runs on gifts, turkeys, and puddings,” Russell says. After last year’s skyrocketing COVID case numbers cancelled holiday plans for many families, there’s a “palpable sense of making up for lost time.” People are demanding that everything be exactly the way it used to be. What if, she ponders, “there’s no Christmas turkey?”
In the States, we’re less worried about plum puddings and more distressed that the COVID-associated supply chain problems will “ruin [our] life plans” and frightened that these troubles “will never end.” How can we celebrate the holidays if the gadgets and toys parents and kids want aren’t in stock? How can we “make merry” if ordered items arrive late?
Reading this list of American woes in the Material Handling & Logistics News, I was struck by the fact that right across the page was this headline: Holiday Retail Sales Expected to Increase 7%-9%: Deloitte. Apparently, Americans are going to still be able to buy stuff. According to the Deloitte article, a LOT of stuff. About $1.28 – $1.3 trillion worth.
Anna Russell declared that though “no one wants to be the Grinch” at Christmas, the shortages in specific foods and other goods “has cast a decidedly unfestive pall over preparations.”
Why an “unfestive pall”? Wasn’t that the whole point of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas? That it’s not the tinsel and wrappings and stuff? A quick refresher here: After stealing all their presents in the wee hours of Christmas morning and stripping their trees of tinsel and ornaments, the Grinch is shocked to observe the Whos in Whoville holding hands and singing joyously on Christmas morning. This is a revelation. As Seuss says: “Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!”
So, if puddings or turkeys are not to be found, can’t we still enjoy the holidays? One year, we had lasagna, and not an ounce of festivity was lost. In fact, it made a tasty change.
If hot-ticket gift items are sitting offshore in some cargo ship, swamped amid a zillion other cargo ships, does this really ruin our celebrations? If gifts are truly an issue, give Amazon a rest and shop in real stores. Support Main Street. There are books on the shelves of bookstores, clothing on the racks of outfitters, kitchenware stacked up in kitchen supply shops. You can gift experiences with tickets for an upcoming event or certificates for restaurants, massages, a weekend at some cozy inn. No worry about the supply chain. No delayed mail hassles from our pal (not!) Louis DeJoy.
Last year, we had gifts and a decorated tree. What Ed and I didn’t have for Thanksgiving or Christmas was the company of our four adult kids—residing in states from Maine to Louisiana—because there were no vaccines yet. Air travel put one at risk for contracting COVID. Indoor gatherings (especially those lasting days) posed real threats. Now, we are all vaccinated and most of us have even gotten our booster shot! That’s a reason to celebrate.
I’m here to say whatever holiday(s) you observe—Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa—being with loved ones is the only thing you really need to have a joyous celebration.
It’s Not Fast Enough
Speaking of vaccinations, there’s been a lot of despair about how slowly things are moving. Why aren’t we back to “normal” yet? When can we just put COVID in the rearview mirror and move on? By which we mean: return to the way everything used to be.
It has felt like a loooong haul. And my heart goes out to people who’ve gotten the vaccine in states where GOP governors have let the virus run rampant, so that some palpable level of risk remains. Vote those dudes OUT!
But, we need to remind ourselves of where we were a year ago. Restaurants: closed. Main Street shops (for the most part): closed. Movie theaters? Ha-ha, not happening. Travel, especially by plane or outside the States: Highly risky or simply not permitted. Holiday family gatherings? Hold the family.
Despite the eagerly-awaited vaccines that emerged late last year, things got off to a very sluggish start. In month one of the vaccine rollout, Trump only managed to get 12 million shots delivered. And no one in that gang of grifters was really busting their arse to oversee rollout or even stock the vaccine.
Then, in December 2020, before he’d even settled into the White House, newly-elected Joe Biden promised his team would get “at least 100 million COVID vaccine shots into the arms of the American people in [his] first 100 days.” This announcement was cautiously greeted with hope but also much skepticism. Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, felt it was an attainable goal, “but I think it’s going to be extremely challenging.”
Well, Biden beat that goal handily—and doubled it. In late March 2021, he announced his team was upping their game, and pledged to get 200 million shots into arms in his first 100 days. Despite noisy backlash from GOP governors, gun-toting thugs, and QAnon hysteria, on Day 92 of Biden’s presidency, we reached that goal. By the middle of this last month, 446 million vaccine doses had been administered. One-hundred, ninety-four million Americans are now fully vaccinated, and another 53 million have received their first dose. We are traveling again, dining out in restaurants, going to movies, visiting with loved ones. How is this not good? Champagne corks should be popping across the land.
