The Long Goodbye


In 1967, the late Joan Didion published an essay entitled “Goodbye to All That.” It was about leaving Manhattan, and her young adulthood as it had been spent there.

The title was not original, but borrowed from the 1929 autobiography of Robert Graves. The British novelist was also referring to lost youth and innocence, but in his case, it had taken place in World War I France.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to discuss my own coming of age (some things are best left unsaid). The thing I’m anxious to leave behind is the year 2021, and all of the pandemic jargon that came with it.

Let’s start with the obvious, and proceed in no particular order. I’m so over the omicron variant, which is raging outside my windows at the moment.

I know that there’s a popular narrative being constructed in which omicron is some sort of blessing in disguise. In this scenario, the mutant strain will quickly infect nearly everyone, providing immunity from the other variants without killing (very many) people.

If that’s going to be the case, great, let’s get it done. Then omicron can go back to being a letter in the Greek alphabet that nobody has any use for.

While we’re consigning pathogens to the dustbin of history, let’s not forget about the coronavirus itself. One of the characteristics of the pandemic is that the end of it always seems just a few months down the road, but as of right now the carrot is still out there on the same stick.

One thing it helps me to keep in mind is that every pandemic in history has eventually come to an end, whether anything was done to stop it or not. That includes the 1918 pandemic, which lasted about two and a half years, depending upon which historian you believe, and killed more than half a million Americans. Considering that our total population was less than a third of what it is now, that was an awful death toll.

Other than some sporadic use of masks, doctors did little to prevent the spread of the disease, and yet the pandemic ended. Perhaps the population just built up enough natural immunity to stop the virus, or perhaps the virus mutated into something less lethal. Perhaps it was some other factor that we still don’t understand.

In any event, the medical and healthcare communities have made heroic efforts to contain COVID-19, most notably the development of highly effective vaccines. It’s been amazing to see what science can do when confronted with a dire threat and unlimited resources.

I think Pfizer deserves a special shoutout, not only for developing and manufacturing a space-age vaccine in record time, but also for turning down government assistance. The company relied instead on old-fashioned capitalism, basically saying, “We’ll bet our own money on ourselves.” Not only did the bet pay off, but now the company is coming out with a treatment, called Paxlovid, that could finally put an end to most severe cases.

As we say goodbye to the pandemic, we will also be dropping our masks, and with them a lot of confusion, argument and misinformation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an anti-masker, and I’ve worn one where it was called for. I’m just, well, sick of them.

When I was a kid, I thought of masks as an entirely positive thing. Batman wore a mask, and the Lone Ranger, and Zorro. Knights had masks attached to their helmets (even their horses wore masks) and so did football players, with the exception of Bobby Layne. The one night when we all got to wear masks ourselves, Halloween, was the best night of the year.

But any sense of fun or novelty to COVID masking has long since worn off. I’m tired of having to raise my voice to be heard, tired of my glasses fogging up, tired of feeling like John Dillinger when I pull up to a store and slip into a mask.

I’m looking forward to the day that we can toss the things into the trash, but I suspect that it could still be a ways off. Meanwhile, there are a couple of other COVID side effects that are likely to be hanging around a lot longer than we would prefer.

One of them is inflation. Most Americans are too young to remember the 1970s, when inflation ran rampant, but unfortunately, I am not. The year I graduated from college the Consumer Price Index rose 12.3 percent, and in two of the following six years it actually exceeded that rate. I won’t go into all the gory details of what that does to the economy, but trust me when I say that it was not a great time to find a job, buy a home or start a business. By the time we started this company in 1984, it had calmed down to 3.9 percent, and it has remained pretty tame ever since.

Yes, we have supply chain problems, and COVID is partly responsible for that, but make no mistake. The main driver of inflation is excess demand. We actually delivered more products last year worldwide than we did in 2019, but couldn’t keep up with the orders.

A lot of that demand was caused by the U.S. government, which distributed trillions of dollars to consumers and businesses. It was done to avoid a severe recession and massive unemployment, and it seems to have worked, but you can’t inject that much money into the economy without some unintended consequences.

In the case of inflation, it may have been unintended but was certainly not unexpected. One way or another, almost everyone in America got some sort of government subsidy over the past two years, including many of us who didn’t really need it. Nobody should be surprised that a lot of people spent it, and that too much money chased too few goods.

Let’s hope we can say goodbye to the “specter of inflation” in 2022, and if so that would leave me with just one more element of 2021 to which I would like to bid adieu. I’ll call it “polarization,” for lack of a better word.

To be sure, this is not the first time we have experienced divisiveness in this country. The Civil War comes to mind, but even within my own memory there have been periods of dramatic schism. If you’re too young to remember, Google the 1968 Democratic Convention, or the Watts riots, or Kent State.

Having seen all that, however, and even having been caught up in a riot once myself, I can tell you that our current situation seems pretty bad. It’s not simply that there are radicals on the right and left, or even that they hate each other so comprehensively. It’s that there doesn’t appear to be anyone in the middle.

In the school supply industry, like society in general, there used to be a pretty broad spectrum of opinion, and wherever your views fell along that spectrum, you were treated with respect, or at least courtesy. I have not noticed much of either quality lately.

As we say goodbye to COVID, wouldn’t it be great to say farewell to tribalism as well? Perhaps we could all start thinking for ourselves again.

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