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Our pandemic half-lives

Saying goodbye to a classroom full of first-year college students in my writing class at the University of Pennsylvania earlier this month was more melancholy than usual. None of us had ever met in person. These young men and women had been flattened images on my laptop screen all semester — some of them Zooming in from a few miles away, others struggling to keep up from time zones on the other side of the planet.

When the time came to sign off on the last day of class, I told my students that they would look back on the pandemic of 2020 in the same way their grandparents or great-grandparents did with the doldrums of the Great Depression or the dread of World War II, when nothing less than the fate of liberal civilization seemed to be at stake. Things aren’t quite that ominous right now, but it’s been a very hard year — one that most of us will be struggling to absorb into the narrative of our lives for a long time to come.

Back in April, I wrote about how difficult it was for my kids to cope with a world in which it seemed as if time itself had stopped, with longstanding goals and rites of passage indefinitely delayed, canceled, or transmuted into pale, incomparable substitutions for themselves.

Eight months later, things are somewhat less grim. The literal lockdown of the pandemic’s first few months has given way to an odd twilit form of half-life where a shadow of uncertainty falls across nearly everything.

My son got to experience his first semester at college on an actual campus this fall, which is more than my own students at Penn were granted. But it was a strange few months, with ubiquitous mask-wearing, frequent COVID-19 tests, classes taught half in person and half online, and full-on quarantines (with students confined to dorm rooms in response to rising case counts) ebbing and flowing like the tides. The in-person portion of the semester was supposed to end at Thanksgiving, but we picked him up a week early. After two weeks spent isolated in a single room with next to no human contact, he was getting depressed. We still don’t know when or if he will be returning to campus for a spring term.

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My daughter started high school with classes conducted entirely online. Then she got to ride a mostly empty school bus to a half-empty school building twice a week. Then she moved back fully online. Then, for a week or so, she was back in hybrid mode. Now it’s virtual school again. Hybrid is supposed to return after the holiday break, but really, no one knows anything for sure.

And I do mean “anything.”

That’s been one of the hardest things about 2020: Not knowing what to do in the face of uncertainty around grave risks. In one direction is reckless disregard for the safety of those we love — ourselves, our families, our friends, our neighbors, our fellow Americas. In the other, safety won at the price of constant fear, financial precarity, oppressive isolation, and depression. Confronted with those extremes, we have aimed for drastically imperfect compromises.

We set up a pod for our daughter to get some human contact with a small circle of friends once or twice a week, and let her continue to attend an indoor dance class (where, of course, all of the students and their teacher wore masks). These lasted through most of the fall but have now disbanded. My wife and I sometimes went out to dinner, seated outdoors, until mid-November. But not anymore.

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It’s all imperfect. We continue to go grocery shopping (separately) once or twice a week, which is a bigger risk. Could one of us catch the virus on one of these excursions into public spaces and bring it back to our home, infecting several or all of the members of our household? Absolutely. But it’s a risk we’re willing to take — like the risk we accept when driving on a curvy highway in bad weather.

Precisely where we draw the line is a judgment call. We also allow our son to get together occasionally with two friends on the promise of constant mask-wearing. That’s kind of risky, especially since one of those friends works a job that exposes him to a large number of people. On the other hand, we don’t want to deprive our son of any social outlet at all. So we accept the risk and the worry, which isn’t negligible but also isn’t what we’d be facing if we drew the line somewhere else.

Members of my extended family live in the rural Midwest, where lines are drawn in very different places. In early November, a pair of families in the community decided to go through with their children’s wedding. It became a super-spreader event. More than 50 people from the area contracted the virus that day, and two of the grandparents of the bride and groom have died.

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The newlyweds got their wedding. They didn’t cower in fear, and neither did those who accepted invitations to the ceremony and reception. They refused to put their lives on hold or constrict their expectations for an important day. And now they and everyone else involved will have to live out the rest of their lives knowing that this refusal and acceptance of risk had incredibly destructive, heartrending consequences on their loved ones and their entire community.

I wouldn’t consider hosting a large party right now — or attending one. I draw the line in another place. But I engage in the same calculus, reckoning with relative risks and balancing them against psychological and other consequences of living for months on end in the near-total lockdown of last April and May. I hope I’m making the right call and drawing the line where it should be. I think I am, of course. Otherwise, I’d be making different decisions. But I don’t really know it, and I never really will.

That’s one among many reasons why receiving a shot of a COVID-19 vaccine over the coming weeks or months will be so welcome. Living life in the twilight can be incredibly draining. What a relief it will be to shed the constant worry, to allow those I love to go back to living freely — even if all of us do so while continuing to struggle with coming to terms with the many traumas of 2020.