“You know you’re rusty,” said Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan at the beginning of an emergency call-in press conference on a sunny November Saturday at 1:30 p.m., “when you forget the code for unmuting.” It was Ryan’s first and subtlest suggestion that a well-managed, appeased, and dormant big problem had awakened and gone wild again.
The arrows of crisis are all pointed up at precipitous angles, as officials and front-line workers scramble back into response mode, and a fatigued, near-broken populace moans “not that again,” as if it were another pointless Kardashian/Jenner news cycle. Some of the most embittered and suspicious among us arguing that is precisely what it is.
The whole teleconference, all 13 or so minutes of it, had a rustic, autumnal, local feel. It began with the barking of a large dog. We call-in attendees were automatically muted after an initial verbal sign-in, so it is both charming and tenable to assume that the dog was Ryan’s own, an inadvertent unmuted glimpse into the domesticity of a county politician on a pristine fall Saturday with some gold left in the trees for the locals after the all the reds and greens had been drunk in by the eyes of tourists.
Maybe it wasn’t his dog, but enquiring minds don’t give a hoot. Let’s proceed as though it were.
“Thanks to everybody for making time on a Saturday afternoon,” Ryan continued, dog curled at his feet, working on a knotted rope. “We weren’t planning to do this, but we felt it was very important that we get this group of key leaders from across the county [me? Key leader? sic] together to update you all on what we’re seeing and where we think we’re going.”
Any guesses? Yes, you with the face?
“Looking back over the last seven or eight months,” said Ryan, “obviously it’s been a hell of year, and we’re not through it yet, but the only reason we’ve been able to respond as well as we have, and to be effective, is because of every single person on this line: supervisors, mayors, legislators, other community leaders, leaders in our healthcare system, etcetera.”
Again, no mention of essential music critics, but I am used to the thanklessness of this work.
“I’m really proud of how we rallied through the year,” said Ryan. “and I think we’re going to have to do that again.”
And there it was. I will spare you the portentous data and the swelling digits, the precautions and prescriptions that followed, because a) you already know, and b) today, a mere week out from Executive Ryan’s phone-side chat w/dog, they are already vastly inaccurate and obsolete. The prophesied second wave of Covid-19 crashes down upon us with frozen, serrated teeth. Meanwhile, the says-you binary culture of contention, denial, and obstruction has gone electric, muddying all waters and breeding despair in the hearts of anyone who thinks synchronized collective action is the only language that this particular problem understands.
If you are feeling whiplash in your soul, this is no doubt because Ryan’s announcement of a second wave, and a couple thousand like it across the country, coincides with not one but two pharmaceutical giants, Pfizer and Moderna, announcing that their experimental vaccines were proving to be over 90 percent effective in trials. The popular flu vaccine — considered a bit of an industry boondoggle in some quarters — typically reduces risk of flu by about 40 to 60 percent, and that’s the CDC talking. Who in their right mind would have dared to dream that a first formula Covid-19 vaccine could potentially be twice as effective as that?
Talk about a counterpoint of emotions! News of a miraculous vaccine with an efficacy beyond that which anyone would have sensibly entertained only a month ago promises closure and the resumption of life, work, intimacy, and the business of civilization. At the same time, winter is closing in, and outdoor life closing down. Indoor at-home gatherings top the list of the discouraged if not verboten as we head toward the most ritualized part of the year, rituals that are, for many, the sole light on the shortest and coldest days.
And lest we forget, all the other maladies and diseases and causes of death in human history are still there. There’s just one more now. The soul sees the light, while the body is ordered back in the hole.
But, for some of us, weaving through the chorale of hope and despair is a third melody, so faint you can’t be sure if you’re hearing it or making it up. It’s the terror not of the new normal but of the old one, the feeling that perhaps we are going to miss some things about this unprecedented time of isolation and estrangement from everything we used to call life.
Indeed, I have the solitary temperament of a writer, if only half the talent, and honestly, I have never been much for human industry and the business of civilization. But even after correcting for my own aversion to work, expectations, and anything widely considered “necessary,” I conclude that many among us share a strain of this feeling: that old normal — in which you are either the shark or the krill, the hammer or the nail — is coming back with all of its hard bargains and cruel facts and rank stupidities. Ready or not.