Okay, because of the anti-vaxxers and a lax attitude about COVID spread in some states, we have to wear masks again. Leave a seat or two between patrons in the movie theatres. Continue to submit to COVID testing for travel. It’s not “like it used to be,” but the global effort to develop, approve, and manufacture a vaccine was Herculean. We’ve never witnessed anything like it. And Seattle recently reported that the daily hospitalization rate for COVID among vaccinated folks is less than half that for people hospitalized with the flu in a typical year. Roughly, one in a million.
The Times, They Are (Always) A’Changin’
Somewhere in my recent reading, I came across an arresting thought. The gist is this: We always talk about people changing, but it’s the circumstances around us that constantly shift, and we stagger to adapt. The truth of that hit me square between the eyeballs. For anyone born after the dark years of the Great Depression and World War II, this is the first serious full-blown outright global disaster we’ve had. The first time the ground has truly shifted under our feet.
But if we step back for a moment, we can see that things are always changing. The town of my childhood looks nothing like it did. Instead of renting DVDs from Blockbuster, we now stream movies and series from Netflix and Amazon. Online dating apps—once a service many people feared would mark them as a “loser”—has become the place to meet potential romantic partners.
Of course, the Internet is the biggest change of all in the past few decades, radically shifting the way we shop, bank, communicate, work and search for work, among a zillion other things.
Social networking has made connecting to old friends and new easy and fun. It has also become a tool for exploiting people’s fears and prejudices to serve the ends of the uber-rich and the fascist. And that was true pre-Covid.
Very little is the way it was even ten years ago, let alone at the dawn of this millennium. We’ve just had a seismic amount of change—and a frightening one at that—in a very short time, and that’s hard on people. But not everything we had is gone. In fact, the most important things are still here. People still fall in love. Babies continue to be born. The kids in my neighborhood still run laughing and shrieking in their play. Books continue to be written. Music continues to be made. Gardens bloom. Leaves turn color. A day in my local park, reading and wandering, remains a joy and a renewal. Last month, Ed and I saw an amazing exhibit—Titian: Women, Myth & Power—at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston.
Though three of my favorite local restaurants closed their doors for good this last year, it turns out they were all owned by people past retirement age, and had literally served the community for decades. They likely would have closed soon anyway. The pandemic just hastened the owners’ decision. But more restaurants survived. And a few new ones have opened.
Darwin understood that the world around us is constantly shifting, changing—sometimes subtly, sometimes rapidly, even violently—but he believed our greatest strength lies in our ability to adapt. It’s what survivors do. Roll with the punches. Ride the tide.
A humorous example of this popped up on my TV last week. In the hand-off on MSNBC from Rachel Maddow to Lawrence O’Donnell, O’Donnell rolled up his suit jacket cuffs to reveal… paperclip cufflinks! Apparently, his on-air wardrobe features shirts that require cufflinks. He said he’s always forgetting them, but in the past has borrowed frequently from Brian Williams (who does the show after O’Donnell’s). “Since Covid, we’re not in the same building, so I’ve just been making do with paperclips. And they work!”
I loved it. Okay, it’s not a “big thing.” But it’s the spirit and the humor. Two things we need right now to celebrate this wondrous, crazy, sometimes maddening, more often beautiful thing called life. And stay energized for the fight ahead. Because the real threats we face aren’t about social distancing in restaurants or masks on airplanes. They’re not even about stacked up container ships. In fact, they’re about the stuff we’ve been facing and fighting for decades: the twin threats to democracy and the climate. In a nutshell, the greed and tyranny of the few over the many.
But, hey, we keep swinging. In mid-November, House Democrats added four weeks of paid family and medical leave back into the Build Back Better Act, plus the long-hoped-for right of Medicare to negotiate drug prices with Big Pharma on certain drugs, insulin among them. As I write, the bill passed the House this morning.
If we can’t be happy until we get everything we want, then my long experience tells me we will never be happy. I say celebrate what is good and keep pushing for what needs fixing. There’s still plenty worth saving, worth savoring, worth living for.