The Ghostly Traces of COVID

The archaeology of COVID persists. Outside this acquatic center, on the concrete sidewalks and expanses that surround the pool buildings, are the fading spray-painted X’s that once pinned in-bound swimmers to a “safe” spot, attempting to reassure the frightened, as Jim Breuer so memorably puts it: “Six feet safe; five feet danger!” Gone are the wedding tents that once sheltered incoming practice groups marooned outside as they shivered and waited for an opportunity to enter a restricted indoor space. Invisible but present still are the layers of virus-killing disinfectant that cake every wall. Above the wall opposite the scoreboard, a remote camera maintains a lonely vigil, a memory of the day when parents and non-competing swimmers were not allowed on deck during competitions but could watch their children or teammates compete via video in idling cars. The plastic circles and traffic cones that marked the progression of swimmers through the “sorting cap” of the clerk of the course (where competing swimmers are organized into heats and lanes) prior to entering the competition pool are gone. In the pump rooms are ghostly baskets or bags proudly marked with their disinfecting dates. The plastic shields that divided lanes and their wooden supporting chocks sit forlornly outside. On the entrance door, an ancient sign remains: masks recommended. Over an exit door, a hook seems to have no purpose but it is the fading memory of a warming lamp for swimmers queuing up to leave or enter the pool during the winter of 2020-2021.

Sadly, COVID primarily lives on in its human adherents, the masked cultists who seek to resist the return of normality for reasons best known to some quiet inner mental sanctum they nurture. The “archaeological remnants” answer the question, “What did you do during the COVID Wars?” The persistence of masks prompts the question, why? Specifically, why do individuals persist in their pandemic roles? Who liked what they were doing so much that it continues to provide comfort? The human wreckage will outlast the material debris. Someday, the X’s will fade completely and the walls and decks will no longer foam when sprayed with a pressure washer. Someone will remove the entrance door sign and the camera will be put to another, better use.

This human wreckage is multigenerational. Children whose parents are Pandemic Party members wear masks like latter-day party armbands. Someone pushed it and so it was done. Deprogramming takes time and patience but each moment of persistence delays the day that deprogramming begins. Humans can rationally understand the economics of sunk costs and, with some difficulty, cut ties. TV shows investigating the sad plight of hoarders reveal that emotional sunk costs are far less easily tossed. In fact, they tend to accumulate, multiplying exponentially until a home becomes both an unlivable mess and a crowded crypt housing the emotional trauma that was never resolved, never healed.

These damaged “masking” souls will remain perpetually prone to repeat this cycle. Something will retrigger the fear; the fear will prompt the response to shelter and hide; sheltering and hiding will provide relief, even a feeling of comfort. And a need for the whole cycle to repeat itself. Humans seek comfort in familiar sequences. A sequence that confers comfort gains a talismanic power.

But the greatest casualty may be a lack of sensibility, if sensibility can be defined as an awareness of the surrounding human and natural world.

Here is a reasonably faithful rendition of a conversation I had with a young person bound for her sophomore year at an elite northeastern college. Noticing a band-aid on her arm, I asked its source. She gaily replied that she had just received her fourth booster. I nodded.

“You’re jealous, aren’t you? My doctor said I was eligible so I got it.”

“Jealous?” I asked. “Why would I be jealous?”

She shrugged and seemed to revel in her newly-minted “four” status. Because she has always been a wonderful, considerate soul, she asked about my booster level. I haven’t spoken publicly about my “status” to anyone, but because I was retirement bound, I decided to let loose.

“I haven’t been boosted. I haven’t even been vaccinated. And I haven’t gotten sick.”

As I implied, she is polite, a well-raised young lady so she didn’t harangue me. But I could see slow shock clouding her visage. Her sixty-plus coach is unvaccinated. She didn’t ask and I didn’t elaborate. But I could see that her “sensibility” was shaken. Her world of like-mindedness encountered something chaotic, something unfathomable. She lapsed into polite confusion.

Her generation has fought hard to be vulnerable. Words, glances, the environment -- fears that march like Roman legions, stirring noise and dust. Some defend this vulnerability by cowering physically while unleashing torrents of bile on their favored internet platforms and apps. What they do not comprehend is that their anger and outrage is seed falling on the driest dust. Failing to have its desired effect, it will warp and poison them increasingly with each passing year.

They have also fought to set themselves free of natural law. They have ambushed obvious truths and fancied themselves warriors rather than casualties. Ponder some of what they have accepted as twisted truths: men can become pregnant; men have menstrual periods and need tampons; women can self-procreate. Their fuel is ignorance born of sanctimony -- the sense that right and wrong are clearly delineated and that the high moral ground is always readily apparent and readily attainable. Their world demands simple, unquestioning minds. 

When I am around my club’s college-aged swimmers, I remind them gently of the cowardly world they have created. I ask them to update me on the warmest list of banned words and phrases. Occasionally, I pause and ask: “Can I still say that? Is that allowed?” I pretend to defer to their parochial worldview and they shift their weight uncomfortably. They are always speechless, some because they are polite but I suspect others because they have grown accustomed to those who can’t or won’t fight back. Deprived perhaps of the on-line anonymous ability to stab someone in the back, they grow passive, even quiescent. Whatever they want to say, they don’t. The words won’t form; the thoughts don’t cohere. Sadly, what they hear are the ghostly echoes of COVID and their own weakness.  Because their feckless elders mostly betrayed them at this critical juncture in their lives, an understandable powerlessness cripples them.

What horror awaits if they do not soon discover the value and thrill of true courage? Something must shake them free. Will it be the patient innumerable blows of an ethical stonemason or will it be something more painful, something truly world-shattering? Stay tuned: archaeology may become a compelling show and I’m not referencing Graham Hancock.

Image: NYC MTA

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