Ralph Gardner Jr: A Modest Silver Lining | WAMC

Ralph Gardner Jr: A Modest Silver Lining

Feb 6, 2021

The pandemic rages on, but with vaccines on the way and already in a bunch of arms, is it too soon to feel sentimental about small, discreet aspects of the plague? That thought occurred to me as I paused, while walking through the woods with our dog last week. Or was it the week before? That was, is, one of the aspects of the pandemic that might just be construed as beneficial. It’s easy to forget what day of the week it is because things like appointments feel a vestige of a different, more frantic era.

On occasion I’ve even forgotten what season it is, momentarily mistaking autumn for spring or vice versa. One of the benefits of snow is there’s no forgetting you’re embroiled in winter.

I stopped in the woods – it was after the small snowstorm that preceded the large one – to listen to the silence. I wasn’t disappointed. My ears almost pulsed with the effort to detect any sound except for the crunching of snow underfoot, or rather paw, as the dog, now distant, industriously followed some scent through the forest.

The reason that it was so quiet, I realized, is that there weren’t any jets in the air nearby. We live on the flyway between New York City and who knows where and the rumble of planes at 40,000 feet is just part of life. At least it was until March when much of the planet’s air travel whimpered to a halt.

I have nothing against jet planes. They’re still associated with a certain romance in my mind. I wonder where they’re going. I especially appreciate the way they reflect the sunset at high altitudes, glowing a deep orange, long after the star has sunk below the horizon. But their noise served as a constant reminder that modern life is a mixed blessing. Convenience at the cost of clamor and temperature records. A year from now things will probably be back to normal, contrails will mix with the clouds, and we’ll bemoan the loss of tranquility.

Another small but significant benefit of the pandemic, and perhaps this is just the psychological latitude and longitude where I happen to find myself at this advanced stage of my career, is that I could feel the weight of having to compete, achieve, accomplish, lifted from my shoulders. For most of my life I’ve been motivated by a fear of failure. So there’s some solace in knowing that isolating yourself, staying healthy and out of harm’s way, is the most impressive form of ambition these days.

Things will surely snap back to the way they were, perhaps with a vengeance in the months and years ahead, many of us feeling we have to make up for lost time. But maybe some of the improvised wisdom of these months will linger.

Another small perk of a pandemic is having had the pleasure of our children’s company, after they tested negative. They were also fortunate to be able to work remotely and we appreciated their contributions to domestic life. Things like chopping wood and cooking the occasional meal.

Having adult children in the house offers some of the joys of small children – the warmth and affection – but with superior intellectual engagement. They’re also less sloppy dinner companions than they once were.

The big question, I suppose, is once life returns to normal will the pandemic have improved society in any discernible way? Will this interlude, not to mention the pain and suffering unfairly shouldered by those of us who could least afford to do so, result in a slightly more equitable society? Will we open our arms and hearts or retreat even further into our respective cocoons?

Are we at a pivot point, the pandemic serving as the hinge, and if so pivoting to what? I’m cautiously optimistic if only because I see that my own children are filled with ambition. But it’s not the same crass ambition that I grew up with and that the pandemic gave me the opportunity to flee.

It feels more collective. They’re not without professional or personal goals. But those goals are more integrated into what’s best for society. Lately, many of us have been focused on what’s wrong with it, its radical destructive fringes, and what’s pulling us apart.

But perhaps those malign movements will serve as catalysts for self and civic improvement. The planes will surely streak across the skies again, traffic clog the highways and restaurants operate at 100% of capacity. But maybe more eating will occur outdoors, servers earning a living wage, cars increasingly displaced by pedestrians, and clean vehicles the standard.

I look forward to traveling again, being on one of those silver birds that catches the sunset. But if the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that, for those of us fortunate to have one, there’s much to be said for home.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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