America, You Can Breathe Out Again (Just Do It With a Mask On)

Pandemic art from the Schwartz Family

Kit used to pick up the New York Times in the morning and sometimes say, “Let’s see what they’re going to make us feel guilty about today.” As usual, she had a very good point. In the best of times, the Times and its mainstream media cousins like to put a caveat on even the most optimistic reporting. The media traffics in conflict and friction. So even a good news story like the historically rapid development of two new coronavirus vaccines, as the Times reported this week, is offset with a big “but” in the lede, pointing out a laundry list of obstacles to swift and efficient distribution. Implicit in the Times’ reporting is an entrenched distrust of the competency and motives of the private sector, but that’s another story.

To be sure, there’s a lot of things in the world today that are disconcerting at best, frightening at worst: surging Covid, a wobbly economy, political rancor, the rise of conspiracy culture, and much more. The media is very good at delivering the news and then hyping it. So for the past nine months, our national anxiety levels have been rising like Tesla stock and we’ve all adjusted to a kind of half-life, holding our breath until we can see some reason for optimism, or even hope.

That time has come. America, you can start breathing out again. The runway ahead isn’t totally clear by any means, but it’s getting clearer every day. We are not just enduring, but prevailing through an American mixture of ingenuity, perseverance, and adaptation (or “flexitarianism,” as I explored in an earlier blog). There are green shoots of optimism everywhere. Consider some of these:

Covid Vaccines: Yes, the Trump Administration should get credit for Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership that led to the development of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna (with more possibly in the queue) in record time. But there are so many dimensions to this story! The husband-and-wife team whose small company pioneered the work that led to the Pfizer vaccine, Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, should win the Nobel Prize for medicine. The innovative new platform that the vaccines are built on, messenger RNA, presents an entirely new pathway for disease therapies and prevention. And as the companies ramp up for mass production, the capital investment will create new manufacturing capacity that can be brought online quickly in the event of the next (inevitable) pandemic. In other words, what we’ve learned about Covid will prepare us to handle the next health crisis much more rapidly, without the economic shock we’ve endured this time around. And let’s not forget that it was Dolly Parton’s timely investment of $1 million in Vanderbilt University this spring that provided the seed money to jump-start the early research being done with Moderna on a vaccine.

The Election: It worked, despite the hallucinatory protestations from the Trump camp. The Department of Homeland Security declared it the most secure election in U.S. history. It was one of the highest levels of engagement by Americans in the democratic process in our history. And despite the polarization of the electorate at the national level, the aggregate results of the election steered America right back to the radical center. There were some wrinkles in the voting process, for sure, but I think we came away with confidence that the system can be made even more secure and accessible.

Tesla: I don’t know, maybe Elon Musk will be president one day. Is there anything he can’t do? His car company, which cracked into the S&P 500 this week, is delivering a master class on innovation-at-scale. His space company, SpaceX, is delivering a master class on innovation-in-space and also building a powerful template for public-private partnerships. Maybe Biden should create a new cabinet position, Chief Innovation Officer, which Musk can attend to in his spare time.

The Teenage Renaissance: As a result of Covid cocooning, teens are talking more to their parents and showing signs of better mental health, according to the Institute for Family Studies. A study found that 53 percent of 1,523 high school students reporting talking more to their parents during the pandemic than before. Families are having dinner together more often and 68 percent of the teens surveyed said their families had become closer during the pandemic.

The Gift of Phish: On the cultural front, Phish continues to amaze and delight during the pandemic, first with their weekly “Dinner and a Movie” on YouTube (archival video releases of some their greatest shows along with a recommended dinner recipe); Trey Anastasio’s eight-week virtual residency at the Beacon Theater; and one-off delights like Trey and Page sitting on the outdoor deck singing this lovely and moving piece, “Evening Song,” which simply wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic.

Pandemic Art: Peter Schwartz’s wife Cathleen has produced an amazing series of watercolor paintings since the pandemic began (one of which illustrates this post), which Peter posts on his FB page. Each painting is marked with the date and the current number of Covid cases and deaths worldwide, a humbling mix of beauty and tragedy. To me, it’s the perfect embodiment of “breathe out, but keep your mask on.”

There is so much more to be optimistic about and if you pay attention, you will feel the green shoots of hope popping up. Keep your heart open and your eyes clear and a grain of salt nearby when you read the New York Times. Peace out.

4 comments

  1. This post makes me miss our morning get-togethers before the work day got started to discuss the news of the day and pop culture items. Keep them coming!

  2. Another great piece from the mind of Russ Yarrow. I love the way you think!
    Beautiful artwork from Cathleen Schwartz.
    Well done!

